Humans have used funiculars for more than 500 years. And if you’ve been to Cape Point, you’ll know that our Flying Dutchman Funicular is a hugely popular attraction. But have you ever stopped to wonder how these engineering marvels actually work?

Traditionally, funiculars have been used for practical transportation purposes – essentially, to get heavy goods up steep hills. But as they’ve evolved, they’ve taken on a new life as popular tourist attractions around the world.

Success in simplicity

The main reason for the funicular’s success is its relative simplicity and its ability to climb incredibly steep hillsides. By combining technology similar to that found in elevators (in the funicular’s use of cables), with traditional railway technologies (a track-bound car), funiculars are able to ferry large numbers of people safely and up seemingly impossible inclines.

As HowStuffWorks explains, a traditional railway would not be able to ascend the steep inclines that funiculars do, simply because the steel wheels wouldn’t have enough traction against the tracks. You’ll know this if you’ve been on mountainside railways – the snaking up and around hills and multiple switchbacks is to avoid the steepest sections that traditional trains simply cannot manage.

Read more: 7 of the world’s best funicular rides

The cable used in all funiculars – and you’ll see it if you look carefully next time you’re on the Flying Dutchman – means that the lack of traction is not a problem. The cable does all the pulling, and the wheels and rails don’t play a role in getting you to the top, apart from guiding the car on the right path.

But the secret genius of the funicular railway is revealed in the little kink you’ll see at the halfway point. You’ll notice that on all funicular or incline railways, the cars pass each other at a centre point – even if one car is empty. And the reason for this is simple but ingenious – the cars are simply acting as counter-balances for each other. The car on the way down is actually pulling the other car on the way up using its gravitational pull – the two cars are in a constant state of balance.

Green machines

As the University of Southern California wrote in a study on incline railways, the technique of counterbalancing the cars means that funiculars can run with very little need for outside power sources. A small amount of power is needed to operate a pulley, to compensate for inevitable friction and for any differences in weight between the cars – typically due to differences in passenger numbers.

Historically, this power was generated by the addition of weights to the descending car (usually large water containers), but today, it’s more common to find a small electric motor performing this task.

Having the two cars run at the same time essentially means that capacity is doubled, and energy is passed back and forth between the two cars, making funiculars an extremely energy efficient means of transport.

Safety measures

Safety is a key aspect in all funicular railways, and there are a number of measures built in to prevent accidents. The relatively simple nature of funiculars means there are not a lot of things that can go wrong, and there aren’t a lot of opportunities for problems to occur.

The core of the operation is the cable, which is responsible for carrying the heavy cars to the top. These cables are made from incredibly tough steel, and are graded to carry weights significantly higher than those of the fully loaded cars. The chance of a critical fault developing with the cable is essentially zero. In the highly unlikely event that there is a serious issue with the functioning of the cable, the cars are all equipped with fail safe brakes which will clamp them to the rail track, stopping it immediately. And in the case of Cape Point’s Flying Dutchman, experienced operators are on board each ride to ensure that everything goes according to plan.

It’s not surprising that funiculars have been around for many hundreds of years, and without undergoing too many significant changes. They remain one of the most effective ways to transport goods and people up seemingly impossible inclines, they’re remarkably energy efficient, and they travel at speeds and over landscapes that make them perfect for scenic sightseeing.

Funiculars are a prime example of classic, simple engineering techniques, and so next time you’re at Cape Point, you simply can’t miss out on the opportunity to take a ride on one of the world’s most scenic funicular railways, if only to experience this remarkable technology first-hand.

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