The Hohenwerfen Castle Funicular

This is a guest post by Ross Edgar.

Hohenwerfen Castle. Photo by “Sir James”

There are few castles in Europe more iconic than Hohenwerfen Castle which stands imposingly over the town of Werfen, 40km (25 miles) south of Salzburg on the Austro-German border. The fortress dates back to 1075 but in more recent years featured in the 1968 film epic ‘Where Eagles Dare’ in which the castle played the part of ‘Schloss Adler’.

Despite its considerable history the fortress is home to an altogether more modern means of transport to provide access from the valley below. From the castle’s car park visitors board a modern funicular which carries passengers from the foot of the hill into the heart of the fortress itself.

Hohenwerfen Castle single track funicular. Photo by Ross Edgar.

However, this funicular is far from conventional. Firstly, the funicular system only features a single car rather than the more conventional two cars. This is most likely due to the relatively short distance covered by the funicular. In place of the second car which traditionally acts as a counterbalance for the first, a set of weights travel in the opposite direction below the funicular’s tracks.

But the most unconventional feature of the Hohenwerfen Castle funicular is that it functions in a manner similar to a hotel elevator. Passengers at either station can ‘call’ the funicular by means of a button located next to the entry door. Once aboard the funicular the passenger then chooses whether to go up or down through the use of a button within the car itself.

The result is that this funicular is totally independent of any input being required from the operator. Therefore staffing requirements are comparatively low when compared to other means of transit or even more traditional funiculars. What is more, being operated by the passengers themselves means that the funicular is able to respond immediately to the demands of the visitors to the fortress. Waiting times are therefore reduced and operating costs are cut as the funicular does not confirm to a rigid schedule.

Hohenwerfen Castle funicular station. Photo by Ross Edgar.

The potential application for such a unique cable system within an urban environment is compelling. Such a funicular would allow a local authority to connect two areas of a city at considerably different elevations without the costs associated with other forms of transport or even other cable systems. The automation of the system would reduce staffing requirements to a very basic level of supervision and the system would be much more cost effective compared to a system that operates continually regardless of passenger demand. Moreover, the use of larger cars or even the addition of a second car would increase capacity considerably.
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Grey Public Transit? Quebec City’s Funiculaire

Quebec City's oldest public stairwell, the Breakneck Stairs. Image by flickr user mirsasha.

What do we call something that both is and is not public transit?

That’s something we’ve wrestled with before (here and here for example), but it wasn’t until a quick trip to Quebec City for an old friend’s wedding (congrats, by the way, to Ingrid and Darren!) that the point was driven home for me.

As many people know, Quebec City is topographically challenging. Which is an understatement if you’re elderly, disabled or otherwise disheartened by the idea of having to traverse an urban area almost exclusively by stairs and hills.

Moving from the upper to the lower parts of the old town, meanwhile, require navigating a series of steep wooden stairways lined with shops and restaurants. It’s all pretty beautiful. But as the stairs crowd with people, the entire experience can get a little overwhelming – and that’s not counting what they must be like in during an icy, slushy and snowy Canadian winter.

The stairs have such a reputation, their original name escalier Champlain (“Champlain Stairs”) has been replaced by the more humorous (and, I suspect, honest) escalier casse-cou – literally, the Breakneck Stairs.

(It’s worth noting that the Breakneck Stairs are just one out of several flights of stairs and hills one needs to ascend/descend to make the trek from the upper to the lower parts of the city. These stairs can present as much of a challenge to pedestrians as the Breaknecks.)

There is, however, another option: The Funiculaire.

Stretching almost exactly from the base of the Breakneck Stairs to to their destination outside the Chateau Frontenac, the Quebec City Funiculaire links the two halves of the city with a convenient, short connection. At only 64m in length, and with an almost completely vertical inclination, this system is more inclined elevator than funicular, but that’s just semantics and not really the point.

The Quebec City Funicular. Public or Private Transit? Image by flickr user jacdupree.

The point is this: At a one-way fare of $2.00 CAD (roughly the same in American) the Quebec City Funiculaire isn’t cheap. It’s not something your average joe could afford to use each day in each direction – unless, of course, that was the public transit they required.

Despite having a price point around what most transit agencies charge for unlimited access to their entire network, riders of the Funiculaire receive a five-minute long lineup to take a 30-second un-air-conditioned (at least when I rode it) elevator ride. It took less time for me to walk the stairways than it took to wait and ride the funicular.

Yet there were no shortage of people willing to use it. Most, I’m certain, were tourists, but many were not. And there appeared to be equal traffic in both the ascending and descending directions – something I admittedly didn’t expect.

So what do we call this piece of infrastructure? Especially when on considers issues of the mobility-challenged, the funicular clearly serves a public transit a purpose. Yet still, it exists outside the realm of public transit. It occupies a grey area that isn’t easy to define – and even harder to price.

These kind of borderline systems – whether cable-propelled or not – are common throughout the world. And despite this, we still don’t have a name for these type of installations. So I’m proposing we name them Grey Public Transit Systems.

Grey Public Transit Systems are neither the white of public transit systems nor the black of private transit (or reversed if you so choose) – instead they exist on a spectrum where they straddle both worlds and add an essential mix to the urban mobility picture.

What do people think? Does the term work? Does it make sense?

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Valparaiso Ascencors

In February The Gondola Project held a mini-competition. The winner was to receive their $50 prize by email money transfer.

Matt Thredgold of Wellington Cycleways won. But as Matt lives in New Zealand and email money transfers are apparently a uniquely Canadian phenomenon (they’re awesome, by the way), Matt asked that his prize come in the way of two CDs via Amazon Canada.

In exchange for that exception, Matt promised to post images from his recent trip to Valparaiso, Chile. For those unfamiliar, Valparaiso has the largest network of functioning Funiculars in the world, most dating from 100-150 years ago.

Clearly, I was happy to oblige. Click here to see the wonderful results.

This is how research is going to happen more and more. The old model used to be one or two researchers scouring obscure publications and writing obscure publications that no one’s ever going to read. That model is quickly dying if not already dead. And that’s a great thing. The internet’s simply faster, cleaner, cheaper and more efficient than peer-reviewed journals and government reports. Some people will fight to maintain the status quo, but it’s a losing battle because that old model was/is expensive, time-consuming and prone to all kinds of suspect Gate-Keeping.

Nowadays things are very, very different. Now things move at lighting speed and change doesn’t require millions of dollars. You don’t have the time or resources to get to Valparaiso, Chile? No problem. There’s a bicycle advocate in New Zealand whose already been there, done that. Send him a couple of CDs and he’s happy to help out. You’ll have your pictures and research next week.

Here’s the great irony: Matt and I managed to “broker” our deal in nothing more than a few minutes. A couple emails, a couple blog posts and a quick trip to Amazon. The CDs themselves, however, took 5 months (5 months!) to arrive on Matt’s doorstep.

And people wonder while snail mail and compact discs are dying businesses.

Thanks again, Matt!

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Lost Toronto Funicular

A Funicular near Toronto's High Park. Image by Edward Dale.

I’ll admit it: One of the things I love about cable transit is the “treasure hunt” quality of the entire thing. It’s a “lost” technology with clues and remnants scattered around the world. Picking those clues up and piecing them together is – for me – one of the most exciting parts of this work.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was to receive an email from my uncle which included the picture to left. He stumbled upon it the other day and snapped a photo of it.

This funicular, unbeknownst to me, is located near High Park in my hometown of Toronto, Canada. I’ve yet to find any research on the system.

Lost or unknown infrastructure is nothing new to Torontonians, but to discover a funicular is almost totally unheard of:

Who built it and when? Why? Is it still operational? Who owns it? What was it used for? Could we use it today? Would we want to use it today?

So many questions, too few answers. So, Toronto: Do you know anything about the High Park Funicular?

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Well that didn’t take long at all.

Matthew Thredgold of New Zealand was the first to figure out that at one time or another, The Grateful Dead, Rodney Dangerfield, Alvin & The Chipmunks and Andrea Bocelli all sang the famous Italian song Funiculi Funicula.

Congrats, Matthew! 50 bucks is yours!

Why does this matter? Well, apparently the song was originally written by Peppino Turco and Luigi Denza to commemorate the opening of the first funicular on Mount Vesuvius.

It’s one of those songs we all instinctively know as it’s been recorded and used in so many countless ways it’s almost a parody of itself. How many people know, however, that it’s a song about a cable car?

Not me, that’s for sure.

It wasn’t until I stumbled onto Tony Chavira’s excellent blog post over at that I learned about Funiculi Funicula’s somewhat bizarre history. But Tony isn’t just content to leave it at history. He’s got bigger, brighter ideas.

Says Tony: I think we need more epic and awesome songs to celebrate cool transit development projects.  Think about how amazing it must’ve been for a giant choir to sing “Funiculì, Funiculà” right before the Mayor cut the red ribbon and let people onto the Mt. Vesuvius funicular railway for the first time… epic.

What Tony is getting at is the need for us to regain our pride in civic infrastructure, specifically public transit. He wants us to connect deeply with it on an emotional level. During the 1800’s, public transit was more than just a necessary hassle for those who couldn’t afford cars. It was a source of esteem, joy and dignity. Vehicles were designed for style and comfort, not just practicality. Form was every part as important as function.

Epic indeed.

Read the rest of Tony Chavira’s post at

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Sometimes . . .

. . . we miss the little things because we’re too focused on criticizing the big things.

A restaurant critic slams a new local bistro but fails to notice the washrooms. Too bad, because the sinks would’ve fit perfectly in his tiny downtown condo.

A professional football scout skips the Ivy League schools because they’re “too brainy.” Too bad, because a junior at Princeton would’ve filled his need for a place-kicker perfectly.

An entrepreneur’s invention is dismissed wholesale by a team of venture capitalists. Not what they’re looking for. Too bad they didn’t look closer: The invention might have been a dud, but the entrepreneur’s innovative financing strategy would’ve solved a problem the venture capitalists had been struggling with for years.

What Thomas Edison said: To invent you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.

Remember that when you look at the  Zurich Polybahn video below. It’s a comically short funicular of only 176m. Barely worth considering from a transportation perspective, except when you look at it’s station design.

More often than not, there’s always something useful in the useless. We just tend not to notice… Too bad for us.

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The Innsbruck Hungerburgbahn

The Hungerburgbahn "Hybrid" Funicular

I’m in transit today to visit the Innsbruck Hungerburgbahn. This should be a fascinating system to explore given that it is one of only a few so-called Hybrid Funiculars in the world.

As I understand it, the beauty of a Hybrid Funicular is that the chassis and the cabins align themselves separately from one another. That is, while the vehicle’s chassis is parallel to the track below, the cabins are parallel to the horizon. This allows a vehicle to move from a 0 degree gradient up to whatever maximum gradient is required but the passengers, meanwhile, are afforded maximum comfort without excessive leaning either forward or backward.

No spilled coffee in other words.

The embedded video below should help illustrate the concept, especially beginning at around the 0:50 mark. When watching the video, notice that the videographer has placed his camera on the vehicle’s dash; he/she’s not holding it. As the vehicle shifts through various inclinations, the camera is consistently oriented parallel to the horizon. This is only possible because the vehicle’s cabins orient themselves separate from the orientation of the chassis. If not, the camera would tilt forward or backward and fall from the dash.

Creative Commons image by Adam Sporka

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