Originally published in The Railway Magazine for March 2010 under the title “Cliffhangers”
Cliff railways, part of Britain’s transport infrastructure since 1875, are often overlooked by the enthusiast fraternity. ROBERT HUMM reviews their history and development.
In North America they are called Incline Railways. In Europe, which invented them, they are usually known as Funiculars. Here in the British Isles, where the majority are located at the seaside, we have always referred to them as Cliff Railways. Disregarded by most British railway aficionados and rarely referred to in the railway press, this country’s slowly dwindling stock of cliff railways provides a welcome diversity of style and engineering methods.
In this article I want to look at Britain’s twenty-one active cliff railways, with a glance at some of the more notable closed lines.
How should we define them as a genre? The word funicular derives from the Latin funiculus, a thin rope or wire. That does not get us very far, for it would include all the former rope worked inclines like the Cromford & High Peak, Cowlairs Bank and the Corkickle Brake (Whitehaven) where rolling stock or complete trains were attached to a rope for a short and steep part of the whole journey. It would also include cable tramways such as the surviving San Francisco system where the cars are attached by grippers to a continuously moving rope.
The essential features of the true cliff railway are first, that it is a specialised cable-worked railway operating on a gradient too steep for other forms of traction; second, that it is self-contained and on a private right of way; third, that the car(s) are not self-propelled; and fourth, that the pair of cars are counter-balanced or that a single car is counter-balanced by a weight running on rails beneath the main track. This therefore excludes all rack railways, themselves a large and diversified subject.
Cliff railways are sometimes referred to erroneously as “cliff lifts,” a solecism also perpetuated by the Ordnance Survey who should know better. Cliff lifts, a rare species in this country, are outdoor vertical elevators similar to those found within tall buildings.
Because they are self-contained, cliff railways have no need of uniformity. Methods of propulsion have included steam, hydraulic power, diesel, gas and electricity. There have been at least 22 track gauges varying from 1ft 8ins at Shipley Glen to 7ft 6ins of Scarborough’s recently closed St Nicholas line. The cars can be flat-floor mounted on a triangular undercarriage – the usual arrangement in this country – or stepped as at Aberystwyth and Llyngwern. Entrance can be from the end or the side. Gradients can be as shallow as Shipley Glen’s 1 in 12 or as vertiginous as Hastings East Cliff’s 1 in 1.28.
The best of these railways have a decided air of seaside showmanship about them. Ornate ticket booths, florid signage, and the solid thump of well-oiled gate mechanisms reassure the passenger faced with an alarming descent. In some ways they are reminiscent of Edwardian tramcars. It is regrettable that a few owners seem to regard them akin to public toilets upon which as little as possible should be spent. Fortunately there is a growing tendency for cliff railways to be supported by charitable trusts or ‘Friends’ organisations.
Britain was by no means first in the field of cliff railways. That honour goes to France where the Rue Terme – Croix Rousse line in Lyon opened in 1862. Sadly, that closed unremarked in 1967. The second to be constructed was the Castle Hill funicular, Budapest, in 1870. This is the world’s oldest functioning funicular though it cannot claim unbroken operation, having been closed between the end of the Second World War and 1986. Budapest was soon followed by two short-lived lines in Vienna built in 1873, the Leopoldsberg and the Sofien Alpi.
The world’s fifth funicular was Britain’s first, the South Cliff Railway at Scarborough which opened on 6th July 1875. It has two claims to distinction: it was the first to be built on the water-balance principle, and is the oldest in the World in continuous operation. It is one of only two in Britain to be built to standard gauge, the other also being at Scarborough. South Cliff was an immediate success and it easy to see why, connecting an area of numerous hotels, apartments and boarding houses with a fine, sandy beach. Today it remains busy though the water-balance operation was replaced by an electric motor many years ago.
Success encouraged imitators and Britain’s second and third cliff railways were soon promoted, both also at Scarborough. Queen’s Parade Cliff Railway opened three years later in 1878, followed by the Central Cliff Railway in 1881. The former was dogged by operational and geological misadventure from the start and closed after only nine years. By contrast the Central Cliff Railway, serving Scarborough’s main beach, was as successful as the South Cliff line and remains in operation today.
To complete the Scarborough story, two more cliff railways were built in the 20th Century. The St Nicholas Cliff Railway, only a hundred yards from the Central, opened in 1929. Although it remains in being, closure came in 2006 as a local authority economy measure. It was losing £12,000 a year and the council now propose spending £150,000 (12 years’ deficit) removing it. At 7ft 6ins the track gauge is the widest of any passenger railway in the country.
The 166ft North Cliff Railway opened in 1930. Dismantled in the 1990s, the components were acquired for a proposed cliff railway at Launceston, Cornwall. That has yet to materialise as there is considerable local opposition and lottery funding has been refused.
Nowhere in Britain had more cliff railways than Scarborough, though in world terms it was far outclassed by Valparaiso, Chile, the funicular mecca which once possessed 29 and still has eleven.
Before leaving the North-East we should take a look at another early cliff railway and one that is still very much in being, that at Saltburn-by-the-Sea. It was the first line to be engineered by George Croydon Marks, the most important single figure in British cliff railway history and at that time general manager of the lifting machinery department of the Birmingham engineering manufacturers Tangye. We shall encounter Marks frequently in this story.
Opened in 1884 and one of the few still operated by hydraulic power, the Saltburn line still serves the function of taking visitors from the cliff-top town down to the beach. Greatly to the local council’s credit, instead of closing the cliff railway as has happened in so many other resorts, the line is kept in first class order. These days it runs daily during the summer but is shut during the winter and operates only at weekends during Spring and Autumn.
For the collector of antique transport the Saltburn railway is delightful in every respect: the little wooden pavilion at the top matches the larger station on the sea front, which in turn matches the pier entrance opposite. The two curve-roof cars have ornate stained-glass windows, polished slatted wooden seats, and everything is freshly painted in traditional red and cream. When built it had the unusual track gauge of 3ft 9ins. During reconstruction in Winter 1921-22 the equally unusual gauge of 4ft 2½ins was chosen. Line length is 207ft and the gradient 1 in 1.7.
Except where stated, all photographs were taken by Robert Humm on 28 August 2008.
To be continued