What goes up must come down
How to reach a peak without climbing and getting tired is what for long must have bothered men. The solution would follow; the invention of the funicular, cable car, funiculaire in French or Seilbahn in the German language.
A rail bound system that emerged in all sorts of shape and technical applications though the basic remains the same. Two cars connected by cable and machine simultaneously going up and down a steep incline. The car down functions also as a counter weight for the one going up.
It’s not my aim and skill to write neither a pure technical article nor all the differences that occur since in 1862 Lyon in France had the honour to see the first system of this kind between Rue Terme and the Croix-Rousse neighbourhood. A sole cable car system (Standseilbahn) with two stations: down- and upper hill contrary a normal railway with inclining sections to overcome by means of cable or cogwheel. In the US this was already practised as early as 1834. Browse the internet or look at any antiquarian bookshop or library for a copy of the well written and very interesting volume with the title: Schienenseilbahen in aller Welt / Cable cars of the world composed by engineer Walter Hefti (Zürich 1902) and published in 1975 (Birkhaüser A.G. Basel) ISBN 3-7643-0726-9. It’s real strike oil for someone eager to know the backgrounds of this special mode of rail transportation. What goes up must come down.
Like railways elsewhere also the gauge came in different sizes, a variation between 508 and 3800 mm. The first belonged to the Shipley Glen Tramway in Great Britain (1899) the latter of the Alpine Mountain Gesellschaft in Austria (1943).
Concerning Southeast Asia and funiculars, there were and are not that many only Japan shows an abundance but so far I have only visited a few of them mainly in the Kansai area (Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe). The Peak Tramway in Hong Kong on 1524 mm gauge and 1430 meter in length is the last one not known. The most prominent and famous funicular in the corridor is the Penang Hill Railway situated at Ayar Itam near Georgetown the capital of the isle Penang (Pulau Pinang) and another outcome of colonialism.
For British rulers fresh cooler air and relaxation was found on top of the hill and thus a nice retreat from the humidity below. The line was designed and built by Arnold R. Johnson, a senior engineer of the FMSR (Federated Malay State Railway) and opened for passenger traffic on October 21st 1923 consisting of two sections – 906 and 1100 meter long on meter gauge (1000 mm) – with a middle station and change from train. After a recent complete overhaul it became one section, however, this I didn’t experienced till now.
The lower hill station from the beginning was connected by a tramway and after 1936 by trolley bus till the closure of that system on July 31st 1961. Both were an extra ordinary mode of transportation in Southeast Asia and without doubt influenced by the colonial rulers like Singapore had its tramway too, first steam and later electric. But also Bangkok in Thailand followed by Lop Buri got their trams though never been occupied by foreign powers. Bangkok was even the first city in Southeast Asia with an electric tramway. Still foreign entrepreneurs (Danish) stimulating the rail transportation in the land of smiles. The PKR – Paknam Rail Road – is a luminary example (Bangkok Hua Lamphong – Samut Prakan nicknamed Pak Nam translated as mouth of the river, in this case the mighty Chao Phraya). Talking about Thailand and funiculars only two systems; one still operation at Petchaburi, the other one in my hometown with a loaded history.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep; a Theravada Buddhist temple on 1000 meter above sea level with a lovely road winding itself upwards from town (15 km). From the parking lot there still 309 steps to climb to reach the pagodas and marvellous view on the city below. You haven’t seen town if not being at the temple…
However, the strength of climbing the steps is not every ones choice so the monks decided to build a funicular. In the first place with two tracks on 950 mm but soon outgrown the number of passengers.
A second separate system was build and everything went well until on Visaka Bucha day in November 1998 a cable snapped at one of the systems and both cars plunged into the deep leaving three tourists dead and far more injured. Among them two foreigners and five children.
A cable under the strain of the overload of tourists scrambling to pay respect at the temple or lack of proper maintenance, even sabotage was probed as a fatal result of a business conflict. Monks do not have business only holy ones; apparently this is not always the case, the decline of Buddhism. Running a railway (funicular) has nothing in common with honest temple affaires.
On government order both systems were closed and later rebuild by a specialised company from Switzerland but this time as an elevator with a cambered transversal shaft.
No more funicular rides in Chiang Mai, my ones pas-time but always enjoyable due to the more or less amateurishly way of operating. As assured before a monk’s reality is Buddha and Buddha only, praying that it will not derail by far is living beyond that reality.
Picture above: Hong Kong’s famous funicular called: Peak Tram seen from The Peak on a postcard. Pictures below: impressions of the Chiang Mai temple funicular taken in 1992 and 2002