What is a Cable Railway?

Phil Shepley

A cable railway, also called an inclined plane or simply an incline, is a transportation device that runs on tracks, is built on a steep inclined plane, and is propagated through the use of cables or ropes. These cables pull the car or cars of a cable railway up the tracks, or release them down, and must be used to aid the cars because of the steep grade that would not allow the wheels of the cars to adhere to the track on their own. An incline can be operated in several different ways, depending on the use of the railway and its particular construction.

A cable railway runs up a steep incline with the help of tracks or cables.
A cable railway runs up a steep incline with the help of tracks or cables.

One of the major kinds of cable railway uses a single fixed engine that is located at the top of the incline. This engine operates a wide drum that, when turned, winds or unwinds the cable, causing the cars to move up or down. Often, there are also normal tracks where inclines level off at the top and bottom of the hills. Once a car reaches the top or bottom, it can continue to move on in a normal fashion via an engine and no cables. A train can also be utilized on the top set of normal tracks by being attached to the cable and used to pull a car up the incline with its own powerful engine.

Another type of cable railway utilizes two parallel sets of tracks, on which the two cars move and are connected by a single cable that winds around a drum at the top of the hill. These gravity balance cable railways do not need power to operate, and are used for transporting heavy materials down a hill. Gravity causes the car that is filled to move down the hill while pulling the empty one to the top. For inclines that need cars to bring material up, the system can utilize water to fill the top car until it is heavy enough to move downward and pull up its counterpart.

Most cable railways are no longer operational today. Many have been replaced by more modern technologies, many have simply become defunct, and a few are preserved for historical purposes, although not operational. One particular cable railway that is still functional is the Bowes Railway in England that was originally opened in 1826. It is the only one of its kind – a standard gauge rope-hauled railway – that is preserved and operational in the world.

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