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Engineering is about more than the best design solution

Every now and again you see a feat of engineering that is immediately impressive. Often it is not simply that something is the best or the tallest or the most modern, but that it also manages to navigate people’s opinions or overcome an existing problem, and still achieve a successful, innovative outcome.

A new funicular, which opened recently in central Switzerland, is now the world’s steepest funicular railway line. It has been called “space-age”, with four barrel-shaped carriages, and despite running along gradients as steep as 110% (47.7°), it reaches speeds of up to 10m/s or 36km/hr (22mph).

It wasn’t an easy task to replace the existing funicular with a suitable alternative, but many of the challenges were not structural.

The old-style funicular railway had been running since 1933 and it couldn’t simply be modernised, as locals would have been left without their main route in and out of Stoos, which is a car-free alpine village. Not only that, but the operator would have incurred financial losses while the service was out of action.

The design team looked at a number of different solutions, including a gondola, but this was problematic as an aerial route would pass through an active shooting range, and there was also the issue that residents had an emotional attachment to a rail service. This led to the development of the impressive new carriage design.

The StoosBahn barrel design means that passengers remain level, even on the steepest sections of track. The automatic levelling system allows the cylindrical carriages to rotate and keep people upright at all times. It also complies with modern regulations, with level passenger access.

With standard funicular access, station platforms are essentially along a set of stairs, with graded vehicle compartments. The new Stoos funicular, however, has an inclination adjustment system meaning that all 136 passengers can board on a horizontal platform and then remain level throughout the 4-minute journey.

The 1,720m track climbs 743m in elevation from the valley station near Schwyz-Schlattli to the mountain village of Stoos. To compare, the steepest (but much shorter) funicular in Britain is the 81m East Cliff Lift funicular in Hastings, with a gradient of 78%.

There is a steeper railway in Australia, with a 128% incline, but it is considered to be an inclined lift rather than a funicular, hence the StoosBahn’s status as the steepest funicular in the world.

No doubt at some point someone will build an even steeper version, but the project remains an impressive feat of design and engineering.

If you need help or assistance with the structural elements of a project you are working on, please get in touch.

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