World's Steepest Funicular Railway Debuts in Switzerland

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Stoosbahn, a new funicular Switzerland that's the steepest in the world
The passenger cabins of this just-opened Swiss funicular have rotating floors to accommodate the crazy-steep journey to and from the village of Stoos. . (Photo: Stoos-Muotatal Tourism )

A dizzying new funicular railway has opened in the Swiss canton of Schwyz that’s capable of whisking passengers up the side of a mountain faster than they can say OK, wait ... hold on ... I’m actually having second thoughts about getting on this thing ...

Funiculars — and other acrophobia-triggering modes of public transportation — are a common way to get around in Switzerland. From the historic and highly scenic Allmendhubelbahn to the subterranean Zermatt-Sunnegga Express, upwards of 50 slope-climbing railway systems operate daily in high-altitude ski resorts and hilly urban centers alike. (All vary in their pronounceability and panic-triggering capabilities). But the latest white-knuckle addition to the Swiss funicular scene, heralded as a marvel of modern engineering, is truly something special.

Ascending from the valley floor a to the tiny resort town of Stoos (elevation: 4,300 feet) at a clip of 10 meters per second (about 22 miles per hour), the funicular’s distinctive barrel-shaped carriages travel along a 1,720-meter (5,643-foot) track that almost goes vertical with a maximum gradient of 110 percent (a 48-degree angle). This makes the new Stoosbahn, which replaces an aging 1930s-era funicular, the steepest funicular in the world.

Sure, it might be easy to dismiss the Stoosbahn as a 45 million euro (roughly $53 million) tourist diversion. But the funicular, which climbs and descends a total of 744 meters (2,440 feet) in just under four minutes flat, also serves the 150 or so residents living in the car-free village Stoos. A charming-sounding burg that sits on a plateau near the foot of the alpine peak Fronalpstock (elevation: 6,302 feet) high above Lake Lucerne, Stoos' top attraction — aside from the fancy new funicular, of course — is a chair lift that reaches the summit of the mountain.

“This is what characterizes Switzerland, that we offer a service that everyone can use,” proclaimed Swiss president Doris Leuthard at a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony in which local residents enjoyed a preview of the new railway before it opened to the general public. As reported by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Leuthard, who pulls double-duty as Switzerland's transport minister, joined the locals on the funicular's inaugural run despite having a fear of heights. She called the trip a "pure thrill, just great" and noted that "what we do in politics is trivial compared to this work."

A zippier replacement for the original Stoosbahn has been in the works for more than 14 years with construction finally kicking off in 2013. As noted by The Local, the record-breaking infrastructure project was halted for two years due to financial issues and engineering quandaries. But the delay, it would seem, was worth it. According to a promotional video produced by Zurich-headquartered global engineering mega-firm ABB, the new Stoosbahn is twice the speed as the old one and can accommodate up to 1,500 passengers per hour.

As The Guardian notes, a traditional aerial tramway system was considered in lieu of a modernized funicular to replace the old Stoosbahn but was nixed as it would have “passed through an active shooting area.” Yeah, probably not the best idea.

The Stoosbahn is a classic funicular in that it has two cable-affixed trains that ascend and descend simultaneously, passing each other in the middle of the track. As the two trains — each are equipped with four cylindrical passenger cabins that can accommodate 34 people each — move in opposite directions, they balance each other out. Thanks to counterbalancing, minimal energy is needed to haul the ascending train up the slope since it's being propelled by the weight of the descending train. Technically, the highly mortifying Katoomba Scenic Railway in New South Wales, Australia, is a funicular with an even steeper gradient than the Stoosbahn at 122 percent (52 degrees.) However, that tourist-oriented cable railway, which offers sweeping views of the Blue Mountains, is a single-train affair. This make the Stoosbahn the world's steepest proper funicular per many funicular purists.

The ascent to Stoos, captured in its entirety in the below video, is dramatic: shortly after the futuristic train commences its upwards journey from within the dark, mist-shrouded valley, it passes through a series of tunnels and across a pair of bridges before emerging high above the clouds in a glistening alpine wonderland located, quite literally, near the top of the world

While funiculars have been in use for eons and can be found in both ski resorts and hill-challenged cities across the globe (a much anticipated urban funicular just opened for business in downtown Edmonton, Alberta, for example), the Stoosbahn differs from other modern funicular systems in that the hydraulically controlled floors of the passenger cabins tilt to accommodate the extremely sharp gradient. Without this specialized incline adjustment system that keeps the cabin floors horizontal, passengers would be unable to stand upright and topple on top of each other.

Stoosbahn's maximum is 110 percent is four percent steeper than the previous title holder for steepest Swiss funicular: the Gelmerbahn, a legitimately terrifying incline railway located outside of Bern, Switzerland's capital and fourth most-populous city. Also in the canton of Bern is one of Switzerland's longest funiculars, the Niesenbahn, which opened in 1910 and spans an astonishing 2.2 miles. Directly beside the Niesenbahn, you'll find the world's longest staircase — all 11,764 steps of it. The Stoosbahn, thank heavens, does not have an outdoor staircase component.