Monday, February 22, 2010

Penang Hill & funicular railway

Penang Hill’s iconic funicular train will make its final run on 21-2-2010 after 87 years, leaving residents with only fond memories of the famous attraction. It will be replaced by a RM63mil upgraded system, which is expected to be ready in seven months. The Penang Hill Raiway was the icon of the Penang state, it is sad to say farewell to the train, and while waiting for the new system to be ready. We can only go there by jeep or hike up to Penang Hill. The tram or car was the only way to go up Penang Hill in the old days, unless you want to hike up via Moongate at Waterfall Road, other routes are not popular. It will be packed during the holidays, especially Chinese New Year. It is the place to escape from the hot climate in the Georgetown. It was always exciting to take the tram , which slowly climb up the hill, the changes of the climate, the pitcher plants along the railway tracks, and the monkeys; are interesting journey for the city boy. The view from the hill top is another attraction. In the 60s,70s and even 80s, Penang Hill was the must for most tourists.

I take the opportunity to post this blog to know some history of the funicular railway. Some articles said there are only 3 funicular railway in the world, which is wrong; as there are many funicular railway around the world. But Penang Hill Railway is one of the early funicular railway,and the only one of its kind in Southeast Asia. Personally I have opportunity to visit Hong Kong, Penang, Sydney, Salzburg funicular railway station and took the funicular train/car in Hong Kong, Penang and Sydney. Due to short of time during the trip to Salzburg, I did not try the funicular train there. Hong Kong funicular railway is the most successful; Penang funicular railway has the most problem recently.

What is funicular railway?

A funicular, also known as a funicular railway, incline, inclined railway, inclined plane, or cliff railway, is a cable railway in which a cable attached to a pair of tram-like vehicles on rails moves them up and down a steep slope, the ascending and descending vehicles counter balancing each other. The word is from the Latin funiculus, a diminutive of funis, "rope".

The basic principle of funicular operation is that two cars are permanently attached to each other by a cable, which runs through a pulley at the top of the incline. Counterbalancing of the two cars, with one ascending and one descending the slope minimizes the energy needed to lift the ascending car. Winching is normally done by an electric drive working on the pulley. Sheave wheels guide the cable to and from the drive mechanism and the incline cars.

The inclined lift

The inclined lift or inclined elevator is a special version of the funicular, since it has only one car carrying payload riding up and down the slope. The car is either winched up to the station on the top of the incline where the cable is collected on a winch drum, or the single car is balanced by a counterweight and operated the same way as a funicular with two cars. The steepest funicular in the world is the incline lift Katoomba Scenic Railway in Australia. It is in the Blue Mountains at Scenic World near Katoomba, Australia. Its centre supports multiple tourist attractions such as the Skyway and Cableway. The railway is on the old mining track and is 52 degrees (122%) at its steepest point. Scenic World claims that this is the steepest funicular in the world.

Reisszug, Austria 1515

The oldest funicular is the Reisszug, a private line providing goods access to Hohensalzburg Castle at Salzburg in Austria. It was first documented in 1515 by Cardinal Matthäus Lang, who became Archbishop of Salzburg. The line originally used wooden rails and a hemp haulage rope, and was operated by human or animal power. Today steel rails, steel cables and an electric motor have taken over, but the line still follows the same route through the castle's fortifications

Hong Kong Peak Tram 1888

Hong Kong's Peak Tram was one of the first funicular in Asia, opened in 1888, maximum grade 48%, 1.4 km, and is still daily transport for many people today.

Penang Hill Railway 1923

The only funicular railway in Malaysia is Penang Hill Railway, Penang Hill,Penang. The Penang Hill Railway is a two section funicular railway which climbs Penang Hill from Air Itam, near George Town on the island of Penang in Malaysia. The total journey takes about half an hour, with passengers changing cars at the mid-point station. The train may stop at other intermediate stations upon request. Work on the inclined railway began in 1897 but took 26 years to complete, with its first coaches made of wood and steel. But actual construction of the railway took place between 1906 to 1923, at a cost of 1.5 million Straits dollars.

The first attempt to build hill railway was in 1898 and completed in 1906, which was a 2 cars system, with one section to cover the entire journey to the hill top. It faced with technical problem. The second attempt was in 1920 with two independent sections, designed by Arnold R. Johnson, senior district engineer of the Federated Malay States Railways. The project was under his supervision,with many Asians involved in the project, from the labourers and technicians who physically constructed it to the Municipal Commissioners and public who watched and debated every stage of its development. Work began in 1920 and was completed in 1923. The two-section solution proved extremely successful. The railway was opened to the public on October 21, 1923. New cars were provided in 1977(Khoo Salma Nasution, 2010)

The old coaches
Old coach of Penang Hill Railway, used 1923-1977.
2nd generation used 1977-2010

The lower section of the funicular has the following technical parameters:

* Length: 907 metres
* Height: 319 metres
* Maximum Steepness: 50.5%
* Cars: 2
* Capacity: 80 passengers per car
* Configuration: Single track with passing loop
* Journey time: 11 minutes
* Maximum speed: 1.4 metres per second
* Track gauge: 1 metre
* Traction: Electricity

The upper section of the funicular has the following technical parameters:

* Length: 1313 metres
* Height: 367 metres
* Maximum Steepness: 51.3%
* Cars: 2
* Capacity: 80 passengers per car
* Configuration: Single track with passing loop
* Journey time: 13 minutes
* Maximum speed: 1.8 metres per second
* Track gauge: 1 metre
* Traction: Electricity

Proposed new railway
The two-section system will be abolished by realigning the track to create a single system. The train-changing at the Middle Station will be done away with. The existing rails, cables and original machinery will be removed and replaced. The present four passenger carriages will be replaced with two larger carriages.

Penang Hill, Penang

Francis Light is the first to plot a pack-horse track from the Botanic Gardens waterfall to Penang Hill. A lot of bungalows were built on the hill for private use during the 19th and the 20th century. Before the funicular railway is in service, people had to sit in a sedan chair carried by 6 bearers to travel up the Penang Hill. It costs 46 cents per trip.

The 2007 metres long railway was launched in 1923 and four modern Swiss-made coaches replaced the old one in 1979.

Penang Hill is a hill resort comprising a group of peaks, the major hill system of Penang, Malaysia. It is 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) from the city centre of George Town, and stands out prominently from the lowlands as a hilly and forested area. Penang Hill is also known by the Malay name Bukit Bendera, which refers to Flagstaff Hill, the most developed peak.

Penang Hill is mainly hilly granitic mass. The hill system is higher towards the northern part with its highest point at Western Hill, at an elevation of 833 m (2,723 ft) above sea level. Other than Western Hill, there are a number of peaks in the region, such as Bukit Laksamana, Tiger Hill, Flagstaff Hill and Government Hill. Flagstaff Hill is 735 m (2,450 ft) above sea level. A number of small rivers and streams originate from the region. Sungai Pinang is the largest of the rivers, and it starts from a number of tributaries in the area.

Penang Hill is definitely a tourist attraction, if it can be make like Victoria Peak of Hong Kong. We do not need to copy exactly from Hong Kong, but it show that a small hill resort can be as successful,and a funicular railway can also be a strong attraction, as in Victoria Peak. It is a lesson for Penang state tourism authority to learn, and Penang Hill can be revived to a tourist attraction again..... but please retain the heritage value of the train and railway...

Related articles

1.List of funicular railways,
2. THE PENANG HILL RAILWAY(2010), by Khoo Salma Nasution, Penang Heritage Trust,

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