Archive for February 10th, 2008


Unusual modes of transportation

Since I can remember, I’ve been interested in antiquated or unique modes of transportation. Generally, my exposure to such transportation has come as a result of traveling to some new place where said transportation is or had been used.

Upon moving to Pittsburgh, I became interested in the inclines, which are technically known as funiculars. These are basically railways that go up the side of a mountain at a steep angle. Not to be confused with cog railways, funiculars are drawn by cables and generally include two cars which counter-balance one another, one going up while the other goes down. There are two left in Pittsburgh: the Monongahela Incline and the Duquesne Incline, both of which are on the south shore of the Monongahela River and take passengers from river level up to the top of Mt. Washington, a bluff on the south side of the city. While there are only 2 left today, 19 inclines have called Pittsburgh home over the years. Furthermore, though my exposure to inclines has been limited to those in Pittsburgh, there are inclines all over the world, including all continents except Antarctica.

Another form of transportation that captured my imagination during a trip is the system of canals in England. Obviously, I had seen boats and rivers before, but I was fascinated by the man-made features of the canals that enabled them to negotiate difficult terrain. During our trip to England, I saw plenty of locks in person and read about other interesting parts of canals elsewhere, including canal tunnels, navigable aqueducts, boat lifts, canal inclined planes, and marine railways. A number of years later, during my year in Germany, I saw a boat lift in person: the Henrichenburg Boat Lift on the Dortmund-Ems Canal. Shortly thereafter, I decided that when I retired, I would build an elaborate model of the British countryside, including railroads and canals, with particular emphasis on including the interesting features listed above. I’m less committed to this plan now than I was at the time, so we’ll just have to see if this works out or not. I’ll let you know in 40 years or so.

A third form of transportation to which I was introduced during a trip is what might be called a cable car or aerial tramway. During a trip to Germany with my parents in 2000, we rode up to the top of the Zugspitze in a cable car. The Zugspitze is interesting because it’s right on the border between Germany and Austria and you can actually go back and forth between Germany and Austria on the observation deck at the top. Not only that, getting to the top involves taking a cable car or a cog railway, so it offers two unique transportation options. While the cable car was interesting, it didn’t really capture my imagination in the same way as the canals or even the inclines had. Perhaps this is due to it being more modern and not seeming to belong to a different era.

The last form of transportation to which I was exposed on a trip involves much shorter range transport than the others. The year I lived in Germany I got to take a tour of the WDR studios in Cologne. In their main building, they had a crazy elevator-type contraption called a paternoster. Basically, it’s like an elevator with no doors that never stops. There are two shafts side by side and a series of cars on a continuous loop travel up one shaft and then down the other. This means that you simply step in on one floor and step out when you reach your desired destination. If it’s not clear what I’m talking about, check here. These really fascinated me for a while because they’re unique, very efficient, belong to an earlier era and are disappearing. Right now, there aren’t many of these left in existence and those that survive seem to be getting phased out as buildings are renovated or demolished, since they’re more dangerous than normal elevators and they’re not handicapped-accessible.

The 4 modes of transportation mentioned above fall into two categories for me: those that I have used and those that I have not. I have been in inclines in Pittsburgh and I rode a cable car in Austria. However, I have never been on a canal boat, much less on a boat while it went through a lock or some other interesting canal feature. In addition, I have never been on a paternoster. I hope that I’ll get the chance to take both of these modes of transportation in the not-too-distant future.  If I do, I’ll let you know.


February 2008

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