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Revamped funicular enjoys third life

Revamped funicular enjoys third life

Posted: December 06, 2000

By Felice Wilson

For mechanic Miroslav Furst, the city's heart is not a castle on a hill. It's an engine.

As the man who maintains the motor that powers Prague's most famous funicular railway, Furst, 56, is fulfilling his father's dream and his own. He is keeping the historic Petrin elevator train up and running.

"My fingerprints are everywhere," says the thin Furst as he stands near the train.

The funicular runs a 510-meter (1,683-foot) course from Mala Strana in Prague's center to the top of Petrin hill, where gardens, an observatory and Petrin Tower - inspired by the Eiffel Tower - greet disembarking passengers. The two cable cars transport 1.5 million people a year to one of the more remarkable views in the city.

Built in 1891 and renovated twice, in 1932 and 1985, today's Petrin funicular is enjoying its third life.

The first cable cars, built at the same time as the Petrin Tower, were powered, or weighted, by water. Both cars, tethered to a pull cable, had huge water tanks that were filled at the top station and emptied at the bottom. The weight of the descending car pulled the other 383 meters up the hill.

War halted the train in 1914, along with Prague's other funicular, also built in 1891, north of Petrin on Letna hill. The funicular was revived in 1932 - this time with electricity - and extended to its current length. The Letna funicular was never rebuilt.

In the mid-1960s, City Hall stopped removing sediment from Petrin's drainage canals, originally built by Charles IV. A 1965 landslide damaged the rails, and within three years they were ruined.

They would lay untouched for 20 years before the latest restoration.

Prague's only other rail funicular is at the Movenpick Hotel, and the Prague Zoo in Troja also has a suspended lift.

Ski resorts also have funiculars, but none run through tunnels like the one in Kaprun, Austria, where a fire killed 170 people in November. Furst said the Austrian accident, the worst funicular tragedy in history, caused no noticeable public fear at Petrin.

Smooth riding

The funicular is invariably colorful. Puffy kindergarteners bundled in primary colors peer down at a parked cable car from a footbridge, while mechanics in nearby offices cloud the air with cigarette smoke.

The mechanics are a special breed.

"Someone with only one craft isn't fit to work here," says Furst. "It's not like being a butcher. You have to know nine trades."

He laughs while reciting the job's requirements: welding, locksmith skills, painting, cleaning, and on and on.

The funicular's engine, with a 500-volt and 106-kilowatt output, was built before the invention of standardized parts, he explains, and there are no blueprints. "Everything has to be handmade, and we usually have to do everything ourselves because it's too expensive otherwise," he says.

But the original machinery is impressive. "Our predecessors were no idiots," says Furst. When city authorities started planning the funicular reconstruction two decades ago, most assumed they would need to scrap the engine. They were startled to learn it was still in mint condition.

In October, the funicular had its semi-annual check up - a three-week maintenance overhaul. "We didn't find any problems," says Furst, smiling proudly.

Pride runs in his family.

Furst's father worked at the funicular until the 1965 landslide. "Over the next 20 years," said Furst, "my father and other mechanics came here on their own time every weekend to preserve the machinery with the hope that it would someday operate again."

Furst joined his father on the job in 1963. From 1965 to 1983, he repaired trams for Dopravni podnik, the city public transportation company that owns Petrin funicular.

Besides making thorough checkups in March and October, mechanics inspect the steel tow cable, 35 millimeters in diameter, once a month for snags and corrosion. But inspections are typically uneventful. There have never been any serious accidents, and the emergency brake cables have never been used.

Safety standards for funiculars are, Furst asserts, twice as strict as those for trams and trains. "Since funiculars are either elevated off the ground or suspended in air, the possibility of situations where people need to be evacuated must be minimized," he says. For example, the cable would be safe with a 14-millimeter diameter, but is designed at 35 millimeters, he says.

Furst instinctively raises his voice as the machine behind him roars into motion, gears and cables stirring and screeching. After a morning recalling the past, he turns his hopes to the funicular's future. "I hope it's big," he says with a smile.

Vojtech Saman contributed

to this report.

Felice Wilson's e-mail address is


time line

  • 1891: First Petrin funicular opens. Built by the Petrin Lookout Tower Association for the Jubilee Exhibition and the opening of the Petrin Tower. The funicular ran on a water overbalance system on 383-meter-long rails.
  • 1914: World War I shuts down the funicular.
  • 1932: A new and extended Petrin Funicular begins operation in time for the IX Sokol Festival. It was operated by a pull cable and electric motor, still in use today.
  • Early 1960s: City authorities stop cleaning Petrin's water drainage canals, originally built by Charles IV. Sediment collects, clogging the canals and saturating Petrin hill.
  • 1965-68: Drenching rains and a landslide ruin the rails.
  • 1985: The third Petrin funicular opens, in time for the Spartakiada.

  • By Felice Wilson

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