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The funicular and the rack mechanism

There were pronounced slopes that trains could not overcome because the adherence of their driving wheels was insufficient. They were facing again the well known problem of adherence that the pioneers of the railway industry had to suffer several decades before. One could think that the problem would be of easy solution by just increasing the number of driving wheels to increase adherence. But such idea is wrong.

In fact, if on a slope of 40 per 1000 the towable load is about twice as the adherent weight of the locomotive, in a slope of 66 per 1000 the same locomotive could not tow more than such weight. Hence, it was necessary to find a new system to avoid facing the same problem every time the slope increases, and the solution was the revival of an old idea from Blenkinsop: the gear wheel, useless in flat terrains but very useful or necessary in slopes. This gave origin to a new type of railway, called rack railway or cog railway; its creator was engineer Niklaus Riggenbach, who the 12th March 1862 obtained the patent and authorization for a line in service in the Swiss slope of the Gotthard Pass.

However, the first practical realization of this system took place in United States, in the strong slope of Mount Washington, located in the homonym state. When this railway was projected, the most skeptical Americans had but words of pungent irony for the building company. The engineer from the company, inquired about how he would do to achieve success in a work of such magnitude, replied that it would be done by placing a third toothed rail in the center of the railway and a gear wheel, known as pinion, in the locomotive, fixed to the driving axle, and whose teeth would engage in the toothed rail, ensuring so the propulsion along the slope. In 1866 this new type of railway was ready for operation.

Mountain locomotive, 1891
Mountain locomotive of the Pike's Peak Railway, 1891.

In Europe the first application was made in 1870 in the railway in Mount Rigi, in Switzerland. The system that we are addressing was the point of arrival of some attempts that had been made in 1830 in Panama and in 1847 in Pennsylvania, based in the utilization of a single center rail. But the project carried out by Riggenbach offered greater safety, since the locomotives benefited from higher adherence and stability, being much lesser the risk of sliding in the curves.

Snow locomotive, 1897
Locomotive for snowy and icy conditions, built in 1897 by the American company Phoenix.

In short routes with very pronounced slopes it was adopted the traction by funicular, this is, cars that were dragged along single or double rails by a steel cable actuated by powerful engines. A curious system using a counterweight was experimented in Switzerland in the funicular installed on the lake near Berna. In the terminal station, in the top of the mountain, were filled the water tanks installed in the car which, once loaded, started the descent dragged by the weight of the tanks; by means of a cable running around a wheel placed in the terminal station, the descending car pulled in ascension a second car placed in a parallel railway. Once the descending car arrived to destination, its water tanks were emptied while those of the other car, which meanwhile had reached the top of the mountain, were filled; this ensured the continuous movement along the line.

Trains and ships

The steam engine was always conquering new terrains, bringing with itself the economic and social welfare; thus more flexible communications and a new maritime transport were increasingly needed. It was required to bring the train as close as possible to the ships to avoid the transfer; it was necessary to grant the train the chance of overcoming the obstacle of a large water body, such as the English Channel, for example. The link between the train and the ship was made for the first time in 1851 in the Firth of Forth, between Scotland and England, by means of a strange and ungainly ship which transported the trains from one coast to the other, and which the British called ferry boat. The first ferry boats transported freight trains, and then came the ferries across the English Channel which transported passenger trains.

Old drawbridge in New York dock
Drawbridge used in the docks of New York to link the railways with the rails installed in the ferry boats.

These ships started to be built all around the world, serving between isles, in the channels, isthmus and straits. It was in United States where, already in 1870 and by means of appropriate pontoons, the wagons were transported towards the surroundings and the interior of the docks of New York; and in 1878, by adapting an old steam ship, it was established a regular line of 15 miles in length between New York and Cape Charles, in Maryland. Also the famous Lake Michigan, which due to its tempests and winterly ices had forced the trains to surround it, "surrendered" in 1894 when powerful ferry boats with displacements around 1000 tonnes, suitables for navigating difficult waters, were built. This ferry line ran along 56 miles which were covered in five or six hours.

Railway ferry boat, 1881
This ferry boat started service in 1881 in the mouth of the Sacramento River, in California.

Already in the mid 20th century, hundreds of these ferries existed in the great lakes of North America, in the bay of New York and in San Francisco. A service of ferry boats with four tracks was installed between San Francisco and Sacramento, following a course of 145 kilometers. Somewhat longer is the line established between La Habana and Key West, in southern Florida, and it is particularly long (1100 kilometers) the route between La Habana and New Orleans, capable of transporting up to 80 heavy wagons. Many ferry boats were established as well in the Japanese archipelago, being the longest route (210 kilometers) that between the islands of Sakhalin and Yeso.

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