The Cliff Railway

A prominent feature of Southend seafront for more than 100 years.

The Southend Cliff Railway, also known as the Southend Cliff Lift has been a prominent feature of Southend seafront for more than 100 years and is one of the more unusual railways in the UK. Originally constructed in 1912 it operated for the first time on August Bank Holiday Monday of that year. The line is owned and operated by the Museums Service of Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, and operates throughout the Summer between 10:00 and 17:00. It provides access to the Cliff Gardens from the seafront and saves visitors a tiring walk to the top of the cliff.

There are around 20 operating funicular railways in England, and Southend-on-Sea has one of the most fascinating systems. Running for 40 metres on a gradient of 43.4%. The railway uses a track gauge of 1372mm (4ft 6 in) to guide the single car up and down the cliff-face. What makes this system so unusual is that despite having just a single passenger car the railway still operates on a true counter weight system, with the counter weight running on 533mm (21 in) track below the track that carries the passenger car.

Origins of the Cliff Railway

The origins of the Southend Cliff Railway go back to 1901 when the renowned American engineer Jesse W. Reno, constructed a moving walkway on this site. The walkway was basically a diesel engine driving looped chain to which were attached wooden slatted steps, a type f early escalator. Despite the successful completion of the project, and the unique pioneering nature of the technology the walkway did not last. No accidents were recorded on the walkway but it proved to be too noisy and unreliable for the public. It was also hampered by its exposed location which did not encourage the public to give the new walkway a try.

By 1912 construction had started on the new cliff railway which was built by Waygood & Company, the forerunners of the Otis Elevator Company, in 1912, and opened on the August Bank Holiday.

Repairs and refurbishment

The railway, as built, could carry 18 only people in the car, in 1930 this original car was replaced with one in the same style which had room for 30 people to make the journey in one trip. At the same time this new car was ordered it was decided to undertake a major refurbishment of the line.

The car was replaced again when further refurbishments were carried out in 1959. It was during this period of refurbishment that a major oversight in railway infrastructure was at last corrected. When first constructed the cliff railway had not been fitted with proper stations. So popular had the line now become that it was decided to install covered waiting facilities with seating at both ends of the railway, a lift call button was also added at this time.

No further major work was needed on the cliff railway until 1990 by which time the line was 78 years old and starting to show its age. Once again the car was replaced. For the first time it was decided to change the layout of the car and install an extra door on the right-hand side of the car in addition to the existing rear door. This decision certainly made exiting easier for passengers but also reduced the capacity of the car from 30 to back to 18. It also required some work at the seafront station to accommodate this new arrangement.

Southend Cliff Railway

Railway or Cable-car?

All went well with the Cliff Railway until 2004 when a major fault developed leading to closure of the line. Southend Council successfully applied for funding from the National Lottery and they were awarded £1.5 million to fully restore both the Cliff Railway and the Cliff Gardens. Work started on the station restoration in October 2005 and at first all went well. Disaster struck the restoration project shortly afterwards when the European Union decided to change the designation of the rack railway and make it subject to the same regulations that apply to all cable-cars across the European Union.

This re-designation of the railway saw it placed under much tighter safety requirements, and this led to significant delays and additional costs for the Council. New operating and braking systems were needed, and these had to be designed and produced just for the railway so they remained in keeping with the historic style of the listed Cliff Railway.

While work was progressing on creating these new components for the railway it was decided to use the opportunity of the forced line closure to dismantle other parts of the railway superstructure and check for signs of corrosion. This investigation led to the replacement of damaged sections of the inner structure of the line, and another increase in the costs of the project.

The Cliff Railway Reopens

The stations were finally restored in April 2006 at a cost of £133,000. The new-look buildings now had Victorian style pitched roofs and more disabled and family-friendly access was provided with less steep access ramps.

Despite all of this work on the stations there was still no operational car on the Cliff Railway. It was not until 2009 that the car was lifted from the track and sent away for restoration.

March the following year, and £650,000 later a rebuilt car returned to the Southend Cliff Railway. For the first time it now complied with all current disability legislation, and EU directives. The original chassis of the car had survived but all the body of the vehicle was classified as a new build.

The Mayor of Southend re-opened the Cliff Railway on 25th May 2010. Total restoration costs of the line had been more than £3 million, but the result had been a Cliff Railway that can serve faithfully for generations to come. Visitors to Southend today can once again travel from the seafront to the cliffs, and enjoy the same spectacular views that thrilled those first day-trippers to this part of Essex more than a century ago.