Today, on a misty morning at about 8am, the new winding wheel for the Hastings West Hill Cliff Railway arrived, and was lifted into place. The wheel failed last year, and had to be re-cast in a foundry in Rotherham. Originally, it had been standard equipment as part of the winding gear for coal mines – now no longer available.
Work on the lift was started in January 1889, at a cost of £16,000. A 363 ft tunnel was constructed through the cliffs, using an existing cave, with a 1 in 3 slope, making it the steepest funicular railway in the country. The lift was powered by a ‘gas engine’ – an internal combustion engine running on coal gas. Steel ropes are attached to both cars which counterbalance each other with the ropes passing around the big wheel, which is turned by the engine to move the lift cars. The lift was completed and opened on March 25th 1891.
Financially, the lift was not a success at the time because of increased construction costs; the company running it failed in 1894. A newly formed lift company operated it until 1947, when Hastings Borough Council bought the lift for £4,500, and has run it ever since. The lift is almost unchanged, still using the original Victorian lift cars, but the gas engine was replaced by an electric motor.
The two cliff railways (East and West Hill) are now very profitable, even after taking into account expensive repairs such as this one. The two railways generate a net income of around £150,000 a year for the council. The installation of the new wheel had been delayed for a couple of months because of bad weather, but it’s still hoped the lift can be re-opened by Easter (virus permitting).