Chattanooga's Incline Railway receiving two new cars to replace pair installed in 1987

CARTA Incline patrons enjoy a late November day two days before Thanksgiving. / Staff photo by Tim Barber

A year from now, Chattanooga's Incline Railway will celebrate an important milestone: 125 years in service. And for the last 32 years, the same pair of cars has been ferrying passengers up and down the side of Lookout Mountain.

But in February and March, they will be retired as the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority installs a new pair of cars, an investment totaling about $4 million.

The current cars continue to operate safely, CARTA Executive Director Lisa Maragnano explained last week. It's just time for a much-needed update.

Now under construction by Brookville Equipment Corp. in Brookville, Pennsylvania, the cars will resemble the current ones in many ways, while updating a number of features. In fact, the old blueprints used to manufacture the current cars were used by Brookville in designing the new ones.

"We have the blueprints from way back when," she said, "but we're updating them as much as we can."

First and foremost, the cars will feature a much-improved view of the Chattanooga valley, she told attendees on Thursday at CARTA's regular monthly board meeting.

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"You can see how much more window space we have," she said as they viewed a slide. "There's not a lot of metal work there, so the view for the folks will be phenomenal. We're very excited about that."

Another important update will be that the cars are completely wheelchair accessible. The current cars can accommodate only customers who are able to transfer out of their wheelchairs and into one of the onboard seats for the trip. The new cars will operate like the city's buses, accommodating a wide variety of wheelchairs.

They will no longer have carpeting or cloth-covered seats, making them easier to clean and maintain, Maragnano said.

"There will be a lot less issues," she said.

They will also feature new lighting, onboard security cameras, and heating and air conditioning - the latter of which has been sorely missed by many visitors who "recommended skipping the attraction entirely during the summer months due to crowds and the rail car's lack of air conditioning," reads a review on U.S. News and World Report's travel website.

As far as the outward appearance of the cars, efforts have been taken to maintain their iconic look, including the red and yellow paint scheme.

Each rail car can carry 44 people, the same as the current set of cars.

The cars are expected to arrive by semitractor-trailer, with one arriving at the end of February and the second at the beginning of March, Maragnano said. An engineering company will use a crane to place them onto the track.

"We'll pull the old ones off and put the new ones on," she said. "And it'll be great. We're really looking forward to it."

As for the old cars, which were installed in 1987, one will be given to the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. No decision has been made on the final destination for the second Incline Railway car.

Maragnano couldn't say how many trips the veteran cars have made during their service life, but if the past months are any indication, they've likely carried millions of passengers over the years. Since July 1, the cars have provided a total of 218,000 passenger trips up and down Lookout Mountain.

The railway will continue to operate through the holidays and close on Dec. 30 to begin preparations for the installation of the new cars. As part of that work, the retaining walls on either side of the railway will be reinforced. Work must also be done at the St. Elmo station at the bottom of the mountain to make it more wheelchair accessible.

The Incline Railway serves as CARTA's biggest revenue generator, bringing in a net profit of anywhere between $1 million and $1.3 million a year, Maragnano said, with the summer and fall months generating a large portion of that profit.

Billed as "America's most amazing mile," the Incline Railway is built on a 72.7% grade. Known as a funicular railway, it uses two counter-balanced cars connected by a taut cable. As one car travels up, the other travels down, driven by a pair of 100-horsepower winches developed by the Otis Elevator Company.

Opened in November 1895, the incline was constructed by John Crass and the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway Company. The cars originally operated on coal-burning steam engines, which were upgraded to the electric motors in 1911.

Contact Colin Stewart at or 757-423-6366.