Guided tours will reveal the secrets of Scarborough's oldest cliff tramway

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Every year, over half a million visitors ride a Victorian tramway in Scarborough powered by the most basic of technology.

The Central Tramway is the oldest funicular railway company in the country and one of the two surviving cliff lifts built in the resort, which in its heyday had five separate routes.

It's been operating since 1881 and is still owned by the same company that first registered it.

Originally steam-powered, it was electrified in 1920 but has undergone surprisingly few technological upgrades since before World War Two, and the two carriages have been in service since the 1970s.

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Chairman Neil Purshouse's family bought the company in 1967, and he delights in opening up the Victorian engine room at the station on Marine Parade, next to the Grand Hotel, to visitors for special guided tours as part of the Heritage Open Days festival in September. This will be the third time the Central Tramway has taken part.

According to Neil, the machinery has had '10 new shafts' fitted, but otherwise is relatively unchanged since it was first installed.

"There are two cars tied together with steel ropes - one going down and the other up, and the one going down pulls the other up. There is a 7ft pulley at the top station, and the electric motor drives the pulley. It's really very simple, and fundamentally the same as the Victorian system. We've added safety features, such as radio signals to monitor whether the doors are closed, but the modern alterations don't detract from the original engineering."

The cars are no longer manually operated - in 2009 an automated traction system and more powerful motor were introduced to improve safety and smooth acceleration.

Yet the lift has an almost-impeccable safety record over its operational history - the only fatality occurred in 1927, and the victim's ghost is said to still haunt the cliff station.

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"The machine room is usually hidden from passengers, but once a year in September we open the workshop and it's a great opportunity to see the inner workings and find out how it all operates. We have 12 staff, all local people."

The tramway's popularity has remained 'very stable' over the decades, with between 450,000-500,000 passengers using it every year. It is still a profitable business, although it must shut down for three months of the year for costly but essential maintenance work.

"We get a lot of nice comments from people who appreciate how we maintain the heritage and keep it clean and tidy. Maintenance is difficult, but we have a supplier who specialises in mine railways, which are very similar to incline railways, that we use.

"We have a good relationship with the other cliff lift in Scarborough, which is council-owned and serves the Spa on the South Cliff - we don't compete and we help each other out. Most of the remaining funicular railways in the country are in council ownership now, there are a only a couple of privately-owned ones.

"I get a real kick out of preserving its heritage - it's a labour of love and very demanding, but it's worth it. If they go, these old lifts aren't coming back, so we will keep it going."

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The Central Tramway will be opening the doors to the engine room exclusively as part of the Heritage Open Days this September. Members of the public will be able to apply to go on the free tours on the 13th, 14th, 20th and 21st of September at 10 and 11am. Places must be booked in advance by emailing centraltramwaycompany@gmail.com or calling 07947479521. Groups are limited to 12 people and will include a return ticket and a talk about the history and engineering. Access to the engine room is down steep steps so is not suitable for those visitors with mobility issues.

The fate of Scarborough's five cliff lifts

- The Central Tramway from Marine Drive to Foreshore Road on the South Cliff opened in 1881 and is still operational and privately owned today.

- The South Cliff Lift from Scarborough Spa to South Cliff Esplanade opened in 1875, and operated with seawater-powered engines until 1947. Its owners sold it to Scarborough Council in 1993, and it was automated in 1997. It remains in use.

- The St Nicholas Cliff Lift was located on the other side of the Grand Hotel to the Central Tramway - it opened in 1929 and at first just had a top station, where fares were paid. A bottom station was later built. It closed in 2007 when it became too expensive to maintain the line to meet modern safety standards. The cars were moved to the top of the track and fixed in place, and they are now part of a cafe where customers can sit inside them.

- The North Bay Cliff Lift opened in 1930 and ran until 1996. It was built to serve the Peasholm Gap development. It has been dismantled and is in storage in Cornwall.

- The Queen's Parade Cliff Lift also ran on the North Bay and was the second in the town to open in 1878, linking Queen's Parade to Promenade Pier. A car broke loose on the opening day and it immediately closed for the rest of the year. It was beset by accidents and safety problems, including water supply failures and even a landslip, and closed in 1887.