With your normal ZVV transportation ticket you can also use the Polybahn, which is a popular way of getting from city center (from the stop called “Central”) up to the ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) and the University of Zürich.
The name Polybahn comes from the ETH’s original name “Federal Polytechnical School”, even though it hasn’t officially been called that since 1911.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955) must have ridden the Polybahn as a young man, since he studied at the Polytechnic from 1896 to 1900, when he graduated with a degree in Mathematics and Natural Sciences. He got his doctorate from the University of Zürich in 1905 and was later a professor there and at the ETH for several years.
Like the Marzili-Bahn in Bern and the Festungsbahn in Salzburg, the Polybahn is a funicular, meaning that the two cars are joined together by a cable which pulls one up while easing the other one down. At the top station the cable runs through a pulley with an electric motor, which provides the additional energy needed to set the cars in motion.
Actually, the first electric motor for the Polybahn was not installed until 1897. Before that, from 1889 to 1897, the cars had water tanks that were filled with water at the top station and emptied at the bottom, making the downward-moving car heavier.
This “water-counterbalancing” system was widely used in the nineteenth century (and in Bern and Wiesbaden well into the 1970s). It worked perfectly well, but caused delays while the tanks were being filled or emptied between trips. (And probably also wasted water, but that doesn’t seem to have been a big issue in those days.)
For its first 107 years the Polybahn had three rails, with the middle rail being shared between the two cars. Then in 1996 the Polybahn was completely modernized and automated, and to save space they adopted the current two-rail system. This means that the two cars use the same two rails except for the passing section in the middle of the line. There are no switches at this passing section, because the cars have flanges on their outside wheels which make them automatically choose the correct track.
In February 2010 I stayed at the Hotel Limmathof at Limmatquai 142, which is next door to the lower station (Talstation = ‘valley station’) of the Polybahn.
My photos in this post are from 2005 (summer) and 2010 (winter).
I revised the text in 2022.