The surviving funicular railway at Folkestone Leas is, ironically, the oldest of four railways that once operated at in the area. The track bed for the second Leas lift remains visible, but the Sandgate and Metropole Hotel lifts have long since vanished.
Having leased the required land from Lord Radnor, local man John Newman built the Folkestone Leas Cliff Railway on behalf of the Folkestone Lift Company during the 1880s, with all materials being supplied by Waygood and Company Limited. Opening on 21st September 1885, the system comprised two parallel 5ft 10inch (1.5m) gauge tracks extending to a length of 164ft (49.5m), and an hydraulically operated lift. Employing the water balance principle, water was supplied to an upper car to facilitate its descent, this being emptied onto the beach when the downward journey had been completed.
Two standard passenger cars, each capable of carrying 15 passengers, were provided. Conforming to a design that became synonymous with this type of railway, the cars had a covered body with a triangular sub-frame that housed a water tank. The main difference with Folkestone's cars was the door arrangement - these cars were fitted with a single sliding side entry door as opposed to opening doors at each end. This resulted in one of the two longitudinal bench seats having to be 'broken' mid-length to accommodate the door. Few facilities were ever provided at the upper terminus, but sizeable entrance buildings were constructed at beach level.
With the opening of the pier in 1888, the number of visitors using Folkestone Leas Cliff Railway increased dramatically, thus exacerbating problems already being experienced with consistent water supply. Coupled with long periods of closure due to general wear and tear, the railway was facing some radical changes. The solution was to construct a second railway, immediately to the east of the original. Presumably, due to geological reasons and the proximity of buildings associated with the first line, the new line would be shorter, steeper and slightly narrower.
Construction began early in 1890 and was completed in just a few months, opening on 13th August in the same year. To compensate for the steep incline, stepped cars were used comprising eight pairs of seats either side of a stepped gangway, and end doors were re-introduced. Although this lift was also hydraulically operated, it proved to be much more cost effective as the water used was recycled by the installation of two gas pumping engines located in a new building erected on the eastern side of the lower station building.
During the Second World War years both railways closed, and the lower station buildings were utilised as a home guard post. They eventually re-opened in 1948 and enjoyed many prosperous times throughout the 1950s, but during the 1960s the dramatic decline in visitor numbers to British resorts was being felt by Folkestone. The operating company decided to wind up business, but the local council took over the operation of the 1885 railway in 1967. Despite the closure of both railways during the winter of 1966-67, only the original line was to reopen. In 1985, marking the centenary of the old line, the council spent £75,000 on a refurbishment and, at the same time, removed the second railway.