The seaside town of Hastings boasts two cliff railways, but the West Hill Railway is both the oldest working example of its type, and the most inconspicuous. Unlike its younger neighbour, the East Hill Railway, it is not immediately visible when walking or driving through the modern town due to its unique design. Almost the entire length of the railway travels through the cliff as opposed to over it. There were two other railways constructed in this manner, one at Broadstairs in Kent and one at Clifton in Somerset, but they have long since ceased operation.
The line was conceived to carry passengers from George Street on the promenade, to the ruins of Hastings Castle at the top of Castle Hill. Construction of the West Hill Railway commenced in January 1889 but met with considerable local opposition, resulting in the work taking much longer to complete than originally envisaged. This, in turn, increased construction costs by over 50% and was almost certainly responsible for the original owners, the Hastings Lift Company, going into liquidation in 1894.
Built by Messrs A H Holme & C W King of Liverpool (who subsequently built the Snowdon Mountain Railway), the railway was of a funicular type, comprising two parallel lengths of track running on a 1: 2.9 gradient, and rising some 170ft (51.5m). Some 402ft (121.8m) of the track's total length of 500ft (151.5m) is enclosed within an 18ft (5.4m) x 19ft (5.7m) cylindrical tunnel, constructed from 1.75 million bricks. In common with most railways of this type, the two cars were joined by wire cables and controlled by winding gear situated in the upper station. Messrs Waygood & Company of London (later becoming part of the Otis Group) supplied the equipment. The George Street entrance building was constructed by Elliot's Patent Stone Company, and the whole project was overseen by a local firm of engineers, F & J Plowman.
The cars are of a box-type construction, mounted on a triangular frame, and were supplied by the Midland Railway Carriage & Wagon Company. Each car could carry 16 people, 12 seated and 4 standing. Winding gear for the carriages was initially powered by a Crossley Gas engine, then replaced with a Tangye diesel engine in 1924, and is now run by an electric motor that was fitted in 1971.
Mr Wilson Noble, MP for Hastings, opened the West Hill Railway on 25th March 1891. Following the financial problems of the Hastings Lift Company, the Hastings Passenger Lift Company acquired the railway in 1894, maintaining it until they sold it on to Hastings Borough Council in 1947. To mark the railway's centenary year, the line was fully refurbished in 1991 and continues to take passengers up to the ruins of Hastings Castle, and to the 'Smugglers Adventure' located in St Clement's caves.