In Victorian times, when the problem of steep inclines were encountered that effectively divided a town, thereby restricting access to various amenities, a solution was usually found in the form of a funicular railway or cliff lift. Southend council's initial approach was far more radical, installing one of the country's first public 'moving walkways' in 1901. Designed by the American engineer Jesse W. Reno, this was a forerunner to the modern escalator and still a very new concept, even in the United States. Bearing in mind that this walkway was also constructed externally at Southend, it made the project unique at that time. The novelty factor soon waned, and the structure was soon found to be noisy, unreliable and uncomfortable as a result of its steep incline.
When a successor to the walkway was considered, it was proposed to return to the more tried and tested solution of a funicular railway. Built on the same site, the new railway was a single-track line as opposed to the more usual twin track arrangement. With only one passenger car, some form of counterweight was required to facilitate the safe operation of ascent and descent. The ingenious method employed was to raise the main 4ft 6inch (1.4m) gauge track above the ground, and incorporate a narrower gauge (1ft 9inch - 575mm) counterweight track directly beneath it. Extending to 130ft (39m), the track rose approximately 57ft (17.1m) from the promenade to Clifftown, at a gradient of 1 in 2.28. Constructed by Waygood & Company, the railway opened for the first time on August Bank Holiday Monday 1912.
Modernisation of Southend Cliff Railway was undertaken in 1930, including the replacement of the original passenger car. By 1959 a major programme of work was planned, which would incorporate the construction of the upper and lower stations, as well as the refurbishment of much of the winding and electrical equipment, the counterweight track, and a second replacement car. As services continued to be well patronised throughout the next thirty years, further modernisation of Southend Cliff Railway was scheduled in 1990. The most notable change at this time was the re-design of the third replacement car. Although aesthetically still in keeping with the overall structure, the traditional entry/exit doors to the front and rear of the carriage were replaced by a single large door to the left. In conjunction with the additional ramps put in at both stations, this now provided much improved access for passengers with pushchairs, and for the disabled. One disadvantage to this arrangement was the reduced carrying capacity of the car, from 30 persons to only 18.