Competition between the waterways and the railways was always one-sided. From the very start the project for an inclined lift for ships at Saint-Louis-Arzviller was doomed to failure. The Rhein-Marne canal, completed in 1853, ran between Vitry-les-Francois and Strasbourg and linked the Saone, the Marne, the Maas, the Mosel and the Saar. The barges on the Rhine on their way from Strasbourg to the Marne passed through the Zorn valley. There they had to surmount a series of 17 sluices near Saint-Louis-Arzviller stretching over 4 kilometres. The whole procedure lasted one day. Since 1969 it now takes a mere four minutes to span the difference in height of 44.55 metres. Nonetheless this is still too long for commercial transport. Nowadays it is mostly boats manned by tourists that are transported up and down in the lift trough.
The principle of lifting and lowering follows simple laws of physics. Two counterweights keep the trough – it measures 41.5 (B) x 5.5 (W) x 3.2 metres (H) – in balance. Two electric motors drive the inclined lift. This is the same principle which Archimedes discovered in a bath of water: the only way to float is to displace water. For this reason the trough at the bottom of the canal stands a little above water level, whereas at the top the trough lies a little deeper in order to enable it to move up and down with sufficient momentum. Apart from the lift in Saint-Louis-Arzviller, only those in Krasnoyarsk on the Yenisei River in Russia and in Ronquières on the Charleroi-Brussels canal in Belgium are still used to transport boats.
Today the inclined boat lift is a tourist attraction, and is mostly used by leisure boats. The “Sophie-Marie” barge brings greetings from another age when bargees travelled up and down the waterways with their freight. Now transformed into a museum, the interior of the barge where the bargee and his family lived – along with other documents – tells visitors of life and work in bygone times. Guided tours of the site, boat trips on the canal, or beside the canal on a narrow-gauge railway are all part of the range of attractions offered by the “Plan incline”. Then its just like the good old days, with the little train taking one and half hours to chug along the seven kilometre track.