The Wellington Cable Car is a funicular railway in Wellington, New Zealand, between Lambton Quay, the main shopping street, and Kelburn, a suburb in the hills overlooking the central city, rising 120 m (394 ft) over a length of 612 m (2,008 ft). The one way trip takes approximately five minutes. The Wellington Cable Car is widely recognised as a symbol of Wellington.
The Cable Car is used by slightly under a million people each year. In the mornings and evenings, it is used by commuters travelling between Kelburn and the city; at other times of the day, it is used by people travelling between the city and the Wellington Botanic Garden, by students attending Victoria University and living in nearby student hostels, and by many tourists, especially during summer.
The original line
At the end of the 19th century, Wellington was expanding rapidly, and, due to the city’s hilly terrain, good building land was at a premium. When new residential developments were proposed for Kelburn, it was suggested that a cable car or funicular could be built to provide easy access. In 1898, a number of people prominent in the development of the residential subdivisions founded the Kelburne & Karori Tramway Company. The plan was to build a tramway between the city and Kelburn, and link it by carriage to Karori, a settlement on the far side of Kelburn.
The designer of the system was James Fulton, a Dunedin-born engineer. Fulton was responsible for both selecting the route and deciding the method of operation, a hybrid between a cable car and a funicular. Like a cable car, the line had a continuous loop haulage cable that the cars gripped using a cable car gripper, but it also had a funicular-style balance cable permanently attached to both cars over an undriven pulley at the top of the line. The descending car gripped the haulage cable and was pulled downhill, in turn pulling the ascending car (which remained ungripped) uphill by the balance cable. There was a Fell type centre rail, used for emergency braking only. The line was double track, of 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge.
Construction began in 1899, involving three teams working around the clock. The line opened to the public on 22 February 1902. Demand was high, with thousands of people travelling each day. In 1903, a number of old horse-drawn Wellington trams were converted into cable car trailers, increasing capacity. By 1912, the annual number of passengers had reached one million. In 1933, the steam-powered winding gear was replaced by an electric motor, improving control and reducing operating costs.
Despite public protests led by Mayor of Wellington Michael Fowler, the line closed on 22 September 1978 for re-gauging and installation of new steel cars and equipment by Habegger AG of Switzerland, becoming a full funicular. The contract was managed by Wellington engineering firm Cory-Wright and Salmon. The line re-opened on 22 October 1979.
Cracks were discovered in the tunnel below Talavera station during the 1999 Annual survey. These were fixed with metal anchoring and by coating the tunnel with reinforced concrete.
In July 2006 renovation of Lambton station began, to improve its looks and accessibility. The works were budgeted at $1.3 million, scheduled to be completed in early November. On 18 December the renovated station came into use, with automated turnstiles (and a substantial price rise). Lingering problems with the ticketing system upgrade were fixed during the October 2007 annual survey. A new computer was also added to the winding mechanism during the survey which has caused a few temporary issues with how smoothly the cars run.
During June to August 2016, the Cable Car closed temporarily and underwent a major equipment upgrade to replace the electric drive and control system. Since the 1979 upgrade, each car has completed more than one million trips. The Cable Car also took the opportunity to cosmetically upgrade the existing cars and make changes to the staff facilities.
Whilst the Cable Car was out of action, the Wellington City Council also carried out construction work in the Cable Car Lane and Lambton Quay Terminal. This included: 1. replacing the old leaky canopy with an elegant new glass one that will let the sunshine in (Phase 1) 2. building a new ticket booth and moving the entry gates to make queuing and buying tickets easier (Phase 1) 3. new paving, signs and colour scheme for the heritage-listed Stonehams building (Phase 2 – final phase of work on the lane in 2017)