City of cable cars: the ups and downs of life with Wellington’s private incline lifts

The hilly capital has an inordinately high number of incline lifts and more are being built as easily accessible sites become harder to find

Some look like glass elevators plucked from a science-fiction film, others a giant fibreglass bucket, but however they come, Wellington’s personal cable cars are more than just an alternative to scaling the hilly capital’s interminable steps; they are a small slice of daily magic for the hundreds of people who use them.

“There’s something very romantic about coming home late from a party, and deciding to take the cable car up to the house,” Vogeltown resident Rose Lu says.

“It feels like I’m in one of those touristy ferris wheels: I can look out along Liardet Street, and there’s a hint of the ocean at the top of the ride.”

For a city of just 215,000 people, Wellington has an inordinately high number of personal cable cars, or incline lifts – 152 at last count. In other countries, this private mode of transport is typically reserved for luxury properties – the hills of Los Angeles, or along the seaside cliffs of Sydney – but in Wellington, cable cars snaking up suburban slopes are a common sight.

Houses line the hills in Brooklyn, Wellington
Houses line the hills in Brooklyn, Wellington. New Zealand’s capital is home to about 150 personal cable cars. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins
A lift car in Roseneath, Wellington
A lift car in Roseneath, Wellington. For some people, cable cars are the only means of accessing their homes. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins

Finding a house with a cable car wasn’t on the shortlist of must-haves when Lu and her partner were house-hunting. But the property they chose came with one, despite there being a relatively modest 80 steps up to the house.

“We were a bit perplexed as to why there was a cable car installed, because the access to the house isn’t bad for Wellington. Later, we found out that the previous owner got the cable car installed for accessibility reasons,” Lu says.

“My mum made me promise to never get rid of it because she wasn’t getting any younger, so the stairs wouldn’t be getting easier.”

For Hataitai resident Jess Hunt a cable car was an added bonus when she went looking for a rental. “It kind of goes through the trees and it’s quiet. You feel like you’re arriving at a little sanctuary because you’re ascending or descending silently,” she says.

The cable car services three houses, with drop-off stations for each. Last month, it presented her flat with a unique Halloween party opportunity.

“We were sitting in the cable car talking about the Halloween party and then we were like, we should theme the cable car and turn it into like a ghost ride.”

“And I thought, why don’t we just get Grim Reaper? I wanted it to be this descending into the underworld type thing.”

A person dressed as the Grim Reaper standing next to the funicular at Jess Hunt’s Halloween party.
A person dressed as the Grim Reaper standing next to the funicular at Jess Hunt’s Halloween party. Photograph: Jess Hunt

Hunt put an advertisement out to the student community, offering to pay someone to take on the role. The winning candidate was “perfect”, staying in character for more than two hours, and playing his own spooky music for ambience, as he ferried souls up and down the slope.

Roughly 300 personal cable cars once dotted the city’s hills, but regulation was introduced in 2005 after a Wellington family survived a 10-metre plunge when their cable car engine failed. Some cable cars were decommissioned as a result.

For a few households, it is the only means of access to their home, which can present difficulties to emergency services staff.

Pete Burtonwood, who retired from the fire service 18 months ago, was responsible for creating a database of Wellington’s residential cable cars, so that in the event of a call-out, officers knew what to expect.

“Some of them are alongside pathways going to the house, but some of them have completely taken away that normal foot access,” he says. “It’s a challenge.”

The weight-limits in cable cars are also restrictive. The maximum Burtonwood saw in his time was 350kg.

“Two average firefighters and their full kit with some basic equipment is probably around about 250 kilos. Picture 2am, there’s no light, you’re trying to get a hose down there – there is a whole scenario of things that are challenging.”

Access Automation is the company that manufactures and installs the vast majority of the country’s residential cable cars. Its owner, Mark Galvin, who has been in the business for 25 years, says cable cars have always been a feature of the city, but they were relatively rudimentary in the early days.

“Traditionally cable cars would just be a straight rail that would go up the hill, and people would modify the contour of the land to suit a straight line. We can make them bend and twist and follow the topography of the ground,” Galvin says.

The demand for cable cars has risen, he says, as they can add value to a property, but also because the easy-access sites in Wellington are becoming harder to find.

Builders work around a lift track in Roseneath, Wellington
Builders work around a lift track in Roseneath, Wellington. They are expensive to maintain and installation costs $150,000 - $200,000. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins
Lift tracks in Roseneath, Wellington
Lift tracks in Roseneath, Wellington. Cable cars have become more sophisticated, with installers able to make them follow the land’s topography. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins

The longest cable car he is aware of is 200 metres, which services a set of apartments in Oriental Bay.

“It basically transforms what was a difficult, gnarly access, to something that really is fun and quite exciting. It’s a spectacular way to arrive home,” Galvin says.

Installing one can cost about $150,000 to $200,000, depending on the terrain, and there are maintenance costs on top. Lu had no idea servicing a cable car would be so expensive.

“It costs more to maintain the cable car than a regular car, which we don’t even own, and it only travels about 20 metres. Each of the concrete foundations is $30,000 to $40,000 to replace so we were warned about keeping them tidy.”

The annual cable car warrant of fitness costs $850. “Exorbitant costs aside, I really do love the cable car,” Lu says.

“I sometimes come home and find the cable car in a different position than I had left it, and deduce that a courier has used it to take a package up to the house, and I’m glad that it brings joy and a little bit of relief to other people’s days as well.”


Eva Corlett in Wellington

The GuardianTramp

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