Anyone who has spent time in Wellington will know that it’s a hilly place – painfully hilly at times. So it was a great relief to citizens back in 1902 when a funicular cable car was built from Lambton Quay, the main street of central Wellington, to Kelburn, a central suburb a considerable climb vertically above.
At 612 metres, by world standards it’s not a long cable car ride, but it does give an easy and very scenic way to get up and enjoy the expansive views over Wellington Harbour and the city below. The cable line disappears into several tunnels, each emerging into a little microcosm of pretty backyards and tiny villas tucked into the hillsides. It is also well used by students studying at the Kelburn campus of Victoria University, at the top of the climb.
Wellington’s cable car has been an iconic part of the local culture for a long time now. Commuters ride it down to the central city in the morning, clutching briefcases and newspapers as they drop into the hubbub of Lambton Quay. The return cars carry students, weary from late night studying and partying. During the day tourists ride the cable car to gain access to the upper level; then commuters ride it back up the hill in the evening.
The Cable Car Museum is an easy walk from the terminus at the top, as is the Carter Observatory. Wellington’s Botanic Gardens are also nearby and from there several walking tracks offer an alternative way to get back down to Lambton Quay and the central city. Kelburn Village is a 5 minute walk from the top and there are shuttle connections from the Cable Car Museum to the Zealandia wildlife refuge in Karori.
The Cable Car line is unusual in that it combines elements of a traditional cable car system with that of a funicular railway. Each upward-travelling car is balanced by a downward travelling one and the line splits into two lanes at Talavera Station, a the halfway point, so the cars can pass. There is also a diesel propulsion unit at the top of the hill.
If you’re travelling by Wellington Airport car rental there is a convenient parking building off Boulcott Street, which is just a few minute’s walk from the lower terminus in Lambton Quay. Almost a million people a year travel on the cable car, so at peak times there may be a short wait to get on. The entry is up a small lane just off Lambton Quay.