Cable car may be the ticket for city

Cars and cable cars vie for their own space on a San Francisco street, this one reminiscent of High St, Dunedin. Photo by Lois Galer
Cars and cable cars vie for their own space on a San Francisco street, this one reminiscent of High St, Dunedin. Photo by Lois Galer
Ideas for the return of cable cars to Dunedin prompted Lois Galer, of Ophir, to reflect on the success of the San Francisco cable cars, to reminisce on their Dunedin counterparts and to wonder what the future could bring. 

We were well advised: "Go early in the morning if you don't want to queue for more than an hour to get on".

When our ship docked at San Francisco at 8am, top of our list of things to do and see was to ride on the San Francisco cable cars.

By 8.30am, we had made it to the terminus.

There, at the foot of one of that city's steepest streets, our little car awaited, with just two empty seats left on the outside.

If listening to the "rope" singing under the floorboards was not nostalgic enough, then the jolt as the gripper grasped the rope, released the brake and proceeded up the incline, soon had me back in the 1950s on my way home from secondary school on the High St, Dunedin, car.

Then came the clanging of the bell as we crossed an intersection and a further jolt as we ground to a stop to let passengers on and off.

I could have sat there all day, but a short distance up the hill was the Cable Car Museum, situated in the original building still used for winding the ropes, not just for this route, but several others in the city.

This we had to see.

It housed not only early cable cars from the 1870s, when the system began operating, but displays of early equipment and interpretive panels on how the system worked.

There were illustrated stories and news clippings about the earthquake of 1906, showing the building's collapsed smoke stack and damage to the equipment.

There was its reinstatement and later attempts by local authorities to do away with the system altogether, for more modern methods of transport.

The latter, of course, immediately took me back to 1957 and the arguments for and against retaining its Dunedin counterpart.

But with one subtle difference: the citizens of San Francisco won a reprieve for their system.

Those in Dunedin lost.

Watching the crowds of visitors spending up large on cable car memorabilia at the museum shop, then stepping outside to join a formidable, fast lengthening queue for the next car to take us further up the incline, I was suddenly aware of just how much Dunedin did lose.

But it could still be Dunedin's gain if enough enthusiasm is generated for reinstating at least one cable-car route.

Considering the Dunedin cable-car system was originally designed to specifications already patented in San Francisco, a revisit to the 136-year-old Californian system just could be the ticket.

Of the routes recently suggested, the Mornington route is the most logical, as it remains unchanged.

Even its terminus stands complete with its original carshed, albeit now used for a different purpose.

For if anything from the past is reinstated, its historic integrity needs to take priority.

By comparison, the Stuart St route is totally changed, with the later Stuart St Extension replacing the original cable car track.

Stuart St has also since become a main arterial route to suburbs beyond Roslyn and Kaikorai.

As I recall, one of the reasons for the demise of the cable car was the increase in private vehicles and the danger to those alighting from cable cars in the middle of busy roads.

High St is busy, too, but any disruption to traffic movement would surely be less than any in Stuart St.

But perhaps a more important reason to consider Mornington is that the Exchange area is in greater need of visitor attractions than the Octagon, with its municipal buildings, information centre, art gallery, cathedral and cafe scene.

Visitors do like to walk around a city and the Exchange area is a perfect link with the Chinese garden, the proposed harbour development, the Settlers Museum and the railway station.

It is also where the majority of hotel guests are accommodated.

Private building owners have invested heavily in the Exchange over recent years and an additional incentive to further enhance this former dead area of the city would, I'm sure, be welcomed.

As for the experience of the cable-car journey, the views over the city, harbour and peninsula are superb from both High St and Stuart St, but where the Mornington terminus borders the town belt, a stunning opportunity exists for a lookout with unimpeded views over the city.

Combined with a cafe, the "view from the top" would be worth the cable-car ride alone, as it certainly was from the top of the San Francisco route.

But alas, on this occasion, we had to make our own way down again.

All the little cars were full.

And the queue for the next? A good 100m long!


Cable car or something simular is truly the ticket.

Dunedin needs to make it self known as the Heritage Capital of NZ. It does boast the best and most beautiful buildings in NZ and it needs a section of operational heritage to reflect it's transport.
Maybe a cable car might be an expensive option, but there are alternatives out there. Reinstall the tram from St Kilda to George st... Extend or relocate Ocean Beach Railway ...
Many many many possibilities. Some more research is needed on what will be the viable option. It could be any of the above.
Ocean Beach Railway may be a small group, but they have a good infrastructure with a diverse collection of railway equipment - some restored and operational - meaning that some restoration cost would be lower. They have also been around for about 50 years so they do know what they are doing. The DCC many years ago wanted to relocate the railway to a more central location...
These are only ideas, and I would love to hear yours.

RE: Moving road-blocks on High St

I really don't see how one type of heritage can end up destroying another. It's all designed to co-exist, and that’s the problem with Dunedin - while its saved a lot of it's heritage buildings, there’s nothing like this to complement it.

What sort of heritage are you referring to that you seek to preserve?
The cable cars offer those people such a view. But they are also an emission free, regular form of transport up the hill. I’m sure an extra 2 minutes won’t be a bother to most people.

I'ts there for tourists and travelers, and such attractions would play their part in enticing more, (look at how many cruise ships now come in here now for a start, so new attractions need to be added). It's also there for locals.

Numbers have increased to make it viable, or attractions like the Taieri gorge Railway would not be viable either, and that isn’t mooted as a regular form of A-to-B transport as cable cars are.

As I say, with parking chaos and costs, it would be a much easier way to get to and from town.

Though there were less then, traffic never seemed to have a problem when cable cars were in a number of Dunedin streets. Just as they don't today in Christchurch as they trundle about. The streets there are no wider  - certainly Armagh St and Rolleston Ave, which the route traverses,  are no wider than High St.

And no one has referred to them as 'moving road blocks'.

Moving road-blocks on High St

I don't accept that because some cable-cars/trams operate profitably this one would as well. There are various factors that help Wellington, Christchurch and San Francisco, which Dunedin's High St doesn't have. These are discussed in the report but the biggest issue, it seems to me, is that we don't have enough tourists to run a profitable cable car system.

Traffic chaos - few drivers will tolerate coming to a dead stop several times going up and down High St. The DCC should be concerned about the effects of traffic diverting up McClaggan St. and Stafford St.

High St has a history of cable cars, and also a history of cars, trucks and buses. The heritage that you seek to recreate would destroy the heritage that I seek to preserve.

They work OK and pay elsewhere

I can appreciate your concern at the idea of something else being added to the ‘DCC debt mountain’, but this one would (pardon the pun) pull it's own weight.

While yes, it would be aimed at tourists attraction (which would do it’s bit in making money and brining people to that end of the CBD) it would also be there for locals.

Buses are hard to figure out here, for a non local, way behind the times. So this would be the answer there, and it wouldn’t run at a loss.

Given (as someone else mentioned) that parking is becoming such a hassle and cost, this becomes an obvious answer. Wellington's cable car, is used by people not wanting to bother with all the traffic chaos, at the same time it starts from the central part of town, offering a quick and easy ride to a vista for visitors. It must be running at a profit.

The San Francisco ones are iconic and well patronised, just as the Welly one is. All cities that offer a good vista, as Dunedin does, should have a quick and easy to use cable car or similar. Scenic cities usually have one, or often a funicular or rack railway.

Two examples I've been on are the one in Penang, Malaysia, which has been there since 1923, another is in Bonn, Germany. Departing from the hub of the city, within a short while you can be enjoying breathtaking views.

Traffic chaos is a possibility. I guess the San Fran ones operate on wider streets, but maybe in rush hour most traffic to Mornington can go up McClaggan St.

The Christchurch trams, which paid for themselves a few years after they re-opened in early 1995, operate on similar width streets in the CBD there but don't seem to present a problem, and they are not travelling very fast.

In reply re: Cable Car

Thank you for your good luck wishes.

• It will make it difficult for the Council to claim any credit before October 2010 (the next local elections) as the High Street will be looking the same then as it does now. As you will appreciate, things like Cable Cars do take a wee bit of time to come to fruition...

• Ratepayer money – As I have said before, if the ratepayers want any monies to be put towards the Cable Car then it is up to the ratepayers to show this in the annual / long-term submissions. I am sure the numbers either for or against will determine otherwise (unlike the stadium issue).

• Why do you insist that the DCC ‘will need to provide most of the capital’? If the Cable Car is to be a success then we need to come up with innovative ideas rather than the ‘tried, tested and failed’ methods that seem to be the norm!

• As you say, The Mein report says that more thoroughly testing its commercial feasibility "is expected to show that the project is not commercially viable without Council input.". Note the words ‘Is expected’. Again, using a standard feasibility report that bases its assumption on buses one can ‘expect’ that. It is up to the Dunedin Cable Car Trust to come up with the unexpected.

• I did indeed counter your argument for Peak hours. 4 Cable Cars would be on the circuit during Peak hours. As there will be a five minute gap between each car, there will only be 2 cars going up High Street. One would be at the top of High Street as the other one starts at the bottom. How many times do you overtake a bus going up High Street in one trip – and if you do so, do you do it as it is stationary or about to stop? Overtaking a Cable Car will be no different. Who says there will be a ‘no overtaking ‘rule?

• We are all ratepayers – Trustees and members – and know full well that there is no money in the kitty. Perhaps our innovative scheme would actually provide some funds to the DCC coffers in the form of consent fees, rates for premises, etc, as well as local employment – in terms of construction and operations.

Thank you once again for your good wishes. I shall not be replying further to your comments as there is a small matter of a Cable Car project to look at...

As before, I suggest it is best not to assume everything in the Consultants report is gospel.
I suggest you wait until council considers our reports of the next stage of the investigation before commenting on technical, operational or any aspects of the proposed reintroduction of the Cable Car to the High Street. 

High St Noddy Train Facts

Philc, you say I made a lot of errors in discussing the proposed High St cable car:

@ It is not a DCC project - I never said it was. Like Mein Consulting (Link to report is below) I presume that there can be no cable car without DCC finance. It is reasonable for the DCCT to expect some donations from charitable organisations etc, but nowhere near the total needed to complete the project. Because the DCC will need to provide most of the capital, I expect that councilors will make it a DCC project so that they can take the credit and claim any desparately-needed political benefit. You say that you haven't asked the DCC for money, but that's different to pledging that you are never going to ask for, or accept ratepayer money.
Also, only the DCC and the ORC are capable of  funding never-ending yearly losses. It seems that the DCC finds it easier to disguise ongoing losses if they own the business. This is another reason why they would want to own the cable cars.

@ Why will it be a nightmare for ratepayers? - Because the DCC will need to provide initial capital (as I said before), and pay the ongoing losses. The Mein report says that more thoroughly testing its commercial feasibility "is expected to show that the project is not commercially viable without Council input.". Apart from the Mein Report, I agree with xr8 (below); High St cable cars will not draw commuters away from cars and buses. For tourists, I am told that the Wellington and Christchurch systems are viable, but those cities have many times more tourists than Dunedin. In short, there would be too few customers to pay the operating costs.

@ No passing rule - you have your calculations wrong. - I said drivers could be forced to stop more than 5 times when going up High St if they manage to overtake a cable car. I accept what you say about off-peak hours and the downhill cars, but you haven't countered my argument for peak hours going uphill. Anyway High St has limited passing opportunities and with long queues behind each cable car, almost no traffic will be able to overtake. Cars, trucks and buses will all take 5½ minutes each way, and have to stop 4 or 5 times over the 1¼ km distance. Seems like traffic kaos to me.

If the "innovative approach" of the Trust includes not adding to the DCC Debt Mountain, and not interfering with people trying to use the roads, then I wish you luck.

Cable car

Parking in town is expensive. It will probably get worse because of the council's need to pay for the stadium. I can imagine people from Mornington walking, and those from Green Island, Mosgiel etc parking and walking if they can park free or cheaply then taking the cable car into town.

People who want some exercise like a fairly flat walk. High Street is a hard walk for most people, especially after a day's work.

Affordable parking in town is scarce and expensive. Most people then still have a long walk to their destination. I think the cable car will prove popular if fares are not too dear.

In answer...

I suggest you wait until council considers our reports of the next stage of the investigation before commenting on technical, operational or any aspects of the proposed reintroduction of the Cable Car to the High Street.
I respect your opinion.

Commuters? Nah.

So the official driver behind this proposal is one of local commuter traffic? "But the High Street Cable Car's main purpose is to run for the residents and commuters of Dunedin, not the fluctuating tourist market. Yes, tourists will of course be welcome to use it, but the needs of the people of Dunedin will and must come first."

Let's look at the needs of the people, or rather, the needs of the people living in Mornington (pop 3000) as they are the only people likely to benefit from this new commuter service.

The tram ride will be 5 and a half minutes to commute from one end of High Street to the other end. I'd say that is 3 minutes slower than a car.

How will the people living in Mornington get to the cable car terminus ? They will drive. As Dunedin people do. Dunedin people do not walk. We never have, and we never will. Not by choice.

Dunedin is too small for people to start abandoning cars. No one who lives on Argyle Street is going to walk all the way across to Eglington Road. Not in Dunedin's fickle weather.

So they park their cars outside the doctor's surgery for the day and hop on the tram.What do they do when they get to the bottom ? They walk again, take a bus or a cab, to their place of business, shops or school.

As a rule, people will only change forms of transport once during a journey. And if they start a journey in a car, it's nearly impossible to get them out of it.

If this venture can't live off tourist earnings then it can't live at all. 3% of the city's population can't be expected to prop it up.

Cable car - brilliant

Its a fantastic idea and I hope you succeed in this worthwhile endeavour.

Get the facts right, please...

Thank you for your considered views on the Cable Car. There are a lot of errors in your summation of the High Street Cable Car project.

• It is a DCC project – you are WRONG on this front. It is a Dunedin Cable Car Trust project and we have asked for the council to allow us to look at the possibility of the reintroduction of the Cable Car to High Street – not for anything financial. So, forget your ‘$24.6 million’ figure – if that is indeed the figure for building a cable car - being added to the DCC debt mountain.

• “Your vision of the High Street Cable Car will be a nightmare for ratepayers and road users” (your words) – Why will it be a nightmare for ratepayers? We are not asking the Council for any financial support. All the Trustees are normal DCC ratepayers and residents – like the majority of ‘normal’ supporters who are members – and it was made clear to the members from day one that we would not be asking for financial support (ratepayer’s monies) from the Council.

We want to be innovative in our approach. The Mein Report addresses issues from a ‘standard’ preliminary investigation report. We agree with parts of the report but not parts where, for obvious reasons, no detail was entered into. There are not too many references around relating to Cable Car projects.

If the people of Dunedin want ratepayers monies to be used for the Cable Car they will make their feelings known in the Annual and Long-Term Plan Submissions – note, there is no funding for any Cable Car project in the 2009-2019 long term plan.

• How do you know it will make a loss every year if it proceeds? What are the facts you are basing it on (apart from the report, which bases it on a normal bus route application). As I mentioned before, we need to be innovative to create an opportunity for this project to work – not rely on the ‘tried, tested and failed’ models that seem to be all the rage.

The majority of councilors voted to allow us “That the committee invite the High Street group to take the project investigation to a higher level and to report back the results thereof." That is what we are doing, in our own time , and at no cost to the ratepayers.

• Do not attach any criticisms you may have of this council to the Cable Car project. They are without foundation.

• Passing rule – again, you have taken something from the report and assumed it will be DCC practice. And you have your calculations wrong, once more. You comment that ‘drivers could be forced to stop more than 5 times going up High St. Seems crazy to me, but to the DCC, perfectly sensible.’ If the cable car was to run at 10 minute intervals (non-peak) – as the original cable car operation - you will have 3 cable cars on a circuit. It will take 5½ minutes for a cable car to go from one end to the other (with a 10 minute ‘rest’ at each end). Therefore, you will only have one car going up and one going down during off-peak and, during peak time (5 minute intervals) 4 cable cars on a circuit.

If you are ‘unfortunate’ to be stuck behind a cable car going downhill and overtake it you will not overtake another one – unless you break the speed limit for the High Street. Hardly the ‘chaos’ you describe.

Again, don’t assume everything in the Consultants report is gospel.
I suggest you wait until council considers our reports of the next stage of the investigation before commenting on technical, operational or any aspects of the proposed reintroduction of the Cable Car to the High Street.

Cable Car Chaos

Your vision of the High St cable car will be a nightmare for ratepayers and road users. Depending on the Trust's fund-raising, close to $24·6 million will be added to the DCC Debt Mountain to build this project (from Mein Consulting report- DCCT response »LINK to DCC pdf«).

As well as the initial capital, the High St cable car will generate a loss every year if it proceeds. This is what the Mein Report concludes:

"The High Street proposal presents a more compelling case, but it is also contains some major risks and uncertainties, especially in relation to its operating cost and revenue projections. It is therefore unlikely to succeed as a commercial proposition without significant Council support, including financial input. The Dunedin Cable Car Trust has sought the Council’s support to enable it to take the High Street proposal to the next stage and more thoroughly test its market and commercial feasibility. Based on the analysis in this report, that further testing is expected to show that the project is not commercially viable without Council input.".

The DCC seems to have a fatal attraction to projects described as "not commercially viable", and so it was in this case - all except one DCC councillor voted to proceed with this.

Chaos on High St: As well as traffic disruption at each end of the route, the average traffic speed would be reduced to 25 km/h (Mein Report page 24). There will be a no passing rule, but not as I incorrectly described above; the passing ban will only apply when each cable car stops at each stopping point , so that all traffic will be forced to a complete halt (5 stops up, 4 stops down).

Drivers lucky-enough to overtake a cable car are likely to quickly catch up with another one further up the street, and so drivers could be forced to stop more than 5 times going up High St. Seems crazy to me, but to the DCC, perfectly sensible.

Congestion of this magnitude such as along the Caversham motorway is worth spending millions of dollars to relieve, but here we have all except one DCC councillor who thinks it's a good idea to spend millions of dollars to create traffic congestion.

Recently one sometimes sensible councillor even suggested that cable cars along George St would be desirable to further discourage CBD traffic.

Some people regret the passing of the horse and cart, the old cable cars and the trolley buses. There were however good reasons for each of these changes and we should be grateful for the benefits they have brought.

We should also remember history, but not be forced to live in someone elses nostalgic fantasy-land. I would like to see the Dunedin Cable Car Trust project succeed, but not on our streets, and not with ratepayers money.

Look at Christchurch

They re-introduced their trams in 1995, within a few years that had paid for themselves, running on sheer profit.

While trams are not cable cars, this proves a point. This includes unique attractions like a tram than is a restaurant, driving around while a 3 course meal is enjoyed. Now that’s forward thinking.

While cables couldn’t do that (the diner), the concept is similar to Christchurch as trams would have been a faded memory there.

Dunedin is geographically the same as San Fran, so why not create another meaningful tourist attraction. All that visit would use it It would do better than the Wellington one.

The cars used would surely be proper replicas of the old ones, rather than any theme park ones. In fact original ones do exist, so could be restored. In fact, one is being worked on at the moment, up near Wingatui.

Re: Agree

In one’s closed mind that breathes mostly large glass and steel stadiums, you might fail to realise that public transport, heritage or otherwise touted as is not important, even backward.

You perhaps haven't been to places like England where they respect what brought them to where they are, heritage rail lines and trams add to the aesthetics (I realise aesthetics isn't appreciable by some people, but austerity is) as well as provide a means of transport.

You seem to have failed to notice that it works in San Francisco, as this article outlines, and they also have a tramway, which is used by regular commuters.

I've been there, but maybe since your limits are rugby and stadiums, it might be a little too much to digest, or better to call it 'backward.'

If you don't like a heritage city that maintains a sense of character and place, (but could do better) that is full of travelers that come to see it for that, then there's plenty of glass and steel elsewhere where they've pulled all or most of it down in your so called (in other posts) 'march of progress'.

The gold coast might appeal, it has four huge stadiums, all of which have been officially recorded last year as losing millions of taxpayers dollars each year.

In response to 'Noddy'....

Jimmy, Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. As always with your comments, your message was crystal-clear; ‘You are entitled to your opinion, as long as it's mine.’ Usually it is best to comment on things when something is known about them. All you have done here is use the DCC report and the original ODT reports before and after the council meeting on Nov 24th and used them in answer to Lois Galer’s very nice piece about cable cars.
Yes, the idea has support from some of the DCC Councillors and from some members of the general public. The rest of what you suggest, however, is your opinion. Not having heard anything about the proposal of the Dunedin Cable Car Trust who are behind the reintroduction of the Cable Car to the High Street, you have put two and two together and are thrashing around for a calculator to see how much it equals.
At no point in the discussions with Council has there been any mention of enforcing a no-passing rule for vehicles stuck behind each cable car. Because this is the way the San Francisco Cable Car operates does not make it the same here. And anyway, with Cable Cars running at ten-minute (even five-minute) intervals will it really make a difference to the motorist?
Do you overtake a bus when travelling up and down High Street anyway? If it is that much of a problem you could always use Stafford Street or Maclaggan / Serpentine Avenue. As you say, tourists know what is ‘fake and what is not’ (as do local people!). As Lois Galer says in her article, ‘…if anything from the past is (to be) reinstated, its historic integrity needs to take priority.’ But the High Street Cable Cars main purpose is to run for the residents and commuters of Dunedin, not the fluctuating tourist market. Yes, tourists will of course be welcome to use it, but the needs of the people of Dunedin will and must come first.
It is up to the Dunedin Cable Car Trust (who have been working on this project for the past two years ‘gratis’ and in their own time) to show whether the idea is financially viable or not to the council. By adopting old methods it will probably be non-viable. But the Dunedin Cable Car Trust is trying to be innovative in its approach and will hopefully prove it to be viable. I suggest you wait until you hear more from the Dunedin Cable Car Trust before drawing your own conclusions. You may end up being right with your verdict. But to those of us who have a ‘vision’ for Dunedin, we are quite happy to investigate all possibilities to bring some pride to the city we live in.


More backward thinking. What next? Opening up the Ocean Beach Railway?

High St Noddy Train

Cable cars crawling around Dunedin is a daft idea. Dunedin has its own authentic charm which would be diminished by tacky theme-park type Noddy Trains. Cable cars are an established part of San Francisco, but here they are a faded memory. They have been gone too long to be able to convince tourists that they are an authentic part of Dunedin's way of life. Tourists know what is fake and what is not.
The idea has support from DCC councillors and some from the general public. This is probably because they haven't read the DCC report (to EDC 24-11-09) which shows that the idea is not financially viable (will make a loss) and would require the DCC to provide the capital (more debt). Also not widely known is that for the High St proposal, the DCC intends enforcing a no passing rule for vehicles stuck behind each cable car, with passing only permitted at each stopping point. More Car-hatred, it seems.
After a long history of bad decisions, the DCC's November decision is a desperate attempt to find something (anything) that will impress the voters before this year's election; but don't be fooled, this is a very silly idea.

A no brainer indeed

I need say little more that what is written above, something we should have done years ago.  Apart from the heritage attraction, it's emission free and practical.