The story of the red rattler

How the cable car became a star attraction

Last updated 10:28 01/03/2014

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For more than a century, Kelburn's cable car has been the suburb's most popular route into town, reports Tom Hunt.

The Red Rattler was loud, dangerous and uncomfortable, and its path had been paved by convicted criminals.

Today, it is one of Wellington's leading tourist attractions.

There are more than 300 cable cars in Wellington, but the one that opened between Lambton Quay and Kelburn on February 22, 1902, was the first. It was, and remains, Wellington's only public cable car, and one of just a handful around the world.

It was the brainchild of Wellington businessman Martin Kennedy. According to the Wellington Cable Car's official history, its construction "did much to further his business and political interests".

By the late 1800s, Wellington was the fastest-growing city in New Zealand, and in 1895 a group of businessmen formed the Kelburne and Karori Tramway Company. They included John Kirkaldie, of Kirkaldie & Stains fame.

The new company also bought the Upland Farm - grazing land above the city that would soon become known as Kelburne. The final "e" was later dropped, probably to avoid confusion with the other Wellington suburb of Kilbirnie.

A cable car was seen as the ideal way to get people to what was then an outer suburb.

An Evening Post article from February, 1902 - three days after the cable car officially opened - outlined the appeal of the new suburb.

"A splendid view of the Straits, Pencarrow Head Lighthouse, Somes Island, and the harbour are obtained from the property, while nestling at the beholder's feet is the City of Wellington, with all its streets clearly outlined . . . On the hottest of days, though bathed in sunshine, Kelburne enjoys a cool breeze that makes its climate healthful and invigorating."

A section could be bought with just a [PndStlg]10 deposit ($1711 in today's money).

Construction of the cable car began in 1899. Prisoners from the Terrace Gaol were brought in to do the back-breaking work of digging tunnels - the explosives work, though, was left to those with a less-criminal bent. Bricks made in jail line the tunnels to this day.

The system was designed by James Fulton, who designed a 785-metre track that was straight, and passed over all existing roads, going through three tunnels and over three viaducts.

Crews worked almost round-the-clock to complete the cable car.

Despite that, it was finished a year behind schedule.

The official opening was on February 22, 1902. Photographs of the event show top-hatted men - including stout prime minister Richard Seddon - posing at the Kelburn terminus.

Pippa Drakeford, of the Wellington Cable Car Museum, said the early steam- powered cable car quickly earned the title "The Red Rattler". "It was really noisy, really rattly, and uncomfortable."

Passengers could hang from the railings, jump on or off as they saw fit, and kick the tunnel walls as they went past from the open-sided carriage.

To stop, the driver would pull a heavy lever brake on to a stationary cable - removing it from the moving cable. On hot days, the sun and the friction would make the cable so hot that workers had to douse it with buckets of water.

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Stopping at an actual station was a hit-and-miss affair. Emergency brakes were a wooden block wedged down into the tracks.

But the new cable car became a hit. Within a year of opening, three horse- drawn carriages were converted to trailers to cope with demand. By 1933, it was carrying about one million passengers a year - the same number is expected to be carried this year.

By 1946, Wellington City Council realised its popularity and bought the cable car from the Kelburn and Karori Tramway Company, for the first time putting it in public hands.

Remarkably, there were no notable safety mishaps for seven decades to mar the cable car's image. Then, in 1973, a construction worker on Wellington's new motorway was badly injured after stepping on to the tracks in front of the car.

There was an immediate public outcry about safety. By 1974, the Ministry of Works ordered the removal of trailers for safety reasons.

In 1978, 45 years after steam power was replaced with electricity, work began on installing a new Swiss-designed electric cable car, which started operating the next year. 

It is the system, though upgraded, that still runs today. While cruise ship passengers these days regularly queue down Lambton Quay to take the quintessentially Wellington ride, for the most parts it works as intended, for commuters.

Kelburn these days is far from farmland, and the expensive homes are far from new, but the cable car - much like 112 years ago - is for many of its residents still the best way into town.

- The Dominion Post

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