Almost every generation of Tasmanians has heard tell from some schemer who is certain of conquering kunyani with some kind of cabled conveyance. This is the low-down on each dream team and its scheme.
1893 HACKETT’S AERIAL TRAMWAY
The first cable car proponent was a Heath Robinson-like crackpot named William John Hackett. Hackett was a veterinarian well known for attempting election to the Hobart City Council by promoting ambitious civil construction proposals. He proffered Works to correct the city's sanitation by means of tunnels, pumps, flooding or electrolysed sea water. He sketched up an automatically sprung public street seat. He could, he said, end cattle yard disease outbreaks. He demonstrated on Parliament Lawns a hydraulically-driven rail carriage he claimed could take passengers seated inside a tube between Hobart and Launceston in two and a quarter hours. None of his schemes were adopted, he was never elected and instead his self-title “Professor Hackett” later became the butt of jokes like how he had invented an electric policeman, a flying machine to convey people to residences in the country and a supersonic cable car.
in 1899 Hackett claimed as his own invention “an aerial navigation machine that travelled on wires suspended from post to post like telegraph wires”. (Dozens already existed). Four years later, the Examiner newspaper reported that during a Hobart Town Hall meeting convened to devise means to provide work for Hobart’s unemployed men, Hackett spruiked a plan for an aerial tramway that would “whisk one from the pinnacle of Mount Wellington to the Dunn-street Pier in thirty seconds, timed by a Waterbury.” Fourteen kilometres in 30 seconds? Is that a misprint or had Hackett boldly crossed the line beyond visionary into absurdity? Hackett’s audience immediately scoffed. Before he had even finished propounding his dream-scheme, one and then many proceeded to make their opinion clear, but their “repeated urgings for him to tread the plank [leave the stage] fell upon deaf ears.”
No details of Hackett’s aerial tramway have survived, but his idea has never died. Every proposal that has followed copies his: it links a cableway to a cruise ship passenger terminal and offers a speedy trip to the top of the mountain for the rich but time-poor. Succeeding proponents, too, are all akin, frequently possessing Hackett-like characteristics.
1905–1906 WERTHEIMER’S Aerial Railway
Hackett’s sea to summit employment scheme was greatly expanded upon by one Arnold Wertheimer. Wertheimer was the head of the state’s tourism authority.
His iteration replaced ‘tramway’ with ‘railway’. It was to work on the double wire rope principle with each carriage, surrounded by decorative ironwork, suspended about 12 feet above the ground. The route from The Springs to the Summit being two miles, carriages carrying ten passengers would arrive ten minutes later.
In his Prospectus Wertheimer suggested that because Hobart was experiencing a great increase in shipboard tourist traffic and "the panoramic view obtainable from its summit is universally admitted to be unsurpassed in any part of the world" therefore :— some mechanised transport to the summit would have patronage and uniqueness. Success was assured notwithstanding the fact that the conveyance would “have to deal with an established [road] passenger traffic” because “the difficulties of reaching the summit [on foot] are too well known to need special comment. Not only is the road rough, but the time required to accomplish the journey debars many thousands of passengers."
A company was formed, prominent businessmen—offered a 9% investment return—bought shares. The fact that no land need be acquired reduced the cost to £7,000.
Keen to support the idea, the state government passed an Act leasing the land requested and granting the right to build upon it. The Hobart City Council allowed it and after the Cascades Brewery approved of an extension to bring the railway to its back doorstop the State Government amended the Act accordingly. The route was surveyed. Ticket prices, estimated income and expenditure were publicised and the scheme survived a Committee of Enquiry. A display model of the scheme was built, but not a single bore was ever sunk before Mr Wertheimer, of Bellerive, himself up and died.
A year later, the Treasurer (Nicholls) who introduced the enabling legislation was castigated in parliament as “the man mid-wife of unborn companies”. (Laughter.) “We have all heard of castles in the air but this is the first we have been told of a railway in the air.” (More laughter.) The company seemed to have begun where it would have ended, in nubibus—in the clouds.” (Laughter.)
1928–1931 CHANDLER’S Aerial cable tramway
The next iteration was developed by a local consortium headed by one James Chandler. Like Wertheimer, Chandler’s "aerial cable tramway" would travel The Springs to Summit route and attract those who "through either lack of time or inability to adjust their arrangements are unable to make the trip on foot". Chandler added a new market segment: the "many more persons of mature years [who] would enjoy a trip to the top of the mountain in safety and greater comfort".
Ten aerial trams would trundle past five stations to the summit in nine minutes. It topped the previous scheme’s offer of sunrises by adding an observation space, “a tea kiosk”, and for devotees of winter sports the attraction of a ski-run on the back slopes of the mountain. Photographs and a scale drawing completed the picture.
Though it had an employment benefit, a Great Depression then gripped the nation and the scheme never had a single rivet popped. Eventually, Chandler popped off his perch instead.
1989-1994 BURBURY’S aerial mini-bus
The idea resurfaced during the 1960s (twice), 1970s (twice) and in 1988 reinvented itself as a chair lift, but the next serious contender was a respected Hobart engineer, one Tim Burbury.
Burbury posed an “aerial mini-bus" version that would whisk 100 passengers skyward via an aerial cableway—strung between pylons “as familiar as HEC transmission towers”—in two gondolas whose blue cabins looked like they flew out of a Jetson's cartoon.
Better known (from in its first iteration) as "Skyway”, Burbury’s scheme, like its predecessors, was founded upon cruise ship passengers and took ten minutes to reach the summit from the Cascade Brewery base station. Burbury, likewise, offered a (beginner) ski field at the back of the mountain. To photography and a cross-sectional illustration he added moving pictures in a promotional video that included pioneering special effects. (Thanks to the ABC, you can still watch Skyway’s promotional video.) His final cost estimate was $35 million.
Burbury was backed by a Swiss manufacturer and obtained (Liberal) government changes to the Wellington Park Act that granted his project State Significance. No land need be purchased as the Act reserved the land for him.
Previous schemes had their scoffers, but Burbury was the first to face organised opposition. Cable cars—like canal estates and nuclear reactors—were no longer welcomed with pleading arms. ROCC, the Residents Opposed to the Cable Car formed in South Hobart, led by one Ted Cutlan. The Tasmanian Conservation Trust “totally opposed” Skyway as “a gimmick” and a “crass Gold Coast style development”. It scoffed at the route, warned of the environmental impacts of ski runs, forecast that a cable car was “highly unlikely to lead to any significant additional visitation to Hobart”, concluded that its financial figures were “ludicrously optimistic” and doubted its viability entirely “unless the road was closed”. The Greens treated the bid with contempt, publishing a centrefold in their magazine The Daily Planet that pitched the scheme as a kind of kitsch cargo cult.
After an angry town hall meeting, after the KEENS CURRY stunt when the historic stones of the hillside sign were rearranged to read "No Cable Car", after the Rubbishgate Affair, the “concern” expressed by Cascade, and then the bizarre folly* of a retired chartered accountant named Arnold Wertheimer claiming that he was the rightful developer: the damage was done. Skyway was a laughing stock. Opinion fell dead against it. The Labor Party, at first supportive, then rejected the idea.
Repulsed, for a further seven years Burbury tweaked his plan again and yet again. The hotel accommodation was dropped, a revolving restaurant was substituted, the route was changed; but none of his tinkering increased his favour. The local Council and the Labor government turned against him. The Wellington Park Management Plan was altered to outlaw cable cars to the summit.
As Burbury lay on his deathbed without a single skystep cemented, he bequeathed his ideas and his imprimatur to his acolyte, one Adrian Bold.
NOTE: The latter Arnold Wertheimer was the grandson and namesake of the 1905 proponent Arnold Wertheimer. He had “dug out” copies of the two Acts governing his grandfather’s scheme and discovered that neither Act contained a sunset clause—or any time limit on the proposed development. Should not he, the heir, assignee and fit and proper person, not have the right to build the cable car? No, he did not. Burbury was saved by the Statute Laws Revision Act 1935, which had repealed both previous acts.
2010-2018 BOLD’S cable car
Adrian Bold is a Tasmanian property developer with a flair for animation. Like Hackett he had offered himself for election to the Hobart City Council unsuccessfully.
Bold envisaged a cableway, but perhaps to be different, he called it instead a “cable car”. His proposal was nevertheless lockstep with the plans of his predecessors. He would start at the Cascade Brewery and take Burbury’s assault route over the Organ Pipes. He copied Burbury’s two-pylon drop-span, but added a gondola ride to a mid-park station. Two “skyboxes” would whisk 80 passengers apiece to the summit (or back) in about nine minutes. At the top Bold wanted an extravagant Pinnacle Centre with bars, a coffee kiosk and a restaurant. Demonstrating the enduring power of the central idea, despite all the mounting meteorological evidence, Bold also offered what all the others had promised: skiing—recast as snow-boarding.
To Wertheimer’s sunrises Bold added auroras, a “niches” interpretation centre and a gloomy “sanctum”. To Chandler’s “safety and greater comfort” Bold offered whisky, a wedding walk and wi-fi, as well as reduced carbon emissions. Like Professor Hackett, Bold’s iteration was billed as an employment generator. Like Wertheimer, Chandler and Burbury, Bold’s main customers would be cruise-ship passengers. With regard to the Pinnacle Road, Bold again echoed his predecessors, bemoaning the difficulty of reaching the summit. To their scale models, photography, illustration and video with special effects, Bold added infographics, VR and social media.
The build cost was to be $50 million, but the benefits skyrocketed from Burbury’s $15 million to $100 million per annum. His $50M project was backed by the Arnold Wertheimer of today: the chairman of Tourism Tasmania, James Cretan. An Austrian manufacturer offered to build the scheme and the (Liberal) state government re-wrote the Burbury and Wertheimer schemes legislation as the kunanyi/Mt Wellington Cable Car Facilitation Act. Likewise, a syndicate of local investors formed. What could possibly go wrong this time?
Alas, after a humiliating rebuff from Cascade Brewery, Bold was forced to abandon his Masterplan without an inch of cableway stretched above anything.
2018–? OLDFIELD’s skytram
Within months of the failure of the Masterplan the MWCC appointed a new CEO, one Chris Oldfield and launched a second iteration as the Full Proposal, It hailed itself with a fumbling mass of cliches thus: "After three attempts, the Mount Wellington Cableway Company is proud to have unraveled the prohibitive red tape one by one to bring the dream to the cusp of reality."
The new scheme’s alignment was straightened and its base station put closer to the mountain, reducing the journey to a record seven minutes—at top speed. The gondolas and the mid-park station were lost, but the Pinnacle Station tripled in area.
Three weeks later, the Full Proposal unraveled itself with a bit of errant pink tape. Unlike Wertheimer, the MWCC then lost its authority from the state government to survey the route. Unlike for Chandler, the Hobart City Council then refused consent for any cableway to be built upon any of its land ever. Stymied like Burbury, Oldfield dreamed that a fresh Hobart City Council election would return an enthusiastic Council. The next election produced a more hostile clutch of aldermen.
Oldfield’s skytrams—derided as “sardine cans”—now hang by a thread. The base station is marooned, surrounded by slipping rocks, bushfires and a swarm of detractors on social media. The investors’ money is spent. Where now?
whAT COMES next?
Is this the end of the cableway?
The completion of the Pinnacle Road to the top of the mountain in 1934 eliminated the monopoly and practical merit of any funicular/cable/cog competitor, but the power to attract those who combine a fancy for train sets with a desire to exploit mass tourism for private profit remains potent. Despite its history of abject failure to get lift-off, like hope, wishful thinking and greed springs eternal.
Cable car proponents have shown themselves socially responsive and technically adaptable—indeed the technical difficulties have decreased, but as the scheme has been extrapolated and crystallised, its drawbacks and impacts, too, have been made crystal clear. The instrumentalist ideology driving the whole century-long shebang was laid bare by Dr (now Associate Professor) Kate Crowley in an article published in the International Journal of Justice and Sustainability in 1997. Crowley’s analysis has proved prophetic. The mentality of development expressed in the exploitation of Tasmania’s natural capital is unaltered.
If history is any guide, future iterations of a cable car are guaranteed. So too is their fate.
When the schemes are compared (below) their essential similarities are striking.
Click arrows to change slides
The current subjugator, the MWCC, states on their website that “The [cable car] debate has raged since the 90s”—implying 1990. Wrong. Its been on since the 1890s. MWCC also disparages its predecessors, categorising them all as "rather poorly formulated proposals for an aerial cableway". We agree with MWCC on this, adding only that as they propose the same thing, their assessment applies as well to their own variant.