Media Sensationalism and Gondolas – The Case of Melbourne’s Skyloop Cable Car

Post by Gondola Project

AMMI Station is the Melbourne Skyloop cable car’s eastern terminus. With a 3,000 space parking garage, it is designed for commuters to park-and-ride. Image by Caulfield Krivanek Architecture.

In recent gondola news, reports coming from Down Under suggested that a local architect had proposed a US$525 million (AUD$700 million) cable car project for Melbourne’s downtown.

This astronomical number naturally grabbed our attention since half billion dollar transport projects are often associated with major underground subway lines and bridges rather than lightweight ropeway systems. After all, the world’s longest 3S cable car and one of the most expensive ever built — the 7.9km Hon Thom gondola system — was implemented for an estimated US$225 million.

From what we can gather online at the time, the Melbourne system would be designed with standard MDG technology — at a modest length of 2.5km, 4 stations and 1 custom tower. In other words, this would be a fairly standard urban cable car project which should never cost anywhere close to half a billion dollars. Our gut instinct was that someone out there, whether intentionally or not, must have misreported the project.

So to try to get to the bottom of this we decided to contact Robert Caulfield, the proponent behind the proposal.

The Melbourne Skyloop proposal would connect four major nodes throughout the sports precinct and CBD. Image by Caulfield Krivanek Architecture.

Less than ten minutes into our conservation, Mr. Caulfield confirmed our suspicions. The estimated cost of the gondola’s electromechanical parts was just USD$48mm (AUD$65mm).

Again, the aerial cable car component is estimated to cost just USD$48mm (AUD$65mm) — not USD$525mm (AUD$700mm).

Instead, total development costs of the project which includes a parking garage, the Richmond Precinct redevelopment (mixed-use apartments and retail), and the gondola system (electromechanical and civil costs) would be close to USD$525mm (AUD$700mm). This means the cable car represents just ~10% of the entire project costs.

Unfortunately, the misreporting of gondola proposals is not new. From our experiences, most journalists are highly professional and provide clear, objective facts. However, once in a while, some reports are (slightly) exaggerated and/or fail to provide enough details to properly inform readers.

We’re not asking all journalists to understand the nuances of ropeway systems and land development, but they should at the minimum, avoid misconstruing important facts that can potentially impact a project’s attractiveness in the eyes of the public.

As an example of misreporting, refer to the illustration above. Based on this image that was shown as part of 9news’ coverage of the Skyloop, one might think that the proposal had only 3 stations. Of course, this is not true as the system actually has 4 stations. Image from 9news.

Without a detailed feasibility study at this time, it is impossible to assess the proposal with a high degree of accuracy. As the project stands however, we understand that the 4-station gondola has been conceptualized as a “hybrid system” where the aerial lift is designed to attract both tourist and commuters.

It is also worth noting that three of its four stations appear to be entirely built above rail tracks and/or existing infrastructure. While this may increase project complexity, constructing ropeway stations above railways are technically feasible given the proper designs and precautions.

San Javier Metrocable station in Medellin, Colombia is built above a heavy rail system. Image by SajoR.

Passengers coming from the downtown core will likely travel to the gondola by transferring from Flinders St Station, Australia’s busiest railway terminal (27 million annual passengers) and make their journey eastbound. From there, riders will soar to heights of up to 100m and travel through stations located at Melbourne Cricket Grounds, Richmond Station, and AAMI Park.

Flinders St station. Image by Caulfield Krivanek Architecture.

The Melbourne Cricket Ground station built atop of existing rail tracks. Image by Caulfield Krivanek Architecture.

The cable car has been designed for a few primary reasons:

  1. To better connect the CBD and the nearby Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Precinct. The precinct is huge area (300+ acres) that is home to three “parks” and more than 10 stadiums/venues. Major events such as the AFL Grand Final (Australian rules football), Australian Open (tennis) and Boxing Day Test (cricket) are held at these stadiums each year.
  2. To provide commuters with a “park and ride” option where travellers can park their vehicle at the AAMI Park station and ride the gondola into downtown. In turn, this hopes to reduce the number of cars that enter the downtown area.
  3. To create a world-class attraction that grabs domestic and international headlines.

The Richmond gondola station would be built as part of a mixed-used apartment and retail complex. Image by Caulfield Krivanek Architecture.

A soaring 100m tower designed as a sportsman could act as a focal point for the cable car. Image by Caulfield Krivanek Architecture.

From a financial perspective, the proposal should present the government with an interesting proposition. A quick perusal of some numbers found online suggest that the system has the potential to attract a high number of users.

The Melbourne and Olympic Trust Fund (which manages only four stadiums/venues at the sports precinct) has an annual ticketed patronage of nearly 2.5 million while the Melbourne Crick Grounds (world’s largest cricket stadium with a capacity of 100,000) had a yearly attendance of more than 3 million.

In addition to just sports and entertainment venues, the cable car stations would be within walking distance to some Melbourne’s most popular attractions such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, National Gallery of Victoria, and Eureka Skydeck 88 (observation deck).

As the City and the region has no comparable aerial lifts of this kind, the Skyloop could become a distinct attraction for Melbourne’s 22+ million annual visitors. The closest ropeway attraction that we can think of at this time is probably the Arthurs Seat Eagle gondola. But even this system may not be much of a competitor as it is located about an hours drive south of Melbourne and provides a completely different passenger experience.

For a comparison of “observation style attractions”, the 300m tall Eureka Skydeck charges roughly USD$15 per adult ticket (AUD$20) and receives more than half a million annual visitors. Judging from visitation numbers to other aerial ropeways in Australia (e.g. the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway attracted 10 million riders in 20 years), a scenic urban cable car could be an immensely popular destination for tourists.

As part of the project’s next steps, the proposal will go through Victoria’s Market-Led Proposal process where an estimated USD$3.7mm (AUD$5mm) is needed for full feasibility analysis. It however, may take some time for the government to properly assess the proposal as the State is now preparing itself for an upcoming election this November.

Hopefully decision-makers will take their time to conduct an objective assessment of the proposal and not have their evaluations influenced by sensationalist online media.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.

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