Wellington Scoop

Not just future-proofing – why light rail should be an option for Wellington

On the Gold Coast, the new Light Rail Stage 1 is proving popular amongst locals and tourists. Stage 2 is now being built to link to Brisbane Airport for the Commonwealth Games.

Frankfurt’s Light rail is so popular that a second generation system has been introduced in the last 12 months. There’s a larger version of this photo at the end of the article.

A strong case for considering light rail in Wellington has been made by four transport experts. They presented it this week to consultants for the Let’s Get Welly Moving project. Here’s what they said.

1. Live-able City – ultimately the aim of any planned change to the transport system should be to make Wellington a more live-able city. This objective embraces finance, economics, affordability, health, equity, climate change so it’s more than just transport engineering performance.

2. Overall Road/PT Strategy – Major road investments can act against initiatives to improve public transport (PT) and make achieving a balanced modal split more difficult. This is why the effects of road investments on PT operations, patronage, value for money and the timing of new PT investment are all relevant factors when planning for future-proofing light rail.

3. Time Savings – Peak period time savings for general traffic are rarely delivered by road capacity increases in already congested networks. It is also worth noting that travel times are often unaffected by reductions in road capacity. In contrast, high quality segregated PT can deliver real time savings and move more people without a high degree of negative externalities. This is a key reason to undertake future-proofing light rail.

4. Light Rail’s Role – It is not possible to future-proof in detail unless you know when, where, how and under what conditions light rail is likely to be implemented:
4.1) For example, what role is light rail to fulfill? In respect of accessing the CBD and/or facilitating fast cross-city travel.
4.2) What conditions need to be met before light rail is deployed? For example, with respect to capacity, level of service and economic appraisal.
4.3) What is the balance between light rail and ongoing bus requirements? and the implication for interchange and feeder services.
4.4) Should more than one corridor be future proofed for implementation and operational reasons?
4.5) What sort of future-proofing approach is needed to integrate adjacent activities, land-uses and developments with LRT?

5. A Serious Option? Future proofing a corridor for Light Rail is only worth doing if it is a ‘serious option’ for transport in Wellington. The Public Transport Spine Study economic evaluation has to be revisited as the light rail concept that was evaluated was flawed generating benefits of only 5 cents in the dollar (the Bus Rapid option was far from economic either).

6. Financial Performance – Demonstrate that capital costs, operational performance and fare recovery are ‘acceptable’ and that the financing of capital cost and the funding of any future operational deficit is ‘future proofed’ (as best as the future can be understood today).

7. Overseas Examples – Identify and outline five examples of ‘top performing’ LRT systems that could work in Wellington in terms of route length, capital cost of infrastructure, vehicles required and capital cost, likely revenue, operating costs and fare recovery. The findings should benchmark point 1 and 2. Also don’t forget the bad examples as lessons on ‘what not to do’ e.g. Edinburgh.

8. Definitive ‘don’t be vague’ Timeframe – for construction and operations based on best practice and systems.

9. European/UK Standards not US Standards are appropriate for Wellington for future proofing route requirements. US standards, developed as part of adhering to Federal Transit Authority funding requirements have been based on a ‘lightening’ of heavy rail costs, and are particularly prescriptive, and result in over-engineered solutions for slower speed – mixed traffic operations. The experience of NSW, where US standards have been adopted for new LRT systems, has been high costs (circa $100 million per km) and unforeseen utility implications (e.g. drainage impacts on side streets up to 100 metres away) and unnecessary tree felling. The collective effect attracted the NSW Auditor’s attention.

Shared bus and tram stops in Melbourne – this could be Lambton Quay. Photo: Matt Hurst

Melbourne provides a range of systems that Wellington should consider. This link is helpful for UK standards.

10.Consider stops in route decision. Light Rail stops (aim 40 metres) are longer than bus stops and need to be considered in terms of their site requirements as part of route selection (and also in the design of any preceding system such as BRT). Again the style of LRT is important. The ‘scale’ of the Sydney CBD stops have been criticized by the Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore: “What we are expecting is a sensitive urban project, not a heavy rail, suburban railway through the heart of a global city along George Street” (a result of the US standard adopted). The length of the trams has been criticized. “We didn’t know they were going to sign a contract for a tram that is 67 metres long,” Clover Moore SMH 14/11/2016.

An ‘easy’ stop tram/LRT stop in suburban Melbourne – shorter than 40 metres and cheap to build.

11. Terminal stations, i.e. Wellington rail station, Airport and/or Kilbirnie. Take account of alternative ‘platform’ locations and longer term ‘through running’ in their ‘future proofing’. (leasing issues e.g. New World supermarket on eastern side of Wellington Railway station).

12. Utilities – survey the utility companies and sample the roads to determine what’s under the tarmac as a guide to understanding the service diversion implications of Light Rail.

Trolley buses will be leaving Wellington in October, unless Wellingtonians find a way of “future-proofing” them

13. Trolley Bus Credibility – Wellington’s unique (in the southern hemisphere) trolley bus provides a fully electric rubber tyre system operating on several corridors. Why can’t this system be ‘future proofed’ by investing say $100 million?

14. Land Identification required for a transport corridor, depots and interchanges. Some landowners could see the opportunity to ‘rort the system’ (c.f. Newcastle NSW) by demanding excessive prices and/or holding out and refusing to sell. Land identification and early acquisition may need to be done under a sound legislative framework and with majority public buy-in.

15. Interchange Locations – besides transport especially bus/taxi/car access arrangements, consider potential for urban growth, income and possible investment from the private sector to part fund Light Rail.

16. H&E Legislation – current legislation in combination with Railways Act 2005 makes it less practical to install Light Rail without some form of legislative change.

17. Staged Migration – identify the impacts of conversion from bus lane to dedicated Busway to Light Rail corridor to minimize the disruption to services using the corridor.

18. Regional Land Use – Transportation Plan. ‘Future proofing’ major transport corridors should be part and parcel of an overall land use, resource management and funding plan. Is the necessary planning work in place for Wellington? Compare and contrast with Auckland, Christchurch and best practice overseas.

19. Include LRT as an LGWM Scenario – In conclusion, we recommend that LGWM takes the opportunity to include Light Rail as part of a multimodal solution within the LGWM scenarios rather than just consider it as a ‘future-proofing’ exercise. By doing so it will give the public their chance to express their opinions on Light Rail as part of our city’s and wider region’s future transport system.

This paper was prepared by Dr Neil Douglas of Douglas Economics, Ross Hayward, former GM Wellington Metro, Geoff Norman, former CE Mana Coachlines, and Don Wignall, Director, Transport Futures.

Trees above the trams in Frankfurt


  1. Daryl Cockburn, 28. July 2017, 12:43

    The Q is often asked what do our business folk think?
    The answer is: in 1992 we raised $40K+ in today’s dollars to publish our tram plan. Imagine that, $40K to promote PT! They were all very keen on it, except one merchant bank.

  2. David Bond, 28. July 2017, 13:12

    Please, PLEASE can we drop the restrictive qualifier “Light” in respect to rail-options for Wellington. Sure, light rail should be evaluated, but so should the option of extending the existing “heavy” rail system. This is particularly true if the benefits of full-segregation are seen as necessary. For too long the idea of spreading the immense benefits of our regional rail system further-and-wider has been dismissed as ‘pie in the sky’ with no more than cursory consideration, yet it almost certainly holds the best key to unlocking Wellington’s transport conundrum.

    In terms of sheer passenger numbers at peak times, current light rail proposals for street-running are in my view unlikely to deliver the capacity required. Currently 9,000 people arrive by train in Wellington between 7-9am, and 1/3 of them within a 15-minute period (Metlink figures). The 1963 De Leuw Cather study estimated that “More than three quarters of the railway commuters would be better-served. . .” [if able to continue further by train], and many more additional journeys currently not made by rail would be attracted.

    If rail were extended to the airport (as are current aspirations for the motorway), access to the southern and eastern suburbs would be transformed, as would connectivity for all rail-served parts of the region. Persisting with nothing more than the current stub-terminal where it is, is head-in-sand.

    New Zealanders are reputed to have a “can-do” attitude and an ability to devise innovative solutions to problems which others say can’t be done. Wellington requires this approach now, to extending its rail system.

  3. DelliBelli, 28. July 2017, 15:03

    I assume the benefits of LRT outweigh the costs?

  4. John Rankin, 28. July 2017, 16:36

    @DavidBond makes a good point about capacity. The report quotes 40 metre platforms (point 10), which at a 2.5 minute headway gives a carrying capacity of about 5600 passengers per hour. Such a system would be near capacity on the day it opens. Stops which provide for 65 metre platforms would give a capacity of over 10,000 passengers per hour at a 2.5 minute headway.

    In comparison, one 63 metre light rail vehicle carries about the same number of people as a line of cars 1.75 km long. Perhaps one of the four transport experts could expand on how shorter vehicles will deliver the required capacity @David has identified and explain why longer vehicles are a problem.

    When I was in Edmonton in 2010, they had just finished making the platforms on a new light rail line longer. They grossly under-estimated the ridership and ran out of room 6 months after the new line opened. I suspect in Wellington trying to extend 40 metre platforms to accommodate longer vehicles would be at best expensive and at worst impractical.

    There is also an economic reason for making vehicles longer to accommodate growth. The driver is the biggest operating cost item and hence the biggest barrier to expanding service. Longer vehicles let you carry more people for the same cost. Can we expect autonomous rail vehicles in the near future, which could potentially make shorter vehicles and more frequent services economic?

  5. John Rankin, 28. July 2017, 16:56

    @DelliBelli: this is an interesting question and the short answer is, it depends. The best evidence suggests that a well-designed and operated light rail system is more cost-effective than buses once the demand exceeds about 3000 passengers per hour. The higher capital cost of light rail is offset by the lower operating cost and longer asset life. Operating costs are lower because one driver moves up to 7 times as many people on light rail as on a bus, at twice the speed.

    Given current bus passenger numbers, it’s likely that in the first year, a line on the corridor from the CBD to Miramar would attract at least 5000 passengers per hour during the peak periods, half that in the off-peak. Wellington would need to do what other cities do and take steps to promote travel on the light rail service, especially during off-peak periods.

    The case for building light rail in Wellington gets better every year, as the population along the corridor grows. We already have the passenger volumes on the CBD to Miramar corridor to justify light rail today. But we need to build the right project and build it right.

  6. luke, 28. July 2017, 17:19

    along the quays, cambridge kent, adelaide rd to the hospital. just get on with it.

  7. Daran Ponter, 28. July 2017, 17:53

    I like the work that has been done here. Aligns well with a number of other think pieces being developed around light rail for Wellington. Like John Rankin, my only real concern is why we would limit ourselves to 40 metre stops. This could seriously compromise the BCR for LRT. Can the writers clarify their thinking around short stops?

  8. Neil Douglas, 29. July 2017, 9:05

    Daran, Point 1)
    Compromise the BCR? The estimate that is on your books at GWRC is 0.05! You will have to bin this study and redo it using economists with greater creativity.

    Point 2) The point regarding length of stops references the concerns of Clover Moore – Mayor of Sydney – see link below. She was a strong advocate of Light Rail but unlike the unfortunate Celia Wade Brown had a strong ally Transport Minister (now Premier) Gladys Berkejiklian in NSW State Parliament (compare and contrast with Fran Wilde – now at NZTA).
    Although supportive she wanted a Light Rail sympathetic to the urban streetscape of Sydney. The design has been criticised as too much like a suburban railway operating down a street as a result of adopting North American standards (for Federal Funding) rather than European standards – see Germany by comparison. Indeed Clover Moore was so annoyed she threatened to withhold funding. This would be serious as costs had already blown out to $175 million a kilometre because of the over-engineered solution and utility implications etc etc. So affect the BCR? Certainly yes by over engineering the system you’ll not only end up with something inappropriate for Lambton Quay but shrink the BCR (that’s if you can shrink 0.05 much).

    3) Don’t forget the trolley buses as totally sympathetic to the streetscape and terrain of Wellington and like LRT 100% electric – how did you vote on this one?

  9. Daran Ponter, 29. July 2017, 11:11

    @ Neil Douglas. I was never a supporter of the Spine Study and do not stand by any of its BCR projections. The only good thing to come of it was better definition of the spine.

    But this does not get away from the fact that the main issue confronting LRT is how to make it a viable financial proposition. By reducing LRT stop lengths you reduce LRT vehicle capacity and thereby reduce hourly carrying capacity.

    I didn’t vote on the trolley buses Neil, as I wasn’t a Councillor at the time (the trolley bus decision was taken in late 2015). I have though supported their retention, but am one of only three councillors who are supportive. We may still be able to extend their life to 30 June 2018, but unless there is some sort of central government intervention the trolley buses will be terminated either on 30 October 2017 or 30 June 2018.

  10. Neil Douglas, 29. July 2017, 22:21

    Daran, Good news regarding the trolley buses. Hope (1) Wellington’s engineering,health and economic experts can be given the opportunity to educate our uninformed GWRC councillors (especially Chris Laidlaw) that our trolleys are worth investing in. Hope (2) the upcoming election might produce a result (e.g. NZ First who have announced that they will invest in Wellington trolleys as a definite transport policy) that ‘future proofs’ funding for the trolleys.
    Then we can think about Light Rail without being distracted from the immediate threat to our environmental and unique transport system down here in the southern hemisphere.

  11. Piglet, 30. July 2017, 8:52

    I don’t like the look of the Frankfurt system. The Melbourne bus and LRT setup won’t win first prize in a civic beauty contest either!
    Hopefully by involving community architects early we can get a nice looking and efficient system. Oh and on that note we MUST keep our quirky Trolleys. They so suit Wellington.

  12. Michael, 30. July 2017, 10:52

    The Gold Coast Australia’s light rail system has been a great success. I was living there when it was first debated and, as in Wellington, there were all sorts of reasons for and against.

    Stage 1 consisted of 14 vehicles and 16 stations servicing a 13 kilometre route between the Gold Coast University Hospital and Broadbeach and took 2 years to complete. It averages over 20,000 passengers/day.

    Stage 2 will consist of 7.3 kilometres of dual track and an additional four trams to connect the Gold Coast University Hospital light rail station to the Helensvale heavy rail station, creating a one-transfer journey between the Gold Coast – Brisbane and the airport.

    It is claimed that the project generated a number of social, environmental and economic benefits for the city including; reducing greenhouse gas emission by 114,000 tonnes over the first 10 years of operation, reducing the number of private vehicle trips by up to 10 per cent, and generating new jobs.

  13. Daryl Cockburn, 30. July 2017, 11:20

    The 2nd photo seems to show trams under a flyover. Is that giving us a message?
    And yes Piglet our trolleys are not yet given heritage status by Heritage NZ but they should be especially as they are the last in the Southern Hemisphere. [That’s not a flyover in the Frankfurt photo – what you are seeing is tree trunks. The full size photo – which I have now added at the end of the article – shows high trees above the street. Not a flyover.]

  14. Kerry, 30. July 2017, 11:39

    Daran – The example light rail vehicle chosen by FIT is the Siemens Avenio, 63 m long, but stop proposals are based on 66 m, the figure used in Auckland. The Avenio is available in lengths up to 72 m but that seems to be too long for Wellington. One FIT route proposal uses Stout St, where the block between Whitmore and Ballance Sts is only 51 m long. No need for a formal stop but it may happen anyway: a car crash for example.
    Two main drivers of longer trams are capital and operating costs:
    — Capital cost because the costly bits of a modern tram are the control system and cabs, and doubling the length halves the cost of these components.
    — And operating cost because driver’s wages are an important part off the total: a $5 million vehicle carrying 420 passengers justifies a good driver.

  15. Tim Brooker, 31. July 2017, 12:28

    Hi Neil: Regarding the sooty buses problem in Wellington with diesel buses replacing the former trolley bus system – I remember about 10-15 years ago complaining repeatedly to the City of Sydney Council traffic engineers about the toxic diesel buses in Sydney and (not purely because of me) the Council did manage to negotiate some agreement with State Transit about the government buses that no diesel buses more than five years old would be allowed on routes travelling into the CBD. They still end up polluting the suburbs instead, but i guess the daily bus movements and pedestrian intensity are much lower than in the central CBD so the problem is less noticeable.

    Good luck with your campaign to clean up the Wellington buses.

  16. Tony Jansen, 31. July 2017, 16:19

    Just came back a few weeks ago from running the Gold Coast marathon. I can tell you the LR there is fantastic. But unfortunately it seems to me that there are too many pro NZTA / pro roads politicians spoiling any chance for Wellington to have a clean green and efficient regional transport system.
    What has happened to Fran Wilde? Another leftie who in their later years has lurched sharply to the hard right? Her compatriot from the 1980’s Labour Government, Chris Laidlaw, seems little better disposed to anything that is not core National party transport policy. Between the two of them they are destroying any chance of a future-proofed and sustainable regional transport system.

  17. Neil Douglas, 31. July 2017, 18:55

    Tony: Glad you liked the Gold Coast Light Rail. I’ve been involved in Stage 2.

    A catalyst for the Gold Coast Light Rail (at least stage 2 which is currently being built) is the Commonwealth Games (Stage 2 will link to Brisbane Airport via Heavy Rail at Helensvale).

    After the defeat of Tony ‘Mad Monk’ Abbot (a very keen road cyclist by the way) whose doctrine was that Federal money should go to roads and never to urban rail projects (must have been a gleaned from a conversation with John ‘RONS’ Key), Malcolm Turnbull took over. Turnbull is ultra keen on rail and one of his first gestures was to help fund Gold Coast 2.

    So yes, it’s the top people who matter. You asked about the whereabouts of Fran Wilde. Apparently shes been spotted sitting in the deputy chair on the Board at NZTA. I’ll let you ponder on the necessary qualifications for such a directorship and whether the position was ‘competitively tendered’ according to PTOM.

    Roads (sic) Scholar Chris Laidlaw may be paying the price for too many years behind the scrum. Compare and contrast with his eco-friendly performances on the Sunday Morning show not too many years ago.

  18. Ross Clark, 31. July 2017, 22:41

    What sort of growth in system demand could we reasonable expect? In the interests of promoting some discussion:

    * From LRT to Courtenay Place – 50 percent growth in the rail-to-bus market as it now stands, so an extra 700,000 rail pax per year IMHO

    * From an extension through the CBD to the airport, per with tram-train – maybe a doubling in the current market? (currently 250,000 pax per year, I think).

    On that basis, we may be looking at an additional 1m end-to-end journeys per year, with or without a change in mode at Wellington station. Thots?

  19. Kerry, 1. August 2017, 21:50

    Ross: Interesting question. I am assuming that if light rail opened tomorrow it would vary two thirds of existing bus traffic, or 4000 pass/hr plus any growth before the real opening day. Rapid development during the construction period is likely, perhaps especially if funding is partially from land value capture. After opening, 20% annual growth is common enough, but for how long? It might be until either the trams are full or light rail has saturated the market.

    I tend to keep away from measuring in passengers a day or a year, because I know Wellington patronage is peaky, but another likely effect is more all-day demand. We could do with studies, but who and how accurate?

  20. Sparky, 11. August 2017, 13:06

    I wish this government would provide some leadership. Electric transport is the future, whether it is light rail, cars, trolley buses or heavy rail. They should be encouraging solar on houses, stop using fossil fuels, which require overseas funds. So that the grid can be used for heavy use, transport and night time. No brainer in my option.