Wellington Scoop

Welcome and sensible: the Greens’ plan for light rail


by Brent Efford
The Green proposal for light rail in Wellington is a welcome development, and the first time that a sensible plan for light rail has appeared for some years (the idiotic Public Transport Spine Study of 2013 definitely doesn’t count!). So here is a bit of analysis from one who has been involved in the issue for some decades.


The Green Party’s political opponents, particularly rail-haters like the National Party, will attempt to portray the plan as wacky, ill-considered and too expensive (a bit rich for the Nats – promoting a carbon and congestion-fostering motorway-building plan costing over $10 bn as their transport solution!). In fact the concept of regional light rail has roots going back to 1878, is based on intensive and professional studies in the 1990s, including the 1999 Regional Land Transport Strategy, and represents the default public transport infrastructure development for regions of Wellington’s size around the world.

The Green Party has championed light rail for Wellington since the party was founded in 1990, and I featured ‘regional light rail’ as a main policy plank when I stood, almost-successfully, for the Wellington City Council on behalf of the Party in 2001.

Where greater Wellington public transport is really the odd one out, and is very much substandard as far as the norm for modern metro areas is concerned, is having rail transit serving the region but no city rail link – i.e. a rail line through the CBD. Achieving ‘rail penetration of the CBD’ as the regional council termed it, was the point of the multiple light rail studies of the 1990s.

Having a rail network stopping in a stub terminal at the edge of the CBD is recognised as such a handicap in Auckland that the $3 bn City Rail Link underground line now a-building is the solution – and even the notoriously rail-phobic Government has come to the party regarding funding because the case is so strong. It would be unconscionable if Wellington, a third Auckland’s size but with an even stronger geographical justification for a city rail link, was to be denied a city rail link costing less than a third as much.

Elements of the proposal

Although various schemes for a through-CBD rail service have existed since 1878, and a scheme for an underground railway to be built before the urban Motorway was almost realised in the 1960s, the main bits of the Green proposal come from light rail studies conducted in the 1990s.

In 1992, lobby group Transport 2000 (now Trams-Action) proposed Superlink, a light rail route to the Airport but also incorporating the Johnsonville Line (which the Railways Corporation had considered putting trams on in the 1980s). In 1993 the regional council announced a seemingly-imminent plan for Johnsonville plus Golden Mile light rail, and in 1995 consultants delivered a Light Rail Feasibility Study which included converting all the railway network to light rail and extending to Courtenay Place. In 1999 the Regional Land Transport Strategy included a ‘long term’ proposal for light rail not only on the current rail network but also to central Lower Hutt, as shown on the Green plan. Other suggested light rail destinations included Whitby and Stokes Valley.

So there is not much that is truly novel in the Green plan. But there are some aspects that could do with further comment:

Mt Albert Tunnel: the Green plan is a bit vague about how to get past the hill between Newtown and Kilbirnie. Using the original 1915 tram route via Constable St and Crawford Rd for modern light rail vehicles – probably around 42m long – is simply not on for a number of technical and operational reasons.

The 1992 Superlink plan proposed a tunnel under Mt Albert, running for 800 metres between the Zoo bus terminus area and Coutts St in Kilbirnie. Incorporating pedestrian and cycle access, provision for drainage and other utilities and valuable for tsunami evacuation, this would be a true multipurpose facility. It would be the first new route between central Wellington and the Eastern Suburbs since 1931, and the first to provide an exclusive path for public transport since 1907!

Island Bay: the drawing suggests a line to Island Bay. I believe this would be very much a lower-order priority. The area does not contain any regionally-significant focal points and, unless there is a massive increase in residential density, electric buses or, in 30 years, driverless 4 – 6 seater taxis will be the passenger transport mode of choice. Besides, the cycleway fiasco shows the political peril of interfering with the local petrolheads’ car space, which a tram line would almost certainly do.

Lower Hutt: light rail must promise eventual benefits to the whole region, not just southern Wellington City, to be politically accepted. Achieving this would include the proposed link through central Lower Hutt, the second-largest CBD.

The optimum route runs from Western Hutt station via Bridge St (so called because it led to one of the first bridges over the Hutt River in the 19th century), a light rail + cycle + pedestrian bridge to High St and then to Hutt Hospital via Queensgate and thence to Epuni Station and back to Wellington via the existing railway line. The existing short Western Hutt to Melling section of railway would probably be superfluous and better converted to a cycleway, making Western Hutt a good public transport hub for local cyclists.

Tram-train: all the 1990s studies assumed that ‘light rail’ involved integrating street-compatible rail vehicles – i.e. trams – with our existing suburban heavy rail network (which actually has technical features which could be identified as ‘light rail’ anyway.) Tram-train is a mode of operation becoming increasingly common in Europe and Japan – and 100 years ago very common in the US (though in those days they were called ‘interurbans’).

Dr David Watson, then the regional council manager in charge of transport planning, including most of those 1990s studies, put it this way:

We always came to the same conclusion. Light rail as a stand alone service ( Station to airport ) was not a winner. We needed to extend to Johnsonville or even the Hutt. We looked at operating standard units and light rail on the same tracks and then allowing the light rail to extend into the City. We saw no problem with this. (Email 6/3/2015)

The Green proposal is compatible with this vision, as long as track gauge and other essential standards are uniform. When the Matangis wear out, they can be replaced by tram-trains which could be used all over the regional rail network through the Golden Mile and ending up at the Airport or even Miramar. And they would be automatic, too.

Automation: that’s right! Driverless train operation is increasingly common on urban rail systems around the world, and even some mainline freight operations. Driverless operation greatly increases speed, safety and capacity – the main reason for its use. Logically, it should evolve at least as fast as autonomous electric road vehicles which are technically a much more difficult proposition – but which we are told will be around within 10 years.

Any rail system which is in the proposal or planning stage, such as the Greens’ plan, would be ripe for automation by the time it is actually built. That doesn’t mean unattended, though – onboard staff will be desirable for passenger safety and security and fare enforcement. They could even sell tickets – an idea which is not as novel as you might think!

Brent Efford has been involved in light rail advocacy since the 1980s. He was a Winston Churchill Fellow studying light rail in the USA in 2003 and currently represents the UK-based Light Rail Transit Association which has been making the case for modern trams since 1937.


  1. KB, 28. August 2017, 22:42

    Spot the curious mention of autonomous vehicles in “30 years”. The reality is autonomous vehicles will transform public transport very much sooner than 30 years (try 5 years) and an obvious side effect is that this threatens to turn any light rail proposal extending into the suburbs into a costly white elephant.

  2. City Lad, 30. August 2017, 22:51

    KB needs a reality check. Autonomous vehicles would be a logistic nightmare. Imagine a light rail carriage filled to capacity compared with having an autonomous car required for every passenger. Traffic jambs ahoy!

  3. luke, 1. September 2017, 2:32

    i dont know how people think driverless cars will help congestion, if anything they will worsen it as we will now have empty cars driving about. plus a car still takes up the same amount of road space if its got 5 people in it (very rare) vs 1 person.

    likewise electric vs petrol no change to spatial demands.