Wellington Scoop

Anti-rail tactics for the election

Painting by Wallace Trickett, owned by the Light Rail Transit Assn. Click here for large version.

by Brent Efford
In the final days before Saturday’s general election, the National Party has reverted to its old anti-rail tactics.

It has invented over-the-top cost estimates for Wellington light rail – while happily promoting billion-dollar highways as election bribes.

The National Party’s Wellington Central candidate even invented her own reason to pooh-pooh light rail. On the panel in a recent Back Benches TV show, she claimed that it would be prone to earthquake damage!

A trip to Christchurch would show her that the reverse is abundantly true: the heavy steel tram tracks (founded on two layers of heavily-reinforced concrete yet still only costing about $5,000/metre) were pretty much the least damaged infrastructure in the CBD, and the rapid restoration (and later extension) of heritage tram services – the main tourist icon of Christchurch while the Cathedral lies ruined – soon after the red zone was lifted did a lot to restore economic activity and boost morale in the central city.

In Napier after the 1931 quake, when the rubble from collapsed buildings was cleared away, the stranded trams were towed back to the depot over intact tram tracks, and they remained in the depot until disposed of in 1936. The tracks were much more lightly constructed than the Christchurch track, too. It was other factors that prevented the restart of Napier trams. And since the Kaikoura quake, it’s been evident how easily sleeper track can be repaired, compared with main road surfaces.

Then there’s San Francisco, where the damaged and despised Embarcadero Freeway was demolished after the 1989 earthquake – and the F Line heritage tramway to Fishermans Wharf was built in its place!

Incidentally, I commissioned and own the much-used Wallace Trickett painting depicting modern trams in Lambton Quay (above). Note the destinations – the Airport and Queensgate, Lower Hutt. A companion painting, less often used, shows the same tram speeding through Ngauranga on the way to the Hutt Valley.

This reflects the ‘long term’ regional tram-train proposal in the 1999 Regional Land Transport Strategy (and confirmed in a 2000 study by SKM consultants for the Lower Hutt City Council). It was proposed for implementation between 2004 and 2019. That ‘long term’ is nearly up – what happened?

Brent Efford is the NZ Agent for the Light Rail Transit Association.


  1. Neil Douglas, 20. September 2017, 10:58

    I think the high costs of LRT of $100 million a km may have originated from recent Australian experience: Sydney CBD, Canberra, Gold Coast.

    Over the Tasman, they have gone for US standards which are a lightening of suburban rail rather than German standards which are a strengthening of tram costs.

    Lesson for Wellington: seek out German design and efficiency and avoid gold and platinum plated tracks from Trumpton USA. Or as Brent alludes to, get some South Island Christchurch can-do know how.

  2. Ross Clark, 20. September 2017, 23:43

    Neil – Nottingham Phase Two came in at a cost of about £60m/mile, or about $NZ60m/km on the current exchange rate.

    That said, a pessimistic attitude towards what any new scheme would cost is not unjustified. The problem is not building on currently empty space; the problem is building on roads and having to shift the utilities. In Edinburgh, this part of the process took twice as long as expected, as a result cost twice as much as budgeted, and threw the whole project out as a result. There was far more to shift under the tarmac than they had realised.

    In Edinburgh’s case, the cost of the mile and a half from Haymarket to York Place was extortionate; I have recently seen £300m quoted. If so, this was about what it cost to build the remaining 6.5 miles, which is properly grade-separated on what was previously ’empty’ land. The scheme’s project management was badly flawed, but this is something for another posting.

  3. Neil Douglas, 21. September 2017, 8:19

    Thanks Ross, Across the Tasman, Sydney’s 12 kilometres of CBD LRT which runs down George Street and is now being constructed was originally budgeted at $1.6billion in the PwC Business Case. The costs then increased to $2.1billion. That’s $A175million a kilometre.

    The cost blowout attracted the attention of the NSW Audit Office which commented in its cost audit that “some of this increase was due to scope changes and planning modifications, but the majority – $517million – was due to mispricing and omissions in the business case”.