Wellington Scoop

What we can learn from Wellington’s sister city – getting moving with light rail

Canberra has hectares of space to build its Light Rail depot

by Neil Douglas
Canberra, Newcastle and Sydney are going ahead with Light Rail and I decided to see the construction work first hand. My first stop was Canberra where build costs are high but where ‘Capital Metro’ is seen as ‘affordable’ and ‘transformational’ by the ACT Government. What can ‘sister’ city Wellington learn?

Canberra was blessed for Light Rail by the ‘foresight’ of Burley Griffin who, a century ago in 1912, planned a city of wide straight boulevards with tree lined median strips. These wide corridors effectively future proofed Canberra for Light Rail today. Such future-proofing separates Canberra from most other cities, including Wellington, where under-utilised corridor space is at a premium.

Canberra’s government was able to take Light Rail from ‘idea to reality’ in just five years, and by owning the buses and employing the drivers, there are few contractual issues to worry about. By contrast, Wellington has three levels of government to slow and frustrate decision making. With ten year bus contracts just put in place, it is difficult to see Light Rail operating in Wellington before 2030. By then, automated electric vehicles might well have changed the face of transportation.

Like Wellington, LRT was not a new idea for Canberra back in 2014. Trams were included in Griffin’s 1912 plan but buses were introduced instead. More recently and like Wellington, Light Rail was proposed in the early 1990s but nothing eventuated. Now in 2017, with rail enthusiast Malcolm Turnbull in charge as Australian prime minister, LRT is being extended along the Gold Coast, replacing heavy rail into Newcastle and carving up George Street in Sydney.

Over here in Wellington, LRT gets put on the agenda at election but is then forgotten.

Transport funding in Canberra helps LRT too. Funding support for public transport is not ‘hypothecated from the petrol pump’ with motorists complaining whenever a cent is spent on anything but a road. For Canberra, funding is from a big ‘pot’ with LRT accounting for 1% share of the ACT budget. It is also easier to argue that LRT is affordable when your population of well paid bureaucrats accrue the highest GDP per capita in Australia. And just like buying a house, spreading capital costs out over a twenty year concession period makes LRT look more palatable.

However a similar Private Public Partnership for Wellington is unlikely due to much higher construction risks with under-road utilities. Felling 800 gum trees down the median strip was perhaps the big Public Relations issue but the Government argued that the trees needed replacement anyway since they were drought prone and in poor condition. When the LRT is completed, drought tolerant gums will be replanted in greater number than before.

There was more opposition to Light Rail than just felling gum trees. It was political from the start. The Greens demanded LRT for ‘supporting’ a Labor-led government – which draws parallels with New Zealand right now. The Greens or NZ First could demand LRT for Wellington as part of a coalition deal with Labour or National.

Unlike Wellington there was no ‘Spine Study’ to test LRT against alternative bus options. The ‘Business Case’ for Canberra was retrospective justification to support a political decision already made.

Redevelopment of Northbourne Avenue is a key aim; LRT wasn’t just seen as public transport improvement. The Business Case therefore included ‘land use’ and ‘wider economic benefits’ alongside traditional transport benefits like travel time savings. This distances Canberra from Wellington where the ‘Spine Study’ evaluation compared transport performance of light rail versus rapid bus versus prioritised bus.

According to the ACT Audit Office, the Canberra Business Case failed to conform to Infrastructure Australia evaluation guidelines. Several of the benefits would not conform to New Zealand’s Economic Evaluation Manual either. In fact, without land use benefits and wider economic benefits, Canberra LRT was ‘uneconomic’ returning only 50 cents in the dollar. So it was the non conventional ‘land use’ and ‘wider economic benefits’ that took LRT ‘over the line’ to a benefit cost ratio of 1.2.

The lesson here is that far greater creativity would be required for Wellington to produce a similar ‘economic’ outcome given the pitifully low BCR reported in the ‘Spine Study’ of 5 cents in the dollar.

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Compromising usage is the median strip alignment which will force people to cross Canberra’s busiest dual carriage highway to get to stops spaced a kilometre apart. Long signal cycle times will lengthen wait times at intersections too.

Canberra LRT doesn’t join activity centres and places of interest together like a ‘string of pearls’. At the outset it will largely be limited to carrying commuters from the satellite centre at Gungahlin just like the bus service. By contrast, Wellington LRT could serve different types of trip from the railway station to the airport: education, sports, tourism, museum, entertainment and health as well as commuting.

Canberra LRT is expensive at $65m per km despite being straight, having no road to dig up and no utilities to divert, being free of tunnels and bridges and with plenty of space at a disused incinerator for a depot. Wellington’s costs according to the Spine Study were around $1 billion of which $400 million was for a tunnel. If Wellington’s tunnel costs were omitted, the cost per kilometre would be around $10 million a kilometre less than Canberra which is odd given the street works involved. Wellington more resembles Sydney where costs have blown out to an eye-watering $175 million a kilometre.

The $65 million per kilometre for Canberra questions the engineering standards of recent Australia LRT projects; these standards originate from the USA and have been brought to Australia by consultants. The standards are more suited to suburban heavy rail than street trams. Certainly, the substantial concrete foundations for Canberra and Sydney Light Rail defy the definition of ‘light’ rail. What’s more, the carbon emissions in building such deep concrete platforms act to offset the energy savings LRT has over bus once operational.

So in my view, Wellington, which would be nearly entirely street-running, should look to Europe to find more cost-effective LRT standards.

Although ‘economic’, Canberra LRT will still need major subsidy. In this regard, Canberra subsidises public transport far more than Wellington. Indeed a remarkably low average fare of $1 is given in the LRT Business Case.

Canberra LRT is unlikely to impose much disruption on road traffic, businesses or pedestrians since much of Northbourne Ave can be kept open during construction with intersections closed for relatively short periods. By contrast, whole street blocks would need to be closed in Wellington.

The ACT Government asserts that Canberra LRT is having a positive impact on development already. However it should be remembered that redevelopment could have happened anyway, either on the corridor or somewhere else in Canberra or next door Queanbeyan. It is the net amount of redevelopment that is important and how much of this is truly attributable to LRT; this will be difficult to quantify.

So what can Wellington learn from Canberra about LRT?

First, unwavering political support from those in charge of the money is an absolute prerequisite. Half-hearted ambition is not enough and needs to be validated by the ballot box. Light Rail for Canberra was made a hot election issue. The Liberals promised to can the Light Rail if they won but they didn’t. The electorate backed the Light Rail plan of the Greens and Labor. The ‘Business Case’ was useful to ‘support a decision’ rather than ‘make a decision’.

There are major differences however. Canberra is a ‘planned city’ with plenty of space and room for growth. Wellington would need to shoehorn Light Rail into an already crowded townscape.

Despite plentiful space, adopting North American standards has resulted in over-engineering and high construction costs. Wellington should look to Europe for cost-effective construction and operating standards.

Project benefits remain only ‘forecasts’ since Canberra LRT is only a third built. But the median strip layout doesn’t look conducive to ‘hop on – hop off’ trips and there don’t look to be any ‘pearls’ of activity that the Light Rail can ‘string’ together. Wellington LRT by comparison should have accessible stops along a route that strings together places of interest and activity ensuring higher all day ridership.

Where Canberra holds a big advantage over Wellington is unified local government with a greater ability to fund transport. The ACT Government didn’t need to go cap in hand to the federal government or seek city council resource consent. Wellington would need to get a majority of Regional Councillors onboard, decide asset ownership and get resource consent from the City Council whilst convincing central government to majority finance the capital spend.

I left Canberra via Northbourne Avenue on a Murrays Coach heading to Sydney. We made speedy progress until we reached Surry Hills in Sydney where Light Rail construction was making the evening rush hour around Central Station a total nightmare. But that’s another story.

Dr Neil Douglas is a Wellington-based transport economist


  1. Esjay, 5. October 2017, 18:20

    Neil, there are many situations to consider. First, as you say, the topography of Canberra cannot be compared to Wellington. Second, the actual route that would service residents or tourists. Third, who pays? Don’t tell me that our illustrious Wellington City Council would put its hand up! This Council has other priorities that are committed to ratepayer funds. With Wellington’s topography, I suggest that LTR is far from being an economical and viable proposition.

  2. Tim Brooker, 5. October 2017, 18:22

    thanks Neil. You make the very interesting point about how privatisations can act as a barrier to public transport service improvements, especially when new types of travel are proposed.

    In NSW there are currently ongoing public transport privatisations proposed (IE the Inner West Bus Network is one that we know about) which may have some similar effect there

    At least with the Light Rail under construction from Randwick to Sydney and the further proposals for Parramatta, privatisation is part of the new technology so it does not serve to lock in the old technology. So that is maybe an example Wellington could follow, but it is probably a bit late now i guess.

  3. Ben, 5. October 2017, 18:22

    Doesn’t sound like Light Rail is a good idea! Wonder what the BCR is for the Sydney extensions and Newcastle?

  4. Ian Bell, Australia, 5. October 2017, 20:02

    I know Dr Douglas and he gets work in Oz because he is good enough to compete in a bigger market. So I certainly would listen to him.

    Wellington needs to be really ambitious and think about city-shaping if it wants Light Rail, and I say this without having been across from my home state of NSW in 2 decades (why should I come, you keep beating our rugby teams mercilessly?). I do not understand why NZ (apparently) doesn’t take account of land use changes when computing benefit-cost ratios (I never did comprehend that in Oz either until we started getting wiser). Does Wellington need higher density because of cramped city space – my recall is that you don’t have the luxury of flat land like Canberra … and a glance at Google Maps reminded me how mountain locked you are. Also what rate are your bureaucrats discounting the future at? More than anyone could earn on investments no doubt.

    Certainly as Dr Douglas says, I would look to European examples of technology and design rather than making it more “heavy”. I would also look to Sydney’s example for under-road utility problems. Older cities tend to accumulate slackness in documenting historical infrastructure.

    Canberra was (and still is) facing sprawl. More than in the past even when Gough Whitlam tried to get ACT land expanded into NSW for future planning (he was a centrist, after all). ACT borders mean that density is suddenly thought of like never beforehand when the Federal Government funded the national capital. Indeed the legacy of ample funding from the central government is why Canberra generally had such spacious and extensive roads, though our cousins from across the ditch probably think they go round and round too much like our politics. As a result of sprawl Canberra/ACT is very car-dependent. Is that a problem over there? Will you grow through immigration and need extra space? Does that mean you have to go up rather than out?

    I admit to having much family in Canberra including several who lived in the Gungahlin area, so I was familiar with the morning crush into the city, though outside those peak hours things were easy. That’s why I was in favour of LR, though the various attempts at economic analysis (including for a bus rapid transit proposal) were fraught affairs with many inconsistencies and lack of public understanding. Gee, the project would have been cancelled if the ACT Liberals had gained power! Possibly the Gold Coast is a better example of a well handled pre-project process, so are Wellingtonians prepared to pay transport levies depending on their living proximity to any LR route? Are they prepared to embrace higher density development like the Gold Coast always has?

    Good luck, but it is worthwhile pondering the future of a city’s transport. Efficiency and effectiveness in that important area has a direct bearing on how competitive your citizens and businesses can be on the world stage even if not just in home country. Certainly as a tourist, if I can ever visit again, I would much rather a tram than paying taxi, even Uber, fares – it is so convenient to get on and off.

  5. doug watson, 5. October 2017, 20:09

    Yes all very droll but looks like a lot of navel gazing to me. What’s the alternative? More roads or more naff buses? What’s the bigger waste of resources? Do you think the roadies lose any sleep over a dodgy BCR or two?

  6. luke, 5. October 2017, 21:35

    There is plenty of space along the quays, Cambridge/Kent and Adelaide Rd. Beyond that, some onstreet parking might need to be sacrificed but Newtown to the Railway Station is the densest part anyway so get on and build that first.

  7. PS, 5. October 2017, 22:41

    Doug: In Wellington you need a road to put the light rail down. We need to get NZTA to pay for the Light Rail just like they have paid for the Auckland Busway. If not, let’s keep the trolleys.

  8. KB, 6. October 2017, 11:13

    Don’t take this as anti-mass transit.

    Laying rail for mass transit is a possibly giant waste of money in the year 2017. Already in China they have electric vehicles which look and act identical to light rail in every manner, but run on regular wheels on regular roads. (These aren’t buses, they are effectively still trains in terms of design and capacity – they use automated systems following painted strips on the road, and also for emergency collision avoidance. They also have the ability to go “off track” when needed, and new/changing routes is incredibly cheap to do as there is no need to lay rail).

  9. Gerald Lynch, 6. October 2017, 18:06

    One thing not noted or computed into any studies of LR vs BRT is that LR as a system is much more acceptable to users and is vastly more comfortable, largely as a result of the lack of interaction with other traffic which generates rapid and unpredictable stop-start. Buses are also subject to road imperfections which cause vehicle judder and passenger discomfort. It is important that any implementation of LR should not over-engineer the solution such as Canberra is doing with solid concrete track formation. There are more affordable and acceptable UK/European systems which could significantly reduce the need for and cost of utility re-location. Wellington should closely consider what standards it needs before importing perhaps irrelevant rail practice from other countries simply because consultants are familiar with what is rather than what could be.

  10. Brendan, 6. October 2017, 19:16

    An issue with new transport projects is the extent to which they generate the land use changes and/or wider economic benefits. In the corridor where the Canberra Light Rail is being constructed, it will be interesting to see if the surrounding land use will change. Yes there may be rezoning to allow for greater densities, but if the demand that drives the property market is simply not there, no end of transport investment will make it happen to deliver the benefits. How much of the urban consolidation supposedly driven by transport is actually driven by factors such as foreign investment, housing bubble etc?

  11. Ross Clark, 6. October 2017, 21:52

    What makes me skeptical of the “wider economic benefits” argument is as follows:

    * Politicians seem to like to use it to fund projects which don’t pass a conventional B/C but which they still want. The RONS are a case in point. And politicians would far rather fund the big flashy projects than the smaller effective ones.

    * If WEBS are allowed for the big projects, they should also be allowed for the smaller ones.

    * Allowing WEBS in an analysis will not by itself, do anything about the quantity of money available to land transport in the first place. So, it could leave us able to justify more projects, but not actually having the money to spend on them.

  12. Daryl Cockburn, 8. October 2017, 14:28

    Canberra is over-engineered. What’s wrong with ballast and sleepers down the medium grass strip? Why is it more than $10M/km?
    If we can’t get an affordable design for Wellington it’s not going to happen.
    We need Andy Foster & NZ First to save the trolleys from Karori to nearly everywhere until we get the trams back.

  13. Cr Calvi-Freeman, 8. October 2017, 23:16

    That ship has sailed I’m afraid, Daryl. But yes, if we are to achieve LRT in Wellington, we will need to avoid over-engineering. I think you’re right that sleepers and ballast could have been used along the length of the stage 1 Canberra route, where it runs through the vegetated road median.

  14. Ross Clark, 9. October 2017, 8:40

    Another issue is cost overruns on original budgets. Edinburgh is a case in point but there are others. The trouble, though, is that if you do budget realistically, you run the risk of the project never getting started in the first place. And no government wants to be left holding the financial baby when things go wrong.

  15. Concerned Wellingtonian, 9. October 2017, 11:56

    Ross Clark says the trouble with producing a realistic budget is that “you run the risk of the project never getting started in the first place”. Is this the reason why officers ALWAYS produce figures which are too low?
    If this happens why do mayors and councillors accept such dodgy figures and then try to evade the responsibility for accepting them?

  16. Vartguess, 10. October 2017, 19:11

    Hi Neil. Great article. Addresses many separate issues on LRT, each of which justifies a separate write up. What struck me is your ‘string of pearls’ analogy. Choosing a route which picks up existing and growing demand catchments these days seems to me a BaU proposition. To extend your analogy, there are certainly examples in NSW where the number and location of new stops or stations were chosen in the hope that they will catalyse the creation of new pearls. This challenges many aspects of transport appraisal, bringing out the ‘creativity’ in economists to which you refer.

  17. Ross Hayward, 11. October 2017, 15:36

    Excellent article Dr Douglas. To crudely summarise:
    1. LRT needs political support
    2. LRT is difficult in Wellington
    3. Oz/US approach is absurdly expensive
    4. Cost benefit analysis an afterthought – just like roads
    5. NZ political system moves slowly
    In essence if it is seen as needed by politicians it will get done eg roads of significance. Too many of us think there is a rational approach to transport but this is not the case in the real world. If money is available, it is generally spent to get votes. Pushing that button is sadly the key issue! Hopefully Neil by the time you move to the rest home…..

  18. Henry Filth, 12. October 2017, 6:13

    If trams are so great, why did Wellington get rid of them?

  19. Kerry, 12. October 2017, 10:13

    Vartguess has a point: servicing new development as well as existing demand.

    Wellington has three development areas, all served by light rail proposals and all going nowhere: Kilbirnie, Adelaide Rd and Johnsonville.

    But existing facilities matter too: Airport, Hospital and the CBD, and Miramar is growing too. Lines to other busy centres are possible: Karori and perhaps a new hub at Kaiwharawhara.

  20. Ross Clark, 12. October 2017, 10:25

    ACTION (the bus operator in Canberra) handles about 18m passengers per year for a population of 450,000 or so – about 40 trips per person per year. This is quite comparable to Christchurch (annual patronage around 14.2m pax for a catchment population of 368,000 or so).

    In Wellington, the buses handle about 17m pax per year for a catchment population of 170,000 or so (=Wellington City excl Tawa). This works out to 100 trips/person/year.

  21. Cr Calvi-Freeman, 12. October 2017, 10:26

    We’re not talking about a return of the trams, Henry. Not a network of small, slow, inaccessible streetcars that got hemmed-in by other traffic and delayed by double-parked cars and delivery vans. We’re talking about a single new “spine” route that would run on a separate alignment to existing traffic (wherever possible), providing a fast, reliable, quiet, comfortable and accessible means of transport along one of Wellington’s busiest commuter corridors. This would be cost-effective to operate as just one vehicle (and therefore one driver) would move about five times as many passengers as a bus or an old tram. When modern light rail has replaced buses in many cities around the world, it attracts commuters and casual passengers away from cars, and therefore helps to reduce traffic congestion and pollution.

  22. Ross Clark, 12. October 2017, 10:40

    Quoting Cr Calvi-Freeman:

    When modern light rail has replaced buses in many cities around the world, it attracts commuters and casual passengers away from cars, and therefore helps to reduce traffic congestion and pollution.

    Agreed, but wouldn’t the better approach be to actively control car traffic instead? Notably by controlling commuter parking. Using light rail is a long-way-round way to control congestion when there are other, more direct means.

  23. Stop Trexit, 12. October 2017, 11:05

    Henry & Chris, Wellington got ‘rid’ of trams for trolley buses in the 1960s because trolleys could manoeuvre around parked cars and delivery vans whilst providing a 100% electric, quiet, smooth, comfortable and accessible transport on a whole system of routes around Wellington. The spineless Wellington City Council has done nothing to keep our trolley buses but apparently we can look forward to Light Rail in on one corridor at a capital cost of over $1 billion. So is our Mayor Justin Lester Nero or Pontius Pilot? Nero Lester who fiddles about planning environmentally transport in ten years time whilst watching our trolley buses burn to a cinder. Pontius Lester who ‘washes his hands’ of the fate of our trolleys and lets outsider GWRC Councillors (who don’t care about the health of Wellington city residents) stab our asset to death in an act of wanton environmental vandalism.

  24. Neil Douglas, 12. October 2017, 11:26

    Ross, You are so right. Economics 101 tells us that the first best solution for reducing an economic ‘bad’ is to ‘tax it’. The second best solution is to ‘subsidise a substitute’.

    So yes, introduce road pricing or slap on car park surcharge or limit the number of car park spaces (regulation) if you believe the economic costs of car use are greater than the benefits. But that takes political guts since it will lose car user votes and maybe business support too (since car users might drive to Lower Hutt instead). Alternatively spend a billion (?) on Light Rail to attract some users out of their cars and hope that road space and car parks doesn’t refill with ‘induced demand’.

    Of course you do both and finance or part finance LRT by the money raised from the extra road user taxes. Sounds like London and its cordon charge? But is Wellington anything like London and do we have a Ken Livingstone at the WCC to bash it through?

  25. Stephen Bargwanna, 12. October 2017, 14:31

    This is an excellent article from a clearly highly competent commentator.I live in Sydney and know the current Canberra, Randwick and Newcastle light rail projects well as have worked on them all over their gestation periods as a Town Planning consultant. Further I have an investment project adjacent to the Gold Coast light rail southern extension where I will pick up the value addition well before government!
    These light rail projects will all be major drivers for urban rejuvenation and more efficient and enjoyable public transport. The main lessons I think Wellington needs to learn from these is fit for purpose,that is don’t over engineer, and get the corridor densities up and start value capturing early and continuously.

  26. Cr Calvi-Freeman, 12. October 2017, 15:24

    I’m sure it will be pointless repeating this point, Stop Trexit, but WCC did whatever it could to try to stop the removal of the trolley buses. By the time I was elected, 12 months ago, the die was cast but nonetheless Cr Free and I sought out Wellington Cable Car and NZ Bus and explored all reasonable options to prevent the trolleys being removed. Ultimately, however, GWRC has the responsibility and the mandate to fund, plan and provide public transport in the Wellington region. I know that the Wellington-Ward regional councillors are no happier to see the trolleys go than we are. The blame for the demise of the trolley buses can only be sheeted back to the GWRC members who voted for this, for whatever reason, several years ago.

  27. Stop Trexit, 12. October 2017, 20:07

    Chris (& Sarah), It’s a real pity you could not have got Justin Lester to hit GWRC for six on the trolley bus demise. After all he was Deputy Mayor when the decision was made by the ‘out of town’ GWRC councillors. Still, I applaud your efforts Chris to save Wellington city’s asset.