Wellington Scoop

After the election: time to keep the trolley buses, and start planning for light rail

by Lindsay Shelton
The Regional Council has stubbornly ignored public support for the city’s trolley buses. But today it should be expected to start an urgent reconsideration of its unpopular policies, given that two of the partners in the new coalition government are on record as saying the trolley buses should be retained.

NZ First’s transport spokesperson Denis O’Rourke wrote in June:

…we would retain the Wellington electric trolley bus service and would renew its electricity supply…

There was more, which will be of interest to the slow-moving Let’s Get Welly Moving system:

… we want to see … the Wellington and Christchurch Airports served with light rail.

The Greens, too, say the trolley buses should be kept, and they also support light rail for Wellington. James Shaw announced the policy in August:

• Build an electric light rail line, running separate from traffic, from the railway station to Newtown by 2025, and to Kilbirnie and the airport by 2027.
• Fast-track a wholly electric bus fleet for Wellington, including retaining the existing trolley buses and infrastructure, by 2030.

“Light rail will transform Wellington, by making the city quieter and more people-friendly and allowing thousands of people to travel quickly to work, back home again, and beyond …Light rail will mean around 60 fewer buses on Lambton Quay during peak hour, which means less noise, fewer diesel fumes, and more space for people to walk and cycle.”

Brent Efford wrote that their proposal was the first sensible plan for light rail that had appeared for some years. And he reminded us that the Green Party has championed light rail for Wellington since it was founded in 1990.

NZ First’s light rail policies emerged two years ago, when Denis O’Rourke wrote:

Much more needs to be done by the government to provide viable alternatives to the car. An additional 12,000 cars from the Transmission Gully motorway and other road improvements will cause even more congestion in central Wellington, which cannot be avoided with hopelessly unsustainable projects such as the Basin Reserve Flyover….It is time [the government] abandoned its 1960’s style transport plans and looked at what has worked overseas. It needs to take a long, hard look at the benefits light rail would bring on routes with high user potential.

Wellington has the best passenger rail services in New Zealand, but now needs a complementary light rail system for high demand routes, to provide a fast convenient, high capacity public transport alternative, which road hungry cars and buses cannot match. A line from the Interislander ferry terminal to the Wellington CBD, and an airport line from the CBD would be a good start.

Denis O’Rourke is no longer a Member of Parliament. However his policies are the party’s policies. So let’s expect that they’ll be part of their coalition deal.

Before the election, transport economist Neil Douglas described how the policies could be put into effect:

NZ First could make trolley bus retention and upgrade of the power supply a condition of supporting a National or Labour Government, with detailed project planning via a tender to the private sector for light rail to Wellington Airport starting immediately. This would be the Canberra solution whereby we could get light rail in five years, and paid for by Central Government.

And even earlier, the Architectural Centre’s Christine McCarthy supported the light rail plans:

“New Zealand First’s endorsement of light rail demonstrates the commonsense which has been lacking in the Transport Committee which is throwing out electric trolley buses in preference for diesel-powered public transport. A light rail network from Wellington railway station to the airport is especially important.

“Imagine visitors’ impression of Wellington as they travel a light rail route around our beautiful coast and into the city. Light rail would support the Conference Centre, reduce road congestion and enable planned intensification of the eastern and southern suburbs, especially along Adelaide Road, supporting the council’s Adelaide Road framework. It would also demonstrate to tourists and other overseas visitors on their arrival that Wellington is a world-class city.”

Next move: who’ll be named as the new Minister of Transport.

Gordon Campbell: NZF has won four ministerial positions inside Cabinet, and one ministerial role outside it; the Greens have three ministerial posts and an undersecretary position outside Cabinet.


  1. Patrick Reynolds, 20. October 2017, 10:12

    So great that the huge distortion that is the absurd ‘Roads of National Significance’ is now dead. [via twitter]

  2. Victor Davie, 20. October 2017, 11:42

    Yesterday evening I noticed contractors commencing the removal of trolley overhead wiring on the corner of Cambridge Tce and Wakefield St. Although this section of the infrastructure is an emergency route, it is the start of destruction of the network. It is now time for the many different organisations supporting the retention of the trolleys to unite without delay and lobby the new Government.

  3. Dr Sea, 20. October 2017, 12:08

    There’s literally no one in Parliament better suited than JulieAnne Genter for Transport. [via twitter]

  4. Curtis Nixon, 20. October 2017, 14:23

    Please someone who can afford a lawyer file a High Court injunction to stop the destruction of the trolley bus wires and win some breathing space until the new government can fix this and save the trollies.

  5. Brent Efford, 20. October 2017, 14:59

    Yes, we have reason to hope. A first priority must be changing the ABR (anything but rail) mentality which is rife within NZTA and the MOT and putting rail infrastructure funding on a similar basis to road, and giving it a substantial proportion of total transport infrastructure funding (50% would be fair, at least until the system catches up with modern expectations). Linkage to climate change adaptation and mitigation responsibilities is necessary, too, given that road transport is responsible for such a large part of our disproportionately high GHG output.

  6. Mary M, 20. October 2017, 15:20

    Nixon’s got an interesting statement on access to legal/justice … but this is only for those who can afford it.

  7. greenwelly, 20. October 2017, 15:20

    @Curtis, Ministerial Warrants will be issues by the end of next week. The network is not forecast to shut down until October 31st, so the window is small, but it would not be impossible for the owner of the Network (WCC) to have the contract suspended, (Justin Lester was seen meeting with the Greens earlier this week)esp if the Greens get hold of transport, either as minister or as an undersecretary….
    (It would look really bad for the trolley network destruction to start in the first month of a Lab/Green Govt).

  8. Curtis Nixon, 20. October 2017, 16:00

    I just sent this email to the new government. Anyone who cares please copy and repeat and pass it on:

    “Please take urgent action to STOP the removal of Wellington’s trolley bus overhead wires. This misguided action by the Wellington Regional Council is happening now and cannot be easily undone. The emission-free trolley buses are part of Wellington’s unique heritage and need to be saved. Show that you are serious about reforming New Zealand’s toxic anti-public transport legacy of the previous regime and move on this keystone issue quickly. Please. Regards and best wishes with the new government. It feels like a collective sigh of relief has passed over New Zealand.”


  9. Michael Barnett, 20. October 2017, 21:00

    Good news. We now have a government disposed to encouraging the development of a modern transport systems fit for the the 21st century. We also need a new funding agency for urban development and transport planning, to replace a blinkered NZTA and its road focus culture and mentality.

  10. Elaine Hampton, 20. October 2017, 21:01

    I did that thanks

    Hope others did so too

  11. Ross Clark, 21. October 2017, 1:26

    Quoting Michael Barnett:

    Good news. We now have a government disposed to encouraging the development of a modern transport systems fit for the the 21st century. We also need a new funding agency for urban development and transport planning, to replace a blinkered NZTA and its road focus culture and mentality.

    My guess is that in practice, the NZTA has reflected a lot of the steer that they were getting from the politicians of the time (e.g. I worked in Transit NZ until 1996, and I don’t remember the Labour Government of the period being all that supportive of public transport). I am hearing a lot of good intentions here, but remember, “follow the money”.

    And there may not be as much of that around as we might think. On that note, how advanced are the various RONS projects?

  12. Ronny Bartlet, 21. October 2017, 12:41

    The govt funded unneeded roads over the provision of basic unmet health, disability and support needs. More roads more cars more driving and creating bottlenecks doesn’t save any driving time. If however the focus was different and the govt spent money on positive and human causes instead of corporate subsidies (and more unneeded infrastructure) things would be very different.

  13. PG, 21. October 2017, 16:50

    Sent off today, hope we also get the cars off the wharf in Auckland, the rest will come naturally later.

  14. Velcro, 21. October 2017, 17:39

    Buses provide route flexibility, which light rail and trolley buses do not. While light rail might be quite good for people in Newtown and Kilbirnie, it means present through-routes such as Karori to Island Bay, will requiree two transfers. That doesn’t sound quick or convenient to me

  15. luke, 21. October 2017, 19:55

    What doesnt sound convenient to me is a line of endless buses crawling along the goldendiesel mile going nowhere fast. Light Rail means a lot less buses. Better for the corridor.

  16. Keith Flinders, 22. October 2017, 8:24

    Putting pressure on the now in charge politicians is one step. Action is needed from the WCC who own Wellington Cable Car Ltd to stop the latter having any further trolley bus lines removed, until the issue of trolley buses is revisited.

    Only councillors Sarah Free and Chris Calvi-Freeman have actively advocated for the retention of trolley buses, the other councillors have not displayed any interest in reducing diesel fume pollution. Sue Kedgley, Roger Blakeley, and Daran Ponter are the three out of the thirteen GWRC councillors who have tried this term to retain trolley buses, but have been out voted.

  17. Keith Flinders, 22. October 2017, 8:40

    Velcro: Trains from the Kapiti Coast and Hutt Valley don’t provide flexibility either and that is their strength. Ultimately a light rail system in Wellington with battery powered feeder buses should be the feature of longer term planning.

    From July next year many bus passengers will have to get used to changing buses enroute, whereas now they can complete their jouneys in the same bus. Karori to Wellington Hospital will require two buses each way, so not all that convenient for the many mobility impaired who require regular hospital visits. A decision made, I expect, by people who don’t use buses on a regular basis and who don’t have mobility issues. To accommodate the introduction of double decker buses, routes such as Karori to Seatoun have to use single decker buses due to the tunnels, and hence the mismatch of roues to passenger convenience.

  18. Kerry, 22. October 2017, 9:06

    Velcro: A through route is fine for going from Karori to Island Bay but has no flexibility for other trips.

    FIT proposes a light rail route from the Railway Station to Wellington Regional Hospital, the zoo, Kilbirnie, the airport and Miramar. Passengers coming into the city from Island Bay could cycle if they wished, or catch a bus to the Hospital and change to light rail. This isn’t as restricting as it sounds because light rail on reserved routes is twice as fast as a bus, and faster still if the bus is stuck in traffic.

    But you are right: two changes should be avoided where possible.
    FIT proposes that the number of buses on the existing city route be reduced by about two thirds. Some routes would disappear, some would be cut back and some retained: how could passengers from Brooklyn be reasonably expected to change to light rail? and where?

    Light rail would run on the waterfront, with hubs at the Railway Station, Te Aro Park and perhaps also Midland Park, as well as an intermediate stop at Frank Kitts Park. A passenger from Island Bay going to the city or beyond could have these options at Wellington Hospital:
    — Change to light rail.
    — Take one of a limited number of Island Bay buses that continue to the city, on Adelaide Rd (the tram would go by Wallace and Taranaki Sts).

    In the city, the passenger would have these options:
    — Walk from the nearest tram stop.
    — Change to a bus (or train) at either Te Aro Park or the Railway Station.

    All this adds up to time-savings, flexibility and anywhere-to-anywhere convenience, which is where the existing buses so conspicuously fail. Systems like this are routine and fully accepted in many European cities, often with ‘pulse’ timetables: light trail and several buses all arrive at a hub at the same time, and leave when passengers have transferred.

    There are cost savings too. Beyond a certain minimum passenger flow, light rail is cheaper than buses, including interest on the capital costs. That minimum is about half the existing peak passenger flow: light rail is already viable. It can give most or all passengers a better service, save money and attract more passengers.

  19. Peter Rendall, 23. October 2017, 20:18

    The first thing has to be: stop the demolition of the trolleybus system. Tell chairman Laidlaw and his nonentity transport head (Barbara Donaldson) that trolleybuses are proven technology not obsolete technology. Look at China’s big cities, putting in trolleybuses, in some cases replacing pure battery buses. I have ridden on a Chinese battery bus of the type planned for Wellington. Running on the flat in Rotorua it had to stop regularly to let the batteries cool down! Wellington has hills and big loads. When someone can produce a fleet of battery buses that can run as required for a year without major failures, then Wellington can start to look for a possible electric bus (other than trolley). Beijing lost a a fleet of 50_+ battery buses due to a charging fault recently. Get rid of the big bang theory of transport planning and the neoliberal PTOM system. Incremental change might mean our Wellington Public transport system might survive. Today’s bus routes exist because of the urban form of the city – its geography hasn’t changed, so there is no real call to change the existing network; unlike ChCh, our CBD hasn’t been destroyed with the consequent movement of shopping and employment.

  20. Richard Keller, 23. October 2017, 20:23

    Labour claims to be planet friendly, but what will be their policies and projects which get funded? Good to remind them of that responsibility.

    I notice a few comments on transfers. Transfers would ideally be kept to a minimum and could be accomplished if routes were retained, looking at light rail as being an addition to the system and less as a replacement.

  21. velcro, 24. October 2017, 14:50

    If you want to see what a shambles introducing light rail can result in, go to Edinburgh. The light rail, from airport to Newtown, doubled in cost, halved in length ( it doesn’t go to Leith as planned) and took twice as long as planned to complete. In the process, it destroyed one of the best bus systems in the UK, created havoc and gridlock, and screwed up Edinburgh’s Golden Mile along Prince’s St for years. Wellington would be a more difficult route to complete.

  22. Mike Mellor, 24. October 2017, 15:42

    Velcro: Edinburgh’s construction was a unique shambles, such that there’s been a government inquiry into it, but that hasn’t stopped it being such an operational success that the council is proposing extending it. And no bus system was destroyed!

  23. CC, 24. October 2017, 16:20

    Sorry Velcro but one case does not make a valid generalisation. From a cursory glance, it appears that rorting contractors and political decisions caused most of the problems. Despite the difficulties, it appears that since the light rail units became operational, they have exceeded passenger projections and profitability expectations. Now – how about giving us a list of successful light rail systems – there are loads of them!

  24. James, 24. October 2017, 18:34

    If the dismantling of the trolley bus lines goes ahead, it can’t be undone.
    This infrastructure was built over generations and building it again from scratch is just unaffordable.
    So, yes I also contacted the parliamentarians and hope we get some momentum going. WCC is also on the list.

  25. Stop Trexit, 24. October 2017, 19:47

    Mike, is local and central government ever likely to produce a good result for Wellington? LRT has been suggested since 1990 and has got nowhere. If it was introduced now, it could make Edinburgh look a success by comparison!

    Mike seriously, what major projects would you be comfortable with GWRC and WCC managing – when you look at the trolley bus debacle, the Island Bay cycle-way, CentrePort, Shelly Bay……the wrong shaped Cake Tin.

  26. Ross Clark, 24. October 2017, 22:51

    Velcro: Oh yes, Edinburgh. Don’t. Get. Me. Started. (I live here).

    What is coming out of the public enquiry is that the genesis of the project was flawed – it was clear to officials, although they don’t seem to have told the politicians, that the project could not be delivered to budget; then the process of moving the utilities took twice as long and cost twice as much as expected, and that then threw everything out of kilter. Hence the blowout in budget and timescale.

    The system is now working well enough. The extension to Leith might proceed, depending on who will pay for it. The bus system has recovered, and bus demand is quite strong (more than twice as many trips per capita as Wellington City proper, but that is something for another post).

  27. Velcro, 27. October 2017, 15:58

    It is transport users and ratepayers who would inevitably have to pay if an Edinburgh style fiasco occurred, so let’s hope Wellington planners can do better than the canny Scots in that regard. Good to hear that one idea is to go along Customhouse Quay rather than the Golden Mile, as I long to see the ugly overhead wires removed and the central strip trees remain and flourish to beautify Lambton Quay. However, one wonders how much patronage there might be from folks on Lambton Quay, The Terrace and Bowen Street etc, who would face a fair hike to get to the tram.

  28. Stop Trexit, 27. October 2017, 19:37

    Velcro – what ugly overhead wires on Lambton Quay? Clearly you are no architect as the trolley bus wires provide a first floor ‘ceiling’ to our inner city viewscape. But I guess you might be one of those who stares head down at their mobile phone as you bestride the capital looking for the latest development in trouser leg fastening.

    Me, well I loved the trolley bus and overhead wires, their quiet shhh and occasional SHHH at stops. Quirky Wellington brought down by politicians representative of an indifferent public. Undeniably utilitarian, no expensive glamour tram, our trolleys did a humble job.

  29. John Brodie, 29. October 2017, 19:29

    The way forward is by retrofitting the existing trolley buses as a trolley / bus combo. It’s new technology that would allow a large portion of the existing overhead to be removed. Allows the buses to operate at full speed everyday in wireless mode for up 10 -20 km from their wires. It’s superior to opportunity charging as the bus does not need to wait at the terminus to recharge. https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B770vcn5f5AdSzBvRTFlWWlyLVU

  30. Velcro, 1. November 2017, 4:19

    A beautiful ‘ceiling’ to the city landscape! What are you smoking, Trex?

  31. Stop Trexit, 1. November 2017, 12:39

    Velcro, “beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them” – D. Hume 1742.

    I don’t smoke and have tried hard not to inhale diesel emissions, but I did have a drink last night after travelling to Miramar on one of the last trolleys with some fellow anti trexiteers.

    Today, even though the trolley wires have started to be pulled down, we will still have lots of telephone and electricity wires to admire (or not).