Wellington Scoop

Light rail by 2028 – why we need to start now

by Kerry Wood
Wellington needs light rail, but waiting for more passengers to choose overloaded public transport is not the best way to get it.

Ridership growth can be boosted by Transit-oriented Development (ToD), but this too needs quality public transport.

The reason for needing light rail is that three public transport problems have combined over decades, and must now be solved together. Wellington needs a step-change:

* The central-city bus route is overloaded, making good timekeeping impractical.
* A second bus route cannot be a long-term solution, and there is no space for a third public transport route in the ‘pinch-point’ at Lambton Quay, Victoria Street and Jervois Quay.
* Light rail on a second route solves the capacity problem but needs good connections with buses, and good connections need far better timekeeping.

A realistic time to introduce light rail is 2028, when the new bus contracts end.

The target looks ambitious, but now is the time to start.

Some cities bettered it in pre-GPS days.

— 95% of all services, throughout each trip, no more than three minutes late.

— No services more than 30 seconds early at any stage.

It is time to bite the bullet.

Design and construction are the principal costs of light rail. Operating costs are generally lower than for buses, because high-capacity vehicles need fewer drivers. On routes busy enough for light rail, operating cost-savings often outweigh capital charges, making a ‘costly’ technology cheaper than the buses that were replaced.

FIT estimates, from overseas data, that Wellington will need around $900million for a nine kilometre line from the Railway Station to the Regional Hospital, the Zoo, Airport and Miramar. This corridor links the three busiest destinations in Wellington (CBD, hospital and airport), as well as shopping centres and densely-populated suburbs.

Managing costs by staging development can be high-risk for such a project:

Too much cost-cutting, as Wellington is seeing with new bus routes.
A too-short initial route. Overseas experience points to a first line at least five to eight kilometres long, or in Wellington from the Railway Station to at least Kilbirnie. This ensures time-savings on light rail that outweigh best-practice connection delays.

Deferring investment may cost more — in delays, lost revenue and congestion — than is gained by deferring investment.

If planning began at once, light rail could be introduced as the present bus contracts end, in 2028. Planning could focus on quality routes for buses and light rail, maximising ridership, quality connections and good preparation.

A rail-based option is itself an advantage, because construction costs are a long-term commitment to quality public transport. Light rail stops push up land values because householders can be confident that they will need fewer cars, or no car.

A dedicated light rail lane has three times the people-capacity of a reliable bus lane, and ten times the people-capacity of a motor traffic lane. Road space is scarce and light rail uses it very effectively. Present-day ridership on Lambton Quay is already enough to make light rail cost-competitive with buses, at least in the inner city.

Transit-oriented development (ToD) supports public transport ridership using medium-density and mixed-use zoning, concentrated around selected stops. It is a reorienting of urban planning to take advantage of a high-capacity, high-quality public transport route, fully integrated with much-improved buses. See www.tod.org.

ToD needs something more than the usual planning requirements. Guidance is available from the Ministry for the Environment. Factors given by MfE include local character; connectivity; density; mixed use; a high-quality public realm; integrated decision-making; and user participation.

ToD benefits include:
Greater density (within reason) brings healthier living, with less need for cars and their associated problems: congestion, crashes, carbon-emissions, noise and pollution. Cars dominate streets when other uses would be safer, cheaper and more effective, bringing far better public health.
Walking, cycling and public transport bring better health because of frequent, routine exercise.
Local trips are shorter in denser areas, making travel easier and safer, promoting healthy activities such as walking to school. Streets are designed for safety from both traffic and crime.
Greater density pushes down land and infrastructure costs, with scope for affordable housing.

An good example of a large, varied ToD project is Vauban, population 5500. However, most of it is not affordable housing: it is too popular for that.

ToD sizes can be very variable, from a single apartment-block to many hectares. The most promising ToD site in Wellington might be the area studied in the 2008 Adelaide Road ‘framework’ area, extending from the Regional Hospital to the Basin Reserve, and from Government House to Wallace Street. A light rail stop near King Street and a good planning approach could be ideal project triggers.

The northern subdivision at Lincolnshire Farms might be a large-scale ToD option, although the route would be costly. High-speed light rail (~80 km/hr) could run 15 kilometres to the Railway Station in say 20 minutes. 

Other likely sites at or close to light rail stops include:

Luke’s Lane, redeveloping existing buildings at the Te Aro Park hub.
Martin Square, just north of Puke Ahu.
South of Constable Street, between Riddiford and Daniel Streets.

Wellington City’s early modern development (1905–50) was broadly similar to modern ToD, around the the old tram routes (from 1904) and the Kelburn Cable Car.

With no cars, there was no scope for sprawl. Cost and walking distance encouraged density. People walked to tram stops, often using short-cut footpaths down hillsides. The same paths led to local shops and perhaps a church or pub. Many such suburbs are still largely intact.

The last Wellington tramway closed in the 1950s but vintage trams have left their mark. Surviving footpaths are still good shortcuts, often with a bus stop at the bottom. The main roads to Wadestown, Karori, Brooklyn and Kilbirnie were all built at a suitable grade for trams, as was the Mt Victoria ‘bus’ tunnel and approaches. These are tram suburbs. Old routes are still visible as bus-shelters, substations retained for trolleybuses, or blobs of denser housing on residential-density maps.

Trams were very costly in 1904 but there was no alternative: very few cars, no buses and ineffective horse-trams. Electric trams became commonplace, worldwide. Many systems were retained and progressively upgraded, and some became pioneering light rail systems. All-new light rail is now mainstream, world-wide, including the United States but notably in France (‘le tramway’). New Zealand is a late-comer, but Auckland Transport and Minister of Transport Phil Twyford are onto it.

Wellington now has an opportunity to reintroduce the modern form of a very successful old technology: light rail. In 1904 it was the only option, but today buses will suffice on most routes. A single light rail route will be sufficient, arranged to also take transferring passengers from lesser bus routes (however, most new light rail systems soon opt for at least a second route).

Reintroducing on-street rail, together with ToD, could revitalise a broad corridor through eastern and southern Wellington, from Miramar to the Railway Station, past ToD ‘stepping stones’ in multiple shapes, sizes and densities.

Modern trams can again reshape the city, this time changing the emphasis from cars to people:

Better public transport access to the city centre, Wellington Hospital and Wellington Airport, as well as lesser centres along the corridor.
More coherent public transport: integrated, fast and reliable, with much-improved ridership.
An end to the costly treadmill of motor-traffic growing in lock-step with road ‘improvements,’ while crashes, true costs and sustainability are all ignored.
Less congestion as growing public transport ridership frees up clogged streets, followed by easier and safer walking and cycling, on newly-available space.
Local reshaping of the city. Light industry in the Constable Street area might quickly disappear as light rail pushed up land values and TOD housing took over (although the light industry will need to go somewhere).
Much-improved public health: perhaps the biggest benefit of all.

A quality public transport system in the Wellington City Council area could be faster, cheaper and more reliable than at present, with major external benefits. Many factors would contribute, from lower fuel imports to meeting climate-change obligations; and from cheaper housing to better health.

Some 25 years ago, a published aerial photograph showed a large European housing area, under construction. Light rail had been extended a stop or two, and a tram was waiting at a new terminus in the complex. The caption explained that decision-makers were determined to have quality public transport running before the first show-homes were ready. Purchasers were to be in no doubt that quality public transport would be a fact, on the ground.

Those decision-makers understood ToD.

Kerry Wood is a retired Wellington engineer and a member of FIT Wellington.


  1. Ross Clark, 15. August 2018, 20:19

    @Kerry – Unless and until you can get Central Government to commit to paying (say) three-quarters of the cost of a robust LRT scheme, then your excellent proposals will be added to the pile of the many other excellent proposals since Supertram in 1990 or thereabouts. And I still think that even if a LRT scheme were in place, people would still continue to drive if the parking was there. Also, as we are now discovering with the buses, transfer-reliant systems come with risks of their own.

  2. Gerry Maguire, 15. August 2018, 21:58

    Show me the money! ($1.5 billion +++)

  3. Ralf, 16. August 2018, 3:56

    No one in the suburbs wants Light Rail, especially if it takes away room from cars. There are some WCC members who support Light Rail (mainly because the government is now sponsoring LR) but there seems to be no support for an additional PR spine (no appetite for a fight with car owners). In the city, people don’t want to transfer, as feedback to the new bus system shows. While an argument could be made that this is because of wrong planning (introducing a kind of a BRT system with transfers being the only BRT feature being implemented, all other BRT improvements having been cut for cost savings), people have been burned now and it will be difficult to convince them that this is a good idea. I thought that LR might get some support from the city’s population, but the feedback to the new bus network shows that this is a pipe dream – even in the city it might not have support. [Abridged.]

  4. IanS, 16. August 2018, 7:38

    @RossClark – I understand why you say this – it is hard to believe that things have changed under this new government. You do not expect us as ratepayers to pay for the new SH1 Transmission Gully road. The new reality is that in future major public transport infrastructure will be paid in the same way as major roads.

    Of course a light rail system will require local feeder buses and transfer hubs to support the spine service. But short local bus services are easier to keep to known timetables without delays that are inevitable on long trips through the CBD. And the light rail spine will be faster and more frequent.

    But we need a local transport governance group that can plan and organise this for us. GW planning for the new buses and transfer hubs has not set a great example.

  5. Jonny Utzone, 16. August 2018, 8:37

    Wait to see how much Auckland LRT costs and how much disruption it causes! LRT will never cover its operational costs so it will never fund itself. Wellington’s ratepayers might contemplate $250m but no more. (GWRC wouldn’t even spend a few million to upgrade its 100% rubber wheeled ‘LRT system’ (aka trolley buses).

    If Wellington ratepayers do stump up $250million, Central Govt will be left with covering $1.25 billion. The Govt could go for a PPP (like Transmission Gully) to move the money ‘off the balance sheet’, make it look artificially cheap and leave it for future generations to pay. But ultimately, most of the finance and ongoing funding will have to come from tax-payers and road users nation-wide. This will be a hard sell for the Government, especially since Wellington is a Labour stronghold so few votes in it for them.

    And if AKL LRT costs sky-rocket and construction majorly disrupts residents and business (as per overseas experience), we can forget about LRT and get back to grizzling about diesel buses and ‘flat battery’ battery buses.

  6. pjclutterbuck, 16. August 2018, 14:11

    @Johnny Most of us will have figured out by now that you’re a spokesperson for the (ironically named) Tramways Union. Of course you have vested interests in preventing efficiency in our PT networks, because you want to preserve “jobs for the boys” in the PT sector. That’s why those of us who want sustainability and efficiency in our PT network don’t really want to hear the union’s POV. It’s also why the union is getting offside with anyone who wants to improve the system.

  7. Kerry, 16. August 2018, 14:18

    Ross – Of course there are problems, but all the other options seem worse. The new Government Policy Statement on Transport is a radical change, with a new emphasis on Safety, Access, Environment and Value for money. Funding is available for suitable projects.

    All city bus systems with more than one route need transfer-reliant systems for some trips, and are much more attractive (=revenue) if done well. Many cities have done it very well, and Wellington has time to plan. A common light rail problem is costly leasing because ridership grows much faster than expected.

    Gerry – This government is interested. The money is there for a good option, and light rail costs are outweighd by the benefits.

    Montpellier, Line 1, actual costs, eight years after opening:
    Capital €105 M
    Capital cost per traveller €0.49
    Operating cost per traveller €1.61
    Total €2.12
    Light rail:
    Capital €407
    Capital cost per traveller €0.93
    Operating cost per traveller €0.53
    Total €1.46
    Spending money has proved profitable, reducing transport costs by about 30% overall.

    Cost over-runs do happen: Sydney and Canberra are bad examples, but also exceptions. The problem is not light rail but large projects. Wellington has ten years to sort it out, using experienced consultants.

    Jonny – Disruption during light rail construction is in principle just the same as road-building disruption. The difference is that light rail relieves congestion, because it uses road space so much more efficiently. No one in the suburbs wants light rail? LGWM surveys gave these results:
    — Light rail 63% support;
    — BRT on major routes 62% support. (LGWM consultants WSP have not found an option with enough capacity to make this viable.)
    — An extra Mt Vic tunnel with vehicle lanes, 62% support. (Cannot meet the new GPS requirements.)

  8. T. Shoveler, 16. August 2018, 16:11

    Kerry, Take a short trip to Sydney and see a true ‘horror Light Rail story’.

  9. Casey, 16. August 2018, 20:00

    T. Shoveler: Perhaps Sydney should have looked at what the Gold Coast did with their light rail project, instead of over designing their own one. Sydney Inner West Council is looking at a trackless tram system for Parramatta Road. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jLSRvqWgVo and Hunan in China has operating now a trackless tram system https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKIKKIWNg4E
    Would the same suit Wellington, being far less disruptive to install and one “tram” replacing five buses.

  10. Ross Clark, 16. August 2018, 20:32

    T Shoveler – I would add Edinburgh to that list; it was meant to cost £550m in 2007, when construction commenced, to build 11 miles of line. The final 8 miles of line cost close to £780m, or twice as much per mile as planned. The killer, as in Sydney, was a whole pile of utilities under the ground which no-one knew were there.

    Separately, there were huge issues with project governance, but I don’t have all day to go through them.

  11. Kerry, 16. August 2018, 21:19

    Casey – the thing in your video clip is a double-articulated bus, 32 m long, too long for central Wellington. Details were given in a WSP study for LGWM last October, Wellington Mass Transit Independent Review.
    WSP recommended a maximum BRT length of 24 m, capacity 150, or about the same as 2 three-axle single-deck buses (not five). Even buses 24 m long would have needed a check that they would fit on the golden mile
    WSP compared BRT with light rail, 34.5 m long, capacity 250. However, up to about 66 m (the same length as Auckland) is practical in Wellington: capacity 370.
    The big benefit of long vehicles is that they don’t need to run so often, and one benefit of light rail is that a 66 m vehicle still has all axles following the same track.
    The problem on the golden mile is still buses running too frequently, about 80/hr, very well explained by the 2011 Bus Review (MRCagney, p 55). The new bus timetables still have the same problem, too many buses, still with very poor timekeeping, and that ensures ongoing problems.

  12. luke, 16. August 2018, 22:12

    i do wonder if there might be some scope to further reduce the number of Golden Mile buses by through-routing the Hutt Valley buses (to Lyall Bay for example). Light Rail seems like a no brainer to me though, as far as the Hospital at least.

  13. Roy Kutel, 16. August 2018, 22:26

    @Casey – 100% electric trolley buses suited Wellington just fine (but not according to GWRC).

  14. Wellington Commuter, 16. August 2018, 23:46

    Kerry points out that “the problem on the golden mile is still buses running too frequently, about 80/hr, very well explained by the 2011 Bus Review (MRCagney, p 55).” The statement is true but fails to tell the whole story about the often-stated 60 buses per hour limit along the Golden Mile.

    Firstly, the statement from the Bus Review (on page 54):
    “The prevailing guideline for these facilities is usually that they can be expected to operate reasonably up to a volume of 60 buses per hour or one per minute (TCRP, 1995). Midday bus volumes on Lambton Quay are under this limit, and relatively few problems are experienced during that time except in case of exceptional breakdowns. Peak volumes, however, are around twice the recommended limit for this kind of facility.”

    So the report recognises that bus capacity is only a problem during the morning and evening peak. The report refers to the TCRP, 1995 which is the “Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual, 2nd Edition” – “Part 4 – Bus Capacity” a 110 page report deidicated to this one subject. The whole statement on page 4/37 is:
    “A study of bus operations in Manhattan recommended the following desirable maximum a.m. peak hour bus volumes for arterial street bus lanes:
    • Two lanes exclusively for buses: 180 bus/h;
    • One lane exclusively for buses, partial use of adjacent lane: 100 bus/h;
    • One lane exclusively for buses, no use of adjacent lane: 70 bus/h; and
    • Buses in curb lane in mixed traffic: 60 bus/h.”

    So the “rule of thumb” claim that the Golden Mile can only support 60 buses per hour is based on the fact that buses do not have a dedicated bus lane and operate “in mixed traffic”. Kerry is comparing buses operating in mixed traffic with a light rail alternative with its own dedicated lane, which is an unfair comparison. The same manual also says that providing a dedicated lane for buses means bus capacity increases to 70 buses per hour and, if able to also use other road space, 100 buses per hour. Before we launch into spending $900M (and likely more) on a tram system Wellington really needs to try giving the buses some dedicated bus lanes and other investments (a proper Intelligent Traffic System, pull-over bus stops and better intersections).

  15. Kerry, 17. August 2018, 20:13

    Sixty buses an hour is fine for a simple explanation, but outdated. A much better approach is the ITDP ‘BRT Standard’, first produced in 2012. The 2017 WSP Review for LGWM recommended the ITDP’s 2016 ‘bronze’ standard as a minimum. The recommendation did not go into details, because the whole golden mile would need a fairly complex evaluation, using a weighted scoring system.
    Sixty bus/hour is too much for the present-day golden mile, as shown by interpeak services regularly forming three-bus convoys. Proper design would require an exclusive route, so comparisons with light rail are like-with-like.
    In the mean time, I understand that Auckland is using 53 bus/hr. So what is the point of trying dedicated bus lanes with pull-over stops (impractical on the golden mile) and all the trimmings, when the answer is already known reasonably accurately?
    Say two thirds of required peak-hour capacity, with no space for super-buses and no alternative routes.

  16. Ross Clark, 17. August 2018, 20:22

    Wellington Commuter – and I would add that if car demand and on-street parking can be controlled, that would help traffic flows for the buses as well. However, local politicians are not really able to take on the car ‘lobby’.

    Is there scope to create a ‘loop’ around Featherston St (southbound) with a reverse northbound loop of some sort up the Quays?

  17. Kerry, 17. August 2018, 21:24

    Ross – Local politicians may not have to take on the car lobby if funding is from central government and the Transport GPS objectives (June 2018) are Safety, Access, Environment and Value for money. We live in interesting times.
    Loops tend not to go very far, and the FIT proposal is for about 40-50 buses an hour on the golden mile, including peak hours, and light rail on the waterfront, or maybe the waterfront and Midland Park. All growth would be on light rail.
    A light rail stop at Frank Kitts Park could have a 180m walk on a covered overhead walkway, down Willeston St to the Old Bank.

  18. Ross Clark, 17. August 2018, 22:04

    @Kerry – Proper design would require an exclusive route So why don’t we plan on that basis? (see my comments at 2022). Or alternatively, look seriously at running buses along other routes.

    The other point is that even with LRT, Wellington CBD traffic would struggle (and don’t get me started on the massive disruption which would arise during the line’s construction). The Edinburgh system has about two miles of on-street running and six miles of grade-separated running; and it struggles during peak times to maintain any sort of timetable, because of other road traffic.

    The point is that if you can put in traffic priorities to make LRT work, and actually they would be essential, you can surely do the same for buses as well. But no-one seems ready to look at reducing the number of cars out of the Golden Mile, and that would be needed in any instance to make LRT work at all.

  19. Citizen Joe, 17. August 2018, 22:55

    @Wellington Commuter – What I want is less noisy diesel buses because I live in the city and I don’t use them (but I do pay for them).

    People can walk 500 metres to a km easily to the bus station or C. Place. Rail users manage it just fine.

    Cut down on the car parking too and make Wellington’s ‘WALK a ‘K a DAY to KEEP the DOCTOR AWAY’. Good for the legs and good for the soul. Hey and stop off on route for a cup of coffee, socialise, buy your groceries, have a beer or wine on the way home. Enjoy the city.

  20. D. J. Vu, 17. August 2018, 23:05

    Kerry – Canberra a bad example? They haven’t finished building it yet and I think it could be a pretty reasonable city shaping example albeit over-engineered (ballasted track down the median strip would have been ok). Not too much disruption either except to traffic at junctions but I see from your comments that disruption does not seem to interest you. So I’m thinking you’ve never been a small business owner where you are dependent on people being able to get through the door.

    Road building does not involve re-routing utilities on anywhere near the scale of modern Light Rail. It will be a very very long unending nightmare during construction for central Wellington.

  21. Kerry, 18. August 2018, 7:25

    Your question is, will anybody face the problem?
    — Too many buses because demand exceeds capacity.
    — Bad timekeeping because of route overcrowding.
    — Connections to other routes slow and unreliable because of bad timekeeping.
    — Reducing bus numbers needs fast and reliable connections.
    Light rail cannot reliably run as frequently as buses, but route capacity is much better because of good vehicle capacity, and level boarding at multiple doors make stop delays manageable.

  22. Marion Leader, 18. August 2018, 7:57

    Luke – you’re on the right track re Hutt Valley buses which block the stops on Lambton Quay for too long, thus holding up all other buses. (The same goes for Porirua buses etc.) All these buses should stop at the Railway Station so that their passengers and fares can be transferred to Wellington buses and ratepayers. It is unfair to be blocking our streets especially when we don’t get any revenue out of it. Also, the routes could be made more efficient and better. Why did they take four years and then land us in such a mess? What is the Railway hub for?

  23. Woodburner, 18. August 2018, 15:13

    I like the idea of a a massive multitlevel carpark being build down by the stadium or port, and using that as a starting point for a substantive bus network. Combine that with a congestion charge or similar for traffic from the north to Incentivise all that traffic parking and then using a brt or similar to move people across the city. could do the same somewhere around adilade road the idea being to essentially remove all inner city all day parking requirement