Wellington Scoop

Bustastrophe– a decade in the making

by Brent Efford
The roots of the bustastrophe go back over a decade, when Fran Wilde took over the GWRC and the transport chair and the visionary transport manager Dr David Watson was, essentially, fired (and replaced by a succession of dreary managerialists with neither passion nor much understanding of public transport.)

Building the Transmission Gully Motorway and implementing the National Government’s RoNS road building programme became the central focus. (Even now, ‘four lanes to the planes’ excites most regional councillors far more than creating the electric public transport network that a sustainable Wellington needs.)

The light rail extension of the rail network into the Wellington and Lower Hutt CBDs, planned in the 1999 Regional Land Transport Strategy for implementation in 2004-19, was forgotten.

To spin this change of direction, it was necessary to create the belief that a complete regional rail spine was unnecessary and that ‘bus rapid transit’ could be ‘just like light rail but cheaper’.

The NZTA imported a Norwegian transport network expert, a Professor Neilson, to spread the story that bus-only networks could work as long as there were trunk, hub and spoke routes. This was in spite of copious evidence, including many decades of Wellington suburban rail system experience covering most of the region, that the trunks need to be rail with regular services operating utterly reliably with only one train at a time meeting a very small number of feeder buses operating only in congestion-free suburban streets.

The ill-conceived and incompetent Public Transport Spine Study of 2012-13 sealed in this bus-only myth, and until the change of central Government the Let’s Get Wellington Moving exercise seemed likely to go the same way. This envisaged Wellington remaining just about the only metropolis in the world with a main regional rail transit system which stops at the edge of the CBD (while Transmission Gully is bound to increase the amount of road traffic into the CBD!)

Trying to pretend that mode doesn’t matter and that buses = trains (or trams) started this debacle – and then GWRC hubris, and the determination to conform to the ideology of privatisation and cost-cutting via PTOM – has completed it.

As has been suggested by comments on Wellington.Scoop, a priority now is to create a proper Regional Transit Authority to plan and run PT and get the ‘roads first’ mob out of it.


  1. Roy Kutel, 4. September 2018, 11:34

    100% right Brent! Wellington had a transport system others were envious of but now it’s simply awful. All due to unskilled bureaucrats and no-idea councillors. We need a one stop Public Transport Authority that does everything and is responsible for everything to do with buses and trains. None of this convoluted legal contracting quagmire… And it must have management who have demonstrable experience and qualifications in transport and have real passion for the task. And we need it NOW!

  2. Lim Leong, 4. September 2018, 13:32

    The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Network design is an engineering discipline. A network built without adhering to proven design principles is doomed to fail unless you simply expect people to put up with the mess. When will the Regional Councillors/Senior Management/Network Designers/Planners come to their senses that the unfortunate experiment has unfortunately failed. Please put an end to this misery for the sake of Wellington!

  3. greenwelly, 4. September 2018, 14:55

    This is getting seriously ridiculous. More passengers standing was NEVER part of any of the consultation that the regional council undertook on the new routes, so why is it happening… Seats have been removed from Wellington buses following the installation of the city’s new troubled network. Wellington Regional Councillor Daran Ponter said he had travelled on buses with up to eight sets removed. He said it was ridiculous and potentially unsafe. A Metlink spokesman said some buses were configured to have more standing room for greater capacity. “Passengers standing has long been a feature of bus travel in Wellington, and there are practices, equipment and standards in place to ensure this is done safely, as has always been the case.”

  4. Hugh Rennie QC, 4. September 2018, 15:33

    1. Transmission Gully is essential not just for transport but for security of access to Wellington. On the unstable scree slope north of Pukerua Bay rail reduces to a single line and road to two under width 80km lanes. Any major quake will wipe the lot out. For weeks at least.
    2. Wellington city at less than 200,000 people (plus daily commuters from Hutt and Porirua) does not need and cannot afford big city systems, including light rail, bus hubs, double decker buses, and so on. It needs high frequency flexible bus systems which adjust to transport needs on different days and at different times.
    3. Standing up on Wellington transport should not be permitted on health and safety grounds on hilly suburban routes. Indeed it probably doesn’t comply now.
    4. Provision of public transport should not be a local government function – it is a specialist service which should be a mix of public control and private supply contractors.

  5. Peter S, 4. September 2018, 15:34

    I use the #2 Karori bus mostly at off-peak times including daytime on weekends. This bus route has become seriously crowded since the introduction of the new system with most buses in the afternoons and especially on the weekends being standing room only. It’s pretty obvious that 15min frequency on Saturday/Sunday afternoons and especially 30mins frequency on Saturday evenings is not enough capacity for this route.

  6. Benny, 4. September 2018, 15:35

    I haven’t seen a single electric bus on the road, despite B Donaldson’s self congratulations that there are now 8 roaming our streets. Has anyone seen one of these electric buses? Now, while this debacle on diesel AND network is absolutely heartbreaking, shameful, etc, and my desire for a full electric fleet unmatched, I actually wonder: what would be the difference between a dedicated lane for electric buses going from the airport to the station and lightrail (provided there is a proper separation to ensure no car gets on that dedicated lane)? This would:
    – be cheap; – be electric; – be reliable. Or am I missing something?

  7. greenwelly, 4. September 2018, 16:19

    @Benny, I saw one two weeks ago running along Lambton quay, it was NIS….The key factor in their operation will be when the charger at Island bay is operational, until then there is no way they can operate in regular service as they need the quick charger to top up after each run. Also I have heard people say that the Electric DDs don’t have any A/C – they have hopper windows instead, this could make upstairs a bit ripe on a steamy wet summer afternoon.

  8. Michael Gibson, 4. September 2018, 17:09

    The amazing fundamental flaw is having two different bus companies operating in different parts of Wellington. This is something nobody mentioned when a couple of electric double-deckers rolled up to Parliament for a grand launch (remember to give Trevor Mallard plaudits for not turning up because of the drivers being so badly treated). Having separate companies wasn’t mentioned either when Councillors had a big booze-up at the British High Commission in June to celebrate the arrival of 125 new Optare diesels from England. Benny will never see any of these buses in places like Karori (which is why they are having to take seats out there).
    I hope this is helpful!! Not.

  9. greenwelly, 4. September 2018, 17:23

    @Michael, Karori will likely get the “Batterified” Ex-Trolley buses after NZ Bus got 750K from EECA for fast chargers. “The high visibility electric buses will operate out of the Karori and Kilbirnie depots, and are expected to be on the road from January 2019.”

  10. Cecil Roads, 4. September 2018, 18:13

    @HR- Transmission Gully is an earthquake fault line and will probably be the first road to go in a major earthquake (and suffer from massive slips during storms). The $3billion spend would have been better ‘spent’ by investing it abroad in an earthquake fund to rebuild Wellington.

  11. Mike Mellor, 4. September 2018, 18:36

    Michael Gibson: there have always been at least two bus companies operating in different parts of Wellington city. Until July there were several companies belonging to two separate groups: InMotion’s Mana/Newlands, & NZ Bus’s Go Wellington/Valley Flyer. Tranzit’s Tranzurban has now been added, making three groups.

    But, properly organised, the fact that the services are operated by different companies shouldn’t matter. There are multiple companies providing services as part of a single network in Auckland, Christchurch and London, for example, apparently without significant issues – it’s not a fundamental flaw in those places.

    Benny: I saw an electric DD on a southbound 1 the other week. I understand that they can do two complete round trips on that route between charges.

  12. Mike Mellor, 4. September 2018, 19:12

    Hugh Rennie: some facts for you.
    1. Transmission Gully is not “essential”. It may be highly desirable, but it comes at a high cost (and, from memory, a low benefit-cost ratio), which could well be better spent elsewhere.
    2. Wellington City is an artificial construct: the Wellington urban area has a population of half a million. And in the Ngauranga-Airport corridor it has very concentrated passenger flows, well worthy of the mass transit you seem to decry.
    3. Short periods of standing are always part of any mass transit network: it makes no economic sense to provide seats for everyone when they will be empty for nearly all the day.
    4. There is a long and successful history of local government provision of public transport worldwide. It’s not who provides it that matters, much more how it is provided.

  13. luke, 4. September 2018, 21:20

    I quite like being able to use Snapper on all buses now, not having to carry that silly green Newlands/Mana card. Also the offpeak bus fares are saving me money. Snapper on the trains next please.

  14. Mike Mellor, 4. September 2018, 22:05

    Agreed, luke – there are positive things that have come out of this, including the overall fares package and more buses for Aro Valley, Kowhai Park, Owhiro Bay, Evans Bay and Maupuia for example, but unfortunately (but predictably and understandably) the good news is being rather overwhelmed by the opposite.

    Raising everybody’s expectations when there were going to be losers as well as winners was always going to end in tears, even if the new network had been implemented perfectly.

  15. Hugh Rennie, 4. September 2018, 23:03

    Mike Mellor – some real facts:
    1. Wellington urban area is Wellington city. Joined by one railway line and two roads to Hutt and Porirua which are not part of Wellington. 213000 in Wellington in 2018. GWRC is 513000 including Wairarapa Kapiti etc. None of those councils think they are part of Wellington.
    2. My reference to safety when standing was to hill sections of routes in suburbs. Please don’t misquote me. I have 54 years’ experience using buses in Wellington.
    3. Public transport run by specialised public bodies is common and usually the best option. Not systems run by elected Councils who are inefficient and who have rating powers to fund their incompetence.
    4. Wellington used to be a distribution centre (port and warehouses) of significance. Not now – killed by roading limitations. The same economic losses will follow for through freight to/from ferries without Transmission Gully. That and quake security will by themselves justify the road.

  16. Citizen Joe, 5. September 2018, 6:29

    HR – Two points of order! (1) Transmission Gully runs along an earthquake fault line for its entire length and (2) how can it add any insurance to Wellington city (or the port) when freight and ferry traffic will have to run along the same stretch of Kaiwharawhara motorway?

    One imaginative solution would be to move the port to Seaview.

  17. Benny, 5. September 2018, 8:22

    @greenwelly: hang on I thought the charger in Island Bay was operational. Is it not? I thought it was, even before doomsday (15/7/18). No wonder they can’t operate for more than two return trips

  18. Greenwelly, 5. September 2018, 9:39

    @Benny, At the Sustainable transport committee meeting on 8 August, “commissioning of the Reef Street rapid charge facility” was listed as one of the “upcoming” deliverables, (along with completing the bus hubs etc). We should hopefully get an update at the next meeting on 19 September.

  19. Kerry, 5. September 2018, 15:53

    Hugh Rennie: in response to your 4 September comment:
    1 The case for Transmission Gully as security is unreliable, as shown by a 2005 review of the Western Corridor Plan by engineer John Rutledge. He pointed out that — in an extreme event — landslides on to either the Transmission Gully or Centennial Highways would be inevitable. However, the Centennial Highway could be reopened more quickly, because slips could be pushed into the sea, and a temporary road built around their bases. Doing the same in a steep valley such as Transmission Gully would be impractical. Transmission Gully would have to be cleared progressively from each end, Centennial Highway would not.

    2 When I visited a light rail expert in Zurich in 1994, I asked about Lambton Quay, then carrying about 80 buses an hour. The reply was, “if you have 60 buses an hour you should be thinking about light rail; if you have 80 buses and hour you need light rail.” Lambton Quay is now back to about 80 bus/hr, which is clearly not solving GW’s problems. High-frequency bus systems need multiple corridors.
    The deciding factor is not city size but busy routes, and Wellington’s route is clearly overloaded. A second bus route would work — for a while — but would then need a third route during light rail construction. That would not be easy when Willis St, Victoria St and Jervois Quay have only ten lanes for all purposes, with perhaps another two lanes possible.
    Another concept of light rail, clearly demonstrated in Montpellier, is that — given sufficient passengers — it is cheaper than buses. This is because operating cost savings are sufficient to pay the capital charges; larger vehicles need fewer drivers, and the driver is the primary operating cost: about 75%. The break-even figure is about 3200 passengers an hour in the peak direction, about the same as the rule of thumb I was given in Zurich.

  20. Mike Mellor, 5. September 2018, 21:00

    Hugh Rennie: thanks for your opinions. My response, in your revised number order:
    1. Wellington’s built-up urban area continues beyond Tawa to Porirua and its northern suburbs – it’s much larger than Wellington city. And Wellington city CBD is the CBD of the whole region, with a very large chunk of the region’s employment. It makes no sense to consider the current Wellington city’s transport needs in isolation from its economic hinterland.
    2. I didn’t misquote you, merely pointing out that standing is the worldwide city norm, irrespective of the topography. It happens at peak times in many hilly European cities, and San Francisco is another prime example. Why Wellington should be any different from these places is a bit of a mystery!
    3. Many systems worldwide are run successfully by elected councils or their equivalents. Equally, many are run by other types of bodies, but in my experience the overwhelming majority have elected body ownership in some form, whether local, regional, state, or national, with some form of rating/taxing power. To dismiss this all as “inefficient” or “incompetent” is a pretty sweeping generalisation!
    4. Geography will continue to dictate the existence of Wellington as a port, fed by both road and rail. There is no evidence that I’m aware of that it has been “killed”, whether by roading limitations or otherwise, let alone by the absence of a yet-to-be-built road. And Transmission Gully has a benefit-cost ratio of 0.82, meaning that its construction and operation will result in a net loss to the economy of 18c for every dollar spent. That dwarfs any other inefficiencies that there may be in Wellington’s transport network.

  21. Glen Smith, 5. September 2018, 21:22

    Hugh Rennie. Your treatment of Wellington, the Hutt, Porirua and Kapiti as separate entities defies logic and empirical observation. If they were separate we wouldn’t require Transmission Gully at all, or the northern motorway or the Hutt Road. And we certainly wouldn’t require ‘4 lanes to the planes’ which is almost purely an across town conduit for traffic which doesn’t originate in Wellington. The reality is that these areas behave as one large regional entity. Road planning treats the region as one large population of 500,000 people. PT should do the same. Rail, which forms the backbone of PT to the north, should be extended across town as the backbone of the required ‘mass transit’ with buses filling on the gaps in local network. And what figures/ analysis do you use to justify your claim that rail isnt justfied?

  22. Cecil Roads, 5. September 2018, 22:04

    Glen – Like it or not, Transmission Gully is one of the RONs – a Road of National Significance which when built will become part of the state highway network. So look not to the local but to the national picture for its justification. And, this is also how it is being funded.

  23. Glen Smith, 7. September 2018, 0:43

    Cecil Roads. Once again division of transport into ‘state highways’, ‘local roads’ and ‘public transport’ is an illogical and artificial division. The logical approach is to analyse where people want to go then do objective planning of the best method (cheapest, fastest with least societal impacts) of transporting them, and then apportion the appropriate funding. The division has meant that roads continue to get the bulk of funding despite being inferior on all objective analysis. Car transportation remains one of the most subsidised activities we undertake, receiving a far higher subsidy than PT and in fact being subsidised by PT users (see previously referenced research from Auckland and overseas). The new government appears to be intelligent enough to recognise this by charging car users more to cover the societal costs they impose and transferring some of this to PT to create a more even playing field.

  24. David Mackenzie, 7. September 2018, 6:56

    It seems to me that those who have set up the current system of bus services (Bustastrophe) are incapable of solving the problems. These are not teething problems which will pass with time and adjustment. The whole system is flawed. A special act of parliament is needed, liberating us from the contractual obligations and setting us free to reconfigure a Wellington solution for the Wellington urban area allowing the city to own and run its services. Moving in to Wellington from surrounding localities is another problem which is beyond my vision.
    Personal anecdotes: Yesterday I missed the 6:04 no. 3 at stop 7022 in Constable street. The 6:22 did not come. I waited 40 minutes and then got on a highly overcrowded bus. On the way home, the 15: 05 no. 3 did not come to stop 5508 in Lambton Quay. The 15:15 bus was very overcrowded with passengers standing close to the front in dangerous areas. I was so stressed I nearly forgot to thank the driver when I got off.

  25. Michael Gibson, 7. September 2018, 7:58

    I agree with David Mackenzie’s solution. The contracts need to be scrapped and the present lot of Councillors are unlikely to want to pay for their personal liability for their mess.

  26. Cecil Roads, 7. September 2018, 9:17

    Glen Smith – artificial distinction? A roads heirarchy has existed since the Romans! Would you want a pedestrian thoroughfare through the surgery of a hospital just because it’s the quickest way from the entrance to the canteen? Of course not, state highways are designed as strategic roads to carry heavy traffic and passenger traffic travelling longer distances. They should avoid or bypass town centres with appropriate local roads linked in. Transmission Gully is a strategic road albeit a misguided one (a Woolongong on stilts ‘into the sea’ section would have been better) but NZTA doesn’t have the imagination of the Australian road authorities.

  27. Traveller, 7. September 2018, 9:51

    Agreed – State Highway 1 should not be running (so destructively) through Vivian Street in the centre of Wellington.

  28. Glen Smith, 7. September 2018, 18:27

    Cecil Roads. It is an artificial distinction. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a ‘hierarchy’ with different components fulfilling different functions but a recognition that all components are required as part of a functional whole. For example a person from one of the Hutt hill suburbs may walk to a local bus which travels on a ‘local’ road then along a ‘state’ highway to reach a rail line which transports them to the CBD. If you remove any of those components the system falls apart. To overfund one component at the expense of another produces illogical and suboptimal outcomes.
    In particular a functional highway system around or through a larger city HAS to have an equivalent high quality, functional, attractive PT system. This is because a city has a finite ability to accommodate car transportation before you reach ‘critical density’ and with continued growth you get escalating congestion which ultimately cripples the highway system. This has been demonstrated repeatedly overseas and in Auckland (fortunately now being corrected). It was reaffirmed by the NZTA’s own research (the Opus TN 24 baseline forecasting report) which showed that the result of the National Party’s unbalanced investment that favoured large road projects wasn’t a decrease in congestion in Wellington but, unsurprisingly, an increase of around 90% overall and a gobsmacking 400% increase from the Hutt. No costing projections for this massive increase in congestion were provided but based on the anecdotal example of the 2013 Hutt Rail line washout the cost is likely to quickly escalate to millions of dollars per day.
    All of this is can be corrected by recognising that the current funding priority is balancing the transport network by significant investment to achieve a high quality, rapid, efficient PT system that will allow people to get around our region without having to unnecessarily clog up our limited capacity road system. This will involve clawing back some of the massive subsidies that car users enjoy and redirecting it to PT. The flawed bus Hub and Spoke design is a backward step. Brent Efford is absolutely right that a seamless extension of our truncated rail network should be a key component of this network, both from the Station across town to the airport and from Melling into the Lower Hutt CBD and on service more of the western Hutt.

  29. Daryl Cockburn, 12. September 2018, 8:29

    Hugh, Cecil & others.
    1. The existing roads are adequate for commerce.
    2. The problem is people who could be in PT.
    3. To get them to change the PT must be high quality
    4. Truckers won’t climb 3 Ngauranga Gorges when they can climb just one
    5. We won’t be able to get to TG in a major event. It’s not the fabled 2nd escape road
    6. We had the $s to build quality PT but we blew $3B

  30. Cecil Roads, 12. September 2018, 10:22

    Daryl – you make some excellent points but you forget the elephant in the room. It’s soaring population growth from immigration. Our transport network and our housing simply can’t cope. For the last full year (2017) a net total of 70,000 people arrived in NZ. With our current 0.8 cars per person that’s an extra 56,000 cars (+1,000 extra per week). And cars per capita is climbing. If a fifth of the extra people ended up in the Wellington Region, we’d have 14,000 extra people and 11,200 more vehicles. And that is just for a year! That’s we need more roads like Transmission Gully. It’s to stop Wellington having a massive coronary heart attack!

    Most people come to NZ for the dream of a quarter acre section and a big car to ferry their kids about safely. So Transmission Gully, Otaki to Levin dual carriageway and Petone – Porirua here we come!

  31. Dave B, 12. September 2018, 12:34

    @ Cecil, Transmission Gully is more likely to cause Wellington to have a major traffic meltdown than prevent it. NZTA acknowledges that rail patronage will be abstracted by the new road. More road-journeys will be generated and more traffic will be funnelled into Wellington’s finite city-area.

    The fact the car-ownership and car-usage in New Zealand has historically been high is a not a justifiable reason for pursuing policies that will further encourage this. The costs and inefficiencies of the car-based system are well-known, and when a quality alternative is provided people flock to use it. Check the exponential rise in Auckland’s rail patronage since a few far-sighted politicians decided to invest in it. But if the only choice available is the car, it doesn’t take an expert in behavioural psychology to explain why this mode would dominate.

    The assertion that “most people come to NZ for the dream of a quarter acre section and a big car. . .” etc, may have been true 40 years ago, but it is no longer true. Just witness the huge growth in inner-city living that has occurred over this time, with this lifestyle becoming an active choice for many. Clinging to an outdated generalisation of how we think Kiwis want to live is not a reliable basis for future transport policy.

  32. Cecil Roads, 12. September 2018, 13:41

    @Dave – to achieve their quarter acre pavlova paradise (with a couple of 4WDs in the double garage) new arrivals can head to Ascot Heights (down Tim Shadbolt’s way).