Wellington Scoop

Has John Milford missed the bus?

by Michael Barnett
In a recent article, Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive John Milford commented on the Government’s transport investment programme and said “it has mostly missed the bus.” He went on to extol the virtues of the previous government’s Roads of National Significance.

I appreciate that as Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive, it is his role to represent the views of business. However, I question whether his position on transport matters is consistent with desired business outcomes. In particular retail shopping and the desire to maximise the numbers of people walking along the shopping strip, whereever that may be.

Commenting on the Government Policy Statement, Mr Milford said “there was nothing on what the region needs most; a fix for congestion chokepoints holding back our economy … the announced upgrades are not going to make the region’s wheels go any faster.”

Making the wheels go faster or as I would put it, getting people to their destination in comfort and on time is desirable. But more highways and tunnels will not achieve that objective.

Last year on separate days I drove from Porirua and Upper Hutt during the morning peak. My trips were slow, almost one hour on both journeys. Along the way traffic moved at variable speeds, slowing to a crawl when approaching merging traffic from motorway on-ramps, then speeding up to normal speed limits.

On arriving in Wellington there were long, stationary queues at the approaches to the off ramps at Murphy Street, Hawkestone Street and the Terrace.

There lies the problem. Once I was through the Terrace Tunnel, it was a relatively fast trip of 11 minutes to the airport one day and five minutes to the hospital the other.

There are solutions of course. Get commuters out of their cars and into other modes of transport by channelling investment into the commuter rail network.

The introduction of a light rail link from the rail station via Newtown to the airport would be part of the answer. Rail’s superior efficiency transports more people, more quickly, thereby freeing up existing road space for tradesmen and others, who use their vehicles for commercial purposes.

There is much empirical evidence to suggest that working with the existing road space and using it more efficiently will lead to better outcomes.

As a retailer himself, I assume Mr Milford appreciates the value of foot traffic passing along the retail strip of Lambton Quay. Light rail capable of delivering 12,000 people per hour to the doors of Quay retailers versus 4000 by car wins hands down, and there would be no need to worry about parking.

I suggest Mr Milford sticks to what he knows best and leaves comment on transport planning to those with the relevant expertise.

Michael Barnett is co founder of Fair Intelligent Transport Wellington, a public transport advocacy group.


  1. Jim, 5. October 2018, 10:31

    Agree with Michael. Many people want to use PT or walk or cycle. For health, environmental, financial, civic and community reasons.
    There are many people who don’t want to own a car. They don’t need to be tied to a car. They want to live in an apartment close to the CBD so they can enjoy the culture rather than living in a distant lonely suburb.

  2. Benny, 5. October 2018, 10:54

    Michael – While I support any clean, sustainable means of public transportation, I still haven’t grasped the benefit of light rail above a dedicated lane with electric buses running it, going down the same route the light rail would. The electric bus, with the same frequency, speed, etc, would surely be way cheaper to implement. I would really like it if someone could outline any additional benefit to the user that lightrail would have over an electrified dedicated lane.

  3. Kerry, 5. October 2018, 20:51

    Benny. It’s a bit tricky but here goes.
    1…There is a hard limit at bus stops, caused by random delays such as using the wheelchair ramp, a fare dispute or somebody falling over. If there are too many buses, or light rail vehicles, delays will begin to build up as one bus is held up by another. It is worse if there is no room for overtaking. Once it begins, it soon builds up to ‘cascading delay’ and the route jams up. The limit is only about 40 an hour for light rail, but more like 50 or 60 an hour for buses. Of course, there are other sources of delay, but the random effect is the big one.
    2…The bus route is narrow, and articulated buses are steered by the front axle. The other axles take their own path, and corners need more space than Wellington can offer.
    3…Light rail vehicles can be longer than articulated buses because all axles are steered. In Wellington there is enough space for modern trams 66m long, with a comfortable capacity of about 370 people. Route capacity is about 10,000 passengers an hour.
    4…About 70% of bus operating costs are the driver’s wages. Much the same is true of light rail, but each tram driver can carry a lot more people, say six or seven times.
    5…If the route is busy, light rail may be cheaper than buses, because the operating cost savings are enough to pay the capital charges. This effect generally cuts in at about 3200 passengers an hour.
    6…Wellington’s bus route is overloaded, and (1) makes congestion a sure thing. So there are already enough passengers to make sure that light rail doesn’t cost much more than buses, and passenger growth on light rail will soon go past 3200 pass/hr.
    7…Autonomous trams are easier than autonomous buses, and definitely cheaper.

  4. John Rankin, 6. October 2018, 8:02

    Kerry’s point 3: Siemens quotes a capacity of 470 people for a full-width 63 metre long vehicle. On point 6, at current population growth rates, if we start planning light rail today, by the time an airport to railway station line opens, the initial peak demand will be over 4000 pass/hr, comfortably above the minimum needed to be cheaper than running buses on the same corridor. On point 7, there is one running on the streets of Potsdam today.

    8. Light rail delivers a smoother journey than any bus. Children can sometimes be seen running up and down the central corridor, which is not something one would want to try on a bus.

    A nerdy clarification of point 1: the 40 light rail vehicles an hour maximum capacity is for grade-separated systems. For on-street running through a city busy with other traffic, the practical limit is about 20 vehicles per hour (more or less). There has to be enough time between vehicles for traffic on busy cross-streets to clear the intersection. Pro tip for Wellington: where the light rail line crosses SH1 in Te Aro, it will need grade separation.

    The economics crucially depend on running light rail as rapid transit, with an average speed about twice that of conventional buses. The design needs to deliver frequent, reliable, fast service. Two out of three isn’t good enough.

  5. luke, 6. October 2018, 12:52

    Milford is a transport dinosaur stuck in the fifties.

  6. Ross Clark, 9. October 2018, 2:32

    @John Rankin
    the 40 light rail vehicles an hour maximum capacity is for grade-separated systems. For on-street running through a city busy with other traffic, the practical limit is about 20 vehicles per hour… There has to be enough time between vehicles for traffic on busy cross-streets to clear the intersection.
    Concur, and I can add from Edinburgh experience that even a service pattern of 8 trams/direction/hour, will on occcasion face significant city centre congestion. The headaches of mixed running!