Wellington Scoop

Undeniable: the case for light rail

When the DomPost published an article on light rail the other day, much attention was paid. For Wellington.Scoop readers, the subject is much more familiar. We’ve published dozens of articles – all building the “how” and “why” case for light rail as being inevitable for Wellington. Here are some of those articles.

Neil Douglas
Light rail lessons for Wellington

Phil Twyford
Light rail is being considered

Kerry Wood
Why we need to start now for light rail in 2028

Survey shows big support for light rail

Kerry Wood
Barriers to light rail are imaginary or mythical

Kerry Wood
Integration of light rail and buses

Fit Wellington
Focus on benefits of light rail

Kerry Wood
Why light rail is affordable

Civic Trust
Prioritising light rail

Fit Wellington
Light rail: proven, low-risk and fast

And in 2017

Brent Efford
Not “whether” but “how” for light rail

Brent Efford
Light rail plan welcome and sensible

Brent Efford
Considering light rail more seriously

Why light rail should be an option

John Rankin
The future for light rail


  1. Helene Ritchie, 22. January 2019, 9:51

    Introduce light rail, pedestrianize Lambton Quay through Willis to Manners… now there’s a positive gamechanger for our city. No need for more “business cases.” Let’s just do this!

  2. Traveller, 22. January 2019, 10:50

    I second that.

  3. Concerned Wellingtonian, 22. January 2019, 11:31

    I agree with Helene and Traveller. One of the farces of the new bus so-called system is that it was meant to cut down on the hold-ups in Lambton Quay. It has failed in this, so use Victoria Street and the waterfront please!
    And cut down on using the Railway Station as a hub for goodness’ sake!

  4. Jonny Utzone, 22. January 2019, 12:49

    So no buses and taxis down Lambton Quay? Can’t see this solution being at all popular with office workers, cafes and shops as people simply don’t like walking. And Victoria St? Didn’t WCC spend millions of rate-payer dollars rerouting buses the other way round the rectangle and then had to slow buses down because pedestrians were getting hit by the re-routed buses? Putting the buses back on the old route will result in a repeat of accidents from surprised pedestrians.

  5. Graham C Atkinson, 22. January 2019, 13:26

    The big challenge with putting light rail through the CBD is the location of underground services a significant proportion of which are under the carriageway as part of a deliberate move away from the footpath. These would either need to be moved away from the trackline or special tunnels would need to be constructed to protect them whilst allowing future access.

  6. Tony Randle, 22. January 2019, 15:23

    I wrote about this on Wellington.Scoop under the title of “Buses – building on a winning formula” back in 2010.
    Some things never change including:
    * the inability of Wellington City transport planners to stop talking and get the buses out from being stuck in traffic which is what commuters have repeatedly told them.
    * the constant tirade from Wellington’s light rail supporters trying to justify buying a brand new Rolls Royce when they won’t fix the Camry.
    Both are as constant and annoying as our city’s wind.

  7. Roy Kutel, 22. January 2019, 16:05

    Even more undeniable was the case for investment in our trolley bus system. Instead the GWRC removed our infrastructure at a cost of $11 million to ratepayers. Check this recent conference where the trolley bus got a lot of plaudits. Delegate after delegate concluded that the cities in the best position to quickly shift to electric buses are those that have trolleybus wires in place.
    “It’s a no brainer . . .to use electric buses which are powered with in motion charging,” said Erik Lenz of Kiepe Electric at the e-bus conference. Solingen’s transit agency has stopped ordering fossil fuel buses and is using their existing trolley wire network to charge battery trolleybuses. “It is a very efficient system, and that’s why they went for it.”
    Clearly, if we want environmental and economical public transport the first task is to get rid of the GWRC and put some people with transport intelligence in charge.

  8. Boaz, 22. January 2019, 19:48

    We already had Light Rail, it was called the Trolleybus. The citywide electrical system was a tramway electrical system and could have easily been converted back to trams, at next to no cost when compared to the likely cost of Light Rail. However the Labour led City Council and the new Labour coalition Government both just stood back and let the demolition contractors come in and tear down $1 billion dollars worth of Public overhead lines assets!

  9. Mel G., 22. January 2019, 20:27

    Brisbane has short-listed the three companies to provide its Metro system: Daimler Truck and Bus Australia Pacific Pty Ltd; HESS AG of Switzerland and Transit Australia Group and Van Hool of Belgium.

  10. Benny, 22. January 2019, 23:21

    I am wary of the word “inevitable” since Justin Lester is using it to talk about the runway extension … Moreover, even after contributions from this web site’s commenters, I still see the benefits as marginal over electric buses roaming on dedicated lanes, where cost is obviously on a different scale. For light rail, there is the sexy factor and a bit more comfort, a bit more reliability perhaps, but it’s also inflexible as and changes to the design cost hundreds of millions.

  11. Ross Clark, 23. January 2019, 1:07

    Undeniable: the expense and disruption of introducing light rail. Before we proceed further, may I suggest that we have a very careful look at what has happened in Sydney? I am not unsympathetic – where I live now has a light rail line convenient to where I live and I use the service a fair bit – but until we can work out who will pay for this and how much, we won’t get anywhere.

  12. Cecil Roads, 23. January 2019, 9:26

    Neil Douglas’s “lessons” article discusses the costs and disruption to city roads, businesses and residences over the Tasman. As Benny says, the benefits are marginal over electric buses (particularly Wellington’s excellent trolley buses that GWRC ripped out). So the big question is how many millions do Wellingtonians want to pay for a dab of ‘sexiness’ on one corridor? I’d be happy to have the good old quirky trolley buses (with decent storage batteries) reinstated.

  13. Mike Mckee, 23. January 2019, 12:50

    What is the business case for light rail in Wellington? I understood Treasury found it was very poor. Maybe the reality is we are too small and can’t afford it. Where are the full figures so we can know?

  14. Roy Kutel, 23. January 2019, 13:30

    Mike McKee – the last time it was evaluated in 2012 by AECOM for GWRC (a $1million dollar study), the result was 5 cents of benefit for each dollar of cost. The life-time capital and operational costs were over a billion dollars which were discounted to a present value (PV) of $671 million. The PV of benefits was $30 million. Hence the very poor Benefit Cost Ratio. Given the escalation in cost since 2012, the BCR will probably be even lower today.

  15. John Rankin, 23. January 2019, 15:12

    @MikeMcKee and @RoyKutel: the previous business case found the case for that particular project was very poor, and rightly so; for the question being posed at the time, light rail was the wrong answer. I could come up with a road building project for which the business case is equally poor, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t invest in other roads.

    There is no such thing as a “business case for light rail” in Wellington or anywhere else. Rather, there are business cases for specific light rail proposals, which may or may not stack up. Just like road projects. There is extensive literature on what makes a good light rail investment and Wellington would do well to learn from it. The previous proposal pretty much ticked all the boxes for a bad light rail investment.

    Unlike @TonyRandle, I don’t see improving the bus service and building a rapid transit service as mutually exclusive. GW really ought to be capable of working on 2 things at once. GW knows how to “get the buses out from being stuck in traffic” so why isn’t it happening?

  16. KB, 23. January 2019, 17:15

    One large issue raised by the Light Rail proposal:
    It appears those in charge are prepared to sacrifice traffic lanes & parking spots in the CBD etc – and allow prioritized traffic light signals – all to make a fast efficient light rail system work. However they currently absolutely refuse to do any one of those things for the bus network, or for micro-mobility solutions (bikes, scooters etc).
    Seems a bit short sighted not to fully support current (much cheaper) possible solutions with these sort of efforts, before deciding whether or not light rail should be enacted.

  17. Glen Smith, 23. January 2019, 21:13

    Roy Kugel. The economic analysis you reference is, as far as I can see, a farce. Let’s take just one aspect – congestion. Annual congestion costs in Auckland are in excess of $1.3 billion and were estimated at $680,000 daily in Wellington in 2016 rising to over $900,000 daily by 2026. And the longer term congestion projections are dire. Looking just at traffic from the Hutt, the projection is over 400% increase in congestion by 2041! I haven’t seen any costings for this level of congestion but we can get an idea from the 2013 Hutt rail washout which cost $5.3 million in extra travel costs and a total economic cost of up to $32 million over 5 working days. And this is only congestion from the Hutt – not the whole Wellington region.

    With the staggering likely future costs of congestion, the expectation is that the effect of a high-quality efficient rail-based PT network would be to save hundreds of millions in traffic costs. Instead the report estimates the benefits on traffic not as positive but as -31.6 million due to the small delays created by reduction in road capacity! (section 7.1). This is a joke surely. The paper says that this figure is based on the WTSM – a modelling tool I am not familiar with. Could Neil, Kerry or someone else familiar with this tool comment. Does this tool take projected congestion into account? The analysis also doesn’t seem to take into account climate change costs, pollution, accidents, policing and all the other costs saved by a high quality PT network. Is there any reason not to view this financial analysis as the farce it appears to be on face value?

  18. Ross Clark, 23. January 2019, 22:30

    @KB. It appears those in charge are prepared to sacrifice traffic lanes & parking spots in the CBD etc – and allow prioritized traffic light signals – all to make a fast efficient light rail system work. However they currently absolutely refuse to do any one of those things for the bus network, or for micro-mobility solutions (bikes, scooters etc). Seems a bit short sighted not to fully support current (much cheaper) possible solutions with these sort of efforts, before deciding whether or not light rail should be enacted..

    Exactly, and these are things which could be done now.

  19. steve doole, 26. January 2019, 9:53

    Glen, forecasts of congestion likely overstate the potential issue, as people will avoid traffic delays by finding other means to travel during peak hours, traveling at a different time, going somewhere else, or not going. Twenty years ago Sally Cairns and others studied the options people take. I like the summary by Rachel Aldred 2015 on dissappearing traffic for UK.
    Wellington’s road network capacity is unlikely to change much beyond Transmission Gully, and the idea that congestion will keep increasing to 2041 is nonsense. More likely road capacity will be saturated for slightly longer and the number of hours of congestion will continue to be much the same as now = levelled off. I assume that GWRC’s misdirected efforts with buses will be corrected at some point of course.

  20. Glen Smith, 26. January 2019, 16:26

    Steve. The figures are from the Opus TN24 baseline forecasting report page 28. Which parts of the methodology of this professionally modelled projection do you feel are faulty? The congestion is fuelled by a projected approximately 20% increase in road trips on, as you say, a likely fixed road network capacity. Given population growth why do you feel this estimate is incorrect? The increase in congestion is so high because once carriageways approach ‘critical density’ a small change in vehicle numbers produces a disproportionate increase in congestion. What are your estimates of the cost of congestion by 2041, what do you base this opinion on and why do you think it won’t be in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars? In the USA the congestion cost is now over 300 billion.
    As you say people faced with congestion will find other means to travel…if they are available. If not they will stick to their cars and moan for even more roads. This is exactly why a high quality rail network will either save hundreds of millions in congestion or billions in road construction and why the figures in the economic analysis (and hence the low BCR) can only be viewed as farcical.

  21. Jimmy E., 26. January 2019, 18:30

    I find it ironic that rail proponents look to congestion savings for car drivers to justify spending billions on rail projects. Evidence (road counts) shows road traffic growth to be linear rather than exponential which supports Steve Doole’s argument above rather than the traffic grid-lock tomorrow doom-mongers.

  22. Glen Smith, 27. January 2019, 9:32

    Jimmy. More ironic is that car users receive (and demand) huge societal subsidies while falsely claiming not only that they pay their way but that they subsidise PT users when the research evidence is the exact opposite. This isn’t a small subsidy with international research showing this is in the order of $120 per week for an average family of four, a sum that can could be seen as parasitic. It would be nice if car users volunteered to pay their own way (a congestion tax would be an ideal method) but they appear to be used to having their snouts deep in the public feeding trough and don’t want to share.
    It is good that you and Steve don’t view future congestion as a problem despite evidence that congestion in Wellington and Auckland is almost top in the world. This means that you won’t be supporting more investment in roads including the billions on the second Terrace Tunnel/ Te Aro bypass/ second Mt Victoria Tunnel/ Ruahine and Wellington Road changes/ Petone to Grenada link road/ Melling Bridge/ Hutt Cross Valley Link/ Otaki to Levin highway/ Tawa Motorway 6 laning ……………… (yeah right).

  23. Margaret H., 27. January 2019, 10:22

    Car users pay over 100% of the funding of roads. Rail users don’t even pay 25% of funding of rail ( rolling stock being crown funded aka tax funded). Rail commuters are relatively wealthy having white collar analysis jobs in the city centre. Car users tend to be poorer, female and often need their car to drop off kids or for work eg tradies. I reckon the economy would grind to a halt without roads but would do quite nicely without rail. And it would be more equitable too. Rail proponents tend to be older and male and who had a train set as a kid and want to seek to embed their passion on the rest of us.

  24. Glen Smith, 27. January 2019, 12:38

    Margaret. Research shows car users in Auckland pay less than half of the societal costs of using their vehicle. International research supports this. The reference section in this second research article gives links to other supporting research. What evidence do you give to support your claims?

  25. Margaret H., 27. January 2019, 14:32

    Glen – evidence? My GWRC rates bill which is 75% to support rail and bus services that I don’t use, and my petrol bill which is 50% excise tax! Thankfully I don’t live in Auckland where I would also be paying a regional fuel tax to support buses and trains.

  26. Glen Smith, 27. January 2019, 17:01

    Margaret. Sadly this only pays back a portion of the costs you impose on other citizens. Read the breakdown in the Auckland research more closely.

  27. Margaret H., 27. January 2019, 17:21

    Glen – the cost I impose on fellow road users is not an externality as we are all road users! I suggest you read the research by Coase. I think he won a Nobel prize.

  28. TrevorH, 27. January 2019, 17:27

    @ Margaret: I’m with you. The so-called research undervalues the enormous benefits of private transportation over public transport. Has anyone recently done a cost benefit analysis for a light rain tram set for Wellington?

  29. Margaret H., 27. January 2019, 18:08

    Glen – given that 90% use road, road users are incurring their own externalities so I suggest you read Coase more closely.

  30. Andy Mellon, 27. January 2019, 19:56

    I’d love to see how all these road enthusiasts would fare if all public transport users were suddenly dumped on the road network. I find it hard to understand why road users can’t see the benefit of public transport to themselves personally.

    And some of those people who ‘need’ their car to drop off the kids at school, clearly don’t understand the meaning of the word ‘need’.

  31. aom, 27. January 2019, 20:21

    Margaret – of Coase some of us don’t give a tinker’s damn about your views. The effects of continued inefficient private vehicle usage, irrespective of the costs involved, will leave humanity as dead as the previous incarnations of the dinosaurs.

  32. Margaret H., 27. January 2019, 21:51

    Well well, society versus the individual. The former is a failing concept but I guess its proponents will continue to trumpet the tram over the Trabant. Me, I aspire to a BMW convertible and a road trip over Haywards.

  33. Simon, 27. January 2019, 22:31

    Let’s keep this simple…One person in one car (times many) just has to be a big cost imposition on all of us, compared with one light rail vehicle transporting many people at one time, and it’s easy to get on and off, convenient, quiet and not spewing increasing diesel and petrol fumes all over us and the planet…My gut tells me that light rail for downtown Wgtn to the hospital and airport is just what we need. Other cities have done it. So can we.

  34. Glen Smith, 28. January 2019, 9:52

    Margaret. Interesting article but it doesn’t change the underlying conclusion.It doesn’t deny the existence of externalities but only asks what we should do about them, in particular whether society (the government) should intervene. One option is to do nothing and let the individuals fight it out (the ultimate right wing dog-eat-dog philosophy). Taking this philosophy, we should for example have no road speed limit and let people travel 200 miles an hour and if they crash and injure someone (an external effect of their actions) the government shouldn’t intervene but the individuals should fight it out between themselves. This of coarse benefits the rich and powerful over the poor and weak. So for example we would have no health and safety and if a work accident occurred the worker would have to sue the employer (or perhaps take revenge by killing them) The words jungle and anarchy spring to mind.
    The article also questions whether intervention to correct the externalities is always worth it (“Whether there is a presumption, when we observe an “externality,” that governmental intervention is desirable, depends on the cost conditions in the economy concerned. We can imagine cost conditions in which this presumption would be correct and also those in which it would not.”). This is legitimate. Taking the road speed example we could spend billions policing every road to exactly the road speed and this would presumably reduce a small number of ‘externalities’ by way of accidents but is unlikely to be worth it.
    The other interesting option he gives is to remove government intervention if this causes externalities and that is an interesting one on this case. The government spends tens of billions on roads which encourages people like you to drive and produce congestion, accidents to kill and maim people and pollution to kill people and make them sick. We could remove this government intervention and if you wanted a road built you could do it yourself.
    None of this changes the fact that, when externalities are legitimately included, you as a road user only pay half the cost and the other half is passed onto society. This needs to be taken into account when planning what action we take.
    I use roads and don’t suggest that government stops funding them but only that PT be funded to the same level. And that analysis logically includes the externalities you produce as a road user.

  35. MH, 28. January 2019, 10:53

    Glen the average load factor for a Wellington bus is between 5 and 8 excluding the driver and given their weight,size and nasty diesel emissions, I’m skeptical about buses saving any air pollution or noise.

    Half the trains are empty in the AM Peak (those going in the other direction) and are mostly empty during the off-peak so I doubt the planet will be saved by everyone parking their cars at rail stations to complete a circuitous journey by train. By all means continue your eco crusade by rail but I shan’t be joining you. I’ll walk or stay at home.

  36. Steve Doole, 2. February 2019, 1:08

    The government minister for climate change has an uphill job. No wonder he mentioned no tactics for reducing pollution from vehicles at Victoria University a few months ago. In fact he largely ignored the topic. Perhaps his advisors say there is little impact, or maybe little willingness in the population, as has been expressed by some on this page.

    He didn’t mention the number of car miles travelled in NZ each year. Apparently per capita NZ is about 5th worst country on the planet, behind USA and some tiny places. Figures on vehicles per person were absent too. In 2000 NZ had two thirds (0.65) of a car per person. By 2012 Auckland Transport indicates NZ had three quarters (0.75) of a car per person.

    The minister said nothing about the subsidies for vehicle use, or anything else government could adjust. He seemed both clueless and weak. Weak because he gave little information or ideas. Clueless because one subsidy that vehicle users take from all of us in terms of clean air made dirty seemed not on his agenda. His advisors would be well aware of tactics to reduce pollution from transport. Maybe they didn’t tell him any. And perhaps they didn’t tell him about costs either, like the amount of money Kiwis spend on vehicles and fuel each week, or the cost of cleaning the air that is spoilt. So he was a long way from making a business case for doing something. Thoughts?

  37. Citizen Joe, 2. February 2019, 11:02

    Steve – the take-of electric and hybrid vehicles by the urban professionals of Kelburn and Thorndon will alleviate the problem of car emissions around Vic Uni.