Wellington Scoop

Trackless trams for Wellington suggested by Australian consultant


Report from RNZ
An international consultant is urging Wellington to consider introducing trackless trams, as a way of easing the capital’s congestion. At up to three carriages long, trackless trams look like a long bendy bus. Unlike a tram they are fitted with tyres and can run on existing roads.

Efforts to reduce the city’s traffic problems are supposed to be sorted with a project called Let’s Get Welly Moving. Problem is, it’s stalled.

That project is looking at a mass transit upgrade; to move more people in fewer vehicles. Those options include light rail, electric buses, and trackless trams.

Visiting Australian transport consultant Marie Verschuer from Curtin University thinks trackless trams would be perfect for Wellington.

At up to three carriages long, they can carry 300 people. They cost as little as a tenth of the price of light rail.

“The advantage of this vehicle is that it can deviate from the track if there’s a need to do so,” she said. “If there’s an accident ahead, it can be re-routed.”

The trackless trams are electric and have a top speed of 70km/h. They can be configured to run without a driver, and are fitted with radars and cameras to prevent collisions.

But Mrs Verschuer said they would only be useful, and therefore used, if they were given dedicated space and priority at the lights. “That priority means the trip is as quick, or quicker, than you taking a car,” she said. “It can be implemented easily without the disruption to your businesses while you’re doing it …you just paint the lines on the road,” she said.

Hills would be less of a problem too, a bonus in Wellington.

Talk Wellington co-convenor Isabella Cawthorn said while there were some clear benefits to trackless trams, they were a new technology, and warranted a cautious approach.

“We want to see the Treasury and the councils making a really sound decision on this one. Don’t just be wowed by tech promotion and the spectre of lower costs,” Ms Cawthorn said. “The game changer that Wellington needs is a service that you can rely on to jump on and jump off right throughout the day and also into the night, that connects you well,” she said.

Mayor Justin Lester said detailed analysis was required to compare the options. “But the proof is in the pudding, you’d want to get some good analysis of the technology, you’d probably want to go over and have a look at it in operation,” he said.

Since the Basin Reserve flyover proposal got knocked down in 2014 and again in 2015, local and central government have been working together on a solution to ease congestion around the city.

But the release of Let’s Get Welly Moving (LGWM) has been delayed, due to a protracted battle over who is going to pay for it. Minutes from a Transport Agency Board Meeting in October showed it was estimated to cost up to $4 billion – almost as much as Auckland’s City Rail Link – and the Agency did not have the money.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford said: “I have received a range of advice on rapid transit options, including trackless trams. I hope to announce the LGWM package in the coming weeks. More detail on the projects included in the package will be released at that time.”


  1. luke, 8. May 2019, 10:41

    Sounds like a very long bus – hardly ideal.

  2. Elaine Hampton, 8. May 2019, 11:01

    They bend, and can take corners. Seemed to work well in Germany. What sort of electricity, wires or batteries?

  3. Nimrod, 8. May 2019, 15:55

    What did the Regional Council and the City Council conspire to do with Wellington’s clean quiet electric trolleybuses? Answer: They collectively had a hand in junking them so as to replace them with a dieselised bus system, and a few token gesture battery buses. The result is a significant increase in co2 pollution generated in our streets by public transport, as well as a significant increase in noise pollution and a reduction in the quality and consistency of the bus system. Wellington is the only city under the Paris Accord to have junked its clean electric bus system for a dieselised system. We are an international laughing stock because of the actions of our city and regional politicians.

    What the latest international consultant is urging Wellington to do is essentially a return to trolleybuses. Note the use of the name “Trackless Tram”. That is the name that trolleybuses were widely known as for many years. It’s fitting because the trolley bus is the electric tram, but with rubber tires as opposed to operating on rails. Whilst the consultant’s vision is somewhat different to the old trolleybuses, she is nonetheless suggesting we go for electric trams, but ones with rubber tires. And that is what had until the end of October 2017. 82kms of a city owned electric trolleybus system covering 7 routes. Those routes were the old electric tramway System, converted to trolleybus lines in the 1960s. As trolleybus lines they functioned marvelously and provided our city with the kind of “international standard” in quality passenger transport, which is now sorely missed.

    As Mayor Lester was part of the Council that voted to junk the overhead trolleybus infrastructure, he should be voted out at this election and therefore we need another Mayoral Candidate fast!

  4. John L., 9. May 2019, 0:03

    Curtin University is the home of Prof Peter Newman who is a keen rail/LRT man. I wonder what he things about the trackless tram?

  5. greenwelly, 9. May 2019, 8:55

    @John. He seems to like them:
    “I have been writing books and running campaigns ever since on why trains and trams are better than buses. But I have changed my mind. The technology has changed, and I think it will end the need for new light rail.”

  6. mason, 9. May 2019, 9:32

    I’d prefer light rail to trackless trams which are effectively bendy buses.

  7. John L., 9. May 2019, 11:04

    Thanks Greenwelly – So Professor Peter Newman has changed his mind to support trackless trams over light rail because it cost millions not billions and doesn’t cause havoc for years during construction but performs similarly. Has anybody introduced it other than the Chinese and has Auckland looked at it for their Airport > Dominion Rd > CBD service?

  8. John Rankin, 9. May 2019, 13:49

    Do the claims made for trackless trams pass the sniff test?

    1. They can carry 300 people. Really? Canberra’s light rail vehicles are a metre longer and the same width, with a stated capacity of 250 people at 4 standing passengers / m2. Has the consultant actually seen a trackless tram with 300 people on it?

    2. They cost as little as a tenth of the price of light rail. Presumably in large part because “you just paint the lines on the road.” There are 3 main reasons light rail systems have a prepared road bed and rails:
    – the road bed is zero maintenance for at least 25 years, so there is no disruption to service for road repairs
    – underground utilities can be relocated, so there is no disruption to service because of utility line faults
    – a high quality road bed with rails on sleepers delivers a high quality ride without damaging the road bed

    Trackless trams on Wellington’s low quality roads would deliver a low quality ride, while requiring regular road repairs. Supposedly that’s not a problem, because …

    3. The vehicle can deviate around obstacles on the track. In real-world transit operations, this is a bug, not a feature. If we look at cities overseas with on-street light rail, obstacles on the track very rarely disrupt service. So the trackless tram solves a non-problem. But having a vehicle that can leave the tracks tells every other vehicle on the road that it’s OK to park in the tram lane, because the tram can drive around you. If in doubt, see any bus lane in Wellington.

    4. They can be configured to run without a driver. This is a game-changer and a great feature. It breaks the tyranny of frequency, because you can afford to run a very high frequency service at very low marginal cost. However, I suspect the current state of the art is that you can have autonomous operation or the ability to navigate around any obstacle on the track, but not both.

    5. Trackless trams would be perfect for Wellington? The practical limit for on-street operation is about 20 trackless trams per hour, giving a capacity of about 5000 passengers per hour in each direction. Using GW’s ridership figures and growth projections, if a trackless tram line opens on the railway station to airport corridor in 2025, it will be at capacity by 2030. What is the upgrade plan? Would we have to replace it with higher-capacity light rail and if so, how would we carry out the upgrade? To increase the frequency to 30 or more trackless trams per hour would require grade separation along large parts of the line, which would cost at least as much as building light rail in the first place.

    Wellington would be wise to let somewhere else be the pioneer for trackless trams. I fear the reality is that you can have light rail quality of service or you can spend a tenth the cost of light rail, but not both.

  9. Keith Flinders, 9. May 2019, 13:51

    French cities of Caen and Nancy introduced trackless “trams” with rubber wheels and a guidance system embedded in the road. The Caen installation has been abandoned and is being replaced with conventional light rail/trams. Such trackless systems are tied into the original equipment suppliers, not an ideal situation to have.
    Wellington should not be looking at the cheapest solution but one that will endure.

  10. kevin morris, 10. May 2019, 0:22

    Welligton is predictably still in cloud cuckooland over its mistake of removing trolleybuses in 2017.

    On a point of information, ‘trackless trams’ is what they used to call trolleybuses. The only efficient way of powering electric passenger vehicles is with overhead, issues of which, if you remember, brought trolleybuses to a halt. Batteries are highly expensive, need replecing often and cannot deliver the torque required for intensive routes in hilly towns. Induction is largely unproven and tends not to work well when it is wet.

    The only real answer to Wellington’s difficulties is to re wire the network and run trolleybuses. You wouldn’t regret it and you would be the envy of the southern hemisphere!

  11. Martin, 20. May 2019, 7:24

    It is sad that the trolleybus network was destroyed. Every unbiased expert would argue that keeping an existing trolleybus system especially on the hilly terrain of Wellington was the best approach they could have made. For line extensions, they could have had trolleybuses equipped with additional but not that big batteries which could be charged while operating instead of having to stand still at charging points.

    Instead of improvements, Wellington public transport destroyed its valuable assets. The Wellington city council should start doing something about public transport and force the operating company to improve their services. Make people use public transport instead of their own vehicles by making it a better alternative. The whole transport operation is not just about vehicles + pollution, but also about frequencies, reliability, reachability, price …

    ps. Swiss cities use double articulated trolleybuses quite widely – this could have been reality a long time ago without too much of an investment other than purchasing such new vehicles.

  12. Helen, 20. May 2019, 9:24

    Well said Martin. The answer was blindingly obvious – invest in our trolley bus network! But what did our gormless GWRC do? They spent $11 million taking the wires down. And where are the WrightSpeed buses GWRC promised us? They must be rusting in a field somewhere. GWRC needs to be put out to grass too.

  13. Keith Flinders, 20. May 2019, 10:11

    Martin: Alas, most didn’t realise the value of the trolley bus system until it was gone. Modern batteries fitted to existing and new trolley buses would have allowed them to run all day on and off the overhead wiring. Don’t blame just the GWRC, as the WCC had a hand in the demise of the trolley bus system too.

    Fifty trolley buses languish in storage 18 months after they were taken off the road, and they – like the prototype Trolley 361 – could be converted to battery operation and used to reduce the pollution we get from old diesels operating east – west routes.

    Politics have ensured that the Wellington public suffers. Vote carefully in October.

  14. Valerie Smith, 25. May 2019, 7:02

    I am from Phoenix Az and I think the Trackless Trams are a perfect alternative to LRT. The South Central Ave 5.5 mile long light rail train will cost $160 million per mile and the Trackless Trams cost only $6 to 8 million per mile. The five years of construction and the two lane reduction will kill our family businesses and jobs. We are fighting against it by Voting Yes to Stop the Light Rail Train. Then maybe we can switch to the Trackless Trams.

  15. mason, 25. May 2019, 10:55

    Trackless trams are basically just bendy buses. I imagine they will chew the roadway up and increase the cost of road maintenance.

  16. Valerie Smith, 27. May 2019, 18:20

    Battery operated trackless trams don’t need years of construction that kills businesses and jobs. Trackless Trams can be more flexible with route expansions.