Wellington Scoop

Nine years to nirvana?

by Kerry Wood
The Regional Council’s 2018 bus contracts will end in 2028, and new contracts could be nirvana.

If we want this to happen, the time to start is soon. An important early step will be identifying all the previously ignored problems.

Ten years to bustastrophe

The problems were not limited to the Bus Review, and the Spine Study was just as bad – light rail was dumped in favour of an inadequate version of bus rapid transit.

Three final study options were bus priority, bus rapid transit and light rail. The final choice, bus rapid transit, was never properly defined. The outcome was a two-lane, ‘European’ version of bus rapid transit, which might have have improved quality but never addressed capacity. No capacity design was done (though a manual was available, The BRT Standard). The supposed Brisbane-style capacity would have needed stops wider than Manners Street, with more space for footpaths.

The final 2013 Spine Study routes were altered, part-way through, and unrealistic new deadlines courted disaster. With detailed drawings limited to mid-block cross sections, errors were almost inevitable:

— What route would light rail have taken from Kent and Cambridge Terraces to the Mt Victoria Tunnel?

— How would passengers from the eastern suburbs have reached Wellington Hospital?

– Why were these routes altered in the first place?

Today, the biggest problem is a golden mile still 30% overloaded, and cascading delays are still rife.

Nothing was done about bus dwell-times at stops. They are even more important than traffic signals (also ignored), and they should help to free-up bus-berths as quickly as possible.

The principal need is ticketing improvements. The objectives are reducing boarding delays, using both doors, both ways, and minimising driver-delays:

• Boarding by all doors is faster; with two ‘tag-on’ units at each door. Fare evasion can be managed using inspectors if the fines are big enough.
• Cash fares minimised, with exact fares only.
• Good fare-cards can be customised to suit individual needs; adjustment for origin and destination fare zones, or a day-pass for a busy day, on the same card.

Light rail

Light rail will need much better ticketing.

Wellington needs light rail, for speed and capacity in a restricted inner-city. Heavy rail is much more difficult because trains can’t stop quickly, making light rail the only solution that can deliver high capacity on a two-lane route.


The route developed by Fair Intelligent Transport (FIT) Wellington is intended to maximise effectiveness and emphasise speed. An average 30 km/hr or so — including stops — should be possible if speed is a main route-design objective; light rail can compete with cars. Extensions are possible and a Johnsonville route will be well worth investigating.

The golden mile and light rail would be a bad combination. Construction would be very costly and disruptive, and light rail would permanently displace the bus route. So where would it go?

With priority measures and light rail on another route, the golden mile will become a very good bus route, and its closely-spaced stops are best for those who cannot walk far. See a detailed statement of the route’s advantages.

• The proposed city route for light rail is along the Quays, from Taranaki Street to Bunny Street, with hub stops at the Railway Station (forecourt) and Te Aro Park. An intermediate stop at Frank Kitts Park could be linked to the Old Bank by a covered overhead walkway, about 180 m long.
• Taranaki Street seems better than Kent and Cambridge Terrace, because it avoids a very difficult route past the Basin Reserve. It also aligns better with high- and medium-rise development in the southern city.
• Adelaide Rd offers good transit-orientated redevelopment opportunities in WCC’s Adelaide Rd Development Area.
• A Mt Albert Tunnel avoids large-scale road widening, with better opportunities for medium-density transit-orientated development. In Kilbirnie, Coutts St is better hub option than Rongotai Rd, at the south end of Bay Rd.
• Cobham Drive is preferred because Miramar would be an important hub, and a busy destination in its own right. The Airport will be the slowest stop, with many passengers having heavy baggage. At a terminus, these delays can be part of a usual waiting time.


Nobody likes having to change at a new hub. They need to be done well: Christchurch or Otahuhu would be fine, but definitely not Johnsonville. But hubs have crucial advantages, which is why accepting complaints at the consultation stage may be much worse than ignoring them (see Value for money, earlier article):

• Hubs allow reliable anywhere-to-anywhere trips by public transport, necessary for those without a car.
• Hubs gather passengers onto high-capacity light rail, and fewer buses in the city solve golden mile bus congestion. Many eastern suburbs passengers could change to light rail at Miramar or Kilbirnie, benefiting from faster and more comfortable travel. Commuters could change to a bus at Te Aro Park, but many will prefer to walk, perhaps from Frank Kitts Park or the Railway Station.
• Light rail will run more frequently than connecting buses, and ‘frequency is freedom.’ Passengers often have to change their plans, or arrive at a fixed time; arriving for a meeting five minutes early is much better than 50 minutes early. Flexibility is much more effective when core routes run frequently, all-day, every day.
• Hubs allow short feeder-routes; that frees up buses for frequent core-route services; that attract more passengers; and that reduces inner-city congestion.

A 2010 Research paper by Paul Mees (NZTA Report 396) explains public transport system design very well, and recommends Zürich as a model for Wellington. His Table 3.1 shows what is possible: Zürich has five times more boardings per capita, and a quarter of the subsidy per boarding.


  1. Dave B, 16. May 2019, 13:49

    Kerry, what do you mean by “heavy rail is much more difficult because trains can’t stop quickly, making light rail the only solution that can deliver high capacity on a two-lane route”? Are you trying to make a hypothetical comparison between heavy rail and light rail running through the streets? If so, then what on earth for? Who is suggesting that heavy rail should run through the streets? If I have misunderstood and this is not your meaning, then what has the stopping-capability of heavy rail got to do with anything? Heavy rail, on its own protected right-of-way, needs only to brake as it has been designed to do.

    The important aspect is making sure rapid transit of any sort has its own protected right-of-way – either by tunneling, elevating, or simply fencing or even boxing-over on the level. This would apply to light rail or bus-rapid-transit also, if it is indeed to be rapid and also to provide safety on a par with heavy rail. Trying to shoehorn rapid transit into unprotected streets is not an adequate means of extending the reach of our existing heavy rail system. This job needs to be done properly on a protected right-of-way. If heavy vehicles must move through a pedestrian-rich environment, vehicle-speeds should not exceed 15Km/h (witness the accidents that still take place between pedestrians and buses at 30Km/h). But 15Km/h, or even 30Km/h, is hardly “rapid transit”.

  2. Kerry, 16. May 2019, 19:24

    Dave – I simply wanted to be clear that heavy rail cannot run on-street; some people don’t seem to know the difference.
    I have been using the UK design code, which is fairly relaxed about speeds, although 50 km/hr will not be possible everywhere.

  3. Dan Slevin, 17. May 2019, 14:45

    In Gothenburg two years ago I got on a tram (light rail) at the central station/city square because I had a day to explore. The previous day I had been happily dodging the many trams that criss-crossed the square and made their way to inner-city suburbs or other destinations.

    I had no idea where I was going to end up and didn’t care because I figured I would always be able to find my way back to the square.

    This tram – traveling at 20-30km/h in the city – soon made it to the edge of the city where it could run on dedicated tracks, picked up speed and turned into a two-car train, stopping at stations that looked to me just like Hutt Valley or Kapiti Coast stations.

    Why can’t light rail turn into heavy rail and extend the network out to the suburbs? Proper double-tracking means we don’t have to worry about the short-sightedness of previous operators restricting capacity. Smaller trains running more frequently and going further…

  4. aaron, 17. May 2019, 16:01

    Re:”The principal need is ticketing improvements”
    Vancouver, BC has paywave on its tag-on transport systems which is ACE. (expensive, but the govt could regulate credit card fees like other countries have done).

  5. Kerry, 17. May 2019, 16:26

    Dan – There is a Wellington group saying that is just what we should do, but with no real evidence. In Wellington, conventional rail has got in first, and the problems of switching to light rail are now greater than the benefits. An extension to Johnsonville is worth a look, but even that may be too costly. The line is single-track and would be costly to upgrade to more than five trains an hour, from the present-day four trains. Light rail would have to be short enough for street-running, and short trains seem unlikely to have enough capacity.
    I once did the same thing in Zürich: very pleasant and some very impressive double-articulated trolley buses.

  6. John Rankin, 17. May 2019, 17:32

    @aaron: yes and Vancouver has a simple fare structure. The key fare products are:

    – single cash fare (exact fare only; drivers don’t give change)
    – stored value fare (discount on the cash fare)
    – a day pass
    – a monthly pass

    More detail here.

    If you use the stored value Compass card, the buses are tag-on only (all buses are a 1 zone fare), while on the SkyTrain you tag on and off when entering and leaving the station (a SkyTrain trip can cover 1, 2 or 3 fare zones).

    This makes for short dwell times at stops. To fix the long dwell times for Wellington’s double deckers, changing the fare structure would be a good place to start. In particular: flat fare, exact amount only for cash; tag-on only for Snapper and its replacement.

  7. Brent Efford, 17. May 2019, 22:55

    Yes, Dan – what you describe is tram-train, which is long established, spreading fast in the transit world and an ideal solution for an under-used, truncated but already-rather-“light” rail system like Wellington’s, using trams of the same length, width and hence capacity as the current Matangi EMUs.
    It was first planned in 1878 (sic) and featured in the official Wellington Regional Land Transport Strategy in 1999, slated for implementation in 2004 – 19 – but crushed in the dash to build Transmission Gully.
    Kerry’s comments are incorrect, and reflect the stance of the FIT group which is campaigning against tram-train (and hence against a complete regional rail system) in an apparent effort to ‘keep Wellington rail crippled’!
    The ridiculous route for “light rail” (not even down the Golden Mile!) which FIT has proposed and apparently convinced the inexpert Let’s Get Wellington Moving study to adopt, is just part of this campaign. FIT and LGWM propose nothing which would persuade car commuters on SH1 & 2 to switch to public transport, and that shows the futility of the whole exercise.

  8. John C., 18. May 2019, 8:44

    Couldn’t we take up the rail tracks, concrete them and run trackless trams throughout the Wellington region with seamless extensions to the airport, Karori, Silverstream, Martinborough, Wainuiomata etc? Electric aumotated driverless trucks could use the concreted tracks as well. Isn’t this the future?

  9. Kerry, 19. May 2019, 13:33

    John – Trackless trams don’t yet have the capacity to match light rail, and Wellington is going to need capacity. Remember that trams are cheaper than buses if they are running at more than about a third of track capacity: not a difficult target in Wellington. The reason is that about 70% of operating costs, for either buses or light rail, are for the driver, and one light rail driver does the work of up to 5 bus drivers. Operating cost savings for light rail more than offset the interest payments on construction costs.

  10. D.W., 19. May 2019, 20:09

    Most Cost Benefit Appraisals show initial infrastructure costs for LRT massively dominating life time operating costs. If LRT cost $1.5 billion it would cost $77 million a year at an interest rate of 3% for 30 years. I can’t see buses costing this much a year. Indeed, LRT drivers will probably want a higher wage as they will be governed by rail unions rather than non unionised bus companies.

  11. Kerry, 21. May 2019, 9:23

    DW. There are no reliable cost benefit figures for either light rail or BRT in Wellington, and you will have seen how vague the LGWM figures are. Their consultants are not making the mistake of doing a BCR based on guesswork. Capital costs for light rail are emphasised by rival technology proponents, who often ignore important costs of their own. For example, BRT is little cheaper than light rail, and would be useless in Wellington because it would need four lanes. The PTSS study was a notable example of ‘BRT creep’; adopting a low-cost version but expecting high-cost capacity. Naturally, it was ‘cheaper’ than light rail.
    Light rail in Wellington will build up ridership quickly, because it will be relieving a bus route massively dominated by ‘cascading delay.’ Once ridership goes above about 3500 passengers an hour in the morning peak, light rail is cheaper than buses. A paper on this is available here.


  12. Lyle L., 21. May 2019, 11:04

    Kerry – Light Rail will cost over $150 million a kilometre based on recent projects (e.g. Edinburgh, Sydney) so from Wellington rail station to the airport the capital cost looks like $2 billion. There is no way you’ll get that outlay back in operating cost savings. Indeed LRT will cost more to operate with special tram driver pay rates, spare vehicles, specialised vehicle maintenance, maintenance of power supply, stop maintenance, running bus services to the LRT ‘hubs’, profit to the LRT corporation, extra GWRC staff to monitor contracts (and their team of specialist lawyers).
    Let’s just keep our feet on the ground as we don’t want to turn Wellington into Springfield, do we.

  13. Graham C Atkinson, 21. May 2019, 13:15

    One of the points to be remembered as that apart from sections within the CBD all the trolley bus overhead network has been removed. This will mean that Resource Consent will likely be required for every inch of the network including installing poles and attaching span wires to buildings (as well as requiring building owner consents).

    Additionally an all new underground supply network would need to be created with all the associated Resource Consent and Temporary Traffic Management challenges and costs!

    And even within the CBD it is likely that the remaining span wires might need replacing and new connections installed (again requiring engineering plans and building owner consent).

  14. Gillian Tompsett, 21. May 2019, 14:25

    Dear Mr Twyford,
    Following ‘Bustastrophe’, we in Wellington city have ZERO faith in our local politicians to deliver on our public transport needs. I’m reliably informed that during ‘unsustainable’ transport committee briefings, regional councillors fall asleep. My contact likens it to briefing residents in a retirement village. We desperately need an urban transport authority – independent of government and technically-ignorant local body politicians and their parochial agendas – with a set budget, a 20-50 year capital works planning horizon, with Wellington resident Neil Douglas in charge (he holds a PHD in transport planning and has advised eminent LRT projects around the globe) of the evaluation, design and tender selection committee. No need for any more expensive overseas contractors when we have this level of skill in our midst.

    Lyle L, the figure of $2 billion you quote is based on American “over-engineering” standards, according to Neil Douglas. Evidently Christchurch got it down to $5 million per km. Please read this excellent article.

  15. Kerry, 21. May 2019, 15:01

    Lyle – Edinburgh and Sydney are perhaps the two best examples of how NOT to do it, and their costings are correspondingly unreliable. There are more reliable costings in my link above, but they are French, and NZ costs are somehow higher. Other operating costs are much the same as any other system.

  16. Graham C Atkinson, 21. May 2019, 17:58

    Gillian – the Christchurch tram is a tourist operation not a commuter system and runs using very lightweight units. Any metro commuter system could not be built to those standards irrespective of what your highly qualified expert claims.

  17. Ross Clark, 21. May 2019, 20:47

    Canberra’s costing, $NZ100m/mile, would be on the low side for Wellington. Having lived in Edinburgh through the period of the tram’s construction, I would agree with Lyle and tend to track on the pessimistic side as to how costs will go.

  18. Russel C., 21. May 2019, 21:07

    Ross – Canberra could have gone for ballasted track, with heaps of space for a depot out in the bush. So not a valid comparison as you say. AKL LRT is 23kms and is looking more than $2 billion so given all the fixed costs you could be right in putting Wellington north of $100 million per km. That’s equivalent to 200 affordable houses per km. A veritable street of fully kitted out houses! Yes, it’s a a pity it’s not $5 million a km (10 affordable houses a km) that the Christchurch tram cost as mentioned above. And the reason why the cost isn’t $5m a km isn’t obvious to me! Its steel rails stuck in a road for goodness sake plus some overhead wiring! What is wrong with today’s engineers?

  19. Gillian Tompsett, 22. May 2019, 5:06

    @ Russell C don’t blame the engineers. Read the article linked in my comment above for the answer to your question.

    @Graham Atkinson. Read the article before you shoot from the hip. Wellingtonians want to hear from people with practical skills who can solve our transport crisis rather than people with vested interests in maintaining the status quo.

  20. Leviathan, 22. May 2019, 8:49

    Edinburgh was one of the most expensive lengths of Light Rail the world has ever seen, so this is relevant in two ways: first that it should not be used as a cost indicator, and secondly, that we don’t make the same mistakes that they do.

  21. Peter S., 22. May 2019, 9:20

    Hey, at least it’s not heavy rail in a tunnel which will set you back a billion dollars a km given London Cross Rail, AKL CBD Link, Sydney CBD Metro, Melbourne Metro (and the first two of these are 20% over budget)! That makes it $15 billion to get to Wellington’s airport. So looked at like this , LRT is cheap at a mere one tenth the price.

  22. Russel C., 22. May 2019, 10:45

    Leviathan – I agree Edinburgh is a high cost LRT but why should it not be used as a cost indicator? What evidence can you cite of GWRC/NZTA running cost-effective jobs?

  23. John Rankin, 22. May 2019, 12:29

    @RusselC: thank you for spoiling my day. To answer your first question: because we trust our elected representatives and their advisers will learn from others’ mistakes and not repeat them. To answer your second question: Oh wait; silly me.

    The core competency we need GWRC/NZTA to display for designing, building and operating a rapid transit service is the ability to pick a good supplier with a track record of success. Choosing the right supplier starts with a clear statement of the services you want the supplier to provide and the outcomes you want to achieve. That is, GWRC/NZTA defines our unique rapid transit problem and invites suppliers to propose their best-value solutions. This is Purchasing 101.

  24. Brent Efford, 22. May 2019, 13:49

    Graham Atkinson – You are misinformed about the Christchurch Tramway, which I have closely monitored since its inception in the early 1990s. The axle weights of the Christchurch trams are not significantly below that of modern articulated light rail vehicles, including tram trains. Compared to Melbourne, the foundation design of the track incorporates an extra layer of heavily reinforced concrete as a base. They don’t use that level of reinforcing in Melbourne (where the standard track foundation is basically just unreinforced mass concrete around reinforced concrete sleepers.) The Christchurch rail is the same new low-profile tram rail as Melbourne uses (Ri 57A from Voest Alpine of Austria, if you want to get technical) and was supplied by, and bent by, Yarra Trams.
    Unexpectedly, the Christchurch track was given a series of stress tests far more rigorous than would happen in any civil engineering laboratory and came through almost unscathed – the very few breaks were rewelded in a few working days, whereas the demolitions and re-opening of the CBD took many months.

  25. Kerry, 22. May 2019, 19:58

    Brent – Graham’s point is that the Christchurch tramway is a tourist operation unsuited to light rail, and he is right. Modern trams have severe limitations on vertical curve radius. Where the Christchurch tracks cross Colombo St they follow its camber, and the trams take it at about 5 km/hr. It would derail a modern vehicle at any speed. Modern tracks often need a reconstructed street, kerb to kerb, with revised camber and drainage arrangements. This costs money, and makes a nonsense of light rail estimates derived from Christchurch.
    Similarly, Canberra is on the cheap side, because so much of the route is in a central reservation.
    Neil Douglas’ figure is about right: $100 million per kilometre.

  26. Donald T., 23. May 2019, 12:23

    A reasonable route Kerry but too far from the Basin and the entertainment district so two pearls of the string are missed. Why not cut and cover on the hill side of the Basin Reserve and put a stop there for cricket matches? Then LRT could go down the median strip of Kent/Cambridge where it would look great and link to the end of C. Place and Mt Vic.
    PS the Victorians had a plan to put a railway (and a shooting range) under the Basin. Tunnel vision indeed!

  27. Kerry, 23. May 2019, 13:06

    Donald – Interesting thinking, but pearls on a string have their limits. The usual stop-spacing for light rail is upwards of 600m, and the route proposed by FIT has a stop only about 250m from the Basin Reserve. (Adelaide Rd, at about Brown St). It looks as if LGWM will be taking light rail past the Basin Reserve, and might manage something closer. The next stop proposed by FIT is in Taranaki St, near Webb St and Pukeahu.
    At Courtenay Place, FIT has a light rail stop in Taranaki St (near Lukes Lane), easily linked to buses for a hub at the southern end of the city. It is about 450m from Cambridge Tce, but can reasonably be seen as serving the entertainment district from the other end.
    A main reason for choosing Taranaki St rather than Kent & Cambridge Terraces is to serve Willis St as well as The Terraces, so that many peak-hour passengers can walk rather than changing to a bus.
    No route is ever going to please everybody, but the FIT route seems to be one of the better compromises.

  28. Robert, 26. May 2019, 20:28

    Double deckers are slower loading because of the time taken for passengers to disembark and embark from the upper floor – it has nothing to do with cash fares being used.
    Everybody’s ignoring the elephant in the room: Wellington CBD is being strangled by the Council’s anti car policies. Customers are using Rongotai, Queensgate or Porirua where parking is free. By the time light rail is running, it will be redundant.

  29. Robert, 28. May 2019, 12:40

    Could have been done so easily of course, if they had just put the tram tracks back under the runway in 1958 when they reopened Rongotai. A pedestrian tunnel was installed at the time under the tarmac where trams had run. At the time the trams were withdrawn of course in 1964 one of the last two routes was the peak hour alternative route to Newtown on Vivian Street and Cambridge Tce and I would argue Wellingon would be better and more affordably served if the system was laid like Portland, using one way track, bi directional on roughly parallel roads say forming first a Lambton Quay – Station – Featherston St Loop and then, double track on Willis Street branching into one way on Manners-Courtenay Place and the other on Vivian and straight thru the bus tunnel double and single, Moxham street, Kilbirnie, Coutts street and under the tarmac cut and cover. With the CBD, progressively close the streets while the track is installed. Robert Jones and indeed others including myself have always thought much of it should have been a pedestrian Mall since the 1990s. One of the difficulties for light rail and any public transport is there are far too many low cost vehicles and drivers on the streets of wellington. Congestion charging combined with the end of freescale second and third car importing from Japan. This should be a sophisticated capital, not a place for third world business and their jalopies.