Wellington Scoop

Why Wellington needs light rail, and why we can afford it

By Demetrius Christoforou
One of the biggest daily problems facing Wellingtonians is transport – the simple act of getting from A to B, especially at peak times. In some areas even quiet weekends can be difficult. Yet the current mayor and councillors seem to have little idea of the extent of the problem, let alone how to fix it.

Experience, and a little observation, shows that none of their plans – bus prioritising, building a flyover next to the Basin Reserve and drilling another tunnel through Mount Victoria – can possibly provide a long-term solution.

A stroll down Willis Street during the morning or evening peak will reveal queues of up to 6 or 7 buses in a row. Southbound, there are no cars since they are prohibited. The buses are plainly getting in each other’s way, so how can they be prioritised further? The opening of Manners Mall will not relieve the congestion. At last count, 38 bus routes use this narrow corridor, which is at saturation point. Minor tinkering will not make a shred of difference.

Building our way out of congestion doesn’t work either. Aside from countless examples overseas, we can look at our own bypass which originally helped to speed up traffic a little by offering a more direct route to the motorway, but after a few years it is frequently choked with traffic. Building more roads or expanding the current ones will have the same temporary effect. They’ll clog up as more people rush to use them.

We desperately need a transport system with a higher capacity than the buses, one that will attract people out of their cars and be a pleasure to use.

The answer has to be light rail. It offers proven solutions to the transport problems posed by Wellington’s topography which funnels traffic into narrow corridors with a high traffic density.

If we use tram-trains (top photo and photo above), a technology which was pioneered and perfected 20 years ago in the German city of Karlsruhe, there can be a continuous unbroken high capacity transport spine from the airport all the way to the Hutt, Kapiti, and Johnsonville. This would eliminate the tedious forced interchange at Wellington Railway Station, where incoming commuters must abandon the trains and fight through a howling southerly to either walk the rest of the way to their destination or rush like a herd of sheep to catch the slow lumbering buses. This is another obstacle which no one seems willing to acknowledge.

Light rail is pedestrian friendly and can be routed through malls and even buildings such as airport terminals. It offers an improved environment compared to buses, with less noise and no fumes. One tram-train can carry at least as many people as five buses, do it faster, more smoothly, quietly and efficiently, taking up less space and using renewable energy sources while generating zero greenhouse emissions.

The Ngauranga to Airport Transport Corridor Study concluded that light rail might be an option once passenger numbers increase. But that is putting the cart before the horse. Commuters will make decisions based on the available infrastructure. It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking, “the council wants more public transport users in order to justify improving infrastructure, so I will sacrifice an extra hour a day to sit in a bus”. So the roads clog up and non-renewable energy resources get wasted, with accompanying pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Many might argue that light rail is over the top for a comparatively small city like Wellington. However, the overriding factor is not the size of the city but the traffic density along the main corridors. Wellington already has a far higher traffic density than is required to justify light rail. The estimated cost of $140million is peanuts compared to the benefits it would bring to the whole region. Surely central government can be persuaded to carry a large proportion if not all of the cost, given its willingness to spend billions of dollars on roads which would bring much smaller benefits.

The case for light rail is overwhelming. There is no need for further studies, as they’ve already been carried out. Such a plan for the Johnsonville line was approved in the mid nineties, but following the privatisation of the railways and the election of new councils, the plans were shelved and forgotten – until recently, that is.

There will always be naysayers looking for anything that can go wrong, but there is no way that light-rail can fail. It just needs someone to have the courage to go ahead with it. For that reason, mayoral candidate Celia Wade-Brown is to be congratulated for her visionary agenda of introducing light rail to Wellington within 10 years. Here’s hoping we can soon congratulate her on winning the mayoral election. Hopefully other councillors will be persuaded to her point of view so that we can soon enjoy the benefits of a modern transport system which Wellington needs and deserves.

Demetrius Christoforou is a Wellington resident with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Canterbury University. He has a keen interest in urban transport and commutes daily to Lower Hutt, using 830 litres of fuel annually in the process. He was amazed once to find that he could beat public transport over the 22 km distance by cycling.


  1. Jeremy, 10. August 2010, 10:26

    Why don’t you take the train to work? Or bike every day?

  2. allan probert, 10. August 2010, 19:16

    If elected to council, I will focus on key transport themes.

    Airport to Ngauranga and Light Rail
    While there are sufficient roads along this vital corridor, they’re congested. We need to make alternatives attractive and viable. A combination of dedicated cycleways, bus priority, improved pedestrian access and a new high quality public transport service are all smart solutions. I would be investigating the feasibility of light rail which has a higher capacity than a dedicated bus lane. Light rail would be an ideal private-public partnership project with Infratil involved in these areas. Light Rail also increases the value of land along the route and has proven in places like Portland to be a major economic and tourist boost. Light Rail mixes well with pedestrians and stage 1 could be constructed from the station to Courtenay place. Stage 2 would be to the Airport.

    Lambton Quay Mall
    Lambton Quay is the busiest pedestrian street in NZ and pedestrianisation could enhance it. Closing the street to cars could open up space for performance space, mid street cafes and restaurants, squares and parks. The other perspective is that it would create carnage amongst retailers, driving shoppers to malls in other areas. I would support a proper investigation involving businesses and residents in the proposed pedestrian areas; followed by a BINDING referendum.

    Buses should be retained to provide access to the suburbs. However the bus services along the pedestrianised roads are not complimentary. I would provide a public transport corridor along Featherston St or Customhouse Quay. I would phase out trolley buses and diesels for totally free electric buses. This would reduce costs (economic and carbon) and remove unsightly aerial wiring from Wellington streets.

    Wellington has a fantastic opportunity to become the best cycling city of NZ. The weather and terrain are not much of a problem if the right facilities are in place. Improving cycle facilities is a win-win because it is a relatively low cost solution that reduces congestion, improves health, reduces green house gases, is not dependent on oil, is accessible to all and improves the vibrancy of the city. I will continue to promote these alternatives, remembering that we should not ignore pedestrians.

    If you consider the value of the prime CBD land being taken up by car parks in Wellington, it is obvious that the land could generate a higher income if used for other purposes. Current Council policy views parking a car all day in the city as a poor use of space. By increasing the price of parking spaces, they have tried to force people to consider alternatives, thereby freeing the space for those who really need a park in a convenient location. The number of private and public parking spaces is not sufficient due to the sale of the parking buildings and the number of apartment buildings without adequate allowance for parking. Encouraging park and ride in the suburbs where land is cheaper would be a good move. Doing this in conjunction with high frequency and high quality public transport services has proven to be successful overseas: Auckland’s North Shore Busway is a successful example, removing thousands of cars from the road. Additionally council owned car parking could be constructed on the edges of the cbd e.g. over the rail yards. I would return parking enforcement to Council control – this is an enforcement activity, not a source of revenue and should not be contracted to a private company who is only interested in making money. I would liaise with cbd retailers to finalise a parking policy that would stimulate weekend retail activity.

    Basin Reserve
    The Basin is a fantastic venue and has heritage and icon status. Plans to build a flyover will change this forever. Although it would be tempting to support the flyover, the traffic upgrade is expected to hit full capacity again in 12 years, which defeats the purpose of the development. I oppose the flyover.

  3. Conn Sheehan, 11. August 2010, 0:31

    “Buses should be retained to provide access to the suburbs. However the bus services along the pedestrianised roads are not complimentary. I would provide a public transport corridor along Featherston St or Customhouse Quay. I would phase out trolley buses and diesels for totally free electric buses. This would reduce costs (economic and carbon) and remove unsightly aerial wiring from Wellington streets.”

    Regarding the above quote:
    Mr Alan Probert I believe does not support public transport. To say he does not like overhead wiring (electrification) in regards to the new fantastic trolley buses, sums it up completely. Light Rail does not need any further discussion regarding pros and cons! A clear flag in the ground. Let’s go for it. Just start with a small commitment on routes and visionary expansion will just follow. Ahh the costs! Wellingtonians beware of wolves in sheeps clothing this election. Please vote for the councillors who will push and push for better public transport, at the expense of upgrading roading and car parks.

  4. Tobias, 11. August 2010, 12:57

    Completely agree. Wellington lead the way, Auckland sort out its awful public transport, and provincial towns start planning for 20 years’ time when oil is $20 a barrel and city centres have developed far greater density.

  5. JimH, 12. August 2010, 0:27

    View http://www.applrguk.co.uk or http://www.lightrailuk.com and all your questions will be answered.

  6. Kerry Wood, 12. August 2010, 11:34

    Sorry Demetrius, but this won’t work. Light rail remains a good option but the tram-trains are an extremely expensive solution to a relatively simple problem, with far too many unresolved details. The estimate of $142million is roughly the cost of tracks to Courtenay Place. Vehicles would cost another $6-7million each: half again as much as the Matangi units, or more than two and a half times on a dollars-per-seat basis. Compatibility costs are unknown. For example, none of the tram-trains mentioned will fit through the Johnsonville tunnels. Narrower units are available and might fit, but would then be too narrow for freight trains to miss the platforms.

    Tram-trains in Wellington cannot meet both capacity requirements for the KiwiRail system and length limits for on-street running. A six-car Matangi train will be about 130 metres long, and longer trains are possible. For street running in Wellington the maximum practical length is about 65 metres (50 metres on some routes) — stops cannot be longer than a city block. Tram-trains short enough to fit through the city would have to run much more frequently than the Matangi trains and would overwhelm the capacity of the newly-opened three-track approach to Wellington. The single-track Johnsonville Line couldn’t cope either.

    It makes no sense to talk about ‘forced’ interchanges, and tram-trains might create as many interchanges as they avoided: the interchange problem is much bigger than a single station. A good public transport system cannot function without interchanges, and Wellington’s failure to tackle the interchange problem is why there are 38 routes through the central city.

    Kiwirail’s timekeeping is never going to be best-practice for suburban services. Freight trains on a single track system are never that good and will mess up passenger timekeeping when they run onto the passenger system. The solution is adequate timekeeping (say 95% within 3-5 minutes) on Kiwirail plus frequent bus or light rail departures from a convenient interchange. Suburban feeder services can simply wait for the trains.

    Light rail (or tram-trains) is inseparable from interchanges. The solution is excellent timekeeping: best practice for light rail is 95% within plus 30 to minus 90 seconds. Interchanges are acceptable if they are quick and reliable, preferably cross-platform and under cover, and passengers understand the wider benefits: faster, more frequent and more reliable trips to more destinations. Best-practice services can be faster and more reliable than taking the car.

    Wellington’s bus problems can be easily solved by running fewer buses with higher priority. The present buses never average more than 25% full so there is plenty of scope, and more priority for fewer buses would not affect other traffic. Sometime in the 2020s, bus congestion will start growing again: it is time to start planning for the capacity that light rail can bring. Trans-Action could make a very valuable contribution to the debate if they put up a detailed, costed and technically sophisticated proposal, looking at bus passenger flows from the south and east as well as rail passenger flows from the north.

  7. Montgomery, 12. August 2010, 21:04

    Mr Wood seems not to understand tram-trains, thinking they are inseperable from interchanges. Tram-trains specifically avoid the need for interchanges – running directly from heavy rail lines to city streets.

    Interchanges are coming to Wellington anyway – bus congestion in central Wellington cannot be fixed simply by adding more buses any more than adding more cars to Auckland’s motorways fixed that city’s road congestion. It is true that buses are often less than half full going through the centre of Wellington. The solution will involve convenient interchanges around the city perimeter so that not every route has to go through the city centre.

    Rather than having buses running through the CBD between the interchanges north and south of the CBD, electric tram-trains would provide a higher quality service. The ride is better; the street environment is better for retailers and customers (rather than roaring diesel buses and fumes) leading to better commercial profits; tram-train lines’ permanence leads to greater commercial investment in entertainment and other facilities; and for an unexplained reason (attested by many international studies) people walk twice as far to reach and use a rail or tram line than they do to reach a bus route, giving better patronage.

    Tram-trains from Johnsonville (a likely interchange site) through the CBD to Newtown hospital or Kilbirnie (other likely interchange sites) would eliminate the need for transfers at Wellington Railway Station, reducing the need for interchanging. Similar links from the centre of Lower Hutt were proposed in a consultants report several years ago.

    A detailed implementation plan for tram-trains in Wellington is urgently required.

  8. Dianne Buchan, 13. August 2010, 12:20

    All these comments serve to demonstrate that the way to get efficient movement of public transport through the CBD is a complex matter, with several potential solutions, and these need need to be carefully thought through to find the best long-term solution. One thing everyone seems to agree on is that there is a problem and it needs to be fixed. It is meaningless to talk about average flows – the crunch time is peak hours and during those periods it is often faster to walk (let alone cycle) through the CBD. This is hopeless. As well as wasting time it makes our central city a very unpleasant place to walk around. It may be that the best approach is a staged one starting with buses from the suburbs feeding into hubs from which special buses travelling between the railway station and Courtenay Place leave every 5 minutes (say). while this would mean changing buses, if passengers didn’t have to wait for the next bus, that may not be a problem. this could be a precurser to bringing in light rail.
    It is good that there is finally such a ground-swell of opinion that the current situation is a problem. I am standing for the Greater Wellington regional council and this is one of my top issues to address.

  9. Traveller, 13. August 2010, 12:32

    Dianne is right. At peak hours, the buses make the central city a very unpleasant place for walking – specially Willis Street. Soon Manners Street will be just as horrid, thanks to the city council’s decision to allow two lanes of buses into what was a vehicle-free area.

  10. Scott, 13. August 2010, 14:24

    I never have any problems if I’m on the streets at peak times. Every available trolley bus is in use then anyway, so it’s a lot quieter than at off-peak times. However as a commuter reliant on bus transport, I object totally to having to change buses. It would be a time-consuming annoying hassle of no benefit at all to me. Plus I’m not sure how the charging system will cope – I pay for a 3 zone trip, which is not the same price as the 2-zone + 1-zone we’d end up with. Perhaps the actual agenda here is to justify yet another fare increase on the already over-priced fares?

  11. Ty, 16. August 2010, 19:35

    I say focus on getting the main trains sorted. Customer Service etc. Everyone talking about light rail and we can’t even get main rail to work.

  12. Stan Andis, 17. August 2010, 15:38

    A light rail system would be a good idea for Wellington, but prior to anyone voting for a good idea mandate, a thorough costing needs to be presented to the public for consideration. Putting one’s hand up for such a proposal is simple as the next step would be crunch time – and that is who pays? The capital cost of such a proposal I suggest would be beyond the ratepayer as our rates have now reached a peak. We’ve got the indoor sports centre and the ‘leaky homes’ debacle to pay for next year.This leaves the proposed replacement of the TSB Stadium let alone any other ‘council initiative’ that might be dreamt up in the meantime. Surely the ratepayer must be considered prior to any future capital expenditure commitment?

  13. Demetrius, 18. August 2010, 23:00

    Many of you commenting appear not to have read the article properly or taken note of the points made.

    Jeremy, it takes twice as long by bus followed by train than driving, and includes that horrible forced change at the station. Cycling was a fine-weather experiment for me, which ended after a bad accident. Besides, have you considered the time required to have a shower (if one is available) and recover sufficiently to be able to do some work after a bike ride like that?

    For those naysayers worried about the cost, I repeat that central government should be coerced into paying for this, not the ratepayers. If they want to spend $2.1 billion for that “road of national significance,” then $0.14 billion is a mere pittance and we get much better value for money.

    For those still sounding the trumpet of bus priority, read paragraph 3 again.

    Tobias, I think you mean $20 per litre of petrol (gasoline), not $20 per barrel of crude oil. We’re way over that already.

    Kerry, (you’re not the mayor in disguise, I hope) the studies have already been done and are conclusively in favour of tram-train, so why go back and rehash the obvious? I assure you, all the details you bring up are easily resolved. You’re wrong about the cost, too. It’s about $20M per double track kilometre, as proven in Christchurch and in Australia. So $140M will get us to Newtown at least. The money isn’t missing, only the political will.

    As for running fewer buses to stop them getting in each other’s way, what will you do if your method is successful and patronage goes up as a result? Run more buses? Then you will be back to square one. Brilliant! And yes, AVERAGE patronage might be 25% (I’m surprised it’s that high) but surely you must realise that PEAK patronage creates the bottleneck. Most of the buses are close enough to being full during rush hour – just ask the intending passengers who get left behind.

    The remainder of your points have been adequately answered by Montgomery.

    Scott, I agree it’s silly to change from bus to bus. But if tram-train resulted in a marked reduction in travel time through the CBD as well as being more comfortable and pleasant, I don’t think you would worry about changing to a bus (or minibus) for the last kilometre or so if you lived a bit out of the way from the main tram-train route. Don’t worry about the fare charging system, since that has to change anyway. A common method used overseas, is that you buy your ticket at an outlet such as a dairy or a vending machine and cancel it yourself in an on-board machine after you have boarded the vehicle (not at the entrance) and the ticket is valid to your final destination, regardless of any vehicle changes. With tram-train, 5-6 doors open, people get off, people get on, the doors close. All finished in 30 seconds, regardless of how many are boarding or alighting, and regardless of whether they have prams or are wheelchair bound. The advantages of tram-train just keep adding up.

    For those of you interested in further reading, see http://www.tram-train.org.nz and the links therein.

  14. Daran Ponter, 23. August 2010, 16:08

    Demetrius: I agree with many aspects of your post. I have been an advocate for closer consideration of light rail for Wellington since I first stood for the Wellington Regional Council in 1998. The primary downfall at this stage however remains a sufficiently large and dense population to justify the expenditure. This was the finding of a least one major report undertaken by the regional council into light rail approx 20 years ago.

    This issue can be addressed to some extent by closer integration of the Wellington District Plan (WCC) and the Regional Land Transport Strategy (GWRC). However, this is likely to be easier said than done as it could spell significant changes to the character of many of our suburbs (note the reaction of Johnsonville residents to the proposed plan change for higher density housing). Until there is a closer mesh between district and transport planning I suggest that light rail is still many years away. Having said this, I remain committed to what ultimately will make for a much more effecient and effective transport network.

    Daran Ponter, Regional Council Candidate: 2010 Elections

  15. Demetrius, 24. August 2010, 2:20

    Daran, if you really want to, you can spend $140M doing nothing but studies. But there comes a time when you have to recognise the blatantly obvious and say: “Yes, this is the solution to our problems and we need it now.” As I said in the article, the important point is not total population or even population density, but traffic density along specific routes, and I can point to as many studies which conclude that we have more than reached the required density along the proposed route. But even if that were not the case, you need to anticipate and put infrastructure in place well before the situation becomes desperate. You can always justify doing nothing. Read paragraph 9 again about the ridiculous conclusion contained in the Ngauranga to Airport Transport Corridor Study, and you will see what I mean.

    But thanks for your post, you’ve saved me the trouble of emailing you to find out where you really stand on public transport, or rather, where you don’t stand. Your manifesto states you are a good listener, but right now we need doers.

  16. Daran Ponter, 25. August 2010, 22:55

    Thanks Demetrius. I just don’t agree with you. Lightrail is a wonderful medium of transport for all the reasons that you have set out. But it is not the only option for dealing with our transport issues. And it may not be the solution for a smaller city like Wellington. Congestion charging is one option. Promoting existing public transport modes is another. I am not suggesting doing nothing. What I am suggesting is that we need to actively look at all our options. You are just proffering one solution – light rail. If we get it wrong that will be a terrible burden for regional ratepayers. Fortunately the Local Government Act requires that all Councils are well informed of all options when making such investments.
    Daran Ponter
    Regional Council Candidate 2010 Elections

  17. Diego Hurwitz, 30. August 2010, 8:23

    Dear Demetrius: Very well written article. I totally agree with it and your point of view. Recently I had the chance to travel to Melbourne and experienced their tram network (3rd most extended in the world) and I believe Wellington would be perfect for such transport. Not only Lambton Quay is the perfect choice, but some other streets such as Willis, The Terrace, Courtenay Place and most suburbs would be great choices for this transport method. Even the Cape Gauge (1067 mm) utilised by KiwiRail would allow trams to use at least the Johnsonville line on a tram-train basis.

  18. Daran Ponter, 5. September 2010, 23:33

    Dear Demetrius: At the transport forum today I heard you say that you expected central government to pay for a light rail system for Wellington. I understand, and to some extent agree with your rationale for this (principally that money currently being spent on tarseal and vehicle tunnels would be better invested in light rail). However, it alarms me that you can casually assume a positive reaction from the government. The government’s almost sole focus at the moment is on tarseal. The agencies tasked with providing for transport infrastructure neither have the culture, the flexibility or the inclination to consider initiatives like light rail. If we are going to be serious about light rail in Wellington, then the starting point has to be structural reform amongst the agencies involved in planning and providing for public infrastructure (i.e. a single co-ordinating agency with sufficient mandate to be able to consider a broad range of transport options).

    Lastly, you noted today that you see congestion charging as simply a stick and that you preferred the carrot approach (i.e. lay out light rail and the commuters will come). While I understand the rationale for this approach I am not sure that Treasury will. I suggest to you that light rail and congestion charging need to go hand in hand.

    Daran Ponter
    Greater Wellington Regional Council Candidate: 2010

  19. Demetrius, 10. September 2010, 3:36

    Daran, for a start, I don’t think this is the forum to promote further discussion on that meeting, but if you insist…..

    Yes, I unashamedly think central government should pay for tram-train in Wellington. So you agree that this is better than spending money on roading, but instead of telling me how you are going to contribute to achieving the structural reform you mention and changing the thinking of transport decision makers, you come across as willing to lie down and accept the current government’s road-focussed policies.

    There comes a time when you have to make a stand and I believe that public opinion, fuelled by the intolerableness of the current situation, is going to turn the tide. You need to stand by your principles and if you do in fact agree with light rail, it is your job to convince others, not to accept the current paradigm of more roads.

    Two things seriously concern me with your thinking. First of all, you seem unsure of where you really stand, and want to hide behind a screen of more studies and reports. We had all the information we need 20 years ago but most politicians don’t want to face the facts and you are simply another one of these. Do you deny that the peak traffic density in the main transport corridors in Wellington is sufficient to justify light rail right now? Do you deny that the buses cannot cope along these corridors at during peak hours? These are key questions. Secondly, your focus on congestion charging which you have mentioned twice in two separate comments, is a real concern. Unless you first give people a good alternative to driving, you will not achieve anything except cause pain. The congestion will remain because people still have to travel. But you don’t seem to be able to come up with a viable alternative, nor do you seem aware of the urgency of the situation.

    Daran, the only thing I can do is wish you all the best for the elections…. the 2013 elections, that is. Hopefully by then you will have had a chance to mull over the error of your thinking and you might join the bandwagon once Celia Wade-Brown gets things moving in the right direction.

  20. Benjamin Easton, 10. September 2010, 11:13

    Politicking now for light rail, when the Manners Mall revocation is certain to compound congestion, shows a culture of living beyond our means. Everyone should think hard about sensible inexpensive alternatives. [Abridged].

  21. Daran Ponter, 11. September 2010, 1:50

    Dear Demetrius. Structural reform takes time. It requires political will, changes in mandate, organisational cultural change, and collaboration. I am more than up for that challenge. But I have no sense that you have any perception of what an undertaking this is. Your simple and rather naive retort is “the government will pay”.
    I am concerned with your view that we should spend 100s of millions of dollars based on your research and some outdated council reports. Wellington ratepayers and taxpayers deserve much more robust consideration of the options to fix our transport problems. They also deserve transparency and the opportunity to be properly consulted. My concern is that you’ve made the decision for everyone already.

    You make a very good case for light rail, and I agree with much of it. But if you attempt to cut everyone down who dares to question you, you will simply be left with the support of 1-2 councillors. That’s a good start but its nowhere near enough.

  22. Tony, 13. September 2010, 16:40

    Demetrius: I too was at the transport forum on Sunday 5th and listened to your championing the need to add Light Rail to Wellingtons train, trolley and diesel bus services there and in this Scoop article. I want to raise three key questions I have with the proposed light rail option:
    * Why not simply improve the bus service ?
    * What difference will adding Light Rail make ? and
    * won’t the need to introduce interchange with Light Rail totally negate any advantages ?

    You claim in your article that “The buses are plainly getting in each other’s way, so how can they be prioritised further? … Minor tinkering will not make a shred of difference.” I absolutely agree that minor tinkering will make little difference but why not actually invest real money to give Wellington a proper Bus Rapid Transit system ? Auckland has seen staggering increases in PT patronage since the introduction of the Northern Busway. Wellington councils have done little to help our most popular form of public transport other than paint some green bus lanes and add a few primitive “B” lights to intersections. Wellington has no Intelligent Traffic System with integrated signal preference, bus stop redesign, bus tracking through GPS, integrated ticketing or proper express bus services all of which are basic elements of any real bus rapid transit system (such as the Los Angeles “Metro Rapid” System). You complain about bus queues, but the layout of Wellington’s golden mile does not even permit buses to pass each other ! Just investing in basic bus passing points would enable much higher levels of peak hour express bus services and greater reliability all at cost a fraction of light rail.

    That the transport agencies GWRC/WCC/NZTA have not provided the real investment for a Wellington City rapid bus system does not mean that it still would not work. Studies actually recommend this approach. One example is the Transit NZ 2006 report “Golden Mile Capacity Assessment”. This report concludes: “… that significant scope currently exists to reduce journey time, improve reliability and increase capacity over the length of the Golden Mile. The use of bus priority measures associated with link, signal and bus stop intervention would provide the basis for these improvements. . . . With the introduction of these interventions, capacity could be increased by 100 to 200 buses per hour in each direction.”

    You claim light rail will “only cost” $140 million (this estimate excludes several cost items BTW), a number I assume you obtained from the Opus report as part of the Ngauranga to Airport Study (N2AS). I took the trouble to obtain the detailed figures supporting this estimate and can tell you that for this money you only get 8 x “100 person” vehicles. Now I still cannot see how sending adding the equivalent of 16 trolley buses sitting on tracks between the Railway Station and Courtney Place will make much if any difference to the thousands of peak hour commuters arriving from the suburbs each morning when 200 odd buses cannot cope. That Light Rail does little is also reflected in the N2AS Technical Reports. Compare the N2AS Technical Report patronage model 2016 Base Case (table E1.4) figures with the Light Rail (table F13). This shows the Light Rail option will reduce car users by only -0.2% (278 fewer cars) and will only increase PT usage by +0.5% (155 more PT users). If you accept these predictions (and you accept their costings) you are actually proposing spending nearly $1 million per additional PT User. Not only would it be cheaper to by them a car each, it would be cheaper to buy them a bus each !

    Finally, the proposed Light Rail option will not only take over the most precious central corridor from the buses forcing those still allowed to run onto other routes, it will also force many bus passengers to change onto Light Rail with interchanges. This would be a disaster because it is a fact that passengers hate interchange. I can remember when the Newlands buses used to terminate on Brandon Street (outside Kirks) and I had to walk from there. When the councils let Newlands buses run through to Courtenay Place, patronage from North Wellington rose 40%. Forcing us all back to an interchange will reverse this gain with hundreds deciding, instead, to return to their cars.

    You claim “The case for light rail is overwhelming. There is no need for further studies, as they’ve already been carried out”. I have seen several studies such as the Golden Mile Capacity Study above, the Ngauranga to Airport Study and the 2006 North Wellington Public Transport Study (where Light Rail to Johnsonville was rated worst of 5 options). The studies I have read agree that Light Rail will be the most expensive option and say that other options such as a rapid bus system promise similar benefits for lower cost. So what study are you looking at ? Tthe other commentators, including Daran, who understand that Light Rail is a very expensive option (indeed the most expensive of all practical options) only ask that those who will have to pay should not only understand the full cost but also have confirmed that less expensive options really will not work. I know that improving the bus service is not as glamorous as flash new Light Rail vehicles. But Wellington City has the highest PT usage of any city in Australasia, an achievement largely based our residents deciding to take the bus. We cannot afford to stuff it up.

  23. Demetrius, 21. September 2010, 3:58

    Tony, I was wondering when you would put in an appearance and a plug for those lumbering fume-belching blunderbuses! Regardless of how much money you throw at the buses, you cannot bring them to a light rail standard of capacity, let alone incorporate all the other light rail advantages mentioned in the article. You will always have a second-best option and the worst thing is that it will not be any cheaper than light rail.

    Your disingenuous reference to “our most popular form of public transport” and “our residents deciding to take the bus” discredits you. Of course for those who use public transport, they will “choose” the bus because south of the railway station there is no other choice. “Capacity would be increased by 100 to 200 buses per hour in each direction”. That’s one bus every 18 seconds. Do you really believe that’s possible down the CBD, let alone desirable? It’s bad enough now, but can you imagine the noise and the fumes from all these buses? Here is a preview of the result:

    A busway takes up much more room than light rail. Where would we find the room for your bus passing bays in Wellington?

    Why didn’t you mention that Auckland’s Northern Busway cost about $50M per km, much more than a light rail system would have cost. An oversight? So much for lower cost. Another important fact is that rail is the most efficient means of land transport. Buses don’t even come close.: http://www.strickland.ca then click on “efficiency of different modes of transportation”.

    Integrated ticketing and GPS can be incorporated into light rail, too, so please don’t put these forward as exclusive advantages of bus. Cost of vehicles is a no-brainer, too. One tram replaces 4 buses or trolley buses and lasts 4 times longer (if you don’t believe this, do you know of any buses in regular service which are as old as the English Electric EMUs? Museums don’t count!)

    More reading on why rail transport actually attracts patronage whereas bus does not:

    Daran, I know I’ve been a bit tough on you, so please accept my apologies. You have every right, in fact an obligation, to explore the best option. But there is no doubt that money will have to be spent. The questions are then “Where will this money come from?” and “What will we spend the money on?” The answer to the first question should be “from a fraction of the money already earmarked to be spent on roads”. It is the job of local representatives to convince government and lobby for this, not just accept current road-building policy. The answer to the second comes from years of overseas experience, where light rail systems are springing up at an ever-increasing rate, whereas there are few new BRT systems, and there are a few that have have been or are being converted to light rail. In an ironic way we are lucky that we are so far behind the rest of the world, because we can look at overseas experience and learn from it without repeating their mistakes. We can also take advantage of well-tested technology.

    Whichever way we look at it, a fast and efficient light rail system operated by tram-trains which are fast, quiet, smooth, pedestrian friendly and offer level boarding for prams and wheelchairs, are powered by renewable energy with zero emissions, have the capacity of at least 4 buses, last 4 times longer and offer a seamless transition from the northern suburbs to the CBD and beyond, has to be good for Wellington. On the other hand, Bus Rapid Transit is a poor compromise with very few advantages and is by no means cheap. Light rail would future-proof Wellington against further increases in demand as peak oil starts to bite.

  24. John W, 18. April 2011, 11:23

    Planning now for a future of diminishing oil dependence, an increasing degree of de-industrialisation, shrinking population worldwide, less dependence on the global trade circus and with greater local self sufficiency is more commensurate with forecasts for the future than the band wagon of commercial growth opportunity we seem to be following.

    Much of the younger generation will not really know of the benefits of our Wellington trams, and the least known part seems to be the sustainability of their operation which was killed off by a managed campaign towards buses by councilors with an interest in the motor trade.

    Confusion saw the demise of a transport system with very low maintenance, low dependency on oil and all parts and maintenance being locally made or sourced ( except two small items patented in England ) Employment of local people rather than importing vehicles with a very limited lifespan and expensive running costs.

    The crowd-moving capability of trams was legendary. ( 30,000+ crowds moved from Athletic Park with normal traffic returning with the hour ). The whole thing was run by the WCC with modest fares. Virtually no private enterprise involved.

  25. vryn evans, 19. April 2011, 16:07

    JW – WCC trams were heavily subsidised by ratepayers, just as the private/public mass transport vehicles are today with additional central government funding. But yes, the trams were great people movers. WCC over decades destroyed the tramtracks, the current mayor also being a voting party toward their removal in favour of motor buses in the Manners Mall mess. Sorry to say that reverting back to tracked tram sets as advocated by the current mayor is a pipe dream, particularly so with the ever increasing city debt amounting to hundreds of millions. Perhaps trolley buses may be a better and less expensive substitute for trams ?

  26. John W, 22. April 2011, 23:30

    Vryn. Contrary to the myth that the trams were not economic, they made a profit, but when the bus accounts were amalgamated with the trams an overall loss was accounted. Numerous attempt by some Councillors to get them separated for proper appraisal were defeated. The mess and cost increased as buses proliferated.

    The convenient argument against the trams was based on the employment of two people to run a tram whereas the buses had only the driver. A stupid hollow argument as a wider analysis was needed including separation of bus and tram accounts and the efficiency of moving people without traffic hold up. Chalk and cheese on the latter point which was not considered in the council arguments. Life of plant, mtbf and robustness of construction all favoured trams.

    The current Mayor was not even in Wellington when trams were stopped. The Manners Street debacle is relatively insignificant.

    Short term hurdles like setting up costs are not particularly relevant. The long term return financially as well as compact efficient movement of people defines a medium sized city’s ability to function. . .Steel rolling on steel vs rubber on tarmac – no contest in every way except initial installation. Short term thinking got us into this mess and certainly won’t get us out of it. The present bus services have profit extracted by the private company running the show. Our infrastructure has been broken down and now includes extraction of private profit in our WCC services. While we follow this model, we will not get very far. [Abridged].