Wellington Scoop

Why trams are inevitable for Wellington

Opinion from Trans-Action
The use of modern trams (light rail) along the core Wellington CBD spine is inevitable, because bus systems cannot (or will soon be unable to) deliver the required passenger capacity in the space available, along the Golden Mile in particular.

We consider tram-train to be the most suitable form of light rail transit for the Wellington region, because it can operate both on city streets – mixing readily with pedestrians in pedestrian malls (unlike buses) – and on rail lines that are used also by “heavy rail” trains. This would allow the continuous running of rail services on the existing rail network through the CBD to parts of Wellington City south of the CBD. The technology has been well proven in cities overseas and is developing quickly. It was the model for Wellington rail transit development endorsed by consultants’ reports in 1993 and 1995.

Trans-Action welcomes the broad approach to network design proposed in the regional council’s bus review, as a first step towards developing a modern, efficient and effective public transport system.

The current public transport network suffers from some serious problems, including:

• High inefficiency, due to competition with cars on core routes and bus congestion
• Poor capacity on some peak services, adding to the unreliability problems faced by users
• Poor legibility
• Gaps in coverage, and services not matching journeys
• A planning focus on discrete corridors rather than an integrated network for the whole region.

The Wellington Railway Station problem highlights the last two points. The system as currently designed treats this as a final destination rather than the waypoint it should be for most rail users. The attempt to reduce this problem by the development of the bus terminal failed because neither ticketing nor location created a true integration between Golden Mile buses and the rail system.

The general approach taken to network design appears to be appropriate, for a bus-dominated system. We are disappointed, however, with some of the detailed design features, often features that appear to have resulted from changes to what was originally proposed by the council’s consultants.

In particular, we are, like many other commentators, disappointed at the treatment of the trolley bus routes. Electric public transport is an important element of Wellington’s system, and both a real contributor to, and symbolic of, the city’s environmental sustainability commitment. It should be enhanced rather than reduced. We are not convinced that the extent of loss of trolley buses is required by the intent of the review. We believe that some adjustments to the design could reinstate the core trolley routes without losing the benefits of the network improvements.

The bus review work has confirmed the long-recognised capacity problem in the Golden Mile. Bus congestion, combined with lack of bus priority, is a major source of inefficiency in the network, and reduced reliability of services.

Buses waiting for other buses at stops are being seriously delayed. As a result, they aren’t reaching their suburban stops on time, and what should be regularly spaced services becomes a mix of several buses at once, long gaps, and services cancelled without warning because drivers can’t get back onto timetable.

That is a serious problem for users, and considerably reduces the attractiveness of public transport in Wellington. If users have to take an earlier bus because timetables are so unreliable, that has the same effect as infrequent services or long transit times. For example a resident of Island Bay wishing to attend a concert in the city might have to leave home 1-2 hours before the concert, despite the direct journey time being only 25 minutes.

That sort of poor reliability and overall journey times makes any congestion effects on car users in Wellington City pale into insignificance.

The bus review proposes to resolve that problem by having a maximum of 60 buses an hour in the Golden Mile, and pushing other services into other streets.

That clearly has significant negative effects on passengers. The proposed route for express buses is likely to be negatively affected by car congestion, and there are no proposals in the review documents for addressing that problem. And pushing more buses onto the Terrace route may considerably reduce legibility of the system.

In our view, the only permanent solution to the Golden Mile problem is to increase capacity by moving to light rail. We agree that this cannot be achieved overnight, but would urge the design of the bus network to be refined to ensure that the shift to high-capacity rail vehicles can be done without further changes to the network once the spine study is complete.

Our other area of key concern relates to network integration between bus and rail, and between Wellington City and the rest of the region.

The rail network is already a core of the public transport network in the Wellington region, and that must continue. The fact that services stop at Wellington Railway Station, rather than continuing through the Golden Mile to service more destinations, is a serious problem for public transport. This is part of the reason for the problems facing North Wellington PT users. This problem can be solved by tram-train, as studied and endorsed several times in the past two decades, and that development must not be further delayed, but in the short term integration of bus and rail needs to be well designed to maximise the benefits of the rail network and reduce the impact of traffic on public transport. We would urge further consideration of the North Wellington arrangements to achieve that.

We also urge further consideration of how Hutt and North Wellington services are integrated, and integrated with rail, for users in the Ngauranga/Kaiwharawhara area.

We agree that more transfers will be necessary to create a highly efficient network. But it is vital that the arrangements minimise the effect of these on passengers. In particular:

1. There must be fully integrated ticketing. If that cannot be achieved in the short term because of contractual arrangements, then at the very least the companies should be urged to agree to integrated multi-trip passes (e.g. a monthly pass for people using services from Ngauranga to the city, allowing them to use trains and both Valley Flyer and Mana buses).
2. Transfer points must be well designed. The failure of the Kilbirnie Town Centre review to address the bus interchange area, and the odd decision by GWRC to put two separate RTI screens at the stops, are a good example of how not to make transfer points attractive. In contrast, the proposal for an indoor waiting area in Manners Street is one that we hope GWRC will be able to achieve.
3. Legibility of the system is particularly important for passengers who will have to change mid-route, so they will have confidence that they are on the right service. Colour coding of core routes is one way to achieve that.

Trans-Action is a trust advocating for integrated public transport in Wellington. We see rail as essential for the main spine of the public transport network, providing the main links between transport nodes (hubs), with bus services feeding to these hubs.


  1. KB, 22. May 2012, 23:29

    Hold your horse on the light rail.

    Give it 5 – 10 years and cheap, battery powered, driverless, on demand ‘Pod Taxis’ will be a much much much cheaper & efficient option to get around the CBD.

    Switching to light rail will prove to be a very costly, outdated mistake that we will be stuck with for decades before eventually discarding.

    Seriously, just give it a little time, this is one problem technology will quickly have solved for us.

  2. traveller, 23. May 2012, 18:39

    KB: I think you’ll find that the pod taxis idea has been rejected by the current review of public transport – because it wouldn’t be capable of carrying enough people.

  3. KB, 27. May 2012, 13:10

    Would that depend on the number of units? Plus it would eliminate the current bottlenecks, with pods being at least half as wide as a bus.

    Queens Wharf underground carpark would be the perfect storage hub for hundreds of these units.