Wellington Scoop

Odd perspective from experts and consultants in transport spine study

by Brent Efford
A much-hyped Public Transport Spine Study, which grew out of the Ngauranga – Airport transport corridor study conducted under the previous Labour-led Government, is nearing its end. As usual, it is an exercise conducted by presumed experts and consultants, in which ‘civilians’ have a minor role.

A community reference group was formed. My experience of it is that it is too small (we are usually outnumbered by study team members), and key players who would be there if it had more credibility are missing. It seems to be a group which is called together to be told what has been decided, long after there has been any chance for our input to be meaningful. We get a presentation, and then we go home again.

My concerns about this process were already high when we were belatedly convened, which was after the important stuff, such as the terms of reference, was done, dusted and signed off by the current Government and Regional Council leadership.

My concerns were around three points:

1 The hypothesising of the “public transport spine” as being simply between the Railway Station and the Hospital – an odd perspective for a regional council and at variance with the geographical coverage of the Ngauranga to Airport study from which it came. It ignores the existing rail system, serving 75% of the region’s population and delivering 70% of total passenger km, upon which many hundreds of millions were being spent!

2 Despite “light rail” being given prominence in the terms of reference and the media (where it is often incorrectly called a “light rail study”), the study team seemed to have limited familiarity with the mode – not even correctly defining the industry acronym LRT in the initial documentation.

3 Presumably because it didn’t suit the ‘broken spine’ scenario in the ToR, all the reasonably recent investigations/proposals pointing towards an integrated (tram-train) rail spine – 1993 Travers Morgan, 1995 Works/MVA, 1999 RLTS, 2000 SKM Hutt City – were ignored. A Year Zero approach was taken. The “light rail” wheel has been reinvented for the purposes of the study – my expectation is that it will be declared to be “square” (too expensive/not achieving enough/whatever) and thus discarded!

Early on, I perceived issues in the documentation we were presented with. There was no opportunity afforded to discuss these details – some trivial, some fundamental – within the reference group. I compiled a 35-point list in April 2012. I had to arrange a special meeting with the then study team leader to discuss these. I was received courteously but even then I was not able to tease out the issues – I had to leave the list with him and hope that some notice would be taken of it. Some points were addressed but not enough to make me confident I was getting through in any substantial way. Points like the false separation of “bus priority” and “bus rapid transit” in the CBD context have since become major credibility issues.

My concern increased as further inconsequential meetings were being held.

Then the expectation that it would all come right in the end, given commonsense acknowledgement that the 75% of the region’s population north of the railway station do actually want to travel to and through their CBD, was blown apart by the Regional Council press release of 14 December 2012. It confirmed that the conceptual public transport spine extended only as far north as the Station. Even the Johnsonville Line (covering the northern part of the City Council’s Growth Spine plan) was not to be included, even though the Matangi noise issues on the line have made light rail there even more pertinent.

I suspect that the process is being manipulated to raise the bar against light rail while at the same time making some form of bus + ‘big interchange’ (i.e. broken spine) option appear to be a viable permanent solution.

Brent Efford is Information Officer for local advocacy group Trams-Action and is also NZ Agent for the UK-based Light Rail Transit Assn. To improve local knowledge, he publishes a near-daily e-newsletter about world light rail developments for a NZ audience. You can subscribe by emailing brent.efford@techmedia.co.nz


  1. Alana, 27. April 2013, 22:27

    This is an excellent, careful analysis – and is anyone from NZTA, or City Council able to comment? Wellington geography and size simply prohibits large scale motorways through it – the only alternative is public transport, and light rail should be a priority.

  2. Guy, 28. April 2013, 9:21

    I’m really disappointed to hear this. The city has a lot riding on this study. We were hoping for a good, strong, non-partisan examination of the issues of light rail, and I thought that the idea of a 3-year, $1million examination by external consultations would be the fair review that the subject needed. It is due back with the final report “in April” so the city is sitting here, waiting, in anticipation of the release within the next day or two.

    There are some real issues alive here. Light rail, and dedicated bus ways, are expensive systems to install. Financially, the odds are going to be stacked against either of these systems being implemented, given that we are a city of only 200,000 people. But overseas, cities as small as 100,000 have successfully implemented light rail, or trams, and it should be remembered that cities traditionally had trams with far lower populations – Napier had a tram system pre-earthquake when the population was just over 15,000. But the cost of installing systems is so much larger now, which is why the impartiality of this report is so crucial.

    If it is a fair assessment, and has covered the bases, and comes back with a definite answer based on facts, then I am prepared to accept the ruling and their recommendations. But if it appears to be biased, or has been deliberately stacked, or politically influenced, then it is worthless.

  3. Elaine Hampton, 29. April 2013, 7:33

    Sounds like more consultation theater.
    How many ‘civilians’ and how many ‘so called experts’?
    Small cities, smaller and not capital cities like ours which sets itself up as a ‘destination’ have excellent public transport. The inertia that repeats the mantra that we are too small, the population is too low etc becomes self fulfilling. A million dollars is used up. And public transport in Wellington, which is going to be so important as oil becomes so much more expensive, is not going to be fit for the purpose.
    But we will have a huge expensive concrete useless road of national stupidity bisecting the heart of our city.

  4. Luke Troy, 29. April 2013, 16:38

    Just to give a regional perspective:

    The Public Transport Spine Study takes its lead directly from the Ngauranga to Airport Corridor Plan. This multi-modal plan examined the future transport needs of this whole corridor and concluded that the spine through central Wellington from the central railway station to the regional hospital should be investigated with the intention of a step change to a high quality PT service. It is worth noting that the Corridor Plan saw the PT Spine as part of a long-term staged approach to improving PT, including upgrades to the Johnsonville line, bus priority measures in the CBD and bus priority measures on arterial routes.

    The public transport route through central Wellington is the most heavily used in the region and is a route used for key journeys to and within the Wellington City CBD. Improvements to this crucial part of the public transport network are being considered in the context of the regional public transport plan and the significant ongoing investment in our region’s heavy rail network.

    The study is still being completed and the final report is planned to be released in mid-June. A report on alternative funding options for a high quality public transport spine will also be released around the same time.

    There’ll be plenty of time for us all to debate the findings then.

  5. Cr Paul Bruce, 1. May 2013, 13:39

    Thanks Brent for hanging in there. Other cities of comparable size, such as Freyberg, show how well light rail integrates into a public and active mode transport system.

    I have been a strong advocate for light rail for 20 years, especially for use on the Johnsonville line, and was disappointed that GW made a decision to use the new Matangi on this line, which required an expensive upgrade of the tunnels, and as it turns out squeaky wheels and slippage and a less reliable service to what they replaced.

    GW Officers have advised Councillors that they believe the problem of slippage and squeaky wheels can be fixed. I have given them the benefit of doubt up until now, but am no longer convinced, and would like GW to consider a return to smaller wheel base trains in the form of light rail which can then also be extended through the city to Newtown and Kilbirnie along the high density route, providing much needed relief from Bus congestion in the Golden Mile and extra capacity for growth in patronage.

  6. Ross Clark, 2. May 2013, 23:44

    As the old quote goes, “Follow the money”. My guess is that the city and regional councils have abandoned the idea of light rail because even if it were recommended, the Feds are not interested in paying for it, and there’s no way the City, or even the City+Region, can. Or would, for that matter.

    Another issue is that the main justification for public transport investment is journey-to-work flows; outside that market, public transport’s role is not that great. While there are traffics which go /around/ the city centre (eg. Newtown-Lower Hutt), very little of it is for work journeys, and in a New Zealand context public transport would struggle, I judge, to secure much of this market.