Fixing a problem: why Wellington needs light rail, and why it’s not too expensive

by Paul Bruce
Wellington’s transport model has failed to deliver, and all the recent studies show more of the same is going to make things worse. We need a different approach if we want a vibrant, economically successful city.

The Wellington Spine Study has identified the solution to one of the big problems. It confirms what earlier studies found – we need high capacity public transport through a single spine if we are to deliver high quality and reliable public transport across the whole network. But it goes further than the earlier work, and tells us that only light rail on the spine can deliver all the benefits of a fully functioning public transport system.

Improved public transport will also reduce traffic problems, by allowing those who would like to use public transport to shift modes. In contrast more roads will make traffic problems worse. A 2012 Arup and Opus report predicts that the RoNs programme (Roads of National (Party) Significance) would ultimately lead to 96% increased AM peak period congestion along with longer commuting trips.

It’s been widely reported that the Wellington “Spine Study” report shows that light rail is too expensive. But it actually shows nothing of the sort.

All recent reports on transport through central Wellington have confirmed that we have a problem that must be fixed – our bus system isn’t working. That’s because there are too many buses competing for too little road space, and also competing with cars. The Public Transport Spine Study is looking at what might be a durable solution to that problem, and also provide a high quality service to users, and help support new businesses along the spine.

The Wellington “Spine Study” (to be released tomorrow) has already confirmed what other cities have proven – light rail has huge advantages over other options. The high capacity vehicles will solve the bus congestion problem that is making our bus system slow and unreliable. Rail guarantees level boarding (no stepping over that huge gap between the bus and the kerb), is more comfortable for passengers, and will generate greater business development and attract more users. And of course it allows us to have quiet, electric vehicles – no more noisy and smelly diesel buses next to shops and footpaths, and pose less risk to pedestrians.

Bus congestion is now recognized as the key problem for Wellington public transport. When your bus is late, that’s probably because it was held up in the Golden Mile, this run or on a previous run. Delays of 5-20 minutes are common, and eventually add up so much that services just get cancelled.

A Wellington bus review has grappled with that problem. The experts said we had to get numbers down to 60 an hour. The bus review has only managed to get it down from 140 to 110 in the AM peak.

Light rail can also be integrated with the existing heavy rail, allowing seamless journeys into the CBD for those users currently forced to get off their train at the railway station and walk or bus to work.

A light rail system offers a 21st century mode of transport in keeping with progressive cities around the world, such as Freiberg, Portland and Melbourne. The Dominion Post is leading a debate on how to make Wellington a more successful city. One feature that would attract business people, visitors and new migrants alike is a functioning public transport system, with light rail at its core, that makes travel in from the airport and suburbs simple and swift. This is the kind of transport that sophisticated overseas visitors and returning professionals are used to having. The walkability and public transport provision of Wellington is already a competitive advantage over Auckland – with light rail the difference would be huge.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that light rail can’t work in Wellington, because it is too small. But overseas cities with successful rail networks are a similar size, and often have more challenging geographies. The spine study work has confirmed that light rail will work in Wellington – a conclusion also reached in earlier studies. Indeed, light rail was part of a 1999 regional land transport strategy.

Another argument is that the money isn’t there. But the National Government is forcing a $2.7 billion road building spree on the region, with many of the roads having negative economic benefits. Public surveys show that this isn’t the transport spending priority of Wellingtonians – and in fact it isn’t even NZTA’s transport priority for Wellington. Both the public and NZTA’s only strategic work show that improving public transport is a far higher priority for available funds.

Bus options simply can’t do what light rail can, and any bus option that came close would undoubtedly cost as much or more. There isn’t a cheap option out there, notwithstanding what can be read into the spine study. There are also some serious questions about the accuracy of their costing – the costs cited for light rail are significantly higher than those in other studies and in other cities.

But even if their costings are right, light rail would cost far less than the proposed roading developments, and provide real, long term solutions, not temporary patches and new long term problems.

But the benefits identified in the study are only some of the benefits. Because the study was limited to the area from Ngauranga to the Airport, the flow on benefits to the suburbs of reliable and fast public transport, and the benefits to rail users commuting from the other cities, haven’t been added in. Put those in, and the benefit cost ratio of even an expensive light rail option will be high.

Light rail could provide a new choice to commuters along the WCC preferred growth spine, and at the same time allow some of the 70% of commuters coming from north of Wellington Railway Station a faster way of reaching destinations to the south.

Because of its limited terms of reference, the Spine Study conclusions are answering the wrong question. But the detailed analysis, when applied to the right question, tells us that we need light rail, light rail is feasible, and light rail is affordable.

I will be arguing to our Council that the Regional Passenger Transport Plan should be updated with a series of staged projects that would deliver modern light rail as part of the desired integrated network.

light rail map.

Paul Bruce is a Wellington regional councillor

 

15 comments:

  1. George, 17. June 2013, 20:04

    Light rail will be a giant white elephant. Wellington has neither the population or the topography to support it. Rate payers should not be saddled with the enormous costs associated with it. Learn from Zealandia.

     
  2. Ross Clark, 17. June 2013, 20:40

    Here’s a much simpler idea. Get rid of or at least reduce the number of cars coming into the CBD at peak times.

    110 buses/hour is equivalent, on a pcu basis, to 330 cars/hour. Given the extent of commuter parking in the Wellington CBD, a solid clampdown on commuter-specific parking would reduce the number of cars coming into the CBD at peak times and encourage drivers to use public transport. However, I’m not sure that local politicians are seriously looking at such an idea.

     
  3. Curtis Nixon, 18. June 2013, 12:49

    Light rail IS the future. 64% of voters on Stuff’s quiz agreed with the question – “Do you think light rail should be investigated further for Wellington?”, versus 21% against.
    I totally disagree that wellington’s typography doesn’t support it. The opposite is true – Wellington’s typography does NOT support loads of cars jamming up the limited space in the CBD and along our main transport spines – light rail is the ideal system to maximise limited space.

     
  4. Alana Bowman, 18. June 2013, 14:25

    Light rail to the airport, rather than more LA style motorways, is more practical and less costly over the years. Why does the airport, with part WCC ownership, support the flyover? Is it to keep all that income from the car parks and the fees paid by the taxis?

     
  5. erentz, 18. June 2013, 16:52

    This study was a complete waste of money. The outputs are next to useless. It gives us nothing we didn’t already know. In fact this study may actually be damaging to public transport in Wellington because it was scoped so badly. This was admitted when they extended the scope to include Kilbernie. But they should’ve realized can’t leave out the Kilbernie to Airport and Miramar section either. That is the spine.

    The result now is that they are proposing a split route for LRT, one route to Newtown, and another boring a new tunnel through Mt Victoria and then running through Hataitai to Kilbernie. This makes no sense. Better to bore through Mt Albert and then run all the way to Miramar as one line. Or if pursuing the split option it would be much better to close and refurbish the existing Bus Tunnel, then use the savings for extending the Kilbernie line to Miramar.

    A whole bunch of the study’s conclusions about Light Rail are invalid. I hope the council can use this report to get itself over its biases and accept that the city will need to adopt LRT as the mode at some point, so we can start planning for that. But then we will need to rethink how best to service the spine using LRT because this is not the right answer.

     
  6. Sridhar, 19. June 2013, 13:19

    The problem with this kind of study is it takes a narrow view of cost benefit analysis. So they take the cost of putting light rail and proceeds from the tickets and then say this is the BCR ratio.

    What the study will never tell you is, with public transport (and hence reduced cars on the road), there will be less need for additional road capacity, meaning savings in capital costs, as well as less operational expenses on roads due to reduced wear and tear. If these savings are also factored in such studies, BCR will looks lot different and better compared to what is presented.

    In short this study is incomplete. And why not. If NZTA had done a complete stidy and presented a favourable BCR on light rail, that would have negated arguments in favour of the Basin flyover, which is their pet project

    But George is correct one one point. Topography may be bit of a challenge. But if we can build roads on such topography, it shouldn’t be so difficult to do so for light rail.

     
  7. Nick, 20. June 2013, 13:40

    Good point Sridhar, there are much more benefits when you look into it a bit deeper. On the Auckland Transport Blog they did a benefit analysis of the proposed inner Auckland City Rail Loop. Inner city land values near the new proposed stations would skyrocket, attracting more people, new businesses and density. In Wellington terms, think of what a light rail station could do for say Newtown?

    Also: the amount of land that motorways take up is much larger than that of rail. By having this motorway monster run straight through the city, how many hectares of valuable inner city Wellington will we lose? Then there’s the adjacent land that is de-valued – the Basin for example or Ruahine St. Light Rail does the opposite – it increases the value of adjacent land.

     
  8. Elaine Hampton, 20. June 2013, 14:11

    Why, I have to ask, are we stuck in a can’t do mind set.
    We are not too small, we are not too hilly and it would not be more expensive than Rons in central Wellington, plus more buses and more cars that more roads generate.
    Cheapest is dearest my granny always used to say, still so today.
    How much further behind other OECD counties do we want to fall. Quality transport generates income and business and is worth paying for. What will be the use of a direct flight from Asia if it is not met by a rapid form of transit as people nowadays expect. Lines of individual taxis are so last century.

     
  9. Stan, 21. June 2013, 19:55

    Wellington as a city is great but when it comes to population we are not even a drop in the ocean. Consider how many huge cities in the world are blessed with a direct rail route to their respective airports. Sydney, Heathrow, Hong Kong, Seoul, Bangkok, Athens to name a few. It would be a wonderful dream to provide a direct light rail route to Wellington Airport from Wellington Railway Station. The missing link though is all about numbers. In other words we are “small fry” in a wide wide world. Realistically it’s all about the numbers game so lets accept this.

     
  10. Mike Mellor, 22. June 2013, 10:44

    Wellington airport may not be large enough to have a dedicated rail link, but Wellington city is certainly large enough, with high enough passenger densities, to have a light rail system – one of the strange things about the Spine Study report is that it says that an alternative CBD spine is required, with full-time bus lanes, because the Golden Mile couldn’t cope with all the vehicles needed to meet passenger demand, but places like Nottingham, Sheffield, Croydon and Manchester manage with a single CBD light rail route. It wouldn’t be that hard to service the airport on the way to significant places like Miramar, and a tunnel (albeit a bit small) on the right sort of alignment under the airport already exists.

    At least the Spine Study comes out in favour of a decent public transport corridor, at a fraction of the cost of current roading proposals, which hopefully will go some way to offsetting the disastrous consequences of the RoNS predicted by the regional council’s experts, such as congestion being twice as bad as it is now.

     
  11. Cr Paul Bruce, 22. June 2013, 14:46

    Reply to Stan:
    Remember the main rationale for light rail is not to provide a link to the Airport, but to provide adequate capacity along the Golden Mile (where significant bus congestion occurs), and the growth spine, which is Adelaide Road through Newtown and in Kilbirnie – logical route is the shorter route from the Zoo direct to Coutts Street – the tunnel would be shorter and cheaper than a new road tunnel near Basin Reserve. However, roads are non-negotiable, while we will always take the cheapest option for public transport, or perhaps nothing at all!

     
  12. Stan, 30. June 2013, 18:40

    Reply to Councillor Paul Bruce:
    In good business sense there has to be a Return on Investment. If politicians vote on political motivations, commonsense goes out the window. Any investment of ratepayer monies must be viable which boils down once again to the numbers game. If for example Light Rail construction costs $396 million then the question must be asked as how “payback” can be viable. So far no one has presented a business case where such a huge investment for Light Rail can be repaid and sustained to recover the cost of the investment by the ratepayer.

     
  13. Maximus, 1. July 2013, 4:02

    Stan, well, yes, that’s the way the money men see it – and it’s a myopic vision. Do you think that 19th century London asked themselves those questions all the time, or did they just go ahead and do it? It’s worth noting that all of the big cities of the world got that way by implementing ways of getting workers in from the outlying areas, as fast as possible, and then home again. In London, they did that with the train, and then the Underground – each time it grew massively and then the bill was handed onto the next generation. Railways back then must have been extraordinarily expensive things to build, and yet build them they did. Cities that sit still and say what is the return on investment, rarely make it out of the starting blocks. Cities that expect people to bus it in every day, fail.

     
  14. insider, 3. July 2013, 10:48

    Err maximus, the underground was designed, built and funded by a series of private companies. So it was the money men asking the visionary questions as well as coming up with the answers.

     
  15. Mike, 3. July 2013, 11:43

    Stan

    How about applying the same “good business sense” to the government’s roading proposals, with their benefit/cost ratios of less than 1, ie money being poured down the drain?

     

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