A win-win case for rapid light rail along the waterfront

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by Daryl Cockburn and Neil Douglas
We believe the time for light rail in Wellington is now. It could provide the arterial high capacity, high quality and rapid southern public transport connection that Wellington needs.

Rapid Light Rail appeals to people more than bus and rail transport – this is a continual finding from market research overseas. That’s because the image, status, and higher quality of modern trams gives them the ‘feel-good’ factor, and feeling good about ourselves is a fundamental desire that should be key in planning Wellington’s future transport.

We have developed an alternative waterfront route for rapid light rail in Wellington which is far more cost-effective and can operate at reasonable speed without pedestrian interaction and without construction disrupt costs. With office developments, WestPac stadium and Te Papa all being built since the 1992 study, a light rail route along Jervois Quay is attractive. It would also enable diesel buses to be reduced on Lambton Quay and Willis Street, leaving these streets for pedestrians and cyclists ‘first.’ A win-win.

At $93million, the first stage from the station to the Embassy would be the same price as the divisive Basin Reserve flyover being imposed on Wellington by the Transport Agency. We think Wellingtonians deserve to be given a choice: light rail or the flyover. Our local election candidates should be judged on how they would spend $93million: would they build a concrete flyover or make Wellington the envy of New Zealand with classy light rail.

The city side of the boulevard along Wellington’s waterfront quays from the station to the Embassy is the ideal corridor to introduce rapid light rail, and could be easily extended to the Stadium and CentrePort. A junction on to the main line will enable the existing rail depot facilities to be used. The dilapidated eastern side of the railway station would be revitalised with a new platform & veranda.

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A new rapid, high capacity rail service would take 7 minutes from the Embassy to the station – twice the speed of buses. There is only one corner – where Wakefield Street meets Cambridge & Kent Terraces – and only three stations; at Clarries for Lambton Quay (a 200m walk)and Queens Wharf; the back of Civic Square for Willis & Cuba Streets (both 200m); and behind Reading Cinemas for Te Papa (200m )and Courtenay Place, (a 100m walk). The stations will provide easy and quick walks to all Golden Mile destinations. And the pedestrian experience along our nation’s premier retail and business street would be enhanced by the removal of diesel buses.

Three-quarters of our region’s population lives north of the railway station and around 11 million trips per year are made by rail to and from the station. Most of these are to places of work or study within a walking distance of the station. The RLR would not seek to attract these ‘healthy walking’ trips but aim to attract the rail users who transfer to buses, or the car users who currently don’t use public transport because of the ‘steel to rubber wheels transfer penalty’.

The airport at the southern end provides a strategic ultimate destination for the rapid light rail service. The airport is not a major trip generator, but it would be an anchor destination conveying an exotic association for locals and a highly marketable image for visitors. As a strategic transport link, it would help garner national funding support. Airport patronage is forecast to double from 5 to 10 million trips in 2030. The high quality Airport Flyer bus service is highly rated, unsubsidised and clear evidence that people will pay for higher quality. RLR would build on this demand by providing an even higher quality service and a service less subject to unreliable traffic conditions.

Our initial costs, based on official UK Department of Transport figures, place the infrastructure cost at $93million for the three kilometre first stage from the Stadium to the Embassy. Two pairs of rapid light rail vehicles could provide a 10 minute shuttle with the vehicles leased rather than purchased. Our project would be designed to achieve an economic benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 which should justify most of the capital costs to be funded by central government.

Daryl Cockburn is a Wellington architect & town planner. Dr Neil Douglas is a Wellington transport economist who has carried out over 30 transport surveys, including this year when he designed and analysed a large-scale market research study for Sydney Light Rail, involving over 6,000 interviews of bus, rail and LRT users.

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