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Why the spine study should be scrapped

by Brent Efford
The Regional Council’s Public Transport Spine Study has little credibility technically, and if it is implemented it will leave the greater Wellington public transport system permanently crippled with its current broken spine.

This isn’t just my jaundiced opinion. Internationally, Professor Peter Newman is one of the most prolific researchers into urbanism and sustainability – he literally wrote the book (in fact several of them) on sustainable cities and reducing car dependence, and has the practical experience of being the father of Perth’s enormously successful electric rail system. He spoke at a Centre for Sustainable Cities seminar in Wellington only a few weeks ago and later made this email comment:

“The light rail option is crudely dismissed through excessive costs and few benefits, while the BRT option is highly inflated with benefits that cannot be justified … There is little science behind this study and a lot of politics as it appears to clear the way for motorway spending. I don’t think I have seen a study quite so crudely apparent in its anti-rail politics. It should be dismissed.”

Before we start, a clarification: we are talking about a steel spine which should be the backbone of a network in which buses deliver most of the trips, even if not most of the transport, designed according to the principles of NZTA research paper 396. We don’t suggest that “our” mode is the only one needed for a complete network.

The spine study is notable for what is missing from its terms of reference:

• sustainability and climate change mitigation and adaptation;
• any understanding of the relationship between transport mode choice and urban liveability and economic development;
• any concept that the public transport spine should be comparable to the state highway spine in terms of reach and continuity;
• any intention to provide better modal choice at a time when car driving is leveling off,
• and any sense of capitalizing on Wellington’s embedded renewable energy as a transport fuel.

Most egregious of all is the definition of the public transport spine in a way that ignores the vast bulk of the greater Wellington population. “The” spine apparently runs only from the railway station to the hospital. The study team later found reasons to extend it southeast – on a separate route, moreover – but not north, where 75% of the regional population actually live.

Greater Wellington is a mid-sized metropolis of nearly half a million, with a very high commuting focus on its compact CBD, which houses about 50% of the jobs as well as most of the entertainment, tertiary education, cultural and tourist facilities. And the CBD is also the region’s fastest-growing population centre. To the south of the CBD lie the regional hospital and airport and other generators of region-wide travel.

The confused concept drawing issued with the terms of reference trivializes the relationship between the CBD bit of the spine and the vast bulk of the region lying to the north.

The rail system is the public transport “trunk” for 75% of the metro population, who live north of Thorndon. Rail carries 70% of the total PT passenger/km (but needs only 37% of the operating subsidy), and it covers 92% of the SH1+2 transport corridor. The “spine” is steel by any commonsense measure.

Through-the-CBD operation of spine services is the practice or ambition of every urban transit system in the world – from the London Underground to the average small city bus system. It is the reason for promoting the $2.9 billion Auckland City Rail Link. It applied to all of the cities I covered in my 2003 study tour and every other city I have visited.

Collecting passengers along the line and then dumping all of them at a stub terminal on the edge of the CBD is the least efficient and least economical way of operating any public transport service.

The desire for a continuous steel spine has been around a long time. Things got serious in 1959 when the Ministry of Works designed a rail subway to Newtown, intended to be built before the urban motorway. In 1963 a consultant’s report shortened the line and placed the terminus at Courtenay Place. It was deemed in 1966 to require some urgency, and the underground line remained in the district plan into the 1970s. Fifty years ago, De Leuw Cather perceived what is now denied.

By the 1990s modern trams, or light rail, were back in fashion. Lobby group Transport 2000 proposed to extend the Johnsonville Line to the airport, and this got wide publicity and commercial support at the time. This sparked an investigation by the regional council which produced a 1993 plan to convert the electric rail system to tram-train and extend it south, and that was further fleshed out by a second report in 1995. The 1999 Regional Land Transport Strategy envisaged extensive deployment of tram-train throughout the region in the 2004-19 period.

Then, as usual, nothing happened.

In the 21st century we are told that the need for a completed rail spine no longer exists and that the broken spine delivers a better public transport system.

So if the study team was handed a poisoned chalice with such reality-denying terms of reference, how did it address the challenge of producing a sensible report?

Lets look at their light rail scenario.

First, a big cross at the Railway station because there is no connection to the rail spine. In fact the means of interchange is ignored, implying that the current congested and time-wasting arrangement is all that is intended.

But it’s not all bad – the Golden Mile is confirmed as the main route. This provides better access, more opportunities for higher PT priority and pedestrianisation, and will attract the most passengers. So a tick for that. And another tick for putting both tracks on the western side of the median in the northern section of Lambton Quay.

But once we get to the Basin Reserve it all turns to custard. A second route just to get to Kilbirnie is a big cost-add, looks blatantly like an attempt to create a bad look for light rail and postulating that state highway one expansion will have spin-off benefits for public transport. Professor Newman spotted that. So another cross. And even if there was a case for a second line, the congested Basin Reserve area is quite the wrong place for a junction. This looks like another flyover justification to me. Another cross.

Going along the unnecessary Kilbirnie Branch it gets worse – two new tunnels for the double track. This almost doubles the cost of the whole light rail scenario. And why? Because it is claimed, despite all the overseas experience and the trolleybus wires in other Wellington tunnels, that you can’t have overhead wires in a road tunnel. Another cross.

So into a widened Ruahine Street, essentially a motorway – the very worst route for LRT (or even BRT) with no on-line transit-oriented development potential and little on-line passenger potential. It will create a wider corridor, biting further into the town belt, and will conflict with traffic on/off SH1 at several points, creating extra costs for mitigation. Another cross.

Into Wellington Road and Kilbirnie Crescent – a convoluted (and therefore slow) route with a probable need for property purchase, further increasing cost. Another cross.

And what is missing?: a depot for the line! If it is unable to use the existing multiple unit depot – and of course if it is not linked it can’t.

Add the missed opportunities between the Hospital and Kilbirnie and we get two out of 10 – hardly a pass mark for a report which is claimed to be authoritative.

Finally, if we don’t have light rail we miss out on a lot more. We miss out on a big modal switch to public transport. Just providing a through service helps – when the Newlands bus started running through to Courtenay Place its patronage went up 60%.
But being on rail helps a lot more. In Karlsruhe, Germany, connecting city tram and suburban railway lines boosted patronage by hundreds of percent on some lines. US cities have recorded big transit patronage increases when converting from express bus to light rail.

We miss out on the chance to further pedestrianize parts of the Golden Mile. The Manners Mall fiasco is a reminder that buses and pedestrians have to be kept apart, but trams and pedestrians share space in most tram cities.

We miss out on productivity – far fewer vehicles are needed for modern tram services – with per-passenger-kilometer operating costs two-thirds that of bus.

We miss out on easy access: roll-on roll-off convenience with modern rail guided vehicles is taken for granted.

We miss out on the opportunity to ride the wind, using local renewable electricity, showcasing Wellington’s sustainability credentials to the world

We miss out on the urban design opportunities which can mix uncongested high-density public transport with a human-friendly green environment.

And we miss out on a range of economic benefits.

Brent Efford is the Wellington-based New Zealand agent of the Light Rail Transit Association. This is an edited version of a presentation which he made to a TPSS seminar at Victoria University this week.

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1 comment:

  1. Dr. Jim Baltaxe, 27. September 2013, 8:01

    The so-called Wellington Transport Spine study is almost Taliban-like in its deliberate mis-information and outright lying about the proposed Light Rail proposal, much less its value and benefits. The terms of reference, as Brent said, were deliberately skewed in order to create a straw man for entrenched interests to knock over.

    This is no different in principle from the Gnat government’s suppression of powerful scientific and economic criticism of their preordained goals. Once again, we need a really impartial and independent study to evaluate the real costs and benefits of light rail in the city centre and as the core of Wellington’s transport spine.