12 hours from Wellington – they’re building light rail and tunnelling

by Neil Douglas
I’d landed in Perth after twelve hours travelling from Wellington. You spend longer flying over the desert than you do over the Tasman. It was 9.30pm and I was tired but I was jolted back into life by a loud-mouthed miner.

“I’ll give you $50 extra, just get me to the Casino now” said the huge iron-ore miner with a German accent. A squadron of east coast planes had just landed at Perth airport. I’d come out of the airport and saw at least 150 queuing in the sheep holding pen for taxis.


To avoid the taxi queue, I’d walked across to the shuttle bus. There were only six European female back-packers and an old woman with a daisy festooned wide brimmed hat waiting. Two minutes later the bus jerked to a halt. “$15 bucks mate”. I asked him whether the taxi queue was always that long. “It’s unbelievable mate”, the carrot hair topped driver said in his sweat stained shirt. ”Just as bad last night, the airport’s bloody useless at managing anything, if you ask me”.

That’s when the big German miner stumbled onto the mini-bus. We shot off out of the airport and sped towards Perth. “How about $60 cash then – nobody minds dropping me off first, do you?” he turned his head round and looked at us. None of us said anything. “You’ll see more of Perth and I’ll get to the Casino fast – I wouldn’t be on this thing if there wasn’t a ridiculous queue for a taxi”. “I don’t know” says the bus driver, “we don’t work like that”. “$60 and its cash” retorted the miner “We don’t take anything but cash!” the driver countered. “But I suppose I could drop you on the opposite side of the road”. “Back to $50 for that” the miner quipped.

So we detoured to the Casino and I guess the driver was $50 better off when he got the miner’s bag out of the trailer. “Rich stupid miner – I was going pretty close anyway,” said the driver when he swung back into his seat. He dropped me off in the heart of the city and the cleaners were out in force. Now where was the Wentworth Plaza Hotel? After a couple of wrong turns in the Hay and Murray Street malls I found it. An economist’s dream at $A120 a night, as Perth’s hotels are not cheap. The only compromise was a shared bathroom.

Perth’s a city awash with money and people in a hurry to spend it. It looks like Adelaide or Auckland but it’s way longer at 100kms long and 20kms wide. “It is even less dense than LA” said Hugo, a wise semi-retired Swiss transport planner I met at the WA Department of Transport.


I was there to provide some advice on how many people might use the MAX – a Metro Area Express Light Rail service planned for the city and to provide some assistance on the economics of the project.

What a contrast to Wellington. In Perth the attitude was “let’s just build it,” a message that emanated right down from the top since the Transport Minister wants Light Rail and an airport rail link as well. In WA, the Transport Minister Troy Buswell has real clout because he’s the Treasurer too. How unique is that I wondered and thankfully, Troy Buswell is not spending ‘his’ money building ‘Roads of National Significance’ like Gerry Brownlee in New Zealand.

Nevertheless, some steam was fizzing out of the WA economy with a star deleted from WA’s *** credit rating during the week I was there. The mining boom had slowed, so there may be a need to be careful about spending a billion or two. Good news for economists like me, I thought.

“How will you fund the MAX?’ I asked Hugo. “Well, I helped start a car park levy in 1999,” he said. “The car parking money is dedicated to public transport and Perth has used it to fund free buses in the central area and to help fund the MAX.” What a good idea. You pay money to park your car on the edge of town and then you ‘drive’ into the city on a free bus. Compare this with Wellington and most places where you’d park your car for free at say Petone station and then pay a train fare to travel into Wellington, the same as someone who’d walked to the station. We should consider a $2 a day levy on Wellington’s car parks and spend the money on buses, trains and cycling.

On my last day, I went to an office yum cha and on the walk back the planners showed me where the rail station and the Wellington Street bus station were being put underground. It was part of a $4 billion project to link the CBD to the nearby entertainment district underground and to improve the city centre with things like a dedicated cycleway. Contrast this with the NZ Transport Agency’s plan to build an ugly $100 million flyover at the Basin Reserve. We should get some West Australian engineers to come over to Wellington and give advice on urban tunnelling.

I scanned a newspaper and amazingly the Phoenix was playing the Perth Glory that night at the NIB stadium. The game was at 6.45 so I’d have plenty of time to catch my plane home at 11.30pm. I caught a train from the CBD underground station and it took me close to the NIB stadium for a bargain $2.50. The floodlights were on, the game had just started and I could hear the crowd singing from way down the street.


The NIB is an old stadium dating back to 1904 when it was the Perth Oval used for cricket and Aussie Rules and as its name suggests, it was an oval. In 1996, when Perth Glory started in the A league, the fans were too far away from the action so temporary stands were erected close to the pitch. Then in 2004, a $200 million transformation began to convert the stadium to the ‘rectangular’ stadium it is today. The logic was clear as the Sports and recreation Minister Terry Waldron said: “There is no question that a rectangular stadium provides the best viewing experience for sports such as rugby union, rugby league and soccer”. So why did Fran Wilde opt for a soulless cake tin, I wondered.

What an atmosphere the Glory fans created on Friday night jumping up and down and singing songs in the northern stand. Most of the songs were initiated by a man with a loudhailer. They praised the Glory, denigrated Sydney and every time Phoenix goalkeeper Glen Moss ran up to take a goal kick, made a loud chant about sheep.

If you’d been there you’d understand where Wellington rugby player Victor Vito was coming from when he tweeted in May that the Wellington cake tin had no atmosphere and the players didn’t like playing there. That was just after the A-League football captains had voted Wellington’s Westpac Stadium the worst for atmosphere. Absolutely positively not a title that Wellington wants …

Transforming our stadium from a round to rectangular for soccer and rugby should be high up our project ‘wish list’. Certainly, it should be higher up the list than a runway extension or a Basin Reserve flyover. What ‘value’ do you put on your youth having a communal singsong – keep-fit session? If not, Gareth Morgan should start talking to his rich mates about funding Victor Vito’s suggestion of a new 17,000 rectangular stadium.

Spurred on by the crowd, the Glory scored and what a goal it was by Brazilian winger Sidnei whose shot screamed into the top right hand corner. Who was he? I’d never heard of him or anyone else in the Glory side. There was no Shane Smeltz nor William Gallas (their new ‘marquee’ ex Chelsea player). Perth’s regulars were injured and they were fielding seven under 22s and a 16 year old debutant.

It didn’t matter to the crowd. They were ecstatic. Then, ten minutes before half time Huysegemson had the skill to score a goal just as good as Sidnei’s. It didn’t shut up the Glory fans as they sang even harder until half time when it was monster hot dogs and beer and the Perth police bagpipe band marching up and down.

Into the second half and to the disbelief of the crowd, Paul Ifill glances in a header off his nearly shaven head. We can thank Paul’s barber for that goal! It’s 2-1 to the Phoenix. Can we hang on for 40 minutes? No, only for ten, as Glory defender Michael Thwaite scores with a diving header. 2-2, what a roller coaster!

It’s a calamity for the Phoenix with twenty minutes to go. The ref sends off Phoenix’s Albert Riera for a missed tackle and a second yellow card. “Off, off, off” bay the crowd but Albert hadn’t got a first yellow card. The ref ‘gaffed’ and was mobbed by protesting Phoenix players. The red card was rescinded and Albert got subbed instead which started a wave of substitutions and it all got rather messy but we were holding on. Oh no! Zahra scores with a low shot. It’s 3-2 to the Glory. The Phoenix attack but can’t get an equaliser. Into extra time and it’s all over when Glen Moss fumbles a shot from Sidnei and the ball squirts into the back of the net. 4-2 and another defeat for the Phoenix. But what a “ripper of a game,” declares a cheery Aussie.

I get a taxi to the airport and ask the driver how much an airport cab stand costs. “$2” he says. “It’s $7 in Wellington and Auckland” I reply. “$7 for a cab stand – that’s ridiculous” he says. He then says that there are now too many taxi drivers. It was alright during the mining boom but they licensed too many cabs so they drive around all day for not much.

I liked Perth. I went there to advise them on economics but I learnt a few things too. Perth has built roads but is now serious about improving public transport with Light Rail and an airport rail service. They are rectifying past mistakes by burying their transport to improve the amenity of the city centre, and they fund their buses through an innovative car parking levy. They have transformed their oval stadium into an atmospheric rectangular home for soccer and rugby. Wellington can certainly learn from Perth about these infrastructure ideas. And what about the Phoenix? Like the Glory, the Phoenix has young talent like Louis Fenton of Tawa. Ernie Merrick just needs to give them their wings and they’ll soar again too.



  1. Daryl Cockburn, 11. December 2013, 17:27

    Says it all. Light rail funded from car-parking and a rectangular stadium! Did we have to include NZ Cricket?

  2. Bob Wilkinson, 11. December 2013, 19:52

    People waiting for taxis at the airport? Maybe we could send some of the Auckland hunger strikers over to Perth to help out.

  3. Ben Ellis, 11. December 2013, 20:36

    Very interesting read. A number of lessons for transport economists and sports fans alike!

  4. Dave B, 11. December 2013, 21:03

    Great piece Neil. While Wellington futilely struggles to cram its arterial public transport spine down a 2km-long, largely pedestrian shopping alley (speed limit 30Km/hr), in Perth they just get on and put theirs underground!

    “Oh, but Wellington hasn’t got the population to afford an underground”, someone will surely chime in. Well funny that, since it apparently does have the population for a $2.4 billion highly-uneconomic motorway.

    And anyway, whoever said that an “underground railway” has to be below ground? You can put it at ground level then box-over it, landscape it, and make it appear underground for a way cheaper price.

    The possibilities for rail to do for Wellington what it has done for Perth are exciting and real, and are only stymied by blinkered attitudes and closed minds, wrapped in endless tired excuses.

  5. Richard Paling, 11. December 2013, 21:27

    A great and entertaining analysis. As Neil ably points out, the Australians are good at delivering projects. It is also noticeable that they take a much more active role in managing the traffic on their roads, reminding people that there are other road users to be considered and obviously penalising those who forget – lots of messages about seat belts, texting, driving slowly in a middle lane etc.

    And as well as light rail, Perth has a very effective and well used rail service, again with lessons for Auckland and Wellington

  6. Peter Thornton, 11. December 2013, 23:05

    As usual penetrating and fearless analysis from the eco wizz of Wellington. But please lay off the joys or value analysis of shared bathrooms, or our clients will have us all doing it. Mind you, a half share of a bathroom is better than one down the hall.

    Did I miss something but there seemed to be no discussion of beer?

    Yes Perth is a special case in the region – and they have made a real commitment to retrofitting rapid public transport. But it’s still a place where you can see a driver using his iPad while driving down the freeway!

  7. SydneySider007, 12. December 2013, 1:02

    Excellent piece Neil. I felt like I was there, every minute. You should write travel books. I was in Perth last September and travelled on a none mining day and the taxi driver seemed quite relieved it was the off season. I suppose combining Transport minister and Treasurer sounds daunting, in NSW it would never work but in WA it is bit like combining the posts of Town Hall clerk and superintendent of bus services so there is probably less to do.

    Keep it up!

  8. Neil, 12. December 2013, 8:07

    Peter, regarding beer – I drank my fair share (after work mind you) and with some of the project team, who are a great bunch. Reminded me of a time in Wellington with Paddy and the band and their Crowded House rendition of Waltzing Matilda.

    Now right next to the Wentworth Plaza in Perth is a BRITISH pub with a fine range in english and scottish pub ales. So you don’t have far to go to stagger home but don’t forget your door key or you’ll lock yourself out when you go to the kazi.

    I also talked a drilling ship crew member who berated the price of beer in Perth. He brewed his own – but that’s another story.

  9. Stephen Bargwanna, 12. December 2013, 9:12

    What a superb piece of gonzo journalism from Neil Douglas, stitching dry old transport economics with beer,footy and travelogue. Perth is basically a dull flat mono city with a great river, ocean frontage and lifestyle. They have made up for the sins of the road-driven past with new heavy and light rail investment and transport ministers with vision and balls. Wellington has the physical beauty but needs some infrastructure investment vision….scrap the cake tin and flyover….build a proper footy field and light rail, learn from the west Aussies. Otherwise,like Hobart you will become a quaint irrelevant backwater of the Australasian diaspora!…ps to the politicians, money always follows good projects!

  10. Kerry Wood, 12. December 2013, 9:15

    Nice one Neil. But I am not sure about undergrounding in Wellington. The reclaimed area is already a little vulnerable to storm surge and high tide together, before either sea level rise or tsunami. I have a copy of a Swiss explaining public transport cost-benefit to British readers, and he has it all wrong. The Swiss, and others, just don’t do it that way, and look at the results!

  11. Brent Efford, 12. December 2013, 9:27

    The survival of suburban rail and the subsequent success of Perth’s electric rail is in large part due to the advocacy of urban sustainability and transport expert Prof Peter Newman – the complete opposite of the Fran Wilde et al anti-rail denialism now rampant in Wellington.

    He was last in Wellington in August and had a look at the Public Transport Spine Study. He had this to say (in an email):

    “I asked one of my PhD’s to critique the Wellington Public Transport
    Spine Study and he came … to the same conclusion I did: the LRT
    option is very crudely dismissed through excessive costs and few
    benefits and the BRT option is highly inflated with benefits that cannot
    be justified from the literature. 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. I attach the paper that shows how transfer
    penalties are not anything like those assumed here and another that
    shows how dramatically rail is growing around the world. Perth rail
    costs are almost ten times less than those assumed here. It should be
    Peter Newman
    Prof. Peter Newman
    John Curtin Distinguished Professor of Sustainability”

  12. Alex Wardrop, 12. December 2013, 12:44

    Well, I will take the role of the gringe. I frankly have never had any problems crossing the railway to Northbridge. “Sinking the railway” has been a long Perth obsession from maybe as early as the 1970s.
    I have availed myself of the free CBD buses from the mid 1990s as the service grew and on-line next bus advice developed. They are a response to a long thin CBD running from the WACA to West Perth. The suburban bus network has been a bit of mystery although I think buses set down and picked up as they ran the length of the CBD. The aging bus station was a means of getting laid-over buses off the streets (a continuing problem for Sydney). I am not sure what role LRT can realisticaly play in Perth where inner urban residential densities are like everyone else’s outer suburban densities. Across all modes Perth is still way behind in mode share (see the late Paul Mees’ analysis of the ABS’s JTW statistics) although its trains have overtaken Brisbane’s by providing a better level of service at shitty seating levels. I have had mixed success with Perth’s hotels. I am reminded of Miss Maude’s in the economy stakes in the 1970s and 1980s. It may still be there although it may have gone slightly upmarket from its backpacker origins. Finally, the only true winter ballgame is with an egg (and not a Sherrin) and 13 a side. The summer ballgame can only be leather on willow. I tremble at the thought of your next travel dialogue from Sydney!

  13. Jeremy Bentham, 12. December 2013, 13:58

    great read from the fearless mr douglas

  14. Fred, 12. December 2013, 14:38

    Neil, you know this government is user pays – why buy light rail when you can get the consumers to buy and run their own vehicles, with an unlimited supply of petrol and climate change the work of the gods. Does it really matter if a stadium is square or round? If it is empty it has no atmosphere.

  15. Neil, 12. December 2013, 18:36

    I like your style Fred but 8,000 in a small square 17,000 stadium has more chance of being ‘atmospheric’ whereas in the 30,000 seater cake tin they would be snow peas in a drum.

  16. LMP Mudd, 12. December 2013, 20:32

    Ok Neil. Wizzo it is. I loved the rail system but that sand would get to me. Good for tunnelling I guess. Rectangles vs circles? I wondered about that. My couch is rectangular, most are, and I get a crick in my neck when viewing TV while jammed into the vertex. How do you stop vertexigo when watching a rectangular game while seated in the vertex of the stadium – I guess the short answer is you buy early. But I’m never that orgnaised.

  17. Judith Dunne, 13. December 2013, 2:08

    Travel writer extraordinaire! Great piece, Neil. I enjoyed reading all about transport, transportation and sport. Wellington and other places should indeed learn from the mistakes and successes of other cities.

  18. Neil, 13. December 2013, 8:53

    Ovals and circles do have their place. For me, Wellington’s picturesque Basin Reserve oval beckons on Saturday to watch the W.I.B. side take on NZ. And how I wish I was in Perth at the WACA today to watch the first day of the Third Ashes Test Match between Australia and England. Hopefully it will be more of a contest than the last two. I’ll be watching it, just like you LMP Mudd, on my rectangular TV from my rectangular couch in my rectangular room.

  19. InnerCitySuburbanite, 13. December 2013, 11:03

    Where can you find crowd stats for 1-dayers at the caketin? I suspect in most instances the Basin would suffice. I certainly agree the stadium should be reconfigured for rugby and football… not sure about reducing the capacity though, we’d definitely lose the sevens if we did that. Which some may be quite happy about, but I feel it’s an event Wellington should hang on to.

  20. Fred, 13. December 2013, 14:03

    Question Neil, did the cake tin have atmosphere when NZ played Mexico? it certainly had atmosphere out-side, and I know you were on the in-side. As to the size, you say it is too big for local sport, but promoters say it is too small for one off music/sport events, there is no perfect size to fit all. Keep up the good work.

  21. Neil the statistician, 13. December 2013, 15:40

    InnerCitySuburbanite: You can get attendance figures on all the games at the Caketin via the following link – (and previous years)

    There weren’t any one day cricket matches in 2013 but there were three 20/20s
    855 went to see the Auckland match 23rd Nov
    782 went to see the Central Stags 22nd Nov
    The cake tin was 2/3rds full (19,568) to see England on 15th Feb

    22,183 Melburnians flew over over to see the relocated Swans take on St Kilda, but Melburnians will watch anything in tight shorts and sleeveless shirts.

  22. Neil, 13. December 2013, 18:30

    Fred, Yes – I was there and the atmosphere was good for the Mexico game but it could have been fantastic if we could have miraculously moved the NIB stadium from Perth to Wellington (and some of their supporters too as they have a range of songs not just All Whites… All Whites….All Whites….Also I wouldn’t have had to watch the big screen so much to see the ball when it was over the half way line.)

    Look, the cake tin is here to stay – you have to live with the politicians’ mistakes as well as their occasional successes. But we do get the politicians we deserve.

    I think Gareth Morgan and the Phoenix is looking at options possibly Newtown but for the big games we will have to put up with Fran Wilde’s cake tin for the rest of our lives.

  23. Brent Efford, 13. December 2013, 20:07

    Expanding and better using Newtown Park is a great idea. A (light) rail spine direct from the CBD, then through the hill to Kilbirnie and the Airport would really make it all work. It is about time that the business community got behind light rail as their counterparts in the US do.

  24. InnerCitySuburbanite, 14. December 2013, 14:22

    Is replacing the oval of the caketin with the oval of the Newtown athletics track likely to lead to an improvement in atmosphere?

  25. Neil, 14. December 2013, 15:13

    Quite right Innersuburbanite – no point swapping one oval for another. It has to be rectangular … but maybe the Phoenix are looking at Newtown Park to save money or to get better hot dogs at half time.

  26. Paul Bruce, 14. December 2013, 17:27

    Great article Neil, and you inspired a whole lot of emphatic responses,
    showing that you were right on target! Well done.

    Now the challenge is to make sure all WCC and GW Councillors are suitably briefed before a joint meeting 21st February to consider the hearing panel (Spine Report) outcomes.

  27. Polly, 15. December 2013, 21:20

    $120 and a shared bathroom? That’s a rip off!!!

  28. Neil, 16. December 2013, 9:48

    Polly: It was more expensive that I would normally pay. I pay $85 in Sydney for a great small hotel in North Sydney (i’m not going to give the name away or else everyone will go there!) but $120 per night was the cheapest I could find at short notice. Most of the hotels I found were over $200 a night. Miners have put up the price for everyone else.

    The shared bathroom was good as the shower gushed with water. The toilet could do with an upgrade though.

  29. Neil, 20. December 2013, 13:54

    Update ** The stars are falling off Perth. First the credit down rating, which happened whilst I was there. Then a week later, the Glory manager gets sacked for picking his two sons (must be a world first?) and annoying his senior players Mr Burns et al. The the LRT build decision gets put back three years till the next election.

    I visited at the peak! Its been a downward shooting star since.


Write a comment: