Wellington Scoop

Anti-rail – why the bus decision won’t make public transport more attractive

by Brent Efford
The Spine Study will do nothing to make public transport more useable and attractive for the overwhelming majority of greater Wellington residents.

I used to be a member of the Regional Transport Committee, back in the days when “lack of rail penetration of the CBD” was recognized as an issue to be resolved and there was interest group representation. I was also a member of the tokenistic and ignored Reference Group for the Public Transport Spine Study.

It is quite apparent to me that the Spine Study was, from the start, a exercise promoted by the NZ Transport Agency to crush the persistent threat of rail transit as an alternative to the continued expansion of State Highway 1. ‘Roads only, not sustainability’ is the mantra.

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 visits Wellington quite often – some of you may even have met him – and after his latest visit last August he emailed this telling comment about the spine study:

… “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… It should be dismissed.” (email 19/8/13)

The Spine Study got off to a bad start when the Terms of Reference were issued, based on the absurdity that “the” (note the definite article) public transport spine extended only from the Railway Station to the Hospital, and that so-called “connections” north and south were only “possible”. The study arose from the Ngauranga – Airport study, which made no such silly assumptions about the extent and continuity of the private transport spine: State Highway 1.

Greater Wellington is a metropolis of nearly half a million, very highly concentrated on its CBD for employment (about 50%) and for most other travel-inducing functions like entertainment, tertiary education, tourism and so on. The degree of concentration into one CBD travel corridor and a compact core is very unusual, worldwide. For 75% of the metro population the public transport spine is electric rail, which carries 70% of the passenger kilometres and covers 92% of the main corridors shared by State Highways 1 and 2.

But Wellington is highly unusual in having a mature but incomplete electric rail transit system that does not penetrate its CBD. And we are surely unique in having a transit planning agency which has reversed its previous policy, and is now not seeking to fix that patronage-killing situation but perpetuate it. So much for being some sort of enlightened world-class “green capital”!

It was clear to me on the reference group that neither consultants nor staff had any experience of light rail, and their antipathy was obvious. Hence the model of light rail they produced, which can only be described as a straw man, set up to be knocked down as Professor Newman suggested.

Another result of the Spine Study is the intention that the impact of buses in the CBD will be increased – at a time when the problems of heavy bus traffic and the desire for a more pedestrian-friendly Golden Mile regularly hit the headlines.

Moreover, the bus rapid transit model (in reality only ‘bus priority’ – true BRT in downtown Wellington is impossible), coupled with the short shrift given to trolleys in the Bus Review, necessarily means de-electrification and more diesel buses, since trolleybuses don’t fit the model and unwired electrics are still impractical for trunk use. So we move further away from the goal of carbon neutrality that we once paid at least lip service to.

All over the world, light rail transit schemes are established to provide a seamless, comfortable and high-capacity journey from the suburbs into and through the CBD. For the vast majority of Wellington metro residents are concerned, the Spine Study means that this default attribute for a modern city will remain just a dream. The Public Transport Plan is set to adopt that stupid policy.

In 1993 the regional council and the railways produced a light rail proposal which the Evening Post noted would “create exciting possibilities for recharging retailing and ending commuter agonies” and that it “is a sensible option and needs now to be propelled to the front of the transport agenda.”

21 years later that has all been forgotten. It is my prediction that, because it is so ill-suited to greater Wellington’s actual needs, any passenger transport plan incorporating the Spine Study eventually will be, too.

Brent Efford is NZ Agent for the Light Rail Transit Assn and Information Officer of Trams-Action. This article is based on a presentation which he made today to the Regional Transport Committee – about its Review of the Regional Passenger Transport Plan and the incorporation of the Public Transport Spine Study into it.

For a more detailed presentation on the PTSS see: http://sustainablecities.org.nz/2013/09/exploring-proposed-public-transport-options-for-wellington/

Decision against light rail: bigger, faster buses chosen


  1. Alana, 4. March 2014, 21:57

    This is an excellent summary of history of local public transport and an evidence based analysis that is valuable. Will Greater Wellington incorporate this into their planning decision? or just ignore it?

  2. Brent Efford, 7. March 2014, 23:09

    In my experience, ignoring, in favour of a 1950s ‘roads-first’ (or roads only, not sustainability, or RoNS) transport policy has become the GWRC’s default position.
    The pity is the political leadership that we thought might come from a “green” Mayor of Wellington has evaporated. An amazing contrast to the pro-light-rail leadership that is normal for mayors overseas.

  3. James, 12. March 2014, 22:31

    There’s a little bit of hope, in that Constable Street is likely to be designated anyway.

    I think someone needs to make a decision about whether the spine, regardless of which vehicles, is a replacement for the city buses or the express buses.

    If it’s a replacement for the city buses, then it should go where the people are: Lambton Quay and Constable Street. If it’s a replacement for the express buses, it should go where the traffic’s (trying to be) fast: the waterfront and Ruahine St.

    At the moment, it’s a mixture of the two.