Wellington Scoop

An uphill battle for light rail

Wellington’s light rail advocates are welcoming the news that the government is looking at funding light rail between the North Shore and the Airport in Auckland. They rightly point out that this could be a step-change in how public transport projects are funded – by making light rail eligible for the same 100% central government funding as motorways, thus putting trains on the same footing as cars. But the hope that the change of direction might signal support for a Wellington light rail system looks misplaced.

A simple analysis shows there are three major differences between the proposed Auckland light rail system and its Wellington equivalent, and all of them mean that the odds of the government committing public money to light rail here in the capital are practically zero. Let’s dive in and see how the cities stack up.

Problem 1: Auckland is growing, but Wellington isn’t

The sheer momentum of population growth north of the Bombay hills is driving much of the transport investment in Auckland. Simply put, more people equals more need for those people to move around the city, particularly as it sprawls outwards. So the money that both the Auckland Council and the government have been pouring into the city’s transport network is an exercise in running to stand still. If they weren’t investing, the annual population growth would see the city grind to a halt in the not very distant future.

As Statistics NZ notes:

The Auckland region is projected to account for three-fifths of New Zealand’s population growth between 2013 and 2043, with an increase of 740,000 from just under 1.5 million to 2.2 million (medium projection). Auckland’s population is estimated to have surpassed 1.5 million in the year ended June 2014, and is projected to reach 2 million by 2033. In 2028, Auckland would be home to 37 percent of New Zealand’s population, compared with 34 percent in 2013. By 2043, the population of Auckland could make up 40 percent of New Zealand’s population.

The perception is that Auckland’s transport funding is going mostly on motorways, but the truth is that there’s also been some pretty hefty investments in public transport, such as the electrification and upgrading of the Auckland rail network, the implementation of the North Shore busway, and the upcoming spend-a-thon on the cross-city rail tunnel. That’s not to say that everyone agrees the mix of cars and public transport has been correctly balanced, but right now, the only feasible option is to spend money everywhere in an effort to keep up with the city’s population growth.

Wellington simply doesn’t have that problem. Looking out over the next 30 years, Statistics NZ predicts that the Wellington region will grow at around 0.5% per annum – barely more than a third of the rate of Auckland – and that some areas in the region (such as Lower Hutt) may even have population decreases. So it’s plain that the imperative for the massive infrastructure and transport spending doesn’t exist to the same extent in the capital.

Which is not to say that there’s no need to upgrade our transport infrastructure. Clearly, investment will be needed, but the burning platform of population growth that’s driving Auckland is merely a set of smouldering embers in the capital.

Problem 2: Auckland Airport is a major transport hub for the country, and Wellington never will be

Light rail to the airport in Auckland appears to be a no-brainer, simply because of the number of people passing through it and the distance from the airport to the CBD. Auckland is a major entry point for international tourism, which is growing very rapidly – to the point where it’s now New Zealand’s largest export earner. As Auckland Airport’s annual report said:

In the 12 months to 30 June 2016, the total number of passenger movements was up 9.1% to 17.3 million. International passengers (excluding transits) were up 8.1% to 8.8 million, and domestic passengers were up 9.8% to 7.9 million.

So on top of a surging population, Auckland is also bearing the brunt of the tourism boom, and transport investments need to keep up with the level of growth.

Once again, Wellington simply doesn’t have that problem. Arrivals through our airport are increasing, but the numbers pale into insignificance compared to Auckland. The airport’s annual review makes much noise about the fact that domestic arrivals grew 4.5% in the last financial year and international arrivals by a whopping 16%, but these are off a very low base – for instance, international arrivals are only expected to break the 1 million per annum mark by 2018, and the 50% increase in domestic arrivals since 1990 means that a little more than 4.5 million people came through Wellington airport. Combined, those numbers are well less than a third of Auckland’s throughput.

Paradoxically, one of the things that would lift tourism numbers into Wellington would be the proposed runway extension, which would theoretically allow more direct international flights. However, many of the advocates for light rail are also opposed to extending the runway, so their opposition to that project may end up undermining the rationale for investing in light rail at all.

Problem 3: Auckland is politically important to the government, and Wellington isn’t

The government is highly sensitive to Auckland’s issues, given the electoral importance of the city. The weight of population north of the Bombay Hills means that Auckland’s issues end up becoming Parliament’s issues, and the demographics of the country mean that it’s almost impossible for a party to win the government benches without also doing a pretty good job in the Auckland electorates. The parliamentary focus on Auckland – housing, transport, education, quality of life – is therefore highly pragmatic, and is equally true of Labour as it is of National.

So the recent media attention on problems getting to and from Auckland airport will be making for uncomfortable reading in the Beehive. Stories of more than two hours to get to the terminal, flights missed, cancelled flights due to aircrew being stuck in traffic and all the rest should be causing sleepless nights for some of Auckland’s MPs. They will be demanding action so that the government’s reputation for good management – and coincidentally, their re-election chances – aren’t undermined.

And even the most pro-roading Auckland driver can see that the previous policy of simply widening roads is no longer working and will be casting around for alternatives. In that context, light rail is a great solution – it is high-capacity, high quality, comparatively cheap compared to some of the alternatives, and – importantly – demonstrates decisive political action.

None of these imperatives are true in Wellington. In electoral terms, both Wellington Central and Rongotai are regarded as safe Labour seats, and both lean heavily Green in their party votes. So while congestion on the way to Wellington airport may inconvenience government Ministers, they won’t be losing their seats over the issue – which means they won’t be losing too much sleep over it, either. And a few points of movement in National’s party vote in a couple of Wellington electorates probably won’t make enough of a difference to swing an election one way or the other. So there’s no political momentum for handing out a huge cheque for a light rail system in the capital.

Is light rail in Wellington a dead idea?

The challenge for light rail campaigners in the capital is that they have yet to make their arguments in ways that will resonate with national politicians. Light rail isn’t an engineering problem – it’s a political and economic one, played out on the national stage. Without the tail-winds of population growth, burgeoning airport arrivals and political imperatives, their discussions about track widths and routes are falling on deaf ears – as more than a decade’s worth of inaction on a putative light rail system demonstrates.

That’s not to say that light rail would be a bad solution for Wellington – on the contrary, it could be a very good one. But as the announcement last week demonstrates, Auckland’s light rail campaigners are doing a much better job of convincing the government that it’s a good investment, and in the national interest.


  1. Leviathan, 18. December 2016, 9:38

    PCGM – excellent post, thank you for taking the time to write it. While it is obvious that Auckland is growing faster than Wellington, I’d point out that it is the way we are both growing that is the relevant point here.

    Auckland is growing in an out-of-control manner, much like the spread of a malignant cancer. It is growing faster than the infrastructure growth can keep up with. It is non-sustainable, and harmful to itself. Auckland has some serious, serious structural issues and like a cancer, I’d keep well away from it. It has not planned for its growth and it can’t handle its growth. Like a doctor frantically putting in stents and drips and feeds and extra untested drugs, AT and NZTA are desperately trying to cure the patient without killing the patient. Only time will tell if they are successful. The lesson is; plan ahead.

    Wellington, on the other hand, is growing at a more sustainable pace. Not too fast. Not sitting at zero growth, not dying, but just small, steady, reliable growth. The sort of growth that a city can plan ahead for. We are growing, and we want to continue to grow, and we know we don’t want to grow in the manner that Auckland is growing, so we need to plan how and where we grow. That’s where an argument for Light Rail in Wellington comes in.

    Our city will want to grow sustainably, not out along the northern transport corridors, but grow around existing transport routes and the “growth spine” which is already serviced by Public Transport. Wellington will want more people living here, but will not want them with more cars. There is only one way to get that: good quality, better quality, higher speed, better public transport systems: Light Rail. We need to be planning it now and implementing it soon. It is the only way forward, unless we want to end up a basket-case like Auckland.

  2. luke, 18. December 2016, 12:37

    I agree it will be an uphill battle. However a Light Rail route to the airport would also double as Wellingtons City Rail Link between the Railway Station and Courtenay Place/Newtown (where a lot of the much smaller growth is going) and would not cost anything like Auckland’s CRL ($3 billion depending on who you talk to) let alone airport Light Rail along Dominion Rd.

    I don’t really see the Airport as a destination for Light Rail anytime soon; more that it would be built in a few stages and one stage would see it reach the Airport. Well after the Runway extension and the Terrace Tunnel Duplication (Assume that’s where we get the dirt for the runway extension from).

  3. Ian Apperley, 18. December 2016, 13:56

    I agree with your points and I wonder if we have an additional factor in play down here, that being that the Councils and various Transport players are unable to deliver a cycleway, much less light rail.

  4. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 18. December 2016, 23:51

    All good comments, except yours Ian! There’s a huge central government budget and a big council team currently assigned to new cycleways in Wellington. Expect to see lots of well researched proposals coming through in 2017.

    Light rail will certainly be in the mix of options discussed and evaluated in the new year as part of the “Let’s Get Wellington Moving” initiative between NZTA, GWRC and WCC. I’m on the governance panel alongside the Mayor of Wellington, the Chair and Deputy Chair of GWRC and the CEO and Regional Director of NZTA, and I’ll be doing my bit to ensure the process moves us ahead on transport issues in 2017.

  5. PCGM, 19. December 2016, 8:32

    Leviathan – Your points are good, and well made. Although I think there are probably a few Aucklanders who might take issue with their city being compared to a cancerous tumour …! Even if an Auckland-based colleague did suggest that Wellington’s economy was rather like the ecosystem on a sub-Antarctic island: “Stuff does happen there, just v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y”.

    As I was trying to point out in the article, the challenge for light rail is not whether it’s a good solution, but whether it’s worth the money, and who will pay for it. And that’s where all the challenges lie.

    After all, just because something seems like a good idea and is feasible in engineering terms doesn’t mean it will (or should) be built – just look at the airport extension for an example. With good reason, we insist that spending hundreds of millions of dollars needs to have some sort of economic rationale, so the airport has been required to create a business case.

    Whether or not you agree with the airport’s conclusions, it seems obvious that a putative light rail system needs to do the same – after all, the system as proposed will probably be more expensive than the airport extension. And as I recall, the last time this was done was for the transport spine study, which concluded that bus rapid transit provided more bang for the buck.

    So there lies the conundrum for light rail in the capital, and the primary obstacle to the government being prepared to fund it. Everyone agrees it would be a good solution, but that alone doesn’t seem sufficient to have the government put its hand in (our) pocket.

  6. KB, 19. December 2016, 9:16

    Good post. I would also point out that most of Wellington’s population growth is occurring in the central city (apartments) rather than the south eastern land constrained suburbs. So that is another reason we don’t need a hugely expensive light rail system. Wellington’s traffic issues are nothing like the scale of Auckland’s, and part of that is thanks to the close proximity of the airport to the cbd. Just consider – there is a waterfront walking route which starts on the waterfront opposite the railway station that takes you all the way to the roundabout at the tip of Wellington Airport’s runway (it would be a great route for an automated pod vehicle system that doesn’t use any road space – the only tricky part would be the last few hundred meters)

  7. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 19. December 2016, 11:24

    “It would be a great route for an automated pod vehicle system that doesn’t use any road space…” Interesting… Like a monorail? Or would it run along the footpaths, bowling over the walkers and joggers?

  8. Ian Apperley, 19. December 2016, 13:15

    Lol Chris! I guess as they say, the proof is in the pudding. It is going to be an AMAZING pudding, because it’s been baking for decades. 🙂

  9. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 19. December 2016, 21:34

    I swear it’s Wellington’s only choice
    Throw up your hands and raise your voice

    What’s it called?
    Once again

  10. Traveller, 19. December 2016, 21:42

    Didn’t Sydney demolish its monorail? Too ugly and obtrusive?

  11. KB, 20. December 2016, 8:19

    Who said anything about a huge costly monorail? I’m talking about autonomous electric vehicles that don’t use any tracks and allow for more passengers in a smaller space due to no need for a human driver. If the council want to deal with traffic with outdated 20th century thinking that’s going to be their problem.
    Anyone after a primer on personal rapid transit systems (like that used around Heathrow) check the Wikipedia link as an example. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ULTra_(rapid_transit)

  12. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 20. December 2016, 9:55

    Hi KB, I’m actually quite a fan of the Heathrow automated pod-based personal transport system ULTra, having used it and toured the control room shortly after it opened. I wouldn’t call it rapid transit – it’s actually quite slow – but it’s an interesting and viable example of a system tailor-made to a particular niche requirement, in this case to replace shuttle buses on a short low-volume route between Heathrow Terminal 5 and the business carparks. It certainly has potential uses in many similar situations around the world. For example, one could conceivably run above the footpath between the ferry terminal at Aotea Quay and the railway station, although it might struggle with the sudden peak demands of ferry arrivals. I wouldn’t see it running above Oriental and Evans Bay Parades, however, mainly due to the visual effect and its low carrying capacity, and it needs separate tracks so couldn’t run at ground level. In fact, with its unique elevated track system, it functions very much like a monorail, although somewhat more adaptable but less elegant.

    WCC and GWRC do need to be open to all types of new transport technology including of course autonomous modes, which will gradually replace driver-operated public transport. Please excuse my jibe at monorails – every public transport professional and local authority transport leader has received their fair share of public calls for monorails, claiming they’re the solution to many transport ills, when in fact their application is extremely limited. And they’ve been promoted by one or two dodgy companies, hence my delight in sampling and adapting the famous ditty from the Simpsons’ Marge versus Monorail episode, 1993.

  13. PCGM, 20. December 2016, 9:59
  14. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 20. December 2016, 18:51

    I could see driverless mini buses like these shuttling passengers up and down Wellington’s hills in 5-10 years’ time, connecting with a more substantial public transport system running along the main commuter spine/s. Quiet, clean, convenient and cheap. Exciting times ahead!

  15. Kerry Wood, 21. December 2016, 8:56

    The mistake here is treating light rail at a city-wide level, when a more realistic level is the corridor, or corridors.

    Comparing Riddiford St with Dominion Rd makes sense because both have busy bus routes and space for light rail.

    Comparing the golden mile with Queen Street makes less sense, but still points toward light rail. Auckland has alternatives to Queen Street but Wellington has very few alternatives to the golden mile. The bus route is badly overloaded and already carrying twice the minimum passenger numbers needed to make light rail viable.

    Buses are still necessary (where would a passenger transfer from light rail to get to Brooklyn?) but buses and light rail cannot share a busy route. The bus problem is the stops, and sharing them with sixty metre trams would create instant chaos. Of course, Bus Rapid Transit is another option, but it needs four lanes to match the capacity of light rail, and finding two lanes for light rail will be difficult enough.

  16. Ross Clark, 22. December 2016, 0:43

    Kerry, the bus route through the CBD would work a lot better, if not perfectly, if it didn’t have to share the route with so many cars. And no amount of investment in LRT will encourage (the majority of) drivers to shift to an LRT system if they can still drive into town and have somewhere to park. It’s tackling the availability of commuter parking that people are still, as far as I can see, avoiding.

    And I really don’t see the Feds as being up to funding light rail for Wellington – too many other demands on their funds – which is critical in this discussion because there is no way that the city proper will front up for more than about a quarter of the cost.

  17. Luke, 22. December 2016, 9:30

    Keep the reduced number buses on the golden mile and use 1-2 lanes out of 6 along the waterfront into light rail between the station and Courtenay place. People can have a slow trip on the bus or a quicker one along the quays on the light rail.

  18. KB, 23. December 2016, 10:27

    Here’s another solution – autonomous shuttles.

    In regards to a railway station to airport waterfront route, vehicles like these could use allocated space on the waterfront where it is safe and plentiful, and use existing roads where it isn’t. No rails or new infrastructure would need to be built.

  19. Kerry Wood, 24. December 2016, 7:54

    Ross, Luke. Yes moving the cars will help a bit, but the real problem is route overloading: about 6000 passengers an hour at peaks. Either light rail or BRT will do it, but light rail can do it on two lanes, while BRT needs four.
    And yes, the quays would be a good light rail option. It might run up Taranaki St rather than to Courtenay Place, with an interchange at Te Aro Park

  20. KB, 24. December 2016, 10:59

    @Kerry Wood: Personal Rapid Transit uses less than half a lane – you can build a two way system in the space used by a one way light rail track. And of course it will be much cheaper.

  21. Kerry Wood, 27. December 2016, 16:36

    KB: Some interesting misconceptions here.

    The PRT system I am reasonably familiar with is ULTra, as at Heathrow. Capacity is six or so, but average occupancy is more like two: they tend to be treated as cars. Passengers sit two-wide, so two-way in say a 3.3 m lane would be tight but possible. But for ULTra the comparison is irrelevant. It runs between guided kerbs and cannot run-on-street. Costs might be more than you think. There was a Wellington proposal at one stage, with one-way loops at first-floor level: costs were managed by an assumption the building owners would love to have indoor stops.

    Capacity has always been contentious. Wikipedia says the UK railway inspectorate now accepts one second headway, so at say 30 km/hr that would be about two people in say one and a quarter seconds, (vehicle about 2 m long) say 5000 passengers an hour with a bit of fumble-factor. Allow for light rail needing double the width and light rail capacity, with fumble-factor, is say 30-40% greater.

    If PRT is at first-floor level, or above head-height for that matter, it needs a walkway, which pushes up width, costs and shading of the street below. Without a walkway, how do you evacuate after a breakdown, with a queue growing at 50 vehicles a minute? Speeds also seem to be well below light rail on reserved track, and light rail might also have the edge on reliability.

    Other PRT systems can probably run-on-street, but then they run straight into another difficulty. Traffic signals knock the stuffing out of PRT capacity, but light rail at capacity only runs every couple of minutes, leaving junction-time for other traffic. Flyovers are possible but space for ramps can be tricky, and costs go up again. Automatic operation is certainly an advantage, but if street-running motor vehicles can do it, then so can light rail.

    But I would be very interested to see a tender.

  22. Ross Clark, 30. December 2016, 6:36

    Kerry – six thousand pax/direction/hour – how many bus movements does that translate into? (I am assuming about 150-200, which translates into the same demand on the road space as 450-600 cars … which is far fewer than what enter the CBD in a peak hour).

  23. Kerry Wood, 30. December 2016, 9:42

    Ross: The existing buses are already carrying about 6000 pass/hr, which I understand makes the number of buses about 140. This is southbound at the Supreme Court, in the AM peak (GW don’t worry much about the PM peak). It is visible on the GW screen counts, scaled up to the true peak (which the buses have to shift), not just the two-hour average, which looks tidier. It includes passengers transferring from rail, less a guesstimate for passengers transferring from rail but going to Kelburn, plus passengers from Karori, coming down Bowen St.

    Northbound buses are about 5000 pass/hr on the same basis. This is measured at the southern screen-line, broadly Webb St and Mt Victoria, so passengers join the golden mile at Courtenay Place, Taranaki St and Willis St and are not all passing a single point (although the buses are).

    A rule of thumb is that light rail breaks even with buses, on combined operating and capital costs, at about 3000 pass/hr. So in Wellington fewer buses could retain say a third of existing passenger numbers, while light rail could carry the others and break even on opening day.

    Two things to emphasise in Wellington:
    First, the existing route is badly overloaded.
    Second, there is no point in talking about costs in isolation: it has to be costs on a specific route, because so few route options are available.

    In Wellington I believe the only realistic answers are these:

    — Buses on a two-lane route and light rail on another two-lane route, with good interchanges at either end of the golden mile.

    — BRT on either a four-lane route or two, two-lane, one-way routes, with stops in opposite directions well-signed and reasonably close together. As patronage grows it is likely to need grade separation (think Basin Bridge) at some busy junctions.

    — Go underground (don’t forget sea-level rise and tsunami).

    — Go overhead (don’t forget noise, shading, passenger access, emergency access and cost).

    In other words, the Spine Study got the options right: it was the routes and final choice it messed up.

  24. Ross Clark, 3. January 2017, 5:23