Wellington Scoop

Gone: the BRT illusion

by Brent Efford
I avoid the Wellington Regional Council these days, such is my loathing for its institutional dishonesty and its prioritising of cars before public transport in its planning processes.

However, a friend with a stronger stomach imparted a new snippet of information the other day over coffee.

He had appeared as a public participant before the council’s Sustainable (no trolleys, more diesel buses, no light rail!) Transport Committee, and asked about the status of the bus rapid transit (BRT) plan, which was the outcome of the 2013 Public Transport Spine Study, and which was used to trick the then-Mayor away from her previous support for light rail.

He was told that it was officially off the agenda – now downgraded to just ‘bus priority’, which of course requires minimal infrastructure (which is why the trolley buses are going). The BRT illusion served its bait-and-switch purpose in 2013 but can now be quietly forgotten.

The Regional Council continues to delude itself that changes to bus routes in southern Wellington city will make public transport more competitive with regional car commuting over billion-dollar motorways, while the rail system continues to lack the essential downtown reach that is the first stage for rail transit everywhere else.

The 1990s attitude of a more enlightened regional council is summed up by this March 2015 message from its former Transport Manager Dr David Watson:

… We always came to the same conclusion. Light rail as a stand alone service (station to airport) was not a winner. We needed to extend it to Johnsonville or even the Hutt. We looked at operating standard units and light rail on the same tracks and then allowing the light rail to extend into the city. We saw no problem with this.

Public transport doesn’t have a hope of alleviating the congestion that the new motorways will exacerbate – unless there’s a fast, unbroken, through-CBD rail service which can compete with car commuting. Light rail is the affordable way to ensure that.


  1. KB, 27. March 2017, 9:12

    I have yet to see a proper economic reasoning behind spending hundreds of millions to install light rail that will serve a small area with a population base in the low tens of thousands. (If anyone has a good summary of the economic sense this makes in wellington please post a link below).

    While i’m a big believer that on-demand autonomous vehicles travelling point to point are the obvious future of public transport – I am not completely against rail. In fact I think if you are going to propose spending hundreds of millions, it would make way more sense to extend the heavy rail south instead of forcing everyone to change trains at the central station, which makes the whole light rail proposition less attractive. However at present I am yet to be convinced adding any rail south of the station stacks up in any reasonable way.

  2. Graeme Brown, 27. March 2017, 9:16

    Well said Brent. I expect the present Government will promise LRT by 2050.

  3. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 27. March 2017, 10:16

    Hi Brent: Chris Laidlaw has just made a very encouraging statement on light rail for Wellington, following a productive recent discussion between city and regional councillors. The study should take in all options for through-running and quick transfers at Wellington station. Each has its advantages and drawbacks.

  4. Luke, 27. March 2017, 11:30

    I can’t see the problem with transfers between heavy and light rail at the station if the frequencies are high enough, and not fiscally punitive. Public transport operates best as a network, not individual routes.

  5. Many Faced God, 27. March 2017, 12:31

    This misguided fixation on LRT must stop for the sake of progress in resolving the city’s transport issues. In short, it won’t work, and it would be a catastrophic and expensive mistake. The un-economic nature of mass transit systems in cities with low population densities is well understood, even more so in cities with low population full stop like Wellington. The PTSS quite rightly came to the conclusion that a point to point service from the CBD to the Airport would have limited uptake and be unable to service most suburbs adequately, so a full reach and integrated bus system would still be required. We should therefore be concentrating our efforts and funding on further prioritising bus transport, and ideally moving to BRT where possible.

    Even with substantial realignment of existing transport corridors, the need for wholesale land purchase could not be avoided for LRT. The property purchase implications of establishing an LRT route on Adelaide Rd, Constable St and through Hataitai and Kilbirnie are mind boggling. The conflicts at intersections and implications for movements of all modes would also make it untenable.

  6. John Rankin, 27. March 2017, 13:36

    @Brent, I wish I shared your optimism that BRT is officially off the agenda and I want to believe you are right. But in the report that @CCF references above, LGWM is said to be exploring “mass rapid transit options”. If Auckland is any guide, this sounds like NZTA-speak for “buses now, light rail some time in the far distant future, and how to transition a busy corridor from one mode to the other is someone else’s problem.”

    It might be an idea to take a white oak stake to the LGWM workshop, to drive through BRT’s cold dead heart. Bus priority now is a sensible and cost-effective short term thing to do, but it’s just a business as usual operational improvement to an overloaded bus system. It buys the time Wellington needs to plan, design, buy, and build the next generation PT services. And we need to start now, so we make the transition before bus priority reaches its operational limits, which will be sooner rather than later.

  7. TrevorH, 27. March 2017, 18:48

    Is this light rail thing some kind of cult?
    Incredibly expensive, vulnerable to earthquakes and unsuited to Wellington’s topography it would serve only the inner city apartment and villa dwellers as a means of commuting.
    Time to let it go…

  8. Guy M, 27. March 2017, 20:28

    there’s a quote from Dave B on Transport Blog which sounds just so right that I am quoting it here:

    Here’s the way it works folks.

    i) The real need is for a heavy rail connection, or extension from an existing functioning heavy rail system.
    ii) A report is produced which claims light rail is better, cheaper, faster, sexier, and so heavy rail comes off the table.
    iii) A report is then produced which claims that bus rapid transit is better, cheaper, faster, sexier, and so light rail comes off the table (or is pushed into the dim distant future).
    iv) A report is then produced which claims that the costs of high-end bus rapid transit cannot be justified, and that overall, a simple fleet of new buses with some bus-priority measures represents the best value for money.
    v) Nothing actually happens and the status-quo bumbles on with ordinary buses mixed in with single-occupant traffic for another 10 years until the above process then repeats. Meanwhile massive sums continue to be poured into motorway development.

    Here in Wellington we have now reached stage v) in our Public Transport Spine development process. Sounds like AK Airport Rapid Transit is rapidly heading down the same track.”

  9. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 27. March 2017, 23:34

    Trevor, Guy: I’m hoping that once and for all we can objectively and transparently establish whether light rail is or isn’t possible (affordable and technically feasible) for Wellington. Let’s try to keep an open mind and work within that process.

  10. Ross Clark, 28. March 2017, 0:53

    One thing which could be done now, is to improve the non-peak frequencies. Currently, the rail services are only half-hourly outside the peak, meaning that even if rail did go all the way into the CBD, it wouldn’t be getting many more passengers. Going to one train every 15 minutes out to Plimmerton/Taita would help make the service more attractive, and it is a fix which more or less could be put in place now.

    For the peak, it should be noted that about two-thirds of the jobs in the Wellington CBD are a ten or so minute walk from the railway station (IIRC). So … if we had light rail down to Courtenay Place, how many more *peak* trips would we get; and how many more *offpeak*?

    back in the day I can recall Dave Watson, when once asked what his priorities were for transport investment (ie more roads or more rail), replying, “we want both!” I always thought that this overshadowed his commitment to more public transport, because had WRC as-was faced a choice between more rail and more roads – but *not* both – it would have opted for more roads. The real issue, and it has been such in the 30 years I’ve worked in land transport, is the ‘follow the money’ question; unless and until we can get central government to cough up with at least three-quarters of the cost of this sort of work, we really are not going to get anywhere. Dave Watson knew this as well, I’m sure.

  11. Mark, 28. March 2017, 3:37

    It seems that the phrase “light rail transit” LRT is a poison pill.
    Perhaps a deliberate tactic to divert the gaze.
    Why don’t we just call them what we always used to call them?
    You know why we don’t use that term?
    Because they WORKED, and we can’t allow that into the discussion, can we?
    Such short memories… and not even thinking about all the technological improvements we can apply to the same problems today.

  12. Ben, 28. March 2017, 10:05

    What a shame we lost our trams . . . . . . .

  13. greenwelly, 28. March 2017, 10:40

    @ Ross: Not sure how many additional services they are talking about, but something is happening for off peak in September…

    General Manager’s report to the WRC sustainable transport committee last week:
    “(a) Rail
    Transdev Wellington was granted a full rail licence on 27 February 2017.
    Timetable changes to increase the frequency of off-peak services have been agreed for implementation in September 2017.”

  14. NigelTwo, 28. March 2017, 21:28

    Brent, I completely understand your feelings about the Regional Council. How is it that the Regional Council is making decisions on bus routes/frequencies in Wellington City? Well, it’s the law stupid! So isn’t it time we got the law changed? Our elected City Councillors could make a better job of this than the endless “wheels on the bus go round and round” studies we all fund.

  15. Mike Mellor, 30. March 2017, 10:47

    John Rankin: I’m the friend of Brent’s who was at the GWRC meeting, and at that meeting Barry Mein from LGWM stated* that the BRT is not now being proposed, LGWM recognising that such a proposal would not meet even the minimum bronze-level standard for BRT (as many knowledgeable people have pointed out).

    So the primary public transport option on the table is bus priority, rejected by the Public Transport Spine Study and essentialy “more of the same”. Particularly with the transformational roading schemes that are being proposed, I don’t think business-as-usual public transport cuts the mustard.

    *Minor correction to Brent’s original post: this statement was made in an oral presentation to the committee, not in response to a question from me.