- Wellington.scoop.co.nz - http://wellington.scoop.co.nz -

Considering light rail more seriously

light-rail [1]

by Brent Efford
When we met the Let’s Get Wellington Moving team last week, we found that not much serious consideration had been given to light rail, and there was little awareness of the ‘Wellington paradox’ – a city with some of the best preconditions for developing light rail in the world having a rail transit network which fails to achieve even the normal first function of intra-urban rail: penetrating the CBD.

However, LGWM seemed aware of the need to consider light rail more seriously if the study is to have credibility, and will be engaging some outside consultants to look at a potential route.

We only had an hour for the meeting and much was left unexplored, so we followed up with a message listing issues on which discussion wasn’t completed:

1 The historic aim of using light rail to complete the continuous operation of the Wellington rail system is absolutely essential. Expecting public transport patronage mode share to improve by more than a few percent when the spine mode – rail – stops at the edge of the CBD and doesn’t serve the densest corridor through the CBD, is fatuous.

If stopping all rail transit at the edge of the CBD, and forcibly transferring passengers to buses (or walking, or 50%+ not bothering and driving instead, as happens in Wellington) was a sensible and efficient way of organising a PT system, then every transit system would do it and save billions on the cost of building subways or even ordinary street tramways. In fact, though, no transit system (as distinct from long-distance and diesel commuter rail lines like the Wairarapa) does this – except Wellington’s.

There is a poor mode share for PT in Wellington – compared to typical European cities which do have that standard through-CBD facility.

2 Any use of “light rail” which does not serve the purpose of completing the rail system, and instead continues the “broken spine” dysfunction of the current arrangement, is inappropriate for a conurbation of Wellington’s size. Large cities >1M may have multiple disconnected rail transit systems but smaller urban areas like Wellington (and, e.g. Karlsruhe, pop 290,000) can’t afford that luxury.

Our rail system is already very “light rail like” and covers 92% of the high-density transport corridors traversed by the state highways. The remaining 8% happens to be the densest part of the corridors and the location of 50% of the region’s employment (according to your February 2017 report) – a weird and inexcusable anomaly.

3 The Golden Mile – Basin Reserve – Adelaide Road – Riddiford Street route is the spine around which Wellington was designed in 1840, along which the first steam trams operated in 1878, and around which the inner city has grown and densified. It remains the fastest, most level, least tortuous and most direct route and the one on which it will be easiest to provide a track free of motor traffic (due to street width, or the availability of parallel roads in the core CBD).

Other possible routes – e.g. via Wallace Street – do not offer these advantages and make no sense for modern light rail, even though they may have served as secondary tram routes until 1964.

4 Likewise, the running of a public transport route of any sort, let alone LRT, on, or alongside SH1 and through a second Mt Victoria Tunnel would be very poor practice for a number of reasons. Keeping public transport away from main highways and the congestion resulting from their on/off traffic movements obviously makes sense. As does the concept of sticking to one single PT spine linking all the major traffic centres. I believe (as a reference group member) that the PTSS only included the Mt Victoria LRT branch in the study in order to create the illusion of egregiously high cost to discredit the mode.

5 Overall, our assessment of the PTSS was a failing mark of only 20%. We dispute the use of it as an information resource regarding light rail as far as LGWM is concerned.

6 Rail:bus transfers are an inevitable feature of most PT systems but only work if they are small, with one train (or tram) meeting no more than two or three buses, as is the practice in the Hutt and Porirua/Kapiti.

One Big Interchange right at the point of maximum passenger flow – as at Wellington Railway Station – is not an acceptable solution and has long been rejected in every city except Wellington. It cripples the system, halving potential ridership.

7 We challenge the assumption that route is independent of mode and can be determined with equal validity for all modes. Trying to separate the route from the mode is a fad; there are quite different characteristics between BRT and LRT. BRT is very suburban while LRT fits urban environments. Downtown, LRT retains its characteristics such as high capacity and pedestrian-friendliness, whereas BRT vehicles are still just buses with all their inner-city safety, environmental and congestion issues. Refer to the Adelaide O-Bahn experience and even Auckland’s North Shore Busway as practical proof of this.

8 The not-so-long-term future of public, and all surface, transport is automatic, or autonomous, operation. Rail, even light rail in the streets, is capable of this now, and it should be assumed that when any tram-train system for Wellington comes to pass, or soon after, it will be automatic. So rail infrastructure is future-friendly, whereas scheduled buses serving low-density areas will inevitably be rendered obsolete by small autonomous vehicles.

9 There have been no new transport lanes between inner Wellington and the Eastern Suburbs provided since 1931, and no facilities exclusively for non-motor traffic since 1907 (and that one is only one lane). The solution is not a second Mt Victoria Tunnel but a Mt Albert Tunnel. Note the “resilience” advantages of a new route offering quick exit from a tsunami-prone area. The old tram route over Constable St/Crawford Rd is not a suitable alignment for modern light rail.

10 Constructing a short tunnel under the airport runway would also have challenges, notably trying to avoid disruption to flights. However, by promoting a runway extension, the airport company already acknowledges that on some occasions the pain of some interruption to flights for engineering works is justified if there are considered to be long-term gains as a result. If it is good enough for a runway extension it is good enough for massively improved surface transport access.

Our civil engineer suggests this potential construction methodology, similar to that being used in Albert St, Auckland:
– The construction windows are likely to be 5 or 6 hours.
– Concrete with rapid set cement would be needed
– The reinforcing would either be fibre reinforcing or prefabricated cages.
– To build tunnel walls a heavy trencher could be used like this.
– After each pour asphalt may need to be placed for a smooth surface.
– The roof would then be poured on the walls.
– Once the walls and roof are in place, the inside may be excavated.

Brent Efford is Information Officer of Trams-Action [2] and NZ Agent of the Light Rail Transit Assn.