Wellington Scoop

From tortoise to hare

by Felicity Wong
The Government is demanding radical new suburban height limits in quiet neighbourhoods. Last year Phil Twyford tied land-use decisions (by Councils) to transport planning (by the NZ Transport Agency) under the Government’s National Policy Statement on Urban Development 2020 (NPS-UD).

Adopted during lockdown, the NPS-UD directs Councils to change District Plans and allow six storey buildings within a “walkable catchment” of “rapid transit” stops. The philosophy looked attractive, but the implementation is shaping up to be awful.

In Wellington, the Regional Transport Committee (made up of regional councillors plus the Transport Agency and supported by Regional Council staff) is going through an ill conceived process to present the Johnsonville train as an existing “rapid transit” service.

In February it issued a “Draft Wellington Land Transport Plan” and buried in the Appendices is a section on rapid transit in the Wellington region. Page 128 contains the innocuous sounding statement that “[t]he rapid transit network and services for the Wellington region comprise the Kapiti, Hutt, Melling and Johnsonville rail lines”.

It goes on to state that plans to upgrade services are contained in the Wellington Regional Public Transport Plan. In fact no plans to improve the level of service of the Johnsonville line are in either plan and, given its geographical constraints and massive subsidy, they never will be.

In 1937 the Johnsonville line was abandoned as the main trunk line and in view of its bendy, steep gradient, a long tunnel was built instead (the Tawa Deviation). Since then it’s been a loved, but historical suburban remnant with a slow, infrequent, unreliable, low capacity service.

The residents’ association of Khandallah have drawn the Regional Council’s attention to the lack of evidence to support the rail line being designated as a “quick, frequent, reliable and high capacity” service (as provided in NPS-UD’s definition of “rapid transit”).

But after public submissions in March and oral hearings held recently, Regional Council staff advised Councillors to reject submissions which objected to the Johnsonville train being designated as “rapid transit”.

They pointed to the Transport Agency having recently “classified” all metro rail corridors (regardless of service level) as dedicated “rapid transit” corridors under its One Network Framework. The Framework is a definitional road classification document and doesn’t look at the facts or the variable nature of actual services, which differ in speed, frequency, reliability and capacity.

If Johnsonville’s rail service was assessed against ONF’s bus standards, it would not be in the highest movement class of PT1. If it were assessed against ONF’s general traffic criteria, it would be in the 5th class of importance – not even equivalent to an arterial road.

The Auckland Council has said in its Spatial Plan that the Onehunga train line (two trains per hour), and the Papakura to Pukekohe line are “non RTN rail”. It’s absurd to think Onehunga or Pukekohe could now be served by rapid transit (and upzoned) just by the stroke of Waka Kotahi’s pen. But that’s what the Regional Transport Committee contemplates for Ngaio and Khandallah.

The Regional Transport Committee needs to analyse whether there is in fact any rapid transit, or plan expenditure to ensure it becomes rapid transit. A mere classification exercise would surely be the pinnacle of the Government’s magical thinking.

To get a rapid transit service, one merely needs to declare that rapid transit already exists? Why bother with new buses, trams, light rail, or any other new project, when you can declare what you’ve already got to be rapid transit in a data-free process, without any need to refer to the inconvenient truth. Declaring an tortoise to be a hare is cheap and the Plans will be adopted in June.

We hope that better sense and evidence-based planning happens in the Wellington district planning processes and that upzoning does not simply cascade down from the Transport Agency’s classification system, via a simple declaration by the Regional Transport Committee.

Felicity Wong is a member of the Wellington’s Character Trust.


  1. Alan, 11. May 2021, 9:51

    The Johnsonville line a “rapid transit” service? It’s about as rapid as LGWM.

  2. Misfit, 11. May 2021, 10:06

    To my mind the Johnsonville line should be converted to an o-Bahn busway . That way buses could come from further afield, then take the busway into the city and carry on out the other side with passengers never having to get off and transfer for longer journeys.

  3. Harold Rodd, 11. May 2021, 10:08

    Blimey to all this! Well done, Felicity Wong.

  4. Greenwelly, 11. May 2021, 10:09

    In the view of the WCC, “Rapid” is met by the cable car at 20km/h … so the Johnsonville line taking 25min to do 10.4km still scrapes in. However after much to-ing and fro-ing, they concluded that the CC failed the “high capacity” leg as it could only move 600 ppl per hour in each direction.

  5. Claire, 11. May 2021, 11:06

    It doesn’t seem to matter whether there is rapid transport through a suburb or not. Ie Newtown… there is determination by the council to make the examples fit.
    The light rail route that may not happen. Cannot surely be used to drop 1930s protection over seventy percent of Newtown, to get access to what is perceived to be cheap land!?

  6. K, 11. May 2021, 11:14

    What is the purpose of this post? Trying to stop high density housing in Johnsonville by way of a technicality on whether or not a train line is designated rapid or not?

  7. John Rankin, 11. May 2021, 11:38

    The regional council has form for doing this. The Public Transport Spine Study recommended “Bus Rapid Transit” for Wellington that was nothing of the sort. If the proposed designation goes ahead, perhaps we could rename the Johnsonville train the RINO Line (rapid in name only).

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

  8. Casey, 11. May 2021, 13:22

    Misfit: O-Bahn needs a lane each way and this could not be achieved on the Johnsonville line with its single width tunnel and where it clings on to the sides of hills as a single track. Lack of more passing loops now limit its passenger carrying capacity. Rather difficult terrain along this route.

  9. Conor, 11. May 2021, 13:57

    Felicity, I have a plan that will ensure the new height limits are fair for everyone, and you will no longer need to worry. We’ll allow 6 storey buildings everywhere. Problem solved.

  10. Harold Rodd, 11. May 2021, 14:20

    K, to answer your question: it seems to me that the question of high density housing in Johnsonville is entirely separate from whether or not a train line is designated rapid or not. Making one dependent on the other is just a ploy.

  11. Claire, 11. May 2021, 14:31

    Conor: I suggest we could completely surround your home in Wadestown with perhaps … how about eight storey buildings!

  12. I blame remuera, 11. May 2021, 14:41

    The Johnsonville line is a heavy rail line, with platforms for 6 Car trains and able to run 4 trains per hour. Whilst in need of upgrades there is every reason to call it rapid transit. This article is just anti-housing crowd double-speak.

  13. Misfit, 11. May 2021, 15:00

    Casey – I figured that might be the case but given how much has been wasted so far on LGWM and what is proposed to be spent on light rail I think that money would be better spent on implementing a busway system. The huge and growing new suburbs between Johnsonville and Tawa would served awesomely by a bus you could catch at the end of your street, ride into the city fast and not only that but continue on to the hospital or airport without getting off. That would be a real game changer in Wellington compared to light rail to Newtown from town.

  14. Marko, 11. May 2021, 15:34

    If we are “not allowed” to build up in Khandallah and the Western suburbs, then it’s only fair to build up in the inner suburbs. I say a good start is most of Mt Vic and Newtown! Who’s onboard? How else are we going to address the massive housing shortage and population growth in Wellington? Or would residents’ associations prefer that prices spiral out of control, overcrowding, gentrification and people living in garages?

  15. Claire, 11. May 2021, 15:52

    Marko we have had a submission tally on this – 56% of Wellington says yes to housing but let’s do it well, not willy nilly carpet bombing. 18 to 35 yr olds say let’s go rip shit and bust. I presume you are in this group. Shows a lack of experience in the real world.

  16. Misfit, 11. May 2021, 16:39

    “The North Wellington Public Transport Study by GWRC and WCC considered four options for improved public transport: enhanced rail; bus on street; conversion to a guided busway; and conversion to light rail. On 16 November 2006 the GWRC Public Transport Committee and the WCC Strategy & Policy Committee accepted a ‘Do Minimum’ option…” Sums up Wellington and NZ in a nutshell.

  17. James Barber, 11. May 2021, 17:16

    So your beef with this is that it would allow for denser housing developments? The main problem with all the Wellington trains is that they stop at the edge of the city. This has pretty much always been the problem.

  18. Conor, 11. May 2021, 19:28

    Marko – the real world is where you make more money on your house than your job.

  19. Wellington Commuter, 12. May 2021, 0:11

    @Greenwelly: Yes, the Wellington City Council said the Wellington Cable Car meets almost all the criteria in the National Urban Development Policy Statement for being a Rapid Transit Service but decided it “but fell short on size” (that is, it lacked carrying capacity) noting “with a maximum of 100 people, it could move only about 600 passengers each direction per hour.” However, it is now clear that it is the Regional Council, not the WCC, that decides if a PT service is “rapid transit”. As outlined by Felicity’s excellent article, the Regional Council’s Regional Land Transport Plan uses the NZTA “One Network Framework” that only states the following:
    “By definition, all Metro Rail lines would be classified as PT1 (highest strategic significance) as they are considered rapid transit corridors irrespective of frequency, availability and or volume of people movement.” There is no further definition or criteria of what a “metro rail line” is in the NZTA One Network Framework, but it does clearly state that “volume of people movement” is NOT part of the criteria.

    While we can (and will) argue whether the Johnsonville Line is a Rapid Transit Service, it is now clear that even the Wellington Cable Car (being a PT rail service in the metro) is also a Rapid Transit according to the chosen framework. And so North Kelburn can look forward to joining other suburbs in having to accept six storey housing.

  20. GK, 12. May 2021, 13:16

    Greenwelly: The Cable Car may be slow, but it is direct. To match the 5min timetabled journey by road would require an average speed of 38 km/h (including through ten sets of traffic lights + traffic). Relatively rapid compared to bus in peak traffic …

    Wellington Commuter: The Cable Car is a commercial service owned by WCC that is not controlled, contracted or subsidised by the Regional Council. (Don’t be fooled by it appearing on their maps.) IMO it should be part of an integrated public transport network.

    “And so North Kelburn can look forward to joining other suburbs in having to accept six storey housing.” Incorrect. It is the National Policy Statement on Urban Development 2020 definition that determines urban development level:
    rapid transit service means any existing or planned frequent, quick, reliable and high-capacity public transport service that operates on a permanent route (road or rail) that is largely separated from other traffic

    Also, the Regional Council do not count the Cable Car as rapid transit (e.g. Wellington Regional Public Transport Plan 2021-2031).

  21. D'Esterre, 14. May 2021, 12:18

    “…the Johnsonville line should be converted to an o-Bahn busway.” This was first proposed many years ago, when Peter Dunne was the MP for this area. It failed. Firstly, Kiwirail wouldn’t countenance selling the corridor. Secondly, it was proposed to be one-way: to the CBD in the mornings, to Johnsonville in the afternoons and evenings. That’s because it’s physically impossible to double-track the entire line.

    Advocates and officials can characterise the Johnsonville line as MRT until the cows come home: it doesn’t at all follow that it is. Silk purse, sow’s ear and all that. Advocates are also keen to see high-density housing built along the J’ville line. But such projects will likely be scuppered by the same topographical issues which prevent double-tracking. There is already high-density housing in Johnsonville itself, and there’s very likely to be more. I doubt that any such development would be feasible, anywhere else alongside the railway line.

    All the land in Wellington city which is suitable for building on, has been developed. A number of sites now being built on were, 50 years ago, considered unsuitable for housing.

  22. NigelTwo, 14. May 2021, 20:07

    @Misfit. You wrote: “The huge and growing new suburbs between Johnsonville and Tawa would be served awesomely by a bus”. I disagree, an extension of the line to Churton Park and another station beyond that would be better.

  23. Misfit, 15. May 2021, 8:36

    Where do you propose the line to Churton Park would run? There’s no space for it without massive disruption and cost.

  24. Stephen Moore, 15. May 2021, 13:39

    Misfit – That’s why we pitched elevated rail/monorail to allow lines to reach suburbs such as Churton Park without major disruption and cost. Apart from near 100% safety.

  25. Kerry, 23. May 2021, 9:04

    K has got it right.
    The real issue is housing density, and the Johnsonville Line is just an example. New Zealand cities need greater density, to shorten commuter trips and replace most car trips with public transport trips.
    LGWM proposed “more people in fewer vehicles” for several reasons. It is a necessary part of reducing transport emissions, the most effective approach to reducing congestions. It is also — based on LGWM surveys — what most people in Wellington want.
    The Ministry of Transport’s latest consultation, Hīkina te Kohupara, is proposing massive increases in public transport use, as part of the Climate Change Commission’s proposals.

  26. Claire, 23. May 2021, 10:36

    Kerry: if there are to be massive increases in public transport, then let’s have the money for it. Yes there will be more density, but let’s not make up rapid transport routes as we go, to fit with the DSP which is the Unitary Plan transplanted from Auckland’s vastly different landscape. Some of the DSP is pie in the sky nonsense.

  27. Julienz, 25. May 2021, 18:37

    Since the government wants to be “radical”, here’s a radical idea – encourage, or in need mandate, redevelopment of Johnsonville Mall as mixed use retail/business/residential and even educational. This way people don’t need to commute on the old, slow, infrequent rail line. Instead of moving people to jobs, take jobs to people. If enough critical mass could be built there might even be reverse commuting!