Wellington Scoop

LGWM: Time to get on with it

by Michael Barnett
More than four years have passed since Let’s Get Wellington Moving identified a set of guiding principles for improving land transport in the city. Since that report was released, sadly, little of substance has happened.

LGWM was established after the 2014 Board of Inquiry rejected a fly-over at the Basin Reserve. Its mission was to develop a comprehensive plan for Wellington City’s urban and land transport development.

Its progress report published in February 2017 identified a set of guiding principles and public survey data that indicated Wellingtonians wanted fewer cars, better public transport, a more pedestrian-friendly city and protection of the natural environment. A core part of the report proposed Mass Rapid Transit. (LGWM studies for this have focussed only on light rail or buses. Heavy rail would be wholly underground and far too costly. Bus rapid transit has sometimes been mentioned but won’t work in Wellington because there’s not enough space.)

In the four years since the report, LGWM has become bogged down in political grandstanding. Public confidence in the project and the institutions driving it has suffered. Lack of progress has been caused by changes in project personnel, endless reviews, and conflicting views regarding the form mass rapid transit should take and priorities given to its various components.

The LGWM plan is sound. It is based on extensive public consultation and has ambitious but achievable goals for developing the transport infrastructure in the city and suburbs.

The time has come for the planning authorities to stop considering alternative proposals, show some leadership and get on with implementing LGWM, desirably as a pilot programme for what could be achieved elsewhere

There is sound logic behind such an idea. The advice given to first-time telescope makers is that it is faster to make a four-inch mirror then a six-inch mirror than it is to make a six-inch mirror from scratch. The rationale being that the skills and knowledge required to make a larger six-inch mirror are considerable. Developing the skills and knowledge on a smaller scale would give the necessary base for completing the larger task.

Applying this logic to rapid transit innovation in New Zealand cities, there would appear to be a strong case for designing and developing Wellington’s light rail project ahead of the larger scale Auckland light rail project. New Zealand’s talent pool is too small and shallow to support multiple independent developments. A Wellington light rail project would develop skills, technology standards and design patterns which could then be applied in Auckland and Christchurch.

Other factors contributing to the lack of progress in Wellington include:

 A public transport operating model (PTOM) that is clearly failing to provide the desired transport service;
 Conflicting interests of WCC and GWRC — one responsible for managing and maintaining the road network within the city and suburbs, the other for managing bus and train operations and schedules in the city and wider region;
 An outdated fare collection and pricing system on bus and train services leading to operational inefficiencies; and 

 A collection of agencies, LGWM, Waka Kotahi, WCC and GWRC, struggling to function as a unified body.

A possible alternative is a region-wide transport authority with representation from these agencies, working in harmony to implement the LGWM programme. Its first task would be to deliver mass rapid transit based on light rail from Wellington Railway Station to the Eastern Suburbs and Airport via high intensity residential and activity zones including the Newtown hospital and Zoo, Kilbirnie and Miramar, linked to a functioning bus network via well-designed hubs. 

Prioritising development of mass rapid transit designed to meet LGWM aims and objectives would negate the need for a second Mt Victoria road tunnel and encroachment on treasured green space along Ruahine Street. Expanding road capacity is not compatible with the need to reduce traffic congestion.

Further, it needs to be recognised that the Golden Mile is overloaded and significant reduction of traffic along this route will be needed. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is not an option. While BRT with off-street hubs may work well in Auckland, there is not enough space for these on Wellington’s streets. If implemented in Wellington, BRT would be rapid in name only. 

Michael Barnett is convenor of 
FIT (Fair Intelligent Transport) Wellington, a group of professionals advocating a change in transport priorities so the private motor vehicle no longer dominates our city streets. Our vision for Wellington is a modern, vibrant city designed around the needs of people, not cars. 


  1. Patrick Morgan, 7. June 2021, 10:03

    Agree. But it’s possible to make rapid improvements. Start with quick-build cycle lanes and bus priority lanes.

  2. Wellington Inc, 7. June 2021, 11:19

    Agree it’s time to get on with it but the only way to break the impasse between the opposing voices is to wait for a government that is ready to spend the full amount. What’s needed is an extensive, modern, electric public transport system AND a continuation of a four lane SH1 – underground as much as possible and accommodating EVs of course – to beyond the Mt Vic Tunnel. The former is needed to achieve mode shift away from cars. The latter would act as a ring road and is needed if we are confident the population of the Wellington region will continue to grow. The two together would facilitate the desired outcome of much fewer cars in the CBD and more people on bikes or foot.

  3. Cr Daran Ponter, 7. June 2021, 15:34

    There’s no doubt that LGWM has been slow – almost imperceptibly slow at times. Frustrating for all concerned – for transport advocates with their particular transport solutions, for local Wellington and regional communities and commuters. The planning process has been drawn out, not assisted by Covid, the ability to attract staff into LGWM, and management issues within the project. But we are starting to see progress. A solution has been identified for the Golden Mile, which is now being refined for consideration by the three partner agencies. Thorndon Quay changes are out for public consultation and are attracting a significant number of submissions from all quarters. Cobham Drive proposals are to be released shortly.

    The two big business cases are due to be released in a few months – one for Mass Rapid Transit and one for State Highway One improvements. Both will have options. The options will go out for consultation. And there is no doubt that the options will excite extreme reactions from across the Wellington and regional community, and potentially divergent views between the NZTA, Greater Wellington and WCC.

  4. Ian Shearer, 7. June 2021, 16:37

    Daran – I think you have summed up Wellingtonians’ frustration in a single post. The LGWM studies must have convinced all that there is only one viable rapid transit business case – it has been consulted to death and the result was “the people of Wellington want it” – we do not need further consultation. The Government has allocated a package of around $4 billion for these Wellington projects. It was approved in the budget BEFORE the latest budget! Why have we not started?

    Please publish the route map so that the private sector can get on with building the social support structure and the more-dense housing developments along the route (as per the Government’s urban development directives).

  5. Cr Daran Ponter, 7. June 2021, 17:45

    Ian – There is no budget approved. Money is effectively only “earmarked”. We need the business cases to justify the chosen approaches. The chosen approaches will then be confirmed in the Regional Land Transport Funding for government, WCC and GWRC funding.

    There is no route map yet as that is part of the scoping for the Mass Rapid Transport (MRT) business case – which will come out with several options, which could include several different routes – and not all going to the Airport. These options are likely to include MRT through the Adelaide Rd and Newtown areas.

  6. RH, 7. June 2021, 19:13

    So we’re not really starting to see actual progress there are we? Whether it’s more consultation either with the public or with partners, it’s just more talk.

  7. Ross Clark, 8. June 2021, 4:10

    What talk is there of making active efforts to reduce car use? Without this, no amount of investment in public transport will see significant changes in its market share. Talk of “we’ll do this for public transport and this for cars” only has the effect of cementing in the current patterns of car use.

    Oh, and another thing. The amount of disruption involved in the building of a light rail line is horrendous, as I learnt living in Edinburgh over the six or so years it took to build our line (only two miles of which was on roadway). Be careful what you wish for.

  8. Keith Flinders, 8. June 2021, 10:48

    Ross: Just getting Wellington buses to run as per timetable would be a good start. Again a 14 bus failed to turn up at Courtenay Place at 10 PM on Sunday last, although it was on the display as being due in X minutes, then due, then disappeared off the display but the bus did not arrive. Did they think that the two senior intending passengers would feel safe waiting until 11 PM in the expectation that that service would arrive?

    Edinburgh and Sydney embarked on massively over-engineered light rail installations, hence massive cost overruns and delays. Both should have looked to what is done in Europe and Melbourne. An example here. If not light rail, then what form of mass transit system to serve the eastern suburbs with its intended increase in population density?

  9. John Rankin, 8. June 2021, 14:16

    Daran: I trust the MRT business case will not just include options, but a recommended option supported by the detailed analysis LGWM has been doing for the last 18 months. A well-founded recommendation will be less likely to “excite extreme reactions from across the Wellington and regional community”. Those who don’t like the recommended option would need to show why the analysis leading to the conclusion is incorrect.

    Since the agreed goal is to move more people with fewer vehicles, I expect the recommended option will be the one predicted to move the most people with the fewest vehicles. Consultation can then include possible ways to make the recommended option better.

  10. Kerry, 8. June 2021, 15:16

    Daran. I am not surprised that LGWM has no formally approved route, but it does have an excellent route commissioned by MRCagney. However, modern low-floor trams have their traction motors very close to rail level, making them flood-prone. Worse, Wellington is itself flood-prone, notably in the CBD and Kilbirnie, and both are on the MRCagney route. The proposed Petone-Ngauranga cycle way will be built as flood protection for road and railway, with some provision for raising it as needed, and I suggest that light rail will also need protection. Sea walls in Fukushima proved very damaging and will need specialist design in Wellington; they need to block water coming in, but allow it to flow out. For light rail I suggest:
    CBD: Light rail on the sea wall. Kilbirnie: Light rail on Coutts St rather than Rongotai Rd, using Salek St to reach Cobham Drive. The existing bus hub could be moved to the other end of Bay Rd, and light rail could run under Queens Drive and in a tunnel to the Zoo.

  11. bsmith, 8. June 2021, 15:17

    How many times are we going to hear that a document etc, is out for public consultation. I was under the impression our elected officials were voted into office to make a decision and implement it. It seems they cower to the masses, with one eye on the next council term, so they can keep their cozy existence. Do what you were elected to do, and get on with it.

  12. pedge, 8. June 2021, 17:35

    Kerry. I mostly agree with what you said, however have you considered the line running all the way down Coutts and under the runway? Under the runway would surely be a less disruptive route, and a relatively easy tunnel to construct. At the other end there is wide open space, (not sure who owns that land), but plenty of space for a station after buying few houses that would likely be in the way, then a pedestrian underpass to the airport. In the future the line would ideally go on to Hobart, then all the way into Miramar. What are your thoughts?

  13. Casey, 8. June 2021, 19:29

    Pedge:Convincing the CAA that tunneling under an operating airport is a good idea would be the first hurdle. The airport has to be seen as a secondary destination for light rail, as it will see perhaps a few hundred passengers per day.

    Miramar has to be the focus with several thousand potential passengers daily, especially as the area becomes one of greater residential capacity which it is ideally suited for.

  14. Joel MacManus, 8. June 2021, 22:19

    The new head of Let’s Get Wellington Moving is promising major progress by the end of the year as the beleaguered $6.4 billion transport upgrade tries to get back on track. [via twitter]

  15. pedge, 9. June 2021, 8:08

    Casey, I agree that Miramar is more important than the airport as far as light rail goes; my plan is based on the idea of avoiding merging the two major transport corridors on Cobham Drive. As far as the CAA goes, if they have the power to stop something as basic as a roughly 250m long tunnel under the airport then they have too much power. A potential light rail corridor built in Wellington is of far greater importance than the airport will ever be in the future.

  16. nemo, 9. June 2021, 9:57

    Pedge – tunnelling is a dangerous process, and risks the ground slumping above. No matter how hard they try, almost inevitably when digging a hole, there is the chance that there could be some subsidence in the earth – not the sort of thing that you want to happen in the middle of an airport runway for fairly obvious reasons…

    You may think that this never happens. However, it does: in London in the 90s when they were digging an extension to the Tube line to Heathrow, using the NATM digging process, the hole collapsed the ground above, on which was sitting a large car parking building – so the parking building ended up being swallowed into the hole as well. Had to pour truckloads of quick-setting concrete into the hole to stop it. Then spent months digging out the concrete and steel mess from the hole. Months/years behind schedule. Glorious screw up all round. Massive insurance claim and law suits. But just imagine if the same sort of hole was to open up in the middle of Wellington Airport’s runway. Mmmmmm. Yes, perhaps CAA’s power is appropriate after all…

  17. pedge, 9. June 2021, 10:50

    Ha, thanks Nemo for that pessimistic input, very interesting. I may have underestimated the complexity of such a tunnel, but if Norway can spend $47BN building a ridiculous coastal highway/tunnel across fjords and mountains , then in 2020 surely the greatest engineering minds in this (admittedly much poorer) country can build a wee tunnel under a runway. You don’t happen to know if it has been done before? Maybe Kerry or others can provide reasons why on to Cobham Drive and through the cutting is a better option. I’ll wait and see.

  18. John Rankin, 9. June 2021, 14:34

    Pedge: the way LGWM explained it a couple of years ago, the main reasons you want to go to Miramar then the airport are:

    – People with luggage take longer to get on and off a light rail (even with level boarding). If it’s the end of the line, that’s not a problem, because the driver has to walk from one end of the train to the other and there is usually a bit of schedule recovery time built into the timetable. The typical station dwell time for light rail is 15-20 seconds, compared to up to 2 minutes for the end of line turnaround.

    – It doesn’t really matter to a passenger if the airport journey takes a minute or so longer, because it’s a small part of a much longer journey, involving a lot of waiting around at airports. On the other hand, for someone going to or from Miramar, adding a long stop on the way has a material negative impact.

  19. Greenwelly, 9. June 2021, 16:40

    @JOhn, I also suspect it’s much easier from a track geometry POV to run a line that terminates at the Airport, rather then needing to find different paths in and out for an in-line stop.

  20. Dave B, 9. June 2021, 17:17

    Pedge, there already is a tunnel under the runway (admittedly only for pedestrians).
    Nemo, this tunnel hasn’t shown any signs of swallowing the runway in its 70-odd years of existence. It would be wide enough for a single line of railway, although not deep enough in its present form. As you mention, Heathrow Airport has both road and rail tunnels under its runways, and has done for years before the collapse you refer to involving the new Austrian Tunnelling Method (which happily did not affect the runway).

    The most dangerous hazard that humans have to engage with on a daily basis is the interaction with road-traffic on our streets and highways. Putting rapid transit into tunnels will make things safer for all, in spite of the occasional collapse of a tunnel under construction, somewhere in the world.

  21. Cr Daran Ponter, 9. June 2021, 22:24

    BS Smith and Friends: All very well for you to espouse the “just do it approach”. But what approach would that be? And without a worthy rationale how do your expect the Government’s purse to open. Billions of $$& are at stake with LGWM. This is not a time for knee jerk responses. I understand the frustrations with the delays but I also respect a planning process that will better inform decisions.

  22. Mike Mellor, 10. June 2021, 0:47

    It’s worth noting that apart from the tunnel under the airport being small and shallow, it was not dug under the runway (the runway was built over it).

    A light rail (or whatever form of mass transit is ultimately proposed) tunnel would have to be taller and deeper, with long ramps; and it would have to be built under a working runway, without which the airport cannot operate. I can’t imagine that the airport would be happy with that level of risk: it would give them a very strong reason to oppose the project, which would make implementation that much more difficult.

    Far better to follow the central reservation of Rongotai Rd – a far superior alignment to Coutts St – then on the airport side of Cobham Drive around the end of the runway, crossing SH1 at a signalised intersection replacing the roundabout, then on the eastern side to Miramar Cutting and Miramar shops, before heading down Hobart St straight to the terminus at the airport.

  23. Andrew, 10. June 2021, 11:12

    There are actually two tunnels under the runway. The one at the southern end is larger (large enough for trucks). Sure the southern end is further from the main road but taking the line through Kilbirnie and Lyall Bay would increase its catchment area.

  24. Dave B, 10. June 2021, 12:06

    Darned shame the opportunity was not seized to build a nice double-track rail tunnel under the runway during lock-down when no planes were flying. But this would have required a firm plan which, after decades of argument, is still absent.

  25. GK, 10. June 2021, 15:49

    Andrew: rapid(ish) transit needs to be fairly direct. A rambling circuitous route where a large amount of potential catchment is sea or airport tarmac would be a poor option. Lyall Bay should be served by a frequent bus route via Kilbirnie and Hataitai.

  26. Mike Mellor, 10. June 2021, 16:11

    Andrew, indeed there is another tunnel, on the original route of the Airport Flyer – which anything but flew on its tortuous journey through Rongotai, hence its later, faster, route. Apart from being long and slow, that route would also carefully miss the main traffic objective in the east, Miramar and the peninsula (much like a route along the Quays would miss the Golden Mile and the adjacent Terrace business area, the main traffic objective at the other end).

    And it’s worth noting that that tunnel wasn’t built under the runway, either – the runway end safety area was built on top of the completed tunnel.

  27. Casey, 10. June 2021, 17:58

    Dave B: The real darn was the lack of foresight by the planners in the 1950s in siting the terminal on the east side of the runway, when ideally it should have been on the Kilbirnie side. I assume that the attraction then was making use of the existing De Haviland factory buildings which some of us are old enough to remember converted into the airport terminal.

    Parts of the runway and taxiway sit on rock, so blasting it to make a light rail underpass would have been an extensive exercise even if route plans had been prepared.

  28. Steve Doole, 11. June 2021, 8:49

    So LGWM has not died, yet. The next LGWM output could be underwhelming as well – business cases. Do you know how one-eyed a transport business case can be? So many roads and very high car use in NZ is no accident. NZ was out on its own with business cases promoting car travel by skewing the financial value of traffic, way into the future. Walking was hardly mentioned as no vehicle cost is involved. How last century was that thinking? Now NZTA appears to be suggesting a problem-solving approach.

    One of the first steps is for LGWM to describe what problem is to be tackled.(How hard can it be after all the advice they got from us.) But how do you say that under-performing transport is restricting city development? Maybe say present transport is inefficient – compared with what? Or would ‘ pollution reduction ‘ be a better tack. Perhaps such notions are too high level as none of these point to a tram or trips to the airport. But what about calling out the CBD pinch point?

    Yes, NZTA as guardian of a funding pot quite rightly wants to see the options evaluated. No traffic solution will look viable. A second terrace road tunnel creates more problems than it solves, and is the opposite of the stated goal of moving more people in fewer vehicles. Buses might get a look-in with more priority and bus lanes. Rail in some form appears best, but trams on city streets mixing with pedestrians is problematical especially if the route has many intersections. Just look at Melbourne. Yes LGWM would do well to look at other cities, and learn from design failings, for instance, Sheffield UK is an under performing Light Rail system due to route design. Ok there could be geological limitations on full metro rail, but doesn’t Hong Kong have similar topography to Wellington? Light metro (as in Vancouver and London) rather than trams in streets could give the best performance. Perhaps LGWM needed some quiet time to work out a case for each option.

  29. Dave B, 11. June 2021, 14:44

    Thanks Steve Doole for this pertinent analysis of where we have got to, also your advice to LGWM moving forward. I believe decades of denial that more and better public transport is needed in Wellington, is the reason things have stagnated so much. Despite lip service to PT over this time, Wellington has long pinned all its hopes on development of the road system and we are now facing the predictable consequences. And despite the worthy sounding aims and aspirations of LGWM and also of the Labour government, a major mindset-shift is needed among both politicians and population, to grasp the alternative vision necessary to really get Wellington moving. One would like to think that some of the articles and comments appearing in Wellington.Scoop may be of help in bringing this about.

  30. Ms Green, 11. June 2021, 16:58

    Now here’s a scoop hidden away in an unlikely place! In the draft Civic Precinct Framework out for consultation (due June 16), it shows the future “LGWM future mass transit route” as going down Jervois Quay. So there you have it! Just a quick line in a map. Page 17 of the draft Framework if you need it. Does LGWM, or GWRC know this?

  31. Toni, 12. June 2021, 11:43

    Ms Green. As the framework also indicates they are going to scrap the popular and iconic city to sea bridge in favour of having a pedestrian crossing across Jervois Quay, it is going to be dreadful getting across from one side to the other if the Quay is a main transit road, and it will certainly not be as attractive or safe as the bridge. I believe it will stop many people from crossing unless they need to.

  32. luke, 15. June 2021, 11:22

    An underground travelator from the terminal thru the existing pedestrian tunnel to a mass transit station on Coutts Street would probably be shorter than some I’ve seen at airports overseas.