Wellington Scoop

Why more buses is wrong

A vigorous defence of why Wellington needs light rail has been posted by Nemo over on his eyeofthefish website. He doesn’t hold back:

Let’s not pussyfoot around – Wellington needs a Rapid Transit system and that simply cannot be more buses. And it needs to be Rapid (like the name suggests) so it needs some new direct routes – that means new tunnels. Yes, plural: Tunnels. Dame Kerry Prendergast was wrong, like many people with limited vision of her era, in that she is seeing Wellington in the past, not the future. She thinks – and stated – that Wellington’s answer to its traffic problems is more buses. And that is simply wrong.

And more

Buses simply cannot transport enough people quickly enough to satisfy the needs of our main transport spine, even at present, let alone when we have another 30,000 people living on a spine route down to Island Bay. The answer is quite simple really – we need bigger vehicles, safely running on smooth paths, powered by electricity, and the only answer is a modern tram system like Light Rail. We need them to take the main strain of the main route, and other feeder transport methods, like buses, can link into them. Yes, we are still going to have lots of buses, as well, but they cannot be the main answer.

It’s absolutely worth your time to read Nemo’s vigorous and persuasive arguments in favour of light rail. He’s got some strong opinions on tunnels, too.

And he’s also got some constructive suggestions about the evolving cycleway network, with a completely fresh (and somewhat critical) look at the routes proposed by the city council.

Bravo Nemo.

Feedback on cycling networks closes on the 14th. And feedback on transport options closes on the same day.


  1. Mavis, 6. December 2021, 13:14

    My 80 year old aunt agrees with Nemo. She can’t work out where it is safe to bike. She like Nemo tried to understand the maps given by the Council but without street names… impossible. All of them should have safe separated cycleways. And yes to light rail, even a truncated line.

    As for Dame Kerry Prendergast: she was always a strong supporter of Transmission Gully, roads to everywhere especially Levin, the wider the faster the better, more cars, more buses. I agree with Nemo, ignore her.

  2. K, 6. December 2021, 18:32

    What is the international standard for building a light rail system that serves less than 200,000 people (south & east Wellington). Is a cost of $5,000 per person / $15,000 per household for construction reasonable? I nave no idea either way so would be interested to know.

  3. nemo, 7. December 2021, 8:32

    K – costings for light rail are not usually worked out by $ per person or $ per household – the international standard is usually to price transit systems by $ per kilometre. Prices vary considerably, with generally most comparable sized cities in Europe having a tram network that connects to the much larger train network between cities and between EU country / states. Generally, in Europe and in Asia light rail systems can be built cost-effectively, whereas (for reasons unknown) in the UK, America, and some places in Oz, costs can go hideously over budget. If anyone wants to scare you off installing light rail, then they will quote figures from Edinburgh or Sydney at you, both of which went ridiculously over budget.

    But there are many more places in the world that LR schemes have been installed to a much more reasonable budget – Spain seems to be able to build LR very cost effectively, as does Korea. So a very simple answer is to ensure that you don’t get in any British “expertise” and instead just tender the system direct to Spanish and Korean companies.

    The key thing to note is that either LR or the so-called ‘Bus Rapid Transit’ (BRT) will both require the same thing: a clear section of roadway, not shared with other cars, and especially not shared with services like drains, underground wiring etc. Any contractor will need to dig down and divert the services that are there and move them out of the way first. That is the expensive part of the project and its where Edinburgh went overboard – well over a thousand years of buried infrastructure in Princess St meant that traffic diversion went on for years while pipes were dug up etc and hence massive cost over-runs. Seeing as we only removed the rails of the Wellington trams about 50 years ago, there should not be as many pipes in the way. Light Rail will need a pair of steel tracks laid, generally on a thick reinforced concrete base. BRT would also require the thick concrete base as well.

    I’m not a QS so I won’t answer questions on cost, but if you are interested, you can find a magazine at Magnetix called Trams and Urban Tramways, which is sort of the bible on Light Rail. It will show you just how many LR schemes there are all over the world, including many in cities our size.

  4. Dave B, 7. December 2021, 10:52

    Wellington’s No1 transport need: To extend the regional rail system to serve the southern CBD, Newtown, Kilbirnie, Rongotai and the airport. If light rail is considered necessary, this should be in addition to, not instead of, extending regional rail. And the suburb most needful of light rail is not Island Bay, but Karori. Karori has at least 50% more population than Island Bay and Berhampore combined, and has a notoriously limited road connection to the city.

    It seems to me that the LGWM proposals for light rail to Island Bay and “bus rapid transit” to the Eastern Suburbs are not addressing the real issues at all.

  5. Rex Nicholls, 7. December 2021, 14:14

    Light rail – steel on steel – is 1800s technology, incredibly expensive to build, inflexible, stations further than walking distance apart (for elderly, families with children, especially). Underground services must be heavily strengthened and cannot just be moved as suggested as they serve buildings on both sides of the road – then there is their future repairs….
    Cycles and steel rails are incompatible. Wellington’s roads are narrow, winding, steep, all huge negatives for steel rails.
    The future is EVs, and within the timeframe of building LR, driverless ones. Smaller driverless buses will flit around everywhere. Nobody will own a car, we’ll all just use an app to call a vehicle for our commuter, leisure, or service trip. Think 2100 not 1800 guys.

  6. Dave B, 7. December 2021, 15:11

    Rex Nicholls, perhaps you ought to urgently tell Auckland Transport to abandon their steel-on-steel, heavily-strengthened underground City Rail Link, in time for the influx of driverless EVs which you (erroneously) believe will solve everything. I do agree with you however, that resurrecting Wellington’s former tram system with fancy modern light rail vehicles is not the answer to the bulk of Wellington’s transport woes. As I suggested above, we need to make far better use of our excellent rail system by extending it to serve the 20% of the region south of the city. Take a leaf out of Auckland’s book, and maybe borrow their Tunnel Boring Machine when they have finished with it!

    I cannot agree that rail technology from the 1800s is no longer applicable today. One could argue that the technology of chariot wheels running on paved roads from the Ancient Roman era is even more outmoded!

  7. Thomas Nash, 7. December 2021, 20:23

    Electric buses will be very energy efficient per passenger compared to cars! E-bikes probably still beat them per passenger though. [via twitter]

  8. Ross Clark, 8. December 2021, 0:16

    Nemo – having lived through it, I can confirm your assessment of what went wrong in Edinburgh. The time and money allowed for utilities relocation proved to be hopelessly unrealistic; but there were significant political pressures at the time which in my view led to this part of the project being deliberately under-costed. Then everything unravelled from there. That said, a three-mile extension of the line is now under construction and will be finished in about eighteen months.

    Dave B – agreed. Auckland’s newfound enthusiasm for tunnelling (=the proposed Dominion Rd tram line), as opposed to surface light rail, is something which is noteworthy.

  9. nemo, 8. December 2021, 13:28

    Rex Nicholls – try to look at the bigger picture. We are not talking Light Rail everywhere, but instead just down the main transport spine route – so your concern about Wellington’s narrow winding roads can be allayed. The route from the main Railway Station to the Hospital is broad, wide, and very flat, so your concerns are invalid. Of course, connecting into that spine at several points will be buses and they will be electric in the future.

    The positive thing about systems like Light Rail is that each train would consist of 3 or 4 cars, all connected together, capable of taking a large load, the equivalent of several different buses. So that makes the road less congested. Trying to do the same with buses would mean just as much disruption to underground services – I was watching every day when Manners Mall became Manners Buslane and the works to the substructure was quite intense, a deep reinforced concrete track bed. Hence my comments that if you try to do the same with steel tracks or a concrete roadway, you’ll have the same issues.

    I’m glad to see that you have been keeping up with reading your back copies of Dan Dare and the 22nd century, when small driverless EV buses will “flit around everywhere” and “we’ll all just use an app to call a vehicle for our commuter, leisure, or service trip.” Unfortunately Ming the Merciless and the realities of modern life means that your utopian dream may make it more of a dystopian future, with streets clogged with hordes of roaming, flitting, robot taxis, endlessly circulating the streets waiting for their next dispatch from UberRobot. Fortunately, if we install a Light Rail now, on a separated track, while the roads are clogged, users will still be able to get across town on good old technology, invented in the 1800s and perfected in the 2000s.

  10. bsmith, 8. December 2021, 14:47

    So let me see if I have this straight. Light Rail to the Hospital, with buses connecting into this. Four rail carriages could carry the equivalent of several buses. (Working on the theory, light rail is full all the time). I notice Nemo skirts around the issue of cost. This would be a ludicrous waste of money, when decent roading systems (benefitting everyone, including the odd cyclist), with decent public transport i.e buses is a straightforward, relatively quick answer.

  11. Claire, 8. December 2021, 14:53

    The business case and cost analysis will put paid to rail or light rail. It’s like the cool couple of million to be spent on cycle routes through Khandallah and every other outpost for 4000 cyclists in Wellington. Utterly ridiculous.

  12. A J Corlett, 8. December 2021, 15:53

    Rail is dead, except for heavy freight. That is why the Paris (& Montreal) Metros run on rubber tyres: compared to rail/steel wheels, they are far less expensive, far quieter, and don’t require the high cost of rails to run on.
    Overseas studies of light rail, which have been looked at for Auckland, show a minimum population density requirement of 20,000 PER STATION! Population levels below this mean a rapid decline into uneconomic or extremely uneconomic operation. There is nowhere in NZ that comes close to these population levels.
    Re bus access through cities, see Brisbane’s solution: Dedicated bus roads in inner city areas, normal roads otherwise. A flexibility, & use of existing expensive (road) infrastructure that rail can’t compete with.

  13. Dave B, 9. December 2021, 2:38

    AJ Corlett, that’s complete misinformation. A few of Paris’s metro lines run on rubber tyres. The great majority including the entire RER system are conventional rail. Likewise, a few cities worldwide have chosen rubber-tyred metros but the vast bulk haven’t. They are not less expensive, they require high-cost, specialised guideways to run on and have not caught-on for that reason.
    Lausanne (Switzerland) is interesting in that it has two metro lines – one conventional light rail, the other rubber-tyred, chosen specifically for its hill-climbing capability. The two lines have a combined total of 30 stations for a total metropolitan population of 140,000. This averages out at less than 5,000 population PER STATION, with a third line being planned due to current overcrowding. Lausanne’s metro population is smaller than Wellington’s 216,000.
    Brisbane has bus-only roads and tunnels beneath the city, but it also has an extensive regional rail system, also with a tunnel beneath the city.
    You are so wrong in your “Rail is dead, except for heavy freight” assertion.

  14. pedge, 9. December 2021, 11:44

    You’re doing good work Dave B. Reducing the spread of misinformation that people so easily buy into. Can I also add to what you’ve said, another myth that keeps getting spread, including by A J Corlett above; that flexibility is a inherent benefit of buses. That flexibility is actually a weakness not a strength. Good urban planning and development needs certainty about routes. A rail line provides that in a way buses never can.

  15. Keith Flinders, 9. December 2021, 12:56

    Only a few Paris Metro lines employ light rail/tram rubber-tyred cars. The installation costs for these are greater than replacing existing steel rails with like. Metro Expansion work in progress is steel on steel.

    Certainly the rubber-tyred option offers quieter operation although the maintenance costs are higher than conventional steel on steel. In France both Caen and Nancy introduced street-running rubber-tyred trams, the former having been torn out after on 15 years in service and replaced with steel rails. The Nancy system is due to be withdrawn about now. Both systems were hampered by operational and reliability issues as well as high maintenance costs.

    Like the trackless tram from China, this rubber-tyred mode of transport is unsuitable for existing road construction.

  16. Mike Mellor, 9. December 2021, 16:41

    Good work on addressing those misconceptions! Another couple are being peddled by Rex Nicholls:

    * “Cycles and steel rails are incompatible” – if that were the case, how come Amsterdam (for example) has both very high bike usage and a dense tram system?

    * “Wellington’s roads are narrow, winding, steep, all huge negatives for steel rails” – some Wellington roads are, but no-one is suggesting putting rails down any that are narrower, more winding or steeper than plenty of tram-served streets in Europe.

    And in his enthusiasm for buses, A J Corlett appears not to have noticed that Brisbane is currently building Cross River Rail, a 10.2-km line under the CBD – and both Sydney and Melbourne are building major new rail lines.

  17. nemo, 11. December 2021, 9:50

    bsmith – are you being deliberately obtuse? We are planning for the future here, not for right now. If intensification does happen to Wellington, with another 50-80,000 people spread throughout the city, how do you think all those extra people are going to get to work? The buses already are full at peak time, as are the roads, so clearly we need the option of another transport system that can get round this problem. The idea is that if you are in your home, say, in Island Bay, you could walk down to your local Light Rail stop, jump on a frequent, safe, convenient service, and be whisked into town faster than you could drive or bus. So too can another 300-500 people at a time. With their own dedicated lanes, they would not get stuck in traffic, whereas doubling or tripling the amount of buses will only cause more congestion, more chaos, so that won’t work.

    If everyone tries to jump in a RoboUber as Rex suggests, there would need to be several thousand of these self-driving vehicles waiting on the streets in each suburb, picking up and taking one passenger at a time. So that won’t work either. The only real answer for mass population is a mass transportation system.

  18. Kerry, 14. December 2021, 16:40

    Rex. A few early motor cars also appeared in the nineteenth century: would you discard cars too? Modern cars are far more sophisticated than in the nineteenth century and so are modern trams. Of course, trams are more costly because they need tracks, which also need alteration of underground services. But modern trams also have a massive hidden saving: much lower operating costs. The primary cost, for either buses or trams, is the driver’s wages. A tram 40m long can carry far more passengers than a bus, for much the same operating cost.

    A French study in Montpellier concluded that, on a per-passenger basis, light rail costs per passenger are half the cost of buses, because per-passenger operating costs are lower. Wellington will also benefit — perhaps substantially — but not to the same extent: French light rail systems do not pay for altering underground services.