Wellington Scoop

No credibility: the investigation of an underground railway for Wellington

by Lindsay Shelton
We’re getting contradictory messages about tunnels in Wellington. The Transport Agency says they’re too expensive for any of our roads. But consultants hired by the Regional Council are solemnly investigating the possibility of building tunnels under the city for an underground railway. The plan cannot be given any credibility.

The Regional Council announced yesterday that its consultants have been busy. First they assembled 88 options for Wellington’s public transport before choosing a short list of eight – including the unaffordable subway. And including a heavy railway line along the waterfront – something else which can’t be taken seriously.

The Transport Agency, who keep refusing to consider a small tunnel under the National War Memorial Park, could have been expected to reject the subway idea. Yet they are strangely keeping an open mind. The Agency’s regional director says:

We’re confident this [the eight options] will help us and our council partners to identify the best potential long-term solutions that provide good value for money and fit well with the needs, the opportunities, and the constraints of our city.

Constraints? She knows there’ll never be money to build a subway. And she ought to know that no one would accept a railway line along the Wellington waterfront. Nevertheless she’s “very pleased at the noticeable progress the study has made in creating a medium list of options.”

The DomPost has revealed the cost of the subway that will never be built. It would cost $105million for every kilometer.

Mayor Wade-Brown is taking a more realistic view than the consultants. She says an underground railway seems the most unrealistic of the options, “specially given that Wellington is a seismically challenged city with rising sea levels”. And more: “I imagine that the underground rail will be too expensive, but let’s see a bit more detail.”

No need to wait and see. Move the subway out of the list of options now. Delete the railway line along the waterfront too. Then the consultants will have 25 per cent less work to do. They would have more time to discover the benefits of light rail.

As for the relatively small cost of a subway – sorry, a tunnel – under the war memorial park – that’s something to keep fighting for.

Veteran Wellington light rail campaigner Brent Efford says:
“The old problem with consultants looking at light rail in Wellington is happening all over again.
“That is, although the international company has an impressive record of light rail involvement around the world, the local staff doing the work in Wellington apparently have no hands-on experience of it and rely on interpreting second-hand information.
“There is a strange disconnect between the previous and current GWRC work on light rail and PT network planning (including the Bus Review) and this study. It almost seems as though a Year Zero mentality is at work: the study team believe nothing like this has ever been done before and the wheel has first to be invented.”

And Maximus notes the crazy options and asks:
Have these planners actually been to Wellington?


  1. Traveller, 2. May 2012, 9:26

    What misguided thinking persuaded our Regional Council to waste money with such a foolish and wasteful investigation? Even Auckland can’t persuade the Government to pay for a subway route (and they really need it).

  2. Cr Paul Bruce, 3. May 2012, 12:36

    Those with institutional memories will note that another feasibility study was completed in 1993, which found that public transport demand along the Golden Mile was more than adequate and cost effective for light rail (modern tram). Yet nothing happened!

    This study will go the same way unless a project for the design and construction of an affordable option gets into the Greater Wellington Regional Land Transport Programme.

    If you and readers would like a recommendation to be implemented, then you must make a submission to http://www.gw.govt.nz/have-your-say. Submissions close this weekend.

  3. Brent Efford, 5. May 2012, 11:35

    I am on the community Reference Group for the Spine Study, representing Trans-Action, an expert group advocating light rail in its tram-train format (i.e. sharing tracks north of the Railway Station with existing trains like the Matangis to provide a seamless PT spine from region to its CBD, hospital etc). In other words we are advocating exactly what the Regional Council proposed not only in 1993, as Paul Bruce notes, but also in 1995 (the Works/MVA study) AND in the 1999 Regional Land Transport Strategy.
    However, the GWRC has a habit of losing its corporate memory and went into the Wellington Regional Rail Programme in the mid-00s completely oblivious of its tram-train plans of a few years previously. This led to the Matangi Mistake – specifying new electric rail rollingstock which was not tram-train – i.e. unable to be used on light rail (tram) street tracks. Apparently the Matangis are having trouble on the Johnsonville Line, which further confirms that they should have been designed as modern trams all along.
    As for the subway option – $105M per kilometre is RIDICULOUSLY LOW! A proper underground railway can be assumed to be around a BILLION dollars per kilometre! The underground railway of similar length in Auckland is estimated at $2.75 BILLION and that is in line with as-built experience in cities overseas.
    Only the truly enormous cities like New York and Los Angeles are still building any heavy rail subways and even in the wealthy latter metropolis the amount of subway is only a fraction of the light rail that is currently under construction or already in operation. The latest LA light rail extension opened on 28 April.

  4. Cr Daran Ponter (Regional Councillor), 6. May 2012, 19:18

    It can be a frustrating job being a Councillor. As a councillor you don’t want to set out to criticise the Council …..but there are times when the folly of the regional council’s decisions cannot go unanswered.

    Allowing the consultants to proceed to investigate a heavy rail option is one of these times. The Regional Council knows, the Wellington City Council knows, the NZTA knows, and most importantly Wellingtonians know – ratepayers and commuters alike – that at $105million per kilometre, there is no way that this option will ever be funded….yet we proceed on regardless!

    Having dismissed so many other options as not being suitable for Wellington (pods, mini vans etc), it beggars belief that we can continue with an option that is in the vicinity of $75million per kilometre more expensive than the other options being investigated. Having reached this point, we should have simply advised the consultants that the heavy rail options are so far outside of the fiscal envelope that they too should be dismissed and not be investigated any further.

  5. Tony Randle, 7. May 2012, 14:33

    It is also interesting that the bus tunnel option WAS eliminated. As the Wellington City bus service carries twice as many people into the CBD as the rail service, surely a bus tunnel would have twice the benefit as any rail tunnel.

    Equally, although underground rail would provide benefits to those commuting from cities to the north, it is unlikely to significantly reduce the number of buses on the Golden Mile carrying Wellington city commuters to/from work.

    A bus tunnel, on the other hand, would remove buses from the Golden Mile with safety, service reliability and capacity benefits that would far exceed the rail option. It would probably cost less as well because it would only be required at the key congestion point (say from mid-Lambton Quay to Manners Street) and would not need all the rail track, power and signalling systems.

    Bus tunnels are succesful overseas in places such as Seattle and this option is still being considered by the next Auckland CBD study. If we are to consider a underground rail, we should also be considering underground buses.

  6. Ross Clark, 11. May 2012, 22:22


    * Tony – there are significant air pollution problems with bus tunnels, where you are not using trolley buses; I very much doubt that Seattle’s tunnel works as well as you say it does, and would value Brent’s more-opinion on this.

    * The main cost with any tunnel system is in the stations, more than the tunnelling itself, which is why the Auckland project is so costly.

    * My guess is that the real opposition to tram-trains is coming from Kiwirail’s engineers themselves, as much as the GWRC.

  7. Brent Efford, 12. May 2012, 8:29

    The Seattle “bus” tunnel was in fact built from the start to be converted to light rail (actually, being Seattle, a very expensive version of light rail) and tracks were laid in the tunnel from the start.
    At present buses do use the tunnel, on battery power, intermingled with light rail trains from the SEA-TAC airport. This sharing will cease when the northwards extension of the light rail subway to the University of Washington is complete and more trains start using the tunnel.
    Seattle, BTW, is just another of the cities where it can be shown that boring a subway is likely to cost ten times the ridiculous $105M/km low ball figure quoted in the DomPost. See my other comment above.
    Incidentally, yet another affordable tram-train plan, this time in Denmark, has just been announced:
    “Aarhus tram-train project gets the go-ahead
    10 May 2012
    The tram-train project proposed for Aarhus has won official approval, the Railway Gazette International site reports. Aarhus is Denmark’s second largest city and the nation’s major port. Rolling stock procurement will include two types of trams, depending up top speeds required:

  8. Tony Randle, 12. May 2012, 11:36

    Good points Ross and Brent, but a well designed bus tunnel as part of a wider BRT system would address them (switching to hybrid diesel buses in addition to or instead of trolleys).
    I note neither of you dispute the real benefits of moving buses off city streets on to their own underground corridor.

    Continuing the rail tunnel option will obviously be much more expensive and cost is obviously not a factor for not also continuing with the bus tunnel. So what was the factor/criteria that meant the Spine Study kept the underground rail option but rejected the underground bus option?

  9. Lindsay, 12. May 2012, 11:52

    If we’re going to keep discussing tunnels, then let’s get back to what is seriously needed – a tunnel to move SH1 traffic under the National War Memorial Park, which could be achieved by the frugal-cost process of cutting and covering. Cutting and covering would also fix the delays at Taranaki Street and (as the city council has suggested) around the Basin Reserve, without the destruction that’ll be caused by a flyover.