Wellington Scoop

Light rail – overcoming any doubts

karlsruh tram train

by Rob Martin
Over the past three months I have been looking at tram-train systems in the UK and Europe and have also been following the debate about proposals for a light rail system to overcome the public transport congestion through the Wellington CBD.

The problem of congestion is the driving force for the introduction of Bus Rapid Transit, but advocates for light rail consider that is not the answer.

What is causing the congestion? In my view it was deregulation of the transport system that allowed bus operators to compete with the suburban rail system and gain a competitive advantage by being able to offer a service that bypasses the Railway Station. In the distant past, when NZR buses ran from Bunny Street to the Johnsonville area (and as far as I am aware there were no competing services in the greater Wellington area) most of the traffic through the CBD was suburban and hence manageable even after the trams ceased running.

So while everyone is concentrating on the CBD as a Wellington problem, it has in fact been caused by traffic from the Greater Wellington area which should be addressed either by forcing the bus companies to deposit their passengers at the railway station or by providing a better alternative by giving the rail system the same competitive advantage – namely a system such as tram-trains which has been shown to work overseas.

In the past three months I have experienced three such systems. I’ve also been to Saarbrucken to confirm that the system there follows the same formula – light rail vehicles that run on both the main heavy rail lines following heavy rail signalling systems and then through the city streets as trams where the driver has to drive as a normal tram.

karlsruh 2

The Karlsruhe system (both photos) needs little explanation except for anyone who denies its success. When you go there you see how extensive is the tram-train network and how many lines which were heavy rail operated are now the preserve of tram-trains which have the capacity to deal with the increase in passengers. So successful has been this growth through the CBD that a new tunnel under the main street, the Kaiser Straβe, has had to be constructed which will also take the city trams that share the same route.

The other two systems that I visited are in the development phase, extending an existing tram system onto a former heavy rail line. In the case of Chemnitz, while the extension uses the heavy rail signalling system there is no heavy rail traffic so at this stage it is a stand-alone system. However a hybrid system is being developed using a modified rail car which could take power from the overhead wire but would lower the collector before moving off. More work to be done on where this goes to next time.

The extension to an existing tram line in Mulhouse falls into the category of tram-train in that the line merges on to the main line system and there is the opportunity for this to be extended as required.

These are examples of tram-trains to satisfy any doubters that the system can be developed for Wellington to allow the rail network to compete with the road system by extending it through the CBD and on.

I also visited two UK systems which again showed how the rail system can be better integrated.

In Manchester, Victoria Station is the terminus for heavy rail suburban trains and also the city’s extensive light rail system. Here a combined station under the same roof has been developed with light rail sharing the space so that passengers arriving by heavy rail can walk under cover from one platform to the other. The light rail vehicles then extend the service through the city with one line going to Manchester Piccadilly which is the major terminus for main line trains to Euston.

Sheffield was the second system visited and is to be the trial for a Mulhouse style development from the end of one tram line to Rotherham. This project has stalled owing to Network Rail requiring more time to carry out the conversion which will require overhead catenary, as the main line is diesel only.

Two final comments.

The first is that in terms of construction these light rail vehicles are more train than tram in that they have to conform to the loading gauge and running characteristics of their heavy rail companions. In other words they are trains first and trams second, and not the other way around. In Portland the term used for the MAX is trains and not trams which puts the emphasis where it should be. Having been involved with Mainline Steam in trying to get existing AO carriages certified to run on KiwiRail tracks, I would caution that KiwiRail will demand that tram-trains conform to their loading gauge requirements and not the other way around.

What is lacking in the debate over CBD bus congestion is an understanding of the cause of the problem and a long term strategy to address it. Simply introducing light rail into the CBD to get over the problem of congestion without looking at the whole picture will doom it to failure. While the present political aspirants want to use it as a platform, I am positive once they get into power and spell out their expectations they will be overcome by the lack of any coherent plan and will be blindsided by the combined power of NZTA and the bureaucracy within the GWRC and the WRC.

So what should we do?

We should look at the bigger picture on what we want the Greater Wellington area to be in 30 years’ time and follow the examples listed above to develop an integrated rail system based on the present heavy rail suburban system combined with tram-trains for a seamless service through the CBD and on to the airport.

Rob Martin, a member of Trams Action, has had a lifelong interest in land transport, especially rail based transport. Although his main focus has been on developments within New Zealand railways, over the past 15 years he also has made submissions on the re-introduction of light rail to Wellington.


  1. luke, 2. October 2016, 9:27

    Personally i’d prefer a standalone light rail system starting at the railway station and running along the quays to courtenay place newtown kilbirnie and the airport with easy transfers between heavy and light rail.

  2. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 2. October 2016, 10:03

    This article makes some very salient points and a couple of rather bizarre ones! On the correct side is the bit that includes “Simply introducing light rail into the CBD to get over the problem of congestion without looking at the whole picture will doom it to failure.” Absolutely! Light rail must have a proper purpose and a proper plan if it’s to succeed in Wellington. I do fear that one or two environmentally conscious and well meaning GWRC candidates are pushing for light rail without much of an understanding of the huge challenges in achieving a system that will rival the current bus services (including the express buses) for convenience and speed, especially as many currently-direct services will require a tram-bus transfer if light rail is introduced. That doesn’t mean to say I’m against it in principle. We need a very thorough multi-party study, run jointly by GWRC and WCC and assisted by NZTA and the many enthusiasts such as Rob Martin who have extensive observational experience of overseas systems. This is not a study to be simply farmed out to a consultancy de jour.

    I must take issue with Rob’s comments about transport deregulation. Yes, the old NZR buses used to run from Bunny Street, as did the Newlands and Easbourne services. Was that a good thing, as he implies? No it wasn’t. Just because rail couldn’t penetrate the CBD, there was no justification for northern suburbs and Eastbourne commuters being forced to walk from their place of work to the railway station, or to take a WCC bus at a separate fare and with a separate ticket to get there. I managed the deregulation process in Wellington in 1991 and took the opportunity to bring the Eastbourne and northern suburbs buses into the CBD, but I also through-routed other major routes such as Lyall Bay/Karori to reduce CBD bus overlaps. Integrated ticketing was to be the next phase but I went overseas and 25 years later we still don’t have it.

    Finally, the Johnsonville line is the only rail service with any substantial competition from buses, and it’s more or less at capacity anyway in peak hours. Despite the late 80s mania for competition in all things, my team and I managed to protect the other lines when the deregulated system cut in, in 1991. And the trolley buses too, which are of course now under threat.

  3. Jo, 2. October 2016, 13:28

    Luke, I can’t work out how you would put light rail through Newtown without removing homes to make way for it as Constable St is really the only option to get to Kilbirnie via Newtown.

  4. TrevorH, 2. October 2016, 14:40

    Expensive, inflexible, a 19th century answer to 21st century urban needs. Light rail would service the latte-sipping apartment dwellers along the spine very nicely thank you and the rest of us would be forced to stand out in the elements while changing from our former express bus to the tram. Every time there was an earthquake the system would grind to a halt and we would have to start walking home, as happens with suburban rail now.. Personally I would love to see steam reintroduced on the main trunk line. That would make more sense.

  5. CC, 2. October 2016, 17:15

    Jo – Constable Street hasn’t become any narrower since the trams were taken out of service in 1962.

  6. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 2. October 2016, 18:26

    No, CC, but cars, trucks and vans have typically become wider and much more numerous! If light rail is to succeed it will have to be faster than buses. This suggests tunnels and reserved rights of way, not routine in-street running all the way.

  7. Keith Flinders, 2. October 2016, 20:26

    Chris Calvi-Freeman: Hopefully this time next week you will be a ward councillor elect, and bring some badly needed expertise on public transport matters to the WCC. We have been badly let down by recent councils ignoring passenger growth and failing to get the lack of peak hour capacity adjusted. Appreciating that these matters are under the control of the GWRC, none the less the WCC representatives on the joint transport committee haven’t achieved benefits for Wellington city bus users. Add to this the negligent, in my opinion, running down of the trolley bus infrastructure which is controlled by the WCC, through its CCO Wellington Cable Car Ltd.

    Joint bus/light rail/train-tram services are obviously going to be needed along with transfers. Last year a current GWRC councillor said passengers don’t like transfers, yet the 2018 bus route changes include many such.

    The single railway station hub although suitable for the passenger loadings of 25 years ago, is now a major part of the problem. Current GWRC plans are hoping to counter this by adding double decker buses through the CBD and having fewer of them. I don’t see this as a viable solution, but then I am not a transport planning engineer. Why Courtenay Place/Lower Taranaki Street hasn’t been seen as a second major hub, is likely something that you can answer.

    My fear is that the 2029 election campaign may see the same 2016 issues yet to be addressed.

    Integrated ticketing now promised for 2019. Bus transfers using a single fare might happen sooner, we hope.

  8. Susan Says, 3. October 2016, 8:36

    Let’s start with integrated ticketing and get that right. Then develop consultation plans to discuss how light rail could be implemented. The implementation plan needs to include a more detailed analysis of the work to be undertaken, how long it is likely to take, how this disruption would be managed and how any impacts to residents and communities are to be compensated or mitigated. We need more information to make an informed choice.

    At the moment the discussion seems to be at the conceptual stage, focusing on the pros and cons of light rail. But I think ratepayers and residents need to know more about what they’re in for.

  9. KB, 3. October 2016, 9:03

    By the time any tram/light rail system would be operational in Wellington, the world will have moved on to cheap autonomous door to door electric vehicle transportation for both public & private transport. Any light rail system being implemented after 2020 in a mostly suburban city is going to be a huge white elephant.

  10. Casey, 3. October 2016, 14:04

    So instead of buses, trains, trams, light rail, we will see all these autonomous vechicles instead, according to some. Makes you wonder where, how and who will pay for the extra roads required. An autonomous vehicle is just one without a driver, and even with its smarts will be in nose to tail snarl-ups on roads. Billions are being spent globally on light rail KB so there is an opportunity for you to advise them why they are wrong.

    It will be at least 2023 by the time Wellington commits to light rail and by then some other form of mass people mover may have been designed, not needing steel tracks. Hard to imagine what, but human imagination knows no bonds.

  11. Casey, 3. October 2016, 14:22

    Integrated ticketing was discussed at candidates’ meetings and should be in place in 2019. Been under discussion for years, but like a lot of other things the GWRC controls,, more talk than action. The other thing promised was a single charge in buses where one needs to transfer en route. This might happen before integrated ticketing, it might not.

    All bus users need to make themselves aware of the changes to routes in 2018 and single trips now will mean transfers en route then. Bus capacity has been allowed to remain static for years as patronage increased, resulting in dangerous over crowding at peak periods. The shiny new trains have absorbed all the attention and funds, though they carry less than half the number of passengers annually that buses do.

    Both the GWRC and WCC councillors need to be taken to task over the bus inaction.

  12. KB, 3. October 2016, 14:43

    @Casey: Autonomous vehicles greatly increase the efficiency of the existing road infrastructure with their large network capacity utilization increases due to the greater safety at closer distances and higher speeds (you can fit 5 autonomous vehicles into the gap normally left on the motorway currently between cars, and you can fit 6 lanes for autonomous vehicles where there are currently 3-4 lanes). Wellington is more than welcome to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new light rail system, it might make a nice tourist attraction someday like the Christchurch tram, It’s just my opinion, but light rail is a well intentioned proposal that is unfortunately shortsighted.

  13. Sceptic, 3. October 2016, 22:01

    You can NOT fit 5 autonomous vehicles into the gap, for the blindingly simple reason that you have to observe existing road rules and maintain safe distances in the event that there’s a problem. Even if they’re “autonomous”, they’re not magical, and they can have tyre blow-outs, mechanical failures, interceptions by non-autonomous vehicles (unless you put them in their own exclusive lane), and other weather events that mean you still need to maintain distance. You can’t have magical extra lanes in the same existing space either, for the same reason. Are you going to force all the “old” cars off the road, with trucks, motorbikes, trailers all forgotten? Who is going to finance this near instantaneous transition?
    Large cities around the world are continuing with new investments in light rail, apparently making them all idiots for building “white elephants”.
    Are there ANY examples of your fairyland autonomous-vehicle network working in practice? Perhaps we should just not build anything, because personal, electric, autonomous flying cars are just around the corner, and then we won’t even need roads!!!

  14. Ross Clark, 3. October 2016, 22:23

    Why is no-one talking about car use in the CBD, and how peak use, in particular, could be limited?

    Local politicians are great at promoting public transport in general, and light rail in particular, as a solution to the issues thrown up by private motor vehicle use. But none of them, to my mind, seem to be ready to grasp the nettle of limiting car use *itself* – controlling the availability of commuter parking would seem the better place to start, wouldn’t it?

  15. Keith Flinders, 4. October 2016, 6:10

    Ross the key thing here is to have a frequent efficient public transport along with disincentives to bring private cars into the CBD, as they have done in London. On a visit to there in 2014, after an absence of many years, what a difference I noted in the reduction of traffic and the cleaner air. Of course it is a city that saw the introduction of public transport as essential starting in the 1800s. They continue to invest heavily in the underground in particular, as the existing services become too popular to cope.

    The Wellington region has a good suburban train service with now long overdue replacement passenger units. Imagine the congestion without rail, although NZTA prefers to fully fund roads to bring in yet more cars.

    Wellington city residents have long since adopted public transport, first with trams, then the buses that replaced them. The city population has grown, the bus capacity outstripped, and so car use increases. So we are at an impass until the GWRC changes its focus to what the city needs, catering for the future, and buses alone can not solve this. Restricting cars in the CBD at present will force more on to buses that are now overloaded at peak times.

    The Get Wellington Moving campaign may come up with some answers, but don’t expect any changes in a hurry, as many of the people involved are recidivist talk fest participants.

  16. KB, 4. October 2016, 8:23

    @sceptic I’m just explaining the reality of autonomous vehicles – they will be far more efficient, safer and smarter than human drivers. I was responding to an earlier comment about how our roads will cope with all the extra vehciles once autonomous vehicles are deployed in large numbers – so yes once they are widespread they will have dedicated lanes where they will be able to very easily make vastly better use of road space, and eventually at some point it will tip to the opposite where human driven vehciles will have their own special lanes or shared lanes with bigger safety allowances. I don’t know who mentioned instantaneous transition (I certainly didn’t) so please redirect your anger at the future elsewhere thank you.

  17. Wellington Commuter, 4. October 2016, 9:01

    @KB claims: “Autonomous vehicles greatly increase the efficiency of the existing road infrastructure with their large network capacity utilization increases due to the greater safety at closer distances and higher speeds (you can fit 5 autonomous vehicles into the gap normally left on the motorway currently between cars …” This capability is called “platooning” and has been around for many years. The California PATH project had a platoon of cars travellingt on at 58mph (93 kmph) with a following distance of only 22 feet (6.7m) in 1997 (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7tO-4FoKCo).

    According to the NZTA, “2 second rule” would require a following distance of 52m. Assuming a car length of 5.7m, this means that a car at 93kmph would occupy a total of 57.7m of roadspace while a PATH platoon car would only occupy 12.4m. At 93kmph this would mean that 4.6 PATH cars could fit into the same highway space that is currently occupied by one car following the 2-second rule. This potential for a major increase in highway efficiency through autonomous vehicles was demonstrated 20 years ago … things have improved since then. There have been more car trials (e.g. Volvo ) and also on truck platoons .

  18. Neil Douglas, 4. October 2016, 14:33

    Ross: Good point regarding car parking > weird why you take a 1.5 piece of metal (car) to work that takes up as much space as your desk! Humans are weird critters. Since you work in Edinburgh, perhaps you’d like to shed light on the Edinburgh LRT and the 20 million pound audit office report of over one million papers and notes… Beats the Chilcott enquiry in terms of speed and perhaps cost.

    Car Parking? How about a car park levy as in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne where money raised is used to fund free buses in Perth and free trams in Melbourne. Oh and while we’re at it let’s hit the rail car parkers at Petone etc. Until Wellington limits all day parking and charges spaces more then environmentally efficient PT (i.e. without too much car access/egress) will never grow much.

  19. Glen Smith, 4. October 2016, 22:23

    Wellington Commuter. Watched the Platooning video and very interesting. Since in large cities most of the cars will be following exactly the same path all the way to the CBD, we could make this even more efficient by physically joining the vehicles and getting rid of all the expensive (and fatally fallable) technology. Then we could fill up all the space with seats and fit, I don’t know, maybe 250 people into a 48 metre length rather than just 4 people in 4 cars (when they reach the CBD people might have to …. oh no…gasp…walk a short way to their destination). Of course that is just daydreaming. Hold it….. don’t we have something like that already. Oh yes – it’s called a train.

  20. Ross Clark, 5. October 2016, 3:18

    Neil Douglas – agreed. The full enquiry on our trams project has some time to run, I suspect.

    Keith – if we can reduce the number of cars coming into the CBD, it will make it a lot easier for the buses to run, and indeed to deal with more buses carrying more people. I grant you that a light-rail-vehicle is a more efficient use of road space than a bus (6 PCU, passenger car units, carrying 120 people against 3 PCU carrying 40 people) – on my sums, half as much again. But a bus is a much more efficient use of road space than a car, in which the 6 PCUs taken up by six cars may be carrying only 8 people, and probably less.

    By the way, is Wellington City’s population, not to mention the number of jobs in the CBD, actually growing?

  21. KB, 5. October 2016, 11:50

    @GlenSmith: amusing, but off base. The big advantage car “platooning” has over trains is that the individual cars still take the occupants from door-to-door, whereas trains by comparison can only stop at an extremely limited set of destinations and have one defined route only.

    It is not a debate over passenger capacity, its simply a debate over human nature: Will people choose a door-to-door on demand travel option or choose the far more inconvenient option of having to travel to and from train stations//bus stops at set travel times?

  22. neil douglas, 5. October 2016, 12:52

    Ross: I’ve had a look at the Edinburgh system> not good – what have you guys been doing!
    Original 2003 cost ballooned from GBP 375million to an actual cost of GBP 776 million. Converted at GBP=NZ1.77 equals $1.374 billion NZ. This is for 14 kilometres of LRT track. So the cost per km is just shy of $100 million NZ. This would put the Wellington 11km route at $NZ 1.1 billion (cf AECOM $938 million).
    Ridership in 2016 was 5.4 million trips so the capital cost works out at $NZ 20 per trip (annual equivalent 7%, 30 years).
    The Scottish office audit has cost GBP3.7 million and is not complete. So just the audit has cost $NZ 1 per trip.
    Why has it gone so pear shaped Ross? What can Wellington learn not to do?

  23. Keith Flinders, 5. October 2016, 14:27

    By 1911 the then Wellington City Council had borrowed the equivalent of $350 million in 2016 terms, to finance the tram system of about 25 kms. The debt was serviced by 40,000 people of voting age living here that year. Today there are 141,000 voters resident, plus those in the greater Wellington region who contribute to Wellington’s public transport costs as we do theirs. $500 million plus has been spent on suburban rail units, not the tracks which cost an additional $20 million a year to use, according to the GRWC .

    Suburban rail carries 11 million passengers a year, buses 24 million. Both are increasing in patronage and the latter’s growth is now hampered by lack of capacity, causing would be users back into cars.

    All the arguments I have read about light rail seem to ignore that buses don’t come free of cost. Battery buses when introduced will cost over a $1million each, and in their service life will need replacement batteries costing about the same as the initial cost of the bus. Buses will be replaced about 6 times in the anticipated 75 year life span of light rail. Certainly light rail cars will be replaced about every 30 years but cost a fraction of that for a battery bus.

    Nothing comes cheap, public transport today and beyond will need subsidising. Light rail needs to be in the discussion mix and even if adopted will not be in the construction phase until agreed to by the 2022 council.
    More at http://www.tinyurl.com/flinders2016

  24. Guy M, 6. October 2016, 9:07

    Neil Douglas – you ask what went wrong with the Edinburgh tram system, and it is a good question, but Edinburgh should not be looked at as a typical project. In terms of cost blowouts, Edinburgh is way out on its own, and nearly all other tram projects cost significantly less. There is a magazine called Trams and Urban Tramways (TAUT) which had a special article on why Edinburgh blew out so badly, but unfortunately their website does not have that article and nor can I remember the exact reasons – but it was mainly political and legal i think. http://www.tramnews.net/
    Take this quote:

    “The Roseburn to Granton spur has been a controversial part of the proposed tram network, not least because it would run along the Roseburn urban wildlife corridor and because of opposition to the line and the additional expense from some of the political representatives on the city council – particularly the Scottish National Party.”

    or this one:

    “Transport Initatives Edinburgh (TIE) is to take legal action against the multi-national BSC consortium responsible for the design and construction of the city’s already delayed tram system.”

    The fighting within the different political factions pushed up the costs due to uncertainty, contract scope creep, etc, as well as issues such as movement of existing services, interaction with listed heritage buildings, excessive health and safety requirements, and significant union action. Coupled with business disruption and legal challenges, all this malarkey pushed the price up way beyond its original planned price.

    However, regardless of all that, the city of Edinburgh now has a fantastic tram system, and – get this – has decided that it wants more. The trams are seen as a significant positive to the city, and property prices have gone up by around 25% more for sites near the tram lines as opposed to sites near bus routes. They’re planning on trams to the airport now, as we should be also.

  25. Glen Smith, 6. October 2016, 12:14

    KB. Actually worldwide the next generation, when given the opportunity, are choosing active transport modes based around high quality public transport spines. Wellington is ideally suited to this but unfortunately our rail network, which very efficiently services the 75% of the population north of the city, is hamstrung by being truncated at the railway station. Neil Douglas and Daryl Cockburn costed rail along a quays route (which would open the whole city up to rail) at only $93 million. Instead our ‘Transport’ Agency chose to ignore this and instead spend $60million on a stupid ‘Smart Motorway’ to nowhere and planned to spend $100million on a flyover to nowhere (the pinchpoint across Buckle St dropping to LOS F by 2040). This article shows rail extension could be achieved without transfer at the station, saving a 5-10 minute transfer disincentive.
    During the Space Race the Americans found ballpoint pens wouldn’t work in zero gravity so spent tens of millions on fancy technology to produce one that would. The Russians on the other hand used……a pencil. A single rail unit can transfer 250 people from the Hutt or Porirua/ Kapiti to the CBD/ Hospital/ Airport and vice versa. Instead you propose we transport these 250 commuters each in their ton and a half of ‘Platooning’ steel boxes, relying on highly complex and expensive computer interactions for safety (but it’s ok – computers never fail and need rebooting…….). This isn’t intelligent planning. Lets give our children the opportunity to choose active, low impact transport choices by fixing our broken public transport network.

  26. Keith Flinders, 6. October 2016, 19:47

    Glen: Good points you raise, and talking to under 20s during election campaigning many did not see car ownership as an imperative, instead saw frequent and safe public transport of more benefit.

    In hindsight the removal of the Te Aro railway station and replacing it with the current station wasn’t the best of ideas.

    Your ball point versus pencil analogy should be applied to the current GWRC with its 2018 bus route changes, seemingly planned by people who don’t travel on them. After attending the GWRC presentation in Karori last month about the route changes I came away even less convinced that they are the answer, and know already many customers don’t like them. Another Island Bay cycle way type furore in the making, with the attitude “trust us, we know what is best for you.”

    What the public do want are more peak period buses now, and don’t care what colour they are. A key feature of the 2018 changes is a common livery for all buses. As you comment fixing the Wellington public transport with due haste is the priority.

    As for platooning we can already see it in action on the Wellington motorways every weekday morning, where the issue is that the town end chokes the flow and always will, smart motorway system or not. Multi lane motorways through the city are just not going to happen.

    For those interested in modern light rail systems using heavy rail tracks see