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The question before us is, “Are we on track?”

Wellington is a city with a fantastic quality of life — if you happen to be a car. What sort of Wellington future do we want? One built for people, or one built for cars? More parks, or more car parks? One where people can choose transport that meets their needs, or one where car drivers are the only first class citizens?

I’m going to talk about how we could apply the best evidence from overseas cities to build an effective, affordable light rail system in Wellington.


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What is light rail? Light rail is a form of public transport designed to provide fast, efficient, clean service to people living in urban areas. It uses electric vehicles, running on tracks in existing roads, separated from other road traffic. It’s designed to carry lots of people, with connections to buses and suburban trains at major interchanges. One multi-segment light rail vehicle can do the work of 5 or more buses.

Light rail goes where lots of people are; it’s there when people need it; and trips are fast, predictable, and reliable.

Successful light rail systems follow 5 macro, route-level design principles.

  1. Tie the city together. Light rail lines span the city via the city centre.
  2. Use high-capability vehicles. That means large capacities, all-door entry, train-style fare payment before boarding, doors at platform level for easy access, and priority over other traffic.
  3. Have widely-spaced stops. Stops are far enough apart to improve travel times, but also serve critical transfer points where feeder buses or trains connect.
  4. Reach major destinations. Light rail lines emphasise access to education campuses, office complexes, hospitals, shopping areas, major suburbs, and the CBD.
  5. Form the heart of an integrated network. Reconfigured bus lines serve major light rail stops, and fare structures encourage easy transfers to and from buses and trains.

Most people travelling by light rail start and end their journeys as pedestrians. So successful light rail systems also pay close attention to micro, street-level design. Light rail becomes one part of a complete, living street.

  1. Use spaces (like roads) that the public already has a right to use, create dedicated lanes for light rail tracks and give light rail priority at intersections.
  2. Rethink streets from building front to building front to make safe, aesthetic spaces that facilitate public transport, walking and cycling flows.
  3. Foster an open, transparent process where community groups work together to design high performance public transport that is compatible with the ways they want to live.

The macro (along the route) and micro (across the street) features are designed to make the service as attractive as practical to as many people as possible. When a city builds a system like this, people use it. For example in Calgary, Canada, a leader of this approach, over half the people who commute to work in the CBD use light rail to do so.

High ridership also means high fare income — much higher than for buses. In Europe, fares typically cover over 80% of light rail’s operating cost.

How much does it cost to build a light rail system? It depends. What we know is that the systems which cost the least to build all explicitly adopted a “no-frills” construction approach:

  • they laid tracks in existing roads, avoiding costly tunnels and flyovers
  • they combined track-laying with other works, so only dug up roads once
  • they put stops every 800 metres on average, closer in the centre, further apart in suburbs
  • they built simple station platforms
  • they used public roads and rights-of-way, avoiding private land purchase
  • they bought uncustomised, off-the-shelf vehicles
  • and they moved parking off-street to free up lane space

These and other cost-avoiding strategies can reduce the construction cost of twin tracks to about $25–30 million per kilometre, excluding vehicles. Allowing for the risk associated with Wellington’s geography and its narrow, winding streets, FIT considers that $35–40 million per kilometre, including vehicles, would be a conservative estimate.

If Wellington decided to invest in light rail, what would the first investment look like? FIT proposes starting with a line from the Railway Station to the Airport, via Wellington Hospital. This route should take less than 10 years to plan, design and build. Depending on the route chosen, the first line could be completed for less than $450 million, but might cost as much as $650 million.

FIT has identified several route options to illustrate the concept, but doesn’t have a preferred option. There are other feasible options; FIT’s proposals are not a complete list.

The way to determine the route is to choose a short-list of feasible routes from a long-list of possible routes, then choose as the preferred route the one with the best benefit to cost ratio. Until this analysis has been done, we need to keep an open mind.

This route analysis ought to be done before our elected representatives make a final decision about the Basin Reserve layout. The High Court’s flyover decision gives us a once in a generation opportunity for a re-think. Let’s take the time to get it right. A future light rail line may go via the Basin, but it doesn’t have to.

A railway station to airport route is the start of a light rail network. Any decisions we make need to keep options open for future extensions, such as to Johnsonville or Karori. And because it can take 10 years to build light rail, we need to keep improving the bus system in the mean time.

We also need to make sure Wellington’s integrated ticketing system will support fare payment on the platform, rather than on-board.

If we look around the developed world at places of similar size to the Greater Wellington region, we are a statistical outlier. In France, which has light rail in 31 cities, 15 systems are in cities of under 250,000 people. In many countries, parties of the right and left fund light rail, although for different reasons. Here, supporting light rail gets you labelled a radical.

I invite you to reflect on the political structures and processes around Greater Wellington’s public transport decisions. Do they help us to learn from the best, or lead us to repeat the mistakes of the worst?

The approach I have outlined would put Wellington on track to a step change in public transport performance. What do we need to do to get light rail back on the planning agenda? Thank you.

Page last modified 29 November 2015 at 09:52 AM