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The current approach to public transport in Wellington is no longer tenable. Proposed investments in the bus system will bring welcome improvements, but will not achieve the step change in public transport patronage that Wellington needs. Our aim is to double ridership by progressively building a world-class light rail system in Wellington city. The best way to reduce congestion in Wellington is to encourage people out of private cars and buses onto light rail. The first stage, between the Railway Station and Miramar, via the Hospital and Airport, could be completed by 2027, for an estimated cost between $570 and $750 million, depending on the route.


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What’s the strategic context for the proposal?

FIT stands for fair, intelligent transport. FIT’s vision for Wellington is a modern, vibrant city designed around the needs of people. Wellington will be:

  • A healthy, safe city where the built environment and transport system enhance the unique character and beauty of the harbour capital;
  • A city with reliable, low-cost, fast and convenient electric public transport that takes people where they want to go; and
  • A city that actively promotes walking, cycling and public transport to reduce transport costs, encourage physical exercise and mitigate against pollution and climate change.

FIT sees light rail as the essential infrastructure for realising this vision. Light rail is a form of public transport designed to provide fast, efficient, clean service to people living in urban areas. It uses electric rail cars, running on tracks in existing roads, separated from, and with priority over, other road traffic. It carries lots of people, with connections to buses and suburban trains at major interchanges. One multi-segment light rail vehicle can carry as many passengers as 7 buses, at twice the average speed.

This paper sets out the case for light rail in Wellington.

What are we trying to do? State the objectives clearly, using no jargon.

The current Wellington transport system over-privileges the needs of private motor vehicles, to the detriment of a reliable, fast and convenient public transport system. There are 3 problems which make this approach no longer sustainable.

  1. Current spending on urban transport is primarily for greater motor vehicle use, which increases congestion by attracting new traffic onto already overcrowded streets. This is incompatible with good urban design and has high environmental, health and social costs.
  2. Slow and unreliable inner-city public transport, with few and poor-quality connections, limits choice, discourages patronage, frustrates wider use of walking, and increases costs.
  3. International agreement on climate change requires a new approach to sustainable transport that eliminates burning of fossil carbon by 2050 at the latest (urban traffic uses almost 20% of New Zealand’s fossil fuel).

Compared with other New Zealand cities, such as Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin, Wellington has good public transport patronage. However, Wellington remains far below international best practice. The potential to grow patronage is huge, but to achieve this growth, we need to make public transport an attractive and compelling alternative to the private car. Public transport must be competitive with the private car on quality, timeliness and price. This means making public transport faster and more predictable, with seamless connections between services and low fares.

Wellington cannot build its way out of traffic congestion. FIT’s proposal aims to double public transport use, increase walking and cycling, and halve urban motor vehicle use, thereby halving the carbon footprint per person from transport, by 2035. Shifting demand from private cars to public transport will also free up road space for commercial vehicles. To make public transport more attractive, FIT proposes creating an integrated, congestion-free public transport network in Wellington.

How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?

The investment logic behind Greater Wellington’s indicative business case for introducing BRT identifies three problem areas: failure to maximise the capacity of key corridors for moving people and goods; increasing congestion within a constrained corridor that will continue to impact on levels of service; and failure to grow patronage due to unattractive and unreliable public transport services.

The problem of moving traffic is primarily a peak hour one. Maximising capacity will never be achieved by expanding road space along the primary route from Ngauranga to the airport, nor by the proposals for BRT on key routes. Efficient movement of people and goods will only be achieved by introducing measures to reduce traffic volumes entering the city, particularly at peak hours. The best way to reduce traffic congestion is by using congestion pricing to restrict parking and road space for private motor vehicle traffic, while making public transport more attractive.

The problem of congestion is self-evident but current projects, particularly the new motorways north of the city, will make the situation worse. When the Kapiti Expressway and Transmission Gully are finished, Wellington will see an estimated 11,000 extra vehicles entering the city each day. This increase will negate any potential improvement on levels of service.

The proposed solution to Wellington’s public transport problem, BRT based on double-decker buses and an all-diesel bus fleet, will improve the service, but will do little to reduce bus congestion or bring about the step change in performance and patronage that Wellington needs. The time frame for electric buses is unknown and achieving full replacement could take much longer than expected. A proposal which ignores climate change and does not aim at quickly reducing CO2 emissions is not fit for purpose.

While BRT can work well, Greater Wellington has acknowledged that the BRT system proposed is low grade and below Gold, Silver or Bronze standard. It does not even qualify as “BRT-light”. The system will make only a marginal difference to operating conditions in the city centre. It is cheap but ineffective. Even should BRT be implemented properly, it will not achieve the ride quality of a rail-based system. Overseas experience shows that people who are not prepared to get on buses will get on light rail.

In cities with narrow streets, BRT is a poor substitute for light rail. Overseas, whenever it gets difficult the traffic engineers give up and send the bus into the general traffic lanes — if it’s a light rail car, the system has to be engineered from end to end. Wellington cannot afford to waste time and money developing solutions which won’t produce the benefits light rail can deliver. The need to move to low carbon transport is urgent.

The downfall of double-decker buses is the slow boarding and alighting times at busy stops. They have high capacity but will clog up the shopping streets even more than the current bus fleet does. Double-deckers work well on express routes with few stops; everywhere else, they slow the system down and cause congestion. A public transport system based around double-decker buses will not attract substantial numbers out of their cars.

The flexibility of buses, often stated as a strength, is their weakness. Car drivers and delivery vehicles can park in priority lanes in the knowledge that buses can always drive around them. At signals, buses usually have to blend in with other road traffic to get through intersections — even when they are given priority, they are still treated as just another road vehicle.

Overseas experience shows that if Greater Wellington seriously wants to get more people on public transport, light rail will triumph over any bus-based system. For example, patronage growth in the 30 French cities with light rail systems far exceeds patronage growth in cities that rely on buses.

What’s new in our approach? Why do we think it will succeed?

Creating a healthy and safe city involves more than just dealing with transport issues. It involves transport planners and urban designers working together to develop public spaces in a way that facilitates the effective movement of goods and people, and also accommodates their leisure needs. In New Zealand, road and traffic engineers have traditionally driven transport development and the role of the urban designer has been secondary, if not totally ignored. We have had numerous international visitors to our shores promoting the idea of urban design first, traffic engineering second. FIT has based its proposal on their advice and research.

FIT aims to bring about a major mode-shift from private car to electric public transport. To achieve this shift, FIT proposes to:

  • Develop an integrated public transport system based on light rail as the prime people mover, initially along the high demand corridor between the railway station and Miramar;
  • Promote transit-oriented development along the light rail corridor and around stops; and
  • Implement a traffic management policy to reduce the amount of traffic entering the city, particularly at peak hours.

A key strength of light rail is its lack of flexibility — it says to passengers, this is a permanent route you can rely on when making decisions about living and working. It says to car drivers — do not park on the rails; and to road engineers — give this route priority. And it gives investors and businesses long term certainty. In short, counter-intuitively, inflexibility works.

From studies of overseas light rail systems, we know that successful light rail systems follow 5 principles, designed to maximise productivity and service quality.

  1. Tie the city together. Light rail lines span the city from urban fringe to urban fringe, via the city centre.
  2. Use high-capability vehicles. This 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.

A line from Miramar to the railway station via the hospital, continuing to Johnsonville, Karori, or Petone, is an initial work programme that satisfies these principles. The first proposed project, from Miramar to the railway station with connections to the commuter train network, will start to realise light rail’s benefits for Wellington and prove the concept. Johnsonville, Karori, and Petone are examples of options for future extensions.

Most people travelling by light rail start and end their journeys as pedestrians. So successful light rail systems also pay close attention to street-level urban design. Light rail becomes one part of a complete, living street. This transit-oriented development applies 3 principles.

  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 the priority at intersections — except in emergencies, other traffic stops for trams.
  2. Rethink streets from building fašade to building fašade to make safe, aesthetic spaces that facilitate public transport, walking and cycling flows, and attract development along the light rail corridor.
  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, recognising that every decision involves trade-offs among competing priorities.

Freeing up space for light rail in Wellington’s often narrow streets will be achieved by moving on-street parking off-street, limiting vehicle access, and reducing the number of buses through the city centre. The price of central city parking and congestion charges will be instrumental in giving drivers an incentive to leave their cars at home and take public transport.

While this approach to public transport is new to New Zealand, cities in other developed countries have been implementing it successfully since the 1970s. There is no reason to think Wellington will be any different.

Who cares? If we are successful, what difference will it make?

The principal measure of success from investing in light rail is that improved public transport in Wellington city attracts people out of their cars and onto public transport. This will result in the following benefits:

  1. increased public transport patronage, as measured by —
    • shift in mode share from private cars to public transport
    • increased cost-recovery from fare-paying passengers
    • reduced carbon footprint per capita
  2. improved public transport productivity, as measured by —
    • reduced travel time and less travel time variability
    • increased carrying capacity during peak periods
    • increased accessibility, e.g. for those using wheelchairs or pushing prams, or who do not own cars
  3. increased economic activity along the light rail corridor, as measured by —
    • higher value land uses along the light rail corridor and at stops
    • increased residential population density along the corridor

To be an attractive alternative to the private car, public transport must: go where lots of people are; be there when people need it; and make trips fast, predictable, and reliable. Light rail is the best way to do this, offering 3 times the capacity of a 4-lane highway. Trips between the Railway Station and Miramar would take about 20 minutes, with a tram every 5 minutes.

Light rail is a congestion-free transport mode. A well-designed light rail system can scale to absorb growth in passenger numbers without the system slowing down. This can be achieved by making the light rail cars longer with additional modules and by increasing the service frequency. Unlike buses, the time taken for people to get on and off does not increase as passenger numbers rise, so travel times stay the same and remain predictable.

Overseas evidence shows that investing in light rail creates an economic halo around the stations along the corridor. The area within about 400 metres of a station becomes a focus for commercial, social and residential development. When stations are placed about 800 metres apart — closer together in the city centre, further apart in the suburbs, but always close to major destinations — the result is a rich and vibrant urban environment. This economic halo in turn drives light rail revenue growth.

What are the risks and the payoffs?

Wellington has considered and rejected light rail on several occasions since 1990. The case against light rail generally finds expression as 4 major risks.

  1. There is no room for light rail and cars — the idea will not fit on Wellington’s narrow streets.
    • Light rail will only run on a few specially selected and well-designed streets. We are not proposing to replace the entire bus network with light rail — just to supplement the buses with an additional high-capacity cross-city corridor. Existing bus routes would be reconfigured to connect with light rail at major interchanges. Many European cities run light rail on streets as narrow as those in Wellington, because they have fewer cars and buses clogging the streets.
  2. If light rail costs hundreds of millions or a billion dollars, then you have a problem — when there are other things like the airport runway extension and convention centre to pay for.
    • There is no point bringing overseas visitors to the airport and convention centre without an efficient way of connecting them. Light rail would give the city a suitable international image — visitors expect light rail as an essential part of a modern, smart city. New Zealand and Wellington can afford anything it wants in the field of transport, like the $3bn+ being spent on Transmission Gulley and $1bn+ proposed for the Ngauranga to Airport road corridor.
  3. Light rail would be out of commission for a couple of years in the event of an earthquake — buses would still be running.
    • A contingency plan would be put in place to get light rail back up and running as soon as possible — likely to be a matter of months, not years. In the meantime additional buses can be brought in within a few days to replace LRT for a short period, so there would be no advantage in opting for a bus based system in the long term over an LRT system. The heritage tram tracks in Christchurch were undamaged in the recent earthquakes.
  4. Light rail is for the future — Wellington is not big or dense enough to support light rail.
    • Experience elsewhere shows this is a red herring. Rail-based systems are often introduced in what look to be unsuitable situations but development occurs around rail nodes and density increases along rail corridors over time. If Wellington is dense enough for heavy rail — why would it not be dense enough for light rail? Wellington city has a population just over 200,000. Tampere in Finland, with a similar population, is about to let a contract for its first light rail line. Ulm in Germany, with a population of 120,000, has just let the contract for its second light rail line. There are several cities in France with even lower populations building light rail lines.

How much will it cost? How long will it take?

We have identified feasible and affordable options for light rail and a supporting bus network, but have not identified a best or preferred option, which should await further study and public input. We propose buses and light rail on separated routes, both on or close to the Golden Mile. Interchanges enable easy transfer between bus and light rail services.

We have identified a single light rail route from the Railway Station to Wellington Hospital, Kilbirnie and Miramar. See Light rail route and options. There are options in two places: Lambton Quay (1a) or Customhouse Quay (1b); and Mt Albert tunnel (2a) or Constable St (2b). Only the latter option materially affects costs. FIT is carrying out further investigation to develop and cost a preferred route beyond the Railway Station.

The route is within the area defined in the N2A study, but avoids the Basin Reserve. Multi-segment light rail cars can be difficult on large, multi-lane roundabouts. This corridor is more suited to buses, with no over-riding reason to run high-capacity light rail that way. The choice is between serving the Massey Campus on Wallace St or the schools and proposed high-density development on Adelaide Rd. The Adelaide Rd option warrants further investigation before finalising the route.

Light rail costs have fallen in recent years, and in 2014 the International Railway Journal quoted €25–30m per kilometre ($42–51m/km) for a typical line in France. Now Besançon, France has opened a new line for €17.5m/km ($30m/km). The UK average is £21m/km ($37m/km). Using these figures as a guide, we consider the costs set out in Comparative costs of a and b options are reasonable and conservative. The estimates recognise that civil engineering works cost more in New Zealand than overseas. We have assumed:

  • an all-up cost of $50 million per route kilometre plus GST (including depot and vehicles but excluding tunnels)
  • good project management and a “no-frills” approach to control nice-to-have costs (i.e. the lowest cost for a fit-for-purpose system)
  • a further 20% for design and a contingency allowance
  • all interchanges can be built within this all-up cost
  • modular vehicles 2.65m wide, up to 63m long, with 470 places
StageCost item1a, 2a1b, 2b
Railway Station to Hospital
 4.1km @ $50m/km via Lambton Quay$205m
 3.8km @ $50m/km via waterfront$190m
 Design & contingency (20%)$41m$38m
Hospital to Kilbirnie
 1.6km @ $50m/km via Zoo$80m
 Single-track tunnel under Mt Albert: 720m @ $200k/m$144m
 2.2km @ $50m/km via Constable St$110m
 Design & contingency (20%)$45m$22m
Kilbirnie to Miramar
 2.5km @ $50m/km$125m$125m
 Double-track tunnel below runway: 250m @ $300k/m$75m
 Single-track tunnel below runway: 250m @ $200k/m$50m
 Design & contingency (20%)$40m$35m
Grand Total$755m$570m

FIT acknowledges there are significant technical challenges in the Constable St option, but is confident that the engineers can find workable solutions. Clearly, the cost saving would be considerable — enough to fund over 3km of light rail construction. The money may deliver better value if spent on extending the line north, e.g. to Johnsonville or Karori.

With the right political leadership and commitment, the first stage, from the Railway Station to the Hospital and Newtown, could be open by 2025. The second stage, to Kilbirnie and Miramar, could be completed by 2027.

What are the midterm and final “exams” to check for success?

To bring light rail successfully to fruition will mean passing a number of checkpoints:

  1. Greater Wellington recognises that the current bus-based improvements, while important and necessary, are an interim measure which will not solve the transport problems facing Wellington city.
  2. Greater Wellington puts light rail back in the 10 year transport plan, funded on the same basis as roads of national significance.
  3. Greater Wellington facilitates a public dialogue about route options, identifies a preferred route design, and protects the chosen corridor.
  4. Invite proposals to design, build and run a CBD–Miramar service, carrying up to 10,000 passengers per hour and taking 20 minutes.
  5. Commit to and build the stage from the Railway Station to the Hospital, with a goal of opening the service to the public by 2025.
  6. Commit to and build the stage from the Hospital to Kilbirnie and Miramar, with a goal of opening the service to the public by 2027.
Page last modified 10 November 2017 at 09:28 PM