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Why light rail must go ahead in Wellington

Why light rail must go ahead in Wellington

Paul Bruce | Greater Wellington Regional Councillor
13th June 2013

In introducing a debate on Wellington’s future, the Dominion Post challenged us to think about big changes. The current transport model has failed to deliver, and all the recent studies show more of the same is going to make things worse. We need a different approach if we want a vibrant, economically successful city.

The Wellington Spine Study has identified the solution to one of the big problems. It confirms what earlier studies found - we need high capacity public transport through a single spine if we are to deliver high quality and reliable public transport across the whole network. But it goes further than the earlier work, and tells us that only light rail on the spine can deliver all the benefits of a fully functioning public transport system.

Improved public transport will also reduce traffic problems, by allowing those who would like to use public transport to shift modes. In contrast more roads will make traffic problems worse. A 2012 Arup and Opus report predicts that the RoNs programme (Roads of National (Party) Significance) would ultimately lead to 96% increased AM peak period congestion along with longer commuting trips.

It’s been widely reported that the Wellington “Spine Study” report shows that light rail is too expensive. But it actually shows nothing of the sort.

All recent reports on transport through central Wellington have confirmed that we have a problem that must be fixed – our bus system isn’t working. That’s because there are too many buses competing for too little road space, and also competing with cars. The Public Transport Spine Study is looking at what might be a durable solution to that problem, and also provide a high quality service to users, and help support new businesses along the spine.

The Wellington “Spine Study” (to be released 18th June) has already confirmed what other cities have proven – light rail has huge advantages over other options. The high capacity vehicles will solve the bus congestion problem that is making our bus system slow and unreliable. Rail guarantees level boarding (no stepping over that huge gap between the bus and the kerb), is more comfortable for passengers, and will generate greater business development and attract more users. And of course it allows us to have quiet, electric vehicles – no more noisy and smelly diesel buses next to shops and footpaths, and pose less risk to pedestrians.

Bus congestion is now recognized as the key problem for Wellington public transport. When your bus is late, that’s probably because it was held up in the Golden Mile, this run or on a previous run. Delays of 5-20 minutes are common, and eventually add up so much that services just get cancelled.

A Wellington bus review has grappled with that problem. The experts said we had to get numbers down to 60 an hour. The bus review has only managed to get it down from 140 to 110 in the AM peak.

Light rail can also be integrated with the existing heavy rail, allowing seamless journeys into the CBD for those users currently forced to get off their train at the railway station and walk or bus to work.

A light rail system offers a 21st century mode of transport in keeping with progressive cities around the world, such as Freiberg, Portland and Melbourne. The Dominion Post is leading a debate on how to make Wellington a more successful city. One feature that would attract business people, visitors and new migrants alike is a functioning public transport system, with light rail at its core, that makes travel in from the airport and suburbs simple and swift. This is the kind of transport that sophisticated overseas visitors and returning professionals are used to having. The walkability and public transport provision of Wellington is already a competitive advantage over Auckland – with light rail the difference would be huge.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that light rail can’t work in Wellington, because it is too small. But overseas cities with successful rail networks are a similar size, and often have more challenging geographies. The spine study work has confirmed that light rail will work in Wellington – a conclusion also reached in earlier studies. Indeed, light rail was part of a 1999 regional land transport strategy.

Another argument is that the money isn’t there. But the National Government is forcing a $2.7 billion road building spree on the region, with many of the roads having negative economic benefits. Public surveys show that this isn’t the transport spending priority of Wellingtonians – and in fact it isn’t even NZTA’s transport priority for Wellington. Both the public and NZTA’s only strategic work show that improving public transport is a far higher priority for available funds.

Bus options simply can’t do what light rail can, and any bus option that came close would undoubtedly cost as much or more. There isn’t a cheap option out there, notwithstanding what can be read into the spine study. There are also some serious questions about the accuracy of their costing – the costs cited for light rail are significantly higher than those in other studies and in other cities.

But even if their costings are right, light rail would cost far less than the proposed roading developments, and provide real, long term solutions, not temporary patches and new long term problems.

But the benefits identified in the study are only some of the benefits. Because the study was limited to the area from Ngauranga to the Airport, the flow on benefits to the suburbs of reliable and fast public transport, and the benefits to rail users commuting from the other cities, haven’t been added in. Put those in, and the benefit cost ratio of even an expensive light rail option will be high.

Light rail could provide a new choice to commuters along the WCC preferred growth spine, and at the same time allow some of the 70% of commuters coming from north of Wellington Railway Station a faster way of reaching destinations to the south.

Because of its limited terms of reference, the Spine Study conclusions are answering the wrong question. But the detailed analysis, when applied to the right question, tells us that we need light rail, light rail is feasible, and light rail is affordable.

I will be arguing to our Council that the Regional Passenger Transport Plan should be updated with a series of staged projects that would deliver modern light rail as part of the desired integrated network.

In my view, the spine study shows what other cities have demonstrated – high quality public transport is essential to Wellington’s future, only light rail can deliver that, and the cost will be far less than the government’s planned road building programme.


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