Frequently Asked Questions


What is light rail?

Light rail is railway track and vehicles designed for running on-street, apart from and with priority over other traffic. Unlike cars, light rail has high capacity on a single lane each way, about fifteen times the people-carrying capacity.

Light rail vehicles are quiet, smooth and fast, with high capacity. Some are over 60 metres long and can comfortably carry as many passengers as 7 buses. They are ‘low-floor’, with level boarding from low platforms, often built into footpaths. Prams, wheelchairs or shopping trolleys go in and out with no delays, through multiple pairs of doors. Power is usually from an overhead wire. Vehicles are articulated into sections, with passengers able to walk the full length. Stops usually have good weather protection.

A good public transport system needs reliable connections so that passengers can make quick, anywhere-to-anywhere trips. Connections are unpopular in Wellington, but will become acceptable to most people when the time-savings on light rail are greater than the connection delays. Connections in Europe and North America rarely take more than five minutes, and often under two.

Why light rail?

If buses are overloaded the choices are heavy rail (like Auckland’s City Loop), light rail or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Heavy rail in tunnel would be very costly, so the real choice is light rail or BRT. Greater Wellington chose BRT in 2014 but it had a bad case of BRT creep. Too often, important features are left out because designers do not understand how BRT is different. There is now a BRT Standard, developed for just this reason. 

A study carried out for Let’s Get Welly Moving has suggested that ‘Bronze Standard’ BRT could operate in Wellington at a capacity of about 30 buses an hour, compared with 120 buses an hour at present. However, success seems unlikely in Wellington’s narrow streets. The BRT stops in Brisbane are twice the width of Manners Street.

Light rail is cheaper than buses when there is enough demand, and Wellington already has the demand needed. More passengers can be expected when light rail opens, and a common problem is overloading because estimates were too cautious (like the Matangis).


Why light rail now?

The 2017 general election produced a government that has made funding for high quality public transport a priority. The solution is simple: build systems that will attract passengers and reduce congestion, rather than waiting for more passengers on already-overloaded bus services.

This approach has been demonstrated in Auckland. The estimated patronage-growth with light rail in Wellington has recently been re-estimated as 1.4% a year, when Auckland is seeing 15–20%, on the new Northern Busway and much-improved passenger rail.

In France alone there are five modern systems in cities with a population smaller than Wellington City (200,000). One of them is Besançon, with 116,000 people. Tampere in Finland has contracted for its first tram line with a population of just over 200,000. Ulm in Germany has contracted for its second tram line with a population of 120,000.

What matters is not many people but busy routes, and Wellington’s bus delays show that the city qualifies for light rail.