Wellington is too hilly for light rail

Light rail vehicles can climb hills, such as those found in Zurich’s extensive light rail network. But the LRT spine route could quite possibly be nearly flat along most of Wellington city’s transport spine from railway station to the hospital. Two short tunnels—one under Mt Albert  en route to the airport, and one under Mt Cook to avoid the Basin Reserve—might be chosen as possible ways to make it even flatter and faster all the way to the airport.

Wellington’s Glenmore Street, Chaytor Street, Lennel Road and Brooklyn Road were all built for trams. Modern light rail is equally capable. The chosen gradient for the trams was more about going downhill safely than about going up. Nowadays, modern electromagnetic brakes come on if the power fails (there is a battery), thus eliminating the risk of a runaway.

Light rail is more vulnerable to earthquake damage than road

Although both road and rail are damaged by earthquake and storm, recent experience in New Zealand shows that rail disruption can be restored quickly. After the 2010 Christchurch earthquake, the city heritage tram rail line was restored more quickly than road reconstruction which still continues. After Wellington’s 2013 storm, the severely damaged commuter rail link between Petone and Wellington took just 6 days to restore. The rail link for freight between Picton and Christchurch was restored in 10 months after the November 2016 Kaikoura quake while road reconstruction continues.

The main Ohariu – Wellington fault runs along the line of SH2, making the Hutt-Wellington motorway and heavy rail into and out of Wellington vulnerable. But light rail from the Railway Station to the hospital and airport does not cross that main fault-line.

A contingency plan for buses and light rail would be a necessary part of recovery: this would include managing the risk to power supplies. To get LRT back up and running as soon as possible is likely to be a matter of weeks or months, not years: because of this, it is likely to be running before all bus routes are fully restored, leaving spare buses which would be quickly available within days to replace LRT for a short period.

In the event of a very major earthquake, Wellington may be cut off from the rest of NZ for days or weeks. In such an event survival rather than commuting will be uppermost in people’s minds.

Low demand for light rail will make it non-viable

Overseas experience shows that light rail will be viable if the right route is chosen. Ridership can double within 5 years of opening. 

Light rail needs to link dense residential areas and busy destinations with good connections to buses and suburban trains. It needs to go to places that are busy all day: where people work, shop and play—shopping areas in CBD and Courtenay place, Te Papa, high schools, the regional hospital, the zoo and airport. It should avoid places where few people live, like the town belt. So the route south of the Basin Reserve will be critical: a single ‘string of pearls’ (one route with stops) through Newtown away from the town belt will increase viability, while the LGWM ‘split route’ will not only divide ridership between each, but traverse a ‘ridership desert’.

Mass transit has high capital costs and cannot be justified on lightly used routes—this is likely to exclude a town belt route. Conversely, operating costs are low on busy routes. The most important single operating cost—bus or light rail—is employing the driver, so big savings are possible when demand is high.

Comparison between bus and light rail cost shows that light rail costs break even with buses at under 3000 passengers per hour. The Golden Mile in Wellington currently peaks at carrying over 6000 passengers per hour (120 buses per hour at about 50 passengers per bus). Light rail is going ahead in Auckland where the busiest bus corridor carries only 86 buses per hour.

Not so. Wellington City alone has a population of just over 200,000, predicted to grow 25% to 250,000 by 2040. Add to this the potential users coming into Wellington Central from outside the CBD.

But even now our city population is well within the size where light rail thrives overseas. Tampere in Finland also with a population of just over 200,000 has let a contract for its first tram line. Ulm in Germany with a population of 120,000 has let the contract for its second tram line. Some of the many cities in France with light rail systems for similar or even lower populations are: Angers, Aubagne, Avignon, Besançon, Brest, Caen, Dijon, Le Havre, Le Mans, Limoges, Mulhouse, Nancy, Reims and Rennes.

Wellington is too small for Light Rail

The flexibility of buses is their downfall. They can always be diverted or rerouted so there is no certainty in the minds of the public about where they operate. Car drivers and delivery vehicles can park in priority lanes in the knowledge that the bus can always drive round them. At signals buses usually have to blend in with other road traffic to get through intersections — they are rarely awarded special priority and are treated as just another road vehicle.

Light rail’s lack of flexibility is its biggest strength. It says to passengers this is a permanent route that you can rely on to base living and working decisions on. It also 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, inflexibility works.

It’s not a matter of choosing between buses and light rail; they have complementary strengths and weaknesses. To make public transport more attractive and affordable, Wellington needs both.

Buses are flexible (good), light rail is inflexible (bad)