New mayor's dream ride

Did light rail win Celia Wade-Brown the Wellington mayoral election?
MAARTEN HOLL/ Dominion Post
Did light rail win Celia Wade-Brown the Wellington mayoral election?

Celia Wade-Brown rode into the Wellington mayoralty on light rail, but can she take it any further? Tom Fitzsimons reports.

Did light rail win Celia Wade-Brown the Wellington mayoral election? With a margin as needle-thin as 176 votes, the answer is probably yes, it did, along with serious grassroots campaigning and voters' desire for change.

Ms Wade-Brown's proposal of a radical new addition to Wellington's public transport system was the most concrete, interesting policy of the campaign. (Compare it, for example, to her other main plank: a more inclusive council.)

The possibility of a modern tram system - that's what light rail is - has been bubbling away in the offices of Greater Wellington regional council for years. One earlier, simpler proposal was previously costed at $140 million - but a project the size of what Ms Wade-Brown envisages could run to up to $400m.

Light rail was floated in a major plan for the "Ngauranga-to-airport corridor" in 2008. Officials are already in talks ahead of a two-year, $1m feasibility study set to start next year.

Ms Wade-Brown's election has given light rail more prominence than it has had in nearly 20 years, when it was last seriously considered.

Now she has to face the challenges that will be involved in pushing such an ambitious idea towards reality - especially by her 2020 target.

For one thing, she has jumped the gun on the feasibility study by coming out so forcefully for just one of the initiatives it is likely to consider. She may even be fighting for re-election before that study comes back with its verdict.

It's also not exactly clear what power a mayor has to achieve this kind of goal - Transport Minister Steven Joyce points out that big transport initiatives are usually led by central government and regional councils.

Finally, crucially, there is the issue of funding - what Greater Wellington chairwoman Fran Wilde calls "the elephant in the room" in this debate.

The past two governments have respectively poured huge amounts of money into, first, Wellington's rail infrastructure, and now the stretch of State Highway 1 from Levin to Wellington Airport. The noises so far suggest there's not a lot left for light rail.

None of which seems to faze Ms Wade-Brown much.

Sitting in her new office in Wellington Town Hall, with light rail lobbyist Brent Efford beside her, she says tram-trains could be both a fantastic new form of transport and a boon for the suburbs they would run through.

Central government will need to be on board, she says, but private investment could also be harnessed.

"This is very much about showing people the economic advantages as well as the environmental and living advantages."

A little later, she makes another point, more stridently this time. "People don't keep asking: 'Where's the money going to come from to double-lane the Ruahine St section?' - part of the SH1 overhaul.

"They're clear that's not coming from rates, so why they keep asking that [with light rail] is quite interesting."

LIGHT rail is a catch-all term for electric trains that carry fewer people and travel at a lower speed than conventional "heavy rail" trains. Their tracks are typically laid on the road, although sometimes they are elevated away from other traffic. They use overhead wires and are more or less the modern tram.

Compared to buses, they carry more people, require fewer drivers, allow multiple boarding points, last longer and are generally thought to be a more attractive form of public transport. Some of these factors help ease traffic congestion.

On the other side of the coin, they are generally more expensive than buses and their infrastructure is more fixed - it's much harder to shift tram tracks than a bus route. Giving them the right of way on the roads can also cause traffic problems for other vehicles.

Two problems in Wellington give rise to the case for light rail here. One is the location of the railway station, which, unusually, stops at the edge of the city.

The other is what happens to the buses about 5.30pm in the central city every night - even in dedicated lanes, they form bumper-to-bumper queues, making for unreliable timetables and a crawl through the Golden Mile.

Sometimes the two problems combine, says Massey University lecturer and urban transport expert Imran Muhammad.

"You can see at the moment, so many people, from the railway station, are walking into town because there are too many buses. Some people walk for 30 minutes."

Proponents hope light rail will help with both issues, firstly by improving travel times with their bigger capacity and multiple boarding points.

"From what I've seen of the studies that compare them, light rail is much more attractive for getting people to choose to use public transport than a bus system which is beginning to suffer from congestion in its own right," Ms Wade-Brown says.

Supporters also hope light rail can solve the railway station sticking point by running on the main train tracks too, at least to Johnsonville.

This idea is disputed - Ms Wilde suggests it can't be done - but it is likely to be at least part of next year's feasibility study.

Where would the new tracks go?

Through the central city, the route is fairly clear, thanks to decisions that have already been made to build a "public transport spine", regardless of what vehicle uses it.

The spine runs from Lambton Quay, down Willis St, through the pending Manners Mall bus lanes and on to Courtenay Place.

Tracks would then head to the hospital in Newtown, Ms Wade-Brown, says. From there, the route gets murkier. "It's

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