Is light rail still worth considering for Wellington?
Will Wellington's much-promised public transport solution look sleek and sexy, or will it be more like the back end of a bus? Michael Forbes investigates the demise of Celia Wade-Brown's light rail dream.
Sex sells, apparently, even when you're talking public transport. Up until a few weeks ago, light rail had the most sex appeal of all the new players on the Wellington market. It was slim, attractive, efficient, environmentally friendly - the kind of public transport you could take home to Mum, assuming she lived near a rail line.
Wellington Mayor Celia Wade- Brown had the biggest crush on light rail. She lusted after it for years and made no attempt to hide their relationship behind closed doors.
But like most objects of desire, light rail did not come cheap, and when the mayor found out last month that taking the next step in their relationship was going to cost close to a billion dollars, her infatuation began to wane.
All of a sudden, buses began to look a lot more attractive.
"Really, bus rapid transit is nearly as sexy as light rail and a lot cheaper, so we'll see whether that comes out at the end," Ms Wade-Brown said moments after the public release of the Wellington Public Transport Spine study - an 18-month investigation into what kind of public transport would best serve the capital over the next 30 years.
The million-dollar study was a joint initiative of the Wellington city and regional councils, as well as the NZ Transport Agency. All three will be sharing the cost of whatever Wellington's future public transport network proves to be.
The frontrunner at this stage is a bus rapid transit system, essentially a dedicated busway for double-decker or articulated (bendy) buses to travel along.
Independent consultants AECOM found that creating a busway along Wellington's public transport "spine" from the railway station to the suburbs of Newtown and Kilbirnie would cost $207 million to build, $83m a year to run and would reap $95m in benefits.
By contrast, running trams along the same route would cost $940m to build, $89m a year to run and produce only $56m in benefits.
A third option of simply upgrading Wellington's existing bus lanes was also looked at. It found $35m in benefits could be had for $59m. The city council has indicated it will do this as a precursor to building a more advanced public transport network.
Rarely does a report of such magnitude immediately silence all politicians with a stake in it. Given the spine study still needs to go through public consultation before local and central government decide which option is best, it would not be surprising to see a few more months of Ms Wade-Brown beating the light rail drum that helped get her elected three years ago.
But the findings are so overwhelmingly in favour of bus rapid transit that the region's decision- makers, including Ms Wade-Brown, have effectively crowned it the winner already.
Twenty-four hours after the study was released, the regional transport committee, which has representatives from every council in the Wellington region, formally voted bus rapid transit its preferred option, pending the public having its say.
The spine study has not been without its critics, though. Some have questioned the finding that a $380m rail tunnel through Mt Victoria would be needed in order to run light rail out to Kilbirnie and attract enough passengers to make it viable.
Meanwhile, the rapid transit buses can happily jump off their dedicated busway in order to travel through the existing Mt Victoria Tunnel, as well as a second tunnel NZTA has committed to building by 2022.
Luke Troy, who managed the spine study project for Greater Wellington Regional Council, says the project team gave plenty of consideration to running trams through those tunnels before deciding it was not practical.
"We looked around the world and we couldn't find a single tunnel that shares light rail with general traffic. There may be some, but we couldn't find any.
"There's lots of tunnels that share light rail and buses, and there's lots of places that have light rail and traffic through separate [tunnels]."
International best practice suggests cars and trams do not mix in a tunnel, Mr Troy says. It raises all sorts of operational, safety, maintenance and design headaches.
The first quandary is how to get both types of traffic in there without one holding up the other.
In Wellington's case, light rail and rapid transit buses are both expected to run along their own dedicated space between Cambridge and Kent terraces, and while buses can merge into tunnel traffic with relative ease, light rail would need the assistance of traffic lights.
Another issue is how to power light rail inside a shared tunnel. Car tunnels need lights, ventilation and sometimes traffic signs overhead, while light rail requires overhead power lines. You cannot have both.
Electrified tracks would solve this problem, but modifying trams and installing the necessary infrastructure can be complex and costly.
Rail infrastructure also requires quite frequent maintenance and it is questionable whether Wellingtonians would be understanding enough to put up with tunnel closures that would come with that, Mr Troy says.
And what happens if there is a serious traffic accident inside the tunnel? Light rail's extra capacity actually works against it here. The more people you have inside a tunnel during any potential incident, the more safety mechanisms and exits you have to install in order to get them out safety. All of this drives up the cost.
"So you can see, there's no one issue that stops [light rail] happening," Mr Troy says. "We're not saying it's not technically feasible, but it's that whole series of issues, which said to us the best option was to have a separate tunnel for light rail."
There is also a big question mark over whether you could actually fit light rail into the existing Mt Victoria Tunnel, or whether you would have to widen it, he says. "And when you start talking about widening, that's pretty much the same cost as building a new tunnel."
Constable St in Newtown was also looked at as an alternate route to Kilbirnie, but running any sort of dedicated public transport along that road was not viable, Mr Troy says.
"Constable Street is quite a narrow road. In order to get a double-track light rail system through there, you would have to buy up an entire row of houses on one side and demolish them. The windy road out to Kilbirnie [Crawford Rd] would also need straightening."
DOOMED FROM THE START
Green Party transport spokeswoman Julie Anne Genter, who worked as a transport planner in Auckland for five years before becoming an MP, says she can understand the complexities of running light rail through a shared tunnel.
But that in itself highlights a bigger issue. Light rail was doomed from the outset of the spine study, she says, because all of the modelling assumed Wellington's "road of national significance" is going to be part of the landscape.
The road is part of a suite of projects the Government has committed to funding in order to speed up the State Highway 1 journey from Wellington Airport all the way to Levin. It includes the Basin Reserve flyover, the second Mt Victoria tunnel and the Buckle St underpass already under construction.
The spine study documents spell out that one of the reasons for investigating better public transport is to keep pace with the expected increase in car use generated by the road of national significance.
Ms Genter says that is backwards logic. Rather than increasing car use and then pumping up public transport to match, the study needed to model how light rail would transform Wellington if the status quo were maintained.
She argues that pushing people on to public transport now is a much better way to reduce congestion around the Basin Reserve than building a motorway to separate traffic.
"Everything should be on the table and then we should make the decision about what leads to the greatest overall performance of the [transport] network, and that study hasn't been done because the Government has come over the top and said we're funding this motorway."
The $3 billion saved by not building the road of national significance through Wellington would easily fund a rail tunnel and it would immediately encourage more residential and business development along the light rail network, she says.
"The way some people at NZTA and traffic engineers look at a problem like this is very reductionist and it treats traffic like water. They're basically saying, 'Oh well, we're going to have more water soon so we'd better expand the pipe.'
"My colleagues who are consultants have looked at this report and were shocked at the poor quality of it. It looked like the regional council got a $100,000 report that they paid $1 million for."
WHY ARE WE WAITING?
But as far as Mr Troy is concerned, the need for a dedicated tunnel is not the main thing holding back light rail.
"Taking $380 million off the cost of light rail doesn't do anything to the fundability of the project, because you get no extra benefits. All you're doing is reducing costs," he says. "It's still almost three times more expensive than bus rapid transit . . . and the benefit-cost ratio [for light rail] is still very, very low."
The real killer for light rail is its inability to go beyond Newtown and Kilbirnie, while rapid transit buses can go all the way out to Miramar, Island Bay and Karori.
Ever jumped off a train at Wellington railway station and spent what felt like 10 minutes waiting for a bus to take you further? Well, Mr Troy says, the study team knows how you feel and used a special formula in its modelling to convert actual waiting times into perceived waiting times.
"People perceive waiting times to be longer than they really are, because waiting is frustrating. They're standing there, waiting, waiting, waiting, and looking at their watch."
The study's modelling predicts that, by 2041, a bus rapid transit system will increase patronage during morning rush hour by 900 an hour, while light rail will grow it by only 400. "Our modelling told us that people were less likely to want to get off their bus to catch light rail, so they would drive instead.
"When we started off this thing, we thought light rail would be an attractive option. But when we started looking at it in more detail, it was the impact of transfers, for us, that was the key thing that stopped light rail working in a Wellington context."
Ms Genter says the issue of passengers waiting is not a problem if the mode of transport they want to catch is ready and waiting for them at the station.
But Mr Troy says increasing the frequency of trams to Newtown and Kilbirnie in order to achieve that would require having so many trams lined up that most would be returning with only a handful of passengers.
"There's always going to be a waiting time. You try and minimise it as much as possible, but you can't do that to the point where your service is completely uneconomical."
I'M TOO SEXY FOR THIS TRACK
But logistics aside, there is no question that light rail still looks good.
Ms Genter points out that it also comes with a comfort factor that other public transport options struggle to match. "People are becoming less and less interested in taking their cars into the city, and part of that is because you can't do anything else while you're driving.
"Providing a service that allows people to switch from a 20-minute commute by car to a 25-minute commute by bus or train, where they can sit down and be comfortable, is actually a huge factor.
"Because even if someone's journey is five minutes longer, that's 25 minutes of productive time they've got to make phone calls, check their email, read the news, or read a book."
Indeed, the spine study predicts that light rail would be something of a drawcard for people and businesses. Property values are forecast to jump by as much as 25 per cent along its route.
Rapid transit buses are predicted to raise property values by 20 per cent, but Ms Genter believes light rail would be much more popular than that.
It is true that today's bus rapid transit systems can be made to look very much like light rail as long as they are streamlined and electric, she says. But doing so costs a lot of money and she doubts whether such a feat could be pulled off for $207m.
She points out that the study budgets $80m for buying light rail vehicles, but only $40m for rapid transit buses, which are supposed to be similar to trams.
The true cost of rapid transit buses is yet to be worked out. But Mr Troy says it matters little in the grander scheme of thing.
"The real costs [for both options] are in the road improvements. The vehicles are not the more expensive element, and they're not the most important element either."
WHAT ABOUT J'VILLE?
Another of Ms Genter's criticisms is that running light rail along the Johnsonville line was not considered in the final stages of the spine study.
She feels that, if a detailed case for converting the line was considered in conjunction with the southern extensions, light rail would have attracted the patronage the study team was looking for.
"I'm concerned that it hasn't looked at it in any great detail," she says. "There's a bottleneck there at Wellington station. Heaps of commuters are dumped there with no particularly great options for getting to the rest of the city."
Running light rail on the Johnsonville line was not considered during the latter stages of the study because it was deemed a waste of time.
Last year, when the study team were deciding where the transport spine should be, it discounted Johnsonville for several reasons.
First, millions would also need to be spent on widening tunnels and lowering platforms. Second, four-car Matangi trains can hold 490 passengers but two-car trams - the maximum you could have - hold only 180. So to maintain existing capacity, twice as many trams would need to run on the line compared with the number of trains that do now.
This would not be a problem if the Johnsonville line had tracks running in each direction, but it does not. It has just a single track with several loops along the way to allow trains running in opposite directions to pass each other. Accommodating double the carriages requires twice the passing loops, or a complete second track - a costly endeavour either way.
Mr Troy also points out that demand for trips from the northern suburbs all the way across town to Newtown does not exist. The study team found early on that about 90 per cent of those getting off Johnsonville trains at the CBD were travelling less than a kilometre to their final destination.
"When I started this study, I seriously thought light rail on the Johnsonville line would be a real goer . . . but when we looked at where people actually wanted to go, it doesn't actually fit . . . they only want to go about 500m beyond."
LAST RITES FOR LIGHT RAIL
So if local and central government decide in about six months' time that light rail is not worth progressing, does that mean the end of the line for Ms Wade-Brown's dream - for the next 40 to 50 years at least?
Well, perhaps. The talk at the moment does not seem all that encouraging.
Mr Troy says it is possible, but unlikely. "Because once we put in a good system that delivers great benefits to passengers, to then dig it all up and have it out of action to install a new system that produces similar benefits would be quite an unpopular move.
"You would lose all your patronage on public transport altogether, so the chances of that happening are unlikely.
"If patterns of growth completely change, and if jobs all disappear from the CBD and move to Johnsonville, then clearly you would look at this study again. But unless something significant like that happens, I'd say we would be looking at this as a long-term solution beyond the next 20 or 30 years."
The population of Wellington city is forecast to grow by about 46,000 by 2031, with much of that growth expected to occur around the central business district and along Adelaide Rd.
Wellington already has a high level of public transport use compared with other New Zealand cities, but it is expected that an even higher proportion of the new population will use public transport.
About 140 buses an hour move through the Golden Mile during peak periods at present. As a result, travel times through the central city are unreliable. There is also growing pressure as pedestrians, cars and buses compete for the same space.
This Public Transport Spine Study is a key action from the Ngauranga to Airport Corridor Plan (2008), which seeks major improvements to public transport to provide a high- quality, reliable and safe service between Wellington railway station and the regional hospital.
It sits alongside major road projects being planned and designed as part of the Roads of National Significance (RoNS) programme and major upgrades to the rail network.
The study was launched in August 2011. In February last year, independent consultants AECOM returned reports to Greater Wellington Regional Council on its study framework and a review of 35 international public transport case studies with relevance to Wellington city. These reports were used to reduce 88 combinations of routes and modes of transport to a list of eight.
The eight options were further assessed and whittled down to a shortlist of three - bus priority, bus rapid transit and light rail - in August last year. More detailed conceptual plans were then created for all three, covering specific alignments, engineering requirements, environmental and land-use impacts and costs. The results of that study were released on June 18.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Copies of the study reports are now on the Greater Wellington Regional Council website.
Public feedback will be sought over the next few months and reported back to the regional transport committee in December. The regional transport committee will then confirm the long-term option for the public transport spine.
Once a preferred option is agreed, further work will be necessary to design the option in more detail, and to develop a detailed business case for funding.
The public will be consulted on the business case next year, before a final decision is made.
HOW THE THREE OPTIONS STACK UP
Bus priority ($59 million)
How it works: More bus lanes and priority trafficsignals for standard buses along the Golden Mile to Newtown and through the Hataitai bus tunnel to Kilbirnie.
- Three-minute travel time saving from Wellington railway station to both Newtown and Kilbirnie during morning rush hour.
- Three per cent increase in morning rush-hour patronage from the south and southeast to the CBD.
- Time-saving benefits equating to $35m.
- Reduced number of bus stops in the CBD.
- Removal of some car parking during peak periods.
- Some road widening required along Constable St.
Potential start date within the next few years, with development done in stages as resources andopportunities arise.
Bus rapid transit ($207m)
How it works: A dedicated busway for new highercapacity articulated or double-decker buses along the Golden Mile to Newtown and through the duplicated Mt Victoria tunnel to Kilbirnie.
- Eleven-minute travel time saving from Wellingtonrailway station to Kilbirnie during morning rushhour.
- Six-minute time saving from Wellington railwaystation to Newtown during morning rush hour.
- Eight per cent increase in morning rush-hourpatrons from the south and southeast to the CBD.
- Time-saving benefits equating to $95m.
- Thirty-six per cent fewer public transport vehicles along the Golden Mile.
- Need for users to access median stops along parts of route.
- Reduced number of stops in the CBD to speed uptravel time.
- Loss of some on-street parking and restricted access to some buildings in the CBD.
- Some general traffic redirected away from the Golden Mile.
- Some localised road widening required, with more significant widening along the State Highway 1 corridor affecting the town belt.
- To begin about 2018-19 and finish about 2021-22.
Light rail ($904m)
How it works: Tram vehicles running on dedicatedtracks along the Golden Mile to Newtown andthrough a dedicated Mt Victoria tunnel to Kilbirnie.
- Eleven-minute travel time saving from Wellington railway station to Kilbirnie during morning rushhour.
- Seven-minute travel time saving from Wellington railway station to Newtown during morning rushhour.
- No increase in morning rush-hour patronage fromthe south and southeast to the CBD.
- Time-saving benefits equating to $56m.
- Forty per cent fewer public transport vehicles alongthe Golden Mile.
- Need for users to access median stops along partsof route.
- Reduced number of stops in the CBD to speed uptravel time.
- Loss of some on-street parking and restrictedaccess to some buildings in the CBD.
- Some general traffic redirected away from theGolden Mile.
- Some localised road widening required, with more significant widening along the State Highway 1 corridor affecting the town belt. A new tunnel willalso have impacts on properties.
To begin about 2018-19 and finish about 2021-22.
- The Dominion Post
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