Posted by: senjmito | July 25, 2011

Yesterday’s Solution

Yesterday’s Solution

In 2011, you would think two considerations would be central to transport planning; the need to reduce carbon emissions and dependence on oil. Think again…

The New Zealand Transport Agency has released for consultation its scheme for the inner city section (Cobham Drive to Buckle St) of its grand Levin to Wellington Airport superhighway. What the scheme amounts to is a road building extravaganza that reeks of the 1960s and 1970s.

The salient point about NZTA’s consultation is that it offers no choice. The key projects including a flyover at the Basin Reserve and a second Mt Victoria Tunnel are a fait accompli. So the public is not given any meaningful options, such as the public transport alternative.

What many countries have realised is that, in this era, the last thing we need (i.e. our lowest priority for transport infrastructure) is more roads. Other countries are starting to think about more efficient ways for people to move around. As an example, France has halted motorway construction and dozens of its cities are investing in modern trams.

Investment in public transport in the Wellington region would deliver transport infrastructure for this century, not the last. It would also eliminate the need for more motorway building. In her 2010 mayoral campaign Celia Wade Brown declared support for light rail (modern trams) in Wellington. The reason is obvious; Wellington is among those cities that are particularly well suited to modern trams.

Anyone who has used modern trams in an Australian, European or North American city will know just what a superior form of public transport they are. With their high capacity, level boarding, speed and frequency modern trams attract patronage. Because of their advantages, hundreds of cities internationally are now building or expanding tram systems.

Used in combination with rail and bus, modern trams have the potential to transform public transport for Wellington and the region and render more motorways across the city redundant. A tram line running from Wellington station to Courtenay Place, the Regional Hospital in Newtown, and ultimately the airport, would bring a range of benefits for Wellington and the region.

With an interchange at Wellington station, a tram line would extend the reach of the suburban rail network across the CBD and beyond. Integrating the tram route with rail and bus networks would allow for a great expansion of convenient public transport journeys in the region. The entire regional public transport network would become more attractive to use because the core (and busiest) part of the network would offer a high quality service. International experience demonstrates that where a quality public transport alternative to private motoring exists people will use it.

Trams also have a range of environmental and aesthetic benefits. Being electric powered, and emission free, they are a sustainable and resilient form of transport. They can be put into the existing urban landscape and would not require massive and unsightly infrastructure to be built across a wide swathe of the city.

And what would a tram line cost? A realistic estimate would be around $300m, including a fleet of modern trams. That figure compares well to the sums needed to build a second Mt Victoria Tunnel ($180M) and the Basin Flyover ($80m) and show a tram line is affordable. The real issue is value for money.

In an age of austerity, before hundreds of millions of dollars are sunk into motorway expansion the merits of a public transport solution for the region’s transport needs should be examined. Now is not the time to build outdated transport infrastructure.

Brian Jameson

July 2011

Brian Jameson is a member of Trans-Action an email based group that researches and advocates for public transport. Email  bjameson (at)



  1. Well said. I agree.
    Let’s go back to the drawing board and see some real options.

  2. Why trams? Why not a cheaper bus rapid transport option with the existing trolleys and with an eye to one day trolley-less electric i.e. battery/capacitor/flywheel eventually when the tech is proven. I just don’t get the obsession with light rail. The term ‘light rail’ is usually used to describe trams that do not share space with with other traffic (i.e. dedicated tracks not embedded in the road), there are few stretches on the route you identify that could accommodate as such (in between Cambridge/Kent Tces?). Our narrow streets are not particularly well suited to trams which if they’re to run fast need a lane of their own and decent turning space. The name ‘light rail’ is potentially misleading. The ‘light’ refers to the carrying capacity, not that the machines themselves are lightweight (they’re sometimes heavier than ‘heavy’ rail). Running at grade as they would need to in Wellington poses a safety risk to other traffic, cyclists and pedestrians especially when compared to raised systems and yes even to buses which are much lighter. Digging up the whole route to strengthen the road and lay tracks in not just expensive but time consuming, messy and can cause delays for months or years.

    There is no reason why Wellington can’t improve on the excellent buses that we already have. Do we really need greater capacity per vehicle? Then we should look to ‘bendy’ buses. You want platforms? Buses can use platforms and they can go just as fast given the chance. Trams in traffic are simply not as practical as buses in traffic. How often have you seen a tram pass another at a stop the way as a bus can?

    Ok. I agree there is something nice about the way trams look and they have a nice smooth ride but is that enough? I like them and I’d like to be convinced that they’re what we need but you’re going to have to do better.

  3. Oh. Sorry. It’s late and the typos etc are horrible.

  4. A city the size of Wellington, with its relatively low population density and interesting topography, cannot afford a tram/light rail system. To put put the tram track network that existed in the 1950s will cost upwards of $6 billion, however the citys has expanded greatly since the 1950s.

    I agree with Josh’s comments that trolley buses offer the only real alternative means of public transport. Nostalgia for a tram system as existed is way too expensive for Wellington.

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