Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Back on track - or is it?

The regional council has finally released the results of the North Wellington public transport study that they've been promising for a while. The study looked at the public transport needs of all the northern suburbs, but the crux of the study is the future of the Johnsonville rail corridor. They present four scenarios:

1) Enhanced rail: improving existing rail services between Johnsonville and the Railway Station, with new or refurbished units. Cost $125-$160m.
2) On-street bus with walking and cycling: replacing current rail services with buses on existing streets. Rail line transformed into a walking and cycling track. Cost $95-$105m.
3) Busway: converting Johnsonville line into a guided busway, operating in the peak direction only. Cost $120-130m.
4) Light rail transit (LRT): new light rail vehicles on an extended Johnsonville line through the CBD to Courtenay Place. Cost $165-175m.

Part of me is encouraged to see light rail being considered at all, as this is the first time in years I've seen it as an option in a document for public consultation. However, I'm a little nervous that we might be being set up for one of the cheaper (in the short term) options. Option 1 does little more than maintain the status quo, with some long-overdue refurbishment and minor tweaks. Option 2 is ridiculous: how many people can you imagine walking home along the Johnsonville line (apart from the occasional drunkard who missed the last train - you know who you are!) . It's a recipe for congestion and pollution as train passengers are forced to switch to diesel buses. Option 3 sounds intriguing, but while busways or "Bus Rapit Transit" (BRT) lanes are often touted as "just like LRT, only cheaper", their inferior speed and comfort makes them far less popular with commuters. There are plenty of overseas cases where BRT has failed to attract passengers: in the US, "busways have attracted only one-third of the rider-trips estimated for them by FTA-approved modelling. LRT has attracted 122 percent".

I haven't had a chance to study the reports in detail yet (there are 157 pages of PDF to wade through!), but I'll write more when I have. However, I already get the disturbing impression that they're taking the costs in isolation, rather than looking at the bigger picture. For example, the LRT costs include $50-70m for laying LRT infrastructure through the CBD, along a route that's mostly similar to the route I described earlier. This would also contribute to conversion of the other rail lines, and for any extended route to the airport, so it's unfair to allocate the costs purely to the Johnsonville line.

One thing is clear, though: extending seamless services to Courtenay Place would attract more riders. The report says this:
The benefits of extending services into the CBD are highlighted by the large patronage increase achieved on Newlands bus routes in 2000, largely as a result of extending routes from the northern suburbs to terminate at Courtenay Place. Combined with frequency improvements, this resulted in some 40% increase in patronage as passengers were able to travel further into the CBD without having to interchange.
Combine this with the attractions of fast, comfortable new light rail vehicles, and it's obvious that a light rail service from Johnsonville to Courtenay Place would attract many more people away from increasingly congested roads.


At 2:43 PM, June 14, 2006, Anonymous Kegan said...

From reading the summary sheet, the assumptions seems to be that the upgraded rail option will not change the bus/train modal split (57%/43%).

I think that new trains, higher frequency, increased peak capacity and upgraded stations would do a great deal to improve the attractiveness of the service. This would probably lead some bus passengers (and maybe car commuters too) to switch to rail, particularly where bus stops are near stations. Increased congestion leading to longer bus times will probably accelerate this change in the bus/train modal split.

The light rail option looks good too - pity about the cost allocation though. Interesting to note that if you consider the central city bit as another project at get it funded seperately, the costs stack up as:

(1) Rail $122-$157million
(2) Bus+walk/cycle $92-$102million
(3) Busway $117-$127million
(4) Light Rail $95-$125million

At 6:14 PM, June 14, 2006, Anonymous Andy said...

Is there any thought given to a toll on the motorway into the city? It seems painfully obvious to me - it would generate money which could be used to subsidise another solution such as LRT, discourage road users and therefore congestions and so on. Those who choose to keep driving wouldnt be getting nothing for their money - their benefit would be a less congested motorway to enjoy as they ride the SUVs they absolutely cant live without.

At 6:32 AM, June 15, 2006, Anonymous Andrew Tipton said...

Disclaimer: I don't know much about how the public transport subsidies and such work for rail versus bus.

Looking over the different scenarios, it seems that a major cost factor in the rail options is that the council will be purchasing (and will thus own) the rolling stock. Contrast this to the bus options, where the bus operators (Stagecoach etc.) will be purchasing (and will thus own) the buses.

Why is this so? With this disparity, it seems obvious that rail will always be the more expensive option and that decisions will be biased towards buses.

At 9:18 AM, June 15, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Andy: some sort of congestion charge gets raised occasionally in discussion documents from the WCC, GWRC and Transit, but I haven't seen any concrete proposals.

Andrew T: that does sound anomalous. Normally, Tranz Metro (i.e. Toll) owns the engines and rolling stock, and I don't know whether this will be different. The council(s) probably have to stump up with the funding though.

The funding and other arrangements between local councils, regional councils, central government, Transit, OnTrack and private companies gets so Byzantine that my head hurts just thinking about it. It leads to stand-offs like the trolley-bus dispute and the current Toll/OnTrack stoush. It also allows everyone to stand back and say "it's not my problem, it's theirs". Sigh.

At 8:16 PM, June 18, 2006, Anonymous LX... said...

The great shortcoming of the busway option is that it depends on some quite heroic bus priority measure being put into place to allow the necessary fast reliable access through the city for buses. Otherwise the buses will just add to the current city bus jam.

Adelaide has a great guided bus way (O Bahn) but as soon as the buses get to the edge of the city they are caught in the same congestion as all other traffic.

I struggle to see Wellington City really having the will to strip the parking on Thorndon quay and other measures needed to give buses priority through the central city.

At 8:35 PM, June 20, 2006, Blogger libertyscott said...

Tom, the other rail lines in Wellington will never be converted to light rail. The funding exists for brand new electric units to replace all the English Electrics by 2010. Light rail is more expensive, and Land Transport NZ will not approve LRT running on the same tracks as 90 km/h express freight trains. This is not a practice common overseas.

As a result LRT is a dead duck, while it might be nice for the J'ville line, its only value is extending rail service through the CBD for one line. The likely mode shift and congestion reduction from that produce insufficient benefits to justify the enormous capital cost of the extension.

Heroic bus priority measures in the CBD would be good - there is no way LRT would go any faster through the city without closing routes to buses, and buses bring far more people into downtown Wellington than the J'ville line or any extension of it either way.

A busway would be cheap, once you get through the Public Works Act issues, but the oneway nature of it is hardly appealing. Public transport needs consistency of route for simplicity of understanding.

The likely option is to lower the tunnel floors and run the Ganz Mavag units through to J'ville, and new units when they arrive. This would buy about 10 years until road pricing can be implemented, and then the true cost of all modes can be reflected in what users pay.

What you're all forgetting is that around 50% of all rail subsidies paid in Wellington go on the Johnsonville line, it is a very expensive route to operate and maintain, and carries very few people off peak (mostly a bus load). That is far from sustainable.

At 9:59 AM, June 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Land Transport NZ will not approve LRT running on the same tracks as 90 km/h express freight trains"

I think it would be a question of LRT meeting same crash worthiness standards as mainline trains.

"This is not a practice common overseas"

Means it has been done successfully elsewhere.

At 1:28 PM, June 23, 2006, Anonymous LX said...

There is also another interesting consideration to running Light Rail on the main lines to Upper Hutt and Paraparaumu.

Light rail trains will be limited to the length of stops in the on street city portion of the route. This is significantly shorter tne the length of current 6 and even 8 carriage trains used at peak times.

Yes LRT could make up for this reduced capacity per train by running a more frequent service. Sounds good so far...

However running a more frequent service on the Hutt and Paraparaumu lines would preclude the operation of peak time express services.

Trains running more frequently than at present start to run into the problem of express trains catching up to local all stops trains with no way of overtaking.

The solution to this means having to start looking at adding an addittional third "express track". This is where costs start to really add up. Also LRT units tend to have an 80km (although there is talk of 100km) speed maximum. This would preclude moving to 130km operation in future on the Kapiti line which is possible for conventional suburban rail services on 3'6" track.

Therefore LRT will require a slower but more frequent operation. Good for short trips (like Johnsonville) but not so good for longer journeys competing with cars on motorways.

At 5:32 PM, June 23, 2006, Anonymous LX said...

libertyscott mentions that "around 50% of all rail subsidies paid in Wellington go on the Johnsonville line".

I'd be interested where that figure comes from because as I understand it the Regional Council has a contract for the supply of the passenger rail services and the cost of individual lines is not broken down within that.

It could well be true, just wonderring if that is a real figure or a made up guess.

At 2:42 AM, June 28, 2006, Blogger bunza said...

I stumbled upon your blog through a link from Wikipedia, and as a recent visitor to Wellington with a mate in Khandallah, this is of some interest.

In Brisbane, near me, they built a busway in 2001 (not guided, just grade separated) on an existing transport corridor - the South East Freeway.

It stretches 16km from the city and promised a congestion free run all the way with better frequencies than a train would provide. The big drawcard was a single seat journey from suburb to city, where a route would do its rounds through the suburbs before jumping on the busway for a fast-track to the city.

In addition to this, a spine service running every 15 minutes.

Just five years on, patronage has exceeded all expectations, with the three spine services operating a combined 5 minute freqency, in addition to the suburban and peak-hour only routes. In that short time, patronage on the corridor has increased by 124%, or 2.7 million trips per year.

That may be all well and good, but the issue now is even the busway is starting to get congested with buses - one of the stations has a service every 24 seconds in the peak, and patronage has risen high enough to warrant a conversion to light rail, which sooner or later will have to happen.

From that experience, it seems a busway is great at building patronage, but it appears to hit the ceiling in terms of capacity pretty quickly.

At 11:27 PM, June 30, 2006, Blogger libertyscott said...

Another dimension is platform height. LRT on J'ville line will mean significant changes to platform levels (or track heights) to match on street running. This is what makes LRT and heavy passenger rail incompatible as well. LRVs would be low floor. Lx is right, LRT for Hutt/Kapiti raises issues of speed as well.

LX, the costs of lines are broken down, details are not publicly disclosed. However, it makes sense. J'ville line carries no other traffic to offset the maintenance costs (remember main trunk has plenty overnight, J'ville none), runs a low frequency operation, carries very small numbers of people off peak and operates over difficult terrain. Melling is the same, but is short and straight.

In my view the busway option is only a goer if the route is made two way the whole way except tunnels - you can't have buses going one way in the morning and the other in the evening.

At 1:10 PM, July 09, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

> you can't have buses going one way in the morning and the other in the evening.

Why not?

At 9:25 AM, July 10, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Becasue passengers would have to remember what stop to use at different times of the day, which is confusing and frustrating. Anyone going in the other direction (and people do, such as school kids, people who work in Johnsonville but live further south etc) would have to take a slow, less frequent service. And the return buses would add to congestion on the streets.

At 8:30 PM, July 10, 2006, Blogger John Rusk said...

Hi Tom,

That's my anonymous question you just replied to. I found this thread via Google, and didn't remember this was your site until I saw the photo in your reply. So I'll sign my name this time :-)

>Becasue passengers would have to remember what stop to use at different times of the day, which is confusing and frustrating.

Most passengers travel one way in the morning, and the other at night, so I think they won't really be exposed to that confusion. Secondly, stops in town and on the busway itself won't change. In fact, which stops would change? The suburban ones might, but they could just as easily _not_ change - e.g. loop routes like Newlands 54 and 56 could remain virtually unchanged (in their suburban portions). The Hutt Rd stops would be the worst affected, but could be served by a relatively low frequency J-Ville to City (and back) service that did not use the busway.

>Anyone going in the other direction (and people do, such as school kids, people who work in Johnsonville but live further south etc) would have to take a slow, less frequent service.

True. But then, compared to the busway, all the current services are "slow and less frequent" :-) With a few carefully selected non-busway services (as suggested in the council's documents, for school routes) I'm not sure that anyone would be significantly worse off.

>And the return buses would add to congestion on the streets

In the "counter-peak" direction, so by and large that shouldn't be a problem.

I like your site, by the way. As a keen busway supporter I don't agree with all the _content_, but I do like the site :-)


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