Back on track: seeing the light (rail)
It's hard to concentrate on Wellington issues, given the media frenzy about a certain building in Auckland, a debate that I've had to get involved in in case I'm expected to be knowledgeable about it in the near future. But decisions are being made right now in Wellington, involving much greater sums than a mere stadium, and that could have a huge impact upon the shape and sustainability of the entire region.
The future of the Johnsonville line is only a small part of this, but it's symptomatic of the wider battles that are being fought for public transport. There's finally been confirmation that light rail has not been ruled out by the government's insistence on retaining the tracks. The article in today's Dominion Post still seems a bit confused about it though: while saying that the government "had not ruled out extending the railway through to Courtenay Place", it also persists in saying that "the Government ruled out three of the four options proposed during consultation". Sigh. To remove all doubt, the actual letter from Michael Cullen (568kB PDF) says:
...the Government would not support the conversion of the Johnsonville line into a bus way and that we would see little justification in taxpayers being asked to fund such a conversion.So, kudos to Brent Efford and Celia Wade-Brown for keeping light rail on the agenda, rather than just fighting a rear-guard action to retain the current rail service.
Indeed, if the quoted cost of the conversion of the rail line to bus way is correct, then a small proprtion of that amount spent on a rail upgrade would deliver a very modern and reliable rail service.
I am aware of the desire to look at extending the Johnsonville line to Courtenay Place and this decision should not preclude that option in the future. (my emphasis)
There's not a lot else to be optimistic about, though. The Wellington City and Regional councils are both considering the study right now, and there's a nasty little surprise in there. What's being recommended is not even the "enhanced rail" option from the consultation, but something called "the base case" that was not even consulted on! This is not exactly a do-nothing option, but as near as dammit: replacing the old English Electric units with refurbished Ganz Mavag units, but with the same timetables and without the extra bus services that all four consultation options provided. This was originally intended merely as a comparison scenario, but despite some serious concerns from council officers (p6, 167kB PDF) it now appears to be seriously proposed.
I haven't had time to read all 163 pages of the Technical Evaluation Report (824kB PDF) since it was only released this week, but what I have seen looks fairly dodgy to me (and to the council officers who say in their report that they have "some residual concerns about the robustness of the analysis"). For instance, the risk analysis on pages 134-136 seems to treat light rail as if it were some weird newfangled technology rather than something that is used daily in hundreds of cities around the world.
None of it gets any better when you look at the bigger picture: the Regional Land Transport Strategy and Regional Passenger Transport Plan both make soothing noises about the value of public transport but continue to pour all the investment into roads. Here's a little challenge: see if you can work out from all 265 pages just how much of the funding will go towards actually increasing public transport capacity as opposed to roading or maintaining the clapped-out infrastructure. I haven't worked it out myself, yet, but it looks like less than 10% of the entire $4b budget. No wonder they're expecting the share of work trips to the CBD via car to decrease by a measly 3 percentage points (from 55% to 52%) in ten years!
From the article in today's Wellingtonian (buried on page 46), it looks like they're throwing it all back on the government to provide more dosh. While there's some justification in that, given the government's stated sustainability goals, imagine what they could fund by just ditching Transmission Gully! But then it looks like committee chairperson Terry McDavitt has no real belief in public transport: he evidently believes that the current surge in patronage is just a blip, and that "the balancing effect from the attractiveness of freer-flowing roads" will reverse it. I see: he's supposed to be promoting public transport, but he's also planning new roads that will take people away from it, and he sounds quite happy about that. There's consistency for you.