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

Thursday, November 16, 2006

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.

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)
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.

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.


At 1:36 pm, November 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I presume Terry McDavitt is one of those human-induced climate change deniers as well. People like him need to retire to the Wairarapa very soon & let those common sense & forward thinking skills have a turn. Arghhhh!

At 2:05 pm, November 16, 2006, Blogger Baz said...

At least the Dom Post didn't again repeat their fabricated, er, mistaken figures for light rail support.

Did they ever acknowledge the letters pointing their "mistakes", or does the Wellington public still believe that only 3% want light rail?

At 2:37 pm, November 16, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Baz: nope, no correction. I've still got one letter that's yet to be "noted", so they may still publish that, but I won't hold my breath.

At 4:12 pm, November 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Extending the rail lines to Courtenay Pl, and maybe even the Airport, would not be a bad idea. I have just one question though - would there be enough room over-ground? Putting it undergound would solve that issue, but would likely cost 10 times as much.

Still on transport, AirNZ has come to its senses and ditched the codeshare. That means the Int'l terminal upgrade will proceed as planned, since WIAL said that it hinged on the codeshare outcome.

For everyone's interest, I've made a few contribs to WIAL's entry on Wikipedia.

At 4:46 pm, November 16, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Yes, there should be room. Brent Efford has written in detail about how it could work, and I summarised his suggested route earlier. Underground lines would certainly avoid conflict with other traffic, but apart from the cost, it's more appealing for most passengers to have street-level stops rather than underground ones.

At 4:15 pm, November 17, 2006, Blogger Tom said...

Earthquake worries might be relevant, but the water table shouldn't be a problem. After all, the Tube in London goes right under the river, and there are plenty of other examples around the world. But it would make a simple cut & cover approach much more difficult, leaving only the hugely expensive tunneling option.

At 5:15 pm, November 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hell, you can walk under the Thames. I wouldn't try it at night, but you can.

At 5:42 pm, November 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, have you seen the "Metlink News" out today? It seems to leave a little (very little) room for light rail to be under consideration: it states multiple times "58 new EMUs for the Hutt Valley, Johnsonville, Melling and Paraparaumu Lines" but also has "Improvements to the Johnsonville Line (depending on the outcome of the current Northern Suburbs Passenger Transport Study)", which seems to preclude the do-nothing approach since that'd be included in the former.

At 11:34 pm, November 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wellington should be pushing the Government for completion of the J'ville to Airport LRT line in time for the World Cup.

At 3:15 pm, November 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All together now !
dream, dream, dream,
dream, dream, dream,

At 9:46 pm, November 20, 2006, Blogger John Rusk said...


My local paper (the Norwester) says that they are going for the base case.


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