The other day there was an article in the Dominion Post about the Wellington Light Rail proposal. Specifically it was concerned with explaining how light rail would work in the city, including an explanation of its route, the way it interacts with other traffic, the streetscape and more. Really, it is actually a general description of light rail and what it is, applied to what seems a hypothetical plan outlined by an interest group called FIT and their solution called “Scenario A+” (riffing on the scenario’s developed for Let’s Get Wellington Moving).
Light rail is proposed as part of the Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) project and it has been stated a lot in the media lately that it is pretty much a foregone conclusion that light rail from Wellington railway station to the airport, via Newtown, will be paid for by the government (notwithstanding current delays to the overall LGWM package).
Does Wellington need light rail?
That is an interesting question. Wellington currently has commuter rail along three corridors emanating from the railway station at the north end of the CBD to the northern suburbs, Kapti Coast, and Hutt Valley. However, over half of greater Wellington’s population is concentrated in Wellington City and is currently not served by any form of rapid transit. The corridor from the CBD to the airport is, generally speaking, the major transport artery of the city and suffers from congestion throughout most working days. Furthermore, most of greater Wellington’s growth is occurring in the inner suburbs along this corridor in the form of higher density developments, and more is planned. In short, this is a corridor ripe for development. High capacity, high frequency, and high quality public transport is not only desired, but is necessary.
Added to this are two important further considerations. The first is that bus routes into the CBD are congested and can run slowly during peak hours, particularly in the inner city along the corridor known as the “Golden Mile” where buses often back up. Second, space in central Wellington is limited, which means any attempt to introduce rapid transit is going to be difficult and comparatively expensive. I mention this not as an argument against rapid transit but as an indication that alternatives to light rail, such as bus rapid transit, are not going to necessarily be cheaper, at least if you want to build something that is cost-effective.
So, to summarise, we have (broadly speaking) the following points that lead to light rail being a preferred option:
- An existing, congested transport and activity corridor
- Higher density developments underway and planned
- Bus congestion in the inner city
- High costs for most rapid transit options
Okay, but where should light rail go?
This is the question that concerns me the most. The article referred to above outlines a route that follows the waterfront “quays” then heads south don Taranaki St, before tunneling under Mount Cook (the suburb, not the South Island mountain) and running down Adelaide Rd and Riddiford Street to Newtown. Beyond that, the route heads further south towards the Zoo, tunnels through to Kilburnie, then to the Airport and then on to Miramar.
So is that what will actually happen?
I honestly don’t know the answer to the question, but I can make an educated guess. My short answer would be “no” but it is more complicated than that. Here are some questions I would ask about the light rail route:
- Waterfront “quays” or “Golden mile” CBD route?
- Tunnels or follow Cambrige/Kent Tce?
- Do we need to go to the Airport immediately?
I’ll explore each of these questions, but first I would remind readers that the rumours are that $1 billion is being pledged by the government towards light rail. Now, I’m no engineer, but my guess is that the hypothetical example given in that article would cost a heck of a lot more than that, particularly with tunneling.
Waterfront “quays” or “Golden mile” CBD route?
I don’t want to be someone who avoids making decisions, but this is one I don’t have a preferred solution to. The waterfront option would be quicker, less disruptive, more segregated, and could have the spin off of completely re-imagining the way the city is connected to the sea (i.e. remove the traffic sewer that is currently there). The down side is that it might be a little too far from some parts o the inner city to make it truly transformational, although I would point out that I would see light rail as part of an entire public transport rejig within the central city, so other areas could be better served by buses. Still, the point remains.
The Golden Mile route is more central, has a more intimate integration with the city, but will also be slow die to the numerous intersections and could place limitations in paces where the corridor is narrow or has tight corners.
Yet another option could be to tunnel under the city, but dollar signs are starting to appear in my vision at the mention of that, so best not go down that rabbit hole for now. Ultimately, both routes have positives and negatives and I think more work will need to be done to ascertain which is truly more effective. It may be that another route could be looked at too, perhaps Featherston Street? My only opinion at this stage is that great thought needs to be put into this. The most obvious solutions what always be the best (as with most things).
Tunnels or follow Cambrige/Kent Tce?
Look at the map below.
The article in question outlined a different route (blue line) from the one often brought up when it comes to Wellington light rail discussions (red line).
Let’s talk about the red line first. It would allow (potentially) light rail to go the full length of the Golden Mile (if it goes down that route), serve Mt Victoria, and take advantage of the wide expanses of Cambridge/Kent Tce and the full length of Adelaide Road. The negatives? The Basin Reserve presents an obstacle, but seeing as LGWM is largely centred around solving the current issues at that location, surely a solution can be worked in as part of the overall one. Another problem is that this takes light rail away from some of the key destinations in Te Aro, particularly if the waterfront option is used.
The blue line better serves Te Aro by running along Taranaki St parallel to Cuba St and just one block over. It also serves the Massey University campus quite well. However, where the red line might take advantage of a Basin reserve Solution, thereby potentially reducing cost, it would require either an expensive tunnel through Mount Cook or be squeezed into the narrow and hilly road space through the suburb.
One potential solution is that one route could become the premier bus route and the other the light rail route. Budget considerations and further analysis should decide which option is better, but my mind tends to favour the red line option.
Do we need to go to the Airport immediately?
My short answer to this is “no” and I would be amazed if the intention is to fund light rail to the airport in one hit. I think it should be staged in two phases, the first to Newtown and the second to the “airport area”. Funding and design work should be focused on the first stage while the second stage could remain open to interpretation until stage one is bedded in. The CBD to Newtown route is far more necessary, in my opinion, and should therefore be prioritised accordingly. That’s where the higher density developments now and in the future are focused, and where the busiest bus routes are. The last thing I’d want to see is funding stretched for a sub-optimal solution.
So there you have it, my high level thoughts on the Wellington light rail plan. Hopefully it won’t be long before we see some more detail on this project, and I look forward to seeing what options are preferred and why (or even if light rail is even preferred). I’ll be sure to cover that on here when/if that happens.
This is just a bit of a think piece I have done on the fly, but light rail has been proposed along this route in Wellington for a number of years and lots of people have done quite a bit of thinking about it over the years. There is Scenario A+ as outlined at the start and… well, just type in “Wellington light rail” into Google and you should find a few different plans, proposals and analysis, some going way back, all riffing roughly on the same thing. Enjoy!