Public transport is a key factor in what makes the Wellington region and city work for its citizens, businesses, visitors and tourists.

The key to successful public transport is for all elements – rail, bus and light rail – to function together as an integrated system, with each mode complementing the others.

We advocate the introduction of tram-trains to the Wellington region starting with the core route from Johnsonville along the public transport corridor through Wellington station to Newtown. We believe this is essential to provide a high quality, high capacity public transport service along the Golden Mile.

Tram-trains can operate on a segregated right of way like a railway line or mix with other traffic in city streets and pedestrian malls, allowing commuters to ride directly into the Wellington city centre from the northern suburbs and further afield.

We have adopted the term ‘Super-link’ to cover the new tram-train system.


In this paper we use the term light rail to describe the modern tram. Light rail is a versatile, high quality and high capacity form of public transport that is typically segregated from other traffic in city streets.

A tram-train is a light rail transport system where the trams also run on the tracks of the existing railway system for greater flexibility and convenience.


The good news

For its size and population, the Wellington region has a good public transport system built on a suburban rail network and extensive bus services. The rail network is about to get significantly better with the first serious improvements in decades now under way.

Electrification and double-tracking to Waikanae and enhancements to the Johnsonville line are projects designed to make the best use of the new Matangi units, on order from South Korea, due to arrive from 2010.

In total, the existing rail system with its current improvements represents about 70% of a ‘complete’ rail system – that is a system which serves the densest regional travel corridors and reaches all the main nodes.

The bad news

Currently, the effectiveness and potential of the Wellington region’s public transport network is fundamentally handicapped.

This is because of the shortfall in the “reach” of the rail system into Wellington’s central business district (CBD).

The rail network terminates at Wellington Railway Station on the edge of the CBD. For most rail users this is not their ultimate destination. Most passengers want to go to the business, shopping, cultural and entertainment destinations that lie beyond the terminus.

The fact that there is no direct rail link from the major regional hubs of Porirua, Waterloo, Queensgate and Johnsonville across the most densely used part of the city and the CBD is the critical ‘missing link’ of the Wellington region’s transport infrastructure.

Having to change modes adds considerable inconvenience and many minutes in time to most public transport journeys along the regional corridors into the CBD. Buses through the CBD are become increasingly slow and unreliable because of congestion. Tram-trains would allow commuters to ride directly into the city centre, rather than taking a mainline train only as far as Wellington station and then having to change to bus. This convenience and time saving would make public transport far more competitive with private motoring for both peak and off-peak journeys.

The problem

The Wellington region has a rail network and a bus network, which work well together – until they get to Wellington city, where they function as independent entities. The limitations of current public transport services based around what are effectively separate bus and rail networks are becoming progressively more evident as population grows.

The nub of the problem is that while the Wellington region’s public transport system is mature it has never been completed. Unless the “reach” of the suburban rail network can be extended, the development of a truly integrated public transport network within Wellington city and the region will always be thwarted. This longstanding and fundamental factor is the “elephant in the room” as far as regional public transport is concerned. In the past it was acknowledged and taken seriously but current regional transport planning is ignoring the issue.

Total reliance on buses to provide public transport across the CBD is already showing its limitations. At peak hours overcrowded buses are already reduced to a crawl through the city. In fact, peak hour bus services in the central city are often slower than walking.  Saturation is close.

A bus-only approach south of the Railway Station condemns Wellington to, at best, a second-rate system whose shortcomings are becoming more obvious with growth in patronage.

The monitoring of transport patronage by WCC and the Regional Council shows that for 2008 some 25,000 passengers were travelling into the Wellington CBD during the morning peak by public transport – but that this is still only about a third of all passenger movements. Currently around 10,000 people arrive at Wellington station during the peak hour 7-9 am each week day.

There is great potential for tram-trains to be used by existing public transport users as well as passengers that could be attracted from private vehicles.

A further factor adding to the logic of tram-trains is that the “centre of gravity” of the city has shifted in recent decades requiring passengers to move further from the railway terminal. Factors stimulating the growth of travel through the CBD include:

  • Expansion of Wellington Airport
  • The rebuilt regional hospital in Newtown
  • Residential growth in the southern and eastern suburbs
  • Growth of office accommodation in the CBD
  • Developments such as the “Cuba Quarter,” the entertainment area of Courtenay Place and Te Papa
  • Inner city apartment conversion and new construction
  • The new sports centre to be built at Kilbirnie

The solution – Super-link

Super-link would use tram-trains, a flexible technology that can run on the regional commuter rail network, such as the Johnsonville line, and run at street level through the city. With tram-trains the suburban rail network can be extended through the CBD, eliminating many of the interchange problems associated with the current rail and bus services.

An initial tram-train route from Johnsonville past Wellington Railway Station along the Golden Mile to Courtenay Place would be the ideal complement to the existing rail and bus networks. Stage 2 would extend at least to Wellington Hospital, and Stage 3 through to the Airport.

Super-link would:

  • Extend the reach of the rail network through the CBD, and beyond
  • Create a high quality transport link along the Golden Mile
  • Strengthen regional public transport connections

Other benefits include:

  • Reduced congestion, pollution and noise as diesel buses are replaced
  • High capacity (say 200 per vehicle)
  • Fast and level boarding and alighting, through multiple doors
  • Speed and reliability (10 minute frequency in peak)
  • Environmentally sustainable
  • Potential to expand the network (e.g. to Lower Hutt city centre, as studied by the Hutt City Council in 2000)


Tram-trains are a way of providing a quality public transport service to the increasing numbers who live and work in Wellington.

Tram-trains can easily move large numbers of people very quickly and provide green, pollution-free transport.

An initial line from Johnsonville past Wellington station to Newtown would require 12 vehicles able to carry 200 passengers each. (Typically, a modern articulated tram has 4 times the capacity of a bus, can spend less time boarding and alighting passengers at each stop, and moves through streets more smoothly and rapidly. Overall, a modern tram has about 10 times the people-shifting productivity of a bus.)

Trams would run from 6.00am until midnight every day with a minimum 10 minute interval during peak hours.

With improved connections between rail, tram-trains and buses and integrated ticketing among all three modes there will be a seamless interchange between modes of transport. (Tickets would not be issued on board but pre-purchased and cancelled at on-board machines.)

It is estimated about 15,000 people would use the line on week days.

Dual-voltage tram-trains would share the same electricity supply as the trolley buses.

An initial Super-link line to Courtenay Place could be built within 3 years of gaining the green light – particularly if current proposed projects along the core public transport corridor are “future proofed” to make provision for future installation of tram-train track.

Affordability: What would light rail cost?

Light rail is often misrepresented as a particularly costly option, using spurious comparisons with all-new overseas systems which have been built from scratch. In Wellington what is envisaged is, effectively, an extention to an existing rail system.  Financially, tram-trains are not a far-fetched “pie in the sky” option for Wellington.

Tram-trains would deliver remarkable value to the Wellington region for a relatively modest investment.

The Ngauranga to Wellington Airport Corridor Plan released in 2008 used a figure of $140m as the cost of the light rail option from Wellington station to the regional hospital in Newtown. An initial set of light rail vehicles might add a further $80m (12 vehicles at around $6m each plus contingency).

The introduction of tram-trains would mean a large number of bus replacements would no longer be required, due to the much higher productivity of modern trams. Rail vehicles last about 3 times as long as buses. Accordingly, trams, although initially expensive can actually cost less than buses in the long run.

In assessing affordability there are four relevant factors to take into account:

  • With on-street running there would be no need to buy land for the route
  • The route is relatively flat and there would be no requirement for expensive tunnelling, flyovers or elevated sections
  • Until closure of the system in 1964, Wellington’s Golden Mile and the routes to the suburbs were used by an earlier generation of trams for 60 years. The practicality of trams on the route (reinforced by the findings of the 1995 Works/MVA Report) is not in doubt, and should not require years of expensive “paralysis by analysis” to re-prove the obvious!
  • Although the Airport, being the end of the Growth Spine, should be the ultimate objective, development of tram-train can and should be staged into fiscally-realistic chunks. The first stage, logically along the Golden Mile to Courtenay Place, will almost certainly cost less than $40M to build the track.

To put the cost of tram-trains into a broader perspective it is useful to look at the estimated (2008 prices or actual dollars of the day) costs for other major transport infrastructure projects:

Transmission Gully – $1 billion

Duplication of Mount Victoria Tunnel – $175 m

Auckland’s North Shore Busway – $295 m

Auckland’s Northern Gateway Toll Road – $395 m

Wellington Inner-city Bypass – $55 m

New SH 2 interchange and roads at Dowse Drive – $60 m

Western Link Road and Bridge (Waikanae) – $164 m

Electrification and double tracking from Mackay’s Crossing to Waikanae – $87 m

What is happening?

Transport 2000 proposed Super-link in 1992. Tram-train was being actively investigated and negotiated between the Wellington Regional Council and the NZ Railways Corporation in the mid-1990s, culminating in the Works/MVA report issued in 1995. The Wellington City Council was also planning a Waterfront Tramway, which would have used the light rail track along the Golden Mile, at the same time. However, no action ensued and both projects were forgotten about by around 2000.

There is no specific provision in the current Wellington Regional Land Transport Programme, approved in mid 2009, for light rail. This plan sets out spending priorities for the period 2009-12.

The most recent detailed study of Wellington’s core transport corridor route is the 2008 Ngauranga to Airport Corridor Plan. The Plan, developed by Transit NZ, Wellington City Council and Greater Wellington, is the culmination of nearly three years of studies, technical investigations and consultation. The Plan relies initially on improving bus services with such measures as improving ticketing and designating more bus-only lanes as a way of meeting increased demand, with the longer-term development of a high-quality public transport corridor – which is where tram-trains should come into the picture.

Rational transport planning is about providing capacity to meet future population growth. Prudent planning would improve bus services and light rail concurrently. Waiting until all opportunities to improve bus services have been exhausted before considering tram-trains is to guarantee that the Wellington region will face a future transport crisis.

The reality is that buses will continue to play a key role in the public transport system and must continue to be improved. However buses and tram-trains are not an either/or option; they are complementary parts of an integrated network.

The problem of the “missing link” between the suburban rail network and across city transport is not new. The handicap of the rail system not penetrating the CBD was first recognised in 1878! Between 1959 and about 1970, various schemes for a rail subway through the CBD were officially planned. The subway option is now recognised as unaffordable. Fortunately, tram-train is available to give us the best of both worlds: direct rail service from the region and the affordability and convenience of a street-level transport service.

Tram-trains are feasible right now

In Europe and North America, a massive public transport renaissance is occurring as cities either introduce light rail or expand existing systems.

The tram-train model which is advocated for Wellington is already in operation in such German cities as Kassel, Saarbrücken and Karlsruhe and this experience can be drawn upon. Similarly, in the Netherlands, the tram-train concept is being applied in a number of locations.

Internationally, the trend is for cities with smaller populations to be looking at adding light rail to their public transport networks. There are numerous examples in Europe of cities of comparable size to Wellington that are either introducing or extending light rail systems, including cities such as Amiens, Angers, Brest, Le Mans and Rouen.

As a relevant cost comparison, Adelaide recently completed a light rail extension of equivalent length to Wellington’s Golden Mile through its CBD. This extension was announced by the state government in January 2006 and was designed, consented, built and opened in October 2007 (i.e. within 2 years). The total cost of the extension was $A33m. The next extension to Adelaide’s light rail network is now under way, with tram-trains to be introduced in the future.

In Christchurch, the city’s heritage tramway in the CBD is being extended over a route similar in length to Wellington’s Golden Mile for about $11M. Even tripling the cost to allow for extra street works and other contingencies only brings the cost into line with Adelaide – but in NZ dollars. Stage 1 to Courtenay Place is clearly affordable.


The Wellington region needs a transport network that is properly plugged into the Wellington CBD. Tram-trains are an affordable and practical way forward for connecting the wider region into the CBD.

In Wellington, tram-trains would allow commuters to ride directly into the city centre, rather than taking a mainline train only as far as Wellington station, located at the edge of the CBD, and then having to change to a bus to get to their final destination.

The time has come for well-planned, pre-emptive action that will facilitate the introduction of tram-trains. It is proposed to either replace or (expensively) upgrade the Ganz-Mavag multiple units in 2016. Seven years is a practical timeframe to plan to replace them – with tram-trains that can not only cover existing rail tracks but also run over a new Golden Mile route which could easily be constructed by then.

A practical and prudent course of action right now would be to designate, and protect, a tram-train route from the Wellington rail yards, past Wellington station to Newtown. In that way, projects along the route such as the Manners Street reopening and the Adelaide Rd widening could make provision for tracks to be laid. A small investment now could save significant time and cost when tram-trains get the green light.

Adopting tram-trains would ensure Wellington is a city where public transport capacity matches population growth. To see what happens when that is not done, visit Auckland.

Super-link will create an integrated public transport network for the Wellington region.


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