Bus vs light rail for Wellington

September 30th, 2013 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

Tony Randle writes in the Dom Post:

The recently released spine study recommendations on expanding to and through the CBD found a dedicated Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) option is the best long-term approach compared to bus priority or changing from buses to light rail.

Since then, we have heard mostly the anguished protests of light rail supporters who dispute this recommendation.

I presume these supporters do not plan to pay for the massive cost of light rail themselves!

The transport models for Wellington show the BRT option will increase public transport trips from south and east Wellington by 8.5 per cent while light rail will barely make a 1 per cent improvement.

It reminds me of the proposal to increase train capacity on one of the Wellington bus lines. It would have cost $100 million and only removed 80 cars a day at peak time. I joked it would be cheaper to buy 80 motorists a helicopter!

A key reason light rail fails is the need for thousands of CBD- bound commuters to transfer between buses and light rail at Kilbirnie or Newtown, compared with BRT where they will complete the journey with a single bus trip.

That is a strength of our bus system – not having to swap transport modes.

In economic terms, the BRT option has $90 million in public transport benefits against only $30m for the more expensive light rail option.

The Benefit Cost Ratio of BRT is 0.87 compared to just 0.05 for light rail (a benefit cost ratio of 0.05 is a total waste of money).

Julie-Anne Genter and the Greens correctly point out that some of the roads of national significance have a BCR of less than 1, which makes their economic value debatable. Surely Julie-Anne and the Greens would agree that a transport proposal with a BCR of 0.05 is barking mad!

29 Responses to “Bus vs light rail for Wellington”

  1. anonymouse (891 comments) says:

    Although Tony (He of the Johnsonville busway proposal) is not exactly an un-biased observer in this debate 🙂

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  2. Redbaiter (11,656 comments) says:

    A new poll finds a small majority of voters in the People’s Republic of California want the boondoggle bullet train project stopped and consider it a waste of money.

    The bi-partisan government created $68 billion price tag for the train is as phony as a $3 bill to fool the gullible voters. Some estimates say the train will run over $250 billion and never, ever run at the “high speed” required by law.

    Voters are starting to realized that the train is a bottomless pit of spending to pay back the business and union backers of the Sacramento politicians.

    Read more.

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  3. brucehoult (230 comments) says:

    I don’t think a reasonable person could claim that the calculations and assumptions in BCRs are absolutely accurate. They are a guide at best.

    The costs are usually pretty well understood. It’s the benefits side that is more shaky, and probably more prone to underestimation.

    On that basis 0.87 is pretty much the same thing as 1.0. It’s not 0.1 (obviously stupid) or 10.0 (why didn’t we do it earlier??).

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  4. Tony Randle (15 comments) says:

    If you want an alternative to the light rail lobby view of the Wellington Spine Study’s recommendation for the Bus Rapid Transit option, my presentation to the Sustainability Cities Spine Study meeting is here.

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  5. workingman (98 comments) says:

    This website, Coyote Blog, http://www.coyoteblog.com/coyote_blog/tag/light-rail , often has interesting articles about the unbelievable costs of light rail. Light rail very often leads to a reduction in bus services, and bus services are often of most use to the people who need public transport the most, people who have no private transport. Light Rail tends to only service major areas and normally requires a separate car trip to get to the station. Of course light right looks great, politicians can put their names to it, but the initial high costs, and far higher running costs often lead to a reduction in bus services.

    The Wellington northern suburbs have already seen proposals of this where the buses between Johnsonville and the city were to be reduced, and the major reason was to get people to use the trains, which have had a lot of money invested in them. Of course this made a great idea for people who would now need to get a bus to the train station, and then a good chance of a 2nd bus once in the city, rather than one convenient bus from the Johnsonville suburbs right the through the city.

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  6. RRM (12,563 comments) says:

    If there is to be a dedicated bus rapid transport link, I hope all the trolley buses are taken off other routes and concentrated on the BRT. Electric buses seem like a good idea when the last 10 years of oil prices are considered, but the way they grind up hills at 25km/h makes them a bad fit on roads shared by other motorists…

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  7. JC (1,102 comments) says:

    Enhanced bus services get the vote of the public and bus drivers but anything to do with rail get the votes of a much wider group of people who benefit.. like real estate agents, construction firms, unions, politicians, bureaucrats and Greens. There’s power and money in rail, but only customer convenience from buses.


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  8. mikenmild (23,570 comments) says:

    Light rail will never get built in Wellington. But as for that other enormous waste of money, Transmission Gully…

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  9. Julie Anne Genter (2 comments) says:

    The current economic evaluation manual overstates the benefits of new road capacity quite dramatically. So when a RoNS project has a BCR of 1 or less than that, it means it’s *even worse*. (I wrote my masters thesis on the incompleteness of the EEM as applied to a state highway project).
    The current methodology also doesn’t capture the full benefits of improvements to public transport — especially the impacts of rail and light rail which have huge economic development potential because they stimulate land use which not only requires lower overall transport costs to service, but tends to have spill-over benefits resulting from “agglomeration”. The relatively short evaluation period and high discount rate also favour projects with lower upfront capex costs, even though they may well have lower benefits over time, or higher operating costs. The life of light rail is far longer than 25 years, and benefits increase over time, while for motorways the benefits decrease because the project induces more traffic.
    I blogged about some of the problems with the PT Spine study here: http://thedailyblog.co.nz/2013/06/18/trainspotting-with-julie-anne-genter-light-rail-for-wellington/
    And Tom Pettit has done very in depth research which suggests the potential economic benefits of light rail for Wellington are huge, even higher than BRT: http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/comment/9093288/Realistic-light-rail-cost-is-needed
    The $3+ billion on the Wellington RONS is not only a very poor use of money because the project has a low BCR, it also undermines the effectiveness of invetment in any high frequency public transport because it subsidises single occupant vehicle trips, which then compete with public transport. So you end up subsidising competing modes. This is hardly an economically conservative position. Stop subsidising cars, invest in high quality, high frequency public transport, and the operating subsidies per person decline over time (and you reduce peak congestion on the roads!) The main economic arguments for light rail over BRT are not time travel savings (the only thing really explored in the PT Spine study) it is the increase in property values which then leads to urban regeneration and associated productivity benefits.

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  10. mikenmild (23,570 comments) says:

    How does light rail stimulate land use more than improved bus links?

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  11. Colville (3,122 comments) says:

    Buses go to people. People have to travel to trains.
    Train routes are fixed. Bus routes can be changed with the flick of a pen.
    Keep it simple (and cheap!) stupid 🙂

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  12. workingman (98 comments) says:

    @mikenmild I can imagine what is meant is that for light railway they will build grandiose stations and terminals and expect people to rent/buy offices, shops, apartments in them. This has worked in some cities, e.g. Hong Kong/Singapore where land is extremely valuable, but for a city like Wellington not so much use.

    @Colville. So correct. Can you imagine lambton quay having a light rail, it would be there for ever. If someone can agree to Lambton Quay being a pedestrian street then moving the buses to go along say Featherston St would be relatively easy. (not saying that is best place to put the buses)

    Light rail is a dead and declining form of transport that works best in large urban populations. For a city the size of Wellington light rail is just a disaster, but it is loved by all think big politicians and planners. Buses stop regularly so people can get on an off them when it is convenient, nice friendly bus drivers are even known to stop to pickup/drop off people where convenient or if they see you running for the bus, I have never known a train stop somewhere convenient for a passenger.

    I have been talking to the bus company in Newlands about them adapting their 52 bus service so that it loops around a new street, they say they are considering it. Can you imagine getting a light rail moved to go round a new development?

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  13. mikenmild (23,570 comments) says:

    Much as I love trains, I think we are stuck with the existing rail network in Wellington for the foreseeable. It works really well at what it does and the bus services have been rejigged multiple time to fit around it as patterns of activity have changed.

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  14. Ezekial (5 comments) says:

    I think the thing that would make the most impact would be if the current commuter train lines continued to say Taranaki St. This would save thousands of commuters from having to tranship to buses at the current station, saving time and money and getting them to work dryer on crap weather days.
    Unfortunately it would seem to be too late to do this now.

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  15. Johnboy (20,828 comments) says:

    I wish Greenies would get honest and start calling their pink elephants trams.

    When did “Light Rail” become vogue.

    I used to catch the clunkers to school back in the very early sixties. Trams were shit then and only new speak could try and paint them as anything else.

    Course our current crop of effete greeny wankers posing as MP’s weren’t born then! 🙂

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  16. mikenmild (23,570 comments) says:

    How about a tunnel through to Wainui, JB, could they sell that one to you? Make for a quicker trip to the Bellevue.

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  17. Johnboy (20,828 comments) says:

    I never drink with Catholics milkey! 🙂

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  18. mikenmild (23,570 comments) says:

    Ouch. Keep religion (and politics) out of sport. Who do you favour for your regional council votes?

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  19. Johnboy (20,828 comments) says:

    I always peruse the hopefuls statements and if they start with “Kia ora” or recite their whakapapa I don’t vote for them milkey! 🙂

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  20. Johnboy (20,828 comments) says:

    How did you inherit such sexy eyes Julie Anne Genter? 🙂

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  21. mikenmild (23,570 comments) says:

    As I couldn’t find either of those terms in the candidate information booklet, I shall seek advice elsewhere.

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  22. libertyscott (355 comments) says:

    JAG demonstrates the curious double-sided nature of how the Greens address transport. More than happy to swallow poor BCRs for big road projects, but instead claim rail projects don’t get their “real benefits” counted properly. Decoding what she is saying:

    – “Stimulate land use which requires lower overall transport costs to serve” is code for encouraging people to not own a car because they live within walking distance of public transport that meets their needs. Of course to do that, you need to live in the city, so it is about taxing people living on quarter-acre sections in houses who drive cars to subsidise the lifestyle of those willing to live in a box apartment downtown near a tramline. You see the Greens don’t care about the cost to taxpayers of subsidising their preferred modes of transport (taxes aren’t a burden after all), but it is a burden of dependency for people to choose to own a car – such a burden that they want to tax you into not doing it. In short it is a form of moderate social engineering. People living downtown in apartments or in high density housing near railway stations are to be encouraged, people living on the edge of suburbia in houses are not.

    – “agglomeration” is a component of economic impacts that are all about similar businesses co-locating so that they benefit from the intensification of knowledge, attracting a wide skilled pool of talent that can switch between businesses and so compete with one another. In the context of downtown Wellington this really only makes sense for retail, nightlife and bureaucracy. It’s a gross exaggeration to think light rail will do a damned thing for it.

    What’s really telling is JAG admits light rail isn’t actually about transport, not about saving time (and her claim about it reducing congestion is specious) but about increasing the values of property near stops. Funny how the Greens want to pay for it not by taxing those properties (or even having the light rail system developed by property developers, as some original tram and metro systems were over a century ago), but by taxing motorists.

    The conclusion is clear. Wellington’s primary public transport task is to bring a lot of people into the centre of town. A fortune has been spent on upgrading the railway and it works well, although grossly underutilised most of the day. The buses likewise work well. There are little marginal benefits in doing much more than is currently done. The big gain for Wellington will be one fine day when the proper inner city bypass is built, as a cut and cover tunnel between duplicated Terrace and Mt Victoria Tunnels, taking through traffic out of the city quickly and efficiently.

    However, you can thank the Green Party and its allies for loudly stopping that, although National Transport Minister Rob Storey had a key hand in it as well, as he succumbed to the ideology in the early 1990s.

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  23. mikenmild (23,570 comments) says:

    I’d be happier if all projects with low BCRs were abandoned; but politicians of whatever stripe seem willing to accept low to non-existent returns if the project sounds good to their respective voters.

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  24. swan (778 comments) says:


    Why bother guessing with BCRs? Lets have users pay on all modes and see which are able to sustain themselves. Simple right?

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  25. bilevel (3 comments) says:

    Taxis are the way, cheaper and the ratepayer doesnt foot the bill, $20 for a ride to miramar, bus ride $5. U do the math. I smell something fishy with these bus fares. But seriously its cheaper and more convenient to drive for a couple and pay for parking than it is to bus.

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  26. bilevel (3 comments) says:

    Light rail was. Nuts, good if you live in newtown, but my personal experience says not everyone lives in newtown. If we were really seriuos about the environment we would get rid of trolley buses, sit in a convoy of trolleys heading home a 15 min trip takes 45 because the stupid fcken things cant overtake and go 10 ks a hour. Also anybody knows wat happens to the wires in an earthquake? Do the wires just drape across the roads is that safe and wouldnt it make emergency vehicles unable to get anywhere?

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  27. campit (480 comments) says:

    Why bother guessing with BCRs? Lets have users pay on all modes and see which are able to sustain themselves. Simple right?

    That is too simplistic – failure to invest in the right projects leads to a waste of capital that should have been spent elsewhere. Cases in point in the recently announced final demise of the Brisbane Clem 7 PPP and the Cross City Tunnel in Sydney.

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  28. libertyscott (355 comments) says:

    Campit: Clem 7 and the Cross City Tunnel in Australia weren’t taxpayer funded projects, they were privately financed toll roads that went bankrupt. A waste of private capital perhaps, but they have been built and the benefits of the projects are captured by the users (and those using the roads that are bypassed, own properties on those roads and live and work there).

    Of course the private sector wont be so foolish in future, but it is a great transfer from private investors to road users voluntarily. However, in NZ it is much preferred to transfer from taxpayers to rail users.

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  29. campit (480 comments) says:

    Clem 7 was taxpayer funded. From the comments:

    The people of Brisbane paid $700million up front for this disaster thanks to Newman, now at a state level the people of Queensland are being stiffed another $618 million for a tunnel none of them asked for and hardly anyone actually uses.

    You’re right about the private sector not being so foolish in future. Hence the Transmission Gully PPP, where there is no risk at all to the private sector. All they need to do is make the road available, and the NZTA will fork over a guaranteed annual payment. The outcome will be hundreds of millions more needlessly paid for a project that shouldn’t be going ahead anyway by any objective analysis. Ridiculous.

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