Light rail heads up 12/6/19 – TRAX this Friday; Green launch; what's wrong with the sham tram?; correspondence; electric bus links
  Brent Efford

Greetings to the Wellington light rail email list.

(Seeing this heads-up for the first time? Probably because of contact we made re light rail, urbanism, Lets Get Wellington Moving, etc – but email me back if you don’t want to get any more.)

Welcome, particularly, to new Green Party council candidates and news media representatives.

These newsletters appear personally from me, Brent Efford, in my role as the NZ Agent for the Light Rail Transit Association (LRTA), just as BCC emails and attachments sent from my computer. No hate-spreading Facebook or other so-called ’social’ media involved! The amount of content depends on the time I have for research and writing, which is why this one is the first for several weeks.

Black and red type is my composition, green is copied.

What is the LRTA?: SEE 6 BELOW!

1 Events this week:

(a) Our regular lunch get-togethers, on the 2nd and 4th Friday of the month, at TRAX, Wellington Railway Station, 12.00. Our next TRAX lunch is this Friday, 14 June.

(b) Attention, light rail supporters: the Green Party is sticking with its traditional support for regional light rail. The Party’s local body election campaign launches tomorrow, Thursday 13 June, at 5.30 pm at the Sustainability Trust, Forresters Lane (off Tory St, opposite Bunnings). All welcome!

2 What’s wrong with LGWM’s “mass transit”?
After three years of consultations, drafts, discussions and many delays, the “outcome” of the Lets Get Wellington Moving has been announced – to general puzzlement at its lack of detail after so much work, the long timeframe and most of all its complete lack of an answer to the most egregious cause of Wellington CBD traffic congestion: car commuting into the city along State Highways 1 and 2.

Meanwhile, 'more roads' is all that is happening north of the CBD, with Transmission Gully opening next year and certain to add to the car commuting burden. (The Dominion Post had a good op-ed on the futility of this approach . Nevertheless, the DP refuses to acknowledge the necessity for a complete regional rail system that its predecessor said in 1993 “deserves to go to the top of the transport agenda”.)

Many of us had expected better. Only days before, Lindsay Shelton of Wellington Scoop emailed me:

You would have been proud if you'd heard Justin talking about light rail last night at the AGM of Inner City Wellington. It sounded as if you had provided his speech notes ... Bad that rail stops at the northern edge of the CBD, need for it to continue through etc etc. I wonder if this means he knows something about the LGWM report???

It seemed that the current Mayor of Wellington had grasped the essentiality of a continuous rail spine – something his predecessor, despite all my coaching, failed to!

But no; Justin is transfixed by a sham tram (the description ‘trackless tram’ being an oxymoron; it’s the track wot makes it a tram!), really just a guided bus of which there are many diverse proprietary examples which have all failed to displace open-source rail. And a bus, of course, will not integrate with the railway.

The outcome is that Wellington's could soon be the only urban rail system in the world which does not penetrate its CBD – which means that there is no incentive for a big switch away from extensive car commuting and hence no way that LGWM will achieve the decongestion aims implied in its very title. In a hurry, I issued this press statement, which has been picked up by some media:

The Lets Get Wellington Moving proposals for “mass transit” – which may or may not mean light rail – are “unbelievably stupid”, according to Brent Efford, the NZ agent for the UK-based Light Rail Transit Association. "The study has clearly taken no notice of expert advice and has failed to learn from international experience."

“While the report says good things about moving more people with fewer vehicles, the approach suggested in the Recommended Programme of Investment will not make that happen. Experience overseas of integrating regional heavy rail and local light rail routes suggests at least a doubling of overall rail patronage would happen if that obvious, and more economical, approach was taken ”

“Wellington” is not just a small city of 100,000 served by buses south of Thorndon but a metropolis of nearly half a million, 75% of whom live in an area served by a rail transit spine operated very much like light rail already. However, that rail transit spine stops at the edge of the CBD where 77% of the region’s economic activity happens. That circumstance incentivises the mass car commuting by the 75% which is the cause of most of the traffic congestion.

Wellington is one of the very few regions to have a rail transit system so crippled. As in Auckland, any big infrastructure investment must facilitate regional rail penetration of the CBD. Light rail (to the ambient railway gauge, of course) can do that; glorified buses, or any other incompatible technology, obviously will not.

Moreover, a waterfront route away from the Golden Mile – the region’s main street – instead going via Taranaki St not Courtenay Place, and a winding indirect route to the Airport via Miramar and mixed up with SH1 will cost more and be too slow to be an attractive alternative to driving.

"But the worst aspect of the whole plan is the failure to have an integrated high-capacity regional rail transit system penetrating the CBD, like every other rail-equipped city in the world either already has or, like Auckland, is striving towards", Mr Efford concluded.

Which elicited this interesting response from local transport consultant Don Wignall visiting Norway:

I read your press release just now in Oslo (population 700,000) where I am visiting at present – and can confirm there is much the Norwegian capital could teach NZ cities about how to sort transport problems- here PT has been growing at 6% p.a. and cars are now a minority mode – I recommend a site visit here for anyone involved in planning urban transport systems. In case you are not familiar – they have 6 tram lines, 5 metro lines (with two proposed) 8 rail lines plus express long distance trains – 1,200 buses, congestion charging ad road pricing, pedestrian priority and cycling/slow electric mode priority in all living areas / centres and are due to have a fully sustainable /renewable energy PT fleet by 2028.

Also I have not yet seen any proposals here to expand road capacity into and through the centre to encourage traffic growth – maybe they should rethink their strategy in keeping with LGWM principles?


3 Sham tram not a rail alternative

Featured in the Lets Get Wellington Moving report – and evidence of its naivety and lack of vision – is the casting of ‘mass transit’ as somehow including ’trackless tram’ as a feasible technology. This continues the infatuation with this allegedly ‘revolutionary new transport mode’ from China which has recently been espoused with evangelical fervour by former light rail enthusiast Prof Peter Newman of Curtin University, Perth.

In reality, just another guided bus system (because it doesn’t run on rails: traam being the original Scandinavian term for rail, hence tramway>tramcar>tram – so 'trackless tram' is really an oxymoron) trying to appropriate the charisma of a railed transit system.

We have had plenty of these transit false promises over the years in Wellington. Think monorails. Think Parry Peoplemover. Think Wrightspeed – the gas turbine/battery system that would replace the trolleybuses AND diesels – or so we were promised. Even the 2013 PT Spine Study illusion of ‘bus rapid transit’ which was dumbed down to become the bustastrophe we know so well.

Overseas there have been a few guided bus systems – the Civis optical system tried very briefly in Las Vegas, the TVR system in Caen, France, which proved so unreliable that it is being ripped out and replaced with a regular tramway (which will open next month), the same system in Nancy, France which is also to be ripped up and replaced with a proper tramway, and other experimental, proprietary, systems.

Even the O-Bahn mechanical guidance system used notably on one route in Adelaide (O-Bahn Busway - <wikipedia>) since 1986, and urged by Wellington anti-rail forces (certain politicians and the bus industry) to replace trains on the Johnsonville Line in 2006, has failed to take over the transit world. Instead, including in Adelaide, where the tramway continues to expand (depending on the political complexion of the state government), light rail in various forms, including local streetcars and tram-train, continues to be the fastest-growing public transport mode worldwide.

The sham tram is claimed to be the next big thing because it is electrically powered, is planned to be autonomous (though currently, in its experimental phase, is still manually driven) and is a bit longer than most articulated buses. And the body styling is meant to be as modern tram-like as possible – another try at tram-charisma-capture. Trams/light rail vehicles have these attributes already – automatic operation being commonplace in a lot of rail systems and easily extended to the street environment using new AV technology.

The big advantage of the CRRC 'trackless tram’ is claimed to be its ability to use existing roads – no expensive and disruptive excavations and tracklaying necessary, only a painted dotted line. Wellingtonians remembering the huge Manners Mall conversion to a 1-block busway, involving heavier work foundation than has been necessary for the tram tracks in Christchurch, have every reason to be sceptical about that pivotal point.

In reality, buses are very hard on pavements and particularly so when the rubber tires run in exactly the same place each time when a guidance system is used. You have a choice between either a pavement foundation heavier than a tram’s, or frequent and disruptive rebuilds, as has happened with O-Bahn lines. Capex vs opex.

The uncertain and experimental nature of the sham tram, not proven in daily commercial service in a comparable city, and the proprietary nature of the system – you can’t easily switch to another vehicle supplier – are also important risks. The strategic risks of being even more dependent on China for technology, vs ‘open source’ light rail available from a host of manufacturers in many countries, might not worry the Mayor but it should concern central government.

See item 4 below for further comment on the sham tram concept.

However, I agree that if it proves itself outside of a Chinese test environment, becomes more open source and despite the inevitable hidden costs, the ’trackless tram’ could have a future in Wellington in one application: the cross-town Karori – Seatoun #2 service where no need to connect to an existing rail infrastructure exists.

But, ‘it’s real on steel’: for the main corridor from the multiple cities of the region to the Airport, anything other than light rail to complete the PT spine that is already 92% rail-based is completely invalid.

4 Correspondence
Dom Post 23/5/19:

Ghost trams

A recent letter, (Railing against logic, May 20) claims many advantages over light rail for tram buses, without mentioning that the latter are only a concept that doesn’t actually exist.

There are guided buses, as in Adelaide and Cambridge, England, which need enormous amounts of concrete for their tracks, and various rubber-tyred trams, most not very successful. Non-contact guided systems, as seem to be intended, have only operated for slow speeds in limited locations, such as sharing stops with regular trams.

The letter introduces more incompatibilities, expecting long highcapacity vehicles to able to ‘‘meander through suburbs to reduce the need for hubs’’, and an apparent need to climb hills that were handled without problems by earlier Wellington trams.

Many cities have introduced or expanded light rail with partially dedicated routes and traffic-light priority to provide high-capacity corridors with reliable transit times. Efforts to do it on the cheap with completely untried new technology are asking to compound the current Bustastrophe.

Tony Hurst, Wilton

It is disappointing that those who know nothing about mass rapid transit have jumped on the trackless tram bandwagon.

Stuart Reid (Letters, May 20) appears not to have the slightest knowledge of light rail, despite claiming an engineering background.

Light rail tracks are laid so that their tops are absolutely level with the road surface, allowing all other vehicles to safely share the same surface..

Rails spread the load, so for the same axle load, trackless trams put the roads under greater strain, resulting in higher cost. Reid’s non-solution of bringing the road up to standard in stages will cause multiple disruption and added cost.

Light rail can tackle 6 per cent gradients easily – enough to handle the main corridors. Steeper roads are not the place for any rapid transit mode.

Far from being based on fanaticism, the concerns of light-rail experts are based on experience and profound knowledge of the pitfalls of these pseudotrams – and there are many.

The most important consideration is that nothing but light rail laid to 1067-millimetre gauge can ever link seamlessly with the existing suburban rail system, and that must surely be the ultimate aim.

Demetrius Christoforou, Mt Victoria

Sham tram scam

Hooray for Richard Young (31/5/19) doing the research and shining a light on the fake tram scam which has distracted our more gullible politicians and transport planners. It reminds me of the city council’s brief "Parry Peoplemover” infatuation in 1995, which stopped preparations for a proper downtown heritage tramway – a feature which has benefited Christchurch so much – dead in its almost-laid tracks. That, in turn, stopped progress towards regional light rail.

(Oxymoron alert: there can be no such thing as a "trackless tram" – “tram" necessarily means running on rails.)

But Richard derails somewhat with a plea for a locally-developed "Welly Bendy bus". It, too, would serve only a small part – about 8% by length – of the (mainly rail) regional public transport corridor and thus do nothing to ameliorate regional car commuting.

What is really needed is a light rail link offering a seamless direct through service, tram-train style, for the whole region to attract commuters off the motorways. Earlier local studies, and experience of urban rail everywhere else, confirm that is the only way to double public transport use and really get Wellington moving.

Brent Efford
NZ Agent, Light Rail Transit Assn

Victorian tram-train plan

Richard Seddon may have been prime minister when a cycleway to Lower Hutt was first proposed (DP 24 May) but Sir George Grey was Premier when the Press reported:
“The Government have sent home for one of Rowan’s patent tramway engines and two passenger cars with a view of making frequent passenger runs to the Lower Hutt … It is probable arrangements will be made with the Tramway Company to run their cars direct from Newton to the Lower Hutt … It is thought that if such arrangement can be made there will be no necessity for a central railway station.” (Press, 28/1/1878)
Trams were imported to run this Victorian tram-train venture, but due to the limitations of steam traction in the street the venture failed and the vehicles went to Dunedin.
No such limitations exist in the electrified 21st century, and light rail, including mixing with heavy rail (tram-train), is expanding around the world.
The cycleway is a great project but it won’t attract enough car commuters to make a difference to downtown congestion. Only ‘direct through service’ on rail will do that, something Lets Get Wellington Moving has ignored.

Brent Efford
NZ Agent, Light Rail Transit Assn

Car alternatives necessary

It is all very well to ‘Rage against the machine’ (3 June) and hope for the development of a car-free CBD but we must have the appropriate infrastructure.

Whether congestion charging, widespread pedestrianisation or a a big reduction in lanes and car parking is envisaged, one thing is obvious: for that to be feasible there must be an alternative of a continuous, invariably rail, mass transit system running from the distant suburbs and THROUGH the CBD. For Wellington, that means from Kapiti/Porirua and the Hutt Valley – where most of the commuting population lives – as well as inner suburbs like Kilbirnie and Miramar.

"Rail penetration of the CBD" was once widely agreed as a necessary objective for Wellington light rail, and is universal overseas. That is something that the Mayor with his new "sham tram" enthusiasm, Lets Get Wellington Moving and the Dominion Post all seem to have forgotten.

Car expert Clive Matthew-Wilson is quite right to conclude “… it’s up to the authorities to seduce people out of their cars, not to bludgeon them out.” How on earth that will happen when there is no direct rail service through the car-free area is never addressed.

Brent Efford
NZ Agent, Light Rail Transit Assn

Light rail to recharge retailing:

CBD retailer woes due to inadequate access to the Golden Mile (Golden Mile feels parking, bus hit – 5 June) is nothing new.

Solutions proposing light rail on the rail network and extended down the Golden Mile – delivering potentially half a million customers to the shop door by the most efficient mechanised transport there is – have been around for many decades.

In 1993 the Evening Post greeted one such Regional Council/NZ Rail proposal, editorialising that it would “... create exciting possibilities for recharging retailing and ending commuter agonies. … There would be a very real possibility that city retailers, bruised by retail centre expansions in Lower Hutt and the northern suburbs, would see the return of the shoppers’ dollar. … .” (23/11/1993)

That plan and similar proposals since were crushed by the planning priority given to motorways, and Wellington is now almost the only city in the world which fails to run its regional rail transit system through the CBD. Lets Get Wellington Moving, and the Mayor with his sham tram enthusiasm, seem to have decided that our unique infrastructure deficit and its associated "commuter agonies" are quite OK – permanently.

Brent Efford
NZ Agent, Light Rail Transit Assn
(Whoop de do – this one actually got in!)

5 Electric bus links

Wellington’s trolleybus system is fading into distant memory (if you want to revive the memories, or get the latest bus news, email Alan Wickens wickens@...) to subscribe to his impressive and comprehensive Under the Wires e-newsletter) and progress on introducing new battery-electric buses and achieving the essential 100% electric target is painfully slow. Even though the trial handful now in service are apparently operating very well.

Two more links to transit industry sources as electric buses become mainstream:
TTC's first electric bus makes its service debut
Reports outline barriers, enabling factors to electric bus adoption

6 What is the LRTA?

The Light Rail Transit Association was formed in the UK in 1937 and … “ is the world’s leading organisation concerned with the achievement of better public transport through light rail, tramway and metro systems in towns and cities world–wide.” (
The Association is a partnership between civil society advocates (such as myself) and professionals within the public transport industry.

The main activities of the LRTA are:

· Information provision and advocacy

· Publication of the monthly light rail industry journal Tramways and Urban Transport; T&UT is available online, by subscription online (via the above website), and also retail in some magazine outlets like Magnetix in Wellington.

· Sponsorship of major UK light rail industry events such as the annual Light Rail Awards and a separate annual industry conference.

Although remaining UK-based, the LRTA has a world-wide reach, including agents in a number of countries. One of its most notable achievements was the provision of information about modern tramways which informed and led to the establishment of light rail in San Diego, opening in 1981 – the first new-generation LRT system in the United States and the progenitor of several dozen new systems now operating there.

Nga mihi,

Brent Efford
NZ Agent, Light Rail Transit Assn