In my last post, I expressed concerns with the light-rail proposal as detailed in the Ngauranga-to-Airport (N2A) strategic study. Implicit in my statement at the end of the post that “I have a hard time getting behind this light rail proposal at this point in time” is the fact that a different time or a different proposal could indeed change my mind.

As for better proposals (or lack thereof), the N2A technical report effectively takes them off the table when it notes (on page 16) the following:

A high quality passenger transport connection between the Johnsonville growth node and the CBD has been investigated in a separate study [The North-Wellington Public Transport Study]. A range of options were investigated including retaining heavy rail, replacing heavy rail with a light rail system, replacing the railway with a guided bus system and using buses on existing road network. Part way through this separate study, Council decided that the existing heavy rail network would remain. Consequently, we have assumed that the high quality passenger transport service connecting the CBD and the Johnsonville growth node will be heavy rail.

Given this, my initial inclination was to ignore these and similar options in my analysis of the N2A report. Shortly after posting, however, I was referred to the Transport 2000+ initiative, which rightly notes in their own submission on the N2A study the absurdity of a study labeling itself as “strategic” refusing to lay out a broad strategy due to the current political reality.

While I can imagine Machiavellian maneuverings and political pressures that would lead to this outcome, I believe I am largely immune to these threats. Hence, this post, which was originally intended to discuss options within the framework laid out by the report, will instead focus specifically on options that were explicitly placed outside of that framework. I will, though, be watching my back.

The crux of the Transit 2000+ (T2k) proposal, as was the crux of my previous post, is the topic of transfers. While I argued against the introduction of more transfers into Wellington’s transit system, T2k more proactively argues to largely eliminate an existing transfer: that at the railway station.

Their proposal does not entirely eliminate the need for these transfers, but it does so for many riders, particularly,for shorter-distance rail riders for whom the overhead of a transfer would constitute a larger percentage of their trip time (and therefore a greater barrier to ridership).

The proposal comprises the following: run light rail south from the railway station, eventually to the airport; but also extend the light rail to the north along existing rail infrastructure. In other words, cover the core of the Wellington region with a single, integrated light-rail network. Beauteous!

Importantly, the T2k proposal revealed new possibilities to me by noting that it’s possible to run light rail and heavy rail together on the same tracks. Previously I’d thought that the only Johnsonville could be reached by light rail, by replacing the existing heavy rail line. The ability to run light rail to Lower Hutt and Porirua lets many more people get to the heart of the CBD without requiring a transfer, and opens up possibilities of future light rail corridors into the hearts of those cities, with direct connections to central Wellington. (The T2k study elegantly proposes to maintain existing heavy-rail transit for further suburbs such as Upper Hutt and Paraparaumu, at distances for which heavy rail is more appropriate, and floats the idea of these trains running ‘express’ through the areas served by light rail, providing further benefits to riders.)

What does this proposal do to the ridership numbers south of the railway station, which concerned me so in my previous post? I don’t have any hard numbers, but I can’t help but imagine that it increases demand in the CBD significantly, with large numbers of people who currently terminate their trip at the railway station continuing onto Lambton Quay or Willis Street. While this effect would likely have minimal impact on ridership south of, say Courtenay Place, other factors come into play there. Firstly, a better-integrated transit system is more likely to attract new riders, increasing ridership in general. Secondly, viewing the Courtenay Place-to-Newtown (or -to-Airport) segment as a portion of much-longer routes changes the calculus significantly: the overhead of running the line is amortized over a longer route, and lesser-travelled sections on the ends can be better justified, as it doesn’t cost that much more to run the trains a bit further.

And as for the forced transfers to light rail at Newtown, et cetera, that were naughty in mine eyes before? In the worst case, I see the negatives of these transfers as being outweighed by the positives created elsewhere. Possibly, though, the improved economics behind the rail line make it more feasible to continue running a subset of the current buses into the CBD in conjunction with rail. Again, I don’t have numbers, but I feel it’s worth further study.

And what’s this talk about rail to the airport, mentioned above? The T2k proposal suggests implementing their light rail solution in three phases:

  1. Johnsonville—Courtenay Place
  2. Lower Hutt—Hospital
  3. Plimmerton—Airport

This phased approach makes a lot of sense, with each phase extending further south and adding a new route in the north. However, the N2A report predicts a vanishingly-small ridership on a rail line from the airport, and therefore only really considers implementing light rail as far south as Newtown. Their analysis, though, seems to only address existing transit riders who would choose to switch modes to light rail at the airport. Sitting in traffic waiting to get through the Mt. Vic tunnel the other morning after shuttling visitors off to the airport, I couldn’t help but imagine that a well-implemented light-rail transit node east of the tunnel (with, dare I suggest, park-and-ride facilities) would attract a good number of CBD-bound commuters who’d rather not deal with the hassle of driving every day.

That topic—along with the rest of the eastern-suburbs transport situation—is fodder for a future post. But first, look for some specifics on the nature of the central transit corridor proposed by the N2A study.

As for this post, what have I accomplished? Well, I’ve appropriated the light-rail vision of Transit 2000+ wholesale. But that’s because it’s a good one, and those folks have been thinking about it much longer and harder than I have; I couldn’t hope to compete. Plus, while the group is still active, their website appears moribund, and I couldn’t find their detailed proposal on the web (my source material was forwarded to me by a helpful reader). It definitely deserves to be publicized more widely.

This is the second post in a series on the Ngauranga-to-Airport corridor strategic transport study report, comments on which are due February 22, 2008.