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Welcome to WELL-TRACK

I am a long-time community advocate for improved public transport in Wellington, New Zealand, and I represent public transport users in the planning of transport facilities in the Wellington Region. This website covers my WELL-TRACK transit study tour to North America which took place in October and November 2003 and the reports which relate the findings from the tour to the New Zealand, and specifically Wellington, public transport environment.

Brent Efford

Winston Churchill Fellow 2003 (WELL-TRACK US Transit Study Tour)

What is WELL-TRACK?

Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, has a high level of public transport usage. The spine of the public transport system is a four-line electric suburban rail system, with additional services provided by electric trolleybuses, diesel commuter trains and an extensive system of diesel feeder bus services. After 40 years of relatively little investment, the rail system is on the threshold of a renaissance, with a wish list of new trains, new trolleybuses, reorganised bus services and (I hope) the introduction of light rail to provide critical service extensions.

To obtain detailed information to help plan the pending upgrade, I visited a sample of North American transit operations during October and November 2003. The reporting of this tour with the findings applied to Wellington will take well into 2004 to complete. Interim reports and papers will be posted to this website ... watch this space! In the meantime, here are my ...

First impressions and initial conclusions

1 Thank you, everyone!

I knew when starting out that Americans (and Canadians) are hospitable people, but I was still quite unprepared for and overwhelmed by the level of support, assistance, interest, hospitality and genuine friendship I enjoyed from a cross section of community-based transit and sustainability advocates, transit industry executives, city planners and consultants throughout my tour. It was quite overwhelming and very much appreciated. I have made many new friends and met old ones. I look forward to keeping in touch.

2 Congestion is our friend

Nobody I met in North America believed, and nowhere in the mountain of reports I bought back is it suggested, that traffic congestion as a regular feature of urban areas could be 'beaten' or 'fixed', as is usually the given reason for transport investment in New Zealand.

The inefficiency of the auto's use of street space means that 'free flowing traffic' is impossible when cars are used for mass commuting. Because 'ease of use creates use', new road space inevitably fills up with new traffic - which also congests old road space. This also applies when motorists are attracted to public transport - the road space they vacate is often filled up with auto trips that would not otherwise be made.

The idea that 'congestion is our friend' was often expressed in the US. Not only does congestion discourage more unnecessary driving, it also makes sustainable development such as inner-city revitalisation, cycling, walking and quality transit choices more attractive. The value of rail transit development is not that it will 'cure' congestion but that it creates choice and an opportunity to bypass the gridlock for those that choose to use it, and that it delivers many more people to the CBD and high-density locations than freeways and autos could ever accomplish. Which is why freeway sprawl is the agent of downtown decay (the 'donut effect') and light rail is associated with inner-city revitalisation.

In most cities I visited (and in many others), central city freeway development had ceased long ago, often as a result of public revulsion, and there were several examples where freeways had been abandoned and even dismantled. Densification and a return of residents to inner city areas was a strong trend in all cities visited, as it is in Wellington.

3 Wellington is doing OK ...

... in some respects! The current Wellington urban rail system is like an 'average' US system, i.e.:

- four electrified routes, mainly double track

- 35,000 passengers/day

- 60 mph (100 kmh) top schedule speed

- longest routes 48 & 32 km (30 & 20 miles)

- six diesel commuter rail services/day on 2 longer routes.

Unlike most US systems, Wellington has a high farebox recovery rate (70%) - mainly because of high peak-time usage (50% of journeys to the Wellington CBD are by bus and train), a high proportion of travel demand being to one regional centre (the Wellington CBD) and relatively high fare levels.

4 Where Wellington falls short

Despite having a good base for development (about 70% of what is ultimately needed for a 'perfect' system), Wellington has suffered a virtual freeze on public transport development for 40 years and is lagging in many critical areas. The New Zealand Transport Strategy, the Land Transport Management Act, passed on November 13th, the NZ Government retrieving ownership of the national rail track network and regional government initiatives have created the potential for a rail transit renaissance. However, the city governments in the Wellington Region are not yet fully 'on board' with the new paradigm.

The areas where Wellington currently lags most are:

- promotion and marketing of transit. There has been a tendency to treat public transport like the sewers - a necessary public utility, but not exactly the subject of vigorous promotion. The promotion of transit in the cities I visited was much more up-front than in Wellington, not so much through media advertising as through station design and art, high quality passenger information systems, transit orientated development, displays about new lines and projects and the efforts made to keep the environs clean and graffiti-free.

- rail system development. In all the cities I visited major rail (mainly light rail) investments had been made within the last 10 years and all the existing light rail systems had new lines in final design or under construction. (In Wellington, the last track improvement was completed in 1960; the short electrification extension to Paraparaumu (in 1983) and a small number of replacement station buildings and parking lots are the only significant infrastructure improvements since.)

- downtown access. All the US light rail systems visited were built to ensure rail access through the CBD core - generally it was the street compatibility of light rail that caused it, rather than heavy rail, to be selected as the mode. Traffic calming, or outright auto exclusion where alternative access is available, ensures that the passage of light rail vehicles is not impeded by congestion.

In Wellington the rail system stops at the edge of the Wellington central business district, and the enforced transfer to (unco-ordinated) buses, or walking, has been acknowledged as a barrier to transit use since, at least, 1963 (when the US consultancy De Leuw Cather & Co proposed a now-unaffordable subway).

- fare integration, ticketing and passenger information systems. In the US, proof of payment, platform ticket machines, flat fares and effective in-vehicle and platform passenger information systems are the norm. In Wellington such systems have yet to make their appearance. Progress has been made with rationalising fares on a regional basis, but ticket issuing and fare collection systems have changed little since the days of the trams.

- station design and maintenance Generally the US systems do integration of rail with bus, cycling, parking and the surrounding communities well. Most of the Wellington area commuter stations are standardised survivors of the original Government Railways Department with little design integration with the communities they serve.

I was impressed with the efforts made by all the systems I visited to ensure that graffiti and other vandalism was eliminated as soon as it appears, contributing significantly to a safe and unthreatening environment for passengers. This is part of the 'broken windows' philosophy of targeting petty crime, which appears to be paying off. In Wellington there is no such programme; graffiti and other vandalism is widespread.

- transit orientated development. In the cities I visited, the promotion of transit-orientated development was a deliberate policy of the city administration and the transit operators were often the promoters of TOD programmes. I encountered many examples of new transit villages and mixed-use property developments around rail stations. TOD has many positive spin-offs, including: providing high-density concentrations of residents likely to use the trains rather than autos for daily transport; providing commercial facilities likely to attract extra customers to the rail system; creating sources of finance for building or enhancing stations (or even the rail lines themselves); combatting urban sprawl; and creating high-value uses for marginal or abandoned industrial land.

Historically, Wellington has many examples of land use and rail transit being developed together, but the trend ceased in the 1950s (with the singular exception of the regional stadium, opened in the rail yards in 2000). Many profitable opportunities for TOD emulating American practice exist in the Wellington Region, but property developers and local government alike have to be made aware of the potential.

5 Survival of the trolleybus

The WELL-TRACK tour included the three largest trolley bus systems in the English-speaking world. The San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver systems are renewing their vehicles and have recently made route extensions (and, in San Francisco's case, are planning several more).

All three cities have concluded that, when the overhead wire infrastructure exists, a renewal of the trolleybus fleet is a more sensible option for ensuring electric transport, compared with waiting for fuel cell or hybrid technologies to mature.

Wellington also has a trolleybus system - now the only system remaining in the left-hand-rule world. Wellington's trolleybus owner, Stagecoach, is evaluating options for a similar fleet renewal (though I found when I returned that the local engineering development work which promised to provide a technically superior vehicle had been cancelled!)

6 The streetcar returns

A feature of many US cities is the return of the streetcar - or tram in NZ usage - as a downtown circulator. Streetcars/trams are essentially light rail vehicles but operate at low speeds, as single units and are largely street-based in mixed traffic and serve only downtown areas. Streetcars can be either restored 'heritage' vehicles of old design (e.g. Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle), replicas of old designs but subtly incorporating modern electrical equipment (e.g. New Orleans, San Pedro) or ultra-modern new designs (e.g. Portland, Tacoma). In some cases, heritage equipment is also used on the downtown portions of light rail systems (e.g. Sacramento, San Jose, Portland).

In New Zealand, a heritage tramway has operated in Christchurch since 1995. In Wellington, a heritage tramway was planned as part of the waterfront redevelopment in 1993, and some construction of track foundation was done in 1995. The idea 'died' with the turnover of City Council and waterfront company personnel. Renewed potential for streetcars in Wellington exists with the the regional stadium and proposals for a massive 50-year 'Gateway' redevelopment of the port area.

Want to know more?

  • For more details about WELL-TRACK, and about me, please click here
  • For my completed tour itinerary, please click here
  • For the current detailed list of topics and issues covered by WELL-TRACK, please click here
  • If you are considering assisting as a sponsor of WELL-TRACK, and want to know what it could mean for you, please click here
  • If you have questions about WELL-TRACK, someone may have asked them before. Click here to find out.
  • And finally ... if you want to ask a question, or just want to make contact, click here to email me.
  • Please note: the above links are to old pages, or may not work at all. This page is the only one to be updated following my tour; the site will be updated with new material and post-tour reports in early 2004.

Brent Efford

Contact details:
Postal: PO Box 2626, Wellington 6015, New Zealand
Home: 1 Boston Tce, Aro Valley, Wellington
Email: brent.efford@techmedia.co.nz
Phone: (+64 4) 801 9331
Mobile: (+64) 025 801 9331 
Fax: (+64 4) 801 9344