SuperLink – Transport 2000

We’ve recently been given a copy of the SuperLink proposal by Transport 2000, which was a well thought-out proposal for Light Rail transport in Wellington. All rights are reserved to the original authors : Daryl Cockburn, Brent Efford, & Kerry Wood for Transport 2000, and the Inter-Professional Group. We are very grateful for the chance to publish this scheme again, and get some more publicity for the Light Rail concept.

As can be guessed from the title, the SuperLink proposal was proposed well before the year 2000, and interestingly, was sponsored by some big and influential backers:
Dominion Breweries (makers of just DB back then, now also Tui, Monteiths, Heineken etc), Big Red (the Wellington Bus company at the time), Cityrail (the forerunner to TranzMetro), James Smiths (a former department store in Wellington, of which just their name remains on a corner), the Todd Corporation (who used to have one of New Zealand’s biggest car assembly plants), Inprint NZ, and Shortland Properties. Of those backers, only DB remains essentially intact – but their sponsorship lives on.

But let’s discuss the Superlinkplan. The concept was for LRV (Light Rail Vehicles) to run through the Wellington CBD, not just from the Wellington Railway Station through to the Airport, but also on the Johnsonville line up through Khandallah, and with a cunningly designed side branch up Aro Valley and linking through to Karori. The network is simple, logical, and quite achievable. Brent Efford and Daryl Cockburn in particular have been pushing it for years. The conversion of the Johnsonville Line to Light Rail is the easiest part – the tracks are already there, and the route already well utilised. The other two routes – both the Aro-Valley route and the Airport Route used to exist up until about 50 years ago, in the form of Wellington’s well-used and extensive passenger tram service, and so would be, in effect, quite simple to reinstate. It is all a question of political will.

The brochure discussed poses questions and answers such as:
Why is Superlink preferable to buses in the CBD?
Buses are unpopular, slow, and inefficient on main hauls. They also create traffic congestion at peak times. Superlink replaces over 100 rush hour buses with 16 electric “stretched streetcars”, each one capable of carrying nine times the passengers of a single bus, with a rush hour frequency every 3.75 minutes, which will halve travel time through the Central Business District.

What effect will Superlink have on existing streets and other traffic?
Superlink tracks are set into the road surface so other vehicles will be unaffected. A simple adjustment of traffic signals to give Superlink streetcars priority at intersections, coupled with the absence of lumbering buses, will mean that Superlink will actually enhance peak hour traffic flows for all road users.

What will Superlink cost?
Because Superlink uses existing streets to carry its tracks, it is significantly cheaper and quicker to build than motorways and heavy rail options. The modification of the Johnsonville Line and its extension into Courtenay Place will cost about $100m. Later extensions to the Airport and Karori will cost $150m.

How established and proven is the technology behind Superlink?
There are already more than 350 LRV systems worldwide, including more than 25 built in the last 10 years.

There are many more questions, and answers, but the main thing to take from this discussion is: surely the time to start planning this is now?


9 responses to “SuperLink – Transport 2000”

  1. Good stuff. But, how to sell it in the face of cost/benefit arguments when a transport infrastructure already exists (road networks – cars/buses), and how to be sure that the punters who pay for it (through rates/taxes) won’t stay in their cars for the extra flexibility that they have come to enjoy…?

    Perhaps this is just 50 years too late to reverse an ingrained car culture…? I hope not…

  2. The “punters who pay for it”, as you so beautifully put it, do not necessarily have to pay a single cent more taxes than they are paying now for other proposed projects. There is a project called the Transmission Gully proposed link, that will cost upwards of 1 billion $ which is proposed to be funded by central government and local government. No extra taxes are currently proposed for that, although a toll road payment may be set up.

    The cost of the LRV scheme shown here is unknown in today’s money, but would be significantly less than that. A 2008 report for the Ngauranga to Airport study noted that a LRV system could be installed for approx $140million, to reach from the Railway to the Airport.

    The users of the LRV system would be both the existing bus customers, as well as new customers who would find that the Superlink would be faster and cheaper than their car (ie no parking costs in town). The present system of buses and trolley buses works – I won’t say it works well, as it is crowded and at bursting point at rush hour. By contrast, the Superlink / LRV system is capable of taking more passengers, faster and smoother than by car or bus, with a lot less congestion in the traffic routes. Buses users in other suburbs would be able to transfer onto the LRV system to get through the CBD.

  3. While I agre that a LRV system is a great idea and would be of great benefit to Wellington I disagree with the idea that one day we will be car free. People will never give up cars. It’s like trying to convince married couples to move in back with their parents so that we can be more efficient with our housing allocations. It’s just not going to happen.

    Just telling people that it’s good for the environment or that we’re running out of oil is boring and old news. Most people care only on a very superficial level. A survey from the time when petrol prices began to rise dramatically told us that people of this country would drive their cars to work even if petrol was to cost $5 per liter!

    Therefore we need to think of ways of making other means of transportation an exciting and tempting alternative to using the car for the general case—commuting. We need to appeal to the fundamental flaws of the human nature: greed, sloth, selfishness and vanity.

    To be successful and have a good support and uptake, a system like the LRV needs to convince people that there is something in it for them. That it will make their lives easier. That it will save them money. That it will make them look good in front of Auckland and the great cities of the world.


  4. Guy – I agree entirely with your first two paragraphs – you are preaching to the converted in that sense. Where I think the problem will be, as tomek suggests, is in converting the unconverted, many of whom will be put off by mode interchanges for example…

    Quite frankly, I am appalled by the Transmission Gully proposal and decision, and would love to see the money diverted to LRV, but realistically, I doubt whether it would bring about the huge culture change that is necessary. A PT network already exists, yet we still congest our roads at each peak commute with, quite often, single occupant vehicles. I’m not convinced this would change with LRV.

    The problem with these sorts of visions is the utopianism pervading them, which completely ignores reality (a problem with much left-think. The left’s greatest sin is believing that everyone thinks like they do, and that their proposed solution would therefore have guaranteed success. It is hubris almost guaranteed to fail). That doesn’t mean we should stop thinking these things, but if we want to get really serious about it making any sort of progress, we need to somehow engage with contemporary culture (not just an idealised future culture).

    How we do this is the million dollar question…

  5. While Tomek and M-D raise good points, we am not advocating that, or expecting that, the world will completely do away with cars, certainly not in the short term, but nor in the long term either.

    So: we all agree that cars are likely to stay around. People will continue to use cars as long as they offer advantages over other means of transport – including walking, cycling, motorbikes, bus, train, and LRV. The advantages will include the obvious such as personal space, speed, cost, parking, ownership, etc. But if these advantages become disadvantages, then mode of transport will change. For instance, if cost of oil / petrol becomes too high, people start to stop taking their car to work. Just a 25% increase in petrol price a couple of years ago saw quite a large shift to rail / bus in the short term (something like another 1% of the Wellington population – can’t recall the actual figures).

    Another possibility – if there are too many cars, on too few roads, with too few carparks, then people will mode shift – as long as the alternative is better.

    So – advantages of an LRV system may be that if they have their own tracks, separate from car traffic, they will be faster. If they are priced cheaper than cars, they will be more economical to use. They don’t require parking buildings, so there is a saving there. For casual users of cars, with a parking cost of $5-10 per day, that’s $25 – $50 per week, without even considering petrol prices and depreciation of the car.

    Similar sized cities overseas are installing LRV systems now – it is quite a growing phenomenon. Our city size is small in terms of population, but it will be larger over time. My personal belief is that an LRV system – or a dedicated busway – will become a requirement at some stage in the future, and so we should start to plan for it now.

  6. “For casual users of cars, with a parking cost of $5-10 per day, that’s $25 – $50 per week, without even considering petrol prices and depreciation of the car.”

    The advantages are, of course, well known and laudable, but the flaw here is that you are not targeting casual users with LRV (it would be unsustainable). It is the commuters (most of whom have free parking close to their place of work), that we need to persuade. The calculations are a little more complex…

    The other factor that will make selling this difficult is the fact that PT operating costs are almost always subsidised by those who might not choose to use it. While we might think this would encourage greater uptake of its use, it of course doesn’t – instead contributing to a resentment that makes it difficult to secure necessary public funding.

    We have to start engaging with these ‘cultural’ issues or else all of our beautiful visions will remain just that…

  7. Absolutely – I’m not an expert on these systems, but there are plenty of people with overseas experience that are – and from what I can gather, there is large public uptake, even in car-owning cultures like America, where the perceived advantages of a decent public transport system outweigh the disadvantages of not taking your car to work.

    We’ll be posting more on this subject in the coming weeks.

    The issue of a bus to the airport is a classic case. We’re fortunate in Wellington to have an airport so close to town, even if it is one of the bumpier rides into a city. But the public transport we have there is pretty pathetic – there is one bus, which stops working before flights do, and goes at 15 minute or 30 minute intervals. It then takes a long and circuitous route to the airport. And it costs more than an ordinary bus. Hence, few take it. And so most people catch a cab or get a friend to take them in a car. Parking at the airport is prohibitive, in both the short and long term.

    But what a difference it would make if there was a faster, smoother service into the centre of town. And if it was a similar price to an ordinary fare, but had its own dedicated route that did not get consumed by vehicle traffic, then it would surely be a clear winner?

  8. One more thing to make my position clear: I am all for a system like LRV and I believe that once installed it would be hugely successful. However, I want to be realistic about the prejudices, habits and expectations of the average person. I know, it sounds bad to be generalising in such a negative way about the general population, but statistics are statistics and you can’t skew the bell curve.

    By understanding and coming to terms with the socio-economic constraints which the society places upon itself through its actions, and more often than not inaction, we should be able to come up with a better plan, a better marketing scheme that will take us all one step closer to something significantly better than current solutions (or un-solutions).


  9. I’ll stand behind tomek’s bid for WCC leadership…

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