Light Rail could be Cheap as Chips!

Following stunning news today from the GWRC study into the cost of a possible Light Rail system in Wellington – results have come back that the cost COULD be as LOW as $14m per km.

By anybody’s books, that is fantastic news – and means that costs are indeed well within reach of a Council the size of Wellington’s.

If we look at the published figures available, of the capital cost of light rail per kilometre around the world (all in NZ dollars), we can see that costs in places where they know what they are doing (ie the Netherlands), costs could be even lower – at $11.6m / km. Here’s the published list:
$11.5m Edmonton, Canada
$11.6m Eidenhoven, Netherlands
$14m Lowest likely Wellington cost
$16.7m Bremen, Germany
$19m St Kilda
$25m San Diego, USA
$28.6m San Francisco, USA
$29.4m Karlsruhe, Germany
$31m Gold Coast, Australia
$44.8m Minneapolis, USA
$45m World Bank Estimate
$46.4m Bergen, Norway
$50m Rouen, France
$56.9m Dublin, Ireland
$141m Dominion Post’s selected sensational possible total
$275m Seattle, USA (included a bus tunnel)

At the Arch Centre, we’re puzzled that the Dominion Post chooses only to highlight the worst possible case. As can be clearly seen from the graph above, for most cities surveyed, the cost is consistently in the range of $20-$30m / km. The World Bank reports an estimated cost of $45m / km. The upper limit cost of $141m / km is therefore slightly ridiculous. Clearly the inclusion of the Bus tunnel in an urban setting such as Seattle, has pushed that particular cost out. Tunnels are expensive compared to building ‘at grade’, and even an aerial railway is more expensive than at grade – although not as expensive as a tunnel.

Update: The graph below, from the extensive AECOM Public Transport Spine Study for GWRC, shows clearly that $141m / km is totally over the top. MRT, or Mass Rapid Transport (think, London Underground), can take the most people, and costs the most as well. Wellington’s never going to be in the market for that. Instead, we will be looking at whether LRT (Light Rail Transport) or BRT (Bus Rapid Transport) is the route to go down.

But so far, no one is talking about building the Light Rail either above ground, or below ground. Luckily, as Wellington has had trams running for many years before, we know that the entire length of railway needed, from the Railway Station all the way out to the airport, can be built at grade. Yes, there are some awkward pinch-points for traffic to squeeze through, and so there could possibly be small lengths of tunnel at about 3-4 places over the whole route, but overall, the track could run satisfactorily at ground level.

So why is the Dom Post consistently reporting matters in a sensational manner? Just a case of trying to sell more newspapers? The Dom Post consistently misreported the possible cost of the Basin Reserve Option X put forward by the Arch Centre – only reporting the worst possible case, including the top estimate and maximum contingency, against the NZTA’s lowest possible estimate and forgoing all contingency. That was just shonky reporting then – and it is shonky reporting again now.

If the Dom Post would try a little harder with its reporting, they would see that there are reasons why some schemes have costs blowouts. Mainly, it is to do with the diversion of services. Some of the commenters on the Stuff website have noted the cost blowouts in Edinburgh with their new tram line – which, if investigated properly, would show that extensive rerouting of drainage, gas pipes, water, sewerage, electrical, telecommunications, etc, and indeed the rerouting of traffic itself, have all had an expensive effect on the finished cost of the Edinburgh tram route. As well as that, it is going straight down the carefully cobble-stoned precious length of Princess St – the Scottish capital’s “golden mile” of expensive shopping.

That gives us in Wellington something else to think about. Obviously, 50 years ago when the tram lines were pulled up, there were no services under the tracks. Over the last 50 years however, lots of services have been installed. Possibly the only place the services haven’t been installed, is down the seaward side of Jervois / Customhouse Quay. We could, therefore, take out a lane or two of traffic, and have a guaranteed services free run for at least the first couple of km. What about it Wellington?


13 responses to “Light Rail could be Cheap as Chips!”

  1. Seamonkey Madness Avatar
    Seamonkey Madness

    To be honest, by the time WCC sorts it sh|t out, it will more likely be nearer the IMF figure than anything. Remember the Manners Mall busway blowout?

  2. But the same thing there – for the same reasons. Laying tracks down an uninterrupted stretch of road is not that difficult – after all, our forefathers did it all very quickly back in the day. Now, we’re a bit more precious – look at how many people are standing around doing Health and Safety related stuff in that photo above… Th reasons the Manners St blowout occurred are to do with moving services, and working in a confined space with no room for contractors to get in there, while still having public pedestrian access at all times. Its all in the planning of the project.

  3. Actually – I thought the Dom Post article was rather more balanced this time around, compared to when they were advocating for, er, sorry, reporting about the NZTA Basin Flyover…

  4. Interestingly, they changed their headline between reporting it sensationally in the online version Light Rail could cost $141m a kilometre, to their much more reasonable newsprint headline “Light rail costs range from budget to deluxe.” I’d like to think that we may have been responsible for that change in stance – realistically, someone from the Council probably rang them and told them to stick their head in.

  5. Stephen Avatar

    The key point of the Dom Post article is that cheaper LTR solutions that share the roads with other vehicles are not as effective systems that run on separate tracks.

    As a segregated track system would be exponentially more expensive, the DomPost is simply highlighting this fact given Wellington has narrow streets and existing congestion corridors.

    In this context – why are LTR systems such as Edmontons being used for cost comparison purposes when their system design, topography and urban density don’t have anything in common with Wellington. BTW – great google views of this system.

  6. Sorry – bit of an odd interlude there while we got attacked by spammers yet again, and our website went down. Hopefully over for now (for good?). Normal service will be resumed shortly…

  7. could you not just have the tracks raised above the ground?

  8. Stephen Avatar

    Trolley Trucks

    I thought people would be interested in this article in New Scientist as a discussion topic

    Trucks runnining on trolley bus lines in the USA

  9. It pains me to think Wellington is dragging its feet on this. I’m a Kiwi who is currently country hopping. The last country was Japan, and Tokyo is a perfect example of how to do it. Ok, so maybe we aren’t up to that standard, but now I’m in Toronto, and I’m seeing how NOT to do it. Basically Toronto had a HUGE opportunity to build out their subway and/or LRT options in the 70s and 80s, when the city started to explode. Unfortunately leadership was lacking, and the city is now paying the price for it’s inaction (gridlock, poor infrastructure etc that will eventually cripple it economically and developmentally). For Wellington’s sake, I seriously hope fingers get pulled out of certain orifices and get the proverbial A into G……

  10. Stephen Avatar

    Having recently been in Tokyo – I saw no evidence of light rail. It is interesting to note the only surviving lines according to Wiki are the very small Setagaya Line and Tōkyū Tamagawa Lines at run on private or segregated right-of-ways.

    LRT there is just the last gasp of a outmoded 19th century transport system.

  11. But not so in Europe. Seems to be growing quite fast there – or, continuing to grow, in combination with numerous other means of public transport. There is never going to be just one solution – but a whole handful of possibilities.

  12. Only just found your website and the “trams as cheap as chips”. Trampower is presently promoting a 6.5km tramway in Preston UK at total cost of GBP25million, including a 2MW wind generator to provide sustainable power. We are working on a typical total cost of GBP9million per km when built in streets like the Edinburgh example. More information on the Trampower website.

  13. Neil Anderson Avatar
    Neil Anderson

    The recent decision in favour of bus rapid transit in Wellington was short-sighted, but will not endure. Over 30y, light rail is cheaper than buses, notwithstanding the high capital cost.

    Moreover, a low-capital cost system could be profitable – light rail has been shown to capture a 25 – 45% modal share along operating corridors.

    There is no good reason why light rail cannot operate in Wellington. Try Lisbon for really difficult terrain!

    Instead, and for now, BRT will make little impact on traffic congestion in the city. Much worse however, is the prospect of a ruinous highway scheme, borne of 1950s thinking and wholly counter-productive. Roads do not provide any form of solution, and merely generate more traffic.

    With one of the most beautiful harbours in the world, the city ought to be making easier for people to enjoy it. Imagine a tram route around Orinetal Bay to Evans Bay and beyond…

    The Spine Study was ill-conceived. Wellington doesn’t need just one tram route – its population would justify at least 4.

    There is no good reason why our country should not benefit from more progressive transportation policies. Why does the ‘most wired city in the world’ lack comparable wires and trams in the street?

    Neil Anderson
    Transportation Consultant
    Cardiff, Wales

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