Affordability: What will light rail cost?

Opponents of light rail often exaggerate the amount of investment required. In Wellington, light rail means an incremental expansion of the reach of the existing suburban rail system to the south. Just as electrification and double tracking the rail system from Paraparaumu to Waikanae in 2011 expanded the suburban rail network at its northern edge.

Laying tracks in streets is the major component. Recent comparable work in other cities indicates that the cost of track in Wellington will be no more than $20M per double track km. This is validated by:

  • Adelaide: the 2006 tram track extension through the CBD, similar to Wellington in length, cost AUD $33M.
  • Melbourne: recent tram track extensions – Box Hill, Vermont South, Dockland, etc – have all been within the $NZ20M envelope.
  • Ngauranga – Airport: The 2008 study estimated $140M to get to the Regional Hospital. Much of that would have been for special measures to get around the Basin Reserve.

The above estimates should be compared with the very high costs of urban highway construction. For example, the Wellington Inner City Bypass cost $60M for only 700 metres of new road.

At about $5M for each articulated modern tram they are not a cheap item, but the lifetime cost of vehicles is actually much less than buses on a per-seat-km basis, because:

  • each tram carries 3-4 times as many passengers as a large bus
  • shorter stops, faster acceleration  mean that the productivity of each tram is much higher
  • modern trams last for 40 years: 2 - 3 times a diesel bus lifetime.

This means that a small tram fleet has a greater capacity than a much larger fleet of buses, offsetting the higher initial capital cost.

Who will pay for it?

As an extension of the rail network, a light rail system for Wellington should be paid for in the same way that state highways are funded. For example, the Labour Government financed the Waikanae rail electrification and double tracking.

Any suggestion that the capital cost of light rail infrastructure should be a direct charge on the ratepayer when state highway and motorway expenditure is not is clearly inequitable.

Will it be built in stages?

Yes. No rail transit system in the world has been 100% complete on opening day. Most new light rail systems open with a 'starter line' through the downtown area and expand out into various suburbs line-by-line. Wellington has done things the other way round: we have a regional rail system which has expanded through the suburbs for 70 years but has so far failed to penetrate across the Central Business District and beyond where many passengers actually want to go.

Building in stages is necessary in terms of affordability and to minimise disruption. 
The most likely stages for light-rail construction in Wellington are:

  • Stage 1: Wellington Railway Station to Courtenay Place,
  • Stage 2: Courtenay Place to Regional Hospital and  Newtown
  • Stage 3:  Newtown to Wellington International Airport
  • Stage 4:  From Western Hutt via Lower Hutt Queensgate to Waterloo

For light rail vehicles to operate as tram-trains, the existing rail network will need to be adapted in areas such as signaling (to provide automatic train protection (ATP), as in Auckland) and platform height modifications. At some stations, like Wellington, Porirua and Petone, separate platforms would be provided for tram-trains and heavy rail trains like the Matangis.

For more detail, go to our Fact Sheet No 1 Costs and Staging.