Trams-Action is an advocacy group for better public transport based in Wellington, New Zealand.                                                                                                 last updated 31/01/2021


Artist's impression:  Modern tram-trains in Wellington.  Left: In Lambton Quay / Hunter Street, one on its way to the airport, the other on its way to Queensgate in Lower Hutt.   Right: The same tram-train in Ngauranga, using the suburban network tracks, shared with the electric multiple units.  Courtesy of:  W.W. Trickett.

Wellington: A great place to live in but not so nice to get around in, particularly during peak hours.


Public transport in the city centre is reliant solely on buses.  At peak times, they struggle to get through the narrow Central Business District (CBD) in a timely manner, often banking up to 6 or more vehicles waiting at bus stops (we have spotted as many as 11 buses waiting to enter a bus stop!) and making their slow progress through the streets.

There is also a suburban heavy rail system which serves Johnsonville, the Kapiti Coast and Lower and Upper Hutt but it ends right on the edge of the CBD.  This forces people to interchange just to complete a basic trip into the city, the worst possible transport model for mass transit.  It is not the scenario for effective rail transport and the inconvenience is a major disincentive for potential users, making them prefer to drive instead.  After all, the state highway is a continuous spine so why isn’t the rail?

The problem is really twofold.  The buses cannot provide the required capacity at peak times.  The second issue is that the vast majority coming in to Wellington want to continue their journey to the CBD and to points further south such as the regional hospital, or even as far as the airport.  Statistics from Let's Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) show that over half of the cars congesting the CBD in the morning, originate from the north, which is served by rail!  So the question to be addressed is:  Why are these people not using the trains?  The answer is surely obvious!


The solution is really simple.  It's called tram-train, a type of modern tram which, as its name suggests, is both a tram and a train, in other words it is equally at home in city streets as on the heavy rail system.  It was pioneered in the German city of Karlsruhe in the 1990s and has become very successful.  It is often referred to as the Karlsruhe model.

A typical tram-train vehicle can carry over 300 people (you need at least 6 buses for that many people!) through city streets, pedestrian malls, even through buildings such as airport terminals, and seamlessly move on to the heavy rail system at 100 km/h, sharing the lines with electric multiple units, long distance trains, and freight trains.  It can provide level entry from low platforms, allowing easy access for prams, wheelchairs, mobility vehicles and even wheeled suitcases - just like getting into a lift.

The following article first appeared in the Architectural Centre's website and newsletter in 2016 with different images.

Light Rail – Making a Great City Greater.

Wellington’s topography is shaped by its harbour and surrounding hills.  Transport corridors are mainly in narrow valleys with little room for expansion.  The lack of flat land has resulted in a high population density within the city boundaries as well as the development of the surrounding cities of Lower Hutt, Upper Hutt and Porirua.

Wellington is dominated by its CBD to a far greater extent than most cities – 50% of the jobs and most other reasons for travelling are located there.  Other important destinations include the regional hospital and the airport, situated on a narrow isthmus at the southern tip of the city.  The airport is not easily accessed by public transport with a heavy emphasis on taxis and parking space instead.

The compactness of Wellington lends itself well to walking and cycling.  For longer distances, the high population density along the Growth Spine designated by the City Council provides an ideal opportunity for successful public transport.

Unfortunately, transport in Wellington city is dominated by the private motor car, with public transport provided by buses.  Cars are very inefficient users of road space – and this will remain so even when they become driverless – while buses cannot provide the required capacity within the narrow corridors, frequently causing their own congestion, even in areas where cars are excluded.

A suburban train system links Wellington with its northern suburbs and its satellite cities, where 75% of the region’s population live, but there is one serious flaw:  The rails end on the edge of the CBD, exactly where the demand for onward travel is the greatest.  Many people arriving on the trains are nowhere near their final destination and are faced with either a long walk or a transfer to a bus.  At peak times many buses are only scheduled to average around 8 km/h, assuming they are even running on time.  The forced journey break is enough to discourage people from using public transport and to drive instead.  Far from being the ‘great public transport’ so often erroneously claimed, Wellington’s rail system is one of the world’s most dysfunctional because of its lack of CBD penetration.

Road expansion is not the answer, as it simply attracts more people into their cars, quickly filling up the new road space.  Multi-lane arterial roads isolate communities, more so in confined cities.

Once considered obsolete in the western world, the tram has undergone a resurgence.  Today, light rail is the fastest growing means of transport throughout the world.  Its advantages are manifold:

  1. Very high capacity.  One light rail vehicle can carry up to 300 people (the equivalent of 6 buses) and if two vehicles are coupled together, the capacity is doubled, still under the control of one man and able to transverse intersections in a fraction of the time that 12 buses would take.
  2. Ability to be routed through very narrow corridors – very important for Wellington.
  3. Rapid boarding and alighting through multiple doors, resulting in lower dwell time at stops.
  4. Can be routed through city streets, on its own isolated right of way, on grass lawns, through pedestrian malls, even inside buildings including airport arrival and departure lounges.
  5. Level boarding allows easy access for prams, wheelchairs, mobility vehicles, wheeled luggage, shopping strollers and can easily carry bicycles in specially designed racks.
  6. Powered by renewable electricity, contributing towards the reduction of greenhouse gases to mitigate climate change.
  7. Fast, quiet and comfortable.
  8. Does not impinge negatively on the amenity and livability of a city the way buses and cars do.
  9. Finally, light rail has a certain je ne sais quoi which seems to attract passengers for intangible reasons beyond those mentioned above.

These advantages strongly indicate that light rail is the ideal means of transport for Wellington’s narrow, densely trafficked corridors.  Twin-coupled light rail vehicles every 3 minutes give an hourly capacity of 12,000 people per hour, whereas two road lanes would only allow 4,000 people per hour mostly in single occupant cars.  Light rail actually works out cheaper if one takes into account the longevity of light rail vehicles and their lower operating and maintenance costs.  Surely three times the capacity using half the road space at half the cost makes it an obvious choice ahead of increasing road capacity and relying on buses.

The advantages do not end there.  Earlier, it was mentioned that the suburban train system dumps its passengers unceremoniously on the edge of town, despite the fact that many would prefer to continue their journey through town.

Karlsruhe in Germany experienced the same problem and overcame it in the 1990s by developing a vehicle now called a tram-train.  As the name suggests, it can act as a train and then continue its journey through city streets as a tram.

Tram-train would provide all the advantages of light rail together with seamless travel from the north, right through the CBD and all the way to the airport.  After all, the state highway is one continuous road, so why can there not be an unbroken rail spine?  It makes perfect sense and would attract many more people out of their cars. It was the type of light rail development envisaged by the regional council in its 1999 strategy.

Dr Tim Williams, CEO of the Committee for Sydney and a strong advocate for sustainable transport, recently [2016] visited Wellington and said:  “Start with the end. Decide what sort of city you want and then see how transport can help you achieve it.”  We need to have a vision of what we want the city to look like 30 or 40 years hence and everything we do must align with that vision.

Studies in the past endorsed light rail but it never eventuated.  Implementation of light rail requires the Greater Wellington Regional Council, the Wellington City Council, the NZTA and Central Government to align themselves and make it happen.  Most of the funding must come from central government just as it does for roads.

Transport shapes a city and great transport can make a great city greater.  The wrong transport mix will stifle a city, destroying urban form and making it unpleasant to live in.

We have to get it right.

Photos: Tram-trains in and around Karlsruhe:


Far left and middle left: Sharing the main lines with high speed trains.  Middle: In a pedestrian mall. Middle right: In the street. Far right: On lawn, in segregated right-of-way.

See the excellent presentation by Brent Efford, the NZ agent for the Light Rail Transit Association, entitled “Direct through service beats two stub terminals”, presented to the Railway Technical Society of Australasia on 14 February 2019 which gives excellent background on the ongoing battle to bring tram-train to Wellington, despite the many obstacles and naysayers.