The North Wellington Public Transport Study (2006) was Fixed

  • The North Wellington PT Study considered four “Scenarios” with convert the line into a Busway being the most popular but the Labour government said keep the trains.
  • The consultants report also recommended “Do Minimum” which was to keep the line.
  • LGWM did not even consider reviewing this decision so now it is time to check how this recommendation was fixed.

North Wellington Public Transport Study (NWPTS) - November 2006

In 2005-06 the Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC) and Wellington City Council (WCC) reviewed options to upgrade the Johnsonville Line in a project called the North Wellington Public Transport Study (NWPTS). In the end, like all public transport reviews that include rail services, they decided to keep the rail line.

So why is this old transport decision important enough to still write about?

Wellington Commuter has three reasons:

  • As this review was for PT services to my own part of Wellington, Wellington Commuter was very involved in this study being on the user Reference Group and a supporter of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) option. The shock of this decision, against all the evidence and strong public support, to keep the rail service revealed that major transport decisions in our country are political decisions, not logical decisions.
  • The decision in favor of keeping the old rail line from Johnsonville to the Railway Station over alternative options of Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail meant that North Wellington would never have a public transport service on a dedicated corridor to and through the CBD. The Johnsonville to Kilbirnie “Growth Spine” was forever broken and a single continuous Rapid Transit Service through the CBD became impossible.
  • Let Get Wellington Moving still accept the findings of this study 15 years later.  They never considered the option to “Convert Johnsonville Line to BRT” stating it was “Previously Studied and found uneconomic”
Lets Get Wellington Moving excludes consideration "Convert Johnsonville Line to BRT" because it was "Previously Studied and found uneconomic"
LGWM Draft Programme Business Case Appendix D – Note 1 – Intervention Longlist Screen page 10

This set of five posts will go over the still unpublished evidence used by the NWPTS Stage 3 Report and challenge the validity of claim that “Convert Johnsonville Line to BRT” was really “Previously studied and found uneconomic”:

  1. The North Wellington Public Transport Study (2006) was Fixed (This Introduction)
  2. How to Fix a Transport Business Case for Rail – Part 1 Jack Up the Rail Option BCR
  3. How to Fix a Transport Business Case for Rail – Part 2 Sink the Bus Option BCR
  4. How to Fix a Transport Business Case for Rail – Part 3 Fixing the Transport Model to favour Rail
  5. How to Fix a Transport Business Case for Rail – Part 4 Bait and Switch – Change the Decision for Rail Later

The NWPTS outlined Four Scenarios to improve Public Transport

By 2005, the very old Electric Multiple Units (EMUs) from English Electric supporting the Johnsonville Line had reached the end of their life. They were much older than the Ganz-Mavag EMUs used on the rest of the Wellington passenger rail network.

The North Wellington Public Transport Study (NWPTS) was prompted by the Land Transport New Zealand decision in November 2004 to provide funding for re-investment in rail. It was a result of a condition in the $2 billion dollar Wellington Rail Business Case that reviews of the Johnsonville and Melling lines be completed within three years.

Wellington City Council and Greater Wellington Regional Council agreed to conduct the review jointly, with funding from LTNZ. It was also decided to widen the study to include all the suburbs currently or potentially serviced by the rail corridor including Churton Park, Grenada Village, Woodridge, and Newlands. It was decided that the study would be conducted with an open mind as to the potential transport solutions (including mode).

The NWPTS commenced in November 2005 by asking the people of the Northern suburbs about their transport issues and needs. This first phase of consultation netted just over 500 submissions (a high level of interest which compares very favourably with other similar studies). The main issues identified were frequency of buses, the reliability of bus and train services, the route of the services, the need for new trains, and the rundown state of trains.

Stage 2 of the NWPTS then developed four transport options called Scenarios outlined in the NWPTS Scenarios Report and supporting NWPTS Scenarios Technical Appendices. In brief, these Scenarios were:

Enhanced Rail: using new or refurbished EMUs to provide a 13 or 10 minute rail service during the morning peak. Scenarios ER1, ER2, ER3, ER4.

Bus on street: replacing the rail service with buses (providing a 3 – 5 minute frequency during the morning peak) and converting the rail corridor to a walking and cycling track. Scenario OS1.

Busway: converting the rail corridor to a one-way peak direction guided busway, providing a 3-5 minute frequency during the peak. Scenarios BW1, BW2

Light rail: converting the rail corridor to light rail and extending it through the city to Courtenay place, providing a 10 minute peak frequency on the Johnsonville line and 3 minutes on the CBD section. Scenario LT1.

These scenarios were not new, having previously been considered during a 1993 study. All scenarios assumed that bus services in the suburbs would be progressively improved as funds became available and demand dictated.

The four Scenarios were put out for public consultation in June 2006, and the level of public interest was even higher than before with 1606 submissions being received. Many submissions supported more than one scenario with:

  • 589 submitters supporting upgrading the railway
  • 68 supporting buses on the street with walking and cycling
  • 981 supporting the busway
  • 456 supporting light rail.

The NWPTS Halted by MP Peter Dunne and the Labour Government

In the House on 14 September 2006, during question time, the Hon Peter Dunne asked a question about the Johnsonville rail corridor. The following exchange was reported:

Hon Peter Dunne: Can the Minister confirm ONTRACK’s view that it strongly favours the retention of the rail service as being consistent with the National Rail Strategy and achievable at a cost of just $5 million for upgrading the line, as opposed to conversion to a guided busway at a cost of up to $115 million and at least 2 years with no service while the conversion is undertaken, even before any buses are bought; will the Government therefore point out to the Wellington City Council the sheer folly of its proposal to convert the Johnsonville line into a busway?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: I am advised that ONTRACK strongly supports the retention of the line, and considers that the line should continue to be operated and further developed as a rail line. Neither ONTRACK nor the Government has received any proposal to convert the Johnsonville line into a busway. We would certainly not support that.

Hon Peter Dunne: Will the Minister give an assurance that in the event the councils do decide to proceed with that conversion, the $115 million minimum cost of conversion to a busway would not be borne by taxpayers but would be a charge against the Wellington City Council, for it to then have to justify to its ratepayers?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: As I have said, we have received no proposal. If we did receive a proposal with that sort of cost, I doubt very much that we would want to give it very serious consideration at all. I see no reason why the taxpayer should fund such a conversion.

It should be noted that the figure of “$115 million minimum cost of conversion” quoted by Hon. Peter Dunne is not from any NWPTS report. This figure only appears in the “Feasibility Study for a Busway from Wellington to Johnsonville” a never published study funded by the then Johnsonville Line rail operator, TollRail New Zealand. In quoting this figure it seems Peter Dunne was fully aware of this secret study and was influenced by TollRail’s efforts to stop the NWPTS before it was complete. It should be noted that the Green Party also supported keeping the rail line.

In October 2006, the WCC mayor, Kerry Prendergast, wrote to Minister Cullen who responded confirming the government’s position was to retain the rail line.

On the 10th November 2006, the GWRC released Report 06.649 titled “North Wellington Public Transport Study” (GWRC NWPTS Report). This report rejected all four proposed Scenarios and instead recommended the “Base Case” which was to retain the rail line. The recommendations of GWRC NWPTS Report was supported by the 163 page “North Wellington Public Transport Study – Technical Evaluation Report” (SKM Stage 3 Report) by transport consultants from the New Zealand branch of Sinclair Knight Mertz.

The position of the GWRC NWPTS Report was:

Stage 3 of the study involved the study consultants undertaking a technical evaluation of the four scenarios.  This was completed in November and concluded that none of the scenarios yields sufficient benefits to justify the additional investment and increased operating costs involved.  It recommended adoption of the ‘base case’ in regard to rail, which is essentially a continuation of the status quo apart from new or refurbished rail units.  It also recommends incremental improvements to bus services and bus priority measures for parts of the northern suburbs not directly served by rail.
[GWRC Stage 3 Report Section 3.5] (Bold added for emphasis)

The Benefit-cost Ratio (BCR) supporting the recommendation is also stated:

The second critical section is Appendix G. Table 5-45 on page 121 shows the benefits and costs of each option. This table is particularly significant because it reflects the funding criteria used by Land Transport NZ and therefore the likelihood of any scenario obtaining funding.

Under Land Transport NZ funding criteria, the costs and benefits of public transport enhancements are assessed against a base case (essentially the status quo), and the benefit-cost ratio (BCR) is based on the incremental benefits of any option against the base case in relation to its incremental costs. Land Transport NZ advise that they are unable to fund any investment where the BCR is less than 1. Table 5-45 shows that none of the scenarios has a BCR greater than 0.56.
[GWRC Report Section 3.5] (Bold added for emphasis)

The recommendation to keep the Johnsonville rail service based on replacing the English Electric EMUs with refurbished Ganz Mavag EMUs was accepted by council meetings of the GWRC and WCC without any further public consultation.

The SKM Stage 3 Report supported keeping the rail line

The purpose of the SKM Stage 3 Report is to detail the transport consultant’s analysis to identify the best scenario.  This report compared each scenario against a “Base Case” which was a “Do Minimum” option to just keep the current rail line with minimum investment as no improvement Scenario, including improved rail, was worth implementing. This report described the Base Case option as follows:

The base case assumes the replacement of the existing English Electric Units with 4-car refurbished Ganz-Mavag units operating the same 13-minute, 13-minute, 26-minute timetable.
SKM Stage 3 Report Page 6

The SKM Stage 3 Report has the detailed analysis of each Scenario’s costs & benefits, running each scenario through the Wellington Strategic Transport Model (WSTM) and for some areas, the professional opinion of the SKM consultants.  It includes sections covering Risk Analysis, Transport Modelling and, of course, the calculation of the Benefit-Cost Ratios for all Scenarios.

In alignment with the government position to keep the rail line, the SKM Stage 3 Report found that none of the four Scenarios had a Benefit Cost Ratio over 1.0 which was the Base Case BCR.

This means that all Scenarios had more costs than benefits costs compared to the Do Minimum option of just keep the Johnsonville Line.

The SKM Stage 3 Report was accepted in its draft version by both the GWRC and WCC without giving either the public or the NWPTS Reference Group any opportunity to review or provide feedback to this report or its recommendation.

SKM Stage 3 Report Benefit Cost Ratio Calculation

[If you need an introduction to Benefit Cost Ratios then check out my The basics of NZ Transport Business Case BCR Analysis page]

The NWPTS Stage 3 Report states that no Scenario managed a BCR of 1.00 meaning that the costs were greater than the benefits for every improvement Scenario.  It is for this reason that the study recommended the “Do Minimum” Base Case option.

The actual Stage 3 Economic Analysis is in Section G.2 Consider Economic Efficiency (all costs and benefits are calculated the total NPV costs and benefits over 30 years using a discount rate of 10%):

SKM Stage 3 Report Benefit and Cost Table shows the BCR of all Scenarios < 1.00 with Bus-on-Street coming 2nd
SKM Stage 3 Report – Table 5-45: Benefits and Costs ($m)

It is important to note that the best Scenario is Bus-On-Street has a BCR of 0.56.

As outlined above, the SKM Stage 3 Report analysis stated no proposed Scenario had a BCR better than the “Base Case” of 1.00.  For example, the best option is Bus-on-Street (OT1) but as outlined in Table 5-45 of the SKM Stage 3 Report:

Example of a NWPTS Benefit Cost Ratio Calculation
NWPTS Benefit Cost Ratio Calculation Example

So the BCR for a NWPTS Scenario is based on four key quantified amounts:

  1. Base Case Benefit: Benefit(Base)
  2. Base Cast Cost: Cost(Base)
  3. Scenario Benefit: Benefit(OT1)
  4. Scenario Cost: Cost(OT1)

Finally, to understand the following analysis, it is important to note that the BCR can be become negative.  This can occur if the Scenario Cost is less than the Base Case Cost.  As a baseline to understand this, below is a graph of the above BCRs where all the Scenarios are less than 1.0 (in the red):

SKM Stage 3 Report Option Benefit Cost Ratios shown in Chart Form

Problems with the NWPTS Recommendation to implement the Do Minimum Base Case

Firstly, let’s be clear that the decision to retain the Johnsonville Line was a political decision by a Labour-led coalition government reliant on the one vote from local MP Peter Dunne to stay in power. This article is not an exploration of the open interference by a Member of Parliament to stop a local government public consultation that would probably have led to a decision he opposed.

This article focusses on the SKM Stage 3 Report recommendation that showed the best option was to retain the railway line compared to converting it to a busway (the option most supported by nearly half of public submissions), Light Rail (also a popular option) or just closing it and using Bus-on-Street. This recommendation is important because the long standing NZTA process requires that independent transport analysis support any recommendation for major transport projects, such as the NWPTS, to stop the sort of political decision making that had just occurred.

As outlined above by LGWM, the SKM Stage 3 Report stated that converting the Johnsonville Line into a busway was uneconomic.  However, any detailed review of this report and other background information will identify major flaws in the analysis supporting the report’s findings and recommendation.

Following the release of the SKM Stage 3 report, several people, including myself, raised these issues with the GWRC and the NZTA.  At the time these issues were either ignored or rejected by officials who refused to go against what was obviously a central government political decision.

The following posts will highlight the where and how the SKM Stage 3 Report altered the analysis figures and the transport model so it could recommend keeping the rail line. The next post focusses on how they fixed the Base Case BCR figures.

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