Wellington train brain strain

“You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”: Tuesday’s peak-hour train outage gave Wellingtonians another opportunity to appreciate our trains – and gets guest author Head of the Fish pondering the unhelpful ways the region runs trains

“Two hours from Balaena Bay to Oriental Bay”


“A blimmin’ cyclist beat me, driving to Ngaio!”  


“Hours of gridlock on the Quays”


If there’s one thing Tuesday’s peak-hour train outage shows, it’s…

Our region really needs good train services…  

  1. Workers pour in, workers pour out: 65% of region’s workers commute to Wellington to work (no, not to the airport – to stay and use the CBD as a destination).
  2. Wellington is a city with essentially one way in and out.  Wellington is The Head of the Fish; 99% of commuters enter and leave via the fish’s neck. 
  3. We make ourselves travel a lot to and from the Head. Regionally, Wellington is quite poor at allowing people to live close to where they work, play, and learn.
  4. Our population is growing

Until or unless we embrace higher-density living and multi-use regional centres, we have two choices: either we become Auckland,  or we get more efficient ways to move people in and out.

The highest-efficiency way to move people in our Wellington region is trains. It’s really simple maths: the most people getting where they want to go, with the smallest impact on everything else (energy, carbon, other people, the public purse).

…so we need to start taking them seriously

Wellington’s train services are improving significantly, thanks to a major capital works programme that’s made some really tangible improvements. It’s not been a smooth ride; 2017 featured the first strike in 20 years, signal outages and other issues.

So we’re investing, but are we doing enough?

Patronage is slowly increasing, but slower than population growth. We still fondly define ourselves by what’s swiftly becoming a myth: “Wellingtonians are progressive and smart, the highest public transport users in the nation”.   

But we’re still creating car-only suburbs, inaccessible by any other means.  And we’re still investing overwhelmingly in highways.  Trains still doesn’t seem to be considered as a Serious Transport, and therefore not allowed to contribute properly to moving our region’s people. 

Ok what can we do then?


A train traveling over a Wellington highway.

Here are some ideas for how to start taking trains seriously. These aren’t suggestions just for Greater Wellington, who run the trains (kindof, see below) – they’re for us all but especially our decision-makers.

Make the bad days feel less shambolic from a passenger perspective.  

Sometimes things go wrong – it happens for many reasons. When things go really wrong and there are no trains, have a better plan and execute it.  Some help to organise ridesharing, some space management at Wellington Station, better communication… some commuters in these videos have sensible ideas.

Good to hear Metlink has an investigation underway of Tuesday’s “worst case scenario”.

Make it easier to do multi-modal trips

If I live in a car-focussed, affluent suburb like Aotea, I struggle to see why would I drive onto the motorway only to get off it again two minutes later, park in a nasty carpark, and catch the train at Porirua Station.  I’ll just stay zooming as long as I can (til I hit the traffic at Tawa).  Can we make it more pleasant and convenient for me to leave the car at home?  

Look hard at the institutional structures of our public transport 

It’s eye-wateringly complex. There’s a useful summary “for the uninitiated” in the middle of this article.

I’m no expert on institutional structures but this feels far too complex for anything that’s involving humans trying to get things done.

Any attempts at progress will be so hobbled by inadvertent (and deliberate) hooks in processes, jurisdictional squabbles, contract management admin and multi-organisation reporting that… well, it’s probably a miracle we some PT services.

That’s not to say Restructure will fix everything.  Yes we have a Council-Controlled Organisation (Wellington Water) to deliver drinking, stormwater and sewerage (wastewater) services which seems to be doing OK, but Auckland’s transport CCO has not covered itself in glory when it comes to delivering to its owners’ directions (one example).  Could we create a more efficient monster?  

Look hard at how we fund it – and how we don’t

Perhaps the new Government’s directions will help this (*cough,  Auckland Transport), but for decades NZ (and Wellington) hasn’t funded people-trans



port modes proportionally to the purpose: how well each moves people.  (See here for some very good evidence esp. this graph.)  

We need to fix this because at the moment, the most efficient transport modes that cities should use to get people around are all squabbling for the crumbs left over from the funding that’s overwhelmingly for the least efficient transport modes (see figure 50 in RLTP – link below).

Don’t just target individuals

Some commentators seem to have it in for certain decision-makers.  While the individual in the job really matters (and democracy is pretty weak in local government), the structures and funding are what overwhelmingly control things.

So yes let’s get better leaders (start by caring and voting!) but let’s make sure we don’t expect an individual to make a big difference.


Ultimately, what we all want is to be able to easily make good travel choices in daily life.  Surely, not too much to ask…


  • What are your experiences of using – or not using – trains in Wellington?
  • What would make you happier to use them (more)?

Image credits:

  • Banner image: Ross Giblin / Fairfax NZ
  • growing money – sunshineliving.co.uk
  • Ngauranga Gorge – stuff.co.nz


3 comments on “Wellington train brain strain”

  • Jo says:

    One of my biggest annoyances with Wellington public transport is those multi-modal trips – especially when it is more than one form of public transport. While timetables show a fantastic bus meets train meets bus scenario, the reality of service delays and impatient bus drivers means the 4-minute off-the-train-and-onto-a-waiting-bus is often 20-30 minutes as the bus has already gone by the time the train gets in. When I asked MetLink about one case then said the drivers can wait up to 6 minutes (the timetable shows 4) for a connector service.
    What I’d love to see is the realtime timetables to predict ahead and detect when a service is delayed (and tell someone), so the bus driver knows its coming and can choose to wait that extra few minutes, rather than leaving the station for an empty run.

  • Guy M says:

    Regarding your statement re trains, that:
    “Patronage is slowly increasing, but slower than population growth.”
    Strictly speaking, you can’t blame Wellingtonians for that, as Wellington really doesn’t have the trains except for Johnsonville. All the trains come into Wellington from the Hutt (Upper and Lower – two different cities) and Porirua (another different city) and from Kapiti (another different city). And from the Wairarapa, which is another bunch of jurisdictions altogether.

    Wellington has indeed been growing, mainly around the central city and the Te Aro / Basin area – I challenge you to get people to take a train to work if they live in Te Aro. There has also been some decent growth up the Hutt Valley – but they are Hutt citizens, not Wellingtonians (unless, of course, they want to amalgamate).

    So, do we say: you can’t blame Wellington, the fault lies further up the line? Is the Hutt building TOD? Probably, a little, yes. Is Kapiti building TOD? No – the opposite. Is Porirua building TOD? Pretty much the opposite, with the Aotea block development you mention…

    • Isabella Cawthorn says:

      North of Ngauranga they’s much less civilised 😉 we probably need another word for “Wellington-region-people” to differentiate from “Wellington Cityites”. But this article – and the train outage – is a regional thang. And parochialism about your city vs my city (at least between the councils concerned) is partly why regional passenger transport is the bureaucratic mess I suspect it is.
      So while those uncivilised folks up the line are growing their sprawling townships and the region isn’t investing in any other transport capacity to get ’em to and from their CBD jobs, citing Wellington City’s density virtues won’t help it any against the “tidal wave of cars”… Regional solutions are what we need.

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