Mother Nature gave the Wellington rail system a quite of a battering last year through multiple earthquakes and major storms. The major storm that hit on the night of 20 June was the one that did the most damage when it washed out the sea wall protecting the rail line that serves the Hutt Valley and the Wairarapa between Ngauranga and Petone leaving tracks dangling in the air. Kiwirail said the damage was unprecedented. The impact of the outage was felt throughout the Wellington transport system as people who usually caught the train needed to look to other methods of transport. It took almost a week to get the rail line restored with services resuming on the morning of 27 June.

Wellington Rail Washout
Photo credit: David Morgan

If there was one positive to come from it, its that it gives a chance to study what the impacts of the outage and that’s exactly what the Ministry of Transport have done in a report released late last year.

Extreme events and disruptions to our every-day lives give us a chance to probe how we react in different circumstances, and consider how we can better react in the case of similar future events.

The storm on the night of Thursday 20 June 2013 severely affected Wellington’s transport network, with both immediate and flow-on effects for commuters in the region. Of particular significance was
the damage done to the Hutt Valley rail line, and the consequent disruption to passenger rail services for the six days following the storm.

This project surveyed 1,072 Wellington commuters to assess several impacts on Friday 21 June, Monday 24 June and Wednesday 26 June, including:

  • the extent to which disruptions to the transport network (in particular the Hutt Valley rail line services) affected the time it took commuters to get to their destination
  • how commuters changed their travel behaviour to respond to the network disruptions
  • the extent to which communications by transport agencies (including radio, email and text messaging) may have influenced the behaviour of commuters.

And here’s a summary of what the study found.

  • The closure of the Hutt Valley rail line put significant pressure on the road network. Delays for commuters were most severe on the Monday following the storm. Traffic on State Highway 2 was severely congested, with morning peak hour conditions lasting two hours longer than usual
    • 80 percent of Wellington commuters from the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa experienced a longer than usual trip
    • 32 percent of them experienced delays of over an hour
  • the severity of commuter delays lessened over the week, with the number of commuters from the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa experiencing delays of over an hour halving by Wednesday 26 June
  • traffic delays were slightly less severe on Friday 21 June. This may have been due to 27 percent of commuters (surveyed across the region) not travelling to work on the Friday. By Monday 24 June this figure dropped to just 4 percent
  • on Monday 24 and Wednesday 26 June, roughly 45 percent of the typical Hutt Valley train commuters opted to drive themselves or be driven to work in a private car, and roughly 45 percent chose the train and bus replacements
  • communications by transport agencies were effective, with 75 percent of people surveyed aware of transport delays before they headed to work on Friday, and over half of these people altering their travel plans to respond to conditions.

Research undertaken as part of this project estimated that the economic impacts of transport disruption resulting from the storm was between $12 million and $43 million. This included $5.3 million in cost to local and central government agencies who responded to disruptions and damage on the transport network, $5.3 million loss in value of travel time and between $2 million and $32 million reduction in outputs.

There’s a few interesting points in here. The first is day of the outage (red) compared to same day the week before and after.

Wellington Hutt Valley closure - road impact

The severe congestion probably helped to ensure that those who were previously using trains went back to doing so once the rail line was up and running again. This is the patronage from the Hutt Valley line surrounding the outage and you can see it bounced back to normal the following week.

Wellington Hutt Valley closure - rail impact

Probably the most interesting part is the assessment of the economic impacts of between $12 million and $43 million depending on how it’s calculated. Some of those costs – like the $5.3 million in repair works – are unique to the outage however the same amount again is simply due to the travel delays caused by the mode shift and ensuring congestion. This might not sound like much but consider that it is just for four working days so equates to about $1.3 million per day. That helps to give us an idea as to just how much impact the rail network in Wellington is having on congestion relief.

My understanding is that the Hutt Valley line carry’s roughly half of the patronage on the Wellington rail network while the rail network itself only accounts for about 6% of all journey to work trips. Imagining for second that someone decided to close the all of rail lines in Wellington we can probably assume that similar travel delays would occur throughout other parts of the road network. Even just using the figure of $1.3 million per work day extrapolated over a typical year (~250 working days) would see travel time delays add up to over $320 million per year.  By comparison the entire system only costs something like $80 million to run and that’s before passenger fares are taken into account.

Of course there would be a lot of other things that would need to be taken into consideration and the costs above are just very quick calculations but it does go to show that while the rail network might only play a small part overall, it does play a significant one.

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  1. There it is. You want freer roads? Invest away from them on the missing or currently poor quality complementary networks. Better still, make these radically effective and attractive, and we can save billions on forever extending our already mature road network.

  2. Absolutely agree but obviously John Key just can’t see it. And what a wishy-washy editorial in this morning’s Herald (re the early start for Auckland’s CRL).

  3. It is true that the June failure of the Wellington rail service “does go to show that while the rail network might only play a small part overall, it does play a significant one” for commuters from the North. However, few users need a report to prove vulnerability of the Wellington rail service to a single point of failure. Yes the storm caused a multi-day outage which is very rare but most regular rail commuters can recall various “points failure in the yard”, power failure” or “signals failure” leading to the message that they/we should “,make their own way home”. Usually they do so by catching a ride . . . by car.

    Yes Wellington region residents to the north of the CBD ARE very dependent on the rail to get to work. If “someone decided to close the all of rail lines in Wellington” then it would be chaotic. But what is the point here ?
    * That having most of your regional employment concentrated in the CBD makes the city’s economy vulnerable to major disruption by a single transport failure?
    * That Wellington has a dedicated Rapid Transit PT service that is not actually reliable ?
    * That the $2B plus of government/ratepayer money committed to passenger over the past decade would have been better spent on roading upgrades ?
    (such as 4-laning the Urban highway, the Petone to Grenada Link road to relieve Ngauranga Gorge, only now getting off the ground and, of course, we could have complete the BRT base CBD Spine Upgrade with the change.)

    1. “That the $2B plus of government/ratepayer money committed to passenger over the past decade would have been better spent on roading upgrades ”

      Thanks Tony best laugh I have had all day. Of course, you cant be serious because any fool can see that the last 60 years of “roading upgrades” in have just dug us deeper into auto dependent hell.

      BRT is a great idea and I hope to see it soon in Wellington and Christchurch and expanded in Auckland. But why would you scrap a 60 years of investment in a high capacity heavy rail line for a lower capacity BRT system?

      That shows a bus bias gone crazy but then we all know your vested interests.

    2. If we’re talking resilience then the issue of the tarmac system’s dependence on imported oil products is a clear vulnerability. Noting the Trolly Bus system along with Cable Cars and especially the Passenger Rail Network as Wellington’s movement systems that are invulnerable to sudden changes in price or security of supply of oil products. Another potential cost that could be unavoidable is international carbon pricing treaties.

      As it is it’s largely eggs in one basket, and the endless investment in ever more roads despite no growth in the economy and no reduction in the disbenefits, including congestion.

  4. This also shows the value of building an iconic seaward cycle/walkway as a protective sea wall to the rail (and road) corridor. Resilience of transport corridor increases.
    The cost of infill over about 2km of this route is expensive, but these figures indicate the scale of benefits that would come from it, without taking into account the estimated additional $35 per day (NZTA) for each commuter that shifts from car to regular cycle travel.

    A high quality (4-5 metre wide) cycle way could increase commuter mode share 10 times if we look at similar overseas experience. Locally, there was an 800% mode share increase resulted from the Ara-Harakeke-Pathway Plimmerton to Pukerua Bay. ie the present mode share is about 1% (450 cyclists per day) and we would hope for an increase of at least 10% or 4500 per day.

  5. What it clearly shows is that Wellington, like Auckland is massively vulnerable to (for example) terrorist acts targeted against our transport network.

    Actually, Auckland is vulnerable to acts targeted against Wellington based on the failures of the train network 🙂

  6. So for the price of the St Luke Rd Overbridge Wellington could have free trains for a year? Or alternatively free for the next 30 years if the cost of transmission gully was instead spent on the rail system. The repayments on that PPP alone could make them free as well. Shows how messed up the transport priorities and how cheap PT is in c.f. to these RoNS.

  7. When I was in Wellington last time I went on the Hutt Line passing by the harbour and saw some very significant erosion all along side the railroad track with parts of the tracks is just 2 metres away from the crashing waves and the overhead line poles is almost jutting out. So it is still very vulnerable to more storm surges and earthquakes. So I think installing a proper seawall with structures like Tetrapods in its most vulnerable parts would be a good idea, and filling in some land as well in case there is a time where third rail and/or a proper cycleway is needed.

  8. Wellington (indeed the whole of New Zealand) could have a reliable and resilient rail system if it funded it appropriately. However rail (and PT in general) always has to manage on a shoestring – while roads are lavishly funded, even where the business-case is poor. And don’t anybody chime in about “this is what New Zealanders have chosen”. The RoNS extravaganza is what Key, Joyce and Brownlee have chosen. Sure there are those whose views align with this, but there is a widespread view that NZ by-and-large has an adequate road system for its small population and it is now time to properly invest in rail and public transport. We need to vote these spendthrifts out, before they scupper our economy on their “Think-Big” wish-list of uneconomic roads.

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