Saturday, 12 February 2011

Down Under Tour 2011: WELLINGTON

When it comes to suburban rail, New Zealand's capital city Wellington is certainly number one in the country, with four electrified lines running to the northern and northeastern suburbs from a terminal station located at the northern fringe of the city centre. Trains are not modern, but good enough to provide a decent service, mostly every 30 minutes on each line, with some additional trains, some of which run express, during peak hours. Similar to Auckland, the trains are staffed with several conductors checking tickets as passengers get on. On the busier two lines, the Hutt Valley Line (HVL) and the Paraparaumu Line (PPL), trains can be made up of six carriages, whereas the other two lines, the Johnsonville Line (JVL) and the Melling Line (MEL - actually a short branch of the HVL) mostly 2-car trains are used, although on the JVL also 4-car trains can be seen. The MEL does not operate on weekends, whereas the other lines also maintain a 30-minute headway on Saturdays and Sundays. The system is operated with the proud name of “TranzMetro”.

The JVL, which is actually the original route of the North Island Trunk Line towards Auckland, is a steep single track line with various tunnels and passing loops. It is basically separated from the other lines from Wellington Station, although the tracks it normally uses are linked to the other tracks there. This line has recently been upgraded in preparation for the new Matangi trains about to enter service; unfortunately I only spotted one of them on a test run. Meanwhile, this line is operated with EMUs from the 1950s. It is a quite picturesque line as it winds its way up the mountain and provides some nice views of the bay.

The PPL will be extended further north on 20 February 2011 from Paraparaumu to Waikanae and will change its name to the Kapiti Line (named after the region it serves), although the new timetable still has the “PPL” abbreviation. For the extension of the suburban service the line was doubled and electrified, and a new, though simple station built at Waikanae. The PPL is mostly double-track, although there is a single-track section with five tunnels along the coast between Muri and Paekakariki. There are two longer tunnels after the PPL diverges from the HVL, which were built in the 1930s to create a more direct and less steep route for the mainline to Auckland. The PPL route is also served by one daily passenger train to and from Auckland, “the Overlander” (12 hours!), as well as the “Capital Connection” a daily commuter train to/from Palmerston North.

The HVL serves the Hutt Valley, a fast growing region on the other side of the Wellington Bay. Due to its location, the City of Wellington can actually not expand any further, as the flat downtown area is surrounding by hills, which are already built-up where possible or provide a protected green belt for the city, so the only space for urban expansion is further north into the Kapiti Region or northeast into the Hutt Valley. The HVL therefore provides an essential service to the latter area, with the line running directly along the bay (and a motorway) as it leaves Wellington, so this section also provides a nice view. Five trains hauled by diesel locos run from Wellington via Upper Hutt to Masterton in the Wairarapa region, but these cannot be considered part of the suburban rail system (they also have a different fare).

So all in all, the TranzMetro provides a good service, but for many commuters the railway station in Wellington is located too far from where they want to go, so they have to change to the urban buses to reach their final destinations. Several proposal have been presented in the past to extend the rail system further south, and activist group “Trans-Action”, whose members gave me a warm welcome to their city, works hard to introduce a kind of tram-train system for Wellington, with trains continuing through the city centre along the so-called “Golden Mile” to eventually reach the airport located almost at the southern tip of the peninsula. Considering that the JVL has just been upgraded for the new heavy-rail, high-floor rolling stock, some obstacles will have to be overcome to fight this idea through.

Wellington is not only NZ's leader in suburban rail, but has also the most environment-friendly bus system, as it boasts quite a large trolleybus network, apparently the only trolleybus system worldwide that operates on the left side. Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to explore it properly – simply because the trolleybuses remain in the depot on weekends for some strange reasons. While some lines are then operated with diesel buses, others don't operate at all. Still, the city's main transit corridor is used by numerous diesel buses also during the week, which often form clusters which reduces their travel speed through downtown.

Last but not least, the Wellington Cable Car deserves a mention, too, as this is authentic urban rail. It is also a major tourist attraction as visitors can enjoy a great view from the top and start their downhill walk through the Botanical Gardens, but it is also used by many locals to climb up the steep mountain from Lambton Quay, the city's major shopping street. It is called a “cable car” as it was indeed operated in the early days like the San Francisco cable trams, but it was rebuilt into a normal Swiss-type funicular in the 1970s.

Wellington still has some homework to do to create an integrated ticket system, the first steps having been made with the Snapper smartcard which can be used at least on all buses operated by different operators. I had an Explorer Pass which cost me 20 NZD (some 12 €) for one day and covered trains and buses, a Rover Ticket is available at 13 NZD to be used only on the train network.

See also Wellington at UrbanRail.Net


  1. Snapper can only be used on Go Wellington and Valley Flyer buses. Not all buses as you quoted.

    Valley Flyer also operate Runcimans (commuter & scools buses) and Airport Flyer.

  2. It's a shame your visit wasn't in a few months time when many of the brand new electric multiple units currently being tested will have been introduced and the 1950's EMU's will be in the process of being retired.

  3. yes you are saying right the train facility of Wellington is good for providing enough service but if you want to enjoy each and every moment of your trip than you have to use your private vehicle.


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