Follow us on Twitter

The CRL and City Centre Office Shortages

When the government finally announced they would support the CRL – but starting in 2020 – they listed two targets that would need to be on track to being met to bring construction forward.

  1. Rail Patronage to double to 20 million
  2. CBD employment to increase by 25%

We’ve written about both of these a number of times before. I personally think it’s quite possible that we will reach the 20 million patronage target early, especially if we can continue the current growth of over 12% per annum. The harder target – and dodgier one – is to increase CBD employment by 25%. It’s more dodgy as it appears to be being used as an indicator of travel demand but there are many other factors that might increase demand for rail e.g. increases in parking prices and the number of students.

An article in the Herald on Tuesday highlights just how hard the employment growth number will be.

Auckland businesses are squeezed for office space, and the central city is experiencing its most critical shortages of commercial real estate on record.

So rents could be about to shoot up fast.

Chris Dibble, Colliers International’s national research manager, said latest analysis of vacancy rates surprised him because it showed that an area less than the size of a soccer field was available to lease.

“We knew it was going to be low, but not this low. The prime sector for premium and A-grade vacancy rates in Auckland CBD is just 1.4 per cent, beating our expectations of 2 per cent. It was 4.7 per cent six months ago and the 20-year average is 8.2 per cent,” he found.

“The vacant space aggregates to just 6116sq m, less than a soccer field and unprecedented in our records which began 20 years ago,” Dibble said.

“Auckland CBD property houses some of the most productive businesses in New Zealand and with little space available for expansion, we are stalling the potential growth of the country at a critical time in the cycle.

“In a market that needs to attract quality staff through quality environments, the lack of available space and developments nearing completion means we will stumble just as we were making headwinds in what has been a tough slog for many. There are only 11 prime buildings with vacant space available. Only eight buildings can accommodate more than 20 staff (currently 11 per cent of the overall CBD market).

“Only seven are able to accommodate less than 20 staff. Tenants who haven’t found suitable accommodation will have to forgo quality or wait until early 2016 for a slight reprieve from spec builds such as Mansons TCLM’s development or Goodman Group.

In effect CBD job growth – which has been strong in the last few years – is going to dry up simply because there’s not much office space left and there’s not a huge amount to come on stream any time soon. Office space will get a bit of a bump from the Precinct Properties redevelopment of the Downtown Mall site but that won’t come on stream till 2019. That development though will see at least the first part of the CRL constructed as it absolutely has to happen at the same time as the redevelopment seeing as it passes through the basement.

Holiday Highway approved

Yesterday the Board of Inquiry announced their draft decision for the Puhoi – Warkworth motorway. Disappointingly they approved the Notices of Requirements and other related consents. This of course was in sharp contrast to the decision of another Board of Enquiry to reject the Basin Reserve flyover, which was announced earlier in the week.

Many serious concerns were raised about the proposal during the hearings stage. Cameron Pitches from the Campaign for Better Transport raised a number of concerns about the traffic modelling, alternatives and economic analysis of the projects. These were covered in series of posts back in April and May

Generation Zero (who I submitted for) also raised similar concerns about economics and alternatives.

Unfortunately all these serious concerns were dismissed by the Board of Inquiry. These are excerpts from the draft decision which can be found on the EPA website here.

379. The application documents filed by NZTA are comprehensive. Consultation with interested and affected groups has been extensive, spanning in some cases several years. Section 7 “alternatives” in the AEE sets out in detail the process whereby NZTA considered the various options and alternatives open to it. The Board is satisfied that the consideration of alternatives to the proposed route and designations by NZTA was conscientious and comprehensive. Many evaluation criteria were deployed, including a “value for money” criterion. Seven broad corridor options were evaluated. Inside the various sectors of the proposed motorway short-listed route options were considered and assessed.

385. The ‘do nothing’ option and alternatives proposed by some submitters of upgrading the current SH1 also merits a brief comment. The benefits (assuming appropriate mitigation) of the proposed motorway over the current SH1 route are compelling in terms of road safety, travel times and more efficient fuel consumption. Schedewys Hill features large. The effect of slow heavy vehicles travelling north up this hill on speed, travel time and fuel consumption of other traffic is considerable. The cost of converting the current SH1 alignment on the hill to three or four lanes would be significant, requiring cantilevering over the edge of the hill feature, quite apart from considerations of gradient.

Both of these comments are frustrating.  On the first point, the NZTA provided no rationale for the four lane RoNS standard.  No reason was stated for the requirement that the road should be tollable, thus ruling out an upgrade of the existing alignment.

On the second point, the Board claims the benefits of the toll road are compelling, however NZTA never quantified the benefits of the toll road in the form of a Cost Benefit Analysis that complies with their own economic evaluation manual.  Similarly a Cost Benefit Analysis was not performed on any alternative.

Another part of decision is interesting in that it highlights the need for submitters to bring along experts to ensure their points can be accessed. This of course usually requires substantial sums of money to be raised by these groups, which can be very difficult unless there are wealthy local residents who are locally affected. This was the case with the Kapiti Expressway and Basin Reserve, but not the case with the Puhoi – Warkworth highway. It is also extremely difficult to find an expert willing to go up against the NZTA.

One of the difficulties with which these submissions posed the Board is that no expert evidence was called to challenge the economic and cost- benefit assumptions on which NZTA’s applications were based.

The Board does have the power to appoint their own experts, however they chose not to.  The proposed highway would also have substantial negative environmental effects from earthworks, sedimentation of streams and harbours. These effects were said to be covered by the conditions, most of which were written by NZTA and presented to the board. However some stricter conditions on sedimentation and monitoring were put in place.

Especially contentious during the hearing was the removal of several stands of native bush, including a 0.44ha grove of kauri trees. However the BOI found they were unable to require the designation to be shifted away from the kauri trees!

362. As discussed in Chapter 8.3, the Board considered whether it had the power to shift the designation further east to avoid the kauri stand, in response to submissions received and their own concerns. The Board considered that it did not have the power to modify the designation boundary to an extent sufficient to achieve that outcome.

The news to grant the decision was obviously welcomed by the Government and NZTA, who both are determined to push on with the highway. However the consent of course does not mean that the highway has to go ahead. The claimed $760 million cost (nowhere in the application documents is the cost stated, this is the most recent figure from 2012)  is totally out of proportion to the benefits that result, and the Campaign for Better Transport alternative would ensure that the safety blackspots are fixed. The NZTA release noted that the highway won’t be finished until 2019 at the earliest. That means that no progress would have been made of fixing existing safety issues for over a decade. A focus on safety could have eliminated these blackspots already.

Of course there is sure to be excitement from Northland leaders who have been seduced by the highway. However this highway will cost about twice as much as the NZTA have spent on both existing and new state highways in Northland over the last decade! Northland leaders should really think again about the link between Roads of National Significance and the cuts to regional and rural roading budgets.

Few seem to realise that the new toll road will be just 700m shorter than the existing route, shaving just three minutes from current travel times outside of the holiday period. Reaction from Warkworth locals suggests that they have no idea that they won’t actually benefit from the toll road.  Because the northern junction lies two km north of Hill Street, any Warkworth resident using the toll road will travel about four km further for trips south than if they just use SH1.

Here is a simple proposal highlighting what could be done for the same amount of money.

  • $240 million – Operation Lifesaver including Warkworth bypass and safety upgrades
  • $350 million – One third of the government contribution to the City Rail Link
  • $160 million – Special boost for funding of Northland transport infrastructure. Could cover safety upgrades needed on the Brynderwyns (which has been closed for the last week) and other key routes, as well as major upgrades to the rail network which could carry substantially more freight. This would double the amount of funding spent in Norhtland over the next decade.

Splitting the the funding along these lines would deliver much greater benefits to Aucklanders, Northland and users of the existing road. The funding of the road will be the next step of the project. Given the current stress of the transport budget, and the hundreds of millions in loans required for Auckland projects hard to see how the National Land Transport Fund can cover this. Their have been rumors of a Public-Private Partnership approach for this, but of course that would mean this would be an even bigger drain on the budget, just spread out over several decades instead.

“Hideously inefficient” road spending in Australia

For an interesting Friday afternoon read, here‘s an article from Australia which may ring true for New Zealand as well – especially given the possibility that National is considering an absolutely daft idea, creating a second road-only Waitemata Harbour crossing. From The Age:

More than $20 billion a year of national road funding is being spent in a “hideously inefficient” manner, according to a leaked assessment by Australia’s independent infrastructure umpire.

The Infrastructure Australia report, obtained by Fairfax Media, has also delivered a scathing critique of “monopoly” state-run road entities such as VicRoads, claiming a culture of resisting reform has led to a situation  in which political leaders are held “captive” to demands for more funding.

I don’t know about New Zealand’s current political leaders being held captive… unless perhaps it’s a case of Stockholm Syndrome?
The report was titled “Spend more, waste more, Australia’s roads in 2014: moving beyond gambling”, which seems like a fairly provocative title for a report. It seems fairly likely that someone will get a clip round the ear and a more mundane title (and report) released later this year. Reading on:

“The unhealthy focus of road agencies appears set on ‘getting, controlling and spending’ more taxpayer money, rather than questioning efficiency or value to the motorist and governments,” the report says.

The report, which claimed Australia has a “gambler’s addiction to roads”, said national road spending is now outstripping revenue raised through road-related taxes and charges, warning “Australia’s thirst for roads” would come at the expense of other services as the gap continues to widen. In the four years to June 30, 2012, road spending outstripped road revenue by $4.5 billion.

Of course, we’re in a similar position in New Zealand, with National now reaching beyond the NLTF to pay for its spending on roads.

It suggested there was little consideration of whether Australia’s demands for new roads should be satisfied, and argued that rail funding had missed out as a result.

“The current Australian system assumes that roads are an answer to most transport problems and seeks more and more funding to that end, with little consideration of alternatives that most other developed parts of the world enjoy, such as significant heavy intercontinental rail networks and dominant heavy mass transit systems.”

“[Road proposals seen by Infrastructure Australia] were almost universally poor, in that they lacked any cost-benefit rigour whatsoever,” it said. “The real problem is that road agencies and other road project proponents in industry and the community spend next to no effort examining what problems their projects and plans are trying to solve, other than the perceived problem that they do not have enough road funding.”

Overall, a fairly damning indictment of Australian transportation policy, and we’ll be eagerly waiting for the final (or at least, public) version of the report.

Accelerating the Additional Harbour Crossing project?

Yesterday was a busy day for transport news. Alongside Gerry Brownlee’s strange airport escapade, Labour Transport Spokesman Phil Twyford dropped a bit of a bombshell in relation to the possible acceleration of the Additional Waitemata Habour Crossing (AWHC) project as well as the exclusion of the project’s rail component:

Labour Transport spokesperson Phil Twyford says it has been leaked to him that John Key will rule out a rail option when announcing an accelerated timeframe for Auckland’s $5 billion second harbour crossing next month.

“I understand the Government’s plan is for a roads-only option which would be a giant wasted opportunity to connect rail to the North Shore and link it up with the City Rail Link and the rest of the regional rail network,” says Mr Twyford.

“Aucklanders want their cars but they also realise it is past time to start investing in a modern public transport network. We’ve seen that in recent polls.

“This Government has not initiated a single new public transport infrastructure project in Auckland since it came to office.

“They announced an $800 million transport package for Auckland in the Budget but there wasn’t one public transport project in it. They even rejected officials’ advice to extend the wildly successful Northern Busway.

“If National goes ahead with the second harbour crossing but doesn’t include rail, it would be a major blunder on a par with National’s decision to build the first harbour bridge on the cheap, with clip-ons needed shortly after,” says Phil Twyford.

There’s been no confirmation of the announcement by the government. The Campaign for Better Transport’s media release in response highlights a number of the concerns we’ve had about this project over the past months and years:

The Campaign for Better Transport said today that the Government’s idea of an additional road only Waitemata Harbour Crossing hasn’t been thought through.

“We all know that the Northern Motorway and approaches are notoriously congested at peak times, so local support probably stems from the belief that this congestion will somehow be solved,” said spokesperson Cameron Pitches.

“However, the net effect of a road only crossing will be that in the morning peak, the Auckland CBD will be flooded with thousands of extra single occupant cars looking for a car park. The Central Motorway Junction will also be a bottleneck without more lanes, but there is no room for more.

“And in the evening peak the already congested Northern Motorway will grind to a halt, as six lanes converge into three.”

Mr Pitches says a far better solution would be a rail only crossing that would extend from the City Rail Link to Albany on the North Shore.

“The Northern Busway is enormously popular and is a great example of a system that can carry far more people at peak times than single occupant cars. High capacity rail would be the logical next step.”

Mr Pitches said that a recent report identified that the cost of a rail link connecting the City Rail Link to Albany on the North Shore would be about $2.5bn.

“It is clear that the Government’s proposal and any alternatives have not been through Treasury’s better business case process.  There is no urgency with the project either as the yet to be completed Western Ring Route is designed to reduce traffic volumes on the bridge,” said Mr Pitches.

The Goverment is yet to make an official announcement on how a new crossing would be funded, but Mr Pitches suspects it would have to be tolled due to the multi-billion dollar cost of the project.

“The Government also needs to be honest and reveal how much the toll will be for the new crossing, and if the current Harbour Bridge will be tolled as well.”

“It just makes no sense.  The Government has just been caught out not doing a comprehensive assessment of alternatives for the Basin Reserve.  You would think they would want to avoid making the same mistake twice,” concludes Mr Pitches.

Our most comprehensive criticism of the project is in a recent post here, with a quick summary being that it seems Auckland’s most expensive ever proposed project is likely to make things worse for traffic rather than better, particularly by feeding thousands more cars into a city centre that can’t cope with any more of them.

If it does get announced as speculated would Len Brown be brave enough to say no to it ? Given his previous comments I don’t think so. Let’s hope the announcement – if there even is one – only relates to progressing route protection for the project, which was already announced last year by the Prime Minister.

Gerry Brownlee offers to resign

Gerry Brownlee offered to resign as Transport Minster today after getting caught out skipping security at Christchurch airport.

Prime Minister John Key says he was “really disappointed” after Gerry Brownlee bypassed airport security this morning, but he has been quick to back him.

Mr Brownlee and two of his staff deliberately bypassed airport security at Christchurch airport this morning. He offered his resignation as Transport Minister, but that was swiftly rejected by the PM.

“Running late for a plane this morning, I took a door that is normally used for an exit at Christchurch airport onto the forecourt … and you’re supposed to go through airport security,” Mr Brownlee told reporters this afternoon.

He said he did not give it any thought, but has now apologised unreservedly for the action.

Mr Brownlee only offered his resignation after he was contacted by Aviation Security.

In defending him John Key has said

“He’s offered his resignation and I’ve decided, on balance, not to accept his resignation. In making that decision, I considered the whole matter very seriously.

“But I had to weigh up all of the tremendous things he’s done in the six years he’s served as a minister.

So let’s have a quick poll, do you think the Prime Minister should have accepted his resignation over this? One thing to think about is if he had of, who would have replaced him and for that the most likely candidate would be his predecessor – Steven Joyce.

Should John Key have accepted Gerry Brownlee's Resignation

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Note: I think this one could end up a very lopsided poll.

Should we charge tourists extra for driving on NZ roads?

There have been a few suggestions recently that international tourists should be paying more to drive in New Zealand, or have to pass a driving test, or things along those lines. Winston Aldworth, the Travel Editor at the Herald, wrote a column last week suggesting that we should charge a fee for tourists who want to drive on our roads, along the lines of a new scheme in Germany (which was also described in the Herald last week, although the article doesn’t seem to be online).

Would this scheme be fair in New Zealand?

Winston writes: “many tourists on these shores rely on (and clog up) the roads from Cape Reinga to Bluff. It seems fair they should chip in for maintenance and improvements”. It does indeed seem fair, but tourists already do pay for these things. It’s built into the cost of the petrol they use, or the Road User Charges if they hire a diesel vehicle. That money goes straight to the National Land Transport Fund, where it pays for all state highway costs and around half of local road costs (the rest comes from rates). So I don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest that international tourists aren’t paying their way.

Based on data from the Retail Trade Survey and Tourism Satellite Account, it seems that international tourists account for around 5-6% of sales in petrol stations. Clearly, most of the long-distance trips around the country are being done by Kiwis, not overseas visitors. It’s also likely that most of the trips taken by international tourists are on roads which aren’t particularly congested, and not really in need of upgrades. Most of these visitors don’t make it up to Cape Reinga or down to Bluff. International tourist spending is fairly heavily concentrated in just a few parts of the country, including Auckland, Queenstown, Rotorua and so on.

How much would this scheme raise?

Winston suggests that international visitors buy a $50 permit, which lets them drive for up to a year. “The money raised could go into a protected fund, ring-fenced from other spending… [and used] to kickstart funding on our most important roads”.

2.8 million visitors arrive in New Zealand each year, and when you take out those who won’t be driving and those who visit several times in the same year, you might be left with around half that number (just a guess). So, 1.4 million visitors times $50 gives $70 million – and I think I’m being generous with the figure, with not taking GST out of it, and not allowing for administration and compliance costs. Even so, it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of transport funding.

The Cook Islands

Winston points out that, for many years, the Cook Islands charged tourists $20 for a driver’s license, although they have recently gotten rid of the system. The situation in the Cooks is a bit different from NZ. They’ve got an economy which is almost entirely dependent on tourism. Their system was a way to get that little bit extra out of the tourists and into state coffers, and encourage tourists to visit the Avarua town centre (the police station is centrally located, and visitors will hopefully spend some money in the shops while they’re at it). It also gives the tourists a nice souvenir, which was a big part of not making them grumpy about the charge. Although, it seems, plenty got grumpy anyway – especially when they had a long wait for the license – and this seems to have been a big reason for dropping the system.

SAM_2433 smaller

The other interesting thing about the Cook Islands is that it clearly doesn’t raise enough tax revenue to maintain its roads, or its other infrastructure for that matter. It relies on international aid to make up the difference. But every time a New Zealander drives around Rarotonga, they’re being subsidised courtesy of that system.

Now, if we’re really wanting to earn more money from overseas visitors, we can either invest in our tourism offering (and we do), or ramp up our marketing (and we’re doing that too), or we can raise money for the government in a cheap-to-administer scheme like a departure tax or similar. But let’s not stick the poor buggers with some kind of overpriced driving permit.

Location affordability in New Zealand cities – is greenfield growth really affordable?

Several weeks ago I attended the annual New Zealand Association of Economists conference in Auckland. Geoff Cooper, Auckland Council’s Chief Economist, had organised several sessions on urban issues, and as a result there was a lot of excellent discussion of urban issues and Auckland’s housing market. You can see the full conference programme and some papers here.

At the conference, I presented some new research on housing and transport costs in New Zealand’s main urban areas. My working paper, enticingly entitled Location Affordability in New Zealand Cities: An Intra-Urban and Comparative Perspective, can be read in full here (pdf). Before I discuss the results, I’d like to thank my employer, MRCagney, for giving me the time and the data to write the paper, along with several of my colleagues for help with the analysis, and Geoff Cooper for suggesting the topic and providing helpful feedback along the way.

The aim of the paper was to provide broader and more meaningful estimates of location affordability that take into account all costs faced by households. In my view, widely-reported sources such as Massey University’s Home Affordability Report have too narrow a focus, looking only at house prices. However, a range of research has found that transport costs vary between different locations depending upon a range of factors such as urban form, availability of transport, and accessibility to jobs and services. And transport costs are pretty large for many households!

I used two methods to provide a more comprehensive estimate of location affordability in Auckland, Wellington, and Canterbury. First, I used Census 2013 data to estimate household housing, car ownership, and commute spending at a detailed area level within each of the three regions. This allowed me to estimate variations in affordability between areas within individual regions. Second, I used household budget survey data to get a sense of how New Zealand cities stack up against other New World cities.

My main findings were as follows:

  • First, rents (a proxy measure for housing costs) tended to fall with distance from the city centre. However, commute costs tended to rise with distance – meaning that outlying areas were less affordable for residents once all costs are included. This was consistent with previous work on location affordability in New Zealand and the United States.
  • Second, international comparisons suggest that Auckland and Wellington have relatively high housing costs and that this may be driving some of the affordability findings. While this finding lines up with previous research that’s focused on house prices alone, it’s important to note that the location affordability estimates suggest that a focus on greenfields growth alone may not save households money.
  • Third, while I didn’t identify any specific policy recommendations, I’d recommend that (a) policymakers should consider all location-related costs when attempting to address affordability for households and that (b) further research should focus on removing barriers to increasing the supply of dwellings in relatively accessible areas.

And now for some pictures.

These maps show two measures of location affordability within Auckland. The left-hand map shows estimated housing costs (i.e. rents) as a share of median household incomes at a detailed area level. Broadly speaking, this map shows that expected housing costs fall between 20% and 30% of household income in most of the city, although some areas are relatively less affordable.

The right-hand map, on the other hand, incorporates expected car ownership and commute costs. Overall location affordability is lower throughout the city. Expected housing and transport costs rise to 40-50% in areas of west and south Auckland, as well as the entire Whangaparoa Peninsula. The most affordable areas for their residents tend to be in Auckland’s inner isthmus suburbs.

Auckland map 1 Rent share Auckland map 2 HT share

(Click to enlarge)

I’ve also combined this data into a graph that presents location affordability by distance from Auckland’s city centre. The bottom (blue) line shows housing costs as a share of median household income, weighted across all area units within each 2-kilometre concentric circle radiating outwards from the city centre. It shows that, on average, households spend a similar share of their overall income on housing costs in both close-in and outlying suburbs.

The top (red) line shows that combined housing, car ownership, and commute costs increase as a share of household incomes with increasing distance from the city centre. On average, households that live further out of Auckland spend more on location-related costs, as lower lower rents are offset by added commute costs.

Auckland H_T distance chart

The results for Wellington and Christchurch were broadly similar – although with a few interesting differences related to their urban form and transport choices. However, as this is the Auckland Transport Blog, I’m going to suggest that you read the paper to see those results. It’s long, but it also presents a lot of new data on housing and transport costs in New Zealand.

Robert Ellis’s apocalyptic vision of Auckland

This blog has often written about Auckland’s 1950s-era motorway development plan, which transformed the city in fundamental ways. New Zealand painter Robert Ellis was one of the first to grasp the significance and character of that transformation. His Motorway/City series, painted in the 1960s and 1970s, shows roads invading and dividing urban space. (As they proceeded to do in real life.)

The Auckland City Gallery is about to host an exhibition of Ellis’s paintings that will run from 9 August 2014 to 15 March 2015. From the press release:

Opening on Saturday 9 August at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Robert Ellis: Turangawaewae | A Place to Stand is the first solo exhibition in a public museum by senior Auckland artist, Robert Ellis in his ‘hometown’. Including many of his most important paintings, the exhibition will present Turangawaewae Maehe 1983, painted in 1983, a gift from the Friends of the Auckland Art Gallery to mark their 60th anniversary this year.

‘Together with Auckland artists Colin McCahon, Milan Mrkusich, Pat Hanly and Gretchen Albrecht, Ellis is nationally regarded for producing ambitious paintings on a large scale,’ says Auckland Art Gallery Senior Curator New Zealand and Pacific Art, Ron Brownson. ‘As a major figure, Ellis’ art addresses many cultural issues. His subjects range over tensions between transport and urbanism, contrast ecology with spirituality and look at the on-going nature of Māori-Pākehā relations.’

Here’s one of the more well-known works from Ellis’s Motorway/City series, which can usually be seen in the City Gallery:

Now, I’m an economist rather than an art historian, but Ellis’s vision of the city seemed to be something new in New Zealand art. New Zealand artists had not tended to focus on cities – think of all the attention Colin McCahon lavished on New Zealand landscapes – and when they did, it was to present vague, idealised scenes. Ellis was different. He showed the city in the process of expanding and mutating, and in the process creating a different New Zealand.

Here’s number 15 from the Motorway/City series. It contrasts New Zealand’s stereotypically bucolic rural space (below) with the encroaching city (above). The latter is dynamic, disordered, vaguely sinister. (What was it that Allan Ginsberg wrote about “Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone”…) And it is ceaselessly growing into the countryside.

In other paintings, Ellis depicts the city not as the invader of a rural landscape but as an invaded space. Motorway/City number 22, for example, appears to show an existing urban fabric, complete with a more or less rectilinear street grid, that has been overwritten by the smooth curves of the motorway. The pre-existing city has rendered incomprehensible in the process – notice how the lines of the motorway draw in your attention instead.

I’m often struck by how quickly artists and writers grasp emerging truths, especially when compared with technical experts of various stripes. Robert Ellis’s art was an especially prescient view of New Zealand cities – painted at a time when New Zealand had barely begun to think of itself as an urban country and when the promise of the motorway was still novel enough to be seductive. I highly recommend going to see the upcoming exhibition.

Why are the electric trains so slow?

In the first week or two of the Onehunga Line’s switch to electric trains there were major issues with the trains keeping to timetable, apparently due to overly conservative speed restrictions being put in the trains as part of their safety systems. It seems like the Onehunga Line’s bugs are sorting themselves out in more recent times, but a further article yesterday highlighted that it might be a long time before we see the trains providing their promised speed boost:

Auckland’s new $400 million electric trains will run as slow as their diesel counterparts for at least another year, Auckland Transport says.

Auckland Transport spokesman Mark Hannan said the electric trains would reach their full potential after all 39 diesel passenger trains were removed from the network.

“We can’t really get the proper benefit from them until the full rollout when everything is electric, which will be the middle of next year,” Hannan said.

Also, new timetables will need to be introduced and software controlling the trains’ speed, called European Train Control Systems (ETCS), will need to be reprogrammed to improve transit times, he said.

The ETCS is a protection system to assist train drivers and ensure advised speeds and signal rules are adhered to and to prevent collisions. If drivers operate trains outside a designated speed range the system intervenes to limit speed.

The restrictions created by running mixed electric and diesel fleets is understandable, as otherwise the electrics would soon catch up to any diesel train ahead of them and throw out timetable consistency. The issue with ECTS is more worrying though, as this should have been sorted out a long time ago to ensure the promised 10 minute faster journey times between Britomart and Swason/Papakura are delivered.

Adding to this worry, the train drivers’ union RMTU doesn’t seem to think the electric trains will be able to deliver the promised speed increase without a major upgrade to the signalling system:

But the Rail and Maritime Transport Union (RMTU) said the 57 new electric trains would not be able to speed up until a costly upgrade of the ETCS software.

RMTU general secretary Wayne Butson said Auckland Transport had bought the cheapest, entry-level ETCS software.

The only way to increase speeds would be to upgrade to more expensive versions, which could handle trains running closer to each other, he said.

“I’m told that Auckland would operate a lot better if it purchased two or three versions higher,” Butson said.

Train drivers were frustrated they could not operate the trains to timetable, he said.

“We believe that it was a foreseeable issue.”

I’m not sure just how true this is as the same signalling systems is used in a number of countries including on some high speed lines while the stand two levels up is still under development so it’s not like we could have brought that. Also leading me to be cautious about Wayne Butsons comments is that the signalling system wasn’t brought by Auckland Transport but by Kiwirail (who own and run it) and the contracts for the system were signed before AT even existed.

If true that the signalling system is causing extra delays though then this is a screw-up of unbelievable proportions. We did not spend $1.1 billion on rail electrification and new trains to find that we can’t run them faster than the old ones because someone got cheap and nasty with the system. I sure hope the responsible parties sort the issue out to ensure the 10 minute time savings can be delivered as promised – otherwise a lot of heads will need to roll.

Basin Bridge Bowled

In stunning news yesterday the Board of Inquiry hearing the case for the Basin Bridge bowled out the NZTA by declined consent for the project.  This is what it would have looked like had it been approved:

All up the bridge would have been 265m long and carved a slice out of Wellington’s urban fabric at a time when other cities around the world are starting to pull these kinds of structures down – and finding it doesn’t cause traffic chaos.

The independent Board of Inquiry delegated to hear and decide the Basin Bridge Proposal of National Significance has released its draft report and decision.

The Board by majority decision (3 to 1), has cancelled the New Zealand Transport Agency’s Notice of Requirement and declined its resource consent applications for the construction, operation and maintenance of State Highway 1 in Wellington City between Paterson Street and Buckle Street/Taranaki Street.

The draft report and decision is available on the EPA website here: http://www.epa.govt.nz/Resource-management/Basin_Bridge/Pages/Basin_Bridge.aspx

A total of 215 submissions were received, and evidence was heard from 69 witnesses and representations by a further 74 submitters.

The applicant and other parties now have 20 days to make comments on minor or technical aspects of the report.

The Board will provide its final decision to the EPA by 30 August 2014.

Basin Bridge Image 1

This is quite a setback for both the NZTA and the government as the project is a key part of the Roads of National Significance (RoNS) programme and the Board of Inquiry (BoI) process was specifically set up to try and streamline the consent process for large projects. One of the key changes the government made in creating the BoI process was that appeals against can be made to the High Court on points of law only, and any decision cannot be overturned by the Minister. The outcome of this is that it’s meant agencies have had to do much more work upfront as there’s no second chance if they get it wrong. This led to the process taking longer to ensure all I’s were dotted and all T’s crossed and that extra length of time along with the risk of getting it wrong is one of the reasons Auckland Transport went with the traditional consenting method for the CRL.

But the NZTA clearly got this one wrong and have paid the price by not getting consent. This has effectively sent them back to square one and a flyover option is now off the table.

Basin Bridge Image 2

The report on the BoI’s findings runs to almost 600 pages so naturally I haven’t had time to go through it all yet however I here are some points I picked up on about their decision which starts from page 444 (page 453 of the PDF).

  • That while the project would improve the cities transport system that it would do so at the expense of heritage, landscape, visual amenity, open space and overall amenity.
  • They are uncertain how the plan would have actually accommodated for Bus Rapid Transit as proposed in the Spine Study.
  • That the quantum of transport benefits were substantially less than what the NZTA originally said in lodging the NoR as they included transport benefits from other projects.
  • That while North/South buses would be sped up, that the modelling doesn’t show any impact effect of this on modal change.
  • That while there are some improvements for cyclists it’s mostly in the form of shared paths which will introduce potential conflicts between pedestrians and cyclists.
  • That the dominance of the bridge would cause severe adverse affects on the local area and the mitigation measures proposed would do little to reduce that. They also found the new building proposed for the Basin Reserve would exacerbate this.

Perhaps some of the most damming criticism is in relation to the consideration of alternatives. The board say that despite there having been 73 different options considered since 2001 that the methodology wasn’t transparent and replicable. They say that weightings were applied to some criteria at different stages of the process but that it wasn’t clear how criteria were weighted and the reason for any weighting. They say that in their view it was incumbent on the NZTA to ensure it adequately considered alternative options, particularly those with potentially reduced adverse effects. This simply was not done. Of course you may remember that the issue around alternatives was one of the critical issues highlighted in the independent review the BoI arranged.

I think the issue of the inadequacy of the assessment of alternatives is particularly important as that has been a key criticism of the Puhoi to Warkworth route, a decision on which is due back shortly.

Basin Bridge Image 4

Interestingly not all of the commissioners on the panel believed that the consent should be declined. Commissioner David McMahon voted to the project saying that in his mind the benefits outweighed the impacts of the project will have. His reasoning for doing so are also in the report.

The big question now is what next. The NZTA has to go back to the drawing board to find or progress some alternative options but how will the government react. As of the time of writing this post I still hadn’t seen any response from the government despite this putting a huge dent in the RoNS programme.

Overall this is a fantastic result for Wellington and congratulations to all those like Save the Basin who put huge amounts effort in to fighting this project.