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The Parsons Brinkerhoff Study

As part of the formulation of the Regional Land Transport Strategy, which is now open for submissions until December 18th, the Auckland Regional Council looked at a range of options to set the ‘strategic direction’ behind the RLTS that they have eventually come up with. These options are briefly outlined below:rlts-options The option they have ended up choosing seems to be a bit of a hybrid of all of the above – a bit of demand management (but not road pricing for now) a bit of continued road investment, a bit of public transport led change, and something of a quantum leap. I guess overall it seems like the ARC has gone with a watered down (or realistic, depending on your viewpoint) version of Strategic Option 3.

By law, the RLTS is required to give effect to the New Zealand Transport Strategy 2008 (yes I know, there are an enormous number of transport plans and statements and strategies out there). One of the targets set by the NZTS that the RLTS should give effect to is a rise in annual public transport boardings per capita from 40 to 117 boardings. In the end, the preferred option is considered unlikely to meet this target (although you never know!), but a bit of analysis went into looking at what might be necessary to achieve such a goal. The results of that study, conducted by international transport consultancy Parsons Brinkerhoff, are actually quite interesting. This is the same study I referred to (but never had a full copy of until recently) quite a number of months ago when I learned of discussions about a possible “Auckland Metro System“.

I think it was a good idea bringing in an international firm to take a look at this issue – as one gets the feeling that often we can lose sight of the forest for the trees when it comes to transport matters in Auckland, as the famous saying goes. Parsons Brinkerhoff took the opportunity for a ‘clean slate’ look at what would be needed to reach the optimistic target for public transport use set in the New Zealand Transport Strategy:parsons1 I think they made a bit of a typo mixing up low and high population growth, but despite that it’s pretty daunting to realise that the NZTS goal would involve at least a four-fold increase in the number of public transport users throughout this 30 year period. So what kind of system would be good enough to attract this many users?

This next image looks at the kind of integrated system that would be needed to make public transport a more attractive option than driving. While it’s much the same as what has been said a million times before, I think it makes a good point that we cannot realistically anticipate such high levels of public transport use if it is only of use to those working in the CBD. And to make public transport more useful for people who don’t work in the CBD, I don’t think we can get past the need for people to “transfer” between lines or modes. And to ensure those transfers don’t put people off using public transport, we will need exceptionally high frequencies. This is all outlined quite clearly below:parsons2

I think we’re starting to make improvements in this respect – with a separation of Rapid Transit Networks (RTNs), Quality Transit Networks (QTNs) and Local Connector Networks. However, there are barely any services in Auckland at the moment (aside from peak hour Northern Express and Dominion Road buses) that operate at the kind of frequencies that I think are needed for such a network to actually work. Hopefully that will improve over time though.

The next major issue outlined by the Parsons Brinkerhoff Study is that very little of Auckland is actually within close proximity to the current Rapid Transit Network. 74% of people live outside easy walking distance of a railway of busway station, while 57% of jobs are located beyond easy walking distance of a railway or busway station. Given that the RTN routes are generally the only (with a few exceptions) routes along which public transport is likely to be faster than someone driving (and therefore significantly increase the likeliness that they will choose public transport) Parsons Brinkerhoff make the point that a lot more people and jobs need to be brought within easy access of the networks. Obviously intensification forms a part of this, but so does extension of the RTN.parsons3 In developing their final plan for improvements to Auckland’s rapid transit system, Parsons Brinkerhoff focused on population and employment changes between now and 2050 – in particular on the Regional Growth Strategy, which is Auckland’s primary guiding document in terms of where additional people in Auckland will live and work between now and 2050. This makes a lot of sense, focusing on the future and finally doing what I really think needs to be hammered home as many times as possible: integrating land-use planning and transportation planning.parsons4Some important points have been picked up here: notably the need to ensure the growing Flat Bush/Dannemora/Botany Downs area has good public transport linkages, that Albany (which is to become the “CBD of the north”) also needs excellent linkages, and also that specific “corridors of development” such as along Dominion Road and Remuera Road, could also be a significant focus for intensification – so therefore warrant consideration for the location of a Rapid Transit Network.

The final plan makes for interesting reading actually – with the introduction of two pretty massive metro lines, as well as construction of rail to the airport. Some of this plan duplicates, at least to some extent, plans that have already been included in ARC or ARTA plans for many years – but there are a number of new options considered as well:

parsons5

The “Key functional characteristics” of the proposed Rapid Transit Network in Strategic Network Option 3 include:

1) The existing RTN rail network is enhanced by construction of the CBD Rail Loop, allowing much higher frequency services on the Western and Southern Lines (3 minute headways during peaks).
2) The Eastern Line would terminate at Britomart and its frequency would be increased to 12 trains per hour at peak times.
3) The Onehunga Branch Line would be converted to a shuttle service between Onehunga station and Penrose Station at a 10 minute headway (to allow higher frequency services on the southern line to Manukau)
4) The preferred SWRT option would be constructed Avondale-Airport-Puhinui and would operate every 5-10 minutes in each direction
5) The Manukau Rail Link would be completed
6) A new European Metro-style rail line would provide improved RTN links to the North Shore (Albany) and Dominion Road corridor. The Metro would be an underground rail line, highly integrated with surrounding development and offering a high quality separate route. Bus-based RTN services would extend north from Albany
�) The AMETI corridor would be served by a European-style Metro linking Manukau with Flatbush and Panmure before diverting via the Remuera Road corridor to Newmarket and Auckland CBD, then serving Ponsonby and Unitec to the west of the CBD

That is a pretty “wow” network I must say. Obviously it would cost an enormous amount to construct, and perhaps isn’t feasible for a good while yet, but it still makes for interesting reading as to what might be necessary in the future.

In the end, the Regional Transport Committee decided to not really take much notice of this report when outlining the “big ticket items” that have been included in the RLTS. The Manukau-Flat Bush-Panmure corridor is proposed to be served by a bus-based QTN in the short-term, with the possibility of upgrading to light-rail in the future; there are no real plans for Dominion Road to ever be anything more than a very well-served bus corridor, and there certainly are no plans for railway line underneath Remuera Road.

With regards to my opinion of what Parsons Brinkerhoff have done here, I think that it’s actually a very interesting insight into the issues faced by Auckland, but analysed from an outside perspective. I had never thought of connecting a railway line underneath Dominion Road with a railway line to the North Shore before I read this. I had never thought of extending a railway line from the east to Unitec, to serve the large number of students there either. While not all the ideas were practical (I think the plan was discarded as the number of passengers it would attract probably wasn’t worth the massive price tag it would inevitably have), I think that there is a lot that can be learned from this study. The Manukau-Flat Bush-Panmure RTN really should be rail, we shouldn’t discount turning the Northern Busway into a railway line in the future, and we really really should run our future railway lines from one side of the city, into the CBD and then out the other side.

It would be mightily awesome for Auckland to have a proper metro system, as can be seen in the image below metros certainly ‘set the standard’ when it comes to transport:parsons6

Maybe this might form the basis of the next RLTS. When petrol’s $4 a litre and there’s no pressure to spend any money on new motorways. In the meanwhile, at least I can dream.

Could congestion be a good thing?

If there’s one over-riding dogma for transport planners throughout the past 50 years it would be this: “congestion is bad”. Almost everything that transport planning, traffic engineering and anything else related to this field has been about over the past 50 years is based on the belief that congestion is a bad thing, and we should do everything we can to minimise, avoid or – at best – completely banish congestion. A few years ago someone (we’re not really sure who actually) came up with the statistic that congestion was costing Auckland a billion dollars a year, or close to it. That figure (wherever it came from) has been used to politically justify much of the money spent on ‘improving’ Auckland’s motorway network over the past few years, in particular the almost religious belief that the Western Ring Route is the solution to all our problems.

However, all of this is based on an assumption – that congestion is a bad thing. Now of course we all hate getting stuck in a traffic jam, as it wastes our time, causes frustration and (possibly) wastes our petrol as we sit there doing nothing. So perhaps it seems nonsensical that congestion would be anything but bad. However, taking a broad view of matters if you really think about it there are a number of positive effects of congestion, that could lead us to really questioning whether traffic congestion really is enemy number one for traffic planner and transport engineers around the world. This post explores that possibility.

A classic example of a congested route in Auckland is Onewa Road on the North Shore. I drive this road reasonably frequently, including at peak times (I know, bad me, but I don’t really have any practical alternatives), and it does get very congested indeed. During the morning peak the road operates as two lanes – a general traffic lane that edges incredibly slowly down the hill from Highbury towards the Northern Motorway (at off-peak times this length of road shouldn’t take much more than 3-4 minutes to drive, at peak times it can take 20 minutes) and a T3 bus and carpool lane. Because the general lane is so congested, a lot of people catch the bus, carpool or drive during off-peak hours. All of these steps that people take to avoid the congestion of Onewa Road result in a positive outcome: higher public transport use, fewer people driving their cars, a greater spread of users throughout the ‘shoulder-peak’ periods and so forth.

However, these ‘benefits of congestion’ are rarely considered in the analysis of transportation improvements – with “time savings benefits” reigning supreme as the ultimate justification for roading projects. These time savings are, of course, created as the result of reductions in congestion – as people are able to undertake their trip quicker than before, thereby creating time at the beginning or the end of their trip they previously did not have, therefore creating a ‘benefit’. Now I think time-savings benefits are a load of rubbish and quite possibly non-existent, but that’s not really a debate for this thread. The bigger issue is “should we be worried about this?” Is it really the end of the world if our roads are clogged if we have a viable alternative? Clearly, the last bit of that is key – that there is a viable alternative in the form of a bus or (even better as it has its own right of way) a train.

An early chapter in Paul Mees’s book “A Very Public Solution“, which I have just started reading, probes this fundamental issue: is congestion really a bad thing? Could it be a good thing? An important aspect of answering that question is to look at who is affected by traffic congestion. Is it really a transport externality? The book states:

While dire estimates of congestion costs are frequently used to justify investments in roads, costing congestion is a difficult – if not nonsensical – task. The first problem is that congestion is not strictly an ‘externality’, the term economists use to describe costs that are borne by people other than those creating them.. Pollution from motor vehicles is an externality since it affects non-motorists as well as motorists. But congestion primarily affects the same group of people who produce it, namely road-users themselves. It may actually improve the lot of some residents, since slow-moving traffic makes less noise and is less intimidating for pedestrians and cyclists. And although there may be more accidents on congested roads, they will be less severe, owing to lower speeds. Congestion is only an externality in the sense that it is an effect each motorist imposes on other motorists.

So congestion doesn’t really affect anyone else but those on the road in a negative manner, and in some respects actually provides benefits to those other than the very people creating the problem. However, clearly it does seem as though there remains a problem – all that time lost while people are sitting in traffic doing nothing. Surely that’s economically inefficient? Surely there’s a real cost there?

This brings us back to the existence of ‘time savings benefits’, and also issues like induced demand that traffic planners and engineers tend to ignore because they upset the simplistic world of “predict and provide” they live in. Fortunately, there are a few smart thinkers out there who have looked at this issue more closely – including a guy called J.M. Thompson in a book called “Great Cities and their Traffic” – who outlines the following (quoted from Mees’s book):

Where a road and a rail system compete for patrons, Thompson argues that there will be an equilibrium between the two travel modes which ensures that they are of roughly equal quality. An increase in traffic on the road would raise travel times, encouraging some motorists to shift to public transport, a reduction in traffic would attract passengers from public transport until congestion rises to re-establish equilibrium. This equilibrium can be upset by changes to the quality of either mode. Improving the road system will produce a decline in patraonge of the rail service. This will cause a reduction in service levels, leading to a further decline in patronage. If sufficient rail passengers shift to the road on account of the decline in service a new equilibrium will be reached in which, paradoxically, both road-users and public transport patrons experience a worse level of service than before. Investing in road improvements has actually made everyone worse off.

Now aside from extreme situations like horrifically crowded trains in Tokyo, generally public transport works better the more patrons it has (as increased services become viable) while roads perform better the quieter they are. Therefore, taking steps to encourage people to use public transport rather than roads – through shifting the equilibrium in that direction – is likely to result in benefits to everyone.

Mees concludes that perhaps the best approach to congestion is for everyone to just relax a bit. There will always be congestion in large cities, but perhaps the focus should be on providing alternatives – as in cities with well developed transport alternatives  people will be able to choose whether or not to endure it. The 1993 Vancouver Long Range Transportation Plan takes a similar viewpoint:

Congestion is usually considered an evil; however, allowing congestion to deteriorate for single occupant vehicles is a practical method of promoting transit and carpools. More congestion for single-occupant vehicles would magnify the impact of some travel demand management. For instance, buses/carpools in high occupancy vehicle lanes will gain an edge since the relative time saved by escaping lineups will be gone.

In fact, I think some level of peak hour congestion is actually probably a desirable outcome. If we had a complete absence of congestion at all times it would surely be a sign of huge over-investment in the roading network (if it was even possible, remembering the effects of induced demand).  Places like Paris have more congested streets than a city like Los Angeles, but I’m doubtful that Parisians have poorer access around their city than their Californian counterparts. In fact, it’s likely the opposite is true. Slower traffic encourages alternatives means of transport that are often more sustainable, it encourages shorter trips and thereby encourages higher development densities and more mixed-use development. Which are all good things.

In the end, I think it’s stupid, and probably even counter-productive, to attempt to eliminate congestion. Instead, perhaps it’s more prudent to plan for an optimum level of congestion – keeping in mind other environmental, economic and social goals. If we set the equilibrium at the right level, in the end we will all benefit from it.

RLTS Released Tomorrow

Tomorrow the 2010-2040 Regional Land Transport Strategy will be released for consultation. This is a key strategy that will guide Auckland’s transport development over the next thirty years, so I am very glad to see that it is a well balanced document, providing around $21.5 billion for public transport improvements and operating costs over the next thirty years, compared to $24 billion for road improvements and maintenance. While I am clearly a public transport advocate, I do recognise that investment in roading is also very important (after all, buses run along roads too!) Therefore, it is good to see a transport strategy that is, at last, well balanced in terms of its funding priorities.

Christine Rose, the chairperson of the hardworking Regional Transport Committee – who have spent much of the last year working on this strategy – has written the strategy’s forward, which is worthy of inclusion here:

The opening of Britomart in 2003 marked a turning point in the revival of public transport in Auckland. It set a new standard in quality public transport infrastructure which was followed by the opening of the North Shore Busway in 2008 and rail station refurbishment across the network.

The 2005 Regional Land Transport Strategy supported this vision of a modernized public transport system, led by investment in trains, buses and ferries. Significant progress has been made in the past five years to deliver an integrated, safe, affordable, responsive and sustainable land transport system that supports Auckland’s role in the national economy and aspiring to international best practice.

This 2010 strategy sets the direction for the region’s transport system for the next 30 years. It builds on the momentum already generated and continues to support renewed investment in public transport. Massive patronage growth vindicates the region’s investment in public transport, and leads to economic development, increased productivity, jobs created and urban form improvements. Constructing an underground rail link through the CBD will mean more than 200,000 people living and working within 30 minutes travel of the CBD. It will transform Britomart from a terminal into a through station, with benefits for the whole region, enabling a higher frequency of trains, faster journeys from the west, and a rail link to the airport.

There will inevitably be scepticism over perceptions that this is a ‘green’ transport strategy because it places increasing importance on developing public transport and anticipating and responding to sustainability challenges such as ‘peak oil’ and climate change, despite the Government’s priority of developing national roads. Roads have their place in any transport system as do trains, ferries and buses particularly in urban areas. A balanced investment is needed to ensure Auckland and Aucklanders are able to achieve their full economic and social potential with minimised environmental costs.

A balanced investment includes effective integration of transport, with the development of a more compact and high quality urban form, supporting people to move away from dependence on cars and reducing the impact the transport network has on the environment. Transport produces 18 per cent of national carbon dioxide emissions, of which Auckland contributes 85 per cent.

By 2051, around 2.3 million people will be living in the region, almost double the present population. Given that transport issues already impact on the movement and health of Auckland’s 1.3 million people it is imperative that this strategy not only identify what is needed to enable our land transport system to cope with this growth but also to endure, and support the changing economic environment for the greater good.

Road and public transport users benefit from bus, rail, ferry and walking and cycling improvements. The region’s roads become less congested, particularly important for moving freight. With the urban motorway system almost complete we can now focus on improving the operation of arterial roads, literally the arteries of local and international trade.

I thank all those involved in creating this strategy. Dedication, vision and the willingness to respond to what Auckland needs are defining qualities. The Regional Transport Committee continues to welcome comments and feedback from the public and stakeholders on the direction and priorities contained in this strategy, before it is formally published in April 2010.

In terms of the funding split, there’s an interesting graph on page 49 of the document that shows how the RLTS anticipates the region’s transport money will be divided over the next thirty years. It is comforting to see that, unlike most other transport documents, in the later years we are seeing a tailing off of spending on new motorways and a focus on building and operating an effective public transport network:funding-splits In terms of public transport infrastructure investment – which my eyes always seem to focus on – the big spend items during the first 10 years (2010-2020) include completing electrification and building the CBD Rail Tunnel. I am exceptionally happy that someone has finally put a timeframe on the construction of the CBD Rail Tunnel – although of course it will need central government support before it can get the necessary funding. During the 2020-2030 period there’s not so much spending on public transport infrastructure – perhaps the proposed busways take precedent during that time – while in the last period we see the construction of the airport rail line, the Avondale-Southdown line and anything else that hasn’t already been done.

While nothing particularly new is proposed here, for the first time there is a real commitment to actually completing many of the projects that have been floating around for decades. By 2040 all the red dashed lines should actually be completed:2040networkIt is of great credit to this strategy that there are only two real issues I have with it. The first is that I am still of the opinion that the Manukau-Botany-Panmure RTN line should be built as rail, rather than as a busway. This is because there are not existing bus links between Panmure and the CBD, whereas there is an existing railway line. For this RTN to work as a busway we would either need to build a busway between Panmure and the CBD – which would be enormously expensive and difficult – or force everyone to transfer onto a train at Panmure station. The second thing that I think should be changed is designating a future RTN line along the Northwest motorway, which would form a future Northwest Busway. As I have detailed previously, it would be pretty easy to construct a busway along SH16 – and I think it would be pretty successful too (as it serves a different part of west Auckland than the train line).

Perhaps the big issue that remains is how this will all be funded. The total cost over 30 years to implement this strategy is estimated to be around $40-45 billion. This sounds like an awfully large amount, but works out as “only” around $1.5 billion a year – fairly similar to what is spent on transport per year at the moment. So the total funding level may be relatively manageable, which leaves the main issue being how the available funding is divided. The current system of funding state highways 100% from petrol taxes, local roads 50% and rail from other sources altogether is unlikely to be suitable to implement this strategy – which brings us back to the necessity for one pool of transport funds with all projects having equal access to it.

All in all, it’s definitely a good strategy. I just want it to actually happen – and to ensure it does we will need to change the way the system works.

Electrification – a solution

Auckland’s rail electrification project has had a torrid history. For years the previous government put it off, put it off, refused to stump up any money, put it off some more… and then finally came up with a solution where Aucklanders would pay for the project via a regional fuel tax. This was even though Wellington was getting its nice new trains fully paid for by the government.

And then in March this year the regional fuel tax was removed, and the funding for electrification shifting back onto central government. There was much angst as to whether it would proceed at all, but as time went on it seemed like everything was slowly falling into place, with contracts signed about signalling upgrades and other contracts put out to tender for the works as a whole.

Then, a couple of months ago we found out that the money previously set aside for electrification probably wasn’t going to be enough. Due to increases in the scope of works needed to actually properly operate trains at 10 minute frequencies during peak times while not totally destroying the opportunity for the network to run freight trains, it was worked out that some extra money would need to be spent on upgrade works for the tracks. At the same time, it was also discovered that the price of each train had been slightly under-estimated (although this was largely due to exchange rate fluctuations, which by now have probably shifted significantly again). In the end, it appears as though either roughly another $100 million needs to be found to ensure that electrification can proceed as per the original plans, and with the original number of trains, or that we need to compromise in some manner to make it fit the budget.

Now I fully understand that $100 million is a lot of money, and I must say it’s pretty disappointing that the previous investigations and costing of electrification didn’t include the upgrades to the track-work that are now considered necessary. It’s pretty unlikely that the government will be able to dig around in its coffers to stump up that kind of money for this railway project from the “crown grants” that rail is funded from. The Minister has repeatedly noted this. So, either the solution is going to be to find the “least bad” compromise to make things work within the previous funding envelope, or to find that extra money from somewhere else.

As I have noted previously, I do not think that it is feasible to not undertake the extra track work required to run 10 minute train frequencies. It would, quite simply, be daft to lump a whole pile of trains onto a network that couldn’t handle them. So the first priority for the money, in my opinion, should be on getting the infrastructure right. However, the problem with focusing the money here is that you end up having rather little left to spend on the actual trains themselves – only enough for 75 rather than the original 140 apparently. So that’s a pretty unacceptable outcome too in my opinion – particularly as $1.6 billion is being spent to modernize Auckland’s rail system it would be a bit odd to not finish the final bit off so that we have enough modern trains to run on it.

Which means that we’re left in the situation of finding some other way to fill this $100 million funding gap.

Now, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen an unexpected funding gap emerge for public transport this year. Back when the regional petrol tax was cancelled, it was immediately announced that the government would pick up the tab for ensuring Auckland’s rail electrification project went ahead. However, that wasn’t the only project to be funded out of the regional petrol tax. Other projects that had their funding stream removed at that time included the New Lynn train station, the Newmarket train station, the stations on the Onehunga Line and integrated ticketing. There was also the Penlink road that had its funding cut, but I’ll set that aside as I’m specifically talking about public transport projects here.

So when all this happened there was a lot of worry about these other, smaller, projects. But – and it’s a critical point to make – they have been sorted out. We are still getting integrated ticketing, the Newmarket Station is being fully finished, the same with New Lynn and the Onehunga Line stations. Some extra money came from the Regional Council, but the bulk of the extra funds came from NZTA. Even though theoretically rail capital works projects aren’t supposed to be funded by NZTA anymore, it was realised in these particular situations that the projects had to happen, the money had to be found from somewhere, and NZTA was the most logical agency to step in and fill that gap.

Why not do the same for electrification? There’s a clear funding gap of around $100 million between now and 2013 that needs to be filled. I accept that general government funds probably can’t fill this gap, I accept that perhaps the Super City could chip something in but wouldn’t be able to cover too much. So why not NZTA? There’s a clear precedent for NZTA funding rail projects – as they have done so for Onehunga, New Lynn and Newmarket.

So, does NZTA have $100 million available over the next three years? Hey, that’s right – that’s what the investigations and land-purchasing for the Puhoi-Wellsford road are estimated to cost. Bingo!

CBD Rail Tunnel – the 2004 study

The CBD Rail Tunnel project has been proposed for around 80 years now, and has popped up at various point during that time: in the 1920s, the 1950s, the 1970s and most recently since 2004. This latest occasion will hopefully be the “real thing”, and we will finally get this critical project constructed after 80 years. Given that the current study into this project will clearly build upon previous work, I think it’s a good idea to have a look at what we already do know about possible alignments, grade issues and station locations. Which is why it was pretty handy to get my hands on the full copy of the 2004 URS Report into the CBD Rail Tunnel this week (warning, it’s about a 10mb PDF file!)

There are a number of interesting aspects to this report, most notably the different options that were looked at regarding preferred alignments, the different possible station locations, the consequences of different grades for the tunnel, and perhaps most interestingly – a relatively detailed look into both the business case for the project and a look at how much it might cost.

Firstly, if we have a look at the different alignments that were considered we can see a whole range of options were looked at, but eventually it became fairly obvious that the route that was eventually chosen was the obvious preferred option. The map below shows the different alignments that were considered: These different options are described below:

Option 1: Albert Street ridge line/Pitt Street/Mercury Lane/under the Southern Motorway/Upper Queen Street/Newton Rd under New North Road to the Western Rail Line;

Option 2A: As per Option 1, except for improving the operation of the alignment by removing curves
near Karangahape Road and Upper Queen Street. The gradient is 3.0%;

Option 2B: As per Option 1, except for improving the operation of the alignment by removing curves
near Karangahape Road and Upper Queen Street. The gradient is 3.5%;

Option 3A: Albert Street ridge line/Pitt Street/Mercury Lane/under the Southern Motorway/Ian
McKinnon Drive;

Option 3B: Albert Street ridge line/Pitt St/under the Southern Motorway/Ian McKinnon Drive;

Option 4: Albert Street ridge line/Aotea Square/Myers Park/Queen Street/Upper Queen
Street/Newton/New North Road to the Western Rail Line;

Option 5: Nelson Street/Wellesley Street/Symonds Street/New North Road.

When the different options were analysed, option 1 was discarded because its alignment resulted in too many sharp horizontal curves which slowed down services and reduced efficiency; options 2A and 2B were carried forward as the preferred alignment (I think 2A is better so that the tunnel’s grade is minimised); options 3A and 3B were discarded as it was found to not be technically feasible to operate trains along the grades necessary to clear the messy New North Road/Ian McKinnon drive interchange; option 4 was discarded once again because its grade was too steep (and it would also get very close to the underground Aotea carpark) while option 5 was considered not feasible because its stations would be a long long way underground plus the extra length of the route would add significant cost to the project.

I agree with the conclusions made in this report, that option 2 (preferably 2A) is the best alignment. I had wondered about something along the lines of options 3A and 3B, as that seems to mirror the original alignment of the ‘Morningside Deviation’, as this project used to be known. However, I can see how the location of the New North Road/Ian McKinnon Drive interchange would make that option difficult if not impossible.

As I have explained previously, the gradient of the tunnel does still push the limits of what is feasible (a large part of the reason why I support option 2A rather than 2B). The image below shows a cross-section of the two options – with the green line showing the alignment of the tunnel and the red line showing a cross-section of ground level. Of most interest is to see (it’s a bit small on the image below sorry so you’ll have to download the PDF or trust me on it) that at the K Road station the track is about 28-31m below ground level, that the tunnel will pass about 20m below state highway one just to the south of K Road, that that Mt Eden station itself will be about 20m below ground level and that the Midtown station will also be about 18m below Albert Street.


The alignment of the tracks at both portals is also quite interesting. At Britomart the tunnel will link into the current system through an extension of the tracks that serve platforms 1 and 5. These will continue underneath QEII square (what’s left of it) and the downtown shopping centre before turning a sharp left and heading underneath Albert Street. There has been some thought into how this could integrate with a future North Shore Rail Link, although to “grade separate” those two lines (which is probably necessary) there would be significant extra cost. The aerial photo below shows the possible alignment of the tracks around this northern end of the tunnel: At the Mt Eden end of the tunnel the difference between options 2A and 2B becomes more obvious. As 2A has a lower grade within the tunnel, it will emerge much lower than option 2B. Therefore its tunnel/trench is far longer, and the western line also needs to be lowered throughout this area into a tunnel. This is further detailed in the diagram below: Looking at the above image, I actually think that option 2A would be preferable in another sense, and that is ensuring that we don’t end up with a giant wasteland created by the rail triangle that the yellow portal area (option 2B) would create. This whole area will need to be acquired for the construction of the link, but if it can be capped and then redeveloped there is the opportunity to really revitalise this part of the city – and for KiwiRail/Ontrack to hopefully make back quite a bit of money through redeveloping it.

I talked about the preferred station locations in detail in my previous post on this project, and these are basically identical to what has been proposed in the URS report, which I include below: Now of course, the big questions come down to “what will it cost” and “it is justified”? This is where things get a bit messy in the URS report, as it proposes a cost of around $500 million for this project – whereas subsequent analyses have put a more likely cost at around $1.5 billion: three times as much. Now I have wondered “how could they have under-estimated so much?”, although having a look through the analysis that was done to work out the costs it seems as though URS were fairly robust in their work. The breakdown of this cost is outlined below:

cbdrail-cost
I must say that a $1 billion or more construction cost does sound more realistic to me than this amount.

In terms of “is it worth it?”, obviously at some stage a full cost-benefit analysis of the project will need to be undertaken, and the URS report really only makes a tentative beginning at that. I have always considered that the biggest benefits of the CBD Rail Tunnel might be quite difficult to measure, with things like effects on development within the CBD, the fact that it makes possible other extensions to the rail network, and the mess that will happen at Britomart if this does not happen, all being potentially difficult matters to properly “measure” when working out a full cost-benefit analysis. The URS report highlights these difficulties:

This is a complex project due to uncertainty as to how the network will change and evolve and the timing of those changes particularly if the tunnel is constructed – patronage and train operating pattern are unclear at this stage. For instance, if the tunnel and stations are completed before the need or decision to electrify and double track Mt Eden to Newmarket, and to enhance the station and the approach to Newmarket Station then considerable savings can be made. If the tunnel is completed after these investments then they are sunk costs and no savings can be made.

The most significant benefit is the opportunity for Auckland City to re-establish the CBD as a place for work, entertainment, recreation, health services and education. It is almost impossible to value this aspect. Patronage is difficult to forecast. Currently, only 12% of the Region’s work force works in the CBD. Only 35% of the people coming over the harbour bridge go to the CBD, the rest go elsewhere. More people cycled to work in the CBD than used the train in 2001.

Readers should note that this is an economic not a financial analysis – some of the benefits are intangible: such as the benefits of less pollution and increased reliability of travel time. Other benefits do not result in any cash accruing to the rail system operator.

Even with this extremely conservative approach to measuring the project’s potential benefits, URS estimated that the project would be economically viable in 2009 if some of those additional benefits were taken into account – and by 2019 it would very much be economically viable. An upgrade to Britomart by 2009 was anticipated when the report was written (that has been fairly accurate as we are now upgrading Britomart to handle an extra six trains an hour through bi-directional running) and then again by 2021 (the full tunnel construction) due to rising patronage.

Of course, this analysis was based on a $500 million construction cost, and if the cost is now $1.5 billion then the project will need to have three times its previous benefits to still be economically viable. However, I very much do think that this is possible because a huge number of benefits were ignored by the previous analysis. For example, in ARTA’s Auckland Transport Plan it was mentioned that the CBD Rail Tunnel could provide $2.4 billion in benefits through “releasing the economic potential” of the CBD and other inner suburbs on the railway system.

All in all, I think it’s interesting to get the full picture of what work has been conducted previously on this critical project. It will be interesting to see what the current study concludes with regards to alignments, station locations, costs and – most importantly really – the final economic analysis of the proposal. I do hope that a wider economic analysis is undertaken, so that the significant wider benefits of the CBD Rail Tunnel are included.

Sydney’s Breakfast on the Bridge

Unlike Auckland, you can actually walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge – and it’s one heck of a nice walk actually. But Sydney aren’t just satisfied with having proper pedestrian and cycle paths across the harbour, they actually celebrate how nice their bridge is by relatively frequently closing it off to traffic and holding special events on it. I know that the marathon at the Olympic Games started on the harbour bridge, while a couple of years ago there was a Formula 1 car driven across there with much of the bridge closed off for people to watch it. Sydney have done it again today, with what they have called “Breakfast on the Bridge”. Here’s some more information from the NZ Herald:

SYDNEY – Thousands of people ate breakfast on the Sydney Harbour Bridge yesterday as the iconic steel span was transformed into a grassy picnic ground.

Usually bustling with traffic, the bridge was covered by lawn laid specially for the morning event. It was attended by 6000 lucky picnickers chosen in a ballot to enjoy food, music and the majestic view.

“It’s amazing to see the bridge in this perspective,” Sydney resident Don Fuchs said as he strolled across.

“Usually you sit in the car, you cross it, and that’s it,” he said.

Picnickers brought hampers full of fruit and croissants, while organisers handed out freshly baked bread, jams, apples and yoghurt. A pianist played honky-tonk music while grazing cows added a rustic touch.

New South Wales state Premier Nathan Rees said the tourism promotion would likely become an annual event.

And some photos of the event:sydney1

Preparation for the event involved covering the bridge with grass – how damn cool is that?

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sydney7The fact that I can’t ever imagine Auckland ever doing something similar (NZTA’s idea of celebrating our Harbour Bridge’s 50th birthday was to do… ummm.. well, nothing) is an indictment on NZTA and our city in general. No wonder so many New Zealanders move to Australia, they’re decades ahead of us in their realisation that it’s important for people to enjoy the cities they live in.

Benefits of Rail Transit

In my searching for interesting academic studies into transportation issues I came across an excellent analysis of the benefits of rail transportation by Todd Litman, an Australian transport academic. It’s a very detailed study, running to around 60 pages long, and I certainly haven’t read the whole thing yet. However, there are some very important aspects of this study that offer a far broader and ultimately more comprehensive analysis of the costs and benefits of different transport systems than we are seeing in New Zealand at the moment. To start with, let’s look at the abstract for the research piece:abstract Now while it’s obvious that cities with larger rail systems would have higher transit ridership, some of the other findings are of particular interesting – perhaps most importantly that the more developed a city’s rail system is the lower we find consumer expenditure on transportation and the less congestion that we see. That seems to indicate that it is quite true that investing in public transport (in this case rail) really does have significant benefit for those who remain on the roading system.

Let’s have a look at some of the findings this study came up with. I think of particular interest are the effects on traffic fatalities, consumer transportation expenditure, the portion of household budgets spent on transportation and the effect on the efficiency of the transit systems:

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In some ways I think the “portion of household budgets devoted to transportation” is perhaps the most critical statistic here – that residents in cities with large rail systems spend about a fifth less on transportation than those in cities with smaller (or no) rail systems. I think that Auckland spends around 16% of its wealth on transportation – compared to many European or Japanese cities where people spend around 5-10% of their wealth on transport. That’s a huge difference for what seems to me as no real benefit in terms of it being easier to get around Auckland than it is to get around European or Japanese cities. In fact, it may well be even more difficult to get around Auckland – especially if you don’t have a car.

Another interesting statistic that has arisen from Mr Litman’s research relates to the effect of rail systems on congestion levels. This is outlined further in the diagram below:litman-congestion It is interesting to see that Los Angeles has twice the level of congestion per capita as New York City does. Overall, Los Angeles actually has a higher population density than New York (while NYC’s population density is extremely high in Manhatten, it’s much lower in the outer suburbs – while LA’s population density is relatively high throughout the metropolitan area) which to me disproves the theory that you need high population densities for public transport to work. I actually think that things work in the opposite direction more – a well developed rail system will lead to a more sustainable urban form.

Getting back to the analysis of the costs and benefits of rail transit, one of the common arguments against rail is that it sucks up subsidies, and is therefore inefficient at shifting people around when compared to roads that (at least in the case of state highways in NZ) apparently appear to cover their costs. Mr Litman debunks this theory of rail being not worth the cost:litman-conclusion It is fascinating to see how the numbers stack up once we finally see a full and comprehensive analysis of the costs and benefits of public transportation. The above numbers clearly show that basing transportation priorities solely on the grounds of what needs an obvious subsidy and what doesn’t clearly ignores potentially massive wider aspects of transportation that seem to clearly tip the balance in favour of rail-based systems, as shown above. At the moment issues like “consumer cost savings”, “parking cost savings” and (to some extent at least) “traffic accident cost savings” are not really taken into account in the analysis of individual projects and – perhaps more importantly – in analysing the thrust of general transport policy.

If we really simplify things down to try to understand the most efficient way to provide transportation, a good way to analyse the average cost per passenger mile of different modes, and then compare them across different city sizes. Todd Litman’s research does just that, and comes up with some interesting results once you add in the costs of parking provision and roadway costs:mode-cost I really do wish some of the transportation policymakers around New Zealand were doing this kind of work for Auckland, looking at the big picture and really working out the true costs of auto-dependency. It would be far more constructive than the narrow-minded thinking that seems to predominate at the moment.

Auckland’s secret bus route

Now hands up – who’s heard of Macarthur Busline Limited? Who here knows that there’s a bus route that runs from Point Chevalier to Newmarket all day weekends and during peak hour on weekdays? Not many, yeah didn’t think so. Which is a pity actually.

I first came across this bus route very late on a Saturday night back in March, just a week or so before it began operating. I must say I wasn’t fully sober when I stumbled across a sign for the route – somewhere along New North Road near Kingsland. So the next morning, when I was thinking about the events of the night before I wondered whether I had just dreamed it all up – it’s the kind of thing my subconscious would think up of actually: a strange bus route that isn’t on the MAXX Website, that hasn’t had any fanfare at all… However, after a few enquiries I discovered that I hadn’t been dreaming and the service was going to commence – rather oddly initially only at weekends.

There was a bit of discussion on the Campaign for Better Transport forums about the route, which rather interestingly included the guy who had started this whole thing up: Scott Macarthur. My general feedback was that I thought the route followed back-streets too much, was very unlikely to succeed in the longer-term without ARTA involvement and should offer peak-hour weekday services (they’ve come later). Well apparently the issue with ARTA involvement was down to them, rather than this guy Scott Macarthur who had taken the initiative to provide a service that he thought was necessary, while his argument was that people may well appreciate the offering of a bus service within close proximity of where they live (rather than having to walk to a main road). I still think that the route lacks “legibility” – the ability for people to easily make sense out of it – but perhaps I’ll just have to agree to disagree on that matter with him.

Now that peak hour weekday services have started, I can actually see some potential for this bus route in the longer term – particularly if ARTA come on board to even offer the simplest of assistance – like putting his services into their MAXX Journey Planner system, providing standardised ARTA timetables of the service and maybe even offering some subsidies, I mean heck they shower tens of millions of dollars a year on Infratil, what would be a few thousand for this service? (I really don’t seem to like Infratil much at the moment do I?) One of the main reasons that I think this service could be a success in the longer term is because Newmarket is poorly served by buses for people who don’t live in the south or east of Auckland – although the trains on the Western Line do compensate for that matter to some extent. Anyway, let’s have a look at the route this service takes, and the timetable that is offered:w2bus

The eastbound timetable (Pt Chevalier to Newmarket):e2-eastbound The westbound timetable:w2-westbound While I still think that the route taken by this service could be improved, I must say I am pretty impressed with what Scott Macarthur is trying to do here. All I do to improve Auckland’s public transport is sit at my computer moaning about it, dreaming up ideas and writing emails to people – while here’s an example of someone who has put their money where their mouth is and started up bus company, I suspect not because he thinks he can make a tonne of money out of it, but because he really really does want to improve Auckland’s public transport system.

I think that attitude deserves a lot of praise and support. So come on ARTA, give this guy a hand.

Integrated Ticketing fiasco

Jon C at Auckland Trains has done an excellent post on the fiasco that Auckland’s integrated ticketing project is becoming, with Infratil using every dirty trick in the book trying to win the integrated ticketing contract, even though:

  1. ARTA announced in July that they had awarded the contract to Thales.
  2. NZTA’s review of ARTA’s previous decision to award the contract to Thales found that decision was sound.
  3. Infratil themselves accepted that decision.

The main arguments Infratil, through its subsidiary Snapper, are putting up is that they can deliver the system faster and cheaper than Thales can. While this may well be true, I do suspect that there must be a number of good reasons why ARTA (in detailed consultation with NZTA) chose to award the contract to Thales rather than Infratil not once, but twice. Infratil is effectively asking us to trust them rather than ARTA or NZTA. To trust that they can roll out an integrated ticketing system in Auckland when they haven’t managed it in Wellington yet (try using your Snapper Card on the train there); to trust them that it won’t be a conflict of interest between Infratil running the ticketing system through Snapper and a big chunk of the bus system through NZ Bus; to trust them that the system they do roll out in Auckland is a true smart-card and not the kind of “souped up Go-Rider” that regular commenter on this blog Jeremy Harris termed the Snapper Card after his most recent visit to Wellington; and finally, to trust them to actually deliver on this project compared to the proven track record of Thales.

Given that Infratil is the very same company that had such little respect for users of Auckland’s public transport system that they suspended all bus services for a whole week simply because the drivers threatened to work to the letter of their contracts, I think I trust Infratil about as far as I can throw them.

Which certainly isn’t very much.

Exploring the CBD Rail Tunnel

The lengthy thread of comments in response to my post about the CBD Rail Tunnel on Tuesday have raised a number of questions about the details of that project that I think are worth exploring a bit further. One interesting point discussed was the issue of the grade of the tunnel, how problematic that might be, and what could potentially be done about it. As I said in the previous post, I really do think that even with only two additional CBD stations (Karangahape Station and Midtown Station) we’re pushing the limits of what is feasible in terms of the tunnel’s grade. Adding more stations could push the gradient over the acceptable limit – thereby potentially creating a rather unsolvable problem.

Previous studies into the CBD Rail Tunnel also recognised this potential problem. The URS/GHD study in 2004 provides us with the most detailed map yet of the potential alignment of the railway tunnel – although there is currently a study underway to provide us with a final design, put together a business case for the project and prepare the necessary documentation to lodge a notice of requirement. But anyway, in terms of the grade of the tunnel, the URS/GHD study suggested that this could be eased by effectively lowering the section of the western line (or at least the links between the CBD Rail Tunnel and the Western Line) around the Mt Eden station – thereby reducing the height the tunnel would need to climb to and reducing its overall grade.

This is shown in the URS/GHD map below – which also gives us a reasonable indication of where they thought the stations should be located:CBDloop-route One interesting aspect of this alignment is that the Mt Eden station would be shifted away from its current alignment on the Western Line and actually into the rail tunnel – basically underneath Exmouth Street. I think this is a pretty good idea, as it would make it possible for trains heading to the tunnel from the west or south (or vice versa) to access the station. While the odd train from the west to Britomart via Newmarket (probably the services using diesel trains from Huapai) wouldn’t stop at this station, I don’t think that’s a big problem. Furthermore, the current Mt Eden station is located fairly poorly in my opinion – hidden away behind a bunch of buildings – while the new one could have good access off New North Road and Newton Road. It would probably need its name changed to Eden Terrace station or Newton station – but I don’t think that’s a problem.

In the diagram below is my idea for how this end of the rail tunnel could work. The green lines show parts of the track that would effectively be a lowered trench (to reduce the tunnel’s grade), while red lines are the tunnel. The extent of the station is shown, while the blue crosses mark where I think there could be entrances and exits from the station:eden-terrace-station copy The next image looks at the Karangahape Road station. This station would be quite deep, at around 20 metres below ground level by my calculations. The depth is necessary because at a constant grade of 1 in 35 the tunnel will be around 40m above sea level by the time it reaches the Karangahape Road ridge – whereas the ridge itself (along which the road runs) is around 60m above sea level. 20 metre deep stations certainly are not unheard of around the world, so I don’t see this as a show-stopper. However, it will be an expensive station to construct.

Once again, the red line shows where I think the tracks might go (they generally follow road alignments to minimise the number of strata titles that would need to be purchased) and the blue crosses mark possible entry/exit points:k-road-station copy And finally, let’s have a look at the Midtown station. This station would basically be built underneath Albert Street within the block that stretches from Victoria Street to Wellesley Street. One very good thing about this station is that it could have excellent access to Queen Street via the Atrium on Elloitt shopping centre and Darby Street, which by good coincidence is going to be turned into a pedestrian mall in the near future. Midtown station is likely to rival Britomart as Auckland’s busiest station in the future – particularly as its location is right in the heart of the CBD and it is a relatively short walk from the university. The blue cross in the map below that is some distance from the station itself shows where the main entrance from the Queen Street side of the station would be – at the northern end of the Atrium on Elliott shopping centre as I stated above:midtown-station copy I must say it certainly will be interesting to see what the current study into this project comes up with – and whether there are any significantly altered alignments from what I have outlined above.