Follow us on Twitter

Is there a place for light-rail in Auckland?

Land-based public transport in Auckland is currently provided in two ways, through buses and trains (don’t let anyone tell you that taxis are public transport, they’re for-hire private transport that don’t offer any of the efficiency gains of real PT). Over the past 10-15 years there have been on-off arguments in Auckland about whether there’s a place for something to sit between trains and buses: in the form of light-rail. Initially, light-rail was probably seen as a potential replacement for the heavy rail system, and it seems for this reason that whenever someone suggests a tram/light-rail line Auckland City Council (who did most of the debating about light-rail) start talking about the CBD Rail Tunnel and that it means we won’t need light-rail.

The legacy of the light-rail debates that Auckland has had in the past have left us with some interesting results, like a Northern Busway that is supposedly “future proofed for light-rail”, and a wide median of Te Irirangi Drive that is similarly “future-proofed”. Not that I have anything against future-proofing (in fact I think we don’t do nearly enough of it in Auckland), but it seems as though the term “future proofed for light-rail” is a bit of a joke in Auckland, and generally means that it’s an alignment we’re going to need full heavy rail trains to run along at some point in the future. Rather than as a substitute for heavy rail, I do think that light-rail/modern trams have a place in Auckland’s transport future – as the best part of the Quality Transit Network.

First things first though, I do think it’s important to restate that the debate over whether buses, trams or trains provide the best solution is a stupid debate. Each different transport option has its strengths and weaknesses, and therefore works best in certain circumstances. We need buses, we need trains and we also potentially need trams to sit between the two, where the situation is right. The second thing I probably need to state is what I actually mean by tram/light-rail – and why I use the terms interchangeably. What I mean is something that runs on the existing road, but generally with its own lane to operate in. In some cases it might end up with a street to itself, but generally there would be other vehicles on the same street. Something like this: While it is true that there’s something of a convergence between the technologies emerging, in my opinion there is still a point where demand reaches a level that starts to be difficult to serve by buses (particularly if they’re operating at-grade rather than on a grade-separated busway), but isn’t high enough to justify spending billions of dollars on an underground railway line. There is also the issue of what kind of corridor we are trying to serve, and the technology that best suits that requirement: is it a widely spaced series of nodes that are well suited to being served by a train line that stops every kilometre or two, or do we have (or potentially have) a more even corridor of development where you would want more frequent stops?

If we’re being sensible about looking at the place of light-rail in Auckland (or any city for that matter), proper consideration must be given to the fact that it is expensive, particularly in terms of its capital costs, and that we want to make sure we’re measuring its benefits in the right way. As Jarrett at Humantransit loves to say, light-rail probably won’t provide you with any mobility benefits over and above what you could get out of good bus-priority (which would probably be a lot cheaper than a light-rail line). Light-rail is unlikely to be faster than what you could achieve from a bus, as what determines that is usually whether you have bus lanes, how good you are at boarding quickly, how much priority your buses/trams get at traffic lights and so forth. So it should be recognised that we’re not doing this for speed reasons, although the level of investment that would go into creating a tram line means that you probably would end up with better priority measures than you would for a bus lane.

There would be the capacity reason to do light-rail. As the picture above shows, the vehicles can be pretty long and therefore can carry a large number of people. This means that one tram every 5 minutes could carry as many people as a bus coming every 1-2 minutes. In the longer run, this is good for operating costs as you have fewer drivers – and I imagine electricity is cheaper (or certainly will be in the future) than diesel. It also means that if you do run trams every 2 minutes, your corridor capacity is much greater than what would realistically be possible with buses (once you start getting large numbers of buses they start blocking each other and  slowing each other down, even given priority). Auckland’s CBD is starting to have problems with the number of buses heading in and out of it at peak times, particularly around Britomart. More people on fewer vehicles has some big advantages as the ability of the CBD to cope with more and more buses in the future is pretty limited.

The other main reason why I think light-rail could benefit Auckland is through those rather ephemeral things called “wider economic benefits”, or perhaps more specifically in the case of light-rail: the way in which providing such a line would result in intensification and economic development along the corridor being served. There are also potentially significant benefits in making it easier for tourists to get to the various places they want to go – and that becomes quite clear in the location of one of my lines. In terms of the secondary benefits to the economy, and to the achievement of our land-use plans and strategies, this has often been the main reason why North American cities have promoted light-rail lines over the past couple of decades. If we take Portland as an example, the light-rail system has played a huge part in the regeneration of ex-industrial areas and in helping Portland achieve their growth management strategies. Portland’s actual number of public transport riders isn’t particularly amazing, around a 12% modeshare – higher than Auckland’s but lower than Vancouver, Seattle and many other North American cities – but perhaps that’s not necessarily as important as the secondary effects of light-rail on the redevelopment of areas or the intensification of corridors.

Bringing things back to Auckland, as I said at the start of this post I think there is a place for light-rail in Auckland’s transport future. While in many respects it is a tragedy that Auckland ripped out its trams in the 1950s, the way the city has developed since then means that simply re-creating that system wouldn’t make too much sense today. The two lines that I would create are shown (approximately) in the map below (higher resolution here): As you can see, the system is not particularly extensive, at least not initially. I have also stuck to routes in the inner-isthmus area, as North American cities have also generally used light-rail along reasonably short inner-city routes (at least when it’s not grade-separated). I am hesitant to use light-rail further out, at least initially, because either you’re going to end up needing to operate very long routes (which are likely to be slow for travellers) or you’re going to be operating your routes as feeders to the heavy rail system, in which case I think it’s reasonably unlikely you’d need anything beyond a bus. Furthermore, the type of intensification that light-rail routes can generate is most suitable and desirable in the more inner parts of the city.

So we have a green line and an orange line. I will describe both lines and my reasoning behind them:

Green Line:

Effectively this is the Dominion Road corridor, which I have discussed as being suitable for light-rail in the future in a few earlier posts. The potential suitability for Dominion Road to have light-rail in the future is part of my thinking of why having median bus lanes may also be a good idea: as you’d be most of the way there towards creating a light-rail line in the future: just slap down some rails and up some wires when the capacity necessitates the upgrade.

At its southern end, the line would at some stage in the future connect with the Avondale-Southdown heavy-rail line, and in the meanwhile would be a hub for feeder buses serving the southwest part of the Auckland isthmus: suburbs from Hillsborough, through to Lynfield and Blockhouse Bay could all feed into the tram line, which would then offer a high-quality, high-capacity ride into the city and along the corridor.

At the city end, the route runs down Queen Street, then turns left and serves the Wynyard Quarter. The tram-loop that the ARC is currently planning would become a key part in turning the trams around before they headed back south on their journey out of the city.

In terms of satisfying my above criteria for light-rail, the Dominion Road bus route is already pretty damn popular, being close to capacity for the current bus lanes during peak times and busy enough to justify 5 minute frequencies during the weekday inter-peak period. With further development likely to happen along the corridor in the future and higher petrol prices likely to mean a general greater uptake of public transport, it’s not hard to see the current bus lanes being overwhelmed at some point in the not too distant future. So it ticks the capacity box. In terms of potential to stimulate land-use change, Dominion Road has masses of potential here, with much of the road (especially south of Balmoral) being bounded by low-rise 1950s housing of not particularly fantastic merit. The potential for that to be replaced with 3-4 level townhouses and terraced houses is immense, something just needs to help “make it happen” – and a light-rail line could be that catalyst. So the other box is ticked.

Orange Line:

The orange line is a longer, and more complex line – going from Unitec in the west to St Heliers Bay in the east. Effective it is two lines joined in the middle: one serving the inner-west part of Auckland and the other running along Tamaki Drive. Undoubtedly this line is a bit more questionable than the Dominion Road one, and would almost certainly be built later, but that’s not to say that it wouldn’t be a good idea: because I think it would.

Starting with the western section of the line, there are a very large number of buses that travel along Great North Road – so there may be some capacity issues along this road in the future. A lot of the buses come from a long way west, but that may change in the future as buses in the west get terminated at New Lynn for people to either transfer onto a train or onto some sort of high-frequency bus link between New Lynn and Britomart via Great North Road. There is also the potentially significant patronage generator of Unitec, some top tourist attractions in the Zoo, Western Springs Park and MOTAT, and huge intensification potential between Ponsonby and Grey Lynn along the Great North Road ridge.

I would then have the line duck down through Freemans Bay to emerge at Wynyard Quarter. Freemans Bay also has significant redevelopment potential: at least along the streets that aren’t full of lovely heritage housing. Wynyard Quarter is a massive potential trip generator in the future (and will have to be well served by public transport because there is so little road access), so it makes sense to link through to there, then onto Britomart.

With the western section, this would operate as quite a different types of line: largely for leisure travellers and tourists rather than commuters – along Tamaki Drive. While the capacity issues of the green line and the western section of the orange line may not apply here, and also it’s unlikely to generate much intensification – I think that there may well still be significant economic benefits of this line, achieved by linking together many of Auckland’s top tourist attractions on the one line, and also making the connection high-quality. Much of my enthusiasm for this part of the line is based on the enormously successful F & Market Line in San Francisco, which similarly operates along their waterfront.

I do think these two lines have the potential to transform Auckland in a way that simply wouldn’t quite be possible through a bus route. Now that’s not to say that many of their benefits wouldn’t also be enjoyed through the creating of a high-quality bus route – but when it comes to capacity, the ability to stimulate development and the ability to attract leisure and tourist trips that would almost certainly otherwise be made by cars, along certain corridors I do think there’s a place for light-rail in Auckland’s transport future.

38 comments to Is there a place for light-rail in Auckland?

  • Looks great to me. What sort of stop spacing would you envisage? I was in Dublin recently and noted that the LUAS light-rail stopped every 500m in the city centre, increasing to 750m or more in the suburbs.

    • Stop spacing would probably be a bit wider than what we have on the current routes, but not too much so. The named dots aren’t indicative of stop, just showing what’s along the route really.

      The idea is to create a nice balance between speed and accessibility. So perhaps around one stop every 500-600m.

  • Matt L

    It would be amazing to see something like this, I just hope that Auckland Transport or some politicians pick it up and really push it.

  • Nick R

    Looks good, similar to what I have in mind except I run the Dominion-Queen route back up the Central Connector to Newmarket (and eventually along Remuera Rd and/or Manukau Rd)

    Why not extend the orange line a little further past Unitec to interchange with the Western line? That way everyone along the western line would have an excellent connection along to Unitec, the Zoo, Motat, Western Springs etc. And what about using Williamson ave through to Grey Lynn? It’s a little more direct and would service the residential area well. There are already a zillion buses along Great North Rd.

    Is there much need to duplicate the routes along Quay St? I suppose it doesn’t matter if the track is already there.

  • Good point about extending to Mt Albert shops.

    I thought long and hard about going via Williamson Ave rather than Great North Road – however, I think in the end it was Great North Road’s capability to intensify significantly that won me over with this route. Williamson Ave is a residential area, but it’s a residential area without too much capacity for growth (heritage zoning), whereas Great North Road has big semi-industrial lots just asking for redevelopment into apartment buildings (which has happened in some cases).

  • Luke

    Although there are many buses along Great North Road most will be eliminated as they either compete with the rail line such as the Glen Eden/Henderson/Swanson services; or are buses from the North-West which will no doubt be on the NW busway when this light-rail is built.
    The only issue I see with your plan is the missing link between Ponsonby and Newton.
    A third route could be justified as intra CBD traffic demand would be far higher than demand for trips to Pt Chev from the city. Maybe the orange route could avoid Ponsonby giving a quicker trip to Queen St, and a third route could serve Ponsonby maybe looping round through Newton – Newmarket – Central Connector or Parnell – Britomart – Wynard – Ponsonby.
    This would also make it much easier to construct the orange line as it could be staged (presuming Dominion Road would be top priority) so the line could be constructed to Grey Lynn with 3km of track instead of 6km.

  • rtc

    I think the green line should definitely make a short detour via Upper Queen street rather than following Ian McKinnon Drive. Much like Gt. Nth Rd this part of town is ripe for high density development and has pretty poor PT connections at present. The CBD tunnel will go some ways to rectifying that I guess but you’d surely be able to bump the tram’s patronage up in a way that merely following Ian McKinnon wouldn’t really allow.

    • I would agree, but the problem is how to get from Dominion Rd to Upper Queen St. I don’t see an easy connection route. Furthermore, the Upper Queen area is walking distance to the CBD and would be well served by the proposed Newton Station.

      • rtc

        Could it not turn right at Piwakawaka street and then up Newton road and then left onto Upper Queen street?
        But I guess with 1-2 stations on Ian McKinnon drive where Randolph/West etc abut, along with the CBD tunnel, you’d have pretty good connections.

  • Chris S

    Wow, let’s do it by 2015

  • sj

    Great post, but I would be quite surprised if this –

    I imagine electricity is cheaper (or certainly will be in the future) than diesel

    is accurate. Electricity is quite expensive in New Zealand, and I believe we already face supply issues over the winter months, in terms of both grid capacity and power generation. I don’t think the supply issues would preclude the lines you propose being built, of course — they’re electrifying the heavy rail, after all — but they serve to illustrate the problems we have.

    If anyone can point me to a quantitative comparison of the prices of diesel-fuelled and electric transport modes, I would be very interested.

    p.s.: If this is a duplicate comment, I apologise: my last attempt to post it seemed to fail.

  • rtc

    If there was a political will there would certainly not be a lack of money to do it based on what Joyce keeps saying.

  • Jon R

    Good one Joshua. I like these concept lines, let’s get building!

  • This would be great for cyclists if there was a car with room for bicycles. We could hop on for the steep bit at upper Queen street and it would provide a really nice connect between the easy cycling along the waterfront and most of the North-South routes in the CBD, and the easy routes along the ridges.

  • Ian M

    The green line (at least to Eden park) could have targeted for completion for the world-cup. Would have complemented the heavy rail at Kingsland nicely. What a shame

  • Vincent

    Unless your orange line heads up College Hill it’s going to miss almost all of the Freeman’s Bay potential development area. And it certainly misses the Ponsonby Rd ridge which is ripe for much more 2/3 story infill [eg the fire station is heading to Williamson Ave, because of taffic probs.]. The Grey Lynn/Westmere hinterland is missed again, agreed it can’t intensify much more, but a better system for Three Lamps/ Jervois/ West End Rd/ Westmere/ Meola to Pt Chev is needed. Also if they keep growing St Lukes isn’t that big target to try to hit?. Green Line a no brainer, especially as that is a big deadzone even once the Rail line is in; need to terminate at the Mt Roskill Station, and/or could loop past St Lukes back Great North Rd?

    • I guess it’s a trade-off between serving as many people as possible while also making it a reasonably straigh-line between the inner-west and the CBD. It might be useful to think about making the Link Bus route a tram in the longer term.

  • karl

    “Electricity is quite expensive in New Zealand, and I believe we already face supply issues over the winter months, in terms of both grid capacity and power generation.”

    Electricity will not, however, be subject to the massive sudden price spikes that are likely to occur with peak fuel.

  • obi

    Have you considered a modification to your map to create a light rail interchange south of the CBD. Have the Mission Bay line loop around the west of the CBD but instead of sending it out to the Zoo, route it to Mt Roskill. Then have the Zoo line cross over the first line to Newton, Midtown, and B-Mart to terminate at Wynyard. The “Newton Junction” station would allow people to change lines without heading in to the CBD itself. It would also mean you could run a CBD and Newton circle loop service if you wanted to.

    • Yeah the fact that the two lines go so close to each other, but don’t interchange, and the fact that the orange line doesn’t interchange with any railway stations on the CBD tunnel (except Britomart) certainly annoys me a bit too.

  • Vincent

    About the fuel, even this government says it accepts that human induced global warming is real and bad and we must do something about it [i don't believe they mean it, as you can see by their transport policies, but that's another matter] So even if electricity is a more expensive fuel [can anyone do this math?] it is in NZ 75%+ renewably generated and we should be investing like mad to shift to this fuel and mass transit is dramatically more able to do this than the [not even available] electric car. Further more the vast sums we spend on importing transport fuels are just going to skyrocket by even the most conservative estimates, so surely any prudent or pragmatic government would be trying to get us off this drug as much and and quickly as possible. Holiday highway anyone? Come 2013 you’ll see Joyce congratulating himself for his genius of electrifying AK’s [hopelessly limited] rail network as this will certainly be biting hard by then. The statement from Lloyds this week on peak oil specifically fingered the need to revolutionise transport everywhere. Lloyds, hardly crazed sandal wearing hippies.

  • James B

    @obi I think there definately needs to be some form of interchange between heavy rail, light rail and buses in Newton. So many important arterial routes feed into the area and it is geographically located at the opposite end of the city to Britomart. Not to mention the possibility for high densities.

  • Scott

    Fuel price comparison:
    Diesel:
    When burned, diesel typically releases about 38.6 MJ/l. Convert to KWh = 10.72 KWh/l
    Diesel cost = $1.189/L (BP, Auckland, 19-7-10, including GST)
    Diesel Cost in c/KWh = 11.09c/JKWh, remove GST = 9.86c/KWh

    Electricity:
    Auckland residential (Mercury) = 12.9c/KWh + 10.47c/KWh vector lines charges. (+GST).
    For the case of heavy rail the electricity is to be taken directly from the national grid avoiding the vector charges. I’m not sure where the light rail would connect to the grid so I will continue assuming the heavy rail situation. Note I am assuming domestic prices which is an invalid assumption as industrial consumers get bulk style discounts, and sometimes buy power wholesale off the spot market.
    Efficiency of an electric motor and control system = 80% (conservative estimate)
    Optimal Efficiency of a diesel engine is around 40%

    Cost per KWh of mechanical output
    Electric = 12.9/80% = 16.13 c/KWh (for typical running)
    Diesel = 9.86/40% = 24.65 c/KWh (only at optimum engine speed and power)

    Although electricity is cheaper per unit energy the greater efficiency of the electric motor over the diesel engine makes it the best economic choice based on fuel cost.

  • Vincent

    Thanks Scott- nice math. But then there is the comparison between private car fuel use versus electric mass transit? Obviously for every car journey avoided there would be a saving in imported fuel, and of course other ancillary costs such as parking, road building + maintenance, and even importing some cars at all… Anyone got a convincing rule of thumb for the hydrocarbon footprint we are forced to make by our masters committing us to auto-dependency, over putting that investment into a largely renewably powered transit system?

  • karl

    “says it accepts that human induced global warming is real”

    Uhm, our “Minister for making Auckland a suburb of Wellington” (Mr Hide) campaigned on the statement that Global Warming (especially human-induced) was bollocks!

  • morecityplease

    Here’s an interesting project in Portland that would fit such a transit corridor. http://ecoflatspdx.com/
    Note- no car parking since it is located along an established bicycle route.

  • Ross Clark

    Hi Admin, you wrote:

    //Portland’s actual number of public transport riders isn’t particularly amazing, around a 12% modeshare – higher than Auckland’s but lower than Vancouver, Seattle and many other North American cities – but perhaps that’s not necessarily as important as the secondary effects of light-rail on the redevelopment of areas or the intensification of corridors//.

    This is a point worth more consideration. Portland’s per capita ridership for its whole public transport system, at 50 or so trips per person per year (pppy), is somewhat better than Auckland’s 45 trips pppy or thereabouts; but less than the Wellington region’s 70 trips pppy; and a lot less than the 100 trips pppy of Wellington City proper.

    Admittedly that is hardly a like-with-like comparison, but these statistics remind us that it is the wider non-transport benefits that you will have to identify and stress, if you are going to promote light rail for the Dominion Rd corridor.

    Also, when we do hit peak oil. This will both discourage car use and encourage bus use, for obvious reasons; but fewer cars in the traffic flow, especially at the peak, will make buses work a lot better, which should start up a virtuous circle of bus services improvements, which will also attract more passengers. I don’t think we’ve looked hard enough at this potential benefit.

    • Yes you’re right Ross, and that’s why I’m not exactly proposing a giant light-rail system for Auckland. I think that it has the potential to certainly work on one route (the green one) and potentially work on the Orange Route, but a lot of the benefits would come from secondary things – like the tourism benefits of joining up most of Auckland’s main attractions through the one route and encouraging intensification along Dominion Road and Great North Road in particular.

      Regarding buses & peak oil, yes I think that our ability to bump up the number of buses we have far quicker than we could build light-rail or heavy rail will mean that they will lead our response to a sharp onset of peak oil. It’d be nice if we had some good research going into fully electric battery powered buses with an excellent range and good performance up hills etc.

      • Scott

        I think there is some interesting stuff going on at the uni on Inductive Power Transfer. Think trolleybuses with the wires under the road, and a wireless energy transfer. Limited to factories at this stage but definitely has potential in the future.

        • Could be installed at bus stops and at the end of routes I suppose. Promising idea indeed!

        • Matt L

          John Banks mentioned this at the CBT meeting, I think it is the same sort of system that is used to charge things like electric toothbrushes. Jarbs, no need for it to be at the end of a route, it could be installed all the way along it or possibly just at every stop.

          • James B

            I did read that scientists have figured out how to create a battery that can power a car for several hours and only takes a few minutes to charge. Unfortunately it requires trillions of carbon nano-tubes. I think they said the amount needed to build one battery would be equivilant to several decades of production at current rates.

  • Nick R

    But laying induction coils along the whole route would remove any benefits regarding cheap price or ease of deployment. A system that tops up at certain stops would be better.

  • karl

    “Also, when we do hit peak oil. This will both discourage car use and encourage bus use, for obvious reasons”

    The horrible dirty fact is though that in the SHORT RUN, peak oil will affect buses even MORE than cars. Car drivers, if they have to, can redirect some more money to pay for more expensive fuel (that assumes the fuel price is at least still in reach, rather than sky-high ridiculous). Bus companies meanwhile, are much less flexible in terms of their operating costs – when the fuel prices went to their 2008 high, some companies in the US where actually forced to CUT routes, because their operating budget just totally blew up…

    Buses, well-handled, are obviously still a much more efficient fuel use. But peak fuel won’t be “all good” for PT. Price hikes and service reductions may actually occur as we scramble to adapt to constant (and high-level) price fluctuations, especially in a NZ scenario where we are so woefully unprepared.

    • Luke

      If more people are driven onto buses because of high fuel prices surely this will increase PT cost recovery, and would easily cover increased fuel costs (at least peak oil in the short term). Also once fuel starts spiking the councils will surely realise that increasing road capacity is pointless, thus freeing up more money for PT improvements.

  • Shaun T

    Just out of curiosity (and since this is a rail topic) is anybody going to the CORE2010 conference in Wellington?

    http://www.core2010.org.nz/

  • Vincent

    Interesting, looking at the sponsors of the above event that there are no major kiwi construction companies… looks like they just want to build roads, or is it that they know that there just aren’t going to be any meat projects anytime in the near future [CBD loop]?

  • Larry H

    One of the advantages of light rail is you get great clips like this:

Leave a Reply