While the fact that transport has become the number one issue in the current Super City elections doesn’t surprise me, one thing that has surprised me a bit in recent times is the level of focus on getting rail out to Auckland International Airport. In particular, it was very interesting to see in a recent NZ Herald article, more people considered the Airport Line to be Auckland’s number one transport priority than any other project. Support for the Airport Line was even ahead of the exceedingly all-encompassing “improving the roading system” – by 23.5% to 18.4%. With both major mayoral candidates (Len Brown and John Banks) supporting the CBD rail tunnel project, Len Brown’s support and John Banks’ opposition to, Airport rail is shaping up as a reasonably defining difference between the two candidates. I must add that it’s a bit odd to see Banks now opposing both Airport Rail and a North Shore railway line when he trumpeted the idea of both to the Campaign for Better Transport back in July.
So what do we know about this Airport Line project? Is is likely to be economically feasible? Will it go bust? What previous work has been done to analyse its cost, its benefits, whether it should be light-rail, heavy rail or a busway? And how about whether it should link to the east, to the north, or both? Perhaps most importantly, what is a reasonable timeframe for the project – and what else needs to be done first, if anything, before such a project can go ahead? These are the questions that I will try to shed some light on in this post.
In terms of concrete background work already undertaken, there are a couple of things that are probably worth noting. The first is that as part of their Manukau Harbour Crossing Project, NZTA build the new section of the Mangere Bridge strong enough to carry a railway line across it in the future – even if they did so reluctantly and only because the Campaign for Better Transport took them to the environment court over the issue. I’m not exactly sure of the detail about where the line would go – presumably it would be slung underneath the main roading deck – but a potentially very significant cost (that of building a new bridge) has been avoided thanks to something highly unusual in Auckland – some future proofing.
The second thing that has happened so far in terms of previous work is a study undertaken by Beca for ARTA back in 2008. The study looked at alignment options, it looked at the question of busway, light-rail or heavy rail, it looked at whether the line should link to the east, to the north or both, and made a number of recommendations. It’s well worth a look through. In short though, the study recommended heavy rail, even though it was the most expensive option – because of the ability to link in with the rest of the rail system and also the ability to carry many more people than either a busway or light-rail. The busway option was the cheapest, but was considered to have minimal benefits over and above what we have now (plus there’s always the question of what the heck to do once all these buses get to Onehunga, it’s not like we can build a brand new busway across the isthmus easily). Light-rail was calculated to cost nearly as much as heavy rail, but only offer benefits similar to a busway: the worst of both worlds. This is shown in the table below: Three different heavy rail options were analysed: with access from the northeast (via Onehunga), access from the east (via Puhinui) and a loop that gives access from both. The preferred option was both, with the route shown in the map below (the aqua coloured line) – including the Avondale-Southdown line that could be constructed separately. Now of course such a significant project will not come cheap. The whole line shown above (including the Avondale-Southdown section) is estimated to cost in the region of $2.2 billion. The Onehunga to Manukau via the Airport section makes up around $1.4 billion of that total (why does every big transport project cost $1.4 billion???) So we are talking some serious money here – even if the airport paid for its own station and a reasonable chunk of the cost of building the line within its land boundaries. Vancouver Airport paid $300 million of the $2 billion construction cost of the Canada Line (Canadian dollars), so it seems reasonably likely there would be a case for the Airport to chip-in.
So what sort of “bang” do we get for our buck with this project? Well this is the difficult one to calculate. If we look internationally, there has been mixed success with lines to airports. Even in Australia, the railway line to Sydney Airport has under-performed, whereas the line to Brisbane Airport has just reported a massive increase in its profit: yes, it makes a profit. Given that Sydney is a much bigger city than Brisbane, and has by far the busier airport – the argument that “Auckland isn’t big enough to warrant rail to its airport” may not necessarily be relevant to the debate. The cost of different sections, and their cost-effectiveness, is analysed by the table below: Looking at the “Peak Section Demand” column, the numbers are fairly significant when you consider that at the moment around 6000 passengers arrive at Britomart during the AM peak. Also remember that each rail trip in the Auckland region generates $17 of benefits to road users, and the numbers start adding up. Furthermore, many of the trips most likely to be taken by rail: those for business travellers, would be the exact trips where the time savings, greater reliability and CBD destination would be most valuable. Other major users would be tourists, and I must say as a recent tourist myself I really did appreciate being able to catch a train from the airport into whatever city I was visiting (possible at times, not possible at other times). There is also, of course, always the question of what the wider benefits would be, does rail to the airport make Auckland a “proper” world-class city? What are the flow-on benefits of making travel between the city and airport easier for tourists, business-people and various others? I don’t know, but they could be quite significant.
Furthermore, airport travellers would only be a part of the potential patronage of the line shown in the map above. The airport area has over 10,000 workers – one of Auckland’s greatest employment concentrations. The line would also offer a rail option to those living in southwest Auckland, whose current bus services are some of the worse and most complex in the city.
However, one thing that I cannot stress strongly enough is that we have to build the CBD rail tunnel first. Britomart is nearly at capacity, as by the time the Western Line’s peak frequencies are increased to one train every 10 minutes Britomart will be at capacity. This means at peak times you could only run a train to the airport every half an hour (basically as an extension of Onehunga Line services). I think this would be insufficient, particularly considering future increases in rail patronage.
So do I support rail to the airport? Well I would like to see some further information – both in terms of analysing its projected use a bit more, but perhaps more interestingly, an analysis of the wider benefits to Auckland of having such a link. I’m fairly confident the numbers would come out to be reasonably good, so I do support the project. The big question to answer though is “when?” and “what priority should this have?” In my opinion the CBD rail tunnel has to come first. Not only is it essential to make the airport line operational, it is probably a more justifiable project. Airport Line would be number two for me though – and I see no reason why we shouldn’t aim to have it under construction within the next 5-10 years, and certainly complete before 2025.