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Conversation with a traffic engineer

This is so true!

Traffic engineers need to be part of the solution to the transport problems we face, but most of the time I really think that they’re actually the biggest part of the problem. I know there are traffic engineers out there who read this blog – please please you need your profession to do better!

Visible signs of electrification

I had a look around the rail network today at what works are going on. It is pretty impressive in many places to see the incredible amount of work that has gone on over the last few days – particularly around Baldwin Ave station and Newmarket.

Here’s what Baldwin Ave looks like:And the NZ Herald wondered why we couldn’t run trains over the holiday period… perhaps because there are no tracks in some places to run them on!

Perhaps the best views of the electrification masts going up are to be had around Newmarket:It looks like KiwiRail might even be doing some landscaping in the triangle between the railway lines. It would be nice to have the harshness of this area softened with a few plants.

It is quite exciting to see the masts go up – being the first really really visible sign that rail electrification is most truly happening. I suspect there will be quite a few more masts up by the time the system reopens on January 10th.

The temporary speed limit that ‘cried wolf’

Doing some inter-city driving over the past few days has reminded me of one rather annoying and disconcerting element of New Zealand’s road signage – and that is the good old temporary speed limit. This thing:

Now to NZTA’s credit, there aren’t many road works actually going on around the country during the holiday period – at least not on busy inter-city highways. But we still see quite a few of these signs out – either with a 30 kph limit, sometimes 50 kph and very occasionally 70 kph.

I understand the importance of lowering speed limits when road works are happening. There are lives at stake here in terms of our road workers, and quite frankly driving across freshly laid seal at a high speed can be a pretty uncomfortable experience. So temporary speed limits certainly have their place in the world – a very important place too!

However, an issue I have with them is that so often the signs are still up when there’s absolutely no need for them. Either no roadworks are actually happening, or the speed limitation is far far lower than what’s actually necessary. For example there’s a 30 kph limit on the Curran Street onramp at the moment – and I doubt I’ve ever seen anyone do less than double that during non-congested periods.

While there’s a certain ‘annoyance factor’ with these unnecessarily low limits, I have a greater worry – and that is based on that great old story “The boy who cried wolf“. Just as the boy who kept on falsely crying out “wolf” eventually led to villagers ignoring his cries when a wolf really did come along, I worry that imposing unnecessary temporary speed restrictions is starting to train drivers around NZ that these signs don’t need to be taken seriously. The problem is that occasionally there is a damn good reason to slow down to 30 kph for roadworks. That’s a recipe for disaster in my opinion.

So come on NZTA and your contractors, let’s ensure we use temporary speed limits appropriately so that we don’t play a game of ‘boy who cried wolf’ with the lives of the workers on our roads. Buy a few more temporary 70 kph signs if need be and ensure the signs are removed when no longer needed.

Bypassing Warkworth

Despite what the Minister of Transport says, it is clear that one of the main reasons for the Puhoi-Wellsford road of national significance becoming a priority is to alleviate traffic congestion that happens north of Auckland during holiday times. Of course that’s not the only reason for the project becoming a priority – that seems to be a delusion (in my opinion) that saving 5-10 minutes off a trip between Puhoi and Wellsford is going to make the world of difference to Northland’s economy.

I’ve been up north for the last couple of days, so I’ve seen for myself what traffic congestion can be like around Warkworth. I was smart enough to miss the annual mess on December 27th, but I’m likely to hit some pretty nasty traffic on January 4th when I return to Auckland after another trip up north. That’s somewhat unavoidable as I start work on the 5th. My observations, after heading north on December 28th and returning to Auckland today, is that Warkworth really is the main problem along the road and that if we could bypass Warkworth it would make the world of difference to congestion problems.

Below is a photo taken earlier today of the traffic jam north of Warkworth. This was caused by the imfamous Hill Road intersection:This stretched back about 3 kilometres to the north of the intersection. While the traffic was moving, it was somewhat annoying and probably added around 10 minutes to our trip time. Not the end of the world, but this was hardly the peak time for travelling either (and it was heading south rather than north).

The photo below shows the cause of the problem – an utterly stupid intersection:There were plans to upgrade this intersection, although they seem to have gone on hold because of investigations into the holiday highway. After all, why would you spend millions upgrading an intersection that you plan to bypass – even if that bypass is another 10 years away from completion.

In fact, the ironic thing is that NZTA have spent millions upon millions of dollars upgrading State Highway 1 through Warkworth over the last couple of years. This seems to have been pretty much a complete waste of money – money that could have far better been spent on bypassing Warkworth altogether. The problem with the recent upgrade is pretty evident in the photo below: The upgraded four-lane section is more distant, while the non-upgraded part is closer. You guessed it, the bottleneck (which is the intersection in the earlier photo) hasn’t been touched and the earlier bottlenecks in Warkworth have just been shifted north slightly.

The result is pretty unsurprising. It’s also worth noting what disdain NZTA have for pedestrians as even though this section of State Highway 1 goes right through the middle of a town, NZTA didn’t bother to put in a footpath on one side of the road: This traffic jam (northbound traffic) continued south of Warkworth for a few kilometres, but once you were clear of that the road was generally flowing quite well.

It seems fairly clear to me that a Warkworth bypass is desperately needed – not in 10 years as per the current timeframe for the Puhoi-Warkworth section of the holiday highway, but as a fast-tracked section completed within 3-4 years. If only NZTA had been smart enough to realise this a few years back they could have built it already instead of wasting money on pointlessly widening half the main road through Warkworth.

Bashing rail, the NZ Heralds other favorite pastime

Following on from the completely unsurprising story about the holiday traffic the other day by the NZ Herald it seems they have now taken to another of their favorite pastimes, bashing rail. Today in their editorial they have attacked the current rail shutdown for electrification works and questioned the validity of upgrading the network. There are so many issues with this piece I’m not going to try and answer them all but effectively boiled down there seem to be two common themes:

1. They are saying that if we can afford to close the network on the 2-3 quietest weeks of the year then we should shut it down permanently and replace all with trains buses.

In that case, it may be wondered why the city is getting an upgraded rail service to run at untold operating losses, if buses can do the same job.

If that it is the case that we should close things if they are not needed during the quietest time of the year then does that also mean can afford to close two lanes of the harbour bridge seeing as they are closed for resurfacing work, how about the Newmarket viaduct southbound which was closed for a weekend for upgrading works, another thing is we could close off half of the motorway lanes seeing as they aren’t busy with not many cars on them.

2. That the patronage growth that we have seen since 2003 should be ignored, they also said something similar about the CBD tunnel study

The case for upgrading rail rests on assumptions that it will attract many more people to live near a station or become employers in the CBD. It is a gamble the Auckland Council is willing to take with the Government’s money. “Build it”, say our civic visionaries, “and commuters will come”.

They point to the growth in rail passengers since the Britomart terminal was built. But it was apparent to early assessors of the business plan for rail project that it would probably draw passengers from certain bus routes rather than increase public transport patronage overall. That impression is reinforced by the ease with which buses have been substituted for trains during this rail shutdown.

What they haven’t said is that while train patronage has skyrocketed from about 2.5 million trips a year in 2002 to about 9 million now, bus patronage has also increased so even if rail has taken some bus users, those have been replaced by new ones.

Speaking of the rail works, here are some photos courtesy of regular commenter Andrew, there are more posted at the CBT forum

Baldwin Ave including an electrification mast, it would be a bit hard to run trains with no tracks

Newmarket Junction with masts sprouting up all over the place. Looks like they are forming laying sleepers in the centre to plant it out.

Surprise, surprise

As I predicted a couple of days ago, the NZ Herald reports on yesterday’s traffic jams around Warkworth:

Bumper-to-bumper traffic stretched almost the length of the 7.5km toll road between Orewa and Puhoi for three hours from late yesterday morning.

Some hot and frustrated drivers and passengers got out of their cars to stretch their legs and cool off.

Angry motorists vented their frustration on Twitter.

Doug Hanna wrote that he had visitors from Auckland staying with him at Oakura, north of Whangarei: “Took 5 hours 40 to get here today. Took us 3.10 yesterday.”

Hamish Rouse was travelling in the opposite direction: “NZ Traffic anywhere out of Auckland is insane. Just came down from up North. Poor northbound travellers.”

While it seems some of the congestion is caused by the two-lanes to one-lane merge just before the Johnstone’s Hill tunnel, I wonder how much of a difference a Warkworth bypass would make.

The giant traffic jam was caused by two lanes of motorway traffic having to merge into one lane before the Johnstone’s Hill tunnel, and then merge again with vehicles from the coastal road on the one northbound lane beyond the toll road.

Although the Government has designated a $1.65 billion four-lane highway from Puhoi to Wellsford as one of seven “roads of national significance”, the first stage to Warkworth will not be completed until 2019 and the final stage not until 2022.

While I do think it’s stupid to justify a roading projects on the basis of what happens once a year, the holiday highway is a pretty poor solution to this problem anyway – because it will take so extremely long to complete. Why not fast-track a Warkworth bypass and try to have it built within 2-3 years?

Rail upgrade work underway

The NZ Herald reports that the rail upgrade work taking place over the next couple of weeks – which will involve significant improvements to big chunks of the network in preparation for electrification – has swung into action:

About 200 rail workers threw themselves into a hectic summer construction programme throughout Auckland yesterday, including erecting the first of 3500 power supply masts for the $1 billion electrification project.

Several masts were erected through the Newmarket railway junction and above a new platform being built at the Baldwin Avenue station on the western line, as work began elsewhere around the region demolishing bridges and lowering tracks to create enough head-room for electrification.

I went to the cricket match at Eden Park yesterday and there were a number of KiwiRail staff around Morningside Station doing upgrade works.

Although five bridges are being replaced between Papatoetoe and Papakura and the 800m Purewa railway tunnel is being lowered this summer, Mr French he said the premier job of the season was probably the re-signalling around Quay Park.

That is needed to ensure trial runs of “bi-directional” Rugby World Cup rail operations can take place early in the New Year, in which trains will run in the same direction on both sets of tracks from Kingsland Station.

The first such trial is due on February 19 for a rugby clash between the Auckland Blues and Canterbury Crusaders at the opening of the Super 15 season at Eden Park.

I would agree that the signalling work at Quay Park is the most interesting and useful part of the upgrade works that will happen over this break. Not only will it allow bi-directional running of trains for one-off events like matches at Eden Park, it will also enable Britomart to handle a few more trains at peak times. That should it won’t be too long before we can have 10 minute peak frequencies on the Western Line.

I’ll try to get out and about – particularly around Baldwin Ave station – over the next week and a bit to take some photos of what’s happening.

Don’t drive north tomorrow

Tomorrow there will be a huge traffic jam heading north of Auckland, particularly as the result of the Warkworth bottleneck. The same thing happens every December 27th, everyone says how horrible the traffic jam is, and the “need” for the holiday highway is supposedly underlined. Here’s what happened last year:

Thousands of motorists spent hours stewing in traffic jams between Auckland’s Northern Gateway toll road and Warkworth yesterday.

Traffic started banking up north of Puhoi at about 10.30am, and three hours later was jammed for about 25km from Warkworth back to the Hillcrest Rd bridge over the southern end of the toll road at Orewa.

The worst problems were where lanes merged, whether at the end of passing lanes or at the northbound entry to the Johnstones Hill tunnel at the Puhoi end of the toll road.

It was not until 4pm that the Transport Agency reported a relatively free flow had been restored to the tunnel, which is confined to one northbound lane for safety reasons at the other end, where traffic from the alternative free coastal route through Orewa merges with State Highway 1.

Transport Agency northern highways manager Tommy Parker said State Highway 16 through Helensville remained free-flowing throughout yesterday as an alternative route to Wellsford, and drivers should always consider that option if travelling further north over the holiday period.

It seems silly to spend $1.7 billion on a road to solve a problem that only happens once a year. The alternative is pretty simple – just don’t drive north tomorrow. If you have to, go early or late or via State Highway 16.

Merry Xmas

Well Merry Xmas everyone. I’ve finished with work for the year and a couple of weeks of very nice holidays beckon. It’s likely that my posting will reduce in frequency over the next couple of weeks, particularly in early January as I’m going to be out of Auckland for a few days. I think it’s unlikely there will be any major transport stories, although it will be interesting to follow the works done to the rail corridors over the Xmas break.

As a Xmas present here’s a truly awesome video of the Maglev Train linking Shanghai with its Airport:

“Hop” confirmed as name for Auckland smart-card

Well it seems like the rumours were correct – Auckland’s equivalent of London’s Oyster Card and Hong Kong’s Octopus Card is going to be called the “Hop Card”. The NZ Herald ran this story today:

London has its Oyster public transport card, Hong Kong an Octopus and Wellingtonians their Snapper, but Aucklanders will be hopping on to dry land with their new ticket to ride.

Auckland Transport is calling a new electronic ticket for seamless travel on buses, trains and ferries the Hop Card, and has approved a $1 million budget to publicise it.

I first read about the name being “Hop” on the Campaign for Better Transport Forum a few weeks ago, as I noted in this blog post. Herald writer Mathew Dearnaley obviously also keeps an eye on the CBT forums:

Earlier information about the name leaked to the Campaign for Better Transport’s website drew comments such as “underwhelming and lame” and “bit naff, really”. One wag said it may be “for one-legged folks”.

Bus passengers at Britomart were more complimentary, with 11 endorsing the name and only one saying it should have more of a Kiwi flavour.

Richard Benson said it had “a good beat to it” and Rick Schultz agreed it was catchy, although his main concern was that the card would make it easier to use public transport.

Is Mr Schultz worried about more people using public transport as a result of the card, or interested in that happening? I wonder. Ironically, apparently ‘Beat Card’ was one of the name options looked at, along with ‘Lime Card’. I suppose out of the three, Hop is definitely the least bad.

But it’s still a somewhat underwhelming name in my opinion. I think it’s a shame to not continue the nautical theme of overseas smart-cards – particularly when Auckland is such a nautical city. Something like the “Mako Card” could have been good – with the bonus that Mako (Maori for shark) eat Snapper :-)