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Next steps for the CBD rail tunnel

The agenda for Auckland Transport’s board meeting tomorrow has been posted online (both the boring open agenda and the rather more interesting confidential agenda). In the closed agenda, along with various items that seem relatively normal, will be special consideration of the following: One imagines that the EMU Procurement item is responding to KiwiRail’s short-listing down to two of the preferred suppliers that was announced a few days back. Perhaps Auckland Transport is being asked to make some decisions on exactly what they want. It’s the Central City Rail Link (is that the new official name for the project?) item that interests me most though – as this comes not too long before the Cabinet is going to be considering the CBD Tunnel Business Case Review project that has been going on for the past few months.

It’s hard to know exactly what will come out of the business case review. Compared to the Puhoi-Wellsford business case I thought that the CBD tunnel case was extremely comprehensive. I liked the way that it went beyond the traditional analysis of wider economic benefits to look at the impact on productivity that concentrating employment in the CBD (something the project is critical for allowing to happen) would have. However, it also had some weaknesses – with obvious questions like “how many cars will it take off the roads” not being answered in an easily accessible way. I think it also focuses too much on what the benefits to the CBD are – and ignores benefits to other parts of Auckland that will arise from us being able to operate trains at frequencies of more than one every ten minutes. The table below shows what a massive difference the CBD Tunnel will make to total rail patronage in Auckland in 2041 – 22.2 million without the tunnel, 47.6 million with it: Another issue I took with the business case is probably not its own fault (in that it was written last year before the Super City came into being), but that it ignores to some extent the impact on the city centre that things like the International City Centre Master Plan might have. That Master Plan envisages creating a city centre that is far more people-oriented and far less vehicle-oriented – a potential fundamental conflict with even the current number of cars and buses that stream in and out of downtown every day. Yet the business case modelling suggests that even with the tunnel, the city centre will have to deal with bus passengers increasing from 23,000 to 42,000 in 2041, and vehicle numbers increasing from 34,500 to 39,600 by 2041. This is shown in the table below: As most people would clearly recognise, the number of vehicles entering the city at peak times probably doesn’t have much capacity to grow – plus with measures proposed in the Master Plan (like two-waying Hobson and Nelson streets, potentially pedestrianising Queen and Quay streets plus implementing many more bus lanes to stop the city being so clogged up with buses) it seems highly likely that general vehicle capacity will decrease. So that calls into question some of the modelling outcomes of the business case in my mind at least – meaning that the benefits of the project may have been under-estimated.

However, my understanding is that the central government agencies involved in the review are likely to take quite a different approach – as papers released under the OIA suggested. The Ministry of Transport had the following to say about the business case: Looking further into MoT’s criticism of the business case, and in particular their criticism of the expected rail patronage (referred to above) pretty much boils down to flooding the city centre with cars. MoT’s revised modelling suggests that up to 56,000 vehicles would enter the city during peak time in 2041, even with the project. Something tells me they need to get a new modelling system if it produces such insanely counter-intuitive results.

I suppose, to cut to the chase, unless something dramatic has happened over the last few months to result in government officials and Auckland Transport officials reconciling their massive differences on the merit of this project – it seems somewhat unlikely we’ll have a definitive answer on whether it makes sense or not. I suspect that a lot of further work needs to be done to better understand wider economic benefits – and although this work has begun in terms of the various RoNS projects – the way the CBD Tunnel business case came up with its staggering large “urban regeneration benefits” didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Perhaps it is the same measurement that was used in the UK’s assessment of CrossRail’s “move to more productive jobs” benefits, but I just don’t know. The logic behind the benefits makes sense – as is outlined above – it’s just working out exactly how to quantify those benefits which might need some further analysis. I’m sure we could always ask the UK government how they do it.

However, considering the financial impact of the Christchurch earthquake and the government’s general distaste for anything rail, one could argue that the business case review is pretty irrelevant anyway – even with the most fantastic cost-benefit ratio in the entire world I think it’s doubtful the government would simply go “yeah sure, here’s a billion dollars, go off and build it”. They only do that for uneconomic roading projects.

So I think what we can really hope for, once the business case review is completed, is what I talked about in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake and its impacts on project priorities: that Auckland Council simply gets on with designating the route, undertaking the detailed design and sorting out all the necessary consents to actually build the project. As shown in the diagram below, if we want to have the project completed by 2021 (which is the date used by the Regional Land Transport Strategy and the business case) then we don’t actually need to start building until 2015 – we have a good 3-4 years of work that needs to be done before the point where we get the diggers out:

Because of this, there’s no real need to start spending “big bucks” until later this decade – once again something spelled out quite clearly in the business case:

Auckland Council could quite easily cover the costs of the project by itself up until 2016ish – I would think. So there’s no desperately pressing need to get the government ‘on-side’ to help with funding – at least not for now. One might imagine that by the middle of this decade, particularly if petrol prices continue to increase and rail patronage continues to grow (with integrated ticketing and electrification coming online that seems inevitable), a sensible government could take quite a different perspective on the need for the project. Perhaps the Ministry of Transport might have even updated their modelling software to something that’s not stuck in the 1960s too!

The one big potential ‘spanner in the works’ is that the only agency legally able to designate railway lines is KiwiRail. And KiwiRail’s Minister is Steven Joyce – who has to give the ‘go-ahead’ for them to be able to designate the route, even if Auckland Council is the one who’s actually paying for the process 100%. Now one wouldn’t think that Joyce would ban KiwiRail from doing such a thing, when it comes at absolutely no cost to the government – but you never know.

17 comments to Next steps for the CBD rail tunnel

  • I’m picking the MOT’s paper will position the CBD tunnel as being more expensive with less benefits. This was alluded to at a recent meeting I had with Nikki Kaye. She said that she would expect the CBT will have to be consistent with any criticism of BCRs if the MOT rail tunnel study finds that the BCR is weak. For the record she did say that she supports it, but that there needs to be a debate about how it should be funded.

  • Cam

    Nikki Kaye is useless, we all know it. I wouldn’t even bother thinking you’ll get any traction with her. She says she supports the link because she knows in her electorate it would be stupid not to, she’s also adopting the current National party strategy of paying lip service to PT to deflect critisisim.

    She knows there is no way in hell Joyce would ever fund this, regardless of BCR and that currently he whittling away at it to undermine the current business case in anyway he can to justify it. She’s not going to go against that. She’ll tow the party line because it will help her career in the party(and please let’s not bring up the example of her stage managed opposition to mining in the Auckland region, that was faker than Shortland St)

    Best we can hope for is that she’s voted out in November and Auckland central gets a proper advocate for PT, not a puppet.

  • Luke

    26.1 – surely farebox recovery would increase with the CBDRL?
    26.2 Have they taken these same disruption costs into account for Waterview. Huge disruption never seems to stop any roading or other projects.
    26.3 so the projects to grade separate most of the bus corridors in the city, or whatever mad schemes to increase CBD road capacity will have a better BCR?
    26.4 I wonder if bus feeders are taken into account? With excellent bus feeders post CBDRL rail will provide better links than buses to the CBD from all of the southern area (including Mangere with high frequency services to Onehunga), the Western area south of SH16. Will seriously eat into bus patronage from areas such as Blockhouse Bay, and St Johns/Glendowie. Even most people from East Auckland will find it easier/quicker to transfer to rail at Panmure, only severe overcrowding at peak may keep these buses alive. That only leaves the tramline suburbs, Tamaki Drive, The North Shore and Te Atatu, Westgate being bus served.
    26.5 wtf! doesnt the first table show clearly the 22.2 million vs 47.6million?

  • The ‘bus’ argument has three parts.

    1. it is an excuse to continue to spend the lion’s share of all money on roads ‘buses need roads too’ yet to claim with a straight face that they are funding PT.
    2. Ideology; buses are profit centres for government friends like Infratil, that they are mining public subsidy doesn’t matter, these guys love corporate welfare. [Welcome to NZ: A Times Warner Country]
    3. related to the above; rail keeps growing with every improvement it’ll become unstoppably popular if further encouraged. Not good for all important and increasingly hard to justify highways obsession.

  • George D

    You can see how vague those assumptions are. They assume the same number of cyclists in the city whether there are 39,000 vehicle passengers in the city, or 50,000. Which simply isn’t credible. Cycling is dependent on the conditions around it. It also makes me think that a more proactive pro-cycling transport policy is needed.

    • George yes, a pro-active cycling policy is badly needed, get involved with your local board… get it included in their transport policy, both in terms of scope and with concrete proposals.

  • This is interesting in light of the figures from March. In the CBDRL study above the predicted growth on the rail network 2011-2016 is from 10m to 16.1m. This is exactly 10% pa. If instead we use a figure closer, but still a little less than the March on March number, 20%, we get a completely different story.

    2011 10m 10m
    2012 11 12
    2013 12.1 14.4
    2014 13.31 17.28
    2015 14.64 20.74
    2016 16.11 24.89

    And the higher figure is in no way unlikely as the forces driving this uptake will still be there.
    1. Push factors; the increasing cost of car ownership, no one is predicting oil price decreases over this period, ups and downs yes, but in the context of a general trend upward, and we are clearly one Middle Eastern coup away from very dramatic price increases.
    2. Pull factors; new stations, improved stations, more services, co-ordinated bus services feeding the rail network, Integrated ticketing, and, of course new electric trains, continued awareness and acceptance of rail in AK.

    What are the limits of the network caused by the Britomart bottleneck? The above document suggests 22m, we could be stuffed as early as 2015/16
    So just how urgent is the CBDRL? Extremely. Even if we had funding today it still looks like it will be needed well before it could be built.

    I look forward to the MoT review explaining this carefully to Mr Joyce. [yeah right]

    • Matt L

      A couple of things you haven’t taken into account, we are almost at capacity so it is going to get harder to maintain that level of growth. The March report indicates that quite a number of services are already above the target maximum load with some trains carrying twice their seated capacity. There are a few more carriages that are going to be added to services but it is only a total of one more trains worth so won’t take long to fill up and after that there is no new planned capacity increases until the electrics start rolling in 2-3 years time.

      • Matt can frequency not be improved with the existing kit?

      • Ok Matt then my numbers above become a theoretical increase, constrained by policy of the Minister. First delaying electrification and now restricting growth through the funding cap.

        So
        1. This needs spelling out in public and debating, as there are many including drivers who would agree that allowing those that wish to travel on a train and not on a road is A GOOD THING and should not be held back by the highway obsessions of the current Minister.
        And
        2. As the new higher capacity and more efficient and appealing system beds in through 2013/14 there then is likely to be a big jump in ridership similar to what we saw when the Northern Busway opened. Continue that though 2015 + 16 and it seems we will see least 20m trips in 2016. Double the 2011 number in five years, still looks conservative to me.

        So the growth may not be smooth, constrained as it is, but we still are likely to reach capacity way earlier than the study supposes. And therefor full capacity, and still no CBDRL in sight, assuming no change of gov., or policy. The actions of the current Minister are clearly a constraint on the productivity of the county’s biggest and most important city.

  • Furthermore even the careful IMF is predicting anything from 60% to 800% oil price rises over this period…. people are going to be fighting to get on the trains come 2016:

    http://www.crudeoilpeak.com/?p=3054

  • Stu Donovan

    If the CBD rail loop is not built in time then AT could also implement incentives for people to travel off-peak, either by raising prices to travel in the peak or lowering prices in the peak period. This would effectively “squeeze” additional capacity out of the existing system, by encouraging better utilisation of off-peak capacity.

    Also, if services are limited only by Britomart, then AT could (as a stop-gap initiative) run direct services west-east via Newmarket and either the SE or S lines. This would seek to increase utilisation on other parts of the network. Even with the HOP card I imagine some people travelling to west-south would benefit from a direct service.

    So while history suggests the growth will exceed 10% pa there are some creative options for mitigating the effects of capacity constraints at Britomart. That’s not to underplay the apparent benefits of the CBD rail loop, but just to highlight that not all is lost if Steven Joyce continues to prevaricate on the need to fund rail improvements.

    • The western line has a max loading point between Mt Eden and Grafton so running a number of west to south trains could be popular. Not sure whether the south to west direction would have much demand though as there are relative few jobs in the west.

      I see a need for those trains in the next year or two. So I doubt they will help much post 2021.

  • Luke C

    maybe a New Lynn – Newmarket – Parnell – Panmure – Otahuhu service could be good for filling in the gaps. Would free up room on the peak services for Britomart bound passengers. Also direct link to Newmarket from East could be useful for some.
    Hopefully with HOP card fully in play people will discover the benefit of transferring to bus at Grafton for a trip to the upper CBD and uni.

    • Yes I can see us trying all of these things, if it can be afforded under the double squeeze of no more subsidy and higher track fees, but it’s still just papering over the cracks due to the insane priorities of an increasingly unreal minister.

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