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Analysing critiques of the City Rail Link

I am glad that the “City Rail Link” name for the Britomart to Mt Eden Tunnel has replaced previous names for the project – like the CBD Rail Tunnel, the CBD Rail Link and (my least favourite) the CBD Loop. Calling this project a “City Rail Link” emphasises the fact that its benefits are not just felt in the city centre, but across the whole of Auckland.

And this is important, because we are consistently seeing this project being attacked on the basis that it will only provide a benefit to those working in the CBD – and that’s a relatively small proportion of Auckland’s employment. One recent example of such criticism comes from a blog post on the “Cities Matter” blog  (a rather ironic name for what seems to be a very anti-cities blog), written by Phil McDermott – a consultant in ‘urban, economic and community development’ .

The post makes the following critique of the project:

Around 21,000 trips a day from the West and the North of the region went to the CBD in 2006. But 38,000 had to get past it (although some from the west would have gone near it at all).

Significantly fewer north- or west-bound trips indicate more limited employment opportunities in those areas. But there were still 15,000 from south of the CBD to the north or west.

So, 54,000 trips went past the CBD, nearly as many as destined for it (58,000). And 127,000 went to other parts of the Isthmus. While the CBD is the largest single destination (around 14% of the city’s total jobs using our definition) the real congestion issue is how to cater for – or reduce — cross-city commuting, and especially north-south trips that must use the motorway system to drive round it.

Will the proposed city rail link meet the Plan’s expectations? No. Not just because it does not address cross-city congestion. But also because in 2006 30% of trips from elsewhere on the Isthmus into the CBD already used PT. In some nearby Isthmus areas the figure was much higher e.g., 50% for Mt Eden North, 40% Newmarket, 42% Sandringham, 41% Newmarket, and 40% Surrey Crescent. And a substantial 26% of commuters from the North and 27% from the South to the CBD also used PT in 2006. (These figures do not include ferries, which accounted for 7% of PT boardings in the year ending October 2011 – all to the CBD)…

…It must be asked: how we can justify over $2bn in capital spending to raise rail’s share of CBD-focused travel in which PT already plays a large part? Because we face the prospect of diminishing returns by way the high cost of each additional unit of demand that might be satisfied by spending up large on the rail link, especially because this does not really address where the problem really lies: with cross regional travel. There may be more cost effective and enduring measures we can take.

The information above is informed by a table, showing journey to work patterns around Auckland (which seems to match up with this other table?):This kind of analysis of the City Rail Link project has two obvious flaws, which I will get onto soon, but the fact that this type of critique continues to emerge highlights the need for the regional benefits of the project to be explained in more detail and given a bit more focus.

The first flaw is to ignore the fact that cross-town trips obviously do benefit from there being fewer ‘suburb to CBD’ vehicle (either by car or bus) trips. Someone travelling from New Lynn to East Tamaki clearly benefits from not having to compete for road-space with someone who used to drive along some of the same roads on their trip from Avondale to the CBD, but now catches the train. Ultimately, we all know that Auckland is growing quite significantly (another million people by 2040) and we know that it’s extremely difficult and expensive to expand the road network to accommodate all these extra people – so the need to use our rail network more efficiently is obvious. As, once again quite obviously, the only way we can squeeze a lot more out of the rail network is by building the City Rail Link, to ease the Britomart bottleneck.

The second flaw is linked to the first, being an ignorance of the City Rail Link’s ‘enabling’ of higher frequency trains to be operated across the whole rail network. In March next year, when the next rail timetable comes into effect, we will be maximising Britomart’s ability to handle trains at peak times. Even post-electrification we won’t be able to run more trains at peak times (although they will generally be much longer). If we are to run frequencies across the whole network that are better than one train every 10 minutes, then we need to build the City Rail Link. If we ever want to expand the rail network (building Airport rail or whatever), then we need the City Rail Link. Higher train frequencies and the potential for an expanded rail network clearly benefits far more people than just those travelling to the CBD. If you travel from Papakura to Ellerslie for work, then you’d benefit from having a train every 5 minutes rather than every 10, same for people travelling from Henderson to New Lynn. A higher frequency rapid transit network will help increase the very low rail modeshare for trips to employment centres along the rail network other than the CBD. Once again, this will help take more cars off the road than we would otherwise see.

Another critique of the project made in the blog post, relates to the belief that investing further in the bus network is an alternative to building the rail tunnel:

Buses account for the bulk of the growth in public transport patronage to date, and will continue to do so whether or not a city rail link is built.

Bus services offer relatively low marginal costs for expansion, route and service flexibility, capacity for continuous improvement to rolling stock, and a better ability to cope with disruption than rail. They offer wider network capacity and greater passenger convenience and responsiveness. They are less prone to system-wide disruption.

Given a long-standing legacy of rail transport to a few suburbs it may make sense to incorporate what we already have into a multi-modal system, but putting a lot more money on the line to “benefit” from sunk costs in a system that is inferior to the alternative is not good economics.

Auckland Transport, and ARTA before them, have brought on this type of critique by not reforming the bus network over the past few years to reflect that we now have a functioning rail system in Auckland. We still run buses from Swanson and Papakura all the way into town, competing and undermining the rail network – having huge over-provision of services on inner parts of Great North and Great South roads, not only clogging the city centre with buses at peak times but also wasting a huge amount of public subsidy on service kilometres that just aren’t necessary (evident from the low seat utilisation of these services).

Buses clearly have their place, and in Auckland will continue to provide the bulk of public transport trips. However, they aren’t particularly efficient when it comes to long-haul services (a lot of driver time per passenger carried) and could be reworked to improve both their efficiency and the efficiency of the rail network by becoming feeder services in many more parts of the city. While buses do offer route and service flexibility, greater convenience and coverage than rail, and lower capital costs, at the same time they obviously don’t offer anywhere near as much capacity (per vehicle) as rail does, meaning they end up taking up a lot of space at high levels of demand. In effect, buses should focus on what they do best, rail should focus on what it does best, and they should integrate – not compete – with each other.

There is certainly going to be ongoing debate about this project, perhaps particularly around its land-use interaction. While the whole of Auckland does benefit (directly or indirectly) from the City Rail Link, the benefits are certainly most acutely felt in the city centre (largely by increasing its accessibility and ensuring it avoids being clogged with buses and cars). It should encourage more businesses to locate in the city centre, particularly around the three proposed station sites, just as Britomart has been a boon for development near the waterfront. By encouraging a centralisation of employment, and encouraging more people to live along the rail corridors to take advantage of the accessibility benefits the project brings, the City Rail Link works to support the council’s overall land-use strategies – unlike many other transport projects that often actively undermine those strategies.

What this means is that the question of whether we proceed with the City Rail Link, or look for alternative ways to boost the capacity of Auckland’s transport infrastructure, is somewhat dependent on what our vision is for Auckland’s future form. Clearly Phil McDermott, the author of the blog post criticising the City Rail Link, thinks that the city should decentralise and sprawl – something that the CRL would undermine. Clearly the Council (and I, for that matter) thinks that the city centre should play a more important role in the functioning of Auckland, wants development to be focused around the rail corridors and wants to limit (to an extent) the amount of sprawl allowed.

To achieve this vision of Auckland, the CRL is utterly critical.

29 comments to Analysing critiques of the City Rail Link

  • Anthony

    How does 2006 data compare with 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011?

  • Matt

    Until we lose the penalty for changing mode, passengers will be completely hostile to any attempt to rationalise bus routes into feeder services for rail.

    AT’s complete failure to start bringing the public along on the journey to turn HOP into a proper integrated ticket of a kind that would be recognisable to residents of other cities has me starting to wonder if we’re everem going to get a real fare structure, one that reverses our position as horrendously expensive to use and totally unsupportive of a proper network style of operation.

    • dan carter

      Busses as feeders ( and supporting ticketing arrangements ) are a real missed opportunity.

      I lived in Howick for 12 years and it was only a couple years ago i found out auckland had a rail system…

      I imagine if 20 years ago all of the central bound south eastern dwelling workers had started transferring at panmure to a fast, comfortable, reliable rail trip, that public demand for rail would be such that a south eastern branch would have been build years ago, and we’d now be looking to extend it with a short link to manukau.

      • James B

        Yeah. Unfortunately the history of Auckland public transport is a list of ‘could haves’

      • DogOfTears

        And as it happens, a bus ride from Howick to the CBD is expensive, slow and takes a unnecessarily circuitous route. To top it off, services are too infrequent – especially on weekends!

        In other cities around the world, public transport is often the cheapest way to get around; in Auckland, the fare prices seem like a punishment for choosing not to drive…

        • Matt

          in Auckland, the fare prices seem like a punishment for choosing not to drive

          Preach it, brother.
          Welcome to the “benefits” of “the market”. Had we not been forced to uncouple public transport service management from the operation of the physical assets, the situation would likely be much less painful now.

  • “…because it does not address cross-city congestion. ”

    He’s just plain wrong! Britomart becomes a through station enabling trips from the west to the east and vice-versa to a far greater degree than currently.

  • Swan

    The best critique of the CRL I have seen is the fact that it costs so much money, and will require $10-$20 subsidies per trip even with stellar patronage growth (including capital costs). If it could be done for a few hundred million it may well be worthwhile.

    • Where have you heard such high per trip subsidies Swan? The operating costs should decline as the CRL enables a more efficient network.

    • Bryce

      So on that basis, if the ‘Holiday Highway’ is going to cost considerably more but with less people using it, how much would the subsidy per vehicle be for that?

    • Matt L

      I know how they would have worked it out but it is a flawed analysis because it only considers the benefits and patronage over a set timeframe, usually 25 years and after that point the benefits from the project stop.

      Using that thinking we would have stopped getting any benefits from things like the Harbour Bridge almost 30 years ago but 10s of millions use it every year and no one would argue that it doesn’t continue to provide a huge benefit the region and the country.

  • Luke

    with a daily traffic count of 16,000, that’s 6million vehicles a year.
    If it costs 1 billion, and capital cost of 10%, that’s 100million/6million = $17 a trip.
    If a toll is put on, ends up being a higher subsidy per trip, because so many people will use the alternative route, especially those existing at Warkworth which is about half the traffic.
    The average person will only use 1 litre of petrol, so that will only contribute 60c towards the cost.
    Waterview will also have a very high subsidy per trip, probably twice the volume, but twice the cost and no tolling.

  • Ben

    Sorry Josh, but we will have to agree to disagree on your second to last paragraph there especially the last sentence.

    Just say I support the 60:40 approach to growing Auckland (Council is toying with 50:50 or 60:40 from what I last heard)and a mixed model of transport development.

    In the mean time I still say focus on the Port of Auckland, the murmurs on what to do with our sickly port are slowly growing. In any case I will be blogging myself extensively other the Port of Auckland issue next year.

    Have a Good Christmas Josh
    And will be back next year

    • Is there any reason why you magically support a 60/40 or 50/50 split Ben?

      I’m thinking that the proposed 75/25 still allows a bit too much sprawl for my liking, but noting that getting much more than 270,000 additional dwellings through intensification is likely to be quite difficult.

      • Ben

        Hey Josh

        You ask why I go for the 60:40 approach (I do not speak for Auckland Councillors and the 50:50 approach some are advocating). You answered your own question in the same line ;)

        It will most likely be difficult Josh on the 75:25 split while anything below 60:40 (50:50 might be pushing it even for me) is going to run against what I believe.

        I say 60:40 for reasons explained in my submission, but in short (the maps in my submission help too) I was allowing for more flexibility in Land Allocation/Development/Utilisation. My submission focused in South Auckland (because that is where I live) and had maps showing both intensification and sprawl being done in stages as the city grows. To be perfectly clear, the sprawl land I allocated in South Auckland would be taken mostly by industry or commercial which does in my opinion need more land to develop. There is the Rail Line south of Papakura well suited for Freight runs especially the Tauranga Metro Port Trains.

        Also Josh in a weird twist of irony the Port of Auckland threw a new issue to think about. You might have noticed me calling and lobbying and writing about an enquiry into our Port of Auckland. Again in short I am so called hedging land IF and this is a bloody big IF the port gets moved (where ever). If the port gets moved to Clevedon area, the entire corridor along Clevedon-Papakura Road gets opened up. If PoAL moves to Tauranga or Marsden Point you are going to be finding new industry (along the rail line) at the north west or Southern Extreme of Suburban Auckland – all which need land, all which would blow the RUL out of the water clean.

        That is the reason why I go for the 60:40 split Josh, allow some flexibility and not being caught short from the Port of Auckland

        • I agree that achieving 75/25 is a challenge in itself – though not necessarily an impossible challenge. We have actually managed to build quite a lot of intensification in the last decade considering how difficult it is under our planning rules. With planning rules that make intensification easier, who knows how much of it we might get.

          I’m not sure what the big “Ports of Auckland” issue is. The ports will never move elsewhere in Auckland – there’s too much existing infrastructure serving them for that to be feasible. More might shift to Tauranga & Marsden Point, but that is likely to only mean a smaller level of growth for PoA, rather than a wholesale relocation.

  • Bob

    There are so many misconceptions and lies about the CRL the council or even NZ Herald need to inform the public correctly. I just hope this isn’t another project that gets tossed around and discussed by ignorant people for decades with nothing done like Auckland is prone to do. It just would hugely push Auckland forward.

    • Matt L

      Yes I firmly believe the council and AT need to take a much more active role in promoting and advocating it to both Aucklanders and the country. They need to be debunking many of the myths that have been created about it and really drive up the demand for it. I sometimes wonder if they are waiting for the designation and the new business case but based on other things I am afraid that they are to worried about rocking the boat

  • Nick R

    A good start would be for AT to actually come up with what routing of lines would be used through the tunnel, with what frequency of service and the like. Then they could publicize the time saving benefits, the region wide rail improvements and the fact you could get direct one seat rides from Mt Albert to Manukau or whatever the case may be.

    Right now far too man people think it is about building a loop entirely the CBD, or at best that lines will come in and loop around town.

    • Matt

      It’s not Western-Southern direct services that’ll sell the cross-line benefits, it’s Western-Eastern ones. The only thing holding back direct Western-Southern services right now is rolling stock and the will of AT to make it happen. Direct Western-Eastern services are, however, impossible with the current configuration of Britomart.

      • MFD

        The configuration of Britomart does not make direct East-West services impossible provided they bypass Britomart. The CRL really IS largely to service the CBD and this talk of “unlocking” capacity on the rest of the network presupposes that it is “locked” in the first place.

        • Yes, talk of ‘unlocking’ the network does presuppose we continue to operate our trains in a functional real-world routing pattern that is as convenient as possible for as many key passenger destinations as possible (particularly the CBD), provides direct hassle free trips to the central interchange points for buses and ferries and minimises unnecessary transfers or detours.

          Currently we service the CBD fairly well without particularly good provision for cross town trips, and we certainly could change it to provide for higher frequency direct cross town trips at the expense of direct CBD service from all lines.

          The CRL however would allow us to greatly increase the frequency and provision for direct CBD services while simultaneously allowing for high frequency direct cross town travel. The CRL would allow us to do everything at a high frequency without any compromise, which makes it as much about the rest of the network as the CBD itself.

          • MFD

            Once Britomart is at capacity why would provision of additional cross-town trips, absent a CRL, be at the expense of the CBD?

          • MFD, yes you can add west-south and east-west services (although operating the Newmarket junction with such a variety of movements will potentially be challenging). The question is the extent to which increasing cross-town services is viable with them not going to the CBD on the way. I struggle to think that many more than 1-2 trains per hour would be viable for the cross-town service patterns, meaning that you’re not going to really be increasing frequencies by very much.

          • MFD

            But “Higher train frequencies and the potential for an expanded rail network clearly benefits far more people than just those travelling to the CBD” …so take the CBD out of the equation and viability is an issue? I am sensing conflicting opinions simultaneously held by the same person.

          • Patrick R

            MDF what do you mean? Where is the conflict? The CRL will simultaneously serve the existing and growing volumes of CBD bound travellers AND make through town journeys much more competitive and therefore likely.

            This second type of journey was not emphasised enough in my view in the business case, probably because they barely exist now as currently both the terminating at Britomat physical layout and the operational structure of the network (especially transfer penalties) greatly hinder the growth of much other than CBD focused rides.

            The CRL is the vital third part of the total transformation of Ak from a city with no real alternative to road/petrol travel to the beginning of us having some real resilience and choice. The first two being the upgrades to the existing network culminating in electrification, and the upgrade in the operational side; integrated ticketing and bus feeder coordination.

            The first two still have a long way to go, all the new trains won’t be running till 2016 it seems, and will make a huge difference, but still without the CRL these investments we will not be able to fully extract the unutilsed valued in the existing rail ROW.

            And yes I do think the best word to describe this currently wasted resource is ‘locked’. Because it is there but out of reach.

            It also helps explain why the value of the CRL extends way beyond the CBD, extends from Swanson to Pukekohe (and beyond), from GI, to Manukau City, to Onehunga. The CRL running on a foundation of demand for CBD travel but with services not terminating there that will provide both the speed and routing for other trips but also the frequency and level of service required.

  • Patrick R

    A little thought for the sprawl advocates over on the disingenuously named ‘Cities Matter’ blog: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/1112/11121501-Reducing-car-use-better-health-Mackett

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