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.