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Freight and Driverless Rapid Transit

There was some good feedback on my earlier post suggesting a pretty radical change to the future of rail in Auckland, through the introduction of driverless rapid transit (or “Light Metro”) – much like the Skytrain in Vancouver, the JFK Airtrain in New York and systems in Copenhagen, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, among many other cities. Firstly, I’ve decided to call the technology “Driverless Rapid Transit (DRT)” rather than Light Metro, because so many people seem to get DRT confused with light-rail, which are really two different technologies which do different things.

The key attributes of DRT are:

  • it’s driverless
  • it runs completely in its own right-of-way, which is fully grade separated
  • the train technology allows for much steeper gradients and tighter curves than regular heavy rail
  • the tracks are incompatible with typical heavy rail, and therefore freight

It was this last issue which raised a lot of interest in comment. How would the system work with freight? Could a freight train still get to the North Auckland Line (assuming it survives KiwiRail trying to kill it off in the next year or two)? Would you need additional tunnels and tracks? Would you need the Avondale-Southdown Line? All worthy questions that I’ll do my best to answer in this post.

Firstly, let’s remind ourselves of the system we’re talking about here. The blue line is either newly built DRT or existing rail tracks converted for DRT operation: I’ll overlay on this where I think we currently have freight movements on the network, or how we might operate freight trains in order to avoid that Westfield to Newmarket section of track we’ve turned into being exclusively for our DRT trains. The only bit of track we have to worry about here is between Parnell (where the blue line’s tunnel emerges and joins the existing network) and Newmarket, where the western line branches off. Of course there’s a fairly lengthy tunnel in this section (and an abandoned single-track tunnel next to it, which presents an opportunity worth exploring), but I think it’s reasonable to think that having a single track for freight as well as our two tracks for DRT is not impossible along this section.

Furthermore, in the longer run we could end up building the full Avondale-Southdown line, in which case we have a further route for freight: In either case I think we can retain the ability to operate freight trains around the rail network. So I don’t see that as too much of an issue.

Other comments questioned whether the operating costs savings of DRT were “worth the hassle”, as you’d need separate facilities for different types of trains and having two different networks would obviously create some complications that having everything in one network wouldn’t. I suppose there are two responses to this:

  1. As Nick noted in a comment (and he knows more about this stuff than me), staffing generally comprises around 60-70% of the operating costs for the rail network (on an electric system). Chopping out around two-thirds of your operating cost is just immense, especially when rail’s net subsidy is over $50 million a year (I think) and would potentially be much higher in the future with a much larger network. It’s worth noting that Sydney’s rail network requires a subsidy of around $A1.8 billion a year (though obviously a much larger network).
  2. Potentially one of the biggest savings from DRT is in the construction, with the much more forgiving requirements for grades and bends than you can get from conventional rail. With, using traditional heavy rail, North Shore Rail being around $2.5 billion and Airport Rail probably being at least $1 billion, having an option which doesn’t require so much grade separation, earthworks, tunnelling and so forth, could slice billions off the final construction cost of the two projects combined.

Perhaps the biggest question about this idea is how you would ever do the transition from normal rail operations along the southern line to the new system. I really have no idea but I presume it’s possible. ┬áBut it’s the same issue we’ll face as if we ever get around to turning the Northern Busway into a railway line (of any kind).

38 comments to Freight and Driverless Rapid Transit

  • greenwelly

    Be careful with your assumption that staffing is 60-70% of your operating cost,
    Nick’s comment was “of your marginal operating cost” which is different,

    In the business case for the CRL (pg 11 of the link below) Auckland transport quote that of the 385K Opex For a 3 car set doing 80K km per year, staff costs are 80K or around 20%,
    Energy and maintenance are 220K while Cleaning and Stabling are another 85K,

    it is only once you cover these costs that you get to a point of having your marginal op Cost being 60% wages…

  • Yes the difference between marginal operating cost and total operating cost is a very important distinction to make. As a purely dollar saving measure a driverless network might not appear very worthwhile, as overall staff might only be a minor fraction of cost. However when we are looking at the margin (i.e whether to run a train on another run or park it in the stabling yard until the next peak), staffing costs are the lions share. When youown the tracks and stations and signalling and control systems and have them running anyway, you already own the train in question, you have a stabling yard, you clean it each day, maintain it each week and service it each quarter: all those costs are sunk in. The cost of running a train or not running it them comes down to the cost of staff and motive power, and electricity is relatively cheap each hour in comparison to drivers.

    The value isn’t so much in reducing the annual budget, but in allowing peak service frequencies to be run at all times of the day within the same sort of budget. If all you are doing is covering the cost of electricity (basically, there are other small marginal costs involved) then you only need a handful of fare paying customers on board at any one time to break even on any run.

    At the end of the day Driverless Rapid Transit (best name so far I think) means that a city like Auckland could afford to run a super-frequent metro style service level all day and most of the night, seven days a week. It may not be much cheaper than the equivalent driven suburban commuter rail system with busy peaks and infrequent off peaks, but it would be infinitely more useful for day to day travel and would have much greater patronage overall, and cause much greater land use changes.

  • Geoff

    “the train technology allows for much steeper gradients and tighter curves than regular heavy rail”

    This is unrelated to whether or not the train has a driver though.

    • Yes this is the case in my understanding, so if there were separate tracks or routes for freight then the existing heavy rail could be more technologically independent of drivers, with increased track security.

      But Peter and Nick are arguing for consideration of two technologies together: 1. Driverlessness and; 2. lighter passenger systems like the Sky Train in Vancouver. Somewhat confusingly often called ‘Light Metro’ although not to be confused with ‘Light Rail’ otherwise known as trams.

      The first because of the lower opex, the second because of lower capex. Together; a compelling solution for Ak?

    • Peter M

      Geoff, yes the capital savings are unrelated to whether it’s driverless or not. The ability to run 5 minute frequencies at 9pm on a Sunday night is hugely related to whether it’s driverless or not.

      • Geoff

        I didn’t mention anything about capital. I pointed out that the supposed ability of driverless trains to have steeper grades and sharper curves is not true. Such things have nothing to do with whther a train has a driver or not.

        • Peter M

          I don’t disagree Geoff. As I said above, the benefit of driverless is the ability to run fantastically high frequencies all day every day without blowing the OPEX budget.

        • No one said that the ability for steeper grades and sharper curves comes from driverless operation, what Peter said was “the train technology”.
          The ability for steeper grades and sharper curves comes from using specifically designed passenger metro systems that aren’t constrained to main line geometry, and technologies such as linear induction motors, steerable bogies, lightweight small cross section aluminium monocoque bodies etc. The much reduced marginal cost and resulting high all day frequencies comes from driverless.

          Luckily most light metro systems (Bombardier ART, Ansaldo, VAL) combine both the capex savings of easy guideway geometry with the opex savings of driverless operation. Driverless heavy rail is obviously perfectly possible and used in many cities, likewise there are various levels of light rail system that aren’t restricted to mainline track geometry. But the only way Auckland could realistically afford to build the likes of a North Shore line *and* afford to run it every couple of minutes all-day every-day would be with a combination of both.

  • obi

    A couple of questions:

    1. The trains are still going to be staffed, right? There has to be someone who presses a button telling the train that it is okay to leave the station, whether it is a guard or a driver. And to respond to emergency situations. Is the aim then to do away with the ticket collecting functions and get down to a single person per train?

    2. If the new lines aren’t connected to any of the old lines and are completely grade separated, then would you use the same electrification technology, or go for something under the train? Presumably a system without overhead wires means you can get away with smaller tunnels.

    • Peter M

      1) The trains don’t necessarily have to be staffed. My understanding is that quite a few overseas cities run trains with no staff whatsoever on board.

      2) I don’t think the Bombardier Advanced Rapid Transit traction system has overheard wires. A third rail is used.

      • obi

        “My understanding is that quite a few overseas cities run trains with no staff whatsoever on board”

        Seriously? I’ve never been on a system with zero staff (with the possible exception of automated shuttles like the inter-terminal transfer system at Gatwick Airport). What happens when they have a RWC type situation where trains are stopped all over the place, passengers are freaking, and they’re popping the doors open and climbing down on to the tracks? Is it just chaos until they send out someone to take charge?

      • Peter M

        Pretty sure the times I’ve been on the Vancouver Skytrain, the Docklands Light Rail and the JFK Airtrain, there were no staff on board.

        • Geoff

          Vancouver Skytrain has no staff, and a policy of essentially requiring passengers to be responsible for their own safety. If you are attacked or intimidated onboard, you have the option of pushing a silent alarm or using an intercom to seek assistance after the event. Great eh?! Just imagine how vandalised our trains would be once the ruffians in society realise they have free reign to do what they want onboard.

          Hopefully we never go down that road.

          • Erm Geoff, that’s exactly the same in a driven system. It’s not like the driver can park up the train, climb out of the cab, hop back into the carraiges and give naughty boys a telling off.

            Driven or driverless is one factor.
            Whether you have security, customer service agents, clippies or Maori wardens on board is totally unrelated to whether there is a warm body up in the cab or not. There are savings to be had by cutting out either role, and arguably if you are concerned for the passenger experience we should look at cutting the drivers but not the customer service.

            Drivers have absolutely no influence on security or surveillance. In the likes of Melbourne (which has drivers) all you can do is hit the intercom button. The driver then responds sometime later when they aren’t immediately occupied, and all they can do is radio ahead for police. I’ve reported vandalism occurring on Melbourne trains and all the driver could do was say “thanks for letting me know”, and that was that.

            It’s exactly the same whether your intercom talks to the driver in the cab or a control room operator, except that the control room operator will probably be able to answer you immediately and will have the ability to access and monitor all the cameras on the system and more time and ability to co-ordinate a security/police response because they aren’t busy driving a train at the time.

      • obi

        I haven’t been on the DLR since 2000, but there were always staff onboard then. According to Wikipedia:

        “The trains have always been fully automated and controlled by computer operations and have no driver; a Passenger Service Agent (PSA), originally referred to as a “Train Captain”, on each train is responsible for patrolling the train, checking tickets, making announcements and controlling the doors. PSAs can take control of the train in circumstances including equipment failure and emergencies.”

        • I rode the DLR in September last year. There was a driver out of Stratford International due to construction and track works going on, but they closed up the control panel and hopped off at the first station (presumably to drive the next train in the other way). After that I couldn’t see any staff onboard at all, but perhaps there was a PSA lurking about somewhere.

  • Sean S.

    These posts have made me understand a bit more the various types of lighter-rail systems (ie. not heavy rail).

    I’m trying to imagine what service patterns would be run on the network you propose. Light metro to the airport, cool. Light metro to Otahuhu? Why? Either continue it to Manukau, or just send all light metro trains to the airport.

    I’m still skeptical about replacing the NAL with light metro between Newmarket and Westfield. It would screw up freight from the NAL, which currently uses that bit of line. Sending freight down the CRL or the Parnell grade would be trickier due to the steeper grades than the existing route south of Newmarket. It might be an argument for putting the Avondale-Southdown line in.

    The impression I have, though, is that the existing rail network doesn’t really need replacing. It needs extending. Instead of using the existing heavy rail technology for this extension work, you’re suggesting that we use light metro, because it’s more flexible in lots of ways, including routing. I think we should be content with the heavy-rail network as it currently is (or as it will be, with the introduction of electric trains), and think about how we could use light rail and light metro to extend the transport network into areas that aren’t well served by public transport.

    • Peter M

      Otahuhu is to allow transfers from the line further to the South before it peels off to becoming the eastern line.

      And this is about extending the rail network, in a way that potentially costs much less to build and operate than if we use conventional heavy rail. To make that happen, one section of the existing network needs to be switched from conventional heavy rail to this new system.

  • Noggin

    Hmmm, I think that there’s a bit of confusion between light-rail/heavy-rail and automated (including driverless) operation.

    Yep, light rail is built to different standards than (conventional) heavy rail. Trains are generally shorter and lighter, which usually means that steeper gradients and tighter turns can be accommodated. Light rail is generally new build (or conversion of existing railway), which means that annoyances like level/grade crossings are avoided, and it tends to run on dedicated track, though not necessarily, see the Tyne & Wear metro in the UK for example, including level crossings and inter-operation with freight trains. Light rail tends to run with 750v OHLE, again, reducing costs, though again, 25kV or dual-voltage trams are sometimes used.

    Automated operation runs along a continuum, from in-cab systems that advise drivers how to drive, systems that take control from the driver (e.g. Victoria line on the London Underground) and then driverless systems such as the London DLR. Although the most noticeable effect is removing the need for drivers in cabs, probably the strongest argument is that in systems with very high traffic densities you get much better performance with computers driving. Automated systems can safely drive stock much closer to the performance limits, and with electronic signalling, at reduced headways (you don’t have to take into account human signal sighting and reaction times), so you can get more trains-per-hour through a given piece of track.

    Can you mix light-rail and heavy-rail? Sure, but your stock is going to have to meet more stringent crashworthiness standards and the system is going to have to be very well designed so the two types of traffic don’t conflict. In some places in the US freight only runs when the passenger services have finished.

    Can you have safe driverless operation on a system which has human-operated freight trains, long distance passenger services like the Overlander, level crossings, unstaffed stations and the other Auckland’s classic network? Well maybe, provided that you’ve got a very clever operating system interfaced to the signalling, constantly checking for human error, very vigilant operations staff and the ability to respond very quickly to any problems.

    Bear in mind that even with completely automated operation, the only bit that you lose from the payroll is the drivers. You still need a well-staffed control centre, lots of people looking at CCTV and ground staff. Maintenance costs are broadly similar and the costs of setting up the thing and integrating it with existing kit (and the likelihood of it all going wrong) are going to be enormous. It’s really only worth it if you’re starting from scratch or really need a capacity improvement.

    In short, a driverless, automated light-rail system is not a magic bullet for Auckland to get a 21st century metro on the cheap. Nope, you’re probably not going to save any money in the long run. You’ve got an existing network, with all sorts of issues, and existing signalling, stock and electrification assets which can be leveraged. The CRL needs to be built properly to integrate with the current network. The best way to save money on a project like this is to use tried-and-tested off-the-shelf equipment and rigorously control costs.

    • Noggin, I think you miss the point of this post a bit. Peter isn’t suggesting that driverless trains run on the existing network with freights and the Overlander and the line. As you can see above he still has most of existing network in red as conventional driver operated mixed-use heavy rail, including the CRL.
      What he has suggested however is that:

      a) New lines, like a North Shore line, could be built as driverless metro from day one and only ever operate automated passenger metro trains.
      b) Sections of the existing network that don’t ever carry freight or intercity passenger trains could also be converted to driverless metro lines and only every operate automated passenger metro trains.

      Yes the only gain is the payroll of drivers. Not huge across the big scheme of things but it has a critical impact on operating costs at the margin. So we’re talking a situation when you already own all the trains and infrastructure to run a very frequent peak service, and you’re trying to decide whether to continue running those trains very frequently in the off peak or if you park then in the stabling yard instead. In that situation the cost of the drivers accounts for 60-70% of the marginal cost of operation. Cut that cost out and you can afford to continue running your trains very frequently even if passenger levels aren’t particularly high through the day or late at night. When you’re only paying for the electricity for motive power you don’t need many fare paying passengers on each service for it to break even on cost.

      Another benefit of driverless is that it decouples the ‘efficiency’ of running longer trains. Consider the situation where you have enough demand to run six carriages every fifteen minutes. With drivers you’ll run a single six carriage train once every fifteen minutes. You could run a two carriage set every five minutes for the same capacity, but it would triple your staffing cost so you won’t. With driverless there is not fixed cost per train unit so there is no need to link them into longer trains. The cost is the same whether it’s two carriages every five minutes or six carriages every fifteen. So in this case you can triple the frequency. Same passenger capacity, same number of trainsets, same tracks and stations and whatnot… but three times the service frequency.

      I’m not sold on the value of converting parts of the existing network myself, personally I think that four lines linked with the CRL and operated with our new driven EMUs would be a very effective network… however I think we should seriously consider automated metro for any new lines we might build, they’d be cheaper to build in the first place and cheaper to operate on a day to day vasis.

  • James

    Interesting idea but I suspect the answer may lie in having a “driver” or a train captain/ train manager (a la the DLR) ready to take command at a mometn’s notice. In the case of freight, especially with the different braking demands and the inability to totally grade separate the railway (which you need with a driverless system) I cannot see any great cost saving. The best cost saving for KR would be to single man the NAL and increase the axle loading and possibly do a wee bit of rubbing out and rebuilding.

    • Peter M

      I am certainly not suggesting driverless operation on the existing heavy rail network or know freight trains. That’d be silly. Does anyone know if the Vancouver Skytrain has any on board staff? I don’t remember seeing them.

      • Nope, they have no onboard staff except the occasional customer service operator, but they are usually based at stations, not trains.

        I find this onboard staff thing to be a bit of a red herring. Most driven systems are driver only operation, this is how Melbourne operates and Auckland’s EMUs are designed for that. So it really isn’t a question of having people on the trains, it’s whether you have a driver in the cab up the front or not. From the passengers perspective they might as well not be there at all.

  • Geoff

    Nick, the question was whether or not anybody was onboard, not about the driver situation as such. In the Auckland context, it would be unwise to leave passenger safety up to passengers. Especially in South Auckland.

    • Ok sure, so there are two separate questions there: whether you have drivers or not, and whether you have cabin staff or not. Plenty of places have both or only drivers, some have neither while the like of London Docklands appears to have just the latter. There are various cost and service implications of each of the four options.

      Personally I think that driverless is perfectly feasible, and that totally staffless could be possible too. I get the feeling that we will see driver only operation in Auckland with the EMUs anyway, so lets hope the security and surveillance procedures are up to scratch.

  • harminder

    Singapore has a DRT system (called the Light Rail Transit or LRT) to complement the workhorse of its public transport system, the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit), which is an electrified heavy rail system (I think- not an expert). There are no staff on the trains, only at the stations. The LRT uses Bombardier CX-100s and Mitsubishi Crystal Movers. The wikipedia page on the LRT – – has some examples of problem it has faced – e.g electrical disruptions, collisions, etc.

    A similar system could be used as an add-on to Auckland’s trains to feed passengers from the airport, suburbs etc to the train stations, which should increase PT utilisation. So, instead of a completely new set of lines, only local loops within the suburbs surrounding the train station are necessary. This may not be efficient, given the generally low-rise nature of Auckland housing, but I’m not sure.

  • Mission

    Think you are building an intersting case for DRT. I wonder whether it would be possible to explore the feasibility of utilising the harbour bridge for DRT in a post? If it were possible I think it would really help the idea gain momentum.

    • Peter M

      Yeah good idea. I’ll have a chat to Nick about it as he knows a few more technical details than me.

      • Luke

        Harbour bridge clipons have limited lifespan as they are at the moment, especially with all the overloaded trucks that are further reducing the lifespan. I think a metro added on top would be out of the question unfortunately.
        Also effects on the Westhaven area would be quite negative, and very hard to avoid.

        • Thats not true, after the recent strengthening works they will now have an ‘indefinite’ lifespan with truck traffic management in place. Quite why we should have trucks on the clip on lanes I don’t know, as those are the lanes that connect to the CBD ramps. We shouldn’t have overloaded trucks using CBD streets, that’s what the port link was built for, trucks from the port of from the rest of the motorway network should be in the centre lanes and use the original bridge structure.

          Anyway, having said all that I doubt there is the potential to add metro tracks to the clip ons, both for overloading reasons and due to the new cycleway that will occupy the best spot for it. Whether they could be attached under the original bridge is another story.

          Don’t think the effects on Westhaven would be bad, a transition to a cut and cover subsurface tunnel would be quite short at light metro design geometry, and could be contained within the motorway corridor.

  • Luke

    I assume the existing rail tracks on lines being converted to Driverless Rapid Transit would have to be completely ripped up and rebuilt. This is an extra 15km of line that would have to be built for a very high cost.
    I think this would outwiegh any benefits over driverless technology in this case.
    However am supportive of it being used for the North Shore line, and for the North Western line to Pt Chev, Te Atatu and maybe eventually looping back round to Albany! Would have to be elevated and squashed into the motorway corridor but probably only way of doing things in the long term in the North West. Vancouvers Millennium Line shows what can be done here. Their 11km Evergreen Line (just starting construction) will cost $1.8 billion in NZD.
    Stations at Pt Chev, Te Atatu Junction etc could look like this!

    • Geoff

      A simple currency conversion doesn’t give us the true likely NZD amount. Our projects always come in at many times your average overseas cost for comparable projects.

      The last thing we should be doing is ripping up project DART and AEP work. We’ve just spent $1.6b completing it all.

      • harminder

        Yes, we shouldn’t be starting from scratch again, and that’s why I think using DRT as a “feeder” train service to the main train lines might be a good idea

      • Peter M

        That’s not necessarily true. I think you’ll find that – for example – the cost of the Waterview Connection is extremely competitive internationally.

  • John W

    I am not sure that trains need to have customer service staff, even in South Auckland as suggested. I have often used the Rio metro and cities don’t come any more dangerous than that and I was never aware that staff were present.

    As NickR suggests, if we can significantly reduce the labour component then we can probably dramatically lift frequency which will ensure a more user friendly and appealing service with probably a positive effect on usage.

    • Geoff

      Although the Southern Line will already be at 5 minute frequencies, and you still need to get a couple of dozen freight trains through as well. Unless AT pay for more tracks, I don’t think there will be any significant increase in frequencies. Not that there needs to be, we just need need to make existing trains bigger.

      • I really not convinced that conversion of existing lines would be worthwhile, especially not the three main lines that all carry freight regularly and the odd intercity train (hopefully more in the future). I think completing a heavy rail network of the CRL plus the western, eastern, southern and Onehunga/airport lines should be the priority. That would leave us with a nice efficient suburban network similar to an S Bahn or RER.

        After that, any new lines should be built as driverless metro. At that point the existing lines would be very busy, and the CRL more or less full. Therefore they would necessarily be totally new lines whatever the technology, so we might as well go for the cheaper to build, cheaper to run, more frequent service of dedicated passenger only light metro.

        I do have one exception to that however. If we get to the point where freight and passenger demands are so great that we need to build third and fourth tracks to separate freight on one of the main lines (the south-eastern I imagine), then it might be worthwhile to simply keep the existing heavy tracks for freight and build new passenger metro tracks right alongside.

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