I was going through some old draft posts when I came across this from 6 months ago. It was in response to the release of the confirmed CRL route by Auckland Transport in early July. Following the release, two opinion pieces were run in the Herald discussing the project. First there was Michael Barnett who contended that building a motorway for use by a few thousand trucks a day should be the city’s top transport priority. There was also the bizarre ramblings of Jim Hopkins lamenting that rail was an old technology and that self driving cars are just around the corner - a claim we have heard for decades. My fellow bloggers and I felt that the op-eds were a bit one-sided so we decided to provide some balance.
With that in mind, together we worked on the following opinion piece and submitted it to the Herald. Unfortunately to get printed it first had to get through John Roughan, who said it wasn’t topical enough despite the AT announcement and the other two op-eds bagging the project. While it was from July 2012, the majority of it still seems absolutely relevant today, especially following the release of the CCFAS.
Last week Auckland Transport announced their preferred route for a 3.5 kilometre tunnel under Auckland’s city centre – a project known as the City Rail Link (CRL). It’s a big project for sure, and for this reason has attracted much comment around whether it is should be Auckland’s top transport project, or even if it is need at all. I believe that it is and here’s why.
Earlier this year Auckland’s population passed 1.5 million. Over the next 30 years up to another million people – more than the population of Wellington and Christchurch combined – are projected to call Auckland home. But even without these extra people it is already difficult to get around due to daily traffic congestion. Traffic is the biggest complaint people have about the city it’s a drag on productivity and the need to address it is one thing we all agree on.
Over the last 60 years, billions have been spent trying to tackle congestion through new and wider roads. Despite this effort, traffic is still bad and the utopian dream of free flowing motorways grinds to a halt when we all have to use the same system. New and wider roads seem to fill up with cars almost immediately, bringing to mind the saying that trying to cure congestion by building roads is like trying to deal with obesity by loosening your belt.
In 2017, the opening of the Waterview tunnel will complete the motorway network. While this may ease congestion for a while, from 2021 onwards traffic jams are projected to be worse than ever. In addition, it is increasingly difficult and expensive to build new or widened roads in urban areas Therefore we must look at using our existing transport infrastructure more efficiently.
Fortunately we already have a part of our transport network, largely completed, with capacity equal to three six-lane motorways. It’s called our rail network. Unfortunately, we can’t unlock the full potential and capacity of the rail network, because it reaches a dead end at Britomart. That’s like ending a motorway in a cul-de-sac.
Until recently the Britomart bottleneck hadn’t been a problem, due to other constraints on the network that also limited capacity. However, improvements over the last decade have seen people flocking to the trains. Since 2003 rail patronage more than quadrupled – and total public transport use has grown by a third since 2007. At the same time traffic volumes on our motorways have stayed largely the same. We are currently electrifying the rail network and buying brand new, state of the art trains which will further increase the appeal and usefulness of rail – but even with them the dead end at Britomart will hit capacity by 2020, way below the capacity of the network as a whole.
The solution to this problem is the CRL. This tunnel, with three underground stations along its course, provides a fast, clean, and modern way to access the city centre and dramatically shorten commute times. But just as importantly, it enables a spectacular increase in the frequency of trains throughout the existing network benefiting not only those travelling to the CBD, but anyone travelling around Auckland. It will at last provide a real alternative to driving for those that don’t want to, helping to free up the roads for those that do.
Far from sending trains looping around in circles, connecting routes would link through the CRL, allowing one-seat journeys across the network. The CRL will become the rail equivalent of the motorway system’s “spaghetti junction”. It is the vital heart of the rail system and is a prerequisite for any other rail development in the region – without it we can’t even begin to consider rail to the airport or the North shore.
Many alternatives to the CRL project have been analysed. A bus tunnel is more expensive and would require duplicating much of the existing rail network. Elevated options are too destructive, and surface bus options would close off most of the CBD’s streets to everyone but buses, undermining efforts to make downtown a nicer place to live, work and visit while further frustrating drivers.
Another benefit of the CRL is to help parts of the city not yet connected to the rail network. Take the North Shore for example – by removing many buses from suburbs near the existing rail network, there are a greater number of buses available to distribute across the North Shore. At the same time city streets are freed up and exhaust fumes reduced, improving the overall pedestrian experience. Finally, by giving more people a really attractive alternative it means that more cars can be left at home, freeing up motorways for the movement of freight and for those who prefer to drive.
At a construction cost of over $2 billion, the CRL is not a minor investment but no other project can so profoundly transform Auckland. It is far cheaper than building sufficient new roads, or widening existing ones, to provide the equivalent of rail’s capacity. This is the perfect complement to our existing road system.
We have been talking about the CRL since the 1920s; it’s time to actually make it happen.
As a reminder, here are some maps I previously put together showing the capacity of the transport network pre- and post-CRL: