While the City Rail Link is the most important transport project for Auckland – after those currently under construction have been completed – the surveys tell us that the most publicly popular project is a rail link to the airport. As a side note I suspect a large part of the reason why it’s seen as more popular is that it is much clearer that it is an extension to the network and many people simply don’t understand the importance of the CRL in providing the capacity needed for an airport link to be feasible.
Auckland Transport have actually been investigating the project for years with the current study – known as South-west Multi-modal Airport Rapid Transit (SMART) – start being announced back in February 2011. All the way through the project AT have been fairly quiet on what is happening however in recent times they seem to have gone deathly silent. In fact it seems like it has been about a year since there was even a mention of the study in AT board papers which is never a good sign.
In searching the AT website there does seem to have been a slight update with it suggested that we will hear what the final recommendations are – including a rail alignment – by the end of this year. However the study hasn’t just been looking at issue of rail to the airport, as you will have seen from the projects title, the term multi-modal has been slipped in so that roading options can also be considered (despite no one every calling for more roads to the airport). With that included it will probably come as little shock to people that the roading options will be prioritised ahead of any rail connections.
Transport improvements will be strongly linked to land use and increased demand for transport to or in the area. The improvements are likely to be staged in the following order:
- localised improvements, for example to bus services
- road based solutions mainly on SH20A and SH20B, bus priority along existing corridors, and
- in the longer term, a dedicated rapid transit corridor (eventually rail) connection.
Of course the government has already jumped in promising upgrade the roads in the area. When the study finally comes out it also wouldn’t surprise me if we end up seeing the rail option being deliberately loaded up with costs by saying something like that it needs to be completely underground while a motorway can happily plough across the surface no questions asked.
However while we don’t yet know a route or have any details on timing I thought it might be interesting to speculate on just how much patronage we might be able to achieve if a link was built. The first thing to consider is just how many passengers pass through the airport each year and then what percentage of them may end up using a train if it was available. Luckily the airport company publish monthly reports on just how many passengers they have and the results are below.
Since 2007 passenger numbers have increased by roughly 3 million per year which represents an increase roughly 4% per year. Interestingly it appears to have happened with effectively no increase in the number of aircraft movements. The other thing that really stands out to me is that there wasn’t any noticeable increase in travellers as a result of the Rugby World Cup which probably shows that the visitors that did come for it just came instead of those that would have anyway. Going forward it’s hard to predict what will happen with volumes but a growth rate of half of what has been achieved is fairly conservative yet by 2021, the year the CRL is expected to open it would see passenger numbers at around 16.5 million per year. By 2025 with that lower growth, volumes would reach 18 million per year.
The next question is how many of those passengers might use a rail service. It can be quite hard to find individual results but some searching turned up the following numbers
Sydney – as of the middle of last year was seeing about 16% of travellers using rail.
Brisbane – this is a few years old but it appears Brisbane manages to get about 10% of passengers using rail.
San Francisco – San Fran manages to get about 10% of passengers using rail based on BART and airport figures.
But crucially all three of these connections charge a premium to use the service just because you board at the airport. It would be interesting to see what percentage of share they would see if those extra charges weren’t in place. For Auckland -assuming we don’t follow suit and charge an airport premium – I suspect that getting 15-20% of all passengers using a rail service should be possible. By 2021 that would put potential annual patronage from travellers alone in the range of 2.5 million to 3.3 million.
However air travellers aren’t the only people who might use a rail service. Workers in the airport precinct are another potential source of patronage. Sadly Stats NZ don’t break these details down any further but the Mangere South area shown below which includes both the airport and the industrial area to the north of it currently provides employment to about 22,000 people. That is likely to increase significantly in future years as the Airport has big plans to develop much of the land surrounding the airport. As such 1,000 people a day using a train to get to work in the area and home again (2,000 trips) should be achievable. Note 1000 people is less than 5% of the current workforce.
But crucially a line to the airport via Onehunga is not just about serving travellers but it also provides a high quality PT link to the residents of Mangere and Mangere Bridge. It’s hard to estimate just how much patronage they may generate so using the station counts Auckland Transport have provided in the past, stations like Glen Eden and Papatoetoe are probably a good example of what we can expect. They currently seem to attract about 1,000 boardings per weekday (2,000 trips), although I imagine significantly less on weekends. Adding the potential patronage from the airport employment areas and both these two stations gives us 6,000 trips per day and accounting for weekends say 1.8 million trips per annum.
In the Congestion Free Network we have called for a link to the airport to be completed by 2025. If it were to be completed by that time, then combining everything together gives us potential patronage from this extension at 4.5 – 5.4 million trips per year. To put that in perspective, that’s currently somewhere in between the current patronage on the western line (3.6m trips) and the Southern lines (6.4m trips). Further that doesn’t include any additional patronage that might occur from increased frequencies from Onehunga inwards.
In short there is definitely a lot of potential patronage from extending rail to the airport. The problem is just too far down the priority list so what’s needed is to bring it forward, like we’re suggesting with the congestion free network. What we don’t need is the PT components shoved in a bottom draw like the SMART study seems to be lining up to do.