Does CRL “complete” Auckland’s heavy rail network?

The ATAP final report includes a 30 year vision for Auckland’s strategic public transport network. It is a substantial expansion of what we have today and quite closely resembles our “Congestion Free Network” developed in 2013:


ATAP generally goes out of its way to avoid making a call on the specific mode of new strategic public transport projects, instead using the phrase “mass transit”. However, it does show CRL as the only expansion of the heavy rail network (in red) with all other new strategic PT routes presumably being something other than heavy rail. Elsewhere, ATAP notes the need for ongoing investment in upgrading the existing heavy rail network over time to provide for growth in passenger and freight services – but not an “expansion” of that network.

This is quite a change from the 2012 Auckland Plan, which envisaged heavy rail to the Airport, the Avondale-Southdown Line and, in the longer term, rail to the North Shore. At times we have also seen the Mt Roskill rail spur being considered as another useful (if relatively small) expansion of the heavy rail network.

This change appears to have occurred on a relatively ad hoc project by project basis, rather than as part of an overall strategic plan, which I think sits behind much of the discomfort that people have felt about Auckland Transport decision to progress light-rail, rather than heavy rail, as their preferred strategic public transport mode to the Airport. It is worth thinking about this shift at a network level, in particular at the question of whether further expansion of the heavy rail network is likely. If not, it seems that CRL may actually be the end of the heavy rail network – rather than a key catalyst for its expansion.

Compared to other PT modes, heavy rail has some advantages and disadvantages:


  • Very high capacity
  • High speed
  • Can leverage off existing network


  • Very demanding geometry leading to high construction costs
  • Creates severance when at surface level

For Airport rail, the capacity requirement of heavy rail wasn’t really a factor, due to relatively low projected passenger volumes – around 2,000 southbound trips in the morning peak in 2046 (compared to around 10,000 peak trips coming over the Harbour Bridge today in the morning peak):


While I think actual use will be much higher than this (models tend to substantially under-estimate future public transport use) it will still be well within the capacity capabilities of other modes like light rail. Therefore, the comparison really came down to a speed vs cost trade-off, with the high cost of serving heavy rail’s much more demanding geometry making this trade-off clearly fall in favour of light-rail.


The high costs of serving heavy rail’s demanding geometry means that heavy rail is most likely to “stack up” as the best option when we’re looking at a corridor with extremely high demand (i.e. beyond what might be able to be catered for through other modes) or where we can utilise the existing network.

North Shore rapid transit is potentially an example of a corridor which is likely to have very high demand in the future – because it is the only connection between a very large part of Auckland to the north, and the rest of the region. Early work a few years back suggested heavy rail as the preferred option, but more recently this appears to have shifted – illustrated by ATAP’s strategic PT network map linking North Shore rapid transit into the proposed Dominion Road LRT line. I know Auckland Transport are currently looking at different rapid transit options to serve the North Shore once the Northern Busway hits its capacity limits. I suspect the main question will be the trade-off between the extra capacity you get from heavy rail against the much higher costs of having to regrade the busway, along with the challenge of how it would link into the rest of the public transport system.

Importantly, even if the CRL does “complete” the heavy rail network and we don’t see major new lines in the future, there’s major upgrade of the network we have that will be required over time. Most obviously this is to separate passenger and freight services, but over time I see the need to separate local and express passenger trains – especially as the southern greenfield area grows. Therefore, ATAP’s $3 billion 30 year rail programme is almost certainly on the light-side of likely future investment in the heavy rail network in Auckland.

Central Access Plan – Mass Transit for the Isthmus

In July Auckland Transport stealthily uploaded a 97 page Programme Business Case on the Light Rail page of the AT website. Due to ATAP (Auckland Transport Alignment Project), the Unitary Plan and City Rail Link (CRL) has gone a little bit under the radar.

So what is it? Technically while Light Rail is one part of the business case, the document is called the Central Access Plan (CAP) & deals issues identified in City Centre Future Access Study, which was even with the CRL CBD bus corridors would reach breaking point due to bus congestion/numbers on Wellesley & Symonds Streets.


Bus Numbers with CRL 2041

It looks to be part of a wider scope of studies/works about providing transport access to Central Auckland, they being the CRL which provides good access for the West/South/Inner East, the North Shore Rapid Transit study, which I assume is looking at a need for future rapid transit options either standalone or as part of AWHC project in the foreseeable future, and the Northwest Rapid Transit Project which one would assume is the Northwest Busway report due April 2017 prepared by Aurecon. 

Access to Central Auckland

Access to Central Auckland

The area the Central Access Plan looks as if it trying to address is Void, which has been mentioned on this blog before, the isthmus area between the Western & Southern lines. This area consists of some of Auckland’s major arterials & bus routes – Mt Eden Road, Sandringham Road, Manukau Road and Dominion Road.  

The Void

The Void


The study identified 3 major problems

  • The inability to meet current and projected transport demand on key corridors will sustain unreliable travel and poor access to productive central city jobs
  • Blockages and delays in central bus services worsen travel times and customer experience for those using public transport
  • High and increasing traffic volumes on residential and inner city streets create adverse urban amenity and environmental effects.

The study also notes that “There is already a substantial problem now with buses frequently late and full, resulting in passengers being left behind. Projects and initiatives such as the City Rail Link (CRL) and the New Network, largely with double-decker buses, will provide substantial additional capacity, but the underlying growth in projected demand is so great that most bus routes and the associated terminals and bus stops will have reached capacity by the early 2020s. The stress on the system at that time will be such that only the introduction of a mode that can move more people in fewer vehicles and that can use the sole under-used City Centre corridor – Queen Street – will provide more than very marginal relief. While measures to optimise the use of the bus services and reduce demand through promoting active travel are integral components of the proposed programme, they only ‘buy time’ before the extra corridor must be brought into use with a higher capacity mode. They will help to make conditions more tolerable as demand continues to grow and before a step-change can be introduced.”

CBD Street Capacity

CBD Street Capacity

The below graphs show the buses per hour needed on each street, the Orange shows unmet demand due to over the realistic capacity of buses on the corridor.

Wellesley St Bus Numbers

Wellesley St Bus Numbers

Symonds St Bus Numbers

Symonds St Bus Numbers

The below map shows the Business as Usual scenario, with the red areas no longer within the 45min PT Commute of the City if speeds decrease by 31% (This was a KPI in ATAP)

Areas within 45 CBD PT Commute

Areas within 45 CBD PT Commute

To try & mitigate the 3 problems above they first tested 6 options against the Do Minimum Network (The Do Minimum Network included CRL/AMETI/Busway to Albany, Puhoi-Walkworth, as well as Southern/Northern Corridor Improvements.), the options were (Please note these are the Plan’s Pros/Cons, I don’t necessary agree with all)

Option 1 – Do Regardless which includes: Auckland Cycle Network – $200m, More Double Deckers – $80m, City Centre Street Improvements – $30m, Footpath improvements – $15m, Bringing forward Te Atatu and Lincoln Rd stations – $10m, Implementing off board collections, traffic signal changes, more cycle parking and bus shelter improvements – $2m

Pro: Buys Time & minor increase of capacity.

Cost: $340m

Option 1 - Do Regardless

Option 1 – Do Regardless

Option 2 – Non-Financial Demand Management which included reducing parking supply in CBD, all lanes on Symonds (Past K’ Road) & Wellesley during peak would be bus lanes, more aggressive cycle/walking upgrades due to removal of parking.

Pros: Improves Bus Efficiency, more space for Active Modes, does not preclude further options & reduction in pollution.

Cons: Effectiveness Short Lived

Cost: $540M (Not sure if Do Regardless Cost is Part of each Options Cost or Not)

Option 2 - Demand Management

Option 2 – Demand Management

Option 3 – Extended Bus Network which turns Queen Street into a surface busway for Dominion & Sandringham Road bus services as well as changes to other routes.

Pros: Increase of Capacity & Bus Efficiency, Removal of General Traffic from Queen, Buys a number of years before further intervention.

Cons: Lots of Buses on Queen Street, effective short lived without bus terminal capacity, restricts future interventions, high cost.

Cost: $920M

Option 3 - Extended Bus Network

Option 3 – Extended Bus Network

Option 4 – A Mt Roskill Spur using the Avondale Southdown Corridor with two stations at Owairaka & Mt Roskill.

Pros: Low Impact due to using rail designation, provides extra capacity on inner west stations, buys time before further intervention, some reduction in buses, does not affect further intervention.

Cons: Short lived, low train frequencies adds to travel times, longer distance for Dominion Road.

Cost: $540M

Option 4 - Mt Roskill Spur

Option 4 – Mt Roskill Spur

Option 5 – An LRT Network which consists of 5 stages. Stage 1: Mt Roskill via Queen Street & Dominion Road, Stage 2: An extension to Wynyard Quarter, Stage 3: A Sandringham Road LRT Line via Queen Street, Stage 4 & 5: Three Kings via Symonds & Mt Eden Road LRT, Onehunga via Symonds & Manukau Road LRT.

Pros: Provides necessary capacity, travel time improvements, removes high level of buses from CBD, removes traffic from Queen Street, increase of public space.

Cons: Cost & potential impact on general traffic in isthmus.

Cost: 3,740M  

Option 5 - LRT

Option 5 – LRT

Option 6 – The introduction of a Bus Rapid Transit System with a CBD Bus Tunnel.

Pros: Provides necessary capacity, travel time improvements, removes buses from CBD surface, increase of public space, North Shore services can use tunnel.

Cons: Extremely high cost, large tunnel portals & potential impact on general traffic in isthmus.

Cost: $9,540M

Option 6 - BRT Tunnel

Option 6 – BRT Tunnel

AT then put each option against criteria with a ranking of 1-5 for each, the total was the average score with LRT coming on top as best option with a average of 4.4/5 compared to the next highest option the BRT tunnel at 3.7/5.

Cap Option Evaluation

Cap Option Evaluation

After concluding that LRT was possibly the best way forward, they looked deeper into the option, the first observation they made from the models was that “a second light rail service pattern using Symonds Street, Manukau Road and Mt Eden Road may be required towards the very end of the 30 year period. Allowance has not been made for this service pattern in the IP owing to the level of uncertainty in forecasting so far out as noted in ATAP.” So in the time frame they would only be looking at Cost/Benefits of two of the LRT Lines, Dominion Rd & Sandringham Road

Dominion Rd LRT had a Cost Benefit Ratio (CBR) of 0.7 – 1.9 if land value uplift was included, this allowed the potential of a Mt Roskill Spur to be potentially added to the package. The Cost of Dominion Rd LRT including Wynyard Quarter was $1,367m.

Dominion Rd & Sandringham Rd LRT had a CBR of 0.5 – 1.1. However they say this should improve due to it being able to be staged. The cost of Sandringham LRT they have estimated at $500m.

AT says there is issues with the modelling however for the following reasons which do not allow a proper case to be made

  • The constraint of requiring a fixed land use for the evaluation is a flawed assumption, as without additional capacity for travel to the City Centre, the ability to deliver the land use is compromised.
  • Similarly, for the people that are ‘crowded off’ the public transport services, there is likely to be a second order effect on general traffic as some of them would be forced back to car travel, making it even less efficient in the process. The performance of the road network would also be expected to degrade over time so potential benefits further in the future are likely to be under represented.
  • Large public transport projects where a step change is being made represent a significant investment up front, but offer comparatively modest benefits in the early years. However, for a number of reasons there is a need to make that investment at that point in as there are no feasible options to allow continued functionality without the investment.
  • The reliability improvements that come with almost completely segregated travel need to be explored further, particularly as the EEM currently caps them at the same value as the travel time savings.
  • The non-transport benefits, such as increased tourism activity in the City Centre would further contribute to the overall economic benefit of the IP.
  • Land use value uplift has not been estimated in detail but based on overseas examples is potentially large. Further assessment will confirm the magnitude of these benefits.

These are now the same graphs as before but with the Programme Interventions

Wellesley St Bus Numbers with Intervention

Wellesley St Bus Numbers with Intervention


Symonds St Bus Numbers with Intervention

With ATAP released the other day, it should be noted they in the Indicative Projects List have said that Bus Improvements may be able to last until the 2nd Decade 2028-38 period before a Mass Transit system may need to be introduced, I am not sure ATAP & CAP are on the same page regarding this, and this issue may potentially need more investigation.

So what do you think?

A Visit to Portland

This is a guest post by our most august regular reader Warren Sanderson.

Over many years I have developed a dislike for what the concentration of motorway/roading only expenditure is doing to our cities and particularly Auckland. This heavy concentration on roading expenditure with ever widening multi-lane roads is promoting unsustainable car dominance and frequent severance of neighbourhoods from parts previously closely aligned. In other words, it is not doing much for “quality of place”.

I have been reading Transport Blog regularly for some years now because of my interest in architecture and city design and why some cities have so much more appeal as places to visit and live in than other cities.

And over the years Portland is frequently mentioned and photographed in Transport Blog as one of those desirable urban places for living.

So seeing that Portland was the only North American west coast city of any significance that I hadn’t visited, it was time for my wife and me to go.

But first I have to confess to recently attaining 80 years of age. I didn’t aspire to reach this age – it just crept up on me. And going forward there can’t be many advantages in reaching 80 but the reason I mention it is twofold:

When entering the U.S. this time they did not want to fingerprint me or make me take off my belt and shoes when going through security. The terrorist potential of 80 plus’ers must be considered low. My ‘young’ wife however, who in any event would cause far less trouble than me, got the full treatment.

The second advantage, although one only needed to be 65 for this, was one of nomenclature. We were not merely ‘pensioners’, not even ‘senior citizens’ but were ‘Honoured Citizens’ (Generation Zero take note!) and as such were entitled to half cost of the already modest cost of public transit on the TRI-MET System.

Upon arrival the volunteer information staff at Portland Airport quickly provided us with a ‘Journey Plan’ to the Benson Hotel in Downtown Portland. Other volunteer staff watched over our ticket machine purchase and another directed us to a substitute bus – all so friendly.   Because the light rail line was undergoing maintenance a free shuttle bus took us to Kenton N Denver where we transferred  to light rail for the remainder of the journey.

And wow!  The cost for each of us was $ US 1.25.  Unhonoured citizens pay double. If you choose to go by taxi I am told the cost is $ US 39 – 40.

On this basis, Auckland Airport, New Zealand Government policy, NZTA and AT together, have enormous scope/margin for improvement and it is fair to say that the travelling consumer with the lack of alternatives in Auckland, is being totally ripped–off, both financially and by insipid policy.


Our hotel was the Benson Hotel.  It was well located on the corner of SW Oak and Broadway. I am not sure when it was built but it is impressively Edwardian in character and especially in the lobby area.

From the picture you can see that a considerable portion of the façade is red brick and visually set on a solid base. It was designed to impress which is nothing less than you would expect from Simon Benson, the original owner.

The Benson name crops up frequently in Portland. Benson made a fortune in the timber trade and then moved on to other ventures, activities and also to philanthropy.  He gifted land including impressive waterfalls for state parks along the Colombia River Gorge. In Portland itself, he donated the ‘Benson Bubblers’ (a complete water system) that you can see on so many street corners. See picture below –


Portland’s street pattern is mainly organised on a grid system. Because each block is of fairly small dimension the city is reasonably pedestrian friendly. Most crossings do not have a beg button but don’t let your attention stray as there is no pedestrian buzzer. As a pedestrian you need to keep watch or you will miss your turn.

With some notable exceptions the buildings are not usually more than 5 or 6 storeys in height. Many are pared back Louis Sullivan Chicago Style which I find aesthetically pleasing – c.f. our General Building on the corner of Shortland and O’Connell Streets.

And yes, in Portland there are many buildings both older and more recent that are faced in brick. Portland has a high winter rainfall just like Auckland and brick certainly evokes the feeling of shelter and warmth far better than ever grey concrete can do.  See pictures below –

On my return to Auckland I am pleased to note that Ockham’s new Bernoulli Gardens apartment development at Hobsonville Point will offer a European brick façade with some white relief and contemporary detailing. I hope this is a trend and that architects and builders stop trying to con us all, that we are part of the Mediterranean.

Let us return to the reason for visiting Portland – that is to use and explore their light train transit system.

Well wow!  It is so easy to use – even for strangers. We walked three short blocks up to Pioneer Courthouse Square and purchased a number of HR (remember Honoured Citizen) Day Pass tickets at $ US 2.50 each. They need to be validated before use, at the little machine at the train stop. In the centre of Portland itself the trains run each way a street apart but with the aid of the TRI-MET System Map you soon get used to it.

For our first trip we took the Beaverton train westwards which soon enters a long rail only tunnel under the Washington Park hills before arriving at the Beaverton Transit Centre. We then took the Hillsboro train which comes on the same route but continues much further out to Hillsboro where Saturday Market was in full swing.

The light rail train goes fairly slowly on its tram style rails in the city but goes much faster on its railway style rails once it is on its own dedicated way a little further out.

On another occasion we went south crossing over the Willamette River on the much noted Tilikum Pedestrian and Rail only Bridge to Milwaukie.

On our final day we returned to the airport, initially part way by bus because of the maintenance and the rest of the way by light train from the Gateway Transit Centre – again the cost was $ US 1.25 each.

TRI-MET advertise that 45% of commuters and 45% of students use Transit every day and I understand that in Portland 6% of commuters bike to work each day compared with  .5% of commuters in the U.S. nationally.

Not everything in Portland is perfect however.  On the eastern side of the Willamette River there is a plethora of freeways flanking the river. You only have to go to the 30th floor of the U.S. Bankcorp Building to obtain a great view of the city and of these motorways including entries and exits snaking and weaving on the far river bank. Many are elevated like our motorways in the sky at Auckland’s Waterview and frankly all are rather ugly.


And then there is the question of stigma – the belief among some that only lower status people use transit.  For example, when checking in for our departure at the airport, I commented that we had used Portland’s excellent public transit system to reach the airport and the attractive airline girl replied “Yes, it is very cheap but you get some funny fellow travellers”.

I thought about this comment afterwards and to a very limited extent had to agree with it on that particular route. In the other direction to Beaverton and Hillsboro all passengers had seemed ‘very normal’ so I guess in large measure, passengers are reflective of areas transit serves. Furthermore the latter route goes through a long tunnel because of the natural barrier of the Washington Park hills which may make driving at peak over more winding roads a less attractive alternative, thereby upping the patronage.

Maybe too, the overcoming of the significant natural barrier of the Washington Park hills, would in turn, appear to be an indicator of success for light rail from the new Aotea Station under Auckland Harbour to the populous North Shore.

So bring it on.

I can’t wait !!

Five Years

Exactly five years ago last month, August 30th 2011, my first ever blog post ran on Transportblog. While I am astonished it’s already been five years, what’s really astonishing is what we, my colleagues here, you the readers, and the growing force of friends and allies elsewhere [shoutout to Generation Zero and Bike Auckland especially], and of course the many good people official roles, have helped achieve in Auckland in this time. We have certainly raised the discourse on urban issues and influenced some real outcomes, for the better. Exactly what we set out to do, and what we continue to strive for.

But there is one thing that has still remains unfixed and that is the subject of my first post, which is reproduced in full below.

Why Are There Cars on Queen St?

This is a Guest Post by regular commenter Patrick Reynolds and was originally published in Metro magazine

Queen St, from the water to Mayoral Drive, has an unusual and unexpected feature for a city street in Auckland. It’s easy to miss but it’s true: There is not one vehicle entrance to a building from Queen St. Not one car parking building, not one loading bay, not one ramp to an executive garage under a tower block. The only way to enter a building from Queen St is on foot. There are a few very short term road side parks among the bus stops and loading bays, but really every car in Queen St is on its way to and from somewhere else. And so slowly.

People often talk about traffic with words like ‘flow’ as if it is best understood as a liquid, when really what it is actually like is a gas. Traffic expands like a gas to fill any space available to it [which is why it is futile to try to road build your out of congestion]. There are cars in Queen St simply because we let them be there, like an old habit we’ve never really thought about. l think it’s time we did.

No traffic moves well on Queen St, certainly not the buses, it is usually quicker to walk from the Ferry Building to the Town Hall than to catch any Queen St bus. Emergency vehicles get stuck, deliveries battle their way through. It is clear why there is traffic on the four east-west cross streets of Customs, Victoria, Wellesley, and Mayoral. These are essential through routes to and from motorways and parking buildings. But they too get held up by all the turning in and out of the intersections with Queen St. Because as it is now the lights have long and complicated phases to handle every possible car movement and the growing volume of pedestrians.

It seems likely that simply by removing the private car from the three blocks from Mayoral Drive down to Customs St the city will function so much better. The intersections of Customs, Victoria and Wellesley, will be able to have much better phasing for both pedestrians and the cross town traffic, as well speeding the buses as they would effectively be on bus lanes all the way up Queen St. Air quality in the Queen St gully would improve immensely. The bottom of Shortland and the newly refurbished Fort streets will become the sunny plazas they should be. Inner city retailers should see the benefits of the Queen St becoming a more appealing place to be in and the cross town traffic flowing better will make car use more viable.

And there will the space to convert the smoky diesel bus routes into modern electric trams to really make the most of this improvement and speed even more shoppers and workers to and from the rest of the city.

If we’re brave enough to take this all the way up to Mayoral Drive we get the real chance to link the new Art Gallery, the Library, and St James area across the Queen St divide to Aotea Square, the Town Hall and the new Q Theatre. A chance to really build a cultural heart at this end of town.

Furthermore it could all be done with a few cones, signs, traffic light changes and a media campaign. At least to start.


And I still believe that AT/AC are not addressing this issue as well as they should. Waiting for Light Rail to improve our city’s main street lacks leadership and strategic focus, and may well even turn out to be risky to the approval that project. It will, I believe, help the argument for Light Rail here to show that Queen St isn’t a necessary or desirable place for general traffic, and that its continuing reduction is far from negative for commercial performance in the City Centre, by actively encouraging its departure. We know that the last restrictions had way better results than anticipated, halving the amount of vehicle traffic and boosting the much more valuable pedestrian numbers and economic activity, see here.

Queen St volumes - Total

Since my post above AT have recently added partial bus lanes to the two lower blocks, which is good, but not much in five years. I would like to see these lanes continue through to Mayoral Drive. I really think this valley needs to be addressed strategically, and not just reactively, which after all has been well studied by AT, e.g. The City East West Study, CEWT.

Adding north/south of Queen St to this mix we get a hierarchy like this:

  1. Pedestrians in all directions
  2. Transit north/south on Queen and east/west on Wellesley and Customs
  3. Deliveries
  4. General traffic east/west on Mayoral, Victoria, and Customs

And above all of this is the plan to remove all general traffic from Wakefield St north to be worked towards; to continue the current trend.

So improving the Queen St intersections by removing right hand turn options matches this hierarchy perfectly, in particular at Victoria St. This is now a more difficult idea since the Link bus turns from Queen here, but the turn could be made bus only. Victoria St is currently narrowed by CRL works, and will be permanently reduced in width by the Aotea CRL station entrance which will be in what is current road space. So getting drivers used to both the narrowed Victoria St and out of the habit of turning here is surely a strong plan.

Now of course AT are getting pressure from angry motorists over the CRL works, and seem to have responded to this by dropping the double pedestrian cycle from the big Barnes Dances on Queen. This is clearly counter productive to the strategic aims. Instead if they removed right hand turning at Victoria this would improve the adjacent Victoria St intersections for all users and enable either concurrent crossing on Queen or allow the double Barnes Dance phases to be restored. Then there is the festering sore that is lower Shortland St, which clearly has just been shoved into the too hard basket.

Oh and now I discover I have written about this in 2013 too: Clusterbus, Busageddon, Busapocalypse…

In short there are ways that AC/AT could be advancing their strategic aims in the centre city before Light Rail is begun, but they don’t seem to be doing this. I think they should.

Will I be banging on about still in another five years, or can the city grow up already?

‘…Five Years, what a surprise’

Airport RTN: a quick first step

AT have now put the SMART study documents on their site, here. There’s a lot to review there and this post is not a look at the whole report and its conclusions, but rather is a response to the problem of the length of time this project is likely to take whatever mode is selected.

All of the proposals in the report are capital intensive, without any currently identified funding source, and the timing of the RT route looks likely to be complicated by the Airport’s development plans, particularly those for the second runway, so there is a good case for looking at interim improvements for Airport/RTN interconnection while these bigger decisions are being resolved. I am focussing on the airport because of its fast growth is clearly a major generator of increased traffic congestion for the whole Mangere area.

First some background from the report. Just setting aside travellers for a moment, what about the workforce at and around the Airport, what are their current patterns?:

AIRPORT Commuter movements

So we can see in the above data from the 2013 census that the key connection for workers is east to Manukau area, followed by that to the centre. Furthermore that employee movement is still quite peaky, despite the airport itself obviously being a 24 hour operation:

Airport worker arrivals


So what opportunities are there for a quick and relatively low cost connection between the Airport and the current RTN, particularly with the above information in mind, that could be built while the full Mangere/Airport RT route is being developed, whatever the mode? RTN 2016 AirportThe first and obvious point is that there is already, right now, great service on the spine of the Southern Line relatively close to the Airport, particularly to the City Centre, but also south and across to Manukau City. Where the red and blue lines overlap there are services every five minutes at peak. So there seems to be a clear opportunity to improve connection east from the Airport for its own catchment while that also will connect, via the rail system, the City Centre and anyone who can access a train station.

Currently the connection between rail system and the Airport is very poor, as anyone -like me- who has used it will tell you.

New Network South

The 380 via Papatoetoe station is not a viable option because of three problems [the longer and slower route to Onehunga is even worse, as well leading to an equally low frequency train]:

  • Low frequency: 1/2 hourly service
  • Slow route; the 380 has no priority on its route so therefore is subject to both delay and unreliability caused by other traffic [I have been on this bus stuck in traffic for tens of minutes]
  • The Station/Bus physical connection at Papatoetoe does little to encourage the transfer.

So why not investigate a dedicated shuttle between the even closer Puhinui Station and the Airport on a minimum 10 minute frequency with dedicated lanes on Puhinui Rd and improved passenger interchange at the station, complete with lifts for people with luggage, and all weather cover? Puhinui is currently timetabled at 33-35 minutes from Britomart [this should improve with current work] with a train leaving every 5 mins at the peaks, exactly when traffic congestion is at is most disruptive. With bus lanes on Puhinui Rd the journey to the terminals would be a reliable 10 mins. Including an average wait time of 5 mins that’s a perfectly satisfactory 50 minute journey from Britomart to the Airport. Because this journey time is reliable and not subject to congestion and avoids the time and cost of parking at the Airport it should be competitive enough for a good proportion of travellers and workers. As shown below, there is space to build an interchange and turning space to the west [Airport] side of the station, this would need to be of interchange standard.


The Puhinui Rd/20B road and bridge are due to be upgraded or duplicated soon in the on-going work to increase general traffic access to the Airport [what you feed grows] surely it would be wise to actually include dedicated transit lanes on a bridge in Auckland for once? This is a future RTN route, the route is flat and unconstrained by buildings; these are good practical and cost arguments for bringing this section forward. Shoulder lanes, or better, a dedicated busway and bridge, LRT ready, would be real ‘future-proofing’ [a phrase it is hard not to be cynical about in Auckland as it generally means doing less than nothing in practice].

With this service then it would be viable and essential to brand both the shuttle bus service at the terminals and the Southern and Eastern line services, both of which, with no changes to how they currently run, then become true Airport services.

Of course the transfer is less ideal than a system that takes you on one seat right into the Terminal either as a flyer or an employee there, however we know many travellers currently transfer from their cars to various bus shuttles in order to get cheaper parking, and surely many workers would be happy to not to have to battle increasing congestion with a reliable and cost effective alternative. In other words by optimising the bus connection we will further unlock the value of investments recently made in the rail system. It probably makes sense on those grounds alone.AIRPORT -Puninui

This should not be seen as instead of a north/south pan Mangere RTN, but it would surely make a good start, especially as this is the route for the future Botany-Manukau City-Airport RTN. So it would be even better if it continued to the new interchange at Manukau City, and then on to Botany and AMETI. And ensuring all hard infrastructure is built to be efficiently upgradeable to Light Rail in the longer term. Improving eastern connectivity is completely compatible with the northern Mangere routes discussed in the study, and indeed the current Airbus service, so arguably is an even more urgent direction to improve. There is no duplication in sorting this connection out first.

Botany Line

Incidentally this map clearly shows the other areas lacking RTN coverage: the Northwest and Upper Harbour, and the Isthmus and Mangere….

Which is exactly what AT have on their future RTN maps, but far too far into the future in my view. This is still based on last century’s thinking where every road is widened first, leading to the inevitable dysfunction and only then do we try to relieve this adding quality RT alternatives.

To summarise: we already have a high quality Rapid Transit service almost all the way to the airport, it seems to me that the addition of a high quality connection between these points would be a very useful first move in improving connectivity in this important area, especially if taken at least to Manukau City too, and as soon as possible.

LRT: The Seattle example

Auckland Transport have published a new version of their airport rail video, essentially stripping out the heavy rail parts while also adding a little bit more detail about the airport.

Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects is it shows a bit of how light rail would get through Onehunga. It appears the plan is to elevate the light rail line over Neilson St right where AT are about to remove the bridge that lifts the road over the rail corridor.

Airport Light Rail Video - Onehunga

Every time rail to the airport is discussed, here or in other places, there are a number of people who question AT’s decision to use Light Rail to connect to the airport. The biggest complaints/misconceptions I’ve seen against the idea of using light rail to the airport are:

  • Light rail is slower – especially on Dominion Rd with lots of stops
  • That it will be like Melbourne mixed traffic
  • Light rail doesn’t have enough capacity
  • It will mix with trips on Dominion Rd
  • It’s light and so heavy must equal bigger and better

So let’s step through some of these and to do so, I’m going to use Seattle as an example. The reason for using Seattle is that its Link Light Rail has many characteristics that appear to be almost identical to what Auckland Transport is proposing.

First a little bit about the system.Seattle Link Light Rail Map

Seattle has only recently started building its light rail system and the first section opened in July 2009. Since then there have been a couple of extensions, to the airport in the south (six months later) and just in March this year, a 5km, 2 station extension to the north. Further extensions in each direction are already under construction with other lines and extensions planned.

As of now the entire light rail system is just over 30km in length which is almost identical to the distance between Papakura and Britomart. It does have fewer stations though and outside of the city, much wider station spacing. The route is a mix of grade separated right of way with a mix of tunnels and bridges, median running and in the city centre it shares one tunnel with buses. Below is an image from Streetview showing Martin Luther King Jr Way which a 6.2km long section of median running and is similar to what we can expect along Dominion Rd. As you can see it is not mixed with traffic and the rail is separated from the road by a small kerb. Access across the tracks at intersections is controlled by lights.

Seattle Link Light Rail Martin Luther King Jr Way 2




The light rail vehicles used in Seattle are capable of speeds up to 105km/h which at maximum is only 5km slower than our heavy rail trains are capable of, and which ours don’t often get close to achieving in normal service. Seattle has some fairly lengthy sections which over which I imagine it is able to make the most of it’s speed. That means it only takes about 44 minutes to travel the 30km for an impressive average speed of just over 40km/h. That is about the same average speed as the Eastern line from Manukau but considerably faster on average than the Southern, Onehunga and Western lines, the latter two average less than 30km.h.

Even if you exclude the section from the Airport to Rainier Beach and from Westlake to the University of Washington, the system achieves similar average speeds to our network.

Seattle Link Light Rail Travel Times

Obviously our existing trains need to be faster but that is a discussion for a separate post. What is clear is that at the very least, it is possible to get light rail up to a similar speed as what we’re achieving now with our rail network.

To achieve the times Auckland Transport claim, LRT would only have to average 30km per hour, the same as being achieved on the Rainier Beach to Westlake section. With AT planning to create a corridor like shown above (but with a single traffic lane instead of two), that should be possible. There’ll be no light rail mixing with cars and also no stopping ever few hundred metres like many buses and many traditional tram networks such as Melbourne do.



It’s all very well saying that heavy rail has more capacity but just because you can build a rail line capable of running trains with a capacity for 1,000 people every 90 seconds, it doesn’t mean you should. It is very expensive both to build and run so most cities only do it if they absolutely need to. Better to build enough capacity for what you’re going to need (plus a bit of redundancy).

As we know, AT are planning on using up to 66m long light rail vehicles (two 33m coupled together) that can carry up to 450 people running every 5 minutes. Looking over at Seattle, they have 29m long vehicles that can carry around 200 people running at up to every 6 minutes in the peak. They too can couple vehicles together and until recently were limited to joining two trains together but their system allows for up to four to be coupled. Four vehicles connected together would be around 116m long and carry up to 800 people – more than one of our 6-car trains are designed to carry (ours carry 750 people). Given the technology is obviously already available, there doesn’t seem to be a technical reason why we eventually couldn’t see longer light rail trains here – assuming we designed for the possibility.

Seattle Link Light Rail - Int Dist Station

Another way of looking at capacity to see how it’s performing. Sound Transit who run the system publish ridership data monthly. The opening of the extension to the University of Washington in March has seen ridership soar at up to a staggering 83% compared to the same month a year prior. That means over the last few months, this single LRT line is carrying more than Auckland’s entire rail network combined. The results suggest that by the time the extension has been operative for a year that their system will be carrying 20 million+ trips a year. Seattle’s weekday numbers are about the same as what we have but they do much better on weekends, something we’ll hopefully see the new network improve.

Seattle Link Light Rail Ridership 2016-06


On both speed and capacity, the example for Seattle shows that Light Rail can be every bit as good as our current heavy rail system. For me the key is not the name of the mode but how it’s designed. The pressure that needs to be applied to Auckland Transport, the council and the government is to provide the funding needed as soon as possible and to ensure that it’s implemented to the level advertised in the video above (or better). Light or heavy, it’s still rail to the airport.

The A Train: Rail to the Shore and elsewhere

Within the Auckland Transport Alignment Process Interim Report is the news that the six lane highway across the harbour as currently planned, the Additional Harbour Crossing, just doesn’t work, and is now at least mortally wounded, if not actually dead.

ATAP - Interim Report - AWHC

Clearly a total re-think of ways to serve the growing movement demand between the city and the north east is required. In January the Waterview connection and the supersizing of the North Western will open, and later a new interchange between SH 18 and SH 1 will complete the next road connections between the upper harbour and the wider city.

Additionally the SkyPath, SeaPath, and improvements to ferry services will also be added to the mix for the inner harbour, for the Active modes.

The great missing piece in the movement jigsaw for this part of the city [as elsewhere] is a Rapid Transit connection across the harbour and through the Shore. The case for the next major connection across the harbour utilising the high capacity, smaller foot print, and traffic reduction outcomes of Rapid Transit is now all but made.

Here I want to explore the options for an actually successful harbour crossing, particularly in light of recent announcements about the Mangere/Airport RTN, but also because of the need for a viable near term system that fits into the longer term needs of our growing city. I can’t emphasise this enough; for a system to actually get funded and built it surely must fit both those criteria, and that is not easy.

What follows is an exploration of possibilities done with a fairly broad brush; a high altitude view, with a lot of scope for variation in detail.

In 2012 I wrote a couple of speculative posts proposing the Shore Line as an extension of our current rail network. Here and here. I was interested in looking beyond the CRL to examine future improvements to the Shore and through Mangere to the Airport. In particular in offering an Albany to Airport one seat ride through an east-west CRL II type project, like this:



While there is some elegance to these proposals [and some problems] it is clear that I started from an unexpressed assumption that all future rail systems would be extensions of the current network. This is no longer my view primarily because our current network has very firm structural upper limits for train movements, that means at some point it becomes limiting to try to add ever more arms to this body. Adding an additional high demand area like the North Shore will bring those limits forward, especially to hard to expand pinch points like Newmarket Station and Junction. Remembering too that freight movements are growing on parts of the network too. This isn’t to criticise our re-born urban rail system, it will remain the vital core of Auckland’s RTN, growing quickly post CRL to 50m trips pa. and beyond. But rather to recognise that it needs to be free to serve these core roles, supported by other existing and enhanced networks, and some new ones.

I also suspect that the required crosstown tunnel would be prohibitively expensive, especially when combined with a cross harbour one. Together these costs could be sufficiently high to kill the plan.

Instead, adding a new and complimentary network, making connections by transfer at interchange stations, adds resilience as well as more capacity, in that problems on one network won’t affect the other. This also allows us to tailor the next network to our current demands and utilise all the latest technology and thinking without needing to accommodate it to the physical parameters of the existing system [freedom from the ‘happenstance of yore’].

On the assumption that the current Busway can be relatively easily converted to Light Rail, the obvious opportunity is leverage off AT’s Light Rail plans for a Queen St-Dominion Rd system through Mangere to the Airport so that this:

becomes this, an idea we have explored in the past:


So the return of the highly desirable one-seat ride from Albany to the Airport, on a high catchment spine; the A-Train, but this time via Light Rail, on a combination of higher speed grade separate paths, and high access street running. The advantages and disadvantages of these conditions have been debated at length on previous posts, what I want to examine here are future network possibilities of such a system, because networks are always greater than their parts. However it is worth a visit to this analysis of the recent addition of Light Rail to Paris’ Transit mix on this very issue; degrees of separation, I guess you could call it. Basically it concludes that while it is always better to strive for as much separate running as possible, this needs to be balanced against both capital cost and quality of access. And especially the quantity and quality of the transfer nodes with other major Transit Networks.

It takes just a few seconds looking at the RATP map to see why the Paris trams are so useful. In Paris’s hub-and-spoke transit network, they are the rim of the wheel, connecting the ends of Metro and RER lines in far-flung parts of the region. All nine lines offer at least two stations that connect to other modes of transit. Some offer many more:

No. of transfers No. of total stations Pct. of stations with transfers
T1 8 36 22%
T2 4 24 17%
T3a 12 25 48%
T3b 8 18 44%
T4 2 11 18%
T5 2 16 13%
T6 3 21 14%
T7 4 18 22%
T8 3 17 18%

So returning to Auckland and the proposed A Line we can see that while it would be a great complement to our existing fast growing Rail Network, and likely further RTN extensions including AMETI, and the North-Western, it still only connects with it at the four stations indicated with blue dots above. However the possibilities for leveraging off this system to create a second route with a rich abundance of connectedness:


The western section carries along the grade separate SH20 alignment to a new station at Owairaka, then continues to Mt Albert Station, Unitec, and to the future RTN station at Pt Chev on the North-Western line, on-street [The RTN connections are why I prefer this possible extension over one to the metro-centre of New Lynn]. The southern to Puhinui Station and the Manukau City Interchange Station down Lambie Dr, again mostly on its own alignment.

Which of course can be extended to include AMETI:

A B lines

The simplest idea would be to run these as two overlapping lines A and B, giving the Airport and Mangere great connectivity west, south, north, and east. Direct to the City Centre and great connectivity with every branch of the RTN, including of course the Onehunga line. Or say three lines all converging on the Airport. Such a system is also highly stageable, and you all can haggle over your favourite technology for each part….


The key principle though must be future proofing for upgrades. I think it is vital, for example, that the harbour crossing, if it is to be Light Rail, is built so it can take Light Metro for the time in the future that the demand from the Shore is high enough to justify a tunnel from Wynyard to Aotea Station and the option of implementing a fully driverless system as then it would be 100% grade separate. I’m sure some would like to start straight off with such a system, but I think it is clear that designing systems that can grow with the city is the only viable way forward.




Without trying to put a date on it, below is a pretty good integrated RTN future to aim for:

Rail running at 5min frequencies on the outer lines so a train every 2.5 mins in the CRL and other places [Red and Green]

LRT also at varying frequencies depending on place, perhaps even two routes from Wynyard to the city

More Ferries, Rapid Bus on Gt North Rd and the NW and across the Upper Harbour, although especially from Pt Chev to the city could be LRT too.

When or whether parts of this are Buses or Light Rail, are not so much my focus but rather getting the coverage optimised, and the routes protected.

No doubt it will change but here’s a potential version. Discuss:


Serving the Southwest

A lot of debate over the last week has focused on rail to the airport and Auckland Transport/NZTA’s decision to dump heavy rail as an option, primarily due to costs but also because they believe light rail could deliver similar benefits. As has happened pretty much every time in the past when discussing this topic, the focus of many commentators here and across the media spectrum has been squarely on connecting the airport and the CBD. That’s somewhat understandable given both are significant destinations but when focusing on a singular use outcome it naturally results in a misunderstanding of what is trying to be achieved and people trying to come up with alternative ways to achieve that.

The two prime examples of this is the suggestion that we need to have a non-stop express service between the two main destinations and that we could save money but just building a connection across open land from Puhinui to the airport. The latter was even the subject of the herald editorial on Friday.

When most of us look at a map of Auckland’s railways, a spur line to the airport appears obvious and easy. The main line south runs through Wiri and its Puhinui Station is about 5km from the air terminals. A track could be laid through largely open land to the airport perimeter. What could be simpler?

Alas, simple solutions seem not to be welcome in the organisations charged with planning Auckland’s transport.


They are looking at the wrong route

While a faster and/or a cheaper connection would be nice for those just going to the CBD, the numbers doing that exact trip are never likely to be higher enough to justify the scale of investment that rail requires. More importantly, the issue with both of those positions is they ignore one of the key strategic goals that are trying to be achieved, to improve public transport for those that live and work in the Southwest and this is a goal regardless of the mode used.


Currently the Southwest is estimated to be home to close to 50,000 people and growing to an estimated 66,000 by 2043. Some of that growth is already underway with developments like the Walmsley Rd SHA set to deliver around 1,600 new dwellings which is likely enough to house another 5,000 people. There are also around 31,000 jobs in this area of which about 12,000 are at the airport itself with the rest in the industrial areas to the north or in and around Mangere and Mangere Bridge. The airport company expect to employment numbers around the airport will increase significantly as more land is developed. That will help to make

Southwest Population 2


Whichever way you look at it, that’s a lot of people and a lot of jobs and it would be short-sighted and unfair not to give them some form of quality PT option – this equally applies to other parts of the Auckland urban area too.

Looking at Stats NZ commuter view for two of the area units included in the figures above, we can see that the biggest single destination (outside of working within the same area unit) was working in the Mangere South area which includes the Airport and the Ascot/Montgomerie Industrial area. But while not to the same individual level, there are a number of people who also travel north to work in other parts of the city.

Southwest work location


Workers at the Airport itself come from all over the region, a lot from the east but also a significant numbers the north. The numbers from the east will be partially why AT have said they’ll start the early stages of investigation into an RTN route between Botany, Manukau and the airport.

Airport worker commute map


So rail to the airport is actually about serving three separate markets

  1. Travellers themselves
  2. People working around the Airport and nearby employment centres (this is likely to be the biggest share of potential users)
  3. People living in Mangere and its surrounding suburbs

Spending the kind of money needed to build a rail line to serve any one of these uses is almost certainly not going to be able to stack up but with all three uses combined it can. What’s more from a PT perspective a Southwest line likely has a couple of big advantages that could make it one of the busiest on the network. Compared to our existing RTN lines, having very strong anchors at each end of the line in the form of the city and the airport will help get good bi-directional usage. Added to that the inherent nature of airport arrivals and departures throughout the day would help drive off-peak usage. As such frequencies are likely to need to be kept fairly high which also benefits others on the route.

Like how some people have incorrectly assumed that because the CRL is in the city, it’s all about trains going around the city, rail to the airport is assumed just to be about people going to the airport but as I’ve discussed it’s really about serving the entire Southwest. Formally the project is called Southwest Multimodal Airport Rail Transit (SMART) but that’s a name that will never catch on. People understand the term Airport Rail and also like the CRL, some people probably won’t realise/understand just what it is trying to do till it actually opens.

Making Light Rail fast enough on Dominion Rd

Following on from my post a few days ago on light rail being preferred to the airport – which has been one of the most commented on that we’ve ever had – by far the most common concern is around the speed of light rail, particularly on the section along Dominion Rd.

I’ve taken a look in the past at what other cities who have built similar light rail systems to what AT are proposing and I found that a number of them are capable of the speeds suggested. But of course they aren’t Auckland so I thought I’d take a quick look at some of the things we know that AT are proposing that will help ensure light rail will be quick and reliable along this important corridor.

Fewer stops and more direct route

Buses along Dominion Rd between the Southwestern motorway and the centre town have almost 30 stops to pass along the way. There are of course bus lanes along a lot of the route but they stop short at key intersections which can cause delays. Before light rail came along, AT had planned to lengthen these bus lanes right to the intersection to help speed up buses further. The current timetable shows travel times between Denbigh Ave close to the motorway and the city taking between about 23 minutes and 41 minutes depending on the time of day.

With light rail Auckland Transport plan to significantly reduce the number of stops along the route with just eight on Dominion Rd itself and only 10 to get to the same point in town. Of course one down side to some residents is it means they may have to walk further to get to a stop. For light rail it appears they’ve effectively picked one stop in the main centres along the route with intermediate stops between them.

You can see the difference in the two in the map below. Fewer stops means vehicles can travel faster as they’re not constantly accelerating or braking.

Light Rail Dominion Rd stops vs Bus

Buses can also suffer from dwell time issues from boarding and alighting passengers. It is possible to address some of these, such as restricting cash payments, allowing all door boarding which could speed up buses a bit but off line ticketing and fast boarding are a fairly standard feature of light rail so provided that AT implement it properly that will help compared to the current situation people compare to.

In addition to fewer stops, you can see from the map above that light rail takes a more direct route to the city and so has fewer intersections to negotiate.


Buses currently are at the mercy of traffic lights and at the big intersections with long cycle times this can slow them down and cause buses to bunch. When bus frequencies get too high it results in there almost always being buses waiting to get through lights, which is often a leading cause of them bunching and is not good for operations or passengers.

One reasons we heard AT were for looking at light rail on Dominion Rd in the first place was that it allowed fewer but much larger vehicles to run. The advantage of that is it allows for signal priority to be effective and so depending on how it is set up, it could mean the light rail never has to stop at Intersections other than at its stations. Again that could end up being a significant time saving.

On a related note, we know that light rail will be able to skip one major intersection with AT have suggesting that they will tunnel under the K Rd ridgeline as part of building that part of the line. I believe this is mainly for operational reasons – removing a steep part of the hill – but it will also benefit travel times.

K Rd LRT Underpass

Centre running protected route

Running light rail down the centre of Dominion Rd means it won’t get held up by cars turning left into side streets or driveways, parking to run into the shops or drop someone off/pick them up. Cars would only be able to turn right at specific intersections and not when a light rail vehicle is around. It is also common for the light rail corridor to be protected by a raised kerb to prevent cars from accessing the tracks or using them as a median, in much the same way that kerbs are used to stop people driving in cycle lanes. Examples include the Gold Coast as shown below and Seattle.

Light Rail In Gold Coast

A raised kerb can also be seen in some of the concept images AT have released in the past such as this on of Ian McKinnion Dr

Ian McKinnon LRT


When you combine all of these elements it means that light rail is able to travel down Dominion Rd pretty much completely unimpeded by other traffic and only needing to stop a few times along the way. The speed limit for light rail would almost certainly still be 50km/h but even if it could average half that, it could travel the 7km between the centre of town and SH20 in just 17 minutes. As a quick comparison, in the same timeframe leaving from Britomart would be at about Ellerslie – although admittedly we expect AT go get that time sped up a bit.

Once the route reaches SH20 the LRT route appears to be almost completely separate from traffic with the exception of a small section in Onehunga and so for most of it could easily travel at up to 100km/h if the vehicles and tracks were designed to do so – and that has been suggested by AT in the documents they’ve produced so far.

Light-Heavy rail to Aiport Travel Times

This gives me confidence that for LRT at least, the times AT have suggested are realistic but I’d add that a lot depends on just how well they implement everything.

Light Rail Preferred to Airport

A big day yesterday with Auckland Transport officially deciding to drop the option of heavy rail to the airport in favour of light rail (LRT) or perhaps even buses as had been foreshadowed in the Herald in the morning but also hinted at for some time from previous information released by AT.

Mangere Light Rail Station

Yesterday afternoon they released the previously confidential paper that was used to justify the decision which has thrown up a few interesting details.

In the end the biggest nail in the coffin for heavy rail has ended up being the cost which is now estimated at $2.6 to $3 billion. Being even more expensive than the CRL and with fewer benefits – after-all the CRL improves the entire rail network – it is always going to be hard sell and in the end AT and the NZTA have said it simply offered “low value for money” with a Benefit Cost Ratio of 0.37-0.64. As a comparison they estimate LRT could have similar or even greater overall benefits – I’ll get to that soon – but come in at less than half the price at an estimated $1.2-1.3 billion giving it a BCR of 1.11-1.72. That figure seems to be an improvement on earlier information such as the video that was released at the beginning of the year.

Light-Heavy rail to Aiport Routes and stats

The biggest issue with the LRT option though is it assumes that LRT will already be in place along Dominion Rd and that this is therefore just an extension. The issue with that is so far there is no agreement from the NZTA or the government that the Dominion Rd route will be supported – although the ATAP report last week seems to confirm something more than just more buses will be needed. But even if the cost of LRT along Dominion Rd (estimated at $1 billion) was included in, it still comes in cheaper than heavy rail and would have even higher benefits. The LRT option also benefits from providing new connections on the isthmus to the South West so represents a greater expansion of the rapid transit network. A comparison between the accessibility of the two is below.

Light-Heavy Rail - Light 45min Accessibility to Airport

Light-Heavy Rail - Heavy 45min Accessibility to Airport

The estimated costs and benefits discounted to 2015 $ are shown below.

Light-Heavy rail to Aiport BCR

On the costs, one expensive part of heavy rail is the need to also upgrade the Onehunga line and deal with the level crossings. AT say they considered three options for this, a long New Lynn style trench, realignment via Mt Smart and elevated rail with costs ranging from $458-578 million. Later it appears a low cost option of closing two of the level crossings and barriers which would cost $155 million and that was used in the Indicative Business Case but AT are also concerned not grade separating the crossings would cause traffic issues.

Within the airport they also eventually came up with a more direct route shown in blue but that requires bored tunnels ~20-25m deep and adds to the costs listed above and is what pushes the cost to $3 billion. There are other issues too such as with the terminal station under the airport, AT would have to pay for it when the Airport wanted to upgrade the terminal which is likely to be sooner than when AT have LRT scheduled and that would add $100 million to ATs already tight budget requirements.

Light-Heavy rail to Aiport - airport alignment options

The paper also addresses many of the issues that have been raised on here and in other places in the past.

Travel Times

One such issue is the travel time and people have in the past questioned suggestions that LRT could be the same or even faster than heavy rail. They say travel times were worked out using several models taking into account issues such as LRT speed down Dominion Rd, the acceleration/deceleration possible, station dwell times, specific track lengths, curves and gradients along with how fast vehicles could travel over them. They say that because of the heavy rail geometries required there is only a few locations where HR can hit top speed.

All of that resulted in the range of times shown below from both Aotea and Britomart with LRT coming out on top from Aotea which is centre of the CBD.

Light-Heavy rail to Aiport Travel Times

One particular area where LRT is much faster is in and around Onehunga, presumably the section over the harbour where the line has to be elevated above Neilson St then again over the East-West mega road before dropping under the motorway bridge as shown below.

Mangere Inlet Rail Crossing

The big concern for me with travel times is that it comes down to how well they’re implemented and so far AT haven’t proven themselves good at at that. This is evidenced by how poor AT have seemingly been so far at addressing our slow trains.


Another issue that has been raised before is the capacity of LRT. What needs to be remembered is that even before this idea came along, AT aren’t planning on dinky little streetcars running around the suburbs but are large, long and potentially quite fast. As AT have said in the past they could be up to 66m long carrying over 400 passengers each which is on par with our current electric trains.

Light-Heavy rail to Aiport capacity

So over a two-hour morning peak with services every five minutes LRT could be moving up to 10,000 people an hour in each direction which is about the same number of people who currently arrive at Britomart each morning and nothing to sneeze at. They say the model estimates that with LRT around 3,500-7,500 people would cross the Manakau Harbour each morning with around 5,300-6,900 using the section from Onehunga to Dominion Rd. The biggest concern would be that if it was too popular it might restrict capacity on Dominion Rd but in many ways that would be a nice problem to have.

Opportunity Costs

One interesting aspect of the paper is a discussion on the opportunity cost of Heavy Rail. While it doesn’t happen in reality, they say the hypothetical situation of taking the money saved by using LRT would be enough to also build a light rail link from the Airport all the way to Botany – whereby it could link with the proposed AMETI busway. I don’t think that this route is a high priority to sink another $1b+ into just yet compared to other PT routes such as the NW-busway but it is interesting to ponder long term as part of a wider LRT network.

Light-Heavy rail to Aiport link to east

Here are the recommendations the board were provided which I assume they accepted. Given the capacity that has been suggested is needed and that we know there are already issues with bus capacity in the city I can’t see a bus option stacking up other than for some short term improvements.

  1. That Management discount heavy rail to the airport from any further option development due to its poor value for money proposition;
  2. Instructs Management to:
    • a) Develop a bus based high capacity mode to the same level of detail as the LRT option to allow a value for money comparison with the LRT option and submit this to ATAP for consideration;
    • b) Refine the LRT option further to address the high risk issues as articulated in this paper;
    • c) Report back to the Board on the findings of the bus based high capacity mode and LRT comparison.
    • d) Progress with route protection for bus / light rail, not heavy rail;
    • e) Align the SMART and CAP business cases to enable the consideration of an integrated public transport system between the city centre and the airport
    • f) Progress the business case development of the RTN route between Botany, Manukau and the airport and align this with NZTA’s business case development for SH20B.

The decision between light and heavy rail will never please everyone but personally I’d rather a light rail connection that actually happened than a heavy rail one that never did. A bit of a case of don’t let perfect be the enemy of good but in this case it’s not clear that heavy rail is perfect. I also don’t think it’s realistic to think that it’s just a political change away from the decision changing like some have suggested. I personally can’t see other political parties agreeing to fund something with such a poor business case given the alternative option that now exists. We’ve been critical of road projects that have poor economic cases so it’s only fair that we do the same with PT projects (although do wish these road projects were subject to greater levels of scrutiny – looking at you East-West).

What is needed though is to simply get on with things. We can’t afford to wait another 15+ years for this to be built, we need to be getting on with it. Compared to some of the motorway projects which now get accelerated rapidly, major PT projects like this seem to languish in the back of the planning departments for years, if not decades. This needs to change if Auckland is to become a much more liveable city.