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

 

 

Speed

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.

Capacity

 

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:

CITY CENTRE 'The Cross'

CITY CENTRE ‘The Cross’

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:
AIRPORT LR

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

A LINE I

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:

B LINE

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….

2 LINE LRT

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.

3 LINE LRT

 

SOUTHWESTERN LINK

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:

AKL RTN II

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.

Southwest

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.

Intersections

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.

Capacity

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.

End of June AT Board Meeting

Today is the latest Auckland Transport Board meeting and it appears to be a big one with a lot of items to cover. I’ve gone through the documents to highlight the parts I’ve found interesting.

Closed Session

The closed session in particular has a number of interesting topics on the agenda, these are some of them up for approval/decision

  • Matakana Link Road – this is the road that is planned from roughly the end of the Puhoi to Warkworth Motorway across to Matakana Rd so all those using the motorway to get to their holiday homes at Christmas don’t have to travel through the Hill St intersection. I’ve heard suggestions the NZTA and AT are looking to have this built at the same time as the motorway even though it hasn’t been budgeted for and that they might try to include it as part of the motorway PPP. The link road is shown below in green and extends past Matakana Rd to a Quarry I believe they want to source material for the motorway from.

Matakana Link Rd location

  • North Western Rapid Transport Corridor – Otherwise known as the Northwest Busway, AT currently have a tender out for an Indicative Business Case for this which includes confirming the preferred mode and alignment.
  • AMETI – While most items are listed as being confidential due to commercial sensitivity, this one oddly states: “To prevent disclosure or use of official information for improper gain or improper advantage
  • Rail Operations Procurement – AT extended Transdev’s contract to run trains in Auckland a year or so ago, presumably this is about extending it again or restarting the process to put it out to tender
  • South Western Multi Modal Airport Rapid Transit (SMART) – We’ve heard before that the Airport company has said that a decision was needed fairly soon on whether heavy or light rail was preferred option for rail to the airport so they can finalise their development plans. I assume AT are making that decision. (Edit: appears I was right. AT have for me they’ll get send me a copy of the report this afternoon)

  • CRL Procurement

And for noting

  • Deep Dive – Enforcement – I assume this includes information about both road and PT enforcement.

Business Report

Rapid Transit – Perhaps as a response to the issue of the AWHC we raised a month ago, AT say

AT and NZ Transport Agency are working together to ensure a future Additional Waitematā Harbour Crossing (AWHC) is delivered as a multimodal transport solution providing more options for moving people and freight across the harbour while supporting growth and resilience. Both organisations are currently investigating which modes of rapid transit will best service the growing needs of the city along with future roading requirements. This information will feed into the AWHC project and ensure the protected route enables and is fully integrated with a future public transport network.

Parnell Station – AT say planning work is still in progress “to complete the station ready for initial timetabled operations by second quarter 2017 in line with wider passenger rail timetable improvements.” Last I remember timetable improvements were planned for around Feb so this suggests they may have been pushed back too. If so this would be disappointing, particularly in the south where the new bus network will be implemented without the rail network being improved to support it.

Street Lighting – You may recall that last year AT started replacing around 44,000 high pressure sodium streets lights across the region with LEDs that over a 20 year period were expected to have net savings of about $32 million. They say so far around 10,000 have been installed which is about 9% of all street lights in Auckland. Positively they say both the technical performance is improving and cost of the lights is reducing so more will be able to be done within the funding allocated.

Bus Lanes – On bus lanes AT have this comment which perhaps suggests they weren’t going to have enough money to roll out the Gt North Rd bus lane which is meant to go in when Waterview opens “We are working with NZ Transport Agency on options to manage the funding of Great North Road Bus lane to alleviate a potential compromise of next year’s work programme“.

New Network Central - Bus Lanes

Red Light running – Back in May, AT announced that in conjunction with the police they were doing a blitz on four intersections on the North Shore for red light running. They say around 400 warnings/infringements were issued over the two-week period.

Integrated Fares – go live 31 July but we are yet to have prices or details of it confirmed which I assume will be a focus in July. The other day I mentioned that Monthly Passes were changing. After that post went up the details went up on AT’s website. From Friday, instead of three different monthly pass options there will only be one covering the entire region which will normally be $200, but for July AT are running it at an “introductory price” of $140 for July. If you make a lot of trips or normally have a fairly long PT commute and don’t normally use a monthly pass it might be worth picking one up and as a tip, once one has been bought and activated you can buy and load up another one. I already use the $200 monthly pass so this should save me around $120 which is nice.

Station Gating – We already knew AT were looking at gating a number of train stations but it appears they could be doing it fairly soon, saying “Electronic gating designs are underway for Manurewa, Papatoetoe, Middlemore, Glen Innes, Henderson and Papakura Stations; electronic gates have been ordered“.

Draft Statement of Intent

Another item at the board meeting is AT’s draft statement of intent for the 2016/17 financial year. The SOI is refreshed is a three-year work plan but is refreshed annually and so combined with other council/AT documents shouldn’t present too much of a surprise. What is interesting is seeing some of the changes that have been made following feedback from the Council. Some of the interesting changes/issues raised seem to be:

  • The council has asked AT to improve train travel times – we know some work has been done on this but we are still waiting for the next timetable change to actually see any improvement.
  • AT have a history of trying to downgrade their PT patronage targets and obviously they tried to again but the council have said they have no intention change them without a very good case for doing so. This means that AT are going to need to put a lot more effort in to ensuring that patronage grows over the next few years so it will be vitally important they get changes like the new network rolled out as soon as possible.
  • The PT patronage target is for all PT so the council have requested a rail specific target be added which AT have done and which gives a hint of where they think patronage will be in the next three years. Rail patronage is at 16.6 million to the end of May and the future targets are 2016/17: 19.5 million, 2017/18: 20.7 million, 2018/19: 21.6 million. That suggests they expect another significant jump in ridership over the next year before tapering off before the CRL is built which is what I would expect to see.
  • AT wanted to focus their cycling targets on the counts from around the city centre to reflect where most of the current cycle spending will impact however the council have said they want to keep the monitoring at a regional level

Not changing the targets does have some benefits for AT though, especially when it comes to PT farebox recovery. As of the end of April they remain ahead of the target set for 2018/19 of greater than 50%.

 

Is there anything else you’ve seen in the reports you’ve found interesting?

Transport system more like Vancouver, Vienna or Zurich, Yes Please

One of the aspects I thought odd about the NZCID report released the other day was the revival of the 1965 De Leuw Cather motorway network plan and a comparison of Auckland’s motorway network to the motorway networks of “other liveable cities”. Here’s what they say:

The comparative decline of Auckland’s once ambitious motorway system, which for half a century has enabled the city to function in spite of deferred investment and poor public transport, can be seen in comparison to other liveable cities. Figure 31 superimposes to scale the motorway networks of various comparable metropolitan areas with populations between Auckland’s existing 1.5 million and its 2045 future of up to 2.5 million (Brisbane, Portland, Vienna and Vancouver each have urban populations of around 2.3 million, Zurich around 1.8 million). In all cases, the motorway networks today are more comprehensive than Auckland’s is projected to be in 2045

The limited reach of Auckland’s strategic road network in comparison to the city’s international competitors is not the only problem. Disproportionate dependency upon several key parts of the network where capacity is constrained has ripple effects across the entire transport system. Pinch points around the CBD, Mt Wellington and Greville Rd compress traffic, stymieing movement many kilometres away throughout busier periods. Although Greville Rd is now being addressed, there are no plans in the next thirty years to address capacity issues at either Mt Wellington or around the CBD.

Similar efficiency improvements to capacity-constrained parts of the strategic network appear less problematic in most liveable cities. While Vancouver has enforced a moratorium on motorway improvements near its congested urban core (but has expanded the network elsewhere), other cities address bottlenecks. Vienna’s Prater Interchange, for example, is currently undergoing a major renewal and capacity improvement to meet demand.

NZCID - ATAP response - cities motorways

Superimposing other cities motorway networks over Auckland in is just plain silly, for a few reasons.

  1. it ignores the unique geographical conditions of each city which severely affect how their transport system has developed.
  2. it ignores the urban of these cities. Some such as Vancouver, Vienna and Zurich have quite dense cores and no motorways running through them
  3. it ignores the other transport networks that help to complement the motorway networks

So let’s have a look at some of the factors for these other cities (maps not to scale)

Vancouver

Vancouver was one of the few Anglophone new world cities to not build motorways in its city centre – which came about as locals rejected the plans to do so. To mimic Vancouver for motorways we’d be pulling out the central motorway junction and motorways would just be in outer suburbs.

Vancouver Map with motorways

In the 1980’s Vancouver decided to start building their fantastic Skytrain system. Now over 30 years later and with a number of additions and extensions the network has over 117 million boardings as of 2013. That’s out of a total of over 350 million boardings for the entire PT system. The city has also been improving its cycling facilities and seeing good growth. As of 2015 for trips to work it is estimated that 10% of people cycle, 24% walk, 24% catch PT and only 41% drive. Below is Vancouver’s rapid transit network and that is also supported by a large number frequent bus routes – much like Auckland Transport are starting to introduce later this year.

Vancouver Rapid Transit Network

To be more like Vancouver is we’d need to invest in our PT and active networks and not new motorways to and through the city.

Vienna

Vienna is a great city with a lot of history and no motorways through the middle of it. Like Vancouver the motorways stop short of the city centre with one passing to the side of it.

Vienna Map with motorways

Of course within Vienna there is also a fantastic PT network consisting of extensive U-Bahn, S-Bahntram and bus networks. The U-Bahn was opened in the mid 70’s and that alone carries over 1.3 million trips a day. The map below shows just the U and S Bahn

Vienna U + S Bahn map

Zurich

With Zurich, again there are no motorways blasted through town with them stopping short or going around the city and most of them through the countryside rather than through an urban area like the NZCID propose.

Zurich Map with motorways

Despite the motorways, it is estimated that about half of all trips within Zurich take place on their extensive train, tram and bus networks. The map below is just a small sample of their tram network

Zurich tram-map

 

Of course as I mentioned yesterday, at the time of the De Leuw Cather road network that the NZCID lament was never fully implemented, they also produced a rapid transit plan even saying it was needed first to avoid many of the issues we’re now facing.

 

If the NZCID want us to have transport more like some of the cities they mention then we’ll fully support that, but that would mean focusing on getting PT and active modes sorted first so their Eastern Ring Route would have to stay on ice for a while.

Has AT scaled back Light Rail?

I keep a fairly close eye on many of the documents that come out of Auckland Transport and recently I’ve been noticing a change in some of them in regard to light rail.

When first announced last year AT proposed four light rail routes across the Isthmus to “fill the void” – the central isthmus area between the Western and Southern rail lines. Within the void are some of Auckland’s original tram suburbs and as such some of the city’s busiest bus routes. AT predict that at current levels of growth the streets in the city centre will soon become a wall of buses and so using higher capacity light rail on some busy routes would help in reducing overall volumes of vehicles on city streets. They proposed to light rail on Sandringham, Dominion, Mt Eden and Manukau roads. That would then free up more space for buses from other areas such as the Northwest and the North Shore.

At the time they produced this map showing how the light rail plans might fit in with their other plans for rapid transit across the region.

RTN + LRT

Those four routes would enter the city using either Queen St for the first two mentioned and Symonds St for the latter to. The timing was also be spread out over a few decades so it wasn’t going to happen all at once but they showed all the routes anyway.

City Access - LRT

The map above also shows light rail travelling via Quay St before going to Wynyard. Late last year the AT board agreed to go via Customs St instead. Given my experiences with buses through that area I think this is the right decision.

Later AT also started thinking about using light rail to the airport and that was added to the maps too. Four light rail lines can also clearly be seen in the staged Rapid Transit maps which AT have been showing around a lot lately.

AT Rapid Transit Network 2015-2045

But in recent times I’ve started noticing some changes in the way AT talk about light rail and it seems to coincide with the project getting more scrutiny from the likes of the NZTA and the Ministry of Transport.

A recent presentation to the council’s Development Committee had an updated version of one of the maps above. The presentation was talking about the next study/document to be created looking at the central city – known as the Central Access Plan. As part of that AT included a map showing the potential investment programme. As you can see only the Dominion Rd light rail corridor is shown properly although there is also a faint Sandringham Rd line too. Missing from the map are the Mt Eden and Manukau road routes.

CAP - Potential Investment - LRT

Now a new version of the Rapid Transit map has been published by the herald and it too only shows two light rail corridors.

Rapid Transit Map

The Dominion Rd route makes a huge amount of sense as it is the busiest of the routes and while it may not look like it, the Unitary plan actually allows quite a bit of development pretty much all the way down the corridor through the use of mixed use zoning. But Sandringham Rd is also included too. My guess is the building the Dominion Rd route will also necessitate supporting infrastructure like depot’s which would be shared with the Sandringham Rd route and as such it likely means the cost of laying tracks down the road is much lower compared to doing so on the Mt Eden/Manukau roads routes.

So what about the other two routes?

The AT website now only lists these two routes mentioned above and does so with details such as the distance and number of stops for each section (Wynyard to Britomart, Queen Street to Dominion Road, Dominion Road and Sandringham Road). Now the only mention of the other routes is:

Wider light rail network

A wider light rail network could add 2 corridors along Mt Eden and Manukau Roads, converging on a second spine along Symonds Street.

This does seem suggest that AT have scaled back their thinking or plans for light rail and bumped Mt Eden and Manukau roads off the immediate agenda. This could be due to potential funding pressures or just more detailed investigations into the proposals but either way it would be good for them to say just why this has happened.

 

As an aside it’s good to see the Herald finally publishing a map showing the plans for the rapid transit network. It’s something they should have been doing a long time ago and if not them, AT should be pushing it a lot more including making it and the details behind it more accessible on their website. They and the council have also started showing how it develops over time rather than at one point in the future – just like we did with the Congestion Free Network which is great to see. Perhaps they should make an interactive version, something a bit like this.

Light-Rail and the Rapid Transit Network

Auckland recently passed 16 million annual rail boardings, quite a momentous achievement and in some respects the culmination of 10 years of effort: the implementation of the 2006 Rail Development Plan. At the heart of this plan, and in fact many of Auckland’s transport strategies over the past decade, was the creation of a true “rapid transit network”. Improvements to the rail network and construction of the Northern Busway during this time has meant that Auckland has gone from having no rapid transit network to one that extends out in most major directions from the city. It is improvements to the rapid transit network that have driven almost half of Auckland’s public transport ridership growth over the past 10 years.

Further developing the rapid transit network still rightly sits at the heart of Auckland’s transport strategies and formed the basis for our “Congestion Free Network” concept. There’s a remarkable similarity between the two actually. Firstly, the most recent official rapid transit network plan out to 2045:

AT Rapid Transit Network 2015-2045

And the Congestion Free Network:

CFN+2030A+July+20th-01

Since our work on the CFN (which is actually coming up on three years old), Auckland Transport has become interested in light-rail as a way of resolving city centre bus congestion and providing a high quality public transport option to the central isthmus area. However, these are not dinky trams, but rather big multi-articulated vehicles capable of each carrying up to 400-500 people and travelling up to 80 kph. These are serious people-moving machines and sound almost identical to what’s now being built in Sydney:

render-tranvia-sidney

The use of such high-capacity and potentially high-speed light-rail vehicles that also have the capability of travelling safety at street level along some of our major arterial roads creates a really interesting question: are these “rapid transit”? In a pure sense they are not as rapid transit is meant to be, fully grade separated from other traffic while our light-rail will need to stop at traffic lights (but presumably have some pretty amazing signal priority). But the same applies for the Northern Busway currently and the proposed AMETI busway – both of which are considered rapid transit.

AMETI Buslane - Pakuranga Rd

The speed and capacity of these vehicles means that they could potentially be used on some of the other proposed rapid transit corridors without the need for such expensive tunnelling that heavy rail requires, or the terminal capacity issues that bus based systems seem to create. In other words, once you’ve got a bit of light-rail in Auckland, it becomes a no-brainer to think about where it might be used further and if it might be an appropriate solution for some “pure rapid transit” corridors. We’ve already seen AT suggest light rail might be a viable solution for access to the airport.

Other options include to the North Shore – perhaps even linked to an airport route, a long-term replacement of the AMETI busway and maybe even out to the Northwest?

possible-lrt-routes

Of course it’s easy to get excited and a bit mode obsessed about something like light-rail and one of the most important rules when it comes to good public transport planning is to think about the characteristics of the corridor you’re looking at before jumping to a conclusion about the mode to use. But the ability of light-rail to be both a very high capacity “true” rapid transit system but also something that can run at street level provides us with a pretty powerful tool that may be able to deliver very high quality rapid transit along a couple of key corridors that heavy rail options have struggled to stick.

North Shore

The Harbour Bridge is Auckland’s single busiest bus corridor, with more people entering the city centre from the North Shore at peak times than arrive at Britomart station by train (although this gap has probably shrunk due to recent rail ridership growth). This is shown quite dramatically in this image from an upcoming AT presentation to the Council.

Bus Passenger Volumes to City

While the Northern Busway has been hugely successful, it’s hard to see how the city centre will cope with the rising number of buses from the North Shore – even with the City Rail Link and a Dominion Road light-rail route taking buses from other areas out of the city. Significant planned growth at Dairy Flat appears likely to only add to the need to essentially ‘upgrade’ the busway at some point in the next 10-20 years.

Yet heavy rail options for doing this have always been a bit messy. How do you deal with the grades? How do you “hook into” the existing rail system at the city end? Where on the North Shore do you go – just up next to the motorway with limited land-use transformation opportunities? Do you close the busway for years while you rebuild it for heavy rail? Do you go the whole hog and do a proper underground metro? But that seems to come with a $10+ billion price tag.

If sufficient capacity can be provided, light-rail is potentially a solution to a number of these issues. The “tie in” at the city end can work well by just connecting a cross-harbour tunnel into the end of the isthmus light-rail scheme which is proposed to end at Wynyard Quarter. That creates the potential for some fantastic one seat rides from Albany through the city to the Dominion Road corridor. Light-rail could also mean some branch lines off the main SH1 are possible in a way that just wouldn’t work for heavy rail. What about branches to Takapuna, Browns Bay or up Onewa Road to Birkenhead?

north-shorelrt

AMETI and Northwest

In both cases AT will be building brand new dedicated PT infrastructure where almost none exists today. If light rail is successful on other routes, could it be worth going straight to light rail in these two “rapid transit” situations too. Doing so could both (not necessarily together) save costs later on from having to convert busways to higher capacity modes later and help encourage more people in the area to use PT to get around.

Of course the biggest issue in all of this is the cost. To build a Light Rail network like discussed would be significant – especially getting over/under the harbour and these projects would need to be prioritised just like everything else. There may also be a situation where depending on the costs and funding, a busway now is better than a light rail line in 15-20 years time.

Interestingly since I wrote this post a few days ago, council’s Development Committee agenda has been released with an interesting presentation on light rail from AT. It includes this map showing almost exactly what I’ve suggested above.

Auckland Potential Light Rail Network

 

Perhaps Light Rail is fast enough afterall

One of the main concerns I’ve seen raised about the idea of Light Rail to the airport has been the speed. In particular, that light rail is too slow in comparison to heavy rail, especially along the Dominion Rd section where it is also suggested it could also be held up by traffic. After I wrote about it last week Auckland Transport updated their website with some more details of the project – mostly with details from the video they’ve created but also with new a new travel time comparison as they say the times in the video are now out of date. The updated travel times are shown in the table below and as you can see are even more favourable to light rail, putting it just five minutes slower than heavy rail from Britomart and equal in travel time from Aotea.

LOCATION LIGHT RAIL HEAVY RAIL
Britomart (downtown) to airport 44 Minutes 39 Minutes
Aotea (new City Rail Link station) to airport 41 Minutes 41 Minutes

In the blog and other places where discussion about the idea has occurred I’ve seen people questioning the travel times claimed by Auckland Transport. If these timings are accurate I think it makes a significant difference as to the viability of light rail as an option, not just to the airport but potentially for other applications such as to the North Shore, East Auckland and the North West. With this post I thought I would examine the light rail timings in more detail to see if they stack up.

As a reminder this is the route Auckland Transport suggest.

Light Rail to Airport Route - from video

From Britomart to SH20 via Dominion Rd the light rail route is fairly straight and AT say it would travel down the centre of the road in dedicated lanes. They also say light rail would have priority at intersections along the way so vehicles would not often need to stop unless doing so at a station. AT reaching SH20 it would then follow the motorway down to Onehunga for a short section on street before a dedicated section from there to the Airport. In total this route is around 22.6km and at 44 minutes giving an average of 31km/h. As a comparison our current rail lines achieve the following speeds (although AT do need to get them faster):

  • Western Line – 27.2km – 55 minutes travel time which is 30km/h
  • Southern Line – 33.1km – 56 minutes travel time which is 33km/h
  • Eastern Line – 25km – 37 minutes travel time which is 41km/h
  • Onehunga Line – 12.8km – 27 minutes travel time which is 28km/h

 

To examine the speeds suggested by AT I thought the best option would be to conduct a few case studies to see what other cities manage to achieve. Below I look at five cities that are not too dissimilar to Auckland that have working light rail systems. The travel times they achieve are based on published timetables.

Calgary

Calgary’s C-Train system is one of most used light rail networks in North America with over 330k trips on an average weekday, about six times what Auckland’s current rail network achieves. The system has two lines that share a central section though the CBD, the Red line is 33km and the blue line 25.7km.

 

Calgary_CTrain_Map

The lines generally run down either in the centre of the road or on one side and are fenced off from traffic and people however they also cross through many intersections at grade. On some intersections where the light rail route changes direction/arterial it is running on they use short underpasses so it avoids the intersection completely. In short it’s a largely dedicated corridor which is not to dissimilar to what we would expect to see in Auckland.

Calgary’s light rail vehicles are capable of speeds up to 80km/h and below is how long each line is and how much time the timetable suggests a trip the entire length will take.

  • Red Line – 33km – 59 minutes travel time which is 34km/h
  • Blue Line – 25.7km – 46 minutes travel time which is 34km/h
Seattle

Seattle has two light rail lines, one a short shuttle in Tecoma but the main one the Central Link, is a 25.1km line from the Airport to the city that opened in mid-2009. Much of the route is elevated, in tunnels or offline (alongside a freeway) however there are a few significant sections where the route travels down the centre of a road corridor separated from traffic only by a small concrete kerb.

There are 13 stations all up. In the city station spacing is about every 600m but as it gets into the suburbs it expands and becomes more like heavy rail. There is also a 9km section with no stations which would help speeds.

Seattle uses two 29m long light rail vehicles that are coupled together able to carry a combined 400 people – they eventually plan to couple up to four vehicles together. They have a top speed of 105km/h which would be useful on the long spaced out sections.

According to the timetable a trip from the along the line would takes around 37 minutes from end to end. Over the 25km that’s an impressive average of 41km/h – quite a bit faster than all but the Manukau line on our rail network. The single line carries close to 12 million trips a year – what Auckland’s rail system carried just over a year ago but remember it’s only been open since 2009.

Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City runs a three-line light rail system through city streets in dedicated lanes and from what I can tell there is no grade separation. The system first opened in 1999 and generally tracks run down the centre of streets separated from general traffic by a small kerb. Unlike the examples above the system doesn’t have any grade separation at intersections and many side roads cross the tracks along the way. It uses signal priority to achieve a mostly uninterrupted service along the routes. The Blue Line is 31.1km, Red Line 38.1km and Green Line 24.2km.

The system uses similar vehicles to what is used in Calgary and like Calgary they have a top speed of 80km/h. The system currently carries 18-19 million trips a year. According to the timetables the three lines take the following length of time to travel end to end and following that is their average speed.

  • Blue Line – 31.1km – 51 minutes – 37km/h
  • Red Line – 38.1 – 59 minutes – 39km/h
  • Green Line – 24.2 – 46 minutes – 32km/h

So despite not having the grade separation that the systems above have the system still manages to achieve some pretty good speeds.

Houston

Houston maybe a famous for its sprawl and massive motorways but it also happens to have an increasingly used light rail line. Its Red Line opened in 2004 was extended in late 2013 to a total of 20.6km. Two new lines opened in May last year but for this I’ll focus on the red line which carries the vast majority of over 16 million light rail trips. The system runs largely on street level in dedicated lanes down the centre of the road separated from traffic with concrete kerbs. Following the line via Google Maps shows an extensive numbers of roads that cross the tracks at points along the journey and it’s not clear if there is any signal priority and this affects the speed.

Houston Light Rail - Main Street Square

Houston’s Light Rail system includes this section through a water feature in the CBD

The system uses light rail vehicles capable of 106km/h but given the station spacing and intersections I doubt they ever get close to that. Trips along the 20.6km line take around 55 minutes giving it an average of 22km/h – a step down from the cities above.

Gold Coast

Lastly one of the closest to home is on the Gold Coast – which I experienced myself just a few months ago. The vehicles are 44m long and can carry 309 passengers and have a top speed of 70km/h

Gold Coast Light Rail - Tram

The system is 13km long and runs in a dedicated corridor which is mostly down the centre of streets and at most intersections it has signal priority. Importantly through areas such as through Surfers Paradise it seemed to be limited in speed to around 30-40km/h for extensive sections and that limits the overall speed of services. At 37 minutes from end to end it also happens to have the slowest average of the examples at just 21km/h.

There are of course many other systems that could be examined but what is clear from the ones above is that there are a range of systems and a range in how those systems are implemented. The systems that tend to have a mix of infrastructure such as dedicated corridors and sections of on street running seem to do fairly well and those systems are also likely to be the most similar to what Auckland Transport are proposing. As such, assuming AT design the system right then a 44-minute transit time from Britomart to the airport or 41 minutes from Aotea actually seems reasonable. Further I would have expected that they’ve calculated it far more accurately that I have.

Perhaps speed isn’t quite the issue that some have made out and we can save $1.2 billion by using light rail to the airport. That might also then let us extend the light rail somewhere else such as the North, Northwest or East.