On Saturday of all days, Auckland Airport (AIA) released their new 30 year vision including a website called Airport of the Future. In many ways this doesn’t appear all that different from their previous long term vision documents, with the key change seeming to be that they eventually want the future Northern runway to be longer than currently planned and consented for. Here’s the video that they have put together to show the long term vision.
There are a couple of key things that AIA are predicting to happen over the next 30 or so years.
- Annual passenger movements will increase from 14 million to 40 million
- The number of flights in and out of the airport will double to 260,000
- The number of jobs in the airport area will increase from roughly 20,000 to around 40k (airport say it will create extra 27k jobs but that’s across entire economy). To put things in perspective, the entire Highbrook/East Tamaki industrial area and the Manukau City Centre and surrounding industrial areas combined contain about 40k jobs.
- Daily trips to and from the airport predicted to increase from 63,000 per day to 140,000 per day.
That’s going to put a lot of pressure on the transport networks and the airport has been stressing that it’s leaving land aside for a future rail connection. However the more I look at what’s proposed the more it seems just like PT wash as they know it’s what the public want to hear. I’m pretty sure they don’t actually want a rail connection ever, and here are five reasons why.
1. Difficult route
If you look closely at the route above plus the staging plans you can see the route goes straight through about 9 different buildings to the south of Tom Pearce Dr. Even though the airport own the land it is going to be extremely difficult to kick out all of the businesses at or around the same time, especially if they have well established operations. My guess is we can expect increased construction costs as a result to compensate for this issue.
This could be reduced by shifting the corridor slightly north to Tom Pearce Dr.
2. Fully underground route and station.
It’s not 100% clear from the documents but from what I understand, the AIA have basically told Auckland Transport that the entire line has to be underground through their property – although that’s partly a practicality thing too. Starting from the north the line will now obviously have to go under the proposed longer northern runway. By the time it surfaced from that it wouldn’t have long to go before having to dive underground again for an underground station that AIA want. I also can’t see them wanting an at grade line through their airport services area as that would hinder necessary movements. That’s potentially up to 3km of underground tunnelling. The outcome of this is to significantly increase the cost of the project making it harder to justify.
Along with shifting the route slightly north to Tom Pearce Dr, once it’s clear of the runway there’s no reason why it couldn’t raise to the ground level and be elevated through to the terminal.
3. Distance from the terminal.
The main reason for building a rail connection to the airport is to make it easier for passengers and staff to access the area. The plan is to combine the international and domestic terminals into a single building with the domestic one in the south end with the international terminal in the northern end. Now I assume there would be underground links under the multiple roads accessing the terminals however even so the location of the station is potentially up to 500m away from the international terminal. Airports are obviously good at moving people long distances through the likes of travellators however that is quite some distance. The station would also be further way from the terminals than the parking buildings proposed. Perhaps there’s a legitimate reason for it, but it seems this is just another way to reduce demand for any rail service.
Surely it wouldn’t be that hard to extend the route a few hundred metres closer to the terminals.
4. Second Airport area station
As mentioned a bit part of the AIA’s plans is to turn the area into not just a better airport but a massive employment hub too. They are already working on developing a CBD type area with hotels, office parks and retail on their land. It may look close on the image below but those offices are about 1km away from the proposed station. This may be part of the reason for the airport station being short of the terminal but if that’s the case, the reality is most people working in the office areas aren’t going to want to cross a the mega roads needed to serve the terminals and carparking buildings to access it on a daily basis. With a station more directly connected to the terminals, another station about 1km east to serve the office and retail precincts might be better. It might add a little bit to the journey time of trains but help the line be far more useful to more people which should more than make up for it.
It’s no secret that AIA makes a lot of money from carparking and that revenue has been growing strongly. In the year to June 2013 the revenue from their parking business was just over $40 million, about 9% of their total income. Currently the airport has about 7,000 carparks and as part of their vision they want to expand that to about 20,000 carparks (although it isn’t clear if this is extra or total – the herald article suggests it’s extra). The intention is to focus the new parking in two mega buildings that are both directly linked to the terminal and they would be built in the first phase of the master plan which means before 2022. They are the two massive buildings in the image below. To give a sense of scale, the recently build Novotel Hotel right next to the international terminal can be seen right next to the curve in the terminal building. In terms of carparking buildings, the AT’s massive downtown carpark holds less than 2,000 cars.
All up there doesn’t seem like that much commitment and definitely not any real push by AIA to get a rail line to the airport built. At a recent IPENZ discussion I understand they basically said they thought the only people who would use a rail line/PT to the airport were the time rich. This is almost hilarious though as a train would be able to get people to the airport from the heart of the CBD in about 35 minutes, even with stopping at stations along the way. That’s a kind of time that simply won’t be possible to achieve on the roads most times of the day. They apparently also said expected buses to be able to cope with demand for the next 30 years yet seemed to think the roads around the airport would be able to handle a doubling of traffic.
Things definitely aren’t looking good for rail to the airport.
Last week Auckland Airport held an investor day which among other things provided some very useful information about what we can expect from the airport in the future. The presentation gives quite a lot of details around where some of the future growth will come from but for me the most interesting slide in the whole presentation is the image below which is in the section talking about the airports 30 year vision. It really helps to show just how important it is going to be to get some good transport options into the area.
That is an absolutely massive increase in passenger numbers and so it’s no surprise when they say:
Growth means more pressure on land transport system
What’s more is that those passenger numbers don’t include the number of people who would be working in the terminal or in the surrounding commercial areas that will all need to get to and from work somehow. That is currently at around 20,000 people but will invariably increase as the airport continues to develop. To put things another way, 40 million passengers a year equates to an average of about 110,000 per day. Adding in the people working and the total travel demand in the area could be similar in total size to what the central city is today. That in itself is interesting as one of the slides talks about how the entire CBD could easily fit inside the Airport’s land holding.
With that sort of growth and the resulting travel demand it really does highlight how important it will be to get rail to the airport eventually. The Airport says that they have made an allowance for a station at the terminal however they are also saying that they won’t pay anything towards it and that it will have to be built by local and/or central government. To me there are some positives and negatives to that. Positives include that the airport shouldn’t be able to impose an extra terminal surcharge just for using the station – like what happens in Sydney. In addition timing is not likely to be tied to when the airport can afford its share. However negatively it means that all costs go to tax/ratepayers even though the Airport company will benefit greatly from the construction of it.
One other reason we can guess don’t want to help pay for a rail connection is that they are unlikely to want to damage their increasingly successful parking business. The presentation shows that in the last financial year revenues from parking increased strongly to $40.4m with it increasing not just because of more carparks but also improved revenue per space.
They also say they are looking to add more than 1,100 carparks over the next year which will primarily be at their park n ride site although they are also changing some staff parking near the terminal to public parking
The image below shows the current plan that is a part of their 30 year vision including the second runway to the north which they say will likely be needed in roughly 2025. It shows the intention to develop much of the land to the north of the airport and also to join the domestic and international terminals together into a single building.
On the single terminal they have released this image of what the terminal might eventually look like.
I’m aware that they are current working on a master plan which will provide a lot more detail as to how the airport will develop and that it is due early next year. We will follow that development closely.
While the City Rail Link is the most important transport project for Auckland – after those currently under construction have been completed – the surveys tell us that the most publicly popular project is a rail link to the airport. As a side note I suspect a large part of the reason why it’s seen as more popular is that it is much clearer that it is an extension to the network and many people simply don’t understand the importance of the CRL in providing the capacity needed for an airport link to be feasible.
Auckland Transport have actually been investigating the project for years with the current study – known as South-west Multi-modal Airport Rapid Transit (SMART) – start being announced back in February 2011. All the way through the project AT have been fairly quiet on what is happening however in recent times they seem to have gone deathly silent. In fact it seems like it has been about a year since there was even a mention of the study in AT board papers which is never a good sign.
In searching the AT website there does seem to have been a slight update with it suggested that we will hear what the final recommendations are – including a rail alignment – by the end of this year. However the study hasn’t just been looking at issue of rail to the airport, as you will have seen from the projects title, the term multi-modal has been slipped in so that roading options can also be considered (despite no one every calling for more roads to the airport). With that included it will probably come as little shock to people that the roading options will be prioritised ahead of any rail connections.
Transport improvements will be strongly linked to land use and increased demand for transport to or in the area. The improvements are likely to be staged in the following order:
- localised improvements, for example to bus services
- road based solutions mainly on SH20A and SH20B, bus priority along existing corridors, and
- in the longer term, a dedicated rapid transit corridor (eventually rail) connection.
Of course the government has already jumped in promising upgrade the roads in the area. When the study finally comes out it also wouldn’t surprise me if we end up seeing the rail option being deliberately loaded up with costs by saying something like that it needs to be completely underground while a motorway can happily plough across the surface no questions asked.
However while we don’t yet know a route or have any details on timing I thought it might be interesting to speculate on just how much patronage we might be able to achieve if a link was built. The first thing to consider is just how many passengers pass through the airport each year and then what percentage of them may end up using a train if it was available. Luckily the airport company publish monthly reports on just how many passengers they have and the results are below.
Since 2007 passenger numbers have increased by roughly 3 million per year which represents an increase roughly 4% per year. Interestingly it appears to have happened with effectively no increase in the number of aircraft movements. The other thing that really stands out to me is that there wasn’t any noticeable increase in travellers as a result of the Rugby World Cup which probably shows that the visitors that did come for it just came instead of those that would have anyway. Going forward it’s hard to predict what will happen with volumes but a growth rate of half of what has been achieved is fairly conservative yet by 2021, the year the CRL is expected to open it would see passenger numbers at around 16.5 million per year. By 2025 with that lower growth, volumes would reach 18 million per year.
The next question is how many of those passengers might use a rail service. It can be quite hard to find individual results but some searching turned up the following numbers
Sydney – as of the middle of last year was seeing about 16% of travellers using rail.
Brisbane – this is a few years old but it appears Brisbane manages to get about 10% of passengers using rail.
San Francisco – San Fran manages to get about 10% of passengers using rail based on BART and airport figures.
But crucially all three of these connections charge a premium to use the service just because you board at the airport. It would be interesting to see what percentage of share they would see if those extra charges weren’t in place. For Auckland -assuming we don’t follow suit and charge an airport premium – I suspect that getting 15-20% of all passengers using a rail service should be possible. By 2021 that would put potential annual patronage from travellers alone in the range of 2.5 million to 3.3 million.
However air travellers aren’t the only people who might use a rail service. Workers in the airport precinct are another potential source of patronage. Sadly Stats NZ don’t break these details down any further but the Mangere South area shown below which includes both the airport and the industrial area to the north of it currently provides employment to about 22,000 people. That is likely to increase significantly in future years as the Airport has big plans to develop much of the land surrounding the airport. As such 1,000 people a day using a train to get to work in the area and home again (2,000 trips) should be achievable. Note 1000 people is less than 5% of the current workforce.
But crucially a line to the airport via Onehunga is not just about serving travellers but it also provides a high quality PT link to the residents of Mangere and Mangere Bridge. It’s hard to estimate just how much patronage they may generate so using the station counts Auckland Transport have provided in the past, stations like Glen Eden and Papatoetoe are probably a good example of what we can expect. They currently seem to attract about 1,000 boardings per weekday (2,000 trips), although I imagine significantly less on weekends. Adding the potential patronage from the airport employment areas and both these two stations gives us 6,000 trips per day and accounting for weekends say 1.8 million trips per annum.
In the Congestion Free Network we have called for a link to the airport to be completed by 2025. If it were to be completed by that time, then combining everything together gives us potential patronage from this extension at 4.5 – 5.4 million trips per year. To put that in perspective, that’s currently somewhere in between the current patronage on the western line (3.6m trips) and the Southern lines (6.4m trips). Further that doesn’t include any additional patronage that might occur from increased frequencies from Onehunga inwards.
In short there is definitely a lot of potential patronage from extending rail to the airport. The problem is just too far down the priority list so what’s needed is to bring it forward, like we’re suggesting with the congestion free network. What we don’t need is the PT components shoved in a bottom draw like the SMART study seems to be lining up to do.
Unsurprisingly last week’s transport announcements were a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to transport spending in Auckland. Overall I guess the good news is that central government finally supports the City Rail Link – making opponents of the project look pretty isolated. Judging from Dick Quax’s tweet the opposition is already fading away:
Critically, the announcements also highlight that the government has backed the previously most controversial part of the Auckland Plan – it’s transport chapter. Finally, after two and a half years of arguing, it seems that central government and Auckland have a similar vision for the city’s future. The Herald is right in noting that this is undoubtedly a massive victory for Len Brown – the result that he’s been pushing for basically ever since he was elected mayor.
Looking in a bit more detail, we start to see that in every section of the major announcements there’s generally a bit of good news but also some pretty dumb aspects of many of the projects that presumably will get weeded out as time goes on. Let’s work north to south – starting with the link up of State Highway 18 and State Highway 1:
Mention of improvements to the Northern Busway is a big positive here – hopefully that means extending the busway right through to Albany, a project that seems like it’s utterly essential in the near term but for some reason has dropped off the radar in the past few years. Probably because it stupidly gets lumped together with further extensions to Silverdale or Orewa which will only make sense in the much longer term.
Furthermore, there’s a pretty good case to do something around here to improve the way SH18 links with SH1 as the current Upper Harbour Highway is a bit of a mess, plus the section of motorway between SH18 and Greville Road seems to suffer from a lot of merging issues. I just struggle to see whether that something has to mean a $500 million or more giant motorway interchange as per the current plans:Presumably some further options analysis will occur here as NZTA figures out how to make its budgets work with all these new projects being lumped in – and perhaps we might end up with something a little more sensible and less expensive.
We’ll come back to how we could do an alternative Harbour Crossing better in a future post, and obviously most of our focus in the past few days has been on the City Rail Link, so let’s shift our focus to the southeast and the AMETI/East-West Link project. AMETI is a series of projects between Panmure and Botany – most crucially including a full busway from Botany to Pakuranga and onto Panmure. While there are some pretty dumb bits of AMETI, like the ugly Reeves Road flyover, generally the approach of the project has morphed over time and a strong component now is to provide the additional capacity for public transport (in the form of the busway) rather than road widening, with the project’s spending on roads generally being on new connections that enable the bypassing of busy town centres. It’s just a shame how horrifically ugly that flyover’s going to be:
Shifting on to the East-West Link project, it was only fairly recently that we began to learn the details about this project and the different options being looked at. All the different options look overblown and really destructive in terms of their environmental and community impacts – particularly the options which it seems the government wants to see, full motorway links between SH20 and SH1:
So another Tamaki River crossing, massive demolition of housing along Panama Road, a big motorway junction through the volcanic crater and Onehunga in option 3. Option 4 is perhaps even worse:
The same issue at Onehunga. Perhaps close to the same issue around Panama Road plus untold demolition of houses through Mangere East as the previously protected motorway corridor through here was sold off decades ago and put into housing.
The big issue I have with the East West Link is that we don’t actually even know whether this level of destruction, and the costs associated with it, are actually necessary or not. Of course there are lots of stories about trucks getting stuck in congestion along Neilson Street and clearly freight volumes are high through this part of Auckland – but what about some smaller scale interventions?
- Truck lanes on Neilson Street?
- A signalised intersection providing access into Metroport from Neilson Street?
- Widening the Neilson Street bridge over the railway line?
- Smaller scale interchange improvements at Onehunga?
- South-facing motorway ramps that link into the Southeast Arterial?
For this reason the East West Link actually reminds me quite a lot of the Puhoi to Wellsford project. In both cases there’s a definite problem that needs to be solved but in both cases smaller scale improvements that may deliver really significant benefits are being completely ignored in favour of massively expensive and destructive motorway options – seemingly for political reasons only.
Shifting further south again, a fairly major widening of the Southern Motorway from Manukau through to Papakura was included in the announcements:
Once again there’s quite a good argument that something needs to be done on this part of the motorway. Where SH20 and SH1 come together in the southbound direction you go from five lanes (three on SH1 plus two on SH20) down to two lanes in a pretty short space of time. This creates massive problems in the evening peak period. Furthermore, the Takanini interchange has some pretty substandard and unsafe parts to it – particularly the northbound onramp which has a very short merge. We’ll probably wait and see the details on this one but I suspect once again the approach is probably overblown: heaps of new lanes everywhere just to shift the queue slightly north or south depending on the peak direction. Adding lanes northbound in particular seems pretty stupid as it’ll just get cars to the Mt Wellington bottleneck faster. Of note the ITP lists the project as costing over $500 million
Finally, we come to SH20A improvements – the road to the Airport.
I guess it’s because politicians spend such a lot of their time travelling to and from airports that these routes tend to get a rather stupid amount of attention. Just a few years back the Mangere Bridge was duplicated, which added an absolutely crazy amount of additional capacity and freed up SH20 during peak periods (at least for a few years). While it’s a bit strange the Kirkbride Road intersection isn’t grade separated, I tend to think that the real transport bottleneck actually occurs at the Airport because all the roads effectively feed into a single roundabout and then one signalised intersection. Once again, making it quicker to get to the bottleneck seems like a waste of money to me. It’s also frustrating that there’s not even any mention (even in a route designation way) of Airport Rail. What on earth has happened to that project – I might need to LGOIMA Auckland Transport over it to see what they’ve been doing for the past two and a half years.
Overall, as I said at the start of the post there are useful bits of the announcements (CRL aside which is obviously a massive positive) in that we might see a Northern busway extension and an AMETI busway happen faster now. But there’s also a whole heaps of “over the top” projects which are pretty unlikely to achieve lasting benefits or could be replaced by far far cheaper projects which would deliver most of the benefits at a fraction of the price. It will certainly be fascinating watching the details of all this unfold over the next few months in particular.
The deal between the government and Sky City for a new convention centre has been announced this morning.
Details of the controversial SkyCity convention centre deal with the Government have been announced this morning – and the listed casino operator will pay $402m for the new centre.
The centre is expected to generate $90m of revenue each year. SkyCity will meet the full cost of the centre and be allowed to have 230 extra poker machines. Its exclusive license will be extended to 2048.
It will cost $315 million to build and fit-out, while the land will be worth $87m.
Construction on the centre is expected to begin in 2014 and open in 2017.
Now I’m not going to comment on the moral debate surrounding this agreement, that can be left to other sites. What I am more interested in is looking at are the potential benefits to some of the transport projects that we strongly believe in.
Sky City is surely one of the biggest beneficiaries of the CRL with its properties either right next to the proposed Aotea station which is expected to become the busiest station on the network. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if they have already been considering ways to tap into it and funnel passengers from the station through to their premises. The proposed convention centre is less than 200m from the station meaning that will be very easy to access for locals visiting or working at the site.
However if we believe the claims of Steven Joyce (and I don’t tend to believe them) many of the visitors will come from overseas. Those visitors will need to get from the airport to the city. While a good deal are likely to do so via taxis, another project could change that.
Rail to the Airport
We keep getting told that even with massive investment in new roads, congestion is only going to get worse. Even today getting from the airport to the city can take more than an hour outside of the peak. The rail network can avoid that congestion and deliver reliable journey times. Connecting rail to the airport, combined with the CRL means that visitors could be whisked from the terminal straight to the heart of town in around 35 minutes. Further if they are staying in one of the Sky City hotels then it would be super easy for them to reach straight from the station.
Of course a rail connection to the airport isn’t just about people travelling but actually helps to connect the entire south west of the city.
Hobson and Nelson St
Hobson and Nelson Sts currently seem to just be giant traffic sewers whose sole purpose is to funnel as many vehicles as possible to/from the motorways. This has meant that the area has become a pretty horrid place for anyone not in a car. This blog has long called for this to be addressed with our preferred solution being to once again make these streets two way. We first raised the issue a few years ago and the idea quickly caught on, even making it into the councils City Centre Master Plan however it is something we haven’t heard about for a while. With the announcement of the convention centre perhaps it is time for this idea to float back to the surface.
Not only would it help in making these streets nicer places, I believe it could also assist in improving the flow of traffic as currently Hobson St especially gets clogged up in the afternoons as people end up blocking lanes as they try to get into the get into the lanes for the motorway they want to access.
In saying all of this, SkyCity don’t seem to care about any of this with the herald reporting.
The company said as well as the convention and exhibition space, there will be at least 780 carpark and a new linkway bridge over Hobson St.
This is on top of their almost 2000 carparks. Perhaps they are expecting all of these promised international visitors to drive their cars to New Zealand? Adding so many extra carparks certainly isn’t going to help in the councils aims to reduce the number of vehicles in the CBD or to improve the the quality of our streets for pedestrians. This is further reinforced by the building of an airbridge to keep people away from the area. That doesn’t bode well level of interaction we can expect the building to have with the street meaning we will potentially see more gaping holes dedicated to moving cars into underground parking buildings, like the current casino building does (above).
In 2010 Len Brown campaigned on three major rail projects, the CRL, rail to the Airport and rail to the Shore. If there was one issue with them though, it is that to some they are too bold. Despite getting strong support among many members of the public, vocal opponents point to primarily to their price tags as a reason not to build them. However when it comes to the second and third of the projects I mentioned above, I also wonder how much of the opposition to them comes from the mental block of getting over or under the harbours. If we had a rail line to Mangere Bridge or to Akoranga, how different would the argument for extension of the network be?
History and common sense has shown us that when it comes to building expensive infrastructure, it is best to break it down into smaller more manageable projects. There are a couple of prime examples. Earlier attempts at building the CRL also included double tracking and electrification. They fell over in a large part due to the massive cost of doing it all at once. More successfully we have seen the tactic employed across the motorway network where the system has been expanded one project at a time. With the Western Ring Route for example, lots of smaller projects have been much more palatable to the general public yet by the time it is completed, the cost could reach $4 billion. Had the NZTA or its predecessor attempted to build the whole thing at once there would likely have been a lot more opposition.
I guess what I am getting at is that we need to find ways to break down projects and reduce costs wherever possible. In the case of the two rail projects mentioned at the start, getting rail across each of the harbours would likely change these projects from looking massive and expensive, to ones that we could break down over a period of time, extending the network one station at a time. At this stage the thinking about rail to the shore seems to be focused on integrated it into the same tunnels as a road crossing. For rail to the airport you may remember hearing that the recently completed duplicate Manukau Harbour crossing was future proofed for rail. But was it really?
Well it kind of was, but it turns out not in a way that seems to be that useful.
The story goes something like this. Transit, the predecessor to the NZTA, wanted to build the duplicated harbour crossing. They, acting with their motorway only blinkers on, came with with designs and proceeded to try and get consent for the project. It was then that the Campaign for Better Transport and others became aware of just how mono modal the project was and challenged Transit to include provision for rail the the airport, something that had been on high level plans for some time. It took the threat of legal action for the agency to concede and start investigating how they could be done.
I have now been provided with documents from the time (7MB) which discuss the level of future proofing that was included in the project. It started with a high level investigation into what the potential route options were. They consisted of two routes on a separate bridge to the east of the motorway, one through the middle of the bridge piers, sharing some of them, and one to the west of the motorways. That was then narrowed down to two routes, the route through the middle piers (B) and the route to the west (C) as shown below.
So far so good and option B is what has been promoted to the public. However in my opinion, here is where things start to go wrong. Engineers found that because the bridge hadn’t originally been designed with rail in mind, that for option B, there simply wasn’t enough space to include a double tracked line. By this time the bridge had now been consented and the construction contract awarded. Changing the design enough to allow for a double track line was considered too costly. However it wasn’t only financial costs, but the need to get consents changed and that it would have caused delays to the construction.
That means the only option available if we are to use the newly built bridge is a single track line as shown above. You may notice it is called option B3. The reason for that is based on the engineering standards, the original route option was not only a single track but due to the curves it and issues should a collision occur, it would have seen trains limited to 25kph. By strengthening some of the piers and a few other changes, engineers were able to improve the option enough to allow the design speed to be improved to 70kph.
As the line not only serves the Airport, but also the commercial areas surrounding it and the residential areas of Mangere and Mangere Bridge, I suspect that we will eventually need to be running frequencies of at least 6 trains per hour in each direction. I simply can’t see a single track section being sufficient to handle that kind of service level without causing potential delays. That means that despite all of the talk of the new bridge being future proofed for rail, the only realistic option appears to build a double track crossing on a brand new bridge. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any estimates as to what the cost differences between the two options are but I would have to imagine that double track option would be much more expensive.
More than anything, I think what this case highlights is the result we get when we plan infrastructure in isolation. Transits role was to build roads, yet if they taken a little bit of time to think about what the city might need in the future, they could have made changes to the bridge design early on that could have avoided this problem. Instead, as a result it appears that to fulfil the vision of getting rail to the airport, we will have to stump up for another bridge across the harbour. It also means that we are going to have to be extra vigilant when agencies describe a project as future proofed. It appears that what the engineers and planners call future proofed, isn’t necessarily what us, the general public would expect.
The one transport project we tend to follow on this blog more than any other is the City Rail Link. That project is now ticking along and Auckland Transport are proceeding with the designation but another important project has also been going on fairly silently in the background, rail to the airport. It is currently being investigated as part of a whole package of works that includes what roading upgrades are needed and used to be known by the awkward to pronounce acronym SWAMMCP which stood for South Western Airport Multi Modal Corridor Plan. It has had a change of name which I believe was largely focused on making it easier to pronounce so is now called SMART or South-western Multi-modal Airport Rapid Transit. Acronyms aside, we haven’t heard a lot lately about what is happening so here is what the latest board report said about it:
Work continues on route alignment and station options for the rapid transit elements of SMART as well as the roading (including cycling and walking) alignments. Phase 2 is scheduled for completion in December/January 2012/13.
The last few reports have actually said the same thing and I suspect that it might not be for a few months after that we actually see what is proposed however we can probably make a bit of a guess. Unless the current study has come up with a new outcome we will probably see a refinement of the option that came out of a 2008 study on the issue. At that time it recommended a loop that was built from Onehunga south to the airport then heading east to Puhinui to connect with the existing southern line, as is shown below in blue.
Now while it would be nice to build the thing all in one go, I think the reality is that even with a supportive council and government we will only be able to build one of the links so for this post I thought I would look at some of the pros and cons of each.
This would see the Onehunga line extended south over the Manukau harbour on the way to the airport.
- The line would effectively be just an extension of the Onehunga line (which is due to be duplicated as part of the works for the CRL). This means that effectively services could be run without putting any additional pressure on the existing rail network.
- The suggested route from Onehunga passes through a number of potential locations for stations on its way to the airport. These are Mangere Bridge, Mangere and the industrial area around Montgomerie Rd. Stations in these locations would help to provide additional patronage on top of those that are just going to the airport. Stats NZ suggest that by 2040 there will be about 40,000 people living in within a short distance of the rail line. This makes it much more a line for the south west of the city rather than just an airport line.
- Once the line got across the harbour there is the ability for it to be staged so that some of the benefits of the line could start being achieved earlier or construction could be stopped until we had the funds to complete the line i.e. we could build the line to Mangere town centre then hold there for a few years until more funds became available. This could be crucial, especially if funding is tight.
- As the route is slightly more direct, it would be a little bit faster than the Puhinui option for a trip to town.
- The biggest issue with building a line from Onehunga is the cost. The 2008 report suggested it would cost $707 million vs a link from the east at $471m
- The recently build additional harbour crossing has been future proofed to have rail lines on it but there would likely still be quite a cost to actually put it in. There is also quite a bit of development near the previously suggested corridor which means there may be a need for substantial property purchases.
This would see a branch line heading west from the area around Puhinui all the way to the airport. It may or may not be linked up directly to Manukau.
- The biggest thing in the favour of this option is the cost. The figures in the 2008 document suggest it would cost around $470 million, around 1/3 cheaper than the Onehunga link option.
- The route is largely over green field land so much less impact to any communities and businesses.
- It also provides rail access to the airport for those from the southern suburbs.
- While it is cheaper to build, it also has much less patronage potential as there are no other stops other than the airport.
- It is unlikely that trips by travellers to/from airport alone will be able to support enough passenger trips alone to make building the line worthwhile.
- Perhaps the biggest problem with linking only to Puhinui only is that it forces yet another line on to the tracks between Puhinui and the Westfield Junction. That line is already pretty busy with lots of passenger and freight trains so trying to squeeze more trains on would really affect the capacity of the other lines.
Ideally I think we need to consider building the whole line so that we can get the most benefits out of it. If we had to pick one option then I think it needs to be the from the north simply due to the greater potential that it provides . This is of course just my opinion but if we were to be faced with a one or the other decision, I’m keen to hear what you think?
This is a guest post from reader Axio
Peter’s post on the future of driverless light-metro got me thinking about whether there are alternative alignments where an automatic metro could be used, and I felt that it would be a cost-effective solution to mayor’s vision of rail to the Airport and the North Shore.
Many proposals presented in this blog focus on connecting a North Shore line with the City Rail link by crossing at right angles at Aotea station and tunneling under the university to come out somewhere on the Eastern line. This minimizes the additional infrastructure needed on the city side of the link. However tunnels are very expensive and if an elevated metro is used then we might find that we can achieve much more substantial system for a similar cost.
This alternative considers a line from Takapuna through to the Airport. This would be a driverless metro elevated along its entire length, except possibly the harbour crossing. The proposed alignment is illustrated below.
The benefits of this alignment are many:
Obviously this provides rapid-transit to the North Shore, Mangere, and the Airport, meeting the strategic goal. It brings Takapuna onto the Rapid Transit Network (RTN), which is useful as it has been identified as a commercial centre in the Auckland Plan. This also makes the CBD much more accessible from western South Auckland.
- Leverages the most effective part of the Northern Busway by providing a high frequency connection at Akoranga. If most buses terminated at Akoranga then the lowest capacity and slowest section of the busway (the harbour bridge and CBD) would not be required for the bulk of trips.
- Replaces overcrowded bus routes on Dominion Road, and in doing so takes the pressure off Symonds Street. It also allows Dominion Road to retain its on street parking which was a sore point during the submissions into Light Rail on the corridor.
- Connects into the existing rail network at Onehunga and Mt Eden (depending on where stations are placed following construction of the City Rail Link).
- Provides another access point to Eden Park along Bellwood Avenue.
And overall it brings together parts of Auckland that are presently quite separate as far as transit is concerned.
For automatic metro the line requires its own right of way which would be achieved largely using elevated rail. As most of the line is above road corridors, this would require a viaduct composed of single columns about 4.5m high with the rail deck around another metre higher. Stations would be spaced every kilometer or so. As mentioned earlier the harbor crossing may be tunneled, and the section along SH20 could be at ground level in places.
There are some challenges inherent in the alignment and terrain. The section east from Hillsborough Road to sea level will be quite steep and probably require a viaduct that extends well east of where SH20 flattens out in order to reduce the gradient. Similarly the section through the CBD will be quite steep, although with a station in the middle the slow speeds due to gradient will be less painful to passengers. Getting through the CMJ can be done using the old Nelson Street off ramp from the Southern Motorway followed by a viaduct over the CMJ once clear of K-Road. The corner at Wellesley and Hobson is quite tight, although the radius exceeds the 35m mentioned as the limit for this type of metro as shown.
This brings us to the big question: what will it cost? In this case I will just look at the section from Wynyard to Onehunga as costings for heavy rail north and sound of there can be found in other documents and provide a reasonable indicator of cost (particularly to the north where the cost is largely due to the tunnel).
The Vancouver Skytrain provides the most useful estimates as it is the system on which this is based. South Fraser Blog quotes On Track: The SkyTrain Story which indicates the cost for the elevated only section is around $47million per kilometer in 2012 Canadian dollars. At the present exchange rate this comes out to about $60million per kilometer so the line from Wynyard to Onehunga, at around 14km, would have a baseline at $840 million. Building above a road corridor would likely increase the cost, and we also have to deal with the special viaducts at the CMJ and Onehunga. Finally that estimate does not include the cost of the trains.
Compared to the Waterview Connection and the City Rail link this project, at a little over a billion dollars, is relatively inexpensive given the area it provides service to, although obviously much of the benefit would come from the un-costed sections from Wynyard to Takapuna, and Onehunga to the Airport. It does also have the ability to be built in sections with each section providing significant benefits on its own. For instance Wynyard through to Bellwood Avenue would provide a different place for Dominion Road buses to terminate, and still connect the Isthmus and West to Midtown and Wynyard.
The cost not-with-standing, an elevated metro has a significant downside, visual pollution. A 5.5 metre viaduct will stand-out in all but the CBD, and as Dominion Road has something of an iconic status this visual pollution may be unacceptable. There are alternative corridors through the isthmus such as Sandringham Road which would have the benefit of being closer to St Lukes, a major attractor, but increase the overall cost and the journey time from the North Shore to the Airport.
Finally, while this line is intended to complement the City Rail link, it does have potential to stand on its own, providing rapid transit access to Midtown from the central slice of the city (from the Airport to Albany) and the West, assuming a transfer at Mt Eden. However it would not be connected to the East of the city, and so its benefits would be reduced without the City Rail link.
There was some good feedback on my earlier post suggesting a pretty radical change to the future of rail in Auckland, through the introduction of driverless rapid transit (or “Light Metro”) – much like the Skytrain in Vancouver, the JFK Airtrain in New York and systems in Copenhagen, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, among many other cities. Firstly, I’ve decided to call the technology “Driverless Rapid Transit (DRT)” rather than Light Metro, because so many people seem to get DRT confused with light-rail, which are really two different technologies which do different things.
The key attributes of DRT are:
- it’s driverless
- it runs completely in its own right-of-way, which is fully grade separated
- the train technology allows for much steeper gradients and tighter curves than regular heavy rail
- the tracks are incompatible with typical heavy rail, and therefore freight
It was this last issue which raised a lot of interest in comment. How would the system work with freight? Could a freight train still get to the North Auckland Line (assuming it survives KiwiRail trying to kill it off in the next year or two)? Would you need additional tunnels and tracks? Would you need the Avondale-Southdown Line? All worthy questions that I’ll do my best to answer in this post.
Firstly, let’s remind ourselves of the system we’re talking about here. The blue line is either newly built DRT or existing rail tracks converted for DRT operation: I’ll overlay on this where I think we currently have freight movements on the network, or how we might operate freight trains in order to avoid that Westfield to Newmarket section of track we’ve turned into being exclusively for our DRT trains. The only bit of track we have to worry about here is between Parnell (where the blue line’s tunnel emerges and joins the existing network) and Newmarket, where the western line branches off. Of course there’s a fairly lengthy tunnel in this section (and an abandoned single-track tunnel next to it, which presents an opportunity worth exploring), but I think it’s reasonable to think that having a single track for freight as well as our two tracks for DRT is not impossible along this section.
Furthermore, in the longer run we could end up building the full Avondale-Southdown line, in which case we have a further route for freight: In either case I think we can retain the ability to operate freight trains around the rail network. So I don’t see that as too much of an issue.
Other comments questioned whether the operating costs savings of DRT were “worth the hassle”, as you’d need separate facilities for different types of trains and having two different networks would obviously create some complications that having everything in one network wouldn’t. I suppose there are two responses to this:
- As Nick noted in a comment (and he knows more about this stuff than me), staffing generally comprises around 60-70% of the operating costs for the rail network (on an electric system). Chopping out around two-thirds of your operating cost is just immense, especially when rail’s net subsidy is over $50 million a year (I think) and would potentially be much higher in the future with a much larger network. It’s worth noting that Sydney’s rail network requires a subsidy of around $A1.8 billion a year (though obviously a much larger network).
- Potentially one of the biggest savings from DRT is in the construction, with the much more forgiving requirements for grades and bends than you can get from conventional rail. With, using traditional heavy rail, North Shore Rail being around $2.5 billion and Airport Rail probably being at least $1 billion, having an option which doesn’t require so much grade separation, earthworks, tunnelling and so forth, could slice billions off the final construction cost of the two projects combined.
Perhaps the biggest question about this idea is how you would ever do the transition from normal rail operations along the southern line to the new system. I really have no idea but I presume it’s possible. But it’s the same issue we’ll face as if we ever get around to turning the Northern Busway into a railway line (of any kind).
Perhaps more than any other post on this blog, the one which really got me fascinated by Auckland’s transport future and convinced me I “wanted in” was a post by Nick R about how driverless trains – the kind used by Vancouver’s Skytrain system that I’m so fond of – could have a role in making rail to the North Shore far more affordable and feasible than perhaps we have ever thought before. There are some key elements to what Nick calls “driverless light-metro”, which make it such an incredibly appealing transit technology:
- The driverless operation means that the connection between frequent and operating cost is broken (you don’t need to add a driver for every train you add). This allow off-peak service frequencies to remain high, shorter but more frequent trains to be run and operating costs of the system to be kept pretty low. Vancouver’s Skytrain system, I have heard, makes an operating profit.
- The linear induction motors, the lighter vehicle weights and the technical details of these trains allow for sharper bends and steeper gradients than would ever be possible with conventional heavy rail. Nick’s posts on the technology suggest that 1 in 10 gradients are OK (the CRL is really pushing the envelope at around 1 in 28), while 35 metre radius bends are also possible – yet again much sharper than for conventional heavy rail. A more forgiving geometric requirement means much much cheaper construction cost.
Essentially, a driverless Metro is far cheaper to build and far cheaper to operate than conventional heavy rail. It almost sounds too good to be true – so what’s the catch?
Well effectively there are two main catches. Firstly, because the trains are driverless they need to be operating on a system which is completely grade separated and completely protected from pedestrian intrusion on the tracks. Secondly, the highly specialised traction technology and the less forgiving gradients mean that light-metro tracks are pretty much passenger service only (no freight) and also limited to the particular type of train you run on them – so no inter-city passenger trains or future EMUs running on these tracks. Just the driverless light-metro trains.
These restrictions create an interesting conundrum. While there’s a highly compelling case for all new rail infrastructure to be in the form of a driverless metro, for the far cheaper construction and operating costs, because we have an existing heavy rail network, which we run freight trains along and which we are also investing heavily in maintaining/upgrading as conventional heavy rail, we’re left in a tricky situation of wondering whether, and how, this fantastic technology could be used in Auckland.
Nick’s suggestion was that the North Shore Line be constructed as a Light Metro, operating pretty much independently of the existing network, with possible future extensions along SH16 and SH18 to form some sort of northwest rail loop. The case for rail on the North Shore being constructed in the form of a light-metro is, I think, compelling. Firstly the harbour crossing itself is going to be far far cheaper than for conventional heavy rail (Nick has pointed out that it could sit underneath a road tunnel or potentially even under the existing harbour bridge as unlike conventional heavy rail it would be able to handle the gradient). Secondly, one would imagine that it would be much easier to turn the Northern Busway into a light-metro line than into a conventional heavy rail line – once again because of the more forgiving geometry of the light-metro technology. With a study recently estimating that a whole heavy rail line from town to Albany up the busway being approximately $2.5 billion in cost, a light-metro line may well be significantly less than this (very significantly less if you can sling it under the existing bridge).
What has thrown a few “spanners in the works” of this plan over the past couple of months has been the general thinking of us bloggers around future operating patterns for trains once the City Rail Link is completed. In particular, the general agreement that linking up the western line and the eastern line via the CRL and the North Shore with the southern line via another tunnel, would create the most logical and best long-term operating pattern for trains passing through downtown Auckland. That creates an outcome something like this, as nicely illustrated by Patrick’s post on the matter: This operating pattern has some hugely attractive attributes:
- By effectively creating four independent lines into the city centre (both directions on both lines) you have a simply huge amount of passenger capacity. If you ran 24 trains per hour each way along both lines, for example, you’d have nearly 100 trains per hour bringing people into central Auckland – around 75,000 people per hour with 750 passengers on each train.
- You create a really logical route structure for Auckland’s whole network (setting aside the question of how we deal with Grafton station). There’s a basic north-south line (the blue one) and a basic east-west line (the red one). They cross over in the very heart of Auckland’s city centre.
- We do away with the incredibly slow bend around Vector arena (though I’m sure you’d keep the tracks there, at least you wouldn’t need to use them for regular service).
Of course, by linking up the Southern Line with the North Shore Line, we’ve just created ourselves one heck of a headache when it comes to our idea of that North Shore line being a driverless light-metro. Or have we actually opened up an opportunity here?
What if we tried to make that “blue line” above fully driverless Light Metro? Let’s explore that idea.
If we remember back to the start of this post, the two big restrictions for driverless Light Metro is that it can’t share track with freight trains and it can’t share track with any other kind of passenger train. Effectively, it has to be its own independent network. That does create use a few headaches. But potentially they’re not impossible to solve. Let’s just say we built the line in blue below as a light-metro line: Yes, yes I know there are issues, but first let’s look at the positives. We probably have a cheaper construction cost for the Airport Line due to the easier geometry of Light Metro. We also have much lower operating costs. There’s a direct line between the North Shore and the airport, which would probably generate quite a lot of patronage and would certainly ease traffic on what’s a pretty big “through movement” at the moment (Waterview Connection eases this pressure on arterial roads but not on spaghetti junction except for people up around Albany who may use SH18/SH16).
The main issue, obviously, is that we have existing sections of track along this alignment – from Parnell right through to Onehunga and Otahuhu. However, if you add in the conventional rail network which would provide the main “south/east-west” connections, there actually isn’t much overlap between the lines at all – just between Westfield and Otahuhu by my calculations: The other key consideration is, obviously, rail freight. But from what I know the Newmarket-Westfield section of the southern line isn’t really used much by freight trains (they prefer the easier gradients of the eastern line), so the only section which would require side by side conventional and light-metro tracks would be between Parnell and Newmarket, unless some other solution can be found to send freight out west via the Avondale-Southdown line (including the Onehunga to Southdown link which isn’t shown above).
I actually kind of think all of this could work, with Auckland ending up with two completely independent rail networks. While that has some disadvantages in terms of route flexibility and the need for transfers for trips from south of Otahuhu to Newmarket (for example), I think the cost savings (both capital and operating) which would arise from being able to build both the North Shore Line and the Airport Line (at least the northern link, the eastern one is something that probably required a bit more thought) as Light Metro lines would probably run into the many billions of dollars.
Which means it’s something worth looking into. Driverless light-metro indeed could play a very important role in Auckland’s rail future.