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the video they’ve created but also with new a new travel time comparison as they say the times in the video are now out of date.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.

Light Rail to the Airport

The topic of rail to the airport has been getting an airing in the last few weeks after the Herald finally published some information we originally posted back in August – that AT are considering using light rail to connect the airport with the city rather than extending the heavy rail network. The need for a decision on what mode to eventually use is being hastened as the airport company need it by the middle of the year so they can finalise their future development plans. We’ve got an exclusive video showing what the heavy and light rail options.

Before diving into the details I want to make a couple of comments.

  • Unfortunately much of discussion I’ve seen in the wake of the articles has fallen into the trap of being too focused on the technology rather than the outcome and despite the focus there appears to be a general misunderstanding of the technology involved. By that I mean there seems to be an assumption that light rail is a low strength version of heavy rail, a bit like light beer vs normal beer. In reality it all depends on how each technology is implemented. There are light rail systems that are faster and have greater capacity than what our heavy rail system will have even with the CRL.
  • I’ll state upfront that my preference remains that the connection be by heavy rail. I think the time competitiveness it offers is probably being undervalued by AT compared to the other factors. I also see it as a nice balance to the operating patterns proposed post CRL. In effect I see it as completing the heavy rail network.
  • AT have already decided that the connection to the airport will be from Onehunga linking in Mangere Bridge and Mangere. Onehunga is also important is has been chosen by Panuku Development Auckland as one of the key areas they’ll be focusing on and so improving connections from their in either direction makes a lot of sense. The alternatives of connecting via Otahuhu have been ruled out due to the amount of property purchase that would be needed and the Puhinui option would require difficult (i.e. expensive) connections and would be a challenge operationally.

So why are AT even thinking about light rail. The simple answer is the cost. AT say that they now believe it would cost around $2 billion to build a heavy rail line to the Airport. Light rail is cheaper and easier to build with AT have estimating it at around $1 billion – but importantly that is from the end of the proposed line down Dominion Rd. AT seem pretty confident they’ll get that line signed off but whether that turns into a reality remains to be seen. However even if you take the $1 billion cost for a light rail line down Dominion Rd into account you’re still looking at a $2 billion heavy rail line serving just the southwest or a $2 billion light rail line that serves the southwest and the central isthmus. As such, on a cost/benefit comparison the latter is going to look stronger and why AT is interested.

To help show some of the differences between the two options AT have put together a fairly detailed video of them which is at the end of the post. I first saw this over a month ago and AT have now let me post show it. It was included as a part of the presentation that inspired this post. There is no narration to explain what is going on so I’ve explained it below. I understand AT are working on a narrated version for wider public use.

The video starts off showing the potential travel times between the city and the airport. Along with the time it takes is the potential variability and in that regard the rail options offer more reliable trip times than buses and much more reliability than driving. As I understand it the reason light rail is more reliable than buses is that it will have effectively an exclusive right of way down Dominion Rd combined with signal pre-emption meaning it will rarely need to stop at lights. That it might need to stop has been an issue raised against using light rail and is a case of perhaps AT not explaining clearly enough just how high the quality is that they’re proposing.

It’s also worth noting that the travel times suggested are more in line with what we’ve posted before and not as close as the herald has suggested, around 35 minutes for heavy rail and 47 minutes for light rail (herald suggested 39 and 44 respectively).

The video shows the heavy rail option. It involves double tracking the Onehunga Line and as I understand, grade separating many of the crossings. It then follow SH2o and 20A with stations at Mangere Bridge and Mangere and then crucially it would loop away from SH20 before getting to the airport itself. This is important later in the post.

Light rail would travel from Dominion Rd alongside SH20 to Onehunga and then on the same route to the airport with the exception of it staying with SH20 the entire way. In addition to what’s proposed above there would be stations at Hillsborough, Favona, Ascot and the Airport’s growing office park. From the end of Dominion Rd the 15km line to the airport would be almost completely grade separated and so would have similar performance to heavy rail. That makes the line roughly 1/3 on street and 2/3rds off street. I’m not quite sure why there couldn’t be heavy rail stations at Favona and Ascot but there definitely couldn’t be at the airport business park as the route avoids that area. The extra stations help increase the catchment in favour of light rail.

Heavy vs light rail options at Aiport

The video gets more interesting once it zooms in to show how the lines would look. Between Onehunga and the SH20/A motorway junction both heavy and light rail have virtually identical infrastructure. A bridge would span the proposed East-West Link that then passes under the motorway bridges to the western side of the motorway. From there it travels alongside the motorway rising over the Walmsley Rd/Corronation Dr interchange before rising again above SH2o. It’s from here that the differences really begin.

Mangere Inlet Rail Crossing

Heavy Rail

After crossing above the motorway the grades required for heavy rail mean there isn’t enough space to get back to ground level before reaching Bader Dr so the Heavy Rail option is elevated above it to the Mangere Station.

Mangere Heavy Rail Station

The same issue then occurs with Kirkbride Rd and the trench currently being built meaning the line then has to pass over Kirkbride Rd. I understand the trench is about two times too steep for heavy rail.

Kirkbride Elevated Rail option

South of Kirkbride Rd the line returns to ground level but has to divert away from the road before reaching the airport. As I understand it all transport options will need to drop below the second runway that is proposed and again the grades mean the rail line can’t follow the road.

Lastly for some reason it’s been decided that the heavy rail line and the station has to be underground at the Airport, this obviously pushes up the cost of building the line. I also understand it has been proposed to be located a little further away from the terminal than the light rail stop at street level and the extra walking time has even been factored into the travel time calculations. Given the airport is planning a fairly blank slate redo of the road network all around the airport and building an new terminal extension, it seems strange that a heavy rail route and station at ground level couldn’t be easily integrated into masterplan.

Light Rail

Light rail is able to handle steeper grades and sharper curves than heavy rail is and as such is able to get back to ground level and go under Bader Dr. This means a light rail station would be located within the median of the motorway – and hopefully with some good noise protection. You may notice the station planned is much less glamorous than its heavy rail counterpart – presumably making it much cheaper.

Mangere Light Rail Station

South of the line is able to stay within the motorway median and pass through the trench currently being built and for which AT have paid $29 million to make 3.5m wider so it can accommodate rail. I’m sure visually for locals and from a consenting perspective this will be an easier sell than the elevated heavy rail option. Light rail is then able to stay with road all the way to the terminal again helping to keep it cheaper. It seems the main benefit of LRT is it’s just that much easier to bend around existing infrastructure.

AT then give a comparison between the two modes showing what they think is best. This is similar but not exactly the same as one shown in the August post. For one thing it lists the benefit cost ratio of each option suggesting that some likely early economic evaluation has already taken place. As you can see the light rail option is quite a bit higher than the heavy rail option although it is only hovering around 1 – much like many of the RoNS.

Heavy vs light rail to airport comparison

 

Here is the video.

The two biggest arguments against light rail seem to be the speed and capacity. I think the speed one is warranted to a large degree as I suspect offering a rail option that was almost always faster than any road option would have a huge impact on what mode people choose to use.

As for capacity I suspect that one is a bit less valid – although not completely. AT are suggesting some very heavy duty light rail vehicles capable of carrying up to 450 people each and on a route like Dominion Rd they would be running fairly frequently, potentially every few minutes if places like Melbourne are anything to go by. That is a considerable step up the capacity of buses along there now, although looking at the comparison table above they seem to be underselling it as 1,630 passengers an hour works out to only four vehicles an hour each way. The question is whether the additional patronage generated by a southwest line would then result in issues along Dominion Rd which is busy enough as it is. It would be good for AT to cover that issue in more detail.

If the figures above are accurate it’s easy to see why AT are so interested in light rail. In the current political climate it would be impossible to every get a heavy rail option over the line, it’s just too expensive. Light rail appears to be far from completely terrible and actually has a chance. A case of don’t let perfect be the enemy of good? In saying that I do get the feeling that there’s a little bias going on. For example why aren’t there extra heavy rail stations at Favona and Ascot.

What do you think of the options?

Lastly regardless of the mode, if drivers are anything like the ones in the video I think rail will be a huge success – although perhaps that just represents reality.

AT’s Smarter Integrated Networks presentation

Around two weeks ago AT gave a presentation to the Council’s Infrastructure committee which contained a lot of very interesting information about some of the major projects they’re working on. I also heard a segment of the presentation at a talk last week. I won’t cover everything in the presentation as much of the charts and maps are ones we’ve seen before that I found interesting.

The presentation starts by looking at Auckland’s expected population growth in comparison to the growth happening in the rest of NZ using some charts most will probably be familiar with. Just in case you aren’t they highlight that using the medium growth projections out to 2043 that more than half of all population growth will be in Auckland and that growth alone will equal be greater than the current population of Christchurch and its expected growth. What was interesting though was the chart below showing how Auckland has grown compared to the previous population projections and as you can see the projections keep being revised upwards. The 1996 projection estimated Auckland would hit 2 million people in 2063 but the 2013 one suggests it will now be 2033.

Auckland Population vs Stats Projections

As mentioned the growth is comparable to the expected population in Christchurch and the image below shows the land area of all of the greenfield growth (blue) and Special Housing Areas (Orange) from across the region combined into one Christchurch sized mass – I’ve also seen a version comparing it to Hamilton with roughly a Hamilton sized growth occurring in the South, about a 2/3rds Hamilton in the North West and half a Hamilton in the North.

Auckalnd Population growth vs Christchurvh

On the topic of growth this chart highlights just how much is expected to occur in the city centre – which is the CBD and fringe suburbs such as Grafton, Newmarket Parnell, Ponsonby etc. – compared to other parts of Auckland. I’m not quite sure where the boundaries for the other areas are but it’s also interesting to see the second biggest expected employment growth area is in the North West.

Auckland Education and Employment projections

Moving on to some of the more interesting aspects of the presentation, there is a series of maps showing how the Rapid Transit Network will develop over the next 30 years. Now what does that presentation format remind you of? It’s great that AT are now starting to present the information this way as personally I think it makes it much easier for the general public to understand what’s proposed for their city.

AT Rapid Transit Network 2015-2045

One aspect you will notice is the access to the Airport. The map shows both heavy and light rail options as it has yet to be decided which one will be built. Accompanying the presentation was an animated video that showed the options in much more detail including what they would look like between Onehunga and Kirkbride Rd. This hasn’t yet been published so I’ve asked AT when that will happen as it was very interesting. I’ll discuss a little more about this later in the post. Also the more I look at it the more I think it seems natural for light rail to be extended over to the North Shore where it can  then spread out again to provide greater coverage.

On light rail the presentation moved on to AT’s proposal for it on the isthmus. A lot of the justification for it is to reduce the number of buses in the city centre as some corridors like Wellesley St will have over 180 per hour in the peak direction based on current plans. We’ve shown these maps before but they’re worth repeating.s

City Access - Do Minimum

And with LRT in place bus numbers reduce dramatically. One thing I am aware of is that the map below is not be entirely correct as I know the board have decided not to send LRT down to Quay St, instead it will stay on Customs St (and presumably travel down Fanshawe St).

City Access - LRT

It still leaves Wellesley St as a very busy bus corridor but allows more buses from other parts of the city not served by heavy or light rail. Thee impact of not building Light Rail is highlighted in this map showing that bus congestion in the city slows buses down reducing the number of people within a 45 minute trip of the city centre. Interestingly some of the worst affected areas are the North Shore which again suggests it’s probably worth looking at something like LRT to the shore to reduce the reliance on buses.

Note: the map shows that many of the ferry routes don’t seem to be counted. My guess is this the map is based on a combination of walking time and average wait time for a service plus the travel time to a set point in the city centre.

City Accessability without LRT

The next map shows a great representation of how people will access the city centre by mode in the future if current plans are built. As you can see the existing rail network plus the CRL serve the South, East and West through connections with feeder buses. The central Isthmus is served by light rail, many of the coastal communities are served by ferry and the rest of the city by bus.

City Centre Accessability Map

As mentioned earlier, there was some information on the options for rail to the airport. The three images below show how far you would get from the airport on public transport now, with heavy rail and with light rail. As a basis it seems to assume that the isthmus light rail routes have been completed and like the accessibility maps will likely be based on some average wait time and possibly only using normal PT options so no Skybus.

Accessability to Airport Now

With Heavy Rail you can definitely get much further

Accessability to Airport Heavy Rail

And the light rail version which connect to the isthmus routes via a connection from Onehunga to Dominion Rd on a route alongside SH20.

Accessability to Airport Light Rail

 

There are some odd things with these maps, for example as I understand it the idea with the light rail option is only the Dominion Rd route would go to the airport which means a transfer for those using the other lines. Why then can you get further up Manukau Rd on LRT when Heavy Rail is much faster to get to Onehunga.

There is more info in there in the interests of time and space I might leave some aspects to another post.

All up a very interesting presentation.

Airbus Express becomes SkyBus

Auckland’s city to airport bus has new owners bringing with them a new name, a new livery and promising a higher quality service. The Airbus Express service has been bought by SkyBus who operate Melbourne’s airport bus service.

Free on-board Wi-Fi and ground hosts to welcome intrepid travellers to Auckland are just the beginning of big plans by new owners to expand – and smarten – the 24-hour airport bus service.

The former Airbus fleet has already had its name changed to that of Melbourne’s 38-year-old SkyBus, which is taking it under its wing.

It will be repainted from light blue to red as more buses are added between the fast-growing airport precinct and downtown Auckland to widen the span of departures, which already run every 10 minutes during week days.

That follows a change of ownership from Johnston’s Coachlines to a consortium majority-owned by Canada’s Ontario Pension Trust, in a deal worth about $20 million.

Melbourne-based directors Michael Sewards and Adam Begg have hit the ground running in Auckland, adding two buses in their first couple of weeks here and installing free Wi-Fi across what is now a 15-strong shuttle fleet – with seven more due by May.

The service has long been popular, running 24/7 and with great frequency. On weekdays they run every  10 minutes between 7:30am and 8:10pm and on weekends they run every 15 minutes during the day. In the middle of the route the frequency splits in two with services alternating between Dominion Rd and Mt Eden Rd. The addition of more buses suggests frequency will improve even further making the service even more useful.

 

AirBus Timetable

One aspect that is interesting is the move to a red livery like is used on their buses in Melbourne. Queen St already has the red City Link buses so users will have to pay more attention if catching either one. Once they change I wonder how long it will be till someone accidentally gets on a red SkyBus to a short distance up Queen St only to be charged $16 (the one way fare).

SkyBus and CityLink

The old livery with the new name. Photo by Luke C

One of the reasons the cost for SkyBus is $16 is that the service is and has always been fully commercial meaning it isn’t subsided by Auckland Transport, siting to the side of the normal public transport system. As such the company can charge whatever they like. As such there is also no discount for using HOP and there is no indication that would change with the new operators and it seems they will continue to retain a separate ticketing system

Telecommunications company Spark is meanwhile developing a sophisticated ticket-buying app which it hopes to roll out in Auckland before Christmas and then back-load to Melbourne.

Mr Sewards said during a tag-team visit by the pair to Auckland this week that technological solutions encountered here had been “incredible.”

He is similarly impressed by Auckland Transport’s $100 million integrated Hop ticketing system, into which his fleet was plugged by its former owners, although SkyBus will remain fully commercial with none of the subsidies received by most other city bus operators.

The owners also talk about improving journey times. I imagine the biggest improvements would likely come from having more bus lanes and with better operating hours however the new owners also single out Waterview as helping. Unless they’re planning on running buses all the way to the city via the motorway then I can’t see how that will make a lot of difference.

Mr Sewards acknowledged room for improvement in journey times, now varying from about 45 minutes to an hour for the 12km trip between downtown Auckland and the airport.

That compares with about 20 minutes over the 23km between Melbourne’s CBD and its airport.

But he said Melbourne’s route was far more direct, along a single motorway, and is looking forward to faster bus trips in Auckland once the Waterview tunnels open in early 2017.

Lastly it’s an interesting time for the change in ownership as there are a number of interesting developments on the horizon.

From a PT perspective the competition to SkyBus is a combination of a train and what is currently the 380 bus (will be called the 30 in the new network). Next year Auckland Transport will roll out integrated fares which will make transferring between bus and train services cheaper and easier for most journeys. From the city it would be only three zones for which AT have indicated the cost would be $4.80-$5.00. The trade-off though is likely a longer journey time. Trains between Britomart and Papatoetoe every 5 minutes during the day and from there the 30 bus runs fairly direct to the airport however it only runs half hourly during the day and based on the current timetable even with an almost perfect connection it would take around an hour.

 

Longer term there is also the prospect of rail the airport. If Auckland Transport build it as an extension of the existing rail system like they should (either between Onehunga or from Otahuhu like suggested here) then travel times could be slashed quite substantially. If instead they go for the option of extending one of the proposed light rail routes travel times aren’t likely to be significantly different to what exists today.

Rail to Airport - July 15 - LRT vs HRT Travel times

Either rail implementation would have significant impacts on the SkyBus service who I can’t see just lying down and letting it happen. Given SkyBus is already successful and not subsidised they are able to put forward a strong case not to build rail – especially in the current political climate. Yet the service is only really successful on a commercial basis which may not be the best outcome for the city/country due to the higher cost meaning many will still prefer to drive. Based on the current airport arrivals and departures of around 15.5 million people annually the reported SkyBus figures of around 650,000 trips represents just over 4% of travellers. I can’t help but wonder just how much higher patronage would be if you combined both the much faster journeys of heavy rail with the proposed HOP pricing and that’s before you add in making PT more viable for many airport workers.

An Update on Mangere and Airport Rail

Last week I highlighted an update from AT on Light Rail. In addition to that they also gave an update on rail to Mangere and the airport including their consideration of using light or heavy rail for the project. Once again I wasn’t at the presentation personally so can only go off the slides shown.

Firstly one thing I do think is good is that AT on their website are calling Airport and Mangere Rail. To me that’s a much better description of the project than just airport rail as this project will serve a much wider community than just the airport which is one of the reasons it’s worthwhile doing.

As for where the project is at. The strategic assessment already undertaken has shown that rail is the most effective long term solution and a scheme assessment has determined a rough footprint which would require the purchase of 218 residential and 17 commercial properties. They estimate the project would cost around $1.4 billion to get to the airport from Onehunga. The engineers have been looking at ways to cut the cost of the project and two points are noted.

  • They’ve estimated the cost of double tracking the Onehunga branch line at $400-$600 million. For that price it sounds like they’re effectively suggesting trenching the whole line – presumably to remove all of the level crossings.
  • Put the rail alignment down the centre of the motorway. I don’t know what the original alignment was but I wonder if it crossed the motorway a few times to give better coverage of the community.

By building the route as light rail they believe it could be done cheaper for similar benefits and so they’re comparing the two modes.

They appear to be looking primarily at how to provide a single seat journey from the airport the city centre with the two options shown below along with a comparison between the two.

Rail to Airport - July 15 - LRT vs HRT routes

Rail to Airport - July 15 - LRT vs HRT figures

I have some serious concerns about this analysis as AT seem infatuated by light rail at the moment so it seems to me they’ve in effect stacked the deck against heavy rail. Here’s why

  • The light rail option is an extension of line that doesn’t even exist yet and there’s no guarantee it ever will.
  • I also wonder how practical that alignment alongside SH20 is. I know Light Rail can climb hills better than Heavy rail can but that route would be one long, steep and slow climb if it’s even possible.
  • When the measurement of success seems to be based on how many people could walk to a station and catch a train then having the heavy rail option with fewer stations it’s no surprise it has a lower result. It seems to me silly not to at least have a heavy rail station around the Montgomerie Rd area which is only about 2km from Mangere and 2.5km from the airport. Other stations may be able to be justified.
  • It’s no surprise that the Light Rail option has more people within walking distance of a station as it travels right through the densest residential area in Auckland – the CBD. I’m not sure if AT’s heard but there’s a heavy rail project which does that too – it’s called the City Rail Link. What’s more AT’s planned operating pattern will see trains from the western line pass through the CRL before heading towards Onehunga. It seems like there’s a bit of gerrymandering going on this. If AT are talking about delivering single seat rides then they should also include all the people next to the western line, even just the people near the inner west and CRL stations add almost an extra 60k to the walking catchment.

CRL Outline-Train-Plan-31July2014

  • With a dedicated corridor between Onehunga and the airport the travel time of light and heavy rail is not likely to be all that different. The issue comes in north of Onehunga. AT say above the extension just from Dominion Rd will have 1.9km of slow on street running, what’s not also mentioned is the on street running on the Dominion Rd corridor through to the city. The next slide looks at exactly this issue and it is perhaps the biggest argument against light rail. A 35-38 minute travel time is very competitive with all other modes at all times of the day whereas light rail is barely faster than the existing airport bus. It’s also worth contrasting this approach to what happens elsewhere in transport. As a society seem to be prepared to fork out billions with few questions to obtain a few minutes of travel time saving on roads the same but for rail it’s all about how we can do things on the cheap.

Rail to Airport - July 15 - LRT vs HRT Travel times

Next we have a bit of a matrix comparing many of the things mentioned above including what I consider to be flaws in many of them. One thing I haven’t mentioned is the frequency of service. This is something completely within AT’s control of how they run the rail network.

Rail to Airport - July 15 - LRT vs HRT matrix

The next few images show cross sections the proposed rail alignment down the centre of the motorway and through the Kirkbride trench. The car lanes would be pushed out to create enough space.

Rail to Airport - July 15 - Trench cross section

Rail to Airport - July 15 - LRT vs HRT motorway alignment

Lastly this image shows an elevated section soaring above the Kirikbride interchange. My understanding is that both options of through or over the trench are possible and are both still being considered.the chosen mode will go over or through the trench so both options are being considered.

Rail to Airport - July 15 - LRT vs HRT elevated alignment

It’s good to see some details on this even though I’m not convinced by the analysis done to date.

Kirkbride Interchange and Rail Future Proofing

Rail to the airport is in the news again – and not in a good way – this time related to the Kirkbride interchange the NZTA are currently building and whether it’s future proofed for rail. The answers by Auckland Transport and the NZTA also hint at some of the dysfunction, lack of critical thinking and potentially deliberate sabotage that’s long plagued this project – one which is constantly one of the most popular publicly.

Auckland Transport is having to stump of $21 million to “future-proof” a motorway project for trains or trams to the airport.

The council body is paying the money to the Government’s Transport Agency, towards extra costs of designing a motorway interchange for trams to run through a trench beneath Kirkbride Road, Mangere, or trains on an elevated line.

That is additional to $140m the agency is spending on the 580-metre trench and a motorway extension to the airport in an accelerated Government-funded project.

Preparations are well-advanced for the trench to be dug west of George Bolt Drive.

 

Considering that airport rail has been talked about for decades and has been on regional plans for probably just as long it’s absolutely absurd that AT are having to pay $21 million to widen the trench to be able to accommodate rail. Long-time readers may remember the excuse given by the NZTA for not building a busway along SH16 at the same time as all the motorway widening going on was that the old Auckland Regional Council didn’t list the route as a rapid transit one (rail or busway). That isn’t the case here because as mentioned rail has long been on the plans and been subject to many studies, some of which they themselves have been involved in. The NZTA should also remember the public desire the project in the form of the 10,000 signature petition the CBT organised back in 2007.

So why are AT now paying the NZTA future proof the interchange?

As I understand it when the government announced they were accelerating the project back in 2013 the Highway Network Operations (HNO) team within the NZTA quickly went to work on designing the interchange. They didn’t look at the work their planning teams had been working on with AT and designed the interchange to take up the entire space of the motorway designation. They claimed their design future proofed the interchange for rail but what they really meant is there was space beside it for rail to go but it would effectively require starting from fresh including needing to purchase and designate all the land. In other words the NZTA’s work didn’t preclude a future rail line but didn’t do anything to help it either.

When AT realised and challenged HNO they claimed it was a done deal and they were on too tight a schedule to make any changes. They also tried to use Watercare – who need to build a new pipe through the area – as an excuse for not being able to accommodate any changes however it turns out Watercare were only bringing their project forward after being told to by HNO. After working out they only needed a few extra metres and some high level talks HNO backed down and agreed include the project but with a new catch – AT would have to pay. They then tried to claim the extra work would add something like $60 million to the $140 million project. The price of $21 million has come about after AT sat down and worked out what the actual extra cost would be.

That it even got to that this point is absurd and puts into question both organisations claims of working together well in partnership. Putting this aside, so what are we now getting?

Auckland Transport project director Theunis van Schalkwyk has since, in a joint statement with the Transport Agency to the Herald, confirmed that his organisation has allocated $21m to make the trench 3.5m wider than planned.

Its new width of 29m would provide an 8m rail corridor, which the statement said would be enough for trams to run through the trench or for elevated trains above it.

So the NZTA almost severely hampered rail to the airport all for the sake of 3.5m – that’s less than a single motorway lane. Here’s what the current plan is for the project

Kirkdbride Layout

And a closer look at the interchange itself

Kirkdbride Layout - interchange

The answer and these images also raises new questions.

  • How will Light Rail run through the trench, presumably it would have to be down the centre and would have to be protected from cars by barriers. Is 8m enough space for both the tracks and barriers?
  • By designing so that heavy rail has to be overhead is that a strategy to ensure local opposition?
  • After either light rail or heavy rail pass the interchange then what? How does light rail get to or from the centre of the motorway, if elevated how does long is the line elevated for?
  • If an elevated line is built I’m assuming that it would have to stay elevated for some distance to get past Bader Dr and the SH20/SH20a motorway interchange. How will that impact on Mangere Town Centre. Alternatively it would be interesting to hear the local communities thoughts if as a result Mangere town centre was served by a station like this from Vancouver (Brentwood Town Centre).

Brentwood Skytrain Station

Of course Kirkbride is just one of what seem like many mountains in front of getting rail to the airport. Earlier promises by the NZTA’s predecessor to future proof the recently duplicated Manukau Harbour Crossing for rail turned out to be completely pointless – only allowing enough space for a single low speed track. At the other end it seems that rail will required to be in a tunnel though the airport property as it will have to get under a longer runway.

In addition to all of this I think that AT’s current fascination with Light Rail is distracting them. Light rail is appropriate for the isthmus routes they’re suggesting but in my view is completely inappropriate for rail to the airport as it simply won’t be fast enough. LRT would likely take around 50 minutes to get to the city vs 30-35 for heavy rail hooking into the existing network – either at Onehunga or perhaps as Patrick suggested the other day.

All up it feels like rail to the airport will go the same way as so many other transport projects in Auckland’s history. So much opportunity to easily get a great result hampered by short term thinking and expediency. So much hassle could have been avoided if AT and predecessors had applied just a little bit more urgency in obtaining a designation for the project.

Airport Transport Plans

Following up last week’s Mangere/Airport RTN post, reader Martin B pointed to this recent AIAL Masterplan: pdf.

Airport terminal

Here are the key Landside Transport pages:

Airport Transport

Map of the future precinct; white dotted lines indicate the rail line and the white rectangle the station:

Airport Masterplan

Good to see both northern and eastern routes are being planned for, however they are completely missing a trick by not taking the station right into the Terminal building (04). We know that AIAL are planning for the line to be cut and cover through their property so why not take it all the way to under the yet-to-be-built Terminal building? Seems pointless to insist that rail users stop just short enough from their destination to have to drag bags across a couple of roads. Interestingly this places the station with the proposed massive new parking buildings.

I have used trains to get to airports all over the world and by far the best have stations fully integrated into the terminals. Given this is a completely new integrated domestic and international terminal building surely it wouldn’t be difficult to future proof for this. Especially as they are claiming they are to reduce congestion while providing 20 000 carparks. The RTN route and service will need to be as good as possible to make sure it attracts as many users as possible to help keep those approach and local roads flowing.

After all, isn’t the plan for a streamlined seamless experience?

Mangere/Airport Rail 2.0

Below is AT’s proposed post CRL rail running pattern. Quite complicated, with some peak only services and an infrequent 3tph [trains per hour] Henderson-Grafton-Otahuhu crosstown service. One feature of this design is that the 6 tph Swanson-CRL-Onehunga service [core Western line service] has every second train stopping at Newmarket, so it becomes 3tph from there to Onehunga. This is because the branch line from Penrose to Onehunga isn’t able to take any higher frequency, but also because there probably won’t be the demand on this little line to balance that of the whole of the western line, unless it is to be extended. And at 12tph there is plenty of action south of Newmarket- a train every 5 minutes each way.

Post CRL running pattern

Another notable feature is just how important Otahuhu is becoming. It’ll have 18tph both directions at the peaks; a train every few minutes each way [correction: actually 21 tph in the peak direction]. A frequency only matched by the Centre-City underground CRL stations. So it will be a great place to connect; that frequency kills wait times and connection anxiety, but also it offers a one-seat ride to everywhere on the network bar the last three Western Line stations and, unlike Newmarket, there is space for an expanded track layout for all these train movements [plus dedicated freight lines]. Add the fact that as you read this, thanks to the Council’s Transport Levy, a bus interchange station is being built there too, it’s becoming a real busy hub.

So picture this; How about adding the heart of Mangere and the Airport to the list of direct Otahuhu rail connections?

MANGERE-AIRPORT LINE

The Line

Here’s how it could go, there are a couple of options at the northern end, but otherwise around 9km of track over flat terrain pretty direct to the Airport. And, importantly some very good points along the way to serve the local community and add catchment to the service. On the map above I am proposing new stations at:

Robertson Rd

Mangere Town Centre/Bader Drive

Montgomerie Rd

Airport Terminals

The first two are close together but serve communities separated by SH20, and both are on good perpendicular bus and bike routes to expand that catchment. Mongomerie is also at a junction for good bus connection and is in the middle of the growing employment area north of the Airport. So residential, employment, and the community, education, and retail of the Mangere Town Centre too. Importantly this would act as a way to reconnect the community flung apart by the motorway severance. More on local impacts below.

Otahuhu is 25 minutes from Britomart, a number that should come down when AT and their operator sort out their currently overlong dwell times, and would be around 10 or so minutes from the Airport Terminals. 35mins from the heart of the city? Even cabinet ministers from the provinces would see the point of that congestion free journey when [say] going to meet us at the Ministry of Transport or NZTA in the city. But also such a fast and direct service would make taking it by connection from the North Shore viable, improving options for what is currently an expensive and congestion prone journey by any mode.

And in terms of running pattern it’s already sorted: send all 6tph of the western line on to through the CRL, Otahuhu, Mangere and the Airport. An immediate 10min all day frequency, through the busy Ellerslie and Newmarket hubs, direct to Remuera and Parnell, all the city CRL stations and every point on the Western line. Easy transfer at Otahuhu for every other station and connection point on the network. Uber to any station on the network with your bags, and you’re on your way in comfort and at speed right to the Terminal, and out of the vagaries of Auckland traffic and cost and hassle of parking. Personally I would prefer that transfer to the one people make now in their thousands at Airport Park’n’Rides.

Or if it’s preferred the 3tph currently intended to stop at Newmarket plus the 3tph of the crosstown service on from Otahuhu to make up the frequency. That looks overly fiddly and illegible to me, but that’s not important for this argument; the point is that Otahuhu in fact looks like a better point to connect Mangere and the Airport to the rest of the city than Onehunga, for both speed of service, and onward connections. And the added bonus of improving network efficiency by simply extending existing services.

Local Community

Of course the route is not free. the section between the SH20 interchange and Otahuhu station goes down a highway designation that NZTA still probably want and that the locals recently fought to keep as it is. Here:

Mangere Central

It is possible that the local community, if treated fairly and with respect, may see the advantages for them in having to this line in their midst. It is substantially different from a highway in terms of width, noise, pollution and benefit. The current residents would need to be rehoused to their advantage and the line would have to come with high quality and numerous crossing points and increased community access to the new stations and other destinations. It could be a catalyst for a whole lot of improvements in the area. But I can’t speak for them.

Otherwise it just faces the same route issues that the one sourced from Onehunga has. The refusal by previous decision makers, especially Manukau City Council, but also NZTA, and ARTA, to future proof adequately in their plans here means more expensive elevated solutions will be required over SH20A. However we are assured that the current Kirkbride Rd works allow for that and that the Airport company is similarly preparing for such a line. Otherwise it doesn’t look to face any unusual engineering challenge. Only the standard political and financial ones.

Interestingly here is report by BECA for ARTA from 2008 that features this route, with exactly the same station placements [can’t be too illogical then]. That found that Route 2B, as they called it, scored well:

BECA @B

BECA Airport Rail

But the report is complicated by the inclusion of the Avondale-Westfield line. One I never seen the point of in passenger terms and can not picture an efficient rail running pattern for, and that is only there because of an ancient freight designation. Also I find it odd that the report doesn’t analyse routes it terms of how services would use them.

Avondale-Onehunga-Penrose, and further, looks like it could be a more useful Light Rail service, once AT have their ‘four finger’ routes all ending along this line. The rest of the report is very dated and I’m sure would use very different ridership projections now.

I am confident about the utility and therefore the appeal of such a fast and direct line for Airport customers and employees, especially with such good onward connections and a turn up and go frequency. So long as the Sydney pitfall of putting a punitive fare on the Airport Station is not applied. Add the local residential, employment, and student catchments and bus connections, and this looks like a strong option without either the slow winding route from Onehunga, or the cost of crossing the Mangere inlet.

There is still the problem of the conditions that the Airport company are demanding; in particular a more expensive undergound route to future proof for a second runway to the north and to keep it out of the way of their new terminal plans. However AIAL also predict huge rises in passenger and associated business volumes at and around the Airport which means that they are going to find other more valuable uses for land than just car parking. And, despite the heroic showering of money on State Highways if this growth is still to only be served by single occupant vehicles and buses stuck with them then these roads and the local ones in the area are not going to work. A really effective Rapid Transit route and service is only going to be needed here with increasing urgency, and nothing will give the capacity and time competitiveness like hooking into the existing rail network that is already much of the way there.

Yes the capital investment will not be minor, but the outcome is both a permanent and extremely valuable for both the city’s efficiency and resilience. It will also add efficiency to the operations of the rail network, increasing utility and cost effectiveness by working those existing assets harder. The always senseless claim that ‘Aucklanders won’t use rail’ or other forms of public transport, has been proven wrong beyond any doubt since recent improvements and booming ridership numbers.  It really is time for certain groups to drop their blinkered knee-jerk rejection of this mode, as it is based on historic conditions and experiences that no longer apply in the new Auckland, and as it really is the best tool for this important job.

Like the Rail Network the Airport appears to be on a trajectory for 20mil passenger movements a year by 2020: It is long overdue that we get these two critical systems linked together for their- and the city and nation’s- mutual benefit.

image

 

 

On this day… Thinking differently about ‘rail to the airport’

Today’s “on this day” post comes from 2011:

In many of the debates about whether building a railway line to Auckland Airport should be a priority or not, most of the focus has been on making it easier for travellers to get between the city and the airport. This is somewhat understandable, as for regular travellers it seems bizarre for the trip between the city and the airport to take longer than the flight between Auckland and Wellington. Furthermore, having a congestion free option, which generally only rail can provide (I’m yet to see how a busway could be provided between the Airport and the central city) provides a level of reliability to travel times that I’m sure would be much appreciated.

But rail to Auckland Airport would be pretty expensive – north of a billion dollars according to a study undertaken in 2008 (although this does seem to have ‘gold-plated’ the cost quite a bit compared to other similar projects). Furthermore, only a proportion of travellers (generally business travellers and tourists) would be making trips between the CBD and the Airport that would be best served by this rail line. It seems doubtful whether that would generate enough demand, in and of itself, to justify such a big expenditure.

However, thinking about ‘rail to the airport’ as merely providing a connection for travellers hugely under-estimates its potential in my opinion. In fact, while “rail to the airport” has been a useful term in gaining public support of this project, I think referring to the line as the “Southwest Line” would actually be more useful in recognising its wider benefits.

One of the main reasons for constructing this line is emphasised by a report that Auckland Airport had undertaken recently: pointing out the growing importance of the Airport to Auckland’s and New Zealand’s economy. Not only is this importance evident in the wider benefits of the Airport, but also in the area around the Airport’s growing significance as an employment hub. Put simply, a lot of people work either at the airport or around the airport and over the next 10-20 that number of employees is likely to increase very significantly.

The study, by consultancy Market Economics, also highlights the increasing importance as an economic growth node of the airport focused and supporting businesses located at or near Auckland Airport – within the Auckland Airport Business District (comprising land owned by Auckland Airport) or on neighbouring land. This growth node has been called the Airport Corridor.

The Airport Corridor already generates or facilitates around $3 billion of GDP annually and its contribution is expected to grow to $5-6 billion by 2031. This growth is expected to increase employment in the Airport Corridor from a current estimate of 21,000 workers to as many as 38,000 by 2031.

The study notes the correlation between jobs created in the Airport Corridor and growth in Auckland Airport’s traffic volumes – as the more vibrant the Airport becomes, the more companies want to locate close to it. Currently, there are about 1,800 jobs within the Airport Corridor for every million passengers passing through the Airport.

The Market Economics study concludes, “Auckland Airport facilitates substantial levels of business activity by enabling and supporting tourism and trade in Auckland and throughout New Zealand. As Auckland Airport (and the air transport sector generally) grows more rapidly than the economy as a whole, its role as a facilitator and generator of business activity is expected to steadily increase into the longer term. Within the Auckland spatial economy, the Airport Corridor will be a major focus of business activity, and a catalyst for economic growth across the region. Its significance as a driver of economic growth should not be under-estimated.”

There are around 80,000 people employed in Auckland’s CBD at the moment, so creating an employment node at the Airport of nearly 40,000 by 2031 gives a good indication of how significant that would be. The table below shows the increase:
The Airport picks up on the need to plan carefully for how this would work, and what infrastructure would be needed to support such an employment node:

Auckland Airport’s chief executive Simon Moutter said, “This study reinforces the important role that Auckland Airport plays in helping grow New Zealand tourism and trade by improving the air services connections between New Zealand and the world…

…“On a regional basis, it is important that Auckland Airport is seen not just as part of Auckland’s transport infrastructure, but a key driver of the supercity’s future economic prosperity and visitor economy.

“By commissioning this study, we hope to improve understanding about the strong growth potential of both Auckland Airport and the Airport Corridor. It is important that this growth is factored into planning decisions in areas such as land development, transport infrastructure and public transport services.”

A lot of the land surrounding the Airport is currently used for carparking. But with the area becoming such an important employment node in the future I do wonder whether wasting such valuable land on parking (surface level parking at least) will be feasible and desirable: both from the Airport’s perspective and from the perspective of Auckland as a whole. But if the attractiveness of the area as an employment node is going to continue it will need to be easy for people to get to work there – which is where the Airport Railway Line comes in.

As far as I can see, there will be three main users of the Airport Railway Line:

  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, who work in Newmarket, the CBD,  Manukau or other parts of the rail network

It’s pretty unlikely that spending close to a billion dollars on constructing the Airport Line would make sense if it were only to fulfil one, or even two, of these three functions. But the fact that it can provide all three – coupled with the predicted speedy growth of the area as an employment hub – means that I think it would be viable. Certainly in my opinion the CBD Rail Tunnel is more necessary, but in 10 years time if we haven’t built the Airport Line I think we’re really going to leave Auckland in a bit of a messy situation of having another car-dependent Albany or East Tamaki: just bigger, uglier and more congested.

The full study into the contribution of Auckland Airport to Auckland and New Zealand’s economy is here.

Update:

There has been little information on progress for rail to the airport in recent times, although the currently underway Kirkbride Road interchange project is being future-proofed for either light-rail or heavy-rail – as Auckland Transport seem to have a slightly strange obsession with light-rail at the moment. It seems that there’s still not a particularly strong push for this project, which is perhaps OK given the focus on CRL at the moment. However, as the post above highlights, Airport Rail is really as much about serving the surrounding areas and the Airport’s growing employment numbers as is it about travellers. It will be important in 2015 to see some progress, at least with route protection.

Also while on the topic of airport travellers, it’s interesting to see the numbers are continuing to rise strongly and in November reached 14.8 million for the previous 12 months.

Airport Passenger Numebrs - Nov 14

What Is Happening With Airport Rail?

As the Herald reported yesterday, it looks as if Auckland Transport have really dropped the ball in getting a designation in place for rail to Mangere and Auckland Airport – what should be called the “South Western Line”. It is worth emphasizing that the main point of any rapid transit project in the south west is not so much to provide air travellers with a rail link, but to provide the more than 20,000 workers at the airport with a decent alternative, and also benefit the residents of Mangere and South Auckland who probably have the worst public transportation services in the entire region.

Some years back, a cross-stakeholder South-Western Multi-modal Airport Rapid Transit (SMART) study was commissioned to look at the rapid transit options. It was supposed to be making progress towards a designation, and for some time we have been wondering how the study was progressing.

This week, through a LGOIMA request, we finally got our hands on a copy of what has turned out to be an interim, and final report. Unfortunately, Auckland Transport instructed consultants GHD to cut the three phase study short in September of last year.

Phase Three of the study was supposed to “focus on developing documentation to support route protection. This would have entailed developing a draft Notice of Requirement and/or easement documentation for future-proofing of the preferred route. Within the airport designation, it was anticipated that an easement would be agreed and included in the current Auckland Airport Masterplan.”

However, the study was cut short with the following reasons given:

SMART Scheme Assessment Report

There is no explanation as to why the plans listed have a higher priority than designating rail to the airport. Auckland Transport and Auckland Council have to be the party responsible for driving the rapid transit designation process through, but instead they’ve more or less said “Ugh – too hard!” and sat on their hands.

Fast forward a year later, and things have now come to a head as the NZTA are wanting to push through the Kirkbride Road grade separation project, which will turn SH20A and SH20 into a continuous motorway. There is currently no provision for a rail corridor in any of the draft plans, and it is my understanding that the NZTA are waiting on a clear direction from Auckland Transport on where the rapid transit corridor will run.

The interim SMART report supported an earlier study from 2011 which concluded that a rail loop through South Auckland remains the technically preferred strategic option (I’ll have the detail on a later post) yet no progress has been made in designating the rail corridor.

Most worryingly of all, it looks as if Auckland Transport is now re-litigating the decision for heavy rail and is considering light rail instead for the corridor between Onehunga and the Airport. There are currently no public details on any of the following factors:

  • How much would the light rail rolling stock cost, what would the capacity be and where would the rolling stock be housed?
  • How much slower would light rail be, compared to a heavy rail solution?
  • How much cheaper could a light rail route be, bearing in mind that Sydney’s light rail is now likely to cost $2.2bn – about the same per kilometre as heavy rail between Onehunga and the airport?

So many questions. So few answers.