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.
Peter has usefully opened discussion on possible future network plans for Auckland transit systems. There is currently a great deal of work happening on both the CRL and and a study into ways to optimise access to the airport and the rest of south west AK. There is also a huge and exciting revolution underway for the entire bus network in full flight. So as we wait for the results of this work I think it is useful to run through various options for the city as a whole across all modes, but in order to do this we do need to look at some parts separately and in detail.
Here I want to have a look at the rail network alone. And in particular the next possible stages beyond the CRL and how that might all connect together. Yes this is only part of the RTN resource but because rail is, by definition, a closed system, it does require understanding on its own logic. And we need to have some idea of where we’re heading in order to not close off important opportunities. Peter discussed lineal routes with branches in his latest post. And I did a post on how important Aotea Station will be for the whole of Auckland, here. In this post I want explore a different variation in network design to the one discussed in my previous Aotea post, but one that still has Aotea as the essential heart of the network.
It seems to me that a combination of two largely discrete lines is the most elegant and efficient way to serve Auckland. This pattern reconciles the shape of the existing network with the most pressing new needs. And because no route can be designed separately from how it will be run we need to think about how best to integrate the next major addition to the network, after the CRL and the extension to the airport, the North Shore Line. This line could operate in isolation across the harbour but it would be better if it integrates more fully with the rest of the system. And happily by doing so it creates a more balanced network than the one we have now, or even the much improved network we’ll have once the CRL is built. In the Aotea post I looked at connecting North to East, and West to South. Here is another option with different advantages: North/South and East/West; forming a simple cross shaped network of two lines. Potential 2030+ network:
'The Cross' possible North-South and West-East network model
Now feel free to haggle about various details. How exactly the airport is best reached is a whole debate in itself and deserving of its own post. And whether the North Shore line just heads to Akoranga and Takapuna and allows the the busway north of the Aoranga Interchange Station to serve the northern Shore is also a good debate. You can see that I’m not a great fan of the full Onehunga to Avondale line as it has both a very expensive steep section and a dubious running pattern. Happy to be argued with about that. Of course if there was a strategy to develop Marsden Pt Port and therefore the freight route was put through this route that would change my view.
The big point is, just two lines: North-South and West-East. Hinging on the all important Aotea Station. Rolling stock stabled at yards on the fringes. I added the Mt Roskill spur because this is a booming area and the buses there could do with some relief, and because post CRL rail will be so much faster on the Western Line into and through the city. But also because it is a cost effective way to balance the Western and Eastern Line running patterns. There are also questions around direct West South running through Grafton: I’m a fan, especially once rail reaches the airport as people from all over will be heading there, and it makes no sense to send every trip through the busiest CBD section. Note that the Mt Eden Station has moved with access to both Dominion Rd and Mt Eden roads and is an inexpensive surface station south of the junction to the tunnel entrance and the branch to Grafton.
The really interesting part with this model is how it elegantly knits the North Shore Line into the Southern Line at the bottom of Parnell with the useful addition of a University Station and gives us an opportunity to all but avoid the slow and inefficient loop around the back of Vector arena:
CITY CENTRE 'The Cross'
Here’s a close up of Stanley St. Sitting on the train through here I have often thought how easy it would be to just straighten that bridge out at the bottom of Parnell stay above the traffic on a short viaduct and slide into a tunnel entrance into the cliff on Constitution Hill. Especially as it is so painful crawling around the back of the Vector Arena, and how many of those on board are heading up town from Britomart anyhow. This would also sort out the conflicted Britomart entrance at Quay Park, leaving it for Eastern Line and Intercity trains only.
There are two options, the northerly one over the pub, or a more southerly one between two buildings on the east side of Stanley St, if possible. Unfortunately the building site in the background image between these two is now a building, occupied by Kiwi Rail on the floor level with the track [!]. The land on the other side of Stanley Street I believe is owned by NZTA as they have further massive motorway plans for poor old Grafton Gully.
Parnell to Aotea Options
A University station would be tricky to site and make for a short run to Aotea, but would be extremely busy immediately and not only for the Universities but also the courts, the Art Gallery, the Library and so on. But more importantly I think it is essential to take pressure off Aotea Station as it would likely to become overwhelmed by both Southern Line and Northern Line riders as the only central city destination. There are of course heritage factors to consider too, as there are preexisting tunnels [and here] in the basalt and scoria on this route. But what a great opportunity to access them. We could leave the station cavity rock walls exposed , in an even cooler volcanic version of the Stockholm Subway. There are so many ways our network could be wonderful see here from examples from around the world. I particularly like Shanghai’s light show.
Personally I think the University Station could be called Princes St, Albert Park or even Albert Barracks and it should be sited with very public street entrances as well as in the quad as it’s not just about the Universities. It seems to make more sense for the line from Wynyard Point to be under Wellesley St than Victoria St, but either way here are a couple of options with possible station exists in white:
University Station options- 'Albert Park'
No route with underground stations and tunneling is cheap. But it is not as long nor as steep as the CRL. Of course the harbour crossing is expensive too. But that needs to be put into the context of the numbers that the proposed road crossing of the harbour come to. And it would staged; Aotea to the busway Interchange Station at Akoranga is essentially the harbour crossing. And this plan to link this line to the existing Southern line could follow later. The real question is about the value of these competing ideas for the city as a whole. The fact that there is absolutely nowhere for thousands of additional cars to go either side of any further road crossing whereas a line like this can move tens of thousands of people day and night irrespective of the congestion above both into and right through the city. It directly connects the businesses and beaches of Takapuna to everywhere on the rest of the network including the airport. Like the CRL it helps unlock the hidden value in our already existing long rail lines.
Albany to Airport: It could be called the ‘A’ Line or the ‘A’ Train: ….I look forward to your views.
The 'A' Train; from 8th Ave to Rockaway Beach
I had a few moments spare in the city library yesterday and thought I’d have a peek up at the Auckland Research Centre. This section of the library is great for finding old plans and proposal on anything related to transport or urban planning (by the way, just about every report, plan or meeting minutes from any council in Auckland is held on desk copy in the archives in the library basement. If you ever wanted to know about any council document it is there).
While there I luckily found what I was looking for, a copy showing the 1972 Rapid Transit Plan for Auckland. The history of this plan is eerily similar to our current situation in many ways. It was a revolutionary scheme championed by the charismatic mayor of Auckland Dove Myer Robinson (leading to the nickname ‘Robbie’s Rapid Rail’), despite the mayoralty and council not having the means to actually fund the thing independently. They began working on alternate funding solutions such as a targeted land tax but found them impossible to implement without support from Wellington. In the end by the Labour government reluctantly offered an election pledge to fund the proposal, but failed to deliver on that pledge. A wholly unsupportive National government were voted into power in 1975 and in 1976 the plan was cancelled completely.
The 1972 plan was based on the De Leuw Cather report of 1965, and it actually goes into very fine detailed design, modelling of patronage and economic analysis. It even goes so far as to include scale diagrams of the necessary grade separations on the western line, designs for park and ride stations and timetables for the integrated bus feeder services. One wonders if project DART planners couldn’t have simply checked this document out from the library and got stuck in!
I’ve taken photos of two pages that outline that out line the main components of the scheme so I’ll go through the interesting features of each one. Overall it is such a huge shame we didn’t build this scheme, as it would have provided us with a five line rapid rail transit system with a central city underground loop, fed by integrated bus feeders and park-n-ride and a focus on development around key nodes. Auckland would be a much different (and in my opinion better) place if we’d had such a system shaping the city’s development for the last thirty years.
The city loop (an actual loop)
Unlike the current proposals for a City Rail Tunnel, the 1972 scheme did actually contain a tight loop of tunnels under the core of the CBD. Two main stations were proposed: one downtown in the vicinity of theQueen St/Shortland Street intersection, and a second midtown between Queen Stand Mayoral Drive, about halfway between Aotea Square and Albert park. A third city station was to be built at K Rd, but this would have been a stop on the western line only.
The City Loop proposal from 1972. Click to view full detail.
Now I’m generally against rail loops, especially one way loops but this one seems to be small and tight enough to work. With only two stations and about a two kilometres right around it would be very quick to circuit and would have worked well. (Compare this to the modern suggestion of using the City Rail Tunnel and the existing Newmarket to Britomart line as a loop: that would be 9.3km around with seven or eight stops on the way. Just plain loopy!).
We can see that the main link to the existing system comes via a tunnel and viaduct leading to the old Auckland Station. Indeed next to the former railway hotel opposite the station buildings there is still the empty section of cliff where the viaduct was to enter the tunnel. A good benefit of this scheme is that it maintained the old terminus as a proper ‘central station’ for long distance trains and generally kept them clear of the suburban tunnel operations. Also visible is the tunnelled link to theNorthShoreline, which passes underneathWynyardWharf. If only we had that tunnel today we could already have the station for the waterfront development.
As an aside, if you look closely at that page (sorry about the quality, I snapped it on a camera phone) you can see the full central motorway junction plans in all their monstrous glory. Notice how the spaghetti stretches right down Grafton gully to a elevated Eastern Motorway, while the CMJ is insanely complex due to the links to the mercifully never built Dominion Motorway (note how the Dominion Motorway runs beside the huge new North Rd interchange, rather than through it as commonly assumed). Could we image the traffic nightmare the full junction would be today, not to mention the urban destruction? Sounds like Dante’s tenth circle of hell to me, a combination of Limbo and Treachery.
The suburban network
Moving on to the second image we see the real extent of the rapid transit system proposed. One thing I can’t quite figure out is whether the dots indicate the only stations, or if they are simply the major stations. If it is the former then the plan involved a major rationalisation of stations and would have been a really rapid rail system.
For example the southern line would have only six stop between Newmarket and Papakura allowing for some lightning transit times! I guess we can assume that every station would have been a major bus interchange and almost all passengers would have used a feeder bus to get to their local station. An interesting omission here is a Manukau link, perhaps we would have seen Papatoetoe or Manurewa be the ‘centre’ of south Auckland instead, or perhaps they would have simply built the branch at the time Manukau was first developed rather than thirty years later. Looking at the lines in turn now, perhaps the most obvious addition is the North Shore rail line. Not surprisingly the station locations are almost exactly the same as the busway interchanges. The first is one at the bottom of Onewa Rd in Northcote, originally planned for the busway but never built. Next we have stations as Barry’s Point (aka Akoranga), Wairau valley (aka Sunnynook), Sunset Rd (aka Constellation) andAlbany. From there the line takes quite an interesting route north, via a station at Redvale (presumably a big park n ride?) it curves around the waterfront at Stillwater to a station half way along the Whangaparoa peninsula like a sort of rail based Penlink. Again with only six stations between Whangaparoa and the CBD transit times would have been around 30 minutes or less.
The rapid rail network proposal from 1972. Click to view full detail.
The western line appears much the same, except for the fact there are only four stations remaining between Henderson and town. The main difference is that the route leaves the existing line at Ranui and curves north along a ridge beside Don Buck Drive to terminate at as station called ‘Hobsonville’, which if we look closely is actually right where Westgate exists today. A quick glance at Google Maps shows that this ridge line is still largely undeveloped, perhaps we could still use this route to extend the rail line up to Westgate and the upper harbour?
Over on the Eastern Line close inspection shows something interesting. Unlike the Western and Southern which use the existing tracks, it looks like the eastern rapid rail would have run alongside the existing tracks in the same corridor. In particular we can see a station at St Johns Rd and an alignment that appears to cross over the existing tunnel, both of which suggests the new line was intended to climb up the hill rather than use the low level tunnel. I guess this is in order to keep the old ones for port freight. Perhaps this is something we could still look too in the future (that is keeping the existing eastern line tracks for freight and building a new set in the corridor to specifically to take rapid transit), especially if we were considering some from of light rail or light metro for a line out to Botany and beyond. At Panmure the rapid rail line has definitely deviated from the main line and it passes east of the Panmure lagoon before passing further east to new stations at Pakauranga and Harris Rd (just before contemporary Botany Town Centre) to terminate at Howick. Apart from the last station, this route is pretty much the same today on the Auckland Plan and the AMETI busway plans. This is an interesting concept, modern designs have rapid transit to Botany then heading along Te Iririangi Drive, but a spur out toward Howick would certainly get right deep into the neighbourhoods on the Howick peninsula.
The last line is quite a curious one. The outer section of this is extremely similar to current proposals for an Airport/southwest suburbs line, more or less following the motorway corridor from Onehunga to the Airport via Mangere Town Centre. The interesting bit is on the inner section: rather than travelling along the Onehunga branch and the Southern line into the city, it actually swings up part of the old Avondale-Southdown corridor through to Mt Roskill then along Dominion Rd straight into town. Certainly this would be quite a good way to get a direct trip to the airport plus take care of the central ithsmus transport needs at the same time. A close look at the map suggest the line runs parallel just east of Dominion Rd, presumably in the same corridor as the proposed motorway. Luckily for us we never carved that horrific scar across the central suburbs, however unfortunately that likewise make such a rail line quite infeasible today. I suppose a long Dominion rail tunnel or some sort of light rail or metro system could work (if we had the funds), but generally I think a rail line via Onehunga paired with trams on Dominion Rdwill take care of those transport needs.
From a modern viewpoint this system is extremely radial and CBD focussed, like the system in Melbourne. However if we had had these lines in place by the late 80s we can assume that other lines would have been built since, for example the Te Irirangi – Flatbush corridor probably would have included a rail link between the eastern and southern lines in addition to an expressway, and probably over to the airport too. Likewise completing the gaps in the route between Avondale, Onehunga,Westfieldand Panmure would have been a logical choice for an ithsmus line linking all the main radials.
A real shame this network ended up being cancelled shortly before it got started, but perhaps there is a thing or two we could learn from this proposal for the future of rapid transit in Auckland.
The Auckland Plan (submissions close October 31st) takes a fairly long-term viewpoint of Auckland’s future, looking to 2041 when the population may well be as high as 2.5 million. Here are the projected population numbers for Auckland over the next 30 years, and how they compare with cities throughout the rest of New Zealand: A population of 2-2.5 million in 2041, if the medium or high projections are what turns out to happen, would put us in a situation similar to that of Greater Vancouver (current population 2.2 million). Add in our limited capacity to expand the roading network, hopefully a greater focus on aligning land-use plans to encourage intensification around public transport corridors and the inevitability of much higher petrol prices and you have the recipe for significantly higher public transport patronage in 2041 than what we have now. As impressive as our increase in train patronage has been over the past 10 years (especially since 2003 when Britomart opened), if you compare Auckland with Perth and Vancouver, you can see that we’re really just scratching the surface: Realising this level of rail patronage in Auckland will obviously require massive changes in the structure of our public transport system. Vancouver’s Skytrain is so incredibly popular because it’s used for all kinds of trips – particularly trips to suburban centres and reverse-commuting trips for those living downtown but working elsewhere. More than half of Skytrain users arrive at their station on the bus, while continuously high frequencies (enabled by its driverless operation) make the system useful for far more than just peak-time commuting: The low proportion of Auckland’s public transport trips taken on the train is fairly unusual, as Ottawa and Honolulu aside (both cities are now expanding light-rail systems), we have one of the lowest proportions of our PT trips on the rail network – clearly a legacy of the rail network being so bad for so long. Comparing Auckland to Vancouver (which is also dominated by bus patronage, even considering the fact that the Skytrain carries around 120 million trips a year) highlights that a more long term ‘balanced’ network might have around three bus trips per rail trip, rather than Auckland’s six bus trips per rail trip.Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane all have much higher proportions of their PT patronage carried by rail. While in Melbourne and Sydney this is because they have huge historic rail networks, Perth had lower rail patronage in the early 1990s than Auckland does now but now has nearly as many rail trips per capita as Auckland has bus trips.
What does all this information actually mean though? I suppose the message I’m trying to get across in all of this is to look at Vancouver and Perth as giving us a view into Auckland’s future. Those cities have shown us that it is possible to have successful rail systems in cities with relatively low densities and without huge legacy rail systems (like you see in Sydney and Melbourne). In short, I think it’s perfectly feasible to expect our rail system to carry 50-100 million or more passengers a year in the medium-term future. But what kind of system might that require?
The obvious point to make is that we need to use our existing rail asset far more effectively. Electrification will enable that to an extent, but we’re still stuck at a train every 10 minutes – meaning a capacity of little more than 4000 passengers per hour per direction, a fraction of a railway line’s potential capacity. The City Rail Link is, of course, necessary to enable our existing railway lines to operate to their capacity. Beyond the City Rail Link, completing an Airport/Southwest Line would enable a pretty useful system based around two lines:
If the maximum capacity of your railway line is around a train every 2 and a half minutes (24 tph), then theoretically a train could run every 5 minutes each way along both the red line and the green line. Obviously it will be a while before we need to run this level of service, even at peak times, but it effectively doubles the capacity of the line in each direction and quadruples the capacity of trains into the CBD because there are now two entrances (from Britomart and from Mt Eden).
A next line to put through, half of which seems to be progressing in the thinking of the powers to be (North Shore rail), half unfortunately not (a Southeast Line) could be this: Aside from the shared track between Glen Innes and town, this new line could theoretically be developed as a “Light Metro” along the lines of what Nick said recently in this post. The southeast portion of this line would probably be really useful in the next 20 years, although because we’re already building an AMETI busway chances are it’s probably quite a long way away from becoming a reality, if it ever happens.
Another possible future line, one which already has its route protected actually, is between Avondale and Southdown. This line would probably be of most use for freight – enabling freight trains to bypass Newmarket and the really high frequency passenger trains we’re likely to run on the inner part of the network in the future. Building that line enables an isthmus loop line though – which is quite an interesting idea for future service routings: Supplemented by a Northwest Busway (or a northwest rail line?) (perhaps linking through to Albany via SH18?), excellent quality feeder buses in the outer parts of the city, a high-frequency grid of bus routes on the Auckland isthmus, perhaps a few tram routes where they make sense and I think we might have found ourselves the public transport system to really support a city of 2.5 million people in a future where driving as much as we do now simply isn’t feasible.
The transport section of the recently released Draft Auckland Plan makes for very encouraging reading, with the main priority being the development of Auckland’s transport infrastructure into a single cohesive network integrated with land use and development. The main ‘principle’ for achieving this (apart from a much needed look at revised and new transport funding mechanisms) is the development of Auckland’s railways into a true rapid transit system. The plan is to build the city rail link at its core and new suburban extensions at its periphery, to unleash the existing demand while promoting intensification of development in the right places to create a longer term mode shift.
Right now the City Rail Link is gathering momentum and I am confident it will be incontestable once Auckland experiences the patronage explosion that will undoubtedly accompany the new electric rail fleet. Once we have addressed the capacity and integration issues at the core, the easiest next step would be to extend the Onehunga branch via the residences and jobs of Auckland’s southwestern suburbs and the airport zone, forming a fourth main line linking from the CBD to Manukau. At this point we would be looking at a very functional rapid rail system, with new electric trains gliding seamlessly from the one side of the region, through the CBD then across the other. A network of four integrated lines sharing a tunnel at the centre carrying commuters in comfort, speed and reliability across most of the region, while providing a massive boost of access to the central city without any impact on the on the existing urban fabric. Fanstastic!
However, the question then comes: where do we go to from there? A quick glance back at the Auckland Plan shows several more rapid transit corridors, in particular routes across the North Shore via a new harbour crossing, through the outer eastern suburbs to service the growth zones of Botany and Flat Bush, plus across the upper harbour and along parts of the Northwestern motorway to provide much needed rapid transit there. To complete all of these rapid transit corridors would be the best solution we have for Auckland’s transport problems, but how to go about it?
Where to next for Auckland rapid transit, more buses and trains?
The simplest and most immediate answer is to build a series of busways, starting where they are needed the most and then expanding into longer contiguous corridors. Buses have the ability to climb just about any hill and take any corner, and can easily run on local roads where appropriate. The Northern busway is a good example of how we can pick the low hanging fruit and get some huge gains from our public transport without tackling the big and expensive issues (like a new harbour crossing) immediately.
The rapid transit network from the Auckland plan (including the NW gap). Some of the yellow and blue corridors could be very difficult to complete with heavy rail
However as we have also seen with the busway this approach is somewhat limited by it’s relatively low people carrying capacity, while the dispersed nature doesn’t promote much change in land use. It also has the unfortunate side effect of pumping tons more buses onto already congested city streets. Not exactly ideal when the goal is to decongest streets in order to work more efficiently and make them livable urban spaces. Furthermore operating rapid transit with buses can have surprisingly high staffing costs, particularly because each bus and driver can only move around 40 to 50 people at a time. This leads to high operating costs on busy peak routes, plus a tendency to cut frequencies in the off peak to avoid losing money on less busy routes.
It seems that buses are probably the best way to get the ball rolling in the short term, and we should strive for busways and bus lanes to be introduced in all major corridors as soon as possible. But to effect a significant mode shift and create a real change in land use bus based corridors can only go so far, so we need to look to the next step also.
Having discounted buses as a very effective long term solution, then perhaps the best idea to simply to expand the network through new electrified railways using the same track standards and trains as we will have already. This approach definitely has its appeal: modern electric suburban trains are fast, capacious and comfortable, they have low operating costs per passenger on busy routes, they are reliably run on their own tracks free from road congestion, and can be tunnelled under sensitive or highly developed areas. Overall rail based rapid transit is what Auckland needs to really get changes in land use and make a significant mode shift. A new rail station linked to the rest of the network by a modern train every few minutes is likely to allow people to change their travel habits, and encourage residential development and new businesses to set up shop nearby. I’m not sure if the same can be said for a bus stop on a route that leads to a busway somewhere down the road.
But railways have a critical Achilles Heel. While upgrading and integrating our existing rail lines is a very cost effective way to realise the capacity inherent in the corridors we already have, building brand new ones can be eye-wateringly expensive.
Main line railways must have particularly gentle grades and curves in order to operate at high capacity, high speed and high frequency. For example the city rail link tunnel will be at the limit of what regular trains can handle, just to make up the rise in terrain from Britomart to Mt Eden. Auckland has had to specify extra powerful EMU trains to handle the grades of 1 in 33 in the tunnel, yet over at the harbour bridge and along the busway grades of 1 in 20 are not uncommon. At the end of the day suburban rail is built to the same basic characteristics as freight trains and intercity railways.
This means in a hilly harbour city like Auckland any new line will be comprised mostly of expensive structures like cuttings, embankments, viaducts and tunnels in order to keep the line straight and even, while threading new lines into the existing urban fabric effectively means long sections of tunnel or long swathes of properties being purchased and demolished. The irony here is that the very qualities that make new suburban train lines almost essential for Auckland are the same ones that make them almost unattainable.
Now at this point I must say that new railways are still far more cost effective than trying to provide the same capacity with new motorway developments. Given a like-for-like comparison trying to build a new railway across Auckland would be expensive, but trying to build a brand new motorway would be masochistic. Yet to be realistic the cost of new urban railways is still going to be the largest stumbling block, especially with a government so intent on wasting most of our transport funds on an economically destructive fetish for boondoggle motorways.
Light metro as a third option
This leaves Auckland in something of a predicament. On one hand we need more rail based rapid transit to get the real step change in land use and mode share we need, yet we can -for now- barely secure funding for less than ideal bus based solutions. If only there was some sort of rail system that could be built and operated cheaply without the usual constraints of main line railways, but still give much the same level of superior performance we need from a rapid transit system.
Well there is. It’s not surprising to learn that Auckland isn’t the only city to have faced such a dilemma. There are many mid sized cities like ours than need a first rate transit system without spending first rate funds. Generally this has come in the form of ‘light metro’: metro style rail systems designed solely to move people around cities on dedicated corridors free of the constraints of other heavy metro or railway systems based on the demands of freight trains or intercity carriages. In this regard these metros are ‘light’ on cost and construction, but not necessarily light on capacity or performance. Note that the term metro is used here to refer to the service model, it needn’t necessarily be built underground like the metros of Paris or New York.
Light metro may present just what Auckland needs to extend its rapid transit system once the core suburban rail network is completed.
Introducing ART: New technology light metro
One such light metro system in the Bombardier Advanced Rapid Transit (ART), used most famously onVancouver’s Skytrain, but also found in various cities including Kuala Lumpur, New York, Beijing and Seoul. Although there are various other light metro systems across the globe (such as the Docklands Light Railway in London or the Copenhagen metro), I will use ART as the gold standard for light metro in this post. It is the most advanced and most common example worldwide and has the longest track record stretching back to the first line in Vancouver that has been in continuous use since 1985. One interesting point is that this technology used to be known as the “Intermediate Capacity Transit System” (or ICTS), however they dropped the name once they realised it can actually provide more capacity that many regular metro systems!
So what differentiates this system from regular trains?
First of all let’s look at the main innovations of an ART type system and see why these innovations were introduced:
1) Driverless operation
No one here but us passengers
Yep that’s right, no drivers. Much like a giant horizontal elevator, the ART is controlled entirely by a central computer system during routine operation (there is a small lockable control panel that can be used during maintenance, testing and emergency situations). Because staffing is the number one cost in any transit system this has amazing benefits. Not only does it make the system far cheaper to operate, it means the marginal cost of putting on another train is low. This is basically just the cost of the electricity used, so suddenly you only need a small number of paying passengers on each train to make running it worthwhile. This means that running trains very frequently becomes affordable, and frequencies can be kept at peak-hour levels most of the time. With driven trains the tendency is to have one bigger train run less frequently to minimise the staffing costs, say a six-carriage set every fifteen minutes. With driverless trains the costs are basically by the carriage-kilometre, making it the same cost to run a two-carriage train every five minutes as a six-carriage train every fifteen. Same number of vehicles, same capacity but three times the frequency!
It also means that without needing actual people in charge, running a train at 3am on a Sunday morning or in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve is no harder or more expensive than running one on a weekday morning. Frequent operation all day long, even 24/7/365, becomes perfectly achievable. Also the lack of a drivers cab means space for more passengers in each train, not to mention a nice view out the front windshield!
2) Computer controlled system with rolling block signalling
On most train systems lines are split into a sequential series of ‘blocks’ to keep trains a safe distance apart from each other and prevent collisions. Generally a driver cannot enter a block until the train in front is perfectly clear of it and signals like traffic lights are used to alert drivers when they can go or when they have to stop. This works fine on main lines but can cause limitations at high frequencies, and generally if you have flat junctions on the line about the best you can get away with is a train every three minutes per track. Without human drivers traditional signalling is not needed, and the ART system uses ‘rolling-block’ signalling. Here there are no fixed blocks or signals, but the computer simply ensures sufficient stopping distance is maintained between trains at all times. It’s a bit like the ‘two second rule’ for keeping a safe following distance while driving. The end result is that ART can safely run trains every 75 seconds, including routing them through junctions.
3) Linear Induction Traction Motors
Linear induction motors
This sounds a bit like something out of Star Trek, but the concept is very simple. Regular electric trains have motors attached to the wheels to provide motive power. Electric motors are very elegant machines, far more simple and powerful than diesel engines. They are basically comprised of a coil of wire wrapped around a magnet attached to a driveshaft (called a rotor). If you put current through the wire coil it creates a magnetic field, this pushes against the rotor causing it to turn and providing the force to drive the wheels. If you cut the current to a moving motor the process works in reverse in a process known as ‘regenerative braking’: moving the rotor induces a current in the coil which provides resistance for braking and converts the momentum of the train back into electricity.
A linear induction motor takes this simple concept and refines it even further. Instead of having a ring of wire the linear induction motor has it’s ‘coil’ stretched out along the underside of carriage, while the rotor takes the form of a metal plate affixed to the track between the rails. Apply current to the ‘coil’ fixed to the train and it pushes against the track itself for propulsion. The benefit here? Well firstly it means the motor has zero moving parts, thus increasing the lifetime of the equipment and reducing the cost of maintenance. But more importantly, propulsion and braking are not limited by how much traction you can get between the steel wheel and the steel rail because the train pushes magnetically against the track itself. This means that ART trains can climb and descend grades over twice as steep as conventional trains.
4) Steerable bogies
On a regular train the wheels are fixed to the bogies because the rails do all the steering. This is usually quite fine, except on tight curves where the pressure of the wheel flange against the rail can result in a nasty screeching noise and cause excessive wear on the rails. Anyone who has ridden a train into Britomart will have experienced this on the tight curve around the Vector Arena. The ART design overcomes this by having wheels that can turn into the corner much like a road vehicle. The end result is a vehicle that can take even tighter curves than normal trains without any of the noise, and less track maintenance to boot.
5) Compact body design with third rail power.
Like most light metro designs, the ART has a relatively compact body shell, lightweight aluminium construction and third rail power supply rather than overhead line. This creates a lightweight train that can climb those steep grades, yet requires only minimal amounts of clearance in tunnels or under bridges.
So how do these innovations translate into benefits for the Auckland context?
In many ways as it happens. Firstly the lighter vehicles and ability to take much steeper grades and tighter curves makes it easy to construct new routes over and around Auckland’s hilly, harbour side terrain. Ground level tracks can follow the contours of the land to a great extent; underpasses of roads need not be very deep, while elevated structures and viaducts could be much lighter and lower profile. Now nobody wants to see an elevated line blocking out the sky on Queen St or ruining the Domain, but in a place like Albany or Westgate it might be the perfect way to get stations right where they need to be.
A Bombardier ART MkII in Kula Lumpur
The relatively small cross section and agility of the ART would make tunnelling lines a much cheaper prospect also. For example a line through the CBD could be built just below the surface using the cheap cut-and-cover tunnelling method, as the line could easily follow the contours and curves of city streets. The factors would also make it simple to upgrade existing and future busways. For example the Northern Busway would need massive reconstruction and modification to support a regular rail line, but only a simple refit with rails instead of tarmac to take an ART light metro. There is also the tantilising prospect of running a metro line over the harbour bridge, as the ART could handle the grade. This could also prove to be an effective model for other busways, such as the ones mooted for the Northwestern Motorway or AMETI corridor. We can start with a busway at the core, then after ten or fifteen years upgrade and extend the corridor with light metro.
This has the potential to shave billions of the cost of building brand new rail lines (to the North Shore or the Botany-Flatbush area, for example), and makes linking them together with another tunnel through the city an economically feasible idea. While the ‘smart’ vehicles and track systems are likely to be somewhat more expensive than regular ‘dumb’ trains, the capital costs of constructing new light-metro alignments would be far far lower than the heavy rail alternative.
A second benefit is that driverless operation means they can be cheaply run at high frequency all day and night, without always needing high occupancy to offset costs. High frequency means great ‘turn-up-and-go’ accessibility, so we could design bus feeder routes around bus-to-bus interconnections without having to consider connecting to any one particular train. This high frequency also translates into high capacity. In Vancouver the Skytrain lines are usually run with just four-carriage trains, but because the come so often the peak capacity in each direction is around 25,000 people per hour. That is more than even our new EMU trains could ever achieve. Extra trains can be bought into play where and when they are needed for special events without rostering staff or paying overtime. Overall this means very affordable operating costs, which is important politically and economically. In Vancouver, a city that has lesser population density and centralised employment than our own, Skytrain actually makes an operational profit.
Thirdly, with the very fast headways and rolling block signalling made possible with computer control, flat junctions can be switched very frequently and many trains can share the same section of track over a short period. Furthermore the driverless operation means that it a terminating train takes no longer to change direction than it does to make any other stop, making it simple to operate branch lines frequently. This all provides a lot of flexibility in terms of having many lines on the map, despite only a little infrastructure on the ground. The London DLR is a good example of this benefit: this has two main lines and two branch lines linked at three junctions, but the services are typically operated along seven different patterns between various points on the network. Look at a track diagram and you see two main tracks, look at the route map on the station wall and you see seven different coloured lines each representing a separate passenger line.
Fourth, the driverless operation means that long crosstown lines become possible without concern for rotating crews or factoring in meal and rest breaks. This means we could have, for example, a line running from Orewa to Manukau all day long with it only ever stopping just long enough to let passengers on and off. That means no lengthy delays in the middle while drivers swap in and out (Melbourne is plagued by this on its City Loop), and making intermediate trips between suburbs are just as time-reliable as those to the CBD. Furthermore it almost eliminates wasted time or wasted vehicle trips, so we need less trains overall to provide the same level of passenger service.
Fifthly, the quiet motors and screech free steering make for very smooth and quiet operation, while the flexible grade and curve characteristics would make it simple to duck underground at sensitive areas. This would allow us to get stations right in close to residences and workplaces without creating noise and vibration problems, and to get routes through the city and suburbs without major impacts upon urban or natural features.
Is all this techo mumbo jumbo really realistic, what are the pitfalls?
In short, the answer is yes. These systems have been in daily operation in Canada for twenty-five years with an exceptional track record: over 1 billion passengers carried with six extensions since 1989 and no full suspension of service for construction or commissioning. The two main lines carry over 240,000 passengers a day. The linear induction motor is extremely reliable; many of Vancouver’s original 1985 Mk I trains have accumulated over 3.8 million kms with only one minor overhaul of the motor and are still going strong.
There would no doubt be various objections to introducing new light metro line to Auckland, even if the initial hurdle of political and public scepticism could be overcome. The main issue is perhaps the lack of interoperability, for example a line on the North Shore could not run into the city rail tunnel, nor could it take freight or intercity trains to the north of the country. In a way this is actually something of a benefit, the single urban-transit mode would ensure regular high frequency operation could not be disturbed by other transport uses. In the first instance connection to the other lines using the city rail tunnel should be made in the CBD and wherever else possible, but this should only be by passenger connection rather than by trying to run everything through the same set of tracks. In the second instance there already exists heavy rail lines heading north and south out of the city, and maintaining these for freight and long distance passenger access is no doubt the best idea. A new metro line would need a new stabling yard and maintenance facility, however this is likely to be the case too with any suburban rail extension.
Perhaps the best way to frame this issue is to consider a heirarchy of rail and public transport, each stage being ‘sectorised’ from each other. The first level is that of freight, regional and intercity trains, these would operate from the freight yards and Britomart terminal, using the main trunk lines to head north and south of the city. The second level is that of the suburban rail, using the existing and proposed suburban rail network and operating through the city rail tunnel very frequently at peak hours and approximating a metro system at the centre. The third level is that of our light metro, providing urban passenger-only services separate from the suburban lines. but directly interconnected with them into a wider rapid transit network. The fourth level would be street level bus and tram services, providing local access and feeding into the higher levels.
A light metro system such as Bombadier’s Advanced Rapid Transit could represent a way to establish high quality metro style rail routes across Auckland at a fraction of the capital or operating costs of conventional heavy rail or underground metro systems, meaning more lines could be built to more areas in a shorter time frame given the same amount of funding. Lines with low capital and operating costs yet frequent high quality service would no doubt perform well on any benefit-cost analysis, potentially making it much more feasible to secure funding for them.
After the essential City Rail Link is built and our existing rail lines are being used to their maximum potential, we will need to ask ourselves “where to next?” Do we look at developing the next suburban heavy rail line in Auckland, or the first metro line instead?