Rethinking Airport Rail

At the Auckland Transport Board meeting earlier this week, I did a presentation on behalf of the Campaign for Better Transport on airport rail, making the following points in a “one-pager” to the Board.

1.    In our view the Jacobs “SMART Indicative Business Case | PDF” report underestimates the potential catchment of heavy rail, we assume because of the arbitrary requirement for a single seat journey to the airport.

On this point, the following from p.83 of the report shows the catchment for the heavy rail option.  It clearly does miss out stations on the Western line, as well as the yet-to-be-built K Rd and Parnell stations.


2.    We consider that some of the costs of heavy rail attributed to the airport heavy rail option will most likely be incurred anyway – in particular work required around level crossings.

3.    We consider there is a high risk that the predicted Dominion Road journey times for light rail are overly optimistic, depending on the degree of separation from general traffic.

4.    Implementation of either heavy rail or light rail from the north of the Airport is likely to be decades away and very costly.

5.    Putting aside the report’s assessment of heavy rail vs light rail, we note that the three key problems identified in the Jacobs report do not have to be addressed by a single solution:

a) Constrained access to the Auckland Airport will limit economic growth and productivity;

b) Limited transport choice undermines liveability and economic prosperity for the Māngere-Ōtāhuhu area; and

c) Unaffordable and inflexible planned transport investment constrains access to the Auckland Airport and surrounding business districts and Māngere-Ōtāhuhu area

As is so often the case with any project, defining the problems you are trying to solve is paramount.  The SMART study has some useful points, but it is flawed as it is implicit that a single solution must meet all three problems.  By redefining the problem, the Puhinui solution emerges as an option to be considered.

6.    We ask the Board to take the same approach as ATAP in measuring transport effectiveness.  In the context of Auckland Airport, the measure would be the potential catchment of public transport users within a 45 minute radius of the Airport.  This should not preclude transfers between modes to meet this target and should therefore necessarily examine the option of a transfer at Papatoetoe or Puhinui.

7.    We note that the Jacobs report identified that 7,350 daily commuters originate from Manukau and the east, twice as many than that originating from the north and central Auckland.

This was the point that Patrick raised in this post back in August.  The Jacobs report helpfully included this map on p. 36.

AIRPORT Commuter movements

8.    The current Airport 380 bus service connecting at Papatoetoe to rail services yields a fastest possible PT journey time of about 49 minutes from Auckland Airport to Britomart.  However, there are a number of issues associated with transferring at Papatoetoe: frequency of service; ease and legibility of transfers, and the lack of a RTN quality right-of-way.

49 minutes is my own personal best for a trip from Auckland Airport to the CBD.  It was a bit of a fluke as the 380 arrived at Papatoetoe about 1 minute before the train arrived.  “Legibility of transfers” is a reference to the same bus stop being used for both Manukau-bound and Airport-bound directions of the same service.  Moving the transfer point to Puhinui would have a positive impact on reducing the CBD – Auckland Airport journey time, but it will be absolutely critical for any new service to be much more frequent than the current half hourly service and it would have to be in its own right-of-way to avoid the ever increasing congestion along 20B.


9.    It is timely to bring to the attention of the Board that NZTA is currently planning a widening of 20B along the Puhinui Rd alignment for general traffic.

In actual fact Auckland Transport officials were already aware of this, but in the past Auckland Transport have had to play catch-up with New Zealand Transport Agency.  Hopefully there will come a day where Auckland Transport advance public transport projects ahead of the NZTA’s road building exploits. AT have even gone as far as looking at catchments and alignments of what could be the Botany Line, which are shown in these two illustrations that were supplied to us.



Desired outcomes:

1.    As a matter of urgency, AT should work with the NZTA to designate a rail corridor east of Auckland Airport on the 20B alignment with a connection to the main trunk line.  This designation work should also consider extending further east to include Botany.

2.    Immediately establish a bus shuttle service between Puhinui Station and Auckland Airport, preferably with bus priority measures.

3.    Auckland Transport should continue with designating a rail corridor between Onehunga and Auckland Airport.

That final point is important.  The residents of Mangere and surrounding areas deserve decent rapid transit as much as anywhere else in Auckland, and they really have been short-changed by successive organisations failing to plan a rapid transit corridor.  Perhaps if the main CBD – Airport connection is decided to be via Puhinui, then alternative alignments could be looked at between Onehunga and Mangere that have greater catchments and, potentially, could be a bit cheaper and quicker to implement too.

The presentation was received by the AT Board without much in the way of comment.   It will be very interesting to see how AT evaluate and prioritise a Botany – Puhinui – Airport Line against all the other transport projects going on, including Dominion Rd LRT.   When you look at the potential catchment of the Botany Line and consider that it will probably be cheaper to build, it wouldn’t surprise me if it ranked higher than Onehunga to Auckland Airport rail.  The simple service pattern that would also result from a transfer at Puhinui is also extremely compelling – every Southern or Eastern line train connects to Auckland Airport, both from the north and from the south. We will have to wait and see where this heads now.

Has Len gone loopy?

A statement you won’t often hear on this blog is “I agree with Cameron Brewer” but you will hear it today. It’s in response to an his statements in this article in the Manukau Courier:

Public transport could get another boost if mayor Len Brown’s light rail loop for Manukau gets the green light.

“We want to run light rail from Manukau up through Clover Park, all along Te Irirangi Drive, up to Highland Park, up Panmure Highway and back to Manukau,” he says.

“The idea of getting mass transit into suburban areas is to give commuters flexibility.

“The key thing about running rail down Te Irirangi Drive is that people already complain about the traffic lights holding them up.

“The trains would run down the median strip in the road and they would take priority over cars.”

Light rail costs about an eighth as much as heavy rail to install, he says.

The trains would have a tighter turning circle and carry fewer people than the city’s new electric trains.

“Right now they are in the investigation stage. We really want to do a loop like that in Sydney.”

Brown is keen to get the project done quickly but says there are still many unknowns so no cost has been given.

He’s also keen to get smaller 20-person electric buses running between Manukau and Middlemore Hospital.

“It would also be great to build them here in Auckland and get the investment having a positive economic impact throughout the whole project.”

If I am reading things correctly it would be something like this.

Len Eastern Light Rail proposal

The section from Panmure to Manukau would not be able to use the existing rail lines due to the gauge of the tracks and the fact that the tracks are/will be full with existing passenger and freight trains. It would also be pointless to duplicate that when it has a considerable amount of capacity in it for quite some time. As for the rest of the proposal, breaking it down the section from Panmure to Highland Park is quite useful due to the huge amount of people living in the area however it does stop short of going a bit further to Howick. Similarly I think the North/South route, particularly the part from Botany to Manukau is useful and is actually listed as eventually being part of the rapid transit network. The median strip along Te Irirangi Dr is huge and supposedly was intended to be used exactly the purpose of running light rail down it.

Te Irirangi Median

and from above where you can see it’s wider than the two lanes either side of it.

Te Irirangi Median above

However while those two routes are useful I’m not sure how well they go together. For someone going from Botany to Panmure that’s quite a detour unless Len is intending this to be on top of the existing investment that is meant to be going in to the AMETI busway. It seems hard enough getting funding for that let alone this which at about 20km in length would surely be at least $300 million, probably more. Not only that it distracts focus from what are in my opinion much higher priorities like getting the CRL funded and getting the new network bus implemented properly – by which I mean with fully supported infrastructure like bus lanes and upgraded stops and interchanges. And it’s for this reason I agree with Cameron Brewer.

Councillor Cameron Brewer says the city’s bus infrastructure needs improvement before any light rail projects can get the go-ahead.

“I think the mayor needs to focus on getting the money for the $2.8 billion City Rail Link. This additional project is just not feasible in the foreseeable future.”

I view the mayor’s proposal as kind of like trying to run before you can walk. The other useful thing about getting the bus network sorted first is that it can start building up patronage which would make any future light rail network more successful. It’s also worth considering what the new network proposes for the area which is effectively the red and purple routes (the green route from Otara to Botany was upgraded to a frequent following the southern network consultation).

New Netowrk East

It’s also worth pointing out what we’ve proposed for the area as part of the Congestion Free Network.

CFN East

We’ve proposed these be busways like what is going to be done as part of AMETI as to us the most important thing is getting the quality of the service in as fast as possible. One of the great things about doing this with bus infrastructure first is that it doesn’t preclude light rail in the future but allows us to start getting benefits from congestion free PT corridors quicker and cheaper. So yes perhaps light rail in the area would be great in the future however the priority now is getting some basics done properly. In my opinion this suggestion from Len is an unneeded distraction at this time.

Thinking long-term for our rail system

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 southeast railway line (part 1)

As I mentioned in a post a few days ago on how I think Auckland should integrate transport into its future spatial plan, probably the biggest planning mistake ever made in Auckland’s history is allowing so much development occur east of the Tamaki River: with such poor transport connections. In particular, the planning of this development area occurred at such a time (broadly the 1960s through to last decade) when Auckland really didn’t care much about public transport – so this whole swathe of Auckland ended up with no public transport infrastructure whatsoever – not even a bus lane more than a few metres long along Pakuranga Road.

I plan to do a series of blog posts over the next few days outlining my ultimate solution for solving what I call “the southeast problem”. Ultimately, as the title of the series indicates, I believe we need to build what would be a very expensive railway line out to serve this part of Auckland. While I recognise this seems rather unlikely any time soon (and therefore I have supported interim improvement options like median bus lanes along Ti Rakau Drive) ultimately I think the transport problem faced by this part of Auckland is so significant and the public transport offered is so poor that we will need a railway line out here sooner or later. Furthermore, I think it’s at least worth getting it “on the books” as a possible future project: particularly when it probably makes more sense than other big future projects bandied around: like North Shore Rail or (even worse) another road-based Waitemata Harbour Crossing.

So in this series of blog posts (I will break it into a series so that they’re not too lengthy) I hope to provide a thought-provoking argument for this potential future addition to Auckland’s rail network. The series is broken into three posts – with the next two coming in the next few days:

  1. This post will talk about the need for better public transport out in this part of Auckland and outline how bad things are at the moment.
  2. My next post will discuss a range of possible solutions, their pros and cons and why – eventually – I think it is a southeast railway line that’s needed.
  3. The last post will describe the route of the railway line is some detail. While it certainly requires some tunnelled sections (the extent of the tunnelling will be an interesting point of debate) what’s surprising – to me at least – is how possible the route is through a built up area of the city with demolishing hundreds of houses.

As regular readers of this blog would know, I have discussed the southeast railway line (sometimes referred to as the Howick-Botany Line) in some detail in the past. However, I think it’s useful to “put it all together” so that we can think about the merits of this possibly future project in a holistic sense, that we can compare it to other options and so that we can examine its route in detail.

So, if we start first with the problem. That can be pretty easily established simply by glancing at a map of Auckland’s southeast – a huge development area with very poor transport linkages with the rest of the city. In its broadest sense, I’m talking about the area shaded in red below – although probably not really the southwest corner of it as that’s close to the Southern Motorway, Great South Road and the existing southern railway line.
The Tamaki River forms a natural barrier separating this part of Auckland from the rest of the city. There are two crossings quite near each other around Panmure and Pakuranga, and a relatively new crossing from Highbrook Drive that connects to the Southern Motorway. Any other connections are way further south – around Otara or down near Manukau City: once the Tamaki River has run out effectively.

The limited number of crossings, particularly in the northern part of this area, create a number of significant bottlenecks. Most traffic tends to use the southeast arterial (the route with the number “10” on it in the map to the left). This semi-grade-separated highway eventually joins in with the southern motorway just north of Mt Wellington – meaning that traffic from this whole corner of Auckland eventually merely has a merge lane onto Auckland’s main north-south motorway.

For public transport, the situation is even worse. There are no railway lines, no busway, no bus lanes (aside from the most pathetically short bus lanes you’ll ever see along Pakuranga Road). In short, there’s basically no public transport infrastructure at all. This means that the service is exceedingly slow.

The results of this transport situation can be seen in the statistical data for how people in this part of Auckland get to work. Data for the Howick ward of the Auckland Council (which covers the northern part of the area shown to the left) indicates that at the 2006 census there were 113,508 usual residents living in the ward (this has probably grown quite a bit since then as it’s a fast-growing corner of Auckland). Of those residents, 89,000 were over 15 years of age and of those 89,000 around 58,000 went to work on census day 2006. Yet out of those 58,000 the number who used public transport was minuscule: a mere 1,467 took the bus and 156 somehow took a train. Others may have taken the Half Moon Bay ferry, which would show up under “other”. Even for Auckland, which only has around a 7% modeshare for public transport getting people to work, this area is exceedingly low in terms of its public transport use. There probably were quite a few more than 1200 people a day using the buses out here – as Howick Ward alone contains around 11,000 students (of 15 years or older). This demographic are generally fairly strong PT users, often because they cannot yet afford to own a car.

So what effect does the lack of public transport infrastructure have on the quality of the public transport possible in this corner of Auckland? Well, looking at timetables for the two main routes that service this part of the city, it would seem the main effect is to make catching the bus exceedingly slow. The 50/51 route travels along Pakuranga Road and provides a link between downtown Auckland and Howick/Pakuranga. The 680/681 route travels along Ti Rakau Drive and provides the main link between downtown Auckland and newer developed areas like Botany, Dannemora and Flat Bush.

A trip on the 51 route from Cockle Bay School to Britomart takes around one hour and 15 minutes during peak times. Similarly, a trip from Mission Heights in Flat Bush to Britomart also takes an hour and a quarter. While some express buses exist, and go a rather weird way via Tamaki Drive, they still take at least an hour from start to finish. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these times are often quite optimistic, and can take a lot longer. That’s pretty hopeless really, as a train trip from Pukekohe or a bus trip from the Hibiscus Coast can often be faster than this.

Decades of very poor public transport in this part of Auckland has meant that it has become highly auto-dependent: as shown in the figures above. Considering that many of the people who live in southeast Auckland have come from overseas cities (the Howick Ward of Auckland Council has the highest proportion of its residents born overseas of anywhere in Auckland) which would have often had good public transport systems, it has been a huge missed opportunity to not provide public transport of sufficient quality to this corner of Auckland.

In the next post I’m going to look at possible options for improving PT to southeast Auckland. I’ll have a look at ways to better take advantage of the Half Moon Bay ferry and the merit of current AMETI proposals. Other possible ideas are very welcome!

Southeast RTN – busway, rail, trolley-bus or light-rail?

When Auckland Transport released details of the latest concepts for a southeast busway: along Ti Rakau Drive between Botany and Pakuranga and eventually extending all the way into Panmure, I hesitated and had a pretty good think about whether this was a step in the right direction. On the negative side, if this busway is built to an RTN standard then I think the chances of us ever getting what I’ve called the “Howick/Botany Line” become pretty remote – at least any time in the next 30 years.

It’s a pretty darn awesome railway line in my opinion – improving access to the whole southeast part of Auckland, providing a Botany to Britomart connection in about 25 minutes, avoiding the “what to do at Panmure question”, the lot. Here’s a map of my preferred route:But if I’m realistic, I realise that there was no real hope in hell that this railway line would happen any time soon. To avoid massive environmental effects, most of the section between Glen Innes and Highland Park would probably need to be in a tunnel, while most of the section between Clover Park and Manukau City would also have to be in a tunnel. All up, a project like this would probably have a pricetag of around $3 billion. While I think it’s probably a better spend on $3 billion than a North Shore Line (and certainly a better spend than another road-based harbour crossing), it’s damn clear that we’re unlikely to have such amounts of money rolling around any time soon to embark on something like this.

If southeast Auckland currently had at least half-decent public transport, the lack of funding for a rail project like the one above might not be such a problem. We could just squeeze out small improvements to the current service while going about the task of designating, designing and eventually funding a rail project such as this. A pretty similar process to what might happen on the North Shore. But the problem is that public transport in southeast is nowhere near half-decent; in fact it is utterly terrible. It needs an improvement that is significant, relatively affordable and – perhaps most of all – can be done quickly. In terms of those matters, I think the AMETI busway idea makes a lot of sense.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t debate what the best solution is, taking an overall assessment of our options for the southeast – including both short-term and longer-term considerations. Engineer and public transport supporter Barry Palmer raised some interesting points in an email discussion and at Wednesday night’s Campaign for Better Transport meeting that I think are worth noting and discussing.

He says (with a bit of paraphrasing):

I was dismayed to read the Herald that there is to be provision for a busway in the AMETI development but not a word about any ultimate plan to convert this to light rail in due course.

I note particularly a recent EU report of research carried out in France, Austria and Switzerland on health hazards of traffic exhaust fumes found that: –

*Traffic induced Pollution costs the health system and therefore us about $700 per year per capita, (for NZ about $3 billion per year)

*Social and benefit costs for dependents of those killed or crippled by exhaust fumes is about $470 per year per capita, (for NZ about $2 billion per year).

These colossal amounts will merely be exacerbated along the corridors of the busways. Every new project that increases our exhaust fumes (diesel is 17 times more deadly than petrol which is bad enough) is another cost on our overloaded health budget increasing our rates of lung cancer, other cancers, bronchial and heart diseases.

I have often heard figures mentioning that air pollution in Auckland causes more deaths per year than the entire road toll across New Zealand. One only needs to walk up Victoria Street at around 5pm to smell the horrific fumes the are being emitted by the diesel buses. So I definitely agree with Barry that we should be concerns about emissions from diesel buses. He continues:

My second point is that apart from the above, light rail, although expensive in the beginning, will over time prove to be the less costly option. From the ATPA figures that I am consistently receive; light rail running and maintenance costs are regularly 20% and often 40% below that of a diesel bus operation. These cost comparisons are not immediately apparent either and ignorance of them amongst those who make critical decisions confer on us another substantial cost we could have saved. An LRV has two to three times the life of a bus, has less down time for maintenance and carries two to three times the number of passengers. When coupled a train of them can replace 10 buses (and 10 drivers).

This is an interesting point, and one that I’m interested in learning a bit more about. Undoubtedly light-rail is much more expensive to build than a busway, but if it’s cheaper to run (less staff per passenger, lower fuel costs, lower maintenance costs) at what point do the capital savings from the cheaper construction start to be a false economy? In the end, this may prove to be the telling matter which decides the point at which it is logical to turn the Northern Busway into a railway line: simply because continuing to operate it as a busway may become prohibitively expensive and inefficient.

I have a third point. Light Rail will always do a journey in 20 to 30% less time than a diesel bus. Because it doesn’t carry fuel and with electric motors with initial starting torques far superior to diesel engines and three independent braking systems (disc, regenerative and magnetic brakes on rails), it can accelerate and stop more than twice the rate of diesels and therefore maintain top speed for longer. In addition because of rail guidance its length can be as long as a street block so that its consequential multiple doors allow embarking and disembarking of passengers to be at least double that of a bus. It provides a smoother, quieter, fume-free ride.

Vehicle speed seems to be most dependent on issues like the level of priority given to the buses or trams, the speed they are boarded and the geometry of the route itself. Busways can theoretically offer many of the same measures – but for some reason they tend not to. You tend to need to validate your ticket in front of the driver, the lanes tend to be of a lower quality geometry and (at least until the median busway route was proposed) on-street bus lanes (as opposed to the Northern Busway) tend to be quite stop-start and are therefore greatly influenced by other traffic.

And now a fourth point. Light rail is independent of fossil fuels and would ensure that the eastern suburbs are protected in the inevitable event of an oil shortage. There are 18 main reasons I can supply that this will occur and electrification of public transport to that area is a must. Trolley bus would be a good interim measure and has a lot of the attributes of LRT including its less cost to run over its lifetime, but it does not equal LRT.

Peak oil really in the “elephant in the room” when it comes to future transport issues – something that I think will have a huge effect and will not be able to be mitigated through “lots of electric cars” as this government seems to think. That said, I’m not sure whether I would support trolley buses – as I think they can end up being the worst of both worlds in a tram/bus debate: they don’t offer the improved ride quality and enhanced capacity of a tram yet at the same time they don’t have the route flexibility and low capital costs of an independently powered bus.

Barry’s final point throws an interesting curve-ball into the whole debate: whether or not we should consider light-rail because of the ability to run ‘tram-trains’.

Now my final point is what I would describe as the king hit. Because of the development and outstanding success of a new vehicle now known as the tram-train we have a mode that can run on street-based tracks taking advantage of congestion-free narrow corridors wherever they are available and then access a rail corridor onto rail tracks (e.g. at Panmure through to Britomart and return) providing an unbroken congestion-free journey to the CBD.

I’m not sure how technically feasible these tram-trains (most famous in Karlsruhe) would be for our southeast RTN. I worry that the more “tram-like” they are, the more they would mess with regular trains on the Eastern Line between Panmure and Britomart; or the more ‘train like’ they are, the greater difficulties we would have actually running them on the street between Panmure and Botany.

Overall, I do think Barry makes some excellent points. But I wonder whether this is simply the wrong transport corridor to be focusing on for light-rail. As I’ve mentioned before, I think Dominion Road is probably the most suitable corridor for light-rail in Auckland: because of its existing high demand, because of its existing intensified corridor land-use patters, because of its enormous potential to further develop as a development corridor and so forth. Ti Rakau Drive really doesn’t have many of these qualities. Most of the passengers catching buses along Ti Rakau Drive would probably be coming from areas further south and further east than Botany, on a bunch of routes that would converge and then travel along the busway. Unless we could get the tram-trains to work, we would be forcing a bus-to-tram transfer at Botany and then a tram-to-train transfer at Panmure. While I’m all in favour of building a system around transfers I think that takes things one step too far! Furthermore, in terms of the pollution issues, most of the buses along this busway wouldn’t continue into the city, where pollution caused by diesel buses is probably worst. Once again, if we want to make an improvement to bus pollution and reduce its health effects, we would be better off focusing on a route like Dominion Road which does run into the heart of the city.

So while Barry does make good points and what he says does make sense, I still lean towards still supporting the busway model over light-rail: because of the particular characteristics of this transport corridor. At some point in the future we may wish to upgrade it (if fuel became exceedingly expensive perhaps), although if we reached that point we may actually be wanting to reconsider constructed the Howick/Botany Line after all. A busway can provide a lot of benefit quickly at a relatively low cost – so I think it’s my preferred option for now. As long as we put it down the middle, not to the side!

AMETI Busway extends to Botany

I have often been very scathing of the AMETI transport project in the past, accusing it of being a roadsfest and barely paying lip-service to improving public transport. Well, either my criticisms are starting to pay off – or I was being a bit harsh on the project all along. Because, it would seem, finally the transport planners for this project are getting serious about it having high-quality public transport.

First we had the concepts for a busway through Panmure released a month or two ago. While I suggested this was definitely a step in the right direction, I also noted that a busway through Panmure by itself wouldn’t really achieve much compared to my preferred alternative – a southeast railway line. But now we’re seeing that Auckland Transport is getting serious about this busway idea – with their latest information showing how it will extend for quite a lot further than previously indicated.

Here’s Auckland Transport’s media release:

Busway concepts open for feedback

Auckland Transport will present concepts for a busway to Pakuranga residents this Saturday as part of a project aimed at improving poor public transport in the area.

The dedicated bus lanes along Ti Rakau Drive and a section of Pakuranga Road will be part of a busway that will eventually run from Botany to Panmure train station. It is one of the Eastern Transport Initiative (AMETI) projects which Auckland Transport is now responsible for.

The Eastern Transport Initiative (AMETI) is a group of transport projects for the eastern suburbs. The aim is to provide more transport choice by improving public transport, providing better facilities for walking and cycling, reduce traffic congestion and unlock the economic potential of the area.

A community open day is being held in Pakuranga to get feedback on two concepts for the busway. Being proposed is a central busway, with lanes in both directions in the centre of the road, and a concept with bus lanes in both directions on one side of the road. Open days were held earlier this year in Panmure to discuss plans for that section of the busway.

Pakuranga AMETI open day

When: Saturday 11 December 10 – 4pm, presentation at 11am

Where: Te Tuhi Arts Centre, 13 Reeves Rd Pakuranga.

Auckland Transport Major Projects Manager Rick Walden says the area has the second lowest public transport use in the region after Whangaparaoa.

“The demand is already there for a rapid transit busway between Panmure and Pakuranga. The problem is that buses are delayed by the same congestion as other vehicles.

“Providing dedicated bus lanes will mean a reliable, high frequency service can be provided. It would allow for up to 60 buses an hour between Pakuranga and Pamure.

“Encouraging more people onto public transport is an important part of dealing with the congestion that is holding back economic growth in the area. It will also mean the planned roading improvements provide better results,” Mr Walden says.

Kerbside bus lanes wouldn’t allow an effective rapid transit as buses would need to slow for turning traffic. There would also be safety issues for residents getting in and out of driveways.

Both the central and one side of the road concepts have all bus stops at signalised intersections so pedestrians would always be able to get to a bus stop safely.

Signalised intersections would provide for right turns into side streets. Access to properties and side streets on one side of the road would continue as it is at present.

For the central busway, u-turns will also be permitted to access properties on the other side of the road. The one side of the road option would mean property access would change to be via signalised intersections and slip roads.

Dedicated cycle facilities would be provided either on-road, off-road or both.

The busway will be developed in stages, based on demand, with the first stages between Panmure and Pakuranga town centre. It will then be created in stages along Ti Rakau Drive towards Botany.

The open day will also provide an update on the overall AMETI project, including other improvements in the Pakuranga area.

As I can’t make it to the open day on Saturday I asked Auckland Transport to send me the information, and they have kindly obliged.

The slide below (which is from the document linked to directly above) gives an overview of what is planned between Pakuranga and Botany as part of AMETI: While I still have some concerns about parts of this project – like the Reeves Road flyover which is bound to completely destroy the urban fabric of the Pakuranga town centre – I’m exceptionally glad that all the proposals for public transport are now based around the main route being of a Rapid Transit quality – even if it’s only in the form of a busway, which of course leaves unresolved the question of “what to do at Panmure?”

The next slide provides a bit more detail on the specifics of this busway: I am very happy to see that Auckland Transport has come to the realisation that bus lanes are NOT rapid transit quality public transport. Interesting to see that two options for the busway are being considered: lanes in the centre of the road and a busway at one side. Let’s take a closer look at the two options:I’m pretty sure that I prefer the idea of running the bus lanes down the middle of the road – to minimise the conflict between the buses and surrounding land uses. I also think that option would be more acceptable to residents – as otherwise there will be very complicated processes such as having to create slip-ways for local vehicles: which of course would add to the required road width and add to the cost.

Last, but certainly not least, it’s also encouraging to see that AMETI will deliver significant benefits for walking and cycling: Overall, this actually looks really promising. We might yet save AMETI from being a roadsfest! Certainly I still hope that we can plan for a Southeast Railway Line in the longer term – as no bus-based solution will come close to offering the “Botany to Britomart in 26 minutes” that a railway line could achieve. But I have to also be a realist. Any such railway line is very unlikely for a long time into the future, and this busway is certainly a heck of a lot better than what we have now, and a heck of a lot better than the bus lanes that were previously proposed.

Feedback on the latest designs is welcomed by the project team – you can email your feedback to

Auckland’s 2050 Rail System?

I like to play around with ideas for dream future rail systems for Auckland, and oddly enough sometimes my rail visions are embraced by those with some opportunity to make them into a reality. But aside from making for interesting discussion points, having a bit of a think about what we might want our public transport system to look like 20, 30 or even 40 years into the future is important for one simple reason.

Future proofing.

At the moment, or over the next few months, a lot of thought will be put into the detailed design of Auckland’s CBD rail tunnel. We might also have analysis undertaken for rail options to Auckland Airport and rail to the North Shore. The consenting process for the Waterview Connection may also raise questions over whether we should have a long-term vision for rapid transit to northwest Auckland, while questions are also likely to be asked over whether AMETI really provides for the southeast rapid transit line that is so desperately needed. As each of these projects are designed, planned or even studied in a highly preliminary way I think it’s important that we think about how future improvements to the system might tie into what we’re focusing on in the here and now.

For example, when the detailed design of the Midtown railway station is being undertaken, I sincerely hope that thought goes into how a future North Shore line might link in with the system. Would it bypass the tunnel completely – instead running as an east-west tunnel across the city (much like this option), or would it somehow link into the CBD tunnel?  If it links in with the tunnel, should that link be at Britomart or up near Midtown? These are decisions that will need to be made incredibly soon (if not made already) and they will have a huge impact on how that future North Shore Line functions – when it eventually is constructed (which is likely to be decades away).

Furthermore, we must keep in mind that Auckland’s population is projected to keep growing at a pretty quick pace over the next 40 years. One of the most interesting graphs that I plucked from a recent ARTA presentation related to Auckland’s future population growth and how that stacks up against New Zealand’s growth as a whole:

These graphs show what is a quite staggering observation: that between 2006 and 2051 Auckland’s population will grow by three times as much as the rest of New Zealand put together. In numbers terms, around 1 million extra people will live in Auckland, while the whole of the rest of the country will only experience population growth of around 330,000. If there was ever a good argument for Auckland getting a significantly larger slice of the “new infrastructure pie” than we get at the moment, then this data is that argument.

Added to the simple fact that Auckland’s population will grow hugely over the next 40 years are other long-term trends like dramatically higher petrol prices and the need to reduce CO2 emissions (both from transport and generally from our cities by making them more energy efficient). All of this points towards Auckland in 2050 needing a significantly more comprehensive public transport system than it has today.

So what might that system look like? Well I’ve had a bit of a crack at it – with the map below showing the heavy rail (coloured lines) and light-rail/busway (black lines) that could make up the backbone of Auckland’s public transport system in 2050 (obviously along with a lots of buses and ferries):

There are four main railway lines, seven light-rail lines and one busway. The major addition from past maps is the Westgate branch of what I’ve called the “Westgate-Botany Line”, the red one. This line could effectively run down one side of State Highway 16 fairly easily, and offer a very high speed commuting option for those living in parts of west and northwest Auckland that currently aren’t served by the western line. In the shorter term, it could be a busway.

Many of the light-rail lines follow routes that at the moment have high-frequency buses. It’s possible that other light-rail lines could be introduced – such as along Sandringham Road – but I would think these are the main ones to start with. They would often act as feeders to the core heavy rail routes, but could in other areas provide the capacity necessary to shift a big chunk of the 2.3 million Aucklanders that will inhabit the city by then.

Of course a system like this is just a dream for now. But if we do need these lines in the future then we need to start thinking about making sure we don’t stuff up alignments by not future-proofing in projects we complete in the nearer future. Plus, it’s always good to have a system with many parts that need ‘completing’. The motorway network has had billions spent on it in recent years in order to ‘complete it’. Why not think long term about rail too?

Updated: Map updated with some of the suggestions made incorporated. Still far from a finished product.

AMETI – improved, but still misses the point

I didn’t get a chance to go to the open day on the Auckland Manukau Eastern Transport Initiative (AMETI) today, but I have got hold of the information boards that were presented at the open day. So it is possible to see how things have come along a bit since the last design. The latest concept (more information here) has a few changes, the main one being that we now appear to actually have a busway (looks like someone finally got the message that bus lanes do not constitute an RTN). Here’s an overview of what’s now proposed for the Panmure section: A number of concerns were raised at previous public open days about the earlier design – mainly because it seemed to be recreating, by stealth, a smaller version of the old Eastern Motorway: which was supposed to be well and truly banished forever.

The diagram below shows point of concern raised during previous consultation, and how the new design responds to that: There seem to be two big changes to the design: both of them very positive in my opinion. The first is that the main intersection, where the current roundabout is, has been simplified greatly from what was previously proposed. The current proposal is shown below:

The second major change, which is very noticeable in the map above, is that a two-way busway on the northern side of Ellerslie Panmure Highway and Lagoon Drive is now proposed. This is a huge step forwards from what we previously had – which were basically glorified bus lanes. While this is perhaps not yet true RTN, as the busway will have to stop at intersections, it’s a huge improvement compared to the previous proposal.

Some more detail of the busway is shown below: While this is definitely a vast improvement on what we had before, there are still some huge unanswered questions about how the project as a whole will adequately provide for the Southeast Rapid Transit Network: which should be its highest priority.

  • What happens further east than the limits of the photo above? Will the busway continue across the Panmure bridge into Pakuranga? How will a busway be provided along Pakuranga Road and through the mess that exists around the Pakuranga shopping centre in order to get to Botany?
  • How much time will this really save for someone trying to catch a bus from Botany to the CBD? If it only knocks a 60 minute trip down to 55 minutes – is it really worth the effort or should we be looking at something else entirely?
  • What happens to all these bus users once they reach Panmure? Are they all expected to get on a train to make their way to the CBD or will we see some high quality bus priority along the Ellerslie Panmure Highway and then along Great South Road?

The drawing on the right in the image below suggests that the route will simply return to having standard bus lanes east of the Panmure area (which means it would really just be a QTN not an RTN):

Ultimately, I still think that all of these bus priority measures miss the entire point of why we have such a huge traffic problem around this part of Auckland: because there is such incredibly poor public transport east of the Tamaki River. Because so many people are forced to use their cars, and want to skip through Panmure to miss congestion on the southern motorway, we end up with the current mess of a situation. And really, the only way to do something about that fundamental problem is to build a proper Southeast Railway Line.

All of this AMETI bus priority stuff is like papering over giant cracks. Lots of effort, but in the end ignoring the fundamental problem.

North Shore vs Southeast Rail

Out of the “big three” rail projects that Len Brown promotes as his rail vision, two make pretty obvious sense – the CBD Rail Tunnel and Rail to the Airport. The two projects work in synergy quite nicely actually – both expanding the capacity and the reach of the rail system. The third project – rail to the North Shore – is the most long-term project of the three, and also one that I have been most doubtful of in past blog posts.

My main reason for thinking that North Shore Rail isn’t a particularly high priority is due to the Northern Busway. The busway opened just a couple of years ago, cost around $400 million all up, so it would make sense that we squeeze the most out of the busway possible before embarking on replacing it. Added to that is the question in my mind that the current plans may be forgetting about what I consider to be a pretty critical rail project – the Southeast RTN. A Southeast railway line would follow approximately the alignment outlined in the map below – linking Glen Innes with Manukau via stations at Highland Park, Cascades Road, Botany, Flat Bush and Clover Park. The route would involve two big tunnels: one between Glen Innes and Highland Park (as I don’t think putting another bridge across the Tamaki River is that viable) and another being a tunnel between Clover Park – at the southern end of Te Irirangi Drive – and Manukau City Centre. So the route would be expensive, there’s no doubt about that, but think of the benefits it would bring:

  • This is a big part of Auckland, and a part that continues to grow rapidly. Flat Bush is planned to be New Zealand’s biggest “new town”, with a population of about 40,000 by 2020. In total, there are probably at least 150,000 people living east of the Tamaki River.
  • This area has terrible transport links with the rest of Auckland. There are no motorways, no bus lanes, no railway lines, pretty much nothing except giant four-lane highways such as Pakuranga Road, Ti Rakau Drive and Te Irirangi Drive. As a result of such poor public transport, the area is the most car dependent in the entire city.
  • A railway line could offer a Botany to Britomart trip in around 26 minutes. You’d be lucky to drive that distance in twice that time at peak hours. So I think it would be very popular, even requiring a feeder bus and transfer onto the train.
  • Bus-based solutions for this RTN suffer from a huge problem of “what to do at Panmure?” Either we find a way of getting a tonne of buses between Panmure and Britomart (nigh on impossible) or we transfer everyone onto trains at Panmure (the trains will probably already be full).

In short, this is an expensive project – but one that could bring huge benefits to a part of Auckland that’s growing rapidly, but which suffers from unbelievably poor transportation options. The project could completely revolutionise this part of Auckland.

In terms of the North Shore Line, this would follow the alignment of the Northern Busway between Akoranga and Constellation stations. North of Constellation, at some point the railway line would need to cross SH1 to access Albany town centre. Probably for now the line could end at Albany, although in the longer term it may be extended to Silverdale or Orewa. South of Akoranga, I imagine the line would largely be in tunnel all the way to the CBD. It could work something like this (although how it links in with the rail system at the CBD end is up for debate):

Some of the benefits of this rail line are obvious. It would probably be much faster than the busway – particularly between Akoranga and the CBD. Further to that, a railway line offers significantly increased capacity compared to the busway -something that will certainly be essential in the longer term.

Looking at this, one would think that there would be little point in advancing North Shore rail for quite a number of decades in the future – at least until the busway is getting completely swamped with passengers. However, there are a couple of matters that require a bit of further consideration I think:

  • It is not just the capacity of the busway that we need to think about, but also the capacity of the streets of Auckland’s CBD to cope with all these buses. In the not too distant future, it’s my understanding that Fanshawe Street and Customs Street are likely to be carrying more buses than they can really handle. Unless loading times around Britomart are significantly reduced, there will also become a time when we simply don’t have a big enough station area in the CBD to handle all these buses. If streets like Fanshawe Street become maxed out in terms of their capacity to carry buses, what do we do then to increase the number of buses that can get into the CBD?
  • As the number of buses are increased, there’s also an increase in operating costs that needs to be considered. For a start, operating a lot of buses is very expensive as you need to pay a lot of drivers (in the future we may have one or two staff for up to 1000 passengers on a lengthy electric train). Furthermore, as the loadings for the North Shore Line are likely to be quite strongly “peaked” (very high during peak times compared to off-peak times), we will need a lot of buses that may only be used a few times a day at peak times. Does it make that much more sense to keep buying $400,000 buses to handle these high peak loads? Perhaps not.

I probably still lean towards preferring the Southeast Line as a priority, simply because people living in that part of the city have such extremely poor transport options at the moment. However, because of issues like capacity constraints for buses in Auckland’s CBD, I do wonder whether we might need to look at upgrading the busway to rail a bit earlier than was previously thought. I also wonder at what point the very high operating costs (plus the cost of buying so many new buses) of maintaining the busway start to offset the admittedly extremely expensive capital cost of a rail line.

AMETI: still ignoring the elephant in the room

An NZ Herald article today shines light on some growing worries that the “Auckland Manukau Eastern Transport Initiative”, known more commonly as “AMETI” may be a first step to reviving the dreaded “Eastern Motorway” – which Aucklanders resoundingly rejected in the 2004 local government elections. Here’s an extract from the article:

Panmure residents are wondering if a new road through their suburb is the first stage of a revived eastern highway across Hobson Bay to the city.

A $1.33 billion package of eastern suburbs transport works retains all the elements necessary for reviving the eastern highway, Panmure Community Action Group spokesman Keith Sharp said yesterday.

“We wonder if there is any good reason for retaining the hugely expensive trenched option for the north-south route through Panmure when the currently proposed road is supposed to go no further than Glen Innes,” he said.

Mr Sharp produced a 2007 plan for the Ameti (Auckland-Manukau eastern transport initiative) project showing the northern route continuing from Merton Rd in Glen Innes to St Johns Rd in Kohimarama.

“Once at St Johns it’s just over the hill and down the other side to Purewa Creek.”…

…Mr Sharp said too much of the Ameti planning had occurred without genuine public consultation, with all major decisions being made before the public were aware of the implications.

He said planners had been allowed to adapt old plans for the eastern highway to fit Ameti, which were two different projects.

“The eastern highway was designed to link Manukau City with the Auckland CBD. Ameti is intended to facilitate traffic movement into and out of the Tamaki areas of Panmure and Glen Innes.”

The new north-south road would come off the Mt Wellington Highway, go behind the back of the Harvey Norman Centre and through a trench under the Ellerslie-Panmure Highway.

There seems to have been relatively little public debate and involvement in discussions about what form AMETI should take, which is surprising considering its cost is around the same scale as that of the highly controversial and publicly debated Waterview Connection. From my various transport contacts I understand that there’s some pretty large areas of disagreement between the various agencies involved over the form that AMETI should take: whether it has too much of a roads focus, whether there should be a motorway component, whether the bus lanes are enough to justify being called “rapid transit”, whether building massive viaducts is appropriate in the urban environment and so forth.

But the problem is that most of these discussions have taken place behind closed doors – simply between Auckland City Council staff and Manukau City Council staff, with ARTA apparently involved but with there being little sign that public transport is really being taken that seriously by the project. Only very recently was there an open day to show people what was planned for the Panmure stage of the project, but effectively (somewhat typically I must add) it seems to be a case of “here’s what we are going to build, what do you think?” rather than “what do you think needs to happen here?”

The image below is from the open day, and includes a lot of “this road will be built here, this road will be built there”: Perhaps there has been what I would call “micro-level consultation”, over things such as where a bus stop should go, whether a certain road should have two lanes in each direction or just the one lane and so forth. But there still seem to be some fundamental characteristics of AMETI that are truly bizarre.

As I have noted before, the number one utterly bizarre characteristic of AMETI is its complete ignorance of the “big picture” in terms of providing what must be the most glaring missing link in Auckland’s transport system – a rapid transit line to the southeast. The plans note that bus lanes will be provided along the Lagoon Drive and Ellserlie-Panmure Highway corridor, and pretend that constitutes what a Rapid Transit Network should be (which is absolute rubbish, but let’s leave that aside for the moment). However, it appears as though absolutely no thought is going into answering basic questions like the following:

  1. What happens to our Rapid Transit Network once the buses have passed through Panmure on their way to the CBD?
  2. How is the Rapid Transit Network provided on the eastern side of the Panmure Bridge?
  3. Since when did bus lanes constitute an RTN?
  4. Has any thought whatsoever gone into actually providing a decent standard Rapid Transit line to this huge, fast-growing swathe of southeast Auckland?

As I have said time and time again, I really think that the only solution for providing high-quality rapid transit to the southeast part of Auckland that will be of such a standard that people will actually use it, is through constructing a railway line that would actually branch off from the existing Eastern Line just south of Panmure, and approximately follows the route in the map below:

Everyone keeps saying to me “but this route would be horrifically expensive, it’s not on any of the plans at the moment, it’s the stuff of dreams” and justifiably so (it would be expensive and it’s not really planned for at the moment). However, I think that if this railway line was built then it would take enough traffic off the road to make pretty much the whole $1.33 billion AMETI project unnecessary. Furthermore, future projects that are likely to be required such as an upgrade of Te Irirangi Drive to motorway standard (or near it), plus further upgrades to Ti Rakau Drive would also become unnecessary in my opinion. Even if this project cost close to $3 billion to build, it might very well stack up economically because it would render other projects, such as the roadsfest that AMETI seems to be turning into, unnecessary.

It seems to me that AMETI is basically a giant excuse to say to people “hey, we’re trying to do something here” while actually completely ignoring the real problem, the “elephant in the room”, which is the lack of a southeast Rapid Transit route. It’s a depressingly typical Auckland situation where everyone knows what the real problem is, but because it is seen as too difficult, everyone’s just ignoring it and instead building other stuff that will inevitably do little to reduce congestion but most certainly will ruin a fair few local communities with massive roads being cut through their heart.

Perhaps the best thing we can do with AMETI is stall it for a few months and hope that the Auckland Transport CCO does a complete rethink of it, a rethink that stops ignoring the elephant in the room and gets around to providing a real southeast RTN for this part of Auckland.