Has AT scaled back Light Rail?

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

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

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


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

City Access - LRT

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

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

AT Rapid Transit Network 2015-2045

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

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

CAP - Potential Investment - LRT

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

Rapid Transit Map

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

So what about the other two routes?

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

Wider light rail network

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

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


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

Light Rail lessons from the Gold Coast

I’ve just spent a couple of days on the Gold Coast after tagging along to a work trip by my wife. Other than taking a few days off one of the things I was keen to do was to check out their new light rail system given it’s likely to be very similar to what Auckland Transport are proposing for the isthmus routes like Dominion Rd. I was very impressed by the system and the experience highlighted a number of areas where Auckland Transport could be doing better with our current rail system – there were a few areas where AT is ahead too though.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Tram 1

The system known as G:link is 13km long on a dedicated right of way, has 16 stations and was opened just over a year ago. It was built as a PPP at a cost of about $1.2 billion but that also includes 15 years of operational costs. The change in Prime Minister to Malcolm Turnbull almost two months ago as already seen changed attitude towards PT infrastructure and a second stage has been approved that will see the route extended 7.3km to the northwest linking the system into the heavy rail system that serves Brisbane and the travels through to the Brisbane airport. The cost for the extension hasn’t been announced yet as it’s in the middle of the tender process right now. As a comparison in Auckland, a route from Customs St, up Queen St and then down Ian McKinnon Dr and Dominion Rd to Denbigh Ave is approximately 7.7km.

Gold Coast Light Rail Map

The system uses 43.5m long trams that have 80 seats and are said to be able to carry 309 passengers. Auckland Transport are actually proposing light rail vehicles almost 50% longer (66m) carrying up to 450 passengers. They can travel up to about 70km/h but in the denser part of the urban area would only travel 30-40km/h. One thing that helped is they seem to have a lot of signal priority so only very rarely did they get held up at lights.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Tram

About the only disappointment I had with the trams themselves – and an area where Auckland Transport is heading in the right direction over – is that some had been wrapped completely in advertising. This is the same stuff that is used on buses with little holes so you can kind of see out the window but not quite.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Tram Advertising

Below is a shot of the interior which had a lot of poles for people standing to be able to hold on to – oh and the doors opened within a second of stopping – like Aucklands trains should be doing.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Tram Interior

The rubber pads on the floor are to hold a surfboard in place

The digital screens you can see alternate between showing travel times for the remainder of the route and connecting bus services. Digital screens like these are a requirement for new buses and I understand will likely be installed on the trains too.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Tram Interior Screens

The timetable for services is impressive, they run frequently all week and even late into night. This is shown below and as you can see due to frequency it becomes very easy to communicate.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Frequency

With the exception of the University/Hospital station which is underground, the stations all use a common design with a distinctive orange canopy. Some of the stations also had a coffee shack built in.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Station

A few other aspects of stations – they had at least two ticket machines or in many cases where there were side platforms like above two machines per platform. In addition, those ticket machines sold smartcards – something ATs HOP machines strangely don’t do. Another aspect that was useful and that has long been a bugbear of mine in Auckland is that there were multiple tag posts (the yellow box) all along platforms including right next to the ticket machines Some stations had up to 6 posts per platform. In Auckland if you wanted to top up your card at most stations you have to go to the middle of the platform, top up the card then walk back to the end of the platform to tag on. Stations also had PT network and local destination maps plus one thing you can’t quite see from the photo was a drinking fountain for water.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Station facilities

At the southern end the line ends at Broadbeach South which is opposite the large Pacific Fair mall. This also happens to be a large bus interchange and it has clearly been designed to make transfers easy. The LRT tracks/platform are in effectively an island which is surrounded by bus stops. When the tram arrives doors on both sides can be opened making it easy to get to a bus you may be transferring to so transferring is as simple as walking across the platform. You can see this in the image below with the tram on the right and the buses on the left and this is repeated on the opposite side of the tram.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Station transfer

You may also notice from the image above that the platform you can see isn’t covered by the canopy. That’s because the intention is to eventually extend the line further south. The tracks are already in the ground however until the extension happens they’ve just widened the platform over the top of them.

All up it’s a fairly impressive system and already getting decent use. As a result of it public transport use on the Gold Coast is said to have risen by around 25% after just one year. In the first year there were 6.6 million trips on the system and so far is tracking to be over 7.5 million trips for the second year. That outstrips any of the individual lines in Auckland.

Lastly there was one additional outcome from the project and one that wasn’t included in any business case. The construction meant that a lot of the utilities had to be shifted which of course means they had to build new ones. Because of that the new infrastructure was of a higher quality and they’ve found has actually enabled more development to occur than was possible beforehand, in other words it wasn’t just the transport infrastructure that benefited from the project but all infrastructure in the corridor. This is perhaps a lesson for the planners and economists out there.

A light rail system like what has been built on the Gold Coast would be a fantastic addition to the central isthmus and there’s a lot from the system that AT could learn from to make the PT experience for all modes better.

RPTP update: Integrated Fares, LRT and more

In 2013 Auckland Transport adopted the current Regional Public Transport Plan (RPTP) – a document required by legislation and which sets out how the regions public transport system will be developed and operated. The 2013 RPTP was significant as among other things it officially added the New Network to Auckland’s plans. There were however a number of issues left unresolved and in the last 18 months there have been other developments in AT’s thinking on PT in Auckland. As such AT are now consulting on a variation to the RPTP to include all of this. The consultation will cover and be limited to only four specific areas:

  • The proposed introduction of simplified zone fares
  • Proposals for a new light rail transit (LRT) network on some major arterial routes
  • Service and infrastructure changes arising from the Ferry Development Plan which was approved by the AT Board in December 2014
  • Revised service descriptions arising from community consultation on the new bus network

Submissions on the RPTP variation open from today to 05 June and AT hope to have the variation adopted in July. Below is a bit more detail about each of four areas mentioned above.

Simplified zone fares

This is another name for integrated fares and AT are setting out how they think the system should run. This includes both the fare zones themselves and future fare products.

For HOP card users, fares will be based on the number of zones travelled in as part of a journey. A journey may involve travel on up to three different services, provided the transfer between services is made within the prescribed transfer time limit.

The zonal fare structure will apply across all bus, train and future light rail services. For ferries, the existing point-to-point fares will be retained, subject to further investigation of how they should be incorporated into the integrated zonal structure in future. The different approach to ferry fares reflects the fact that some ferry services are deemed exempt services, and not subject to the policies in this Plan. It also reflects the higher operating costs and premium quality of ferry travel.

The fact that ferry services will sit outside the rest of the fare structure seems to once again highlight the stupidity of the government’s decision to bow to the lobbying of fullers and allow some of the ferry routes (Devonport, Stanley Bay, Waiheke) to sit outside of the rest of the PT system. The zone boundaries are based on approximately 10km intervals from the city centre. We saw a low res version of the proposed zones around a month ago.

RPTP Integrated Fares Zones Map

I still think there needs to be some larger zone overlaps, particularly between the Isthmus to Manukau North/Waitakere zones and Waitakere to Upper North Shore. As an example it seems like the Upper North Shore zone should extend to cover Hobsonville Point.

Looking to the future AT say they hope to replace the monthly passes with weekly caps that will automatically limit the amount that customers will be charged for travel in any calendar week. They also say that in future that using stored value on a HOP card will be a minimum of 33% off the cash fare to encourage HOP use. As a comparison currently all fares 3 stages and over are just 20-26% of cash fares. AT also mention wanting to look at ways of using fares to grow patronage – especially in the off peak where there growth doesn’t affect operational costs. This includes wanting to:

  • Investigate and implement off-peak fare discount options to spread peak demand and encourage off-peak trips
  • Introduce 24/72 hour pass options to encourage off-peak travel by residents and visitors
  • Provide fare incentives for weekend family travel

All of these things are aspects we and many readers have suggested for a long time so it’s great to see AT pursuing them. One thing that is important to note is that it’s not likely all new fare products will be introduced at once and instead AT are likely to stage implementation over a period of time.

Light rail

PT services can’t be implemented if they aren’t in the RPTP and so AT are adding in the references to light rail now so that it’s possible for them to proceed with the project in the future should they wish to. We’ve already covered off AT’s light rail proposals quite a bit already and the proposed variation focuses most attention on the changes that would be needed to implement light rail on Queen St and Dominion Rd. There isn’t a huge amount of new information in the document with one notable exception – mention of light rail to the airport.

Subject to the outcome of these investigations, approval to proceed and funding, AT proposes a staged implementation of light rail, with completion of the initial stages (Queen Street and Dominion Road, with a possible link to Wynyard Quarter) within the 10-year planning horizon of this Plan. A possible extension of this route to the airport is also under investigation, along with metro rail options

The potential extension to the airport is also shown in the map below. I still believe that duplicating and extending the Onehunga line would be a better option due to a speed advantage compared with going via Dominion Rd- although it would possibly be a more expensive option.

RPTP potential LRT + RTN Map

Ferry development plan

Ferries are often touted as an area Auckland should focus on more and frequent suggestions included adding ferries to places like Browns Bay, Takapuna and Te Atatu. The RPTP suggested a review of the role of ferries and so last year AT created a Ferry Development Plan that was approved by the board in December. The outcomes from the development plan are included in the proposed variation. While I haven’t seen the full plan it appears from the variation information that AT’s have taken a sensible approach.

The Ferry Development Plan focuses on improving existing services and infrastructure and on greater integration of the current ferry network with local bus routes and supporting feeder services. It calls for service level improvements on existing ferry services to reach the minimum levels specified in the RPTP, with further increases to be implemented in response to demand. It also identifies a number of ferry infrastructure improvements and renewals that are needed to address capacity and customer amenity and safety issues at key ferry wharves.

The Plan also evaluated proposals for extensions to the existing ferry network, including new services to Browns Bay, Takapuna and Te Atatu. It concluded that due to the high infrastructure costs involved with new services, the priority for additional resources should be on improving the frequency and capacity of existing ferry routes, rather than network expansion.

The reality is the immediately viable ferry routes have already been developed and with the bus infrastructure that exists (or will shortly) it will be very hard for ferries to compete on speed, frequency, coverage and operating costs with some of the other locations mentioned. Getting service on existing routes up to regular all day every day frequencies will help make them a much more viable form of PT and useful not just for commuting.

New Network service descriptions

As mentioned at the start the RPTP sets out how the PT system will run and that includes exact and minimum frequencies. Since the RPTP was adopted AT have consulted on the new network for Hibiscus Coast, Pukekohe, South Auckland, West Auckland. The variation will update the RPTP with the changes that have already been consulted on.

There are also some changes to the network categories and maps with the new ones shown below.

RPTP Network Categories

As our network exists now, as you can see not much of the network meets the frequent definition being just a few bus services and the Southern line north of Penrose although arguably it should also be considered frequent between Westfield and Puhinui. You will also notice many of the ferry routes don’t exist on the map as they don’t have all day frequency.

RPTP Current Network

By 2018 with the new network implemented and all electric trains rolled out this is what we should have.

RPTP Proposed 2018 Network

And by 2025 with the CRL and even more bus improvements this is where the city will be.

RPTP Proposed 2025 Network

Wellington PT Spine decided

A final decision on the future Wellington’s PT Spine has finally been made and it’s one that might upset a few people.

Faster, bigger buses have been officially chosen as the future of public transport in Wellington, snuffing out any chance of having light rail in the capital for the foreseeable future.

The Regional Transport Committee – a collective of Wellington’s mayors and the NZ Transport Agency – voted today to push ahead with plans to build a $268 million bus rapid transit network between the Wellington CBD and southern suburbs.

Detailed plans are yet to be drawn up, but it will involve hi-tech articulated or double-decker buses running along a dedicated busway between Wellington Railway Station and the suburbs of Newtown and Kilbirnie.

The route forms the southern part of Wellington’s public transport “spine”.

Today’s decision brings down the curtain on the Wellington Public Transport Spine Study, which began in 2011.

The Spine Study had looked at a number of different options for improving PT in Wellington from simple bus lanes all the way up to extending the existing heavy rail network through the CBD and beyond. The options were narrowed down to three:

  • Bus priority – $59 million, which involves more peak period bus lanes and priority traffic signals for buses, along the Golden Mile and Kent Terrace, through the Basin Reserve and along Adelaide Road to Newtown and through the Hataitai bus tunnel to Kilbirnie.
  • Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) – $209 million, which involves a dedicated busway, for modern, higher capacity buses separated from other traffic as much as possible, along the Golden Mile and Kent/Cambridge Terrace then around the Basin Reserve and along Adelaide Road to Newtown and through the (duplicated) Mt Victoria tunnel to Kilbirnie.
  • Light Rail Transit (LRT) – $940 million, which involves new tram vehicles running on dedicated tracks along the Golden Mile, Kent and Cambridge Terraces then around the Basin Reserve along Adelaide Road to Newtown and through a separate Mt Victoria tunnel to Kilbirnie

Spine Study Route Alignments

One of the big problems with the spine study is it made some odd assumptions like that light rail would require its own dedicated new tunnel under Mt Victoria while BRT wouldn’t, instead using a second Mt Victoria tunnel the NZTA plan to build as part of the RoNS work.

However even putting that aside I do feel that the BRT option is probably the right one. One of the reasons for that is that the BRT option wouldn’t just benefit the dedicated buses that might run on routes above but that other buses from the wider area would also benefit. This is as what we currently see in Auckland on the Northern Busway where the Northern Express services only run on the busway route however a large number of other bus routes like the popular 881 use the busway for part of their journey. This appears to have been a key factor in the decision.

Committee chairwoman Fran Wilde said the ability of rapid transit buses to go beyond the dedicated spine and continue to suburbs like Island Bay and Karori made it a winner.

“With some of the bus technology that’s now on the books, the difference between what people consider light rail and bus rapid transit to be is getting smaller and smaller.”

Building a light rail network through the middle of Wellington would have also caused severe disruption to those living and working in the city for a number of years, she said.

Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown, who was first elected in 2010 on the back of campaign promises to push for light rail, said today she had also been swayed by the ability of buses to go further than trams.

She welcomed the decision to proceed but cautioned that Wellington’s topography and road layout would make it impossible to build the type of busways seen oversees, which were generally isolated from all other traffic by concrete barriers.

“This is not going to be the highest quality bus rapid transit network in the known universe because that just wouldn’t work.”

Ms Wade-Brown said all options had been thoroughly considered as part of the spine study. The $380m cost of a rail tunnel was not the critical element holding back light rail, she said.

There are a couple of key comments in here that are worth expanding on. As Fran Wilde notes the differences between buses and light rail are getting smaller and smaller and that is likely to continue. Wellington already has some trolley buses however with other electric bus options being developed it doesn’t have to mean that BRT is any worse environmentally than light rail. Even more traditional looking diesel buses don’t seem to have been a problem in attracting passengers for Northern Busway services.

The other key comment is from Celia Wade-Brown where she says that Wellington won’t have the highest quality fully separated BRT. The reality is that any light rail system would suffer exactly the same constraints as the bus option.  Even so I’m sure they will be able to significantly improve bus priority along the route. This is also recognised in the spine study in that the estimated travel times for both BRT and LRT come out almost identical. 

In addition to all of this another advantage of the BRT option is simply that it can be built over time and in doing so each section can provide immediate benefits to existing services. Under a light rail scheme it isn’t until an entire route is really in place that the infrastructure becomes usable. That staging ability combined with the fact that buses from outside of the immediate area of the spine can also benefit from the infrastructure then I think it becomes quite clear that the BRT option was the better one.

But all of this doesn’t mean that light rail couldn’t happen at some point in the future, in fact most of the works needed to secure the right of way to implement a BRT system would also apply to a LRT system so that work would already have been done and it would just come down to the cost of laying tracks. BRT could be seen as means of building patronage numbers faster than possible otherwise which might help better justify light rail in the future. For those pushing for light rail it could be a case where sometimes the best way to achieve your goal is not always to go straight to the final solution.

Now that a final decision has been made hopefully those supporting PT in Wellington will focus on pushing to get the BRT infrastructure needed in place as soon as possible.

Guest Post: 23 reasons why trams are awesome

This is a Guest Post by Geoff Houtman

In the dying days of the ARC, with the “People’s Paradise” of Wynyard Wharf about to flower it was decided that a Tram Loop would be built, with future plans to extend it to Quay St and beyond. Mission Bay? Dom Rd? Ponsonby? Unitec? Wherever the people demanded it.

The loop was built, money was sourced to extend it to Quay St, linking the Ferries, Britomart Trains and Wynyard like an “innovative” city would. Inexplicably Waterfront Auckland delayed the extension of the line, the extension that would give it real utility, and now their unelected Board want to remove the Trams so as not to offend their bosses. No, not the Residents of Auckland, not even the Council- the corporates who lease the land and want everything their way.

Here are 23 reasons we need trams/light rail and now!

1- Improved Air Quality. Reducing air pollutant emissions by 50% by 2016 is the Council’s stated goal. Diesel buses drive and wait idling all day every day, adding cancerous diesel particulates to the air from early in the morning until late at night. Electric trams not only take cars off the road more successfully than buses, they doubly reduce air pollution because they are zero emission themselves. Exhaust fumes are estimated to prematurely kill 400 Aucklanders per year.

2- Safer For Cyclists. It is physically impossible for a tram to swerve out of it’s lane and hit a cyclist. Cities with high cycle usage and high tram usage are the same cities precisely because of this reason. Riders must take care to cross the tram rails correctly but it’s not any more care needed than crossing a painted road marking or pothole. Trams are the cyclist’s best friend.

3- No Conflict with City Rail Link. Mike Lee’s desire to get “Trams now” and the Mayor’s wish to Tram Queen St up to Karangahape Rd (from 05.00) mean that trams are not a competitor for funding or patronage, more a complement to the existing plan.

4- Higher Quality Urban Results. The densest parts of Melbourne (and generally the most desirable and livable) are largely congruent with the extent of the tram network. Ribbons of lesser density extend out along the train lines. The areas served only by buses in Melbourne are low density. Causality cannot be proven but, in the case of Melbourne, trams go hand in hand with medium density and desirable areas.

5- Safer For Pedestrians. Trams calm traffic. The speed limit (even Ponsonby Rd’s 40 km/h) is being ignored constantly and is not being enforced. Trams calm traffic in a way no other vehicle can, many cities, like Melbourne, have passengers boarding from the centre of roads at pedestrian safety zones. Safer for pedestrians, safer for drivers.

6- Heritage and History. Many inner-city shopping centres formerly had tram lines along their entire length. When the trams and historic trolley poles were removed in the mid 1950’s the area lost much valuable heritage. Auckland developed along the Tram lines. Some could go as far to say that Trams built Auckland. Could they do so again?

7- Increasing Tourist Stay Days. (Western Bays Line example). Rightly so, the Council wants to increase Tourist Days spent in Auckland. A tram from Quay St though Wynyard, Victoria Park and Ponsonby Rd could connect to Great North Rd and from there to the existing tram lines in Western Springs- effectively linking 6 retail areas (CBD, Viaduct, Wynyard, Victoria Park Market, Ponsonby Rd and the Grey Lynn shops), 3 parks (Victoria, Western and Western Springs) and 4 tourist attractions (Springs Stadium, MOTAT 1, Auckland Zoo and MOTAT 2) with Britomart trains, Queens Wharf cruise liners and Ferries. Independent of destination, some cities use the Trams themselves as attractions. Melbourne even has fine dining trams!

8- Easy To Install. Many streets are wide enough and suitable for trams as they were all former tram routes. Reinstalling the rails is fairly straight forward and will have no incompatibilities with current services (buried pipes etc). In “Olde Aucklande” 27 miles of track was laid in just 14 months. These days we may not have the superior technology of the 1920’s but I’m sure we could find a way to lay 715 metres of track per week as they did 90 years ago…

9- Mass Local Support. The former Western Bays and Hobson Community Boards both supported the reintroduction of the Trams, as does the Ponsonby Business Association. A petition presented to Parliament last year was signed by nearly 1100 locals, including almost all Ponsonby Rd and K Rd businesses, asking “the House to consider whether legislation will be required to facilitate the extension of Auckland’s tram system as part of an integrated system that complements the proposed City Rail Link with the aim of reducing congestion in Auckland.”

10- Shush- quiet now. Tram technology has advanced considerably since 1902. The only downside to Trams- the noisy rails, have been taken out of the equation. The Wynyard Wharf loop makes great use of current dampening techniques. This makes trams quieter than buses and cars, although not as quiet as cycles!

11- Less Oil Imports. New Zealand’s economy will also benefit at a macro level. Domestic electricity beats Imported oil every way it can be measured. If oil prices continue to skyrocket the price of fuelling all our diesel buses will also go up, driving fares up to compensate. A tram network will help us avoid the effects of the oil spike, and public transport will have a cost-advantage over private vehicles.

12- Better Ride Quality. Trams have a smoother ride and less vibrations, due to the guided tracks, more ability for commuters to work enroute, more comfort overall. Railed vehicles are far less likely to induce motion sickness than road vehicles.

13- Permanency and Certainty. By their very nature the immovability of Trams encourages intensification along the tram corridor. The caryards on Great North Rd ridge in Grey Lynn, slated to become city fringe apartments, are a prime example of this. This has been shown on many occasions overseas (Portland, Oregon being a classic example). This can have significant economic benefits bringing more people and businesses within an easy tram ride of each other.

14- Higher Capacity than buses. Trams (both single carriage and articulated multiple units) have up to twice the capacity of buses.

15- Remove more cars. Trams have much greater appeal to the general public as they are generally more attractive than buses (cleaner, quieter, superior ride quality), and because they only follow the tram lines, there isn’t the fear that some people have with buses where they may get on the wrong one, so more people are more likely to use them than buses. Tramways are proven worldwide to attract up to 50% of their patronage from former drivers.

16- Faster Loading / Disabled Access. Newer trams with 100% flat floors, wide aisles and three or more double doors per side lead to very short “dwell times” making faster “headways” possible. Mobility is also improved for the disabled.

17- Increasing Existing Road Capacity. Following the Melbourne example of trams sharing the two lanes closest to the centre-line increases road usability without adding extra lanes. Both tracks share trolley poles, reducing the visual clutter as well as halving the cost of accessories.

18- Successful Public-Private Partnerships. Trams in Auckland were installed and run by the Auckland Tramways Company (as an aside- the bus driver’s union is still called Auckland Tramways Union). In July 1919 the Tramways were purchased by the Auckland City Council and ten years later taken over by the newly constituted Auckland Transport Board.

19- Trams Are Fun. People love Trams! Is it nostalgia? Perceived “coolness”? Exoticism? Higher desirability due to a “better” quality of ride? Greener? Nobody knows. The specific reason is ultimately not the point. People actively wanting to try Public Transport as a regular thing is the real win.

20- Names! A generation has grown up with Thomas the Tank Engine and know instinctively that all Trams (and trains) should have names. A Streetcar named Mike. Named Christine. Named Sene. Named Len. Named Bob. If we anthropomorphosise each car, people with think of them as “folks they know” rather than number 109. Kids love trams, this system is not just for us, it’s for them, and their kids.

21- Previous Council Support. The ARC under Mike Lee pushed hard for Trams, succeeding with the Wynyard Loop. The ACC had plans to investigate a 4km $16M Tram route. The ACC Transport Committee decreed that it “supports an electric tram proposal in principle and recommends to Auckland Transport that it gives consideration to the proposal as soon as practicable”. In September 2010…

22- Innovative Cities Have Trams. Auckland’s future is about being a “City Of Innovation”. Innovation is about being “ahead of the curve”. One part of being ahead of the curve is Trams. After all these cities are all doing it

23- “Trams” is a palindrome of “Smart”. ‘Nuff said.

Giants building a tram

Giants building a tram

Making light-rail make sense

A week or so ago I wrote a post about how I think we can make sense out of ferries in the mix of Auckland’s public transport system. I think my key conclusion was that ferries do make sense in certain locations and we should try to take advantage of where they do make sense rather than pushing new routes all the time. Another piece of the public transport jigsaw puzzle is light-rail (or trams). In a number of ways light-rail is actually quite similar to ferries – it has its ardent supporters, it’s pretty expensive (although more in terms of capex while ferries are expensive in terms of opex) yet it also probably makes sense in some circumstances.

Let’s look at those circumstances, firstly by seeing what light-rail’s general advantages and disadvantages are compared to other modes. This is reasonably well summarised in a useful Australian Transport Study that highlights the importance of mode-neutrality when assessing transport projects (in other words, finding the best solution and recognising that all modes have a role to play in the right circumstances):different-transport-modesDefinitions of different modes is a much debated area, particularly when we’re discussing the “in between” modes of bus rapid transit and light-rail. In my mind there’s effectively a gradation of different types of both technologies – ranging from both buses and trams running in mixed traffic right through to Northern Busway style style bus operations or completed grade separated light-rail.

My general opinion is that in mixed traffic there’s little, if any, advantage to be had from running a tram or light-rail vehicle compared to a bus – as the capacity of the corridor is not determined by the vehicle itself but by the amount of congestion in that lane. At the other end of the scale once we’re talking about full grade separation it seems that light-rail once again doesn’t offer too many advantages over either a busway (which will be a cheaper) or heavy rail (which may be of similar cost but will have much higher capacity). Vancouver Skytrain style light-metro systems are a different issue entirely and have been covered extensively previously in posts that I’ve made.

The most obvious improvement to make as bus patronage grows along a route (or where there’s potential for fairly high bus patronage) is to install a bus lane. By separating the buses from general traffic, the capacity of the lane increases pretty dramatically while reliability and speeds of the bus services also improve a lot. With bus lanes being cheap and quick to implement, in the vast majority of situations probably the most important thing we can do to improve our public transport infrastructure is through extended, new and improved bus lanes.

However bus lanes only suffice up to a certain level of use – something which in many ways was the key finding of the City Centre Future Access Study’s Deficiency Analysis. In terms of buses per hour this is shown below:bus-lane-capacity
Once you start to push the limit of a bus lane the results are fairly ugly:sydney-bus-congestionBefore I go on to discuss the different options for what to do when a bus lane hits capacity I think it’s worth noting the difference between high frequency bus corridors where a large number of buses converge on a particular street (think Symonds Street or Fanshawe Street) compared to a high frequency bus corridor where frequencies are high of a single route (think Dominion Road north of Mt Roskill). Analysis tends to suggest that simply adding more and more buses in the latter situation hits a limit where it’s not really adding much value anymore as the buses tend to get in each other’s way as they’re all trying to do the same thing but not achieving it particularly well. Of course you can run local/express splits to reduce this problem but once again eventually you’ll hit a wall.

Now moving on, once a basic bus lane no longer has sufficient capacity there are a few options for what you can do about it – and the right solution is likely to depend on the circumstance:

  • Upgrade to a higher-quality BRT bus based system. This could involve median bus lanes, a semi-grade separated median busway (like proposed for AMETI) or a full grade separated busway (like the Northern Busway between Akoranga and Constellation).
  • Build heavy rail. This could involve a new line completely or extensions to existing lines. It could be underground, at grade or elevated.
  • Build light-rail. In this scenario I’m thinking about something that runs at street level in its own lanes but isn’t grade separated at intersections.

What’s probably going to make or break which of the three solutions above is most appropriate will be a number of criteria – the most important in my mind being the level of additional capacity required, the nature of existing infrastructure and the land-use impacts of the option. Oh, and of course the cost. Let’s explore this with a few case studies.

In the case of the City Rail Link project, future growth in public transport demand to the city centre effectively overwhelms the bus network (and the rail network at a later date) requiring something to happen in order to retain high quality access to Auckland’s city centre and around the region. Enhanced bus solutions don’t really work because our existing infrastructure only has a busway to the north whereas railway lines spread out west, east and south – as well as not working due to the capacity required (which would take away too much road space to provide for with buses alone) and also the land-use impact (widened approach roads throughout the isthmus). Light-rail doesn’t really work either as it’s of insufficient capacity and doesn’t integrate with the existing infrastructure.

In the case of the AMETI busway corridor, heavy rail is probably cost-prohibitive due to the need to get across the Tamaki River, while light-rail gets stuck between the need for a lot of feeder buses into Botany and then heavy rail connections at Panmure and Ellerslie at the route’s potential other end. In this situation the busway makes pretty good sense.

In the case of Dominion Road’s long term future, things start to get interesting. Because of the corridor’s significant heritage and character value, large-scale widening for a massively upgraded bus solution is unlikely to ever be feasible. Even widening the existing bus lanes outside the retail centres along the route proved to be impossible to make ‘stack up’. Heavy rail is clearly infeasible at street level or elevated and is almost certainly cost prohibitive underground – so light rail starts to look like it could be worth exploring further. Further potential aspects in favour of light-rail on Dominion Road include its huge potential as a high-intensity mixed-use corridor where amenity of the street environment is important as a shaper of land-use patterns. Plus the route is potentially well anchored at the city end by putting the tracks down Queen Street (probably via Ian McKinnon Drive) and at the southern end by a future rail station/bus hub – so it’s likely to be a single route without any deviations or branches.

Perhaps in summary we can try to distill a clear rationale behind situations where light-rail might make sense for Auckland. I think it’s in situations where demand along a single corridor (rather than where a number of corridors come together) can no longer be efficiently provided for by standard bus lanes and where land-use factors make either enhanced bus priority options or heavy rail infeasible or cost-prohibitive.

In my mind this is a fairly difficult test to pass and I don’t actually think any corridor in Auckland at the moment (perhaps except for Queen Street) would fit the criteria. This will probably annoy some, who want to run trams everywhere and anywhere, including seemingly with mixed traffic along Ponsonby Road. It might annoy others who think that light-rail is an expensive folly which doesn’t make any sense in Auckland. If I annoy both sides of the debate then I’ve probably got it just about right.

Sydney’s extended light-rail network

I guess this is what happens when you have a centre-right government that isn’t completely insane in its ideological dislike of public transport:

Premier Barry O’Farrell and Minister for Transport Gladys Berejiklian today announced light rail would be built through the Sydney CBD to Randwick and Kingsford to reduce congestion and revitalise the city.

The estimated $1.6 billion 12 kilometre light rail project will link Circular Quay and Central via George Street, the Moore Park sporting and entertainment precinct including the Sydney Cricket Ground and Allianz Stadium, Randwick Racecourse, the University of NSW and Prince of Wales Hospital at Randwick.

Light rail will be built in parallel with the implementation of a redesigned bus network to significantly reduce the number of buses clogging the CBD during the peak.

Around 40 per cent of George Street will be pedestrianised, between Bathurst Street and Hunter Street, for light rail – meaning 60 per cent of George Street will still be accessible to private vehicles.

“This is a once-in-a-generation project to revitalise the centre of Sydney by reducing congestion and offering a fast, attractive public transport option to key locations,” Mr O’Farrell said.

“The NSW Government is getting on with the job of building for the future.”

There’s already another well advanced plan for extending the existing inner-west light-rail line significantly, as shown below:

TPD_LightRail_InnerWestLightRai-Extension_map_Feb_2012_0And here’s the CBD and southeast scheme:recommend-route-DecLooking at the light-rail plans in a bit more detail, there are some remarkable similarities between what Sydney is trying to achieve through a number of public transport initiatives and what Auckland’s trying to achieve through the City Rail Link. Things like:

  • Reducing the number of buses travelling along busy inner city streets
  • Providing better reliability and service quality for public transport
  • Improving the pedestrian experience of the inner city
  • Boosting employment and economic growth

For example, Sydney really struggles with the huge number of buses entering its CBD during the peak period – which this light-rail project as well as a reorganisation of the bus network will help resolve.sydney-bus-numbersI do wonder why centre-right politicians in Australia don’t seem to have the same ideological dislike of public transport as seems to be the case in New Zealand.

The big BAM theory

Welcome back and thanks to everyone who commented on yesterday’s post, which tried to highlight some ‘inconvenient truths’ about light rail (LRT).  In today’s post I will try to synthesize and respond to those comments, before moving on to what I think are greener pastures.  Taken together I hope that these two posts inject some excitement into conversations about the future of public transport in Auckland.

First let’s consider some of the important general comments from yesterday post:

  • Context of the debate – BrisUrban highlighted the importance of context.  Let’s be clear: We are discussing transport technologies that will be used in Auckland in the future.  And let’s be even more specific, we are talking about post-2020 transport scenarios.  Why?  Well for the next 10 years all available public transport funding in Auckland is already committed.  Unless I’m pleasantly surprised and the Nats get rolled in November.
  • Redundant arguments – In another comment, George D suggested that those who support light rail in Auckland are already aware of its weaknesses.  This does not match my experiences.  From where I’m sitting it seems like  LRT is often thrown out there as the default transport technology Auckland aspires to (e.g. by Len Brown), without much awareness of a) its limitations and b) other potential transport technologies.

And now let’s respond to some of the technical comments:

  • CapacityPatrick R (and others) argued that the Bogota BRT does not show that bus rapid transit (BRT) can match LRT’s capacity because it has two lanes in each direction, rather than one.   But do the math – if you divide Bogota’s total throughput (40,000 pax/hour) by two lanes then you are left with 20,000 pax/hour/lane, i.e. about the same as LRT.  So it is a fair ‘apples and apples’ comparison: LRT and BRT have similar capacities.  It’s true!
  • Resilience – Matt L suggests that observations of the fragility of LRT focus on “worst case scenarios.”  But any discussion of technological resilience is an exercise in risk management, i.e. we must consider unlikely yet high-impact events.  I don’t think it’s silly to consider how light rail would function in an earthquake, or in situations where cars get in the way – they are real risks involved in operating public transport in New Zealand, and they are risks that do not seem to affect buses as much as LRT.

Other commentators put forward advantages of LRT that were not discussed in yesterday’s post:

  • Corridor width – Josh suggested that the narrower width of LRT was advantageous in constrained road corridors, such as Dominion and Mt Eden.  But if this was really important we could simply build narrower buses.  Also, I suspect that the emerging transport technologies (discussed below) will neutralize this problem because of the advanced guidance systems that they use.
  • Market image – Nick R suggested that buses have an image problem.  I’m skeptical of how important this is for three reasons: 1) the Northern Express has successfully got the suits out of the closet in Auckland; 2) bus systems overseas are well-used by people on high-incomes  (e.g. Brisbane, Edinburgh); and 3) 15 year olds who start catching buses in 2020 will have a completely different image of buses from us oldies.  We remember the bad old days of Auckland in the late 1990s, while the youngsters hopefully benefit from all our hard work over the next 10 years :).  Finally, “image” is highly malleable, especially for new users coming from younger demographics. 
  • Mix of technologies – A number of commentators suggested Auckland’s future public transport system should involve a mix of transport technologies.  This was never in question.  What was in question is whether that mix includes light rail.  I think not, or at least not in its current form.  Even on “sensitive” corridors such as Dominion and Mt Eden, I suspect that existing transport technologies will work fine until better transport technologies (which are discussed below) become available.

Let’s now step back a second to consider what an ideal public transport technology (let’s call it a “BAM!” i.e. a Bus trAM) might look like.  Ideally, a BAM would combine the advantages of buses, such as low capital costs, with the advantages of LRT, such as ride quality, while avoiding the disadvantages of both.  That means we want to have higher vehicle capacities than can be accommodated on buses, while avoiding the need to run tracks and overhead wires.  Even so BAM must be mainly electrically powered.  We are really talking about some form of “technological convergence.”

But is the BAM a figment of my sore right knee or is it a realistic transport technology?  Well, it actually already exists – sort of.  A BAM (called the “Phileas”) was up and running in Eindhoven (those crafty Dutch) in 2004, as illustrated below (photo source).

That’s not to say that the Phileas ran smoothly straight up: There were problems with drive-trains and engines, which required a fairly substantial re-design from the manufacturer.  But the Phileas seems to be developing nicely, and has since been tested by Douai (France) and Korea.

The Phileas website mentions some impressive headline technical specifications: The 26m hybrid diesel-electric version carries a maximum of 141 passengers and has a turning radius of only 12.5m (thanks to all wheel steering).  This largely neutralizes concerns expressed by several commentators about buses leading to frequency overkill, or large buses failing to navigate through K’ Road.  One of the most exciting developments included in the Phileas is its electrical guidance systems, which basically means it can steer itself – removing the need for drivers and potentially saving heaps in operational costs.  BAM BAM!

But my faith in future, rather than past or present, transport technologies rests not on one product.  Yesterday’s post also linked to Siemen’s BAM offering, which they are promoting as eBRT.

In contrast to the electric-diesel set-up used by Phileas, Siemen’s eBRT offering uses a fully electric power system based on super-capacitors (electricity buckets) that empty between stops.  The super-capacitors are then re-charged (in 20 seconds) via overhead wires at the next stop (NB: Super-capacitors have been in development for several years as a cheaper and greener alternative to electric batteries).  As with the Phileas, optical guidance systems are used to keep eBRT ontrack – so again it’s potentially driverless.

One final example of an unrelated but cool emerging technology is Avego, a real-time car-pooling (“ride-sharing” in U.S. parlance) software that runs through your SmartPhone.  I know car-pooling has been talked about as a transport solution ‘fa-eva’ (in NZ parlance), but I get the feeling that the growth in GPS enabled smart phones will greatly reduce the transaction costs involved in finding someone to car-pool with.  It may be at a stage where it takes off; although these initiatives are all about critical mass. If it does, then this may re-shape the transport landscape.  Watch this space.

Some commentators (like KarlHansen) point out that these technologies are as yet unproven and it’s a very valid point. But I’d just like to point out that most of the technology underlying BAM is not new, even if the application is relatively novel.  Moreover, time is on Auckland’s side, we have ten years before we need to chose the transport technology that will ply our major urban public transport corridors.  Time is on our side, especially while the “Colossus of Roads” Steven Joyce is steering NZ’s transport agenda.

In conclusion, I suspect the future of Auckland’s (surface) public transport system will not include light rail as we know it, but it may well make use of new transport technologies that combine the advantages of light rail with buses.

To finish, I want to ask whether Auckland should be passive receivers of transport technology, or an active driver of technological change?  We basically know what we want from the BAM, and we more or less know when we will need it.

Should we be making eyes at potential industry partners?  Or if we’re too small to gain their attention should we be working together with Wellington, Christchurch, or other cities with similar technological demands.

Does anyone know why don’t cities collaborate with each other and then engage with relevant industry players to set a research agenda that delivers the type of transport system that we want?  The EU tends to play this role in Europe and I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on whether we should be doing the same.