NZTA support light-rail to Airport

A briefing to Councillors (from page 251) included in an attachment for the Council’s Planning Committee meeting for next week says that both the NZTA and Auckland Transport boards have now agreed on a way forward for the city to airport corridor. And that decision will see the route upgraded to light rail, eventually.

The Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) shied away from saying light rail was needed and instead just referred to a number of strategic public transport routes as “Mass Transit”. We know that following ATAP, the NZTA commissioned a study to see if buses could meet the expected demand on the City to Airport route instead of Auckland Transport’s preferred light rail option. This was called the Advanced Bus Study (ABS) – as it happens I have an OIA request in for this report which was due back today but the NZTA have extended it by another 3-weeks. They even went as far as getting overseas consultants to do the study so it was completely independent to AT’s previous investigations on the issue.

The presentation states that like other recent studies, the ABS confirmed the proposed Queen St/Dominion/SH20/SH20A route which has helped “provide confidence and a degree of investment certainty” that they should get on with protecting it for mass transit. They also say it highlighted the need for better PT access from the East.

Here is a map of the route planned by the ABS showing it almost identical to the route AT planned for light rail.

The agreed way forward appears to be sensible. I read it as essentially being to make a range of short term improvements both north to the city and east to Manukau to help buses move around easier, which would likely take some of the current pressure off, while working to protect the route to the city for an eventual upgrade to light rail.

The short term improvements include infrastructure changes and it appears, additional services.

The changes to services are shown on the map below and would entail a number of new routes or changes to existing routes.

One interesting slide shows what the unitary plan allows for development in a rough walking distance around the proposed stations of both the North and East route. One aspect that stands out is the amount of almost white (single house zone) around some of the Dominion Rd stations. There is some mixed use density allowed close to Dominion Rd that is hard to see in these maps but the density does drop of quickly.

Light rail certainly feels like it’s going through the same sort of obstructive process as the CRL did before the government finally agreed to help pay for it and that it’s needed now. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait as long as the CRL did to get to that stage. The biggest unknown of course is the government who have been hostile to the project so far. I can’t understand what they would lose by supporting it, even if it was built in a decade or more, as the numerous reports back up the need for light rail and it’s a project that would be popular with voters.

Overall, it’s good to see there’s progress being made on this project and even better news that modern light rail continues to be the plan.

Tauranga’s Ghost Motorway

Over the weekend I took a trip down to Paengaroa (about 30km east of Tauranga) to visit some family. After travelling through Tauranga, the fastest option for getting there is via only the second of the government’s Roads of National Significance to have been fully completed, the Tauranga Eastern Link (TEL) – the first was the Victoria Park tunnel.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve driven over the road and as with previous times, I was struck with the emptiness of it. So, I thought I’d look a little closer at it.

The TEL is a 21km, four lane motorway from Te Maunga in Tauranga (near BayPark stadium) through to the intersection of SH2 and SH33 just before Paengaroa. The first 6km upgraded the existing SH2 route to motorway standard and serves the ever expanding housing developments down Papamoa Beach. The remaining 15km is a completely new road bypassing the town of Te Puke and is tolled. The project was officially completed at the end of July 2015, about five months early. See below for a flyover of the road

It is also intended that eventually two additional interchanges along the route will be added, one roughly where the road turns away from being parallel with the coast to serve the continued residential growth in Papamoa (expected to be needed in about a decade) and the second for a proposed business park near the eastern end of the motorway. You can see the TEL to the right of the map below which is much straighter than old State Highway 2 through Te Puke which was rated as the second worst in the country for safety.

As mentioned, the project was designated a road of national significance by the government in 2009 and one of the reasons for that was in this cabinet paper outlining why the route should be tolled.

TEL has been specifically developed to generate economic growth within the Bay of Plenty region. The Western Bay of Plenty continues to be one of the fastest growing areas in New Zealand. The NZTA advises that TEL will contribute to economic growth by providing convenient, reliable access to areas of employment, and by improving access for freight to the Port of Tauranga and to new urban and industrial developments.

Currently, TEL is prioritised 45th in the NZTA‘s 2009/2010 State Highway Plan. Based on this programming, construction would not begin for an estimated 5–7 years if it were funded entirely from the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF). The NZTA‘s view is that borrowing, supported by tolling, would allow construction to commence in 2010/11. This approach requires Cabinet approval. A similar approach has previously been used in relation to the Northern Gateway Toll Road (NGTR).

At the opening of the road, Transport Minister Simon Bridges and then Prime Minister John Key praised the road as being a game changer for the Bay of Plenty.

The new Tauranga Eastern Link has been described as a “game changer” that will bring the Bay closer together and “ensure economic growth”, Transport Minister Simon Bridges told dignitaries at its official opening yesterday.

It was the “best road in New Zealand,” the largest in the Bay of Plenty and the most highly specced you could build, with four lanes, seven bridges and the biggest roundabout in the country – all completed five months ahead of schedule at $455 million, he said.

The 21km road, that heads towards the Port of Tauranga, would increase productivity and shave about 24 minutes off a return trip between Paengaroa and Te Maunga, creating quicker access for inter-regional freight to the Port of Tauranga and driving down costs.

Prime Minister John Key echoed those sentiments and said the highway had been designed to open up the region.

“This will help grow industry and jobs, improve safety and support economic development and growth.

“By improving links between centres of production and ports or airports, we can improve our international competitiveness and achieve the strong and growing economy that supports more jobs and higher incomes.”

The most highly specced is another way of saying the road had been gold plated and it certainly feels that way to drive on it. And Bridges isn’t kidding when he says it has the biggest roundabout, the whole interchange at the Paengaroa end is probably the most space hungry I’ve seen.

But when it comes to just how useful it is to the economy, it appears to be more like a movie that never lives up to its hype.

Historically most transport projects are paid for out of the National Land Transport fund but as quoted earlier, the NZTA, through the government, borrowed month to allow them to start the project sooner than otherwise would have been possible. the Cabinet paper referenced says they would borrow $137 million for the road. On top of that, interest would be capatalised to the loan and which had a potential range of $59-151 million. That $137 million would be paid for over 35 years by tolls – which are capped at $2 for light vehicles and $5 for heavy vehicles (in 2008 values), with only CPI increases allowed.

Now of course servicing that debt relies heavily on there being enough traffic. The NZTA predicted that 8,600 vehicles would use the road daily in 2016 rising to 21,200 in 2031. It’s also worth pointing out that SH2 at Te Puke never saw traffic volumes reach 21,000 and in 2006 were just over 18k per day and they peaked a few years later at just over 19k per day.

The monthly data from the NZTA only includes the TEL from March this year, ideally we’d have more results, but it shows traffic volumes are less than half of what was expected with an average of about 4200 using the road on a daily basis. Residential streets in Auckland move more people, plus in a lot less space. The results also show about 600 heavy vehicles using the road per day, only about a quarter of those using old road before TEL opened.

Lower volumes also mean lower revenues to help pay off the loan. We can see the difference between heavy and light vehicles, we can estimate what revenue would be for each month. Over the nine months we can see in the graph above, I estimate the average amount that was collected was just under $320k per month. Even with low interest rates, that’s about half of what would be needed to pay back that $137m loan. Here’s some what the Cabinet Paper says about should this situation arise.

One of the risks of any tolling proposal is that deviations from the traffic volumes forecast would have implications for revenue, and consequently on the ability of the project to repay the debt. To generate the traffic forecasts for this project the NZTA sought input from a third party, Beca Consultants.

In the event that there is a shortfall in debt repayment on TEL due to lower than expected toll revenue, the NZTA will be responsible for meeting this debt through planned risk mitigation measures.

The NZTA advises that these measures could include remodelling of the toll strategy, revisiting the toll collection strategy, identifying potential cost savings within the processing system, and potentially reconsidering the approach to managing the alternative route (while ensuring that this route remains a feasible option). If all of these measures are unsuccessful, the NZTA would then look to review the financing options (for example extending the tolling period)

I wonder at what point the NZTA push the panic button on this road. It is also probably a good example highlighting that people’s willingness to pay is often considerably lower than the perceived value of the time savings, which is important given how much importance time savings are given in project assessments.

Is it too early to call this a white elephant yet and will anyone be held to account for the wildly inaccurate traffic modelling and assessment? And yet despite its issues, it’ll look like a sane investment next the proposed motorway between Warkworth and Wellsford.


Update: it turns out the results the NZTA included in the data I used for this were only for one direction, not both directions like every other road in the dataset provided. I apologise for not picking this up.

RoNS 2.0?

The government’s Roads of National Significance have dominated transport spending over the last eight years and within the next 4-5 years, almost all of the motorways originally proposed will have been completed. Yet despite this, current plans are for transport spending on state highways is set to continue to increase over the coming years – NZTA are currently forecast to spend $1.9 billion on state highways this financial year, based on MoT projections, by 2024-25 this it is likely to be close to $2.9 billion a year.

Although they’re not (yet) officially called it, signs are pointing to the government preparing for RoNS 2.0. Some of these signs have been public comments and commitments and others come from decisions reported from the NZTA. Here are a few of them.

Last Friday, Transport Minister Simon Bridges suddenly announced that the Government would spend $400-500 million to four lane 22km of State Highway 1 between Whangarei and the turnoff to Marsden Port (SH15A), starting in just a few years.

There are couple of thoughts I’ve had about this. Regardless of the merits for one, at least this upgrade is actually in Northland, unlike the Puhoi to Wellsford road the government are building but for which they claim massive benefits for Northland. I also wonder how much of this is about trying to win back the Northland seat off Winston Peters with a less obvious form of pork barrel politics.

NZTA figures show that on average, about 15,000 vehicles use the road per day with about 12% of those being heavy vehicles – a fairly high heavy percentage and notably, both figures are higher than SH1 between Warkworth and north of Wellsford, which the NZTA announced a route for recently and expected to cost more than $1 billion. Speaking of that road,  it surely won’t be too long before people are calling for the ~45km gap between the two roads and over the Brynderwn’s to be done too to give a full motorway/expressway between Whangarei and south of Cambridge. It certainly seems to be on Bridges mind

“Ultimately we’re planning a significant upgrade of the highway all the way from Whangarei to Auckland which will include the completion of the Puhoi to Wellsford Road of National Significance which will make journeys along this entire corridor safer and more efficient,” Mr Bridges says

Interestingly both the number of vehicles and the percentage of heavy vehicles seems remarkably similar to the traffic counts on SH2 at Mangatawhiri which was upgrade some years back. It remains mostly a single lane road except for some passing lanes but has been designed so it could be relatively easy to expand in the future. I wonder if the same sort of approach could be done here instead.

A few weeks earlier, at the opening of the Kapiti Expressway, Bridges apparently mused about extending the expressway north of Otaki. Previously the NZTA had scaled back government plans for the section from Otaki to Levin to focus primarily on safety improvements but mid last year said they were re-investigating options which sounds ominously like they trying to justify an expressway again. This section happens to have about the same volumes as the Whangarei route above.

But what is emerging is that these aren’t one offs and they appear to be related to a wider package of work. Looking around the NZTA website recently I came across this Board Resolution titled “Portfolio of inter-regional business cases (North Island)“.

They say they are developing a 10-30 year strategic view of the land transport system and that one of the focuses on improving inter-regional routes. The key inter-regional areas they want to focus on first are basically the SH1 spine and links to Tauranga:

  • completing key enhancements to key inter-regional journeys linking Tauranga, Hamilton, Auckland and Whangarei
  • enhancing key inter-regional journeys linking Hamilton to Levin
  • improving access to Wellington.

From those three focuses there are split into eight different programmes and the resolution above was to get approval to spend $18 million to develop early stage business cases on these programmes. They say all get a high rating for both of the NZTA’s relatively bogus Strategic Fit and Effectiveness measures (Strategic Fit = how well does it align with government policy, Effectiveness = how well the proposed solution achieves the strategic goals). The third leg of the NZTA’s assessment criteria is Efficiency which the business case that assesses the benefits and costs of projects – arguably they should get rid of effectiveness as that should be covered in the business case. The programmes, BCR’s and estimated costs are shown below.

That suggests about $4.5 to $7 billion could be spent on these routes and likely much more given they’re only rough estimates and much more detailed assessments are needed. That’s certainly enough to eat up significant chunks of funding and keep the road builders happy for some years after the completion of the RoNS.

Of the eight above, below are the four considered the most urgent. Most will have both indicative and detailed business cases developed

  • SH1 Auckland to Whangarei – SH1 Northport to Te Hana and SH1 Whangarei to Northport
  • SH29 Piarere to Tauriko – SH29 Piarere to Te Poi, SH29 Te Poi to Summit and SH29 – Summit to Tauriko
  • Tauriko (Tauranga) network – SH29 Tauriko Network Plan
  • Wellington’s port access programme business case.

So are we heading for RoNS 2.0, or perhaps they’ve just been smelling too much tarmac recently?

Quietening Ellerslie

News yesterday that the NZTA have confirmed they’ll add noise barriers to the motorway through Ellerslie.

Ellerslie residents suffering from motorway noise are in for relief with confirmation new barriers will be built along a section of State Highway 1.

The NZ Transport Agency is also investigating noise barriers for other sections of urban motorways in Auckland.

Work on the Ellerslie barriers will begin by the middle of the year, Transport Minister Simon Bridges said.

“I’m confident that the installation of these noise barriers will significantly reduce the disturbance caused to residents by traffic noise from the motorway. They’re a good solution that will make a noticeable difference.”

NZTA could not say exactly where the Ellerslie barriers will be built, as designs are still to be finalised.

However, residents on Findlay and Hewson Streets, near the Ellerslie Train Station, have been lobbying for action on motorway noise.

The Ellerslie Residents Association (ERA) has pushed for sound barriers, saying noise has increased as traffic worsens and since the completion of the fourth northbound lane.

Wow an extra lane made noise worse, whoever would’ve thought.

There’s not much to stop noise between the motorway and nearby houses

Here are a few thoughts I’ve had about this:

  • It’s good that the NZTA are finally going to mitigate some of the impacts the motorway has on the surrounding area. They did add some short noise barriers between the train station and the motorway as part of the recent motorway widening but I’m not a regular user of the station so I’m keen to hear the thoughts of those who are as to the impact they have or haven’t had.
  • This isn’t the only place that could really do with some noise barriers. The articles say they’re looking at other areas too but really, shouldn’t all urban motorways have at least sound barriers as even the most basic mitigation.
  • It’s interesting that this was announced by Simon Bridges and not the NZTA, highlighting that this was a political decision. This is no surprise as we’ve seen in other situations that the NZTA will often try and do as little as possible to mitigate the significant impacts of urban motorways and tend to only do so when they are either upgrading the road or if really forced to do so.
  • Radio NZ reports that the barriers will cost $6 million. I wonder how much it would cost to properly mitigate the noise along the rest of the motorway network.
  • Noise barriers are really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the mitigation we need and how long will it be before we need to go further. In particular severance issues can be significant in some places

Where are the locations you think should be next on the list for noise barriers?

Waterview reckoning

On Friday afternoon, Newstalk ZB reported, and followed up by the Herald yesterday that the Waterview Tunnels will have lights to control traffic both accessing the tunnels and on the connection out of the tunnels onto SH16 eastbound.

Auckland’s new Waterview Tunnel will speed up travel times, but motorists will have to wait in queues at traffic lights to enter it.

The tunnel connecting the North Western and South Western motorways will open in April, creating the Western Ring Route around the city.

Ramp signals will operate on both of the ramps into the tunnel, and on the longer east-bound tramps out of the tunnel.

But motorists turning west out of the tunnel won’t have to wait at signal lights, so queues of traffic are unlikely to build up inside it.

Signals will also operate on the other side of the tunnel, like at the on-ramp at Maioro Street.

New Zealand Transport Agency Auckland highway manager Brett Gliddon said the signals will be able to control traffic through the tunnel in both directions.

Delays caused by traffic signals will be offset by major improvements to travel times and traffic flows.

While this is the first time this has appeared in the media, it isn’t new entirely new as in September last year we revealed that the NZTA had underestimated traffic demand for the Waterview Connection and were undertaking a series measures to try and mitigate the traffic volumes they now expect will occur after opening. These mitigation works included ramp signals as well as emergency widening of some sections of motorway.

What’s interested me the most has been some of the comments from the NZTA in relation to all of this. First up:

Mr Gliddon said completing the connection will allow more cars to travel on motorways, and reduce the number of cars on local roads

If the intention is to reduce the number of cars on local roads then it’s important that the NZTA and Auckland Transport capitalise on that by refocusing them on supporting local movements. That means prioritising walking, cycling, public transport and local access instead of a focus on pumping as many cars along them as possible. Given Waterview has been under construction since 2011, there’s been plenty of time to prepare for this, so surely AT and the NZTA have plans to do this?

Unfortunately, it seems that other than bus lanes on Great North Rd, there are no other changes in this direction planned for local roads, and in fact some of their proposed emergency mitigation was in direct conflict with this, for example AT wanted to put bus lanes citybound on Blockhouse Bay Rd but the NZTA want it kept car focused as an “incident diversion route”.

Next we have:

“It is not a means of removing congestion altogether, especially in peak periods, which is no different to other major cities across the world.”

In many ways this is a very significant statement, like an addict admitting they have a problem, the NZTA have taken the first step by admitting that roads will still be congested, especially at peak times. This is of course a positive first step towards getting a more balanced transport system but it doesn’t do anything to make up for the fact that the NZTA let a golden opportunity to provide people with a genuine option to opt out of congestion, in the form of full busway along SH16. While they have built some bus lanes, they are inadequate, stopping at interchanges and already suffering from being clogged up with vehicles in places. Not building a full busway is a massive failure from all of our transport institutions, especially as ATAP recently recognised that the first parts of it will be needed within a decade, meaning the diggers will need to back in just a few years.

It’s also worth pointing out old project documents like this one that claims Waterview will “relieve congestion“. It also notes that it will reduce traffic on Maioro Rd by 20%, yet as part of the emergency mitigation one of the actions was to ask AT to make changes to increase “off ramp discharge capacity” – in other words to pump more traffic down there.

You don’t have to be a traffic engineer to realise that if SH16 is already clogged every morning towards the city that adding two lanes of traffic from tunnels isn’t going to work well.

These claims of relieving congestion come from a long line of similar type comments from the agency and politicians, including Steven Joyce and others claiming numerous times that Waterview was the “last link” in the Western Ring Route, only to announce the Northern Corridor project just a few years later.

Following on from the initial articles, including the herald’s somewhat alarmist title of “Warning: Waterview tunnel will open to gridlock“, the NZTA issued a press release about it yesterday. It’s quite unusual to get press releases on a Sunday which makes me think some senior managers and/or politicians were not happy. In it, they defended the project and called some of the reporting “misleading”.

Ramp signals at Waterview one way of optimising traffic flows across motorway network

The NZ Transport Agency says ramp signals are just one tool to optimise traffic flow and ensure the safe and smooth running of the entire Auckland motorway network.

Ramp signals similar to those already operating where State Highway 20 joins State Highway 1 will help to regulate traffic flow on both ramps leading in the Waterview Tunnel and the east-bound ramp out of the tunnel.

“Like all the other ramp signals on the motorway network, they will only operate when there’s a need to optimise traffic flow, that could in reality mean they are used very infrequently,” says Brett Gliddon the Transport Agency’s Auckland Highway Manager.

“We don’t expect this to lead to significant queues and headlines suggesting the ramp signals will create gridlock are misleading.”

I found it particularly odd that of all ramp lights around the motorway network they chose to highlight the SH20 to SH1 ramp signals. If you recall that too was promised to be a free flowing connection but the NZTA had to put signals on it after it caused massive congestion on SH1 when it opened.

A new $220 million Auckland link road designed to take the pressure off State Highway 1 is having the opposite effect, forcing transport bosses to install traffic lights to ease congestion.

Ramp signals will be erected to give traffic travelling south along SH1 a chance against motorists muscling their way on to the road from the Southwestern Motorway at Manukau.

The signals are expected to be running within three months, at a point that was originally intended to be a seamless connection.

A recent post implementation review found that some of this issue came from not properly assessing the impacts the project would have which is notable because the emergency mitigation being undertaken only came about due to a new traffic assessment as these issues or other works weren’t identified in the reports used to obtain consent.

Ultimately the issue isn’t about whether the project has ramp signals or not but how these mega road projects are sold and communicated to the public. If our institutions were more honest about the what the real impacts of these mega projects were, it would likely change how many of these projects are viewed.

Now NZTA, when are you getting started on that busway?

Warkworth to Wellsford boondoggle route announced

Since 2009 when the Roads of National Significance were first announced we’ve talked a lot about the Puhoi to Warkworth motorway the NZTA has now started building. We’ve long had issues with the project, mainly due to its high cost for comparatively little demand outside of a few holiday periods. But the project was only ever the stage one of a larger scheme to extend the new road further north to also bypass Wellsford.

Not long after originally announced, the section from Warkworth to Welllsford appeared to have been relegated into a vault somewhere at the NZTA. That’s in part because the last we had heard, it was that they were struggling to even find a route to use thanks to the tricky geology in the area. Here’s what they said in 2011 about it.

“Every time you put a spade in the ground up there you’ve got to put in retaining structures, or tunnels or something.

“The level of ground movement is more than we had anticipated, which makes huge problems and huge costs.”

In fact we thought it had been put so far to the back of the vault by the NZTA that it might not surface again, and that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

Despite the challenging ground conditions, on Tuesday, the NZTA announced that they now have an indicative route for the project

The NZ Transport Agency says the proposed route for a new road between Warkworth and Wellsford announced today will make traveling between Northland and Auckland safer, faster and easier.

It has shared an Indicative Route for the Warkworth to Wellsford section of the Ara Tūhono Pūhoi to Wellsford Road of National Significance.

“Building an off-line motorway, completely separate from the existing State Highway 1 will improve safety, reduce congestion and support Northland’s economic growth,” says Ernst Zollner the Transport Agency’s Northland Director.

“Removing sharp bends, providing better passing opportunities and a dual carriageway to separate north and southbound traffic will improve safety and is predicted to reduce the fatal and serious injury crash rate by 80% through this area.”

Due to the natural environment through the Dome Valley, State Highway 1 is susceptible to flooding, slips and ongoing repairs. The location of the new motorway, to the west of the Dome Forest, will provide a reliable alternate route between Northland and Auckland.

The Indicative Route ties into the local road network helping to connect local communities.

It joins the Pūhoi to Warkworth section of motorway near Kaipara Flats Road. It will then travel on the western side of the Dome Valley until it reaches the Hoteo River where it will cross eastwards over the existing SH1 to an interchange proposed at Wayby Valley Road in Wellsford. Another motorway interchange is proposed near Mangawhai Road, with the motorway then meeting the existing State Highway 1 north of Vipond Road.

“Once the motorway is built travel will also be safer for local road users because 90% of regional traffic, especially heavy traffic, can avoid townships making their main streets safer for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.”

The Indicative Route will be shared with the public for their feedback which will help further refine the route. If the route is confirmed it will be taken forward for consenting and route protection by 2018.

While the NZTA don’t plan to officially release the route till this weekend when they hold the first of their public open days (see here for them), Local Matters which covers the North Auckland area has published this map showing the route which even suggests a potential tunnel along the route.

Like with the Puhoi to Warkworth section, our major problem with this project is the share cost of it compared to how much it will be used. The Puhoi to Warkworth section is around 18km and costing, though a PPP, about $710 million. Currently just over 21,000 vehicles travel the road south of Warkworth daily. It had a benefit cost ration of about 0.9 so in other words we get about 90c of benefits for every dollar we spend on it.

By comparison this new section is about 24km in length, though what sounds like even more challenging terrain with potentially a tunnel meaning the cost will almost certainly be much higher than the Warkworth leg. Earlier estimates put this section at about $1 billion but I suspect it could now easily top that. What’s more the current segment of road this is intended to replace carries only about half the traffic of SH1 at just over 10k vehicles per day.

Here’s a comparison of the vehicle volumes for the 20 years showing this section sees just over 10k vehicles per day with possibly slightly more. To put that in perspective, some of our urban roads in Auckland carry more traffic than each sections of roads

Here are a few other quick thoughts that have run though my head about this project.

It’s not about Northland – The government, and those who have pushed the project the hardest, love to claim that the point of the project is to improve the economy of Northland. Spending this money this project in Northland itself would provide better outcomes. As Peter suggested the other day.

Why Now? – It’s been almost nine years since the Government launched the RoNS and I can’t help but wonder if the NZTAs latest push on this project is related to the election later this year. The government will of course be keen to reclaim the Northland seat off Winston Peters.

Where’s the business case – surely self explanatory

Operation Lifesaver – Based on other projects and even if the NZTA push on at this time, it’s likely to be a decade or more before complete. This once again raises the issue of Operation Livesaver, the purpose of which is to implement a range of safety and other enhancements to the existing route which could be done now. Given it would also be much cheaper it could see improvements extended further closer to Whangarei.

Any bets on the cost of this and the BCR?

Dwelling on dwell-times — Estimating the economic benefits of speeding up Auckland’s trains


If you’ve been reading TransportBlog for a while, then you may have noticed that the term “dwell-times” crops up relatively frequently. The term describes the average time that trains are stopped at stations. In several previous posts, we’ve discussed how average dwell-times on Auckland’s new electric trains are approximately 50-60 seconds per stop. In contrast, best-practice dwell-times on rail systems overseas are in the order of 20-30 seconds per stop, so 20 – 40 seconds faster than ours.

In this recent post, I suggested something “had to be done” to shorten dwell-times, to which one commenter (quite reasonably) asked “why“. I was surprised by their question, because to me the benefits of reducing travel-times by 30 seconds per stop seemed obvious. It means that we take Auckland’s trains out of the steam age and into the electric age.

Upon reflection, however, I realised that it wasn’t immediately obvious how apparently small delays of 30 seconds per stop would incur economic costs that warranted action. This realisation motivated me to write this post, in which I attempt to estimate some of the economic benefits of shorter dwell-times on Auckland’s train.

Note that this post does not consider how we might go about reducing dwell-times, and I’d like to ask people who comment not to de-rail the post with such technical matters. The point I’m trying to convey, and which I am interested in discussing, is the economic benefits that flow from running trains faster. Similar arguments apply to efforts to close small intermediate stations, such as Westfield and Te Mahia.

When I think about reducing dwell-times, four obvious sources of economic benefits spring to mind: 1) Reduced costs; 2) Existing user benefits; 3) New User Benefits; and 4) Decongestion benefits. Let’s now dive into the data (hand-waving?) ….

Cost savings: The total cost of running Auckland’s rail services is likely to be in the order of $125 million p.a. Various factors contribute to these costs, but major componenets are likely to be:

  • Staff, including drivers and train managers;
  • Operating costs, such as fuel, mainenance, and track access charges;
  • Asset depreciation, especially on the rolling stock, electrified infrastructure, and depots; and
  • Station operations, such as ticketing and security services.

Different places account for these costs in different ways, which can end up making things quite complex. To simplify things, it’s common to analyse public transport costs in terms of three underlying drivers: 1) vehicle-kilometres; 2) vehicle-hours; and 3) peak fleet requirements. These cost drivers are, more-or-less and to varying degrees, what determine the costs of the services that we operate. Shorter dwell-times won’t, of course, affect the distance that trains travel, even if they will reduce vehicle-hours and/or peak fleet requirements.

To estimate the cost savings from shorter dwell-times, I assumed that measures are taken to reduce dwell-times by 30 seconds per station. If I assume there are 15 stations on the average rail run from Swanson/Papakura/Manukau to the City, then this saves 7.5 minutes on every 55 minute run, or ~14%. I then assume that one-third of this 14% reduction in (in-service) vehicle-hours flows through to the operating cost bottom-line, that is, shorter dwell-times reduce total costs by 4.5%.

Given a total annual spend of $125 million p.a. on operating rail services in Auckland, normal practice dwell-times would reduce costs by $5.68 million p.a. If I then assume an 8% discount rate over 30 years, then this has an NPV of $69.1 million.

That’s the first example of how an apparently small number can lead to a large number when you take a network-wide, long-run perspective …

Existing user benefits: The second effect of shorter dwell-times is to expedite journeys by rail. That us, existing rail users will also benefit from faster travel-times. Current rail patronage is about 18 million journeys p.a., which is predicted to grow to 40 million in a post-CRL world. For the sake of simplicity, let us assume that Auckland averages 30 million rail passengers per year over the next 30 years.

Moreover, I now assume these passengers travel an average of 15km per rail journey. If I assume rail stations are spaced, on average, at one station per 3km, then this implies there are 4 intermediate stations per journey (NB: Remember that users will not benefit from faster dwell-times for the last station). Saving 30 seconds over 4 stations equates to a time saving of 2 minutes per journey. If I assume a value-of-time of $10 per hour, then we can monetize the value of these time savings as follows: (2/60) hours per journey x $10 per hour x 30 million journeys per year = $10 million p.a. This has an NPV of $121.6 million. Happy train users are valuable train users.

New User Benefits: Faster trains will, of course, also attract new users. Let’s assume the elasticty of demand with respect to in-vehicle travel time is -0.50. That is, a doubling in travel-time leads to a 50% decline in patronage. In turn, this means that the 14% reduction in travel-time associated from shorter dwell-times would be associated with a 7.0% increase in patronage, or an additional 2.1 million journeys p.a. If I now apply the rule-of-half, that is 2.1 million x (2/60) x $10 per hour x 0.5 = $0.35 million p.a. Or $4.3 million over 30 years.

Decongestion benefits: Some of the additional rail journeys undertaken as a consequence of faster travel-times would have otherwise been loaded onto the road network. This in turn means congestion would be higher. If I assume that 60% of new rail journeys occur in peak periods, and that 25% of these journeys would have otherwise been placed on the road network, then this suggests faster dwell-times diverts 315,000 vehicles off congested roads every year. If we again assume the average rail journey is 15km long, and that decongestion benefits are valued at $0.40 per kilometre, then I find that decongestion benefits are valued at $1.8 million p.a., or $23.0 million over a thirty year period.


Let’s summarize the estimated economic benefits of faster dwell-times:

  • Cost savings of $69.1 million
  • Existing user benefits of $121.6 million
  • New user benefits of $4.3 million
  • Decongestion benefits of $23.0 million.

Yielding a total of $217.9 million. I must acknowledge these are extremely rough and ready estimates and I could well be wrong and/or out by a decent margin of say +-50%. So don’t anyone go quoting me to the decimal point.

Notwithstanding their approximate nature, the order of magnitude of the estimate is significant. To put it in context, an economic benefit of $217.9 million is equivalent to approximately $7.3 million for every second we cut from average dwell-times. Another way to look at it: I understand the total cost of Auckland’s new trains was in the order of $500 million. Cutting 30 seconds per stop is then worth approximately half of the cost of buying completely new trains. This seems plausible to me; I suspect that a large component of the anticipated benefits of electrification would stem from faster journey times, which have not as yet materialized (NB: In some ways you could argue it’s impressive Auckland has achieved so much patronage growth despite the slow travel-times.

Anyway, the main point is to demonstrate how small time savings can quickly add-up to large dollar values when you take a network-wide, long-run perspective. This is why we harp on about dwell-times and why it’s heartening to see Council putting pressure on AT to sort this mess out. Indeed, cost savings of $69 million above would go straight to Council’s bottom-line, as would approximately $100 million in additional fare revenue over 30 years (NB: This is not an economic benefit per se at it’s simply a transfer from passengers to Council — even if it is of course a fiscal benefit). These fiscal cost savings would result in either lower rates and/or improved services.

In our increasingly resource-constrained world, I consider frugality to be not just prudent, but indeed relatively noble. This is especially true when it comes to other people’s time and money. On this topic, Benjamin Franklin, once said “The way to wealth … depends chiefly on two words, industry and frugality: that is, waste neither time nor money, but make the best use of both.” Confucius put it even more succintly when he said “he who will not economize will have to agonize”.

Or, if you prefer the words of Bruce Lee.

On that note, I suspect my marginal utility of spending more time on this post is by now lower than my next best alternative option.

Have a good ‘un.

Applying for Motorways

A few days before Christmas and the NZTA have been busy little beavers, lodging not one but two consent applications for major Auckland projects last week. the Northern Corridor and the East-West Link (despite the council asking them to hold off for just a few more months). With thousands of pages worth of reports in each of the applications plus their supporting documents, perhaps the NZTA were targeting those looking for something to do over the Christmas/New Year period. Due to the volume of information I’m not going into much detail about each of these but you can be sure we will in the new year.

The Northern Corridor is expected to cost around $500 million and is described on the EPA website as comprising of:

  • SH1 widened to include extra general traffic lanes in each direction between Upper Harbour Highway (Constellation) and Greville Road;
  • A new dual direction busway adjacent to the southbound carriageway shoulder of SH1;
  • Northern Busway extended from Constellation Bus Station, further north to Albany Bus Station;
  • A new off-road shared-use pedestrian/cycleway adjacent to the southbound carriageway of the Northern busway extension;
  • SH18 upgraded to full motorway standard from the Albany Highway interchange to SH1, with a motorway to motorway connection to SH1 (north facing SH1 – SH18 ramps only);
  • Direct connection of Paul Matthew Road to Upper Harbour Highway;
  • Local road intersection improvements; and
  • A new off-road shared-use pedestrian/cycle way initially tracking from Albany Highway along SH18 and up the length of SH1 to Oteha Valley Road.

Unlike the East-West Link further below, there isn’t much in the way of images for the Northern Corridor showing what it will look like. The images do show a couple of important things though, such as that the Constellation Busway Station will get an outbound platform accessed by an over bridge, like Smales Farm and Akoranga. As you can see the Rosedale drawing doesn’t include details about the proposed busway station as mentioned the other day.

While this one shows the proposed bridge that will give direct access from the busway to the Albany Busway station.

Here’s the plan version of that

The East-West is now expected to cost up to $1.8 billion, about three times what it was originally expected to cost. It is described on the EPA website as comprising of:

  • A new four lane arterial road between SH20 at the Neilson Street Interchange in Onehunga and the on and off-ramps on SH1 at Mt Wellington Highway;
  • SH1 widened in each direction between Mt Wellington Highway and Princes Street to increase capacity to allow connection to the Project. Several bridges will either be upgraded or widened to facilitate this;
  • Major upgrades to the Neilson Street Interchange to enable direct access between SH20 and EWL through free flow ramp connections in all directions;
  • A full pedestrian and cycling link between Māngere Bridge and Onehunga through to Sylvia Park Town Centre;
  • Local road improvements at Galway Street, Captain Springs Road, Hugo Johnston Drive and a new access road for the existing ports; and A grade separated intersection of Great South Road and Sylvia Park Roads to provide improved reliability and future resilience.
  • Landscape and recontour the coastal edge of Māngere Inlet to reflect the original foreshore which existed before extensive historic reclamation; and
  • Incorporate stormwater treatment wetlands located within new headlands on the foreshore of the Māngere Inlet.


Below are some images of what the East-West Link is meant to look like when finished.

This is the proposal for the Onehunga Interchange looking North and South. Notice in each of them how they show rail in the plan, which is now planned to go over the top of some roads. The also show the replacement walking and cycling bridge which the NZTA have gone very quiet on.

And here’s a shot showing the new road alongside the Mangere Inlet.

The map below shows the entire East-West plan which also includes widening of SH1 and upgrading the Princes St interchange. Click the image for a larger version or go here for the original (8.2MB)

This is a close up of the Onehunga Interchange.

As mentioned we’ll go into more detail about these posts in the new year, in the meantime, let me know if you see anything interesting in the technical documents

Rosedale Station decisions

The Northern Busway has been one of Auckland’s major public transport success story’s, helping ever increasing numbers of people get around the city while avoiding congestion. It’s been a key factor in seeing around 40% of people crossing the harbour bridge in the morning peak now doing so on a bus. And despite the busway itself opening in 2008, there’s been seeing a surge in usage over  the last year or so which has coincided with the introduction of Double Decker buses – which are now standard on almost all Northern Express services.

Yet this success comes despite the busway only being about 7km long, just 41% of the distance between Albany and the city.

One important win that’s occurred in recent years is that the NZTA will extend the hugely successful Northern Busway all the way to Albany in the coming years – although it only comes alongside a massive motorway project. However, an article on Stuff raises concerns about an important aspect of those plans, that authorities can’t seem to agree on where to put a new station.

The exact location of a new bus station on Auckland’s North Shore will finally be decided in 2017.

First mooted in 2015, the bus station is part of a project to improve the Northern Busway and has received “overwhelming” public support.

But, after two years of investigation by the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) and Auckland Transport (AT), a precise site for the new station has still not been chosen.

The Northern Corridor Improvements project will see the Northern Busway extended from Constellation Bus Station in Mairangi Bay all the way through to Albany Bus Station.

Original project plans proposed the new station at Rosedale, as part of the wide-ranging works.

However, the new bus station has been left out of plans that were lodged with the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) in November.

NZTA’s Auckland highway manager Brett Gliddon says the bus station is still being “actively investigated” and a final decision on the location will be made next year.

This is what the NZTA have said in relation to the busway in the past and it also hints at what some of the problem might be.

A station linked to Rosedale Rd makes a lot of sense, given there’s a decent little patch of employment within easy walking distance.

I suspect part of the problem of why it’s taking so long to make a decision might be hidden in the text from the NZTA, specifically:

Auckland Transport are also investigating a new bus station and Park & Ride options at Rosedale. It is envisaged that, like Smales Farm, this proposed station will be a destination station for the many people who work, go to school or attend sporting activities in Rosedale.

Destination stations are usually reserved for important locations such as large centres or interchanges, for example, New Lynn, Newmarket, Otahuhu, Panmure and of course, as mentioned in the text, Smales Farm. These stations are normally impressive but are both costly and/or where bus interchanges are concerned and they can consume significant amounts of land. This would be especially so if they also plan to include a park & ride. As such, it would be no surprise if we were to learn that cost of such a station, both monetarily and in land use, was a sticking point in the decision.

In my view a destination station is wrong for Rosedale and instead something more akin to the Sunnynook Busway Station, a fairly simple but efficient station, seems more appropriate. What’s more it could span Rosedale Rd to give easy access to footpaths on either side of the road and to bus stops for local bus services.

Let’s hope they can get the details of this busway station sorted soon so the NZTA don’t leave AT behind.

ATAP Indicative Projects Costings

In September the Final Report of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) was released and we’ve talked about it a lot since then. It focused on strategic recommendations following multiple rounds of modelling of packages of projects and with & without Smarter Pricing. The Final Indicative Package can be seen on the map below, however please note these are indicative and may change as each project goes through the necessary business cases.

ATAP Indicative Interventions

The ATAP report found that in the first decade alone, there’s a $400 million funding gap and while the aggregate costings where available, the estimated cost for each project where not. So, I decided to OIA that very information & thankfully the NZTA were happy to oblige, giving us this information in a very nice format which you can see below.

Please note the projects are indicative and subject to the regular business cases, the costings are preliminary estimates for example the ATAP team did not receive the information regarding updated CRL costings until after the Report had been finalised, the costings are also not inflation adjusted which is why some in the third decade in particular look cheaper than previous estimates you may have seen.

ATAP Projects Estimates

ATAP Project Costs Page 1

ATAP Project Costs Page 2

Rail Development Programme

Rail Development Programme

I wont go into to much regarding the information, as this is best done in a series of follow up posts on ATAP, but some things to note are

  1. A (Road Only) Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing is $3.7b but will be much more with inflation.
  2. They budget $585.3m of level crossing removals.
  3. There is over $4b in state highway widening projects (Does not include East West Link & AWHC), those projects bring it up to over $9B.
  4. $784m to four track Westfield-Papakura.
  5. $503.7m for Isthmus Mass Transit is budgeted in the first decade meaning only $622.5m needs to be accelerated to make it a first decade project.
  6. Mass Transit between Wynyard Quarter – Takapuna is budgeted at $1.8b.

What do you think of the costs and what stands out to you?