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No more buses in the City Centre? Is light rail an answer?

An idea that crops up quite often is whether we can get rid of all the buses in the city centre. This idea is normally backed up with the suggestion that buses are dirty, smelly, noise loathesome things that have no place in a civilised city.

Now right up front I don’t agree with that suggestion. Modern buses are actually pretty clean and quiet, especially new hybrid and battery electric models. If we design our bus routes and infrastructure properly they can be very low impact and contribute nicely to the urban environment, but where we treat them like poor cousins or try and “paint the bus routes on afterwards” they can be horrendous.

But let’s ignore that reality for now and run with the premise: what would it take to get rid of buses from the city centre. I can see four general options:

  1. Stop all buses at the edge of town and make everyone walk in. I think this is a non starter, Auckland Central is just too big for this to work. Some people would be happy to walk a kilometre or two to get where they are going, but most want to get a lot closer than that. This idea also kills off any chance of connecting between buses to get across town.
  2. Stop all buses at the edge of town and transfer everyone to a light rail shuttle, tram loop or monorail circulator, etc. This I think is also a non starter. It overcomes the walk issue above but simply trades it for the inconvenience of a forced transfer on every trip. That’s not just unnecessarily inconvenient, it also requires some pretty massive terminus infrastructure to turn around hundreds of buses an hour at various points on the city fringe and get everyone over to some sort of shuttle thing. It also makes transfers across town awkward, although not impossible.
  3. Feed all buses into rail or busway tunnels and only have underground train/bus stations in the city. This is feasible, but would be very expensive. Given the current and projected bus patronage we would require two or three city rail links, or bus equivalents, to move the numbers. It also means you lose the easy street level access for more local trips, and would need to divert lots of local isthmus buses quite out of the way to link to connecting stations or bus tunnel portals. So without building something comprehensive, and expensive, like an underground metro network it’s hard to see how this could work, and indeed all the cities with the busiest metros still have masses of buses and trams running at street level.
  4. Convert all city bus routes to light rail, and only have light rail trams on city streets. This is the question I want to explore today, is it feasible to reinstall the Auckland isthmus tram system and only have light rail vehicles running on city streets?

Having only light rail on the streets is an appealing idea, people seem very fond of trams and the idea of an extensive tram network has little push back from architects and urban designers who are concerned with the look, feel and experience of the city. It’s hard to argue that trams aren’t nice to ride on, or that they don’t look cool. If done properly it would mean dedicated lanes for every transit route reaching the city, nice station style stops and permanent and legible ‘proper transit’ for a proper big city.

Light rail on street would have a few unique advantages too. One is that the corridors can be quite narrow given that the vehicles are stuck to their rails. The trams they use in Adelaide and Madrid, for example, are only 2.4m wide. This means a double tramway can fit in only 5m of road width, between stops at least. That could be very useful for our fairly narrow arterial roads, streets like Dominion Rd or Mt Eden Rd which are only 20m wide in total and where even basic bus lanes are difficult. Putting narrow trams in the middle might buy us enough space for cycle lanes, or a row of parking.

Skinny but capacious tram from Madrid.

So if we put aside the fact you can actually do much the same with buses, if you give them the same level of investment and attention, why wouldn’t we want this?

Well the simple answer is that it would cost a lot of money, money that might be better spent improving frequencies and adding new services rather than changing the existing ones from rubber tyres to steel wheels. So the question is how much would it actually cost, so let’s see. To work out this cost, I have taken the bus network published in the Regional Public Transport Plan and identified all of the routes that end in or pass through the city centre. I then grouped those together into bunches that run on the same corridor in town, giving six groups:

  1. Quay St: Tamaki Dr to Jervois Rd/Pt Chevalier, plus the Inner Link loop
  2. Symonds St: routes from Remuera Rd, Great South Rd and Manukau Rd
  3. Queen St: Mt Eden Rd, Dominion Rd, Sandringham Rd, New North Rd
  4. Albert St: Great North Rd, and Richmond Rd
  5. The Northwestern Motorway
  6. The Northern Busway


Indicative light rail corridors and groupings.

Indicative light rail corridors and groupings.

One thing to note here, I tried to be conservative with the track and make stuff as small as possible. To that end I’ve not replace some of the smaller bus routes that enter the city at all, I guess the idea is they would terminate at somewhere like Newmarket, Ponsonby or Parnell and people would have to swap to the trams.  This might not be the best way to run things for the network, but it seems to be a simple way to do it.

Adding these corridors up, we arrive at the following figures for the total track required (the total route length is longer because the routes share tracks near the City Centre).

Estimated cost of converting all routes reaching the Auckland City Centre to light rail.

Estimated cost of converting all routes reaching the Auckland City Centre to light rail.

For the city routes I’ve applied a cost of $12m per kilometre for track, power and roadway reconstruction. That’s a mid range estimate taken from review of recent light rail projects in Australia. I’ve also allowed for one pair of platform style stops for every 500m of track, costed at $500k each. On the Northern and Northwestern routes I’ve allowed for the addition of tracks to busway and motorway shoulders, and in the case of the Northwestern, some new stations at $10m each. This does assume that we can simply run light rail tracks on the busway, motorway shoulders and over the general lanes of the harbour bridge, probably in mixed traffic. Again that might not be the best way to do it, but it’s the cheapest. In addition, we’d need a maintenance depot and some stabling yards, total of $100m allowed there.

Finally, I worked out what would be required for a peak frequency of one tram every five minutes on each street level route (giving better frequency where they overlap), while I allowed for one every three minutes on the Northern and Northwestern corridors. Overall that requires 94 light rail vehicles, each costed at $5m.

All together that adds up to 152 route-kilometres operating on 119.7 kilometres of double track electrified tramway, with 119 stations served by 94 vehicles running every five minutes at peak times. That would leave Auckland in a sort of Melbourne like position. Heavy rail for the main trunk routes from most of the region, light rail filling in some other radial corridors, the inner suburbs covered in street level tram lines and buses relegated to feeder and crosstown routes well away from the City Centre.

So, what is the magic number to get rid of buses by building a light rail network covering all routes entering the City Centre? Add it all up and we get an estimate of $2.36 billion dollars (I actually think that is a bit light, not for the street level stuff but I fear the Northern and Northwestern motorway based ones could in practice get very expensive indeed).

The question is, is it worth it? Could we do better with that money?

Well at a service level it’s really no better than what we will have with the New Network buses, at least in terms of frequency and accessibility. Spending that money would buy us a lot of reliability, assuming that the tram tracks would be closed to traffic for the most part and the trams could run without interference at any time of day. However we could do the same with an aggressive programme of bus lanes for a lot cheaper. Likewise with the new station style stops, the corresponding street upgrades, the modern cool looking and comfortable vehicles. We’d get all that, but the question remains could we not do the same with our bus stops and save a whole lot of money in the process. Another point is this would deliver a multi-billion dollar transit boost to the isthmus and the North Shore… which are, excluding the CBD and parts of Glen Innes, precisely those areas that see the least allowance for development in the Unitary Plan.

I’d love it if some minister turned up with two and half billion for such a project, and I do believe Auckland would be an amazing place if this were done. But is it really something to aim for, or can we do better with our money?

Curiously the cost of an isthmus tram network is about the same as the CRL, so should we do that instead? I’m not sure if that’s a good idea, the CRL would need to come first, or at least at the same time, before we look at anything like this. I can see two reasons for that stance.
Firstly a light rail system wouldn’t actually add that much capacity, because it is simply replacing the buses we already have. There would probably be some boost to speed, capacity and reliability, but not that much if it is a case of just changing vehicles and guideway on the same corridors. By most estimates the CRL gives us the ability to run about 48 trains an hour in total, or an extra 28 over current capacity. Twenty-eight full size EMUs is equivalent to about eighty-four light rail trams an hour, or 420 buses!… and that’s new capacity.
The second point is that the CRL really supercharges the regional rail network, which focuses on the suburbs outside the isthmus more than anything. As noted above it’s the rail served suburbs of the west and south that really have the potential to grow under the unitary plan, not the isthmus, so we should build the transport they need first.

Let us know what you think, I hope to see lots of juicy debate on this one!

20 by 2020

With the news that Auckland Rail ridership hit 11 million for the year to March 2014 it is time for some quick back of the envelope math:

Readers will recall that when PM Key announced support for the City Rail Link in June last year it was coloured by a disagreement with the Council over the timing of the need for the project. The Council wants it to be operational by 2020 and the government doesn’t think construction should start until that date. However he said that if ridership was heading to 20mil in 2020 that [along with Centre City employment growth] would support the case for the Council’s view on timing.  Matt considered both these metrics at the time here.

So where are we at now? Ridership at the end of June 2013 was almost exactly 10mil: Less than a year later and it is now 11 mil. 3 months to go and already 10% growth. To reach 20mil by 2020 a rate of 10.4% is sufficient.

So what do you say Mr Key? How about we wait till June just to be sure then you can send a note to Treasury to ringfence the funding over the construction period?

Good to have that sorted then…

OK, I can hear the cynics out there saying that you can’t just extrapolate ridership growth from one year out indefinitely and that is indeed true, almost as absurd as assuming traffic growth will leap upwards from a flat line; well almost. So we must ask are there good reasons to believe that ridership growth will continue at this rate? Well no, but there are three good reasons to be confident that it will in fact accelerate from this year even more strongly;

1. The vastly more attractive, higher capacity, and able to be more frequently run New Trains

2. The new integrated ticketing and fares system

3. The New Bus Network that is focussed on coordinating with the Rail Network to help speed and improve many journeys, from new transfer stations like the recently completed Panmure, New Lynn, and coming Mangere and Otahuhu.

Ok what else? Are there any precedents elsewhere for this confidence? Well, again no, because to our knowledge no other city has improved so much at once, but there is the example of Perth, where they did both electrify and extend the existing rail network in the 1990s then add an underground inner city link and a new line in the 2000s, both investments rewarded with the big jumps in ridership visible in the chart below. And interestingly they started with both a similar population to Auckland [a bit higher, but more dispersed] and a similar rail ridership at the start [10mil]:



So because of these already underway changes we consider it highly likely that ridership will hit 20 million well before 2020, although that will be inhibited by the constriction caused by the deadend at Britomart, which will continue to restrict AT from responding to higher demand with the really high frequencies, the very problem which of course the CRL will address, elegantly and efficiently, as well as improving reach and speed. It is clear that the Council’s plan to stage the construction in order to spread the works disruption and their understanding of its near term need is compelling and necessary.

We should also remember that rail ridership has grown by some 400% since the opening of Britomart [annualised: 18% pa, so this has been a consistent grower since even simple improvements were added to what was a completely under invested in system. Build it and they will indeed come.

It is also worth noting that no motorway network shows or is required to show anything like a 10% demand growth in order to get even 50% funding from government. In fact the government had to invent an abstract and novel category of road -The Road of National Significance- in order to get around the low traffic demands all over the nation and overcome their often appallingly low business cases. For example traffic demand in and around Wellington is going backwards, actually falling, but NZTA can’t stop drawing lines down every fault-line for new motorways there. How about 10% demand growth hurdles for investment all transport systems?

Anyone looking for a sure-bet infrastructure project certain to return a transformational shift then here it is: the CRL.

Here’s a chart for the more visual among you, spot the outlier? Off the chart at +384%:



Auckland Rail hits 11 million

The day after the letter from John Key saying that the government still doesn’t support the CRL, Auckland Transport announces that the rail network has reached another milestone. Over the last year there have been more than 11 million trips on the rail network and it’s the first time we have reached that mark. That’s significant for a few reasons:

  • It continues the recent trend of strong patronage growth and shows that March Madness is living up to its reputation.
  • It finally ends our almost two year post RWC patronage hangover, something that helped fuel the arguments of those opposing the CRL like Cameron Brewer.
  • It has come in advance of the electrification which will only make services even more attractive.

Here’s the press release.

Thanks Auckland – you’re one in 11 million 

Aucklanders are getting on board with trains in record numbers – making a record 11 million trips in the past year.

This milestone comes just weeks before Auckland’s new electric trains are introduced and is the highest number of passengers ever on the current rail network.

Auckland Transport chairman Dr Lester Levy says Aucklanders are using public transport more than ever as improvements to services make it a more attractive option. “We are now seeing 5,000 additional passenger journeys each business day compared to a year ago. People are responding to initial improvements such as integrated ticketing, better on-time performance and improved facilities like the new transport hub at Panmure and there’s a lot more to come.”

When Britomart Transport Centre opened in 2003, just 2.5 million trips were made on trains.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown says the milestone is very welcome.

“One thing is is certain with regard to public transport in Auckland. If you build it people will use it. I am confident that now integrated ticketing is in place and as our new electric trains go into service, this won’t be the last patronage record we will break.

The implementation of the New Network and the City Rail Link will also boost numbers.”

Transdev operates the trains for Auckland Transport. It says it is pleased to see that its major focus on performance over the past 12 months is translating to improved patronage.

Transdev Managing Director Terry Scott says “We are working hard with our partners at Auckland Transport and KiwiRail to improve network performance and we are striving every day to achieve excellence in the customer experience.”

Dr Levy says the upward trend in numbers is pleasing given that during the past year rail services have been regularly disrupted due to electrification works on the network. “We are making strides with an ageing fleet of diesel trains which are now 60 years old, just imagine what we will do with new trains.”

Based on the announcement my guess is we’re on track to set a new monthly record too which is great. It even makes me wonder if we could finally pass Wellington for patronage sometime this year.

Bring on the electric trains.

EMU Newmarket from AT

Combating Fare evasion

Rail patronage has been growing well in recent months but something that a lot of people have also noticed is that fare evasion also appears to be on the rise. This seems to be the result of more and more people realising the chance of getting caught without a ticket is low and even if they do get caught, the ticket inspectors are powerless to do anything. This is especially the case for school kids who can’t be kicked off a train as if they were, they or their parents quickly go to the media accusing AT/Transdev of endangering them by making them get off at an unfamiliar station.

An official figure I’ve seen says that fare evasion is currently at 11% although anecdotal evidence suggests even that seems like it could be on the light side. That is extremely high and obviously needs to be addressed. I see there being two types of fare evader:

  • Those who are determined to evade their fares and probably wouldn’t ride the train if they had to pay.
  • Those who are happy to pay for their fare but don’t exactly go out of their way to do so and therefore often end up avoiding paying even if it wasn’t fully intended.

There is very little that can be done about the first group and even cities that fully gate their systems still have problems with them however there probably aren’t that many that fall into this category. The second group are opportunists, are far more common amongst those that fare evade and the group that can addressed. To me there are a few options AT/Transdev has for doing this.

  • Go back to having tickets checked on every train
  • Improve current enforcement measures including penalties
  • Make it harder to fare evade by gating more stations

So let’s work through these

Go back to having tickets checked on every train

This is an idea I’ve heard a few people say over the last year and a half of HOP being in existence. The thinking is that it would ensure everyone has a ticket checked on every train, thereby eliminating some of the opportunist evaders. The problem with this is approach is that in the months before HOP, fare evasion was also extremely high and that was happening simply because often the trains were simply too busy for all tickets to be checked so those on inner stations were often getting free rides anyway. It also doesn’t solve the problem of what happens when someone is found without a valid ticket and the last thing I would want to see is staff having to lug around cash to sell paper tickets. Lastly it’s a solution that simply doesn’t scale, post electrification we have been promised increased frequencies, especially off peak, and having additional staff on every train would cost a huge amount of money, probably more than the fare evasion it would solve.

In my opinion this simply won’t work

Improve current enforcement measures including penalties

To me the current system of having roaming groups of ticket inspectors and random station checks is a decent idea but I find them too sporadic. Of course even worse is that they are basically toothless. They are meant to issue a $20 penalty fare if someone is found without a valid ticket but there is no way for them to enforce that and very few people have every paid one. That may be able to be addressed by Statutes Amendment Bill (No 4) which includes this clause to change the Local Government (Auckland Council) Act 2009. I’ve bolded the key part.

47 Section 46 amended (Functions and powers of Auckland Transport acting as local authority or other statutory body)

(1)Repeal section 46(1)(b).

(2)In section 46(1)(d), replace “sections 591, 591A, and 684” with “section 591”.

(3)Replace section 46(1)(f) with:

“(f)the functions and powers of an enforcement authority under the Land Transport Act 1998 in relation to prosecuting infringement offences under that Act that relate to—

“(i)the use of special vehicle lanes within Auckland:
“(ii)a failure to pay a public transport service fare:”.

(4)In section 46(3), replace “subsection (1)(f)” with “subsection (1)(f)(i)”.

Note: the current legislation already allows for the prosecution of special vehicle lanes so the PT fare is the addition. I’m not sure how long this will take or how it would actually be enforced.

Make it harder to fare evade by gating more stations

Currently something like 70% of trips begins or ends at Newmarket and the gates act to ensure most people have paid. The problem is that a decent number of trips, especially on the Western Line, begin and end somewhere other than those stations and the most common of these are Henderson, New Lynn and Grafton. To me the most effective way we will cut down on fare evading by opportunists will be to gate more stations.

Some people like to suggest we should gate every single station however that is likely to be practical from a cost perspective. A better approach is going to be to gate the key destination stations, the ones that lots of people are going to or from. The benefit of doing that would be that it costs less while probably picking up over 95% of all trips. This also appears to be the approach being taken Auckland Transport and I’ve obtained a list of when we can expect stations to be gated although it is subject to change. It will see 8 more stations gated over the next two years.

Rail Network Gating

With a combination of the enhanced enforcement and extra gating I suspect it should help to really reduce the amount of fare evading going on.

Rail Punctuality improving

The herald today picked up on an important trend that’s been happening without trains in recent months, much improved on time performance.

Becoming ruthless with their whistles and no longer waiting for last-minute “runners” at railway stations has helped Auckland train crews to achieve record punctuality.

Although his trains still have some way to go to catch up with buses and ferries for time-keeping, Transdev managing director Terry Scott is delighted that 91.7 per cent of the rail company’s services hit their destinations within five minutes of scheduled arrival times in January.

That was the first time they exceeded 90 per cent, setting the stage for more improvements once electric trains start running between Britomart and Onehunga in two months, with far greater acceleration and braking power than the existing diesels.

Transdev’s client Auckland Transport is also relieved after struggling to see figures rising above 80 per cent in the long years of trying to keep the city’s elderly trains running to schedule during track upgrades.

“If we can do that with 60-year-old trains, imagine what we can do with the EMUs [electric trains],” says the council body’s chairman, Lester Levy, of the latest result.

It’s great to see that the clunky of diesel trains are more reliable and that’s something that the current management team can be rightly given credit for. Of course in the past there have been all sorts of excuses as to why it wasn’t being achieved so now that it’s been done it does beg the question of why it’s taken so long to get above 90%. As Lester says, if this is possible with our current trains then what can we expect with brand new electric trains.

One of the reasons likely behind the improved performance is that the quality of the rail network has improved. The major physical works have been completed and the new signalling system has now been in place for a few years so is bedded in. As an example, in the 12 months to March 2012 there were a massive 454 signal faults on the Auckland network, by comparison from January 2013 to October 2013 there were only 84

Here’s the last 18 months or so of performance history.

Rail network performance

I also have much greater confidence in the rail punctuality stats than I do the bus ones the herald notes which are based on when the bus starts it’s run and are self-reported by the operators.

Let’s hope the rail figures can continue above 90 for some many months to come.

Decision made on Sarawia St

The Sarawia St level crossing has long been an issue for numerous reasons, these include:

  • It’s the only road connection for Laxon Terrace and Youngs Lane
  • It’s the busiest and most complex crossing in NZ in terms of rail movements thanks to the nearby Newmarket Junction and station
  • The gradient of the line through the area causes additional problems and added complexity
  • AT have said it will prevent higher rail frequencies due to the operational limitations.

To address the operational issues the crossing has to be closed but something needed to be done to provide the residents who rely on it access to and from their houses. Just over a year ago when AT started consulting with the local community and at the time they considered that the best option was resolve the access issue by building a new link through to neighbouring Furneaux Way. They were also considering a possible link through Newmarket Park and a bridge to Cowie St (a bridge to Sarawia St wasn’t possible due to the steep grades).

Sarawia St Options

Auckland Transport announced last week that they have finally decided what they are going to do with the Sarawia St level crossing.

AT has completed its analysis and made a decision on how Laxon Terrace will be accessed once the Sarawia Street level crossing (known as the Newmarket level crossing) is closed.

We have selected a road-over-rail bridge solution from Cowie Street to Laxon Terrace. The Cowie Street Bridge option was chosen due to it:

  • providing the safest access for all road users, compared to other options
  • accommodating all modes of transport, including pedestrians and cyclists
  • providing opportunities for improved connectivity to Newmarket Park and a planned cycling and walking route linking Parnell and Newmarket via the old Parnell rail tunnel
  • having the least disruption due to the main work site being located on railway land, away from the majority of residential properties.

The Cowie Street Bridge option will see no change to Newmarket Park or Furneaux Way. The impact on Sarawia Street will be limited to closure of the current level crossing, effectively making it a no-exit street.

In making its decision, we have endeavoured to balance the concerns of local residents and the wider community (including Newmarket Park users and rail patrons).

Development of the Cowie Street Bridge design is expected to start in March, with project completion scheduled for the first half of 2015. We are committed to working closely with local residents throughout the design and construction processes.

This is an interesting decision as at $6 million it was the most expensive of the three options and performed worse than the other two options in an economic assessment (which all benefited strongly from travel time savings to rail users). I strongly suspect it was the favourite option for those on the street though. The cheapest option was $2.6 million so less than half of the cost. Is this a case of AT just going for the easiest option due to less objections from locals? I couldn’t get an answer out of AT as to whether this was considered a roading or PT project (I’m going to assume the latter).

Also interesting is that AT are actively talking about using the old Parnell rail tunnel for a walking/cycling route.

Here’s where the bridge will go.

Cowie St Bridge

The news of this crossing has also reminded me that AT were working on a plan for what to do with all of the level crossings across the region. That was meant to have come out last year. I wonder what’s happened to it?

The impact of rail disruption in Wellington

Mother Nature gave the Wellington rail system a quite of a battering last year through multiple earthquakes and major storms. The major storm that hit on the night of 20 June was the one that did the most damage when it washed out the sea wall protecting the rail line that serves the Hutt Valley and the Wairarapa between Ngauranga and Petone leaving tracks dangling in the air. Kiwirail said the damage was unprecedented. The impact of the outage was felt throughout the Wellington transport system as people who usually caught the train needed to look to other methods of transport. It took almost a week to get the rail line restored with services resuming on the morning of 27 June.

Wellington Rail Washout

Photo credit: David Morgan

If there was one positive to come from it, its that it gives a chance to study what the impacts of the outage and that’s exactly what the Ministry of Transport have done in a report released late last year.

Extreme events and disruptions to our every-day lives give us a chance to probe how we react in different circumstances, and consider how we can better react in the case of similar future events.

The storm on the night of Thursday 20 June 2013 severely affected Wellington’s transport network, with both immediate and flow-on effects for commuters in the region. Of particular significance was
the damage done to the Hutt Valley rail line, and the consequent disruption to passenger rail services for the six days following the storm.

This project surveyed 1,072 Wellington commuters to assess several impacts on Friday 21 June, Monday 24 June and Wednesday 26 June, including:

  • the extent to which disruptions to the transport network (in particular the Hutt Valley rail line services) affected the time it took commuters to get to their destination
  • how commuters changed their travel behaviour to respond to the network disruptions
  • the extent to which communications by transport agencies (including radio, email and text messaging) may have influenced the behaviour of commuters.

And here’s a summary of what the study found.

  • The closure of the Hutt Valley rail line put significant pressure on the road network. Delays for commuters were most severe on the Monday following the storm. Traffic on State Highway 2 was severely congested, with morning peak hour conditions lasting two hours longer than usual
    • 80 percent of Wellington commuters from the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa experienced a longer than usual trip
    • 32 percent of them experienced delays of over an hour
  • the severity of commuter delays lessened over the week, with the number of commuters from the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa experiencing delays of over an hour halving by Wednesday 26 June
  • traffic delays were slightly less severe on Friday 21 June. This may have been due to 27 percent of commuters (surveyed across the region) not travelling to work on the Friday. By Monday 24 June this figure dropped to just 4 percent
  • on Monday 24 and Wednesday 26 June, roughly 45 percent of the typical Hutt Valley train commuters opted to drive themselves or be driven to work in a private car, and roughly 45 percent chose the train and bus replacements
  • communications by transport agencies were effective, with 75 percent of people surveyed aware of transport delays before they headed to work on Friday, and over half of these people altering their travel plans to respond to conditions.

Research undertaken as part of this project estimated that the economic impacts of transport disruption resulting from the storm was between $12 million and $43 million. This included $5.3 million in cost to local and central government agencies who responded to disruptions and damage on the transport network, $5.3 million loss in value of travel time and between $2 million and $32 million reduction in outputs.

There’s a few interesting points in here. The first is day of the outage (red) compared to same day the week before and after.

Wellington Hutt Valley closure - road impact

The severe congestion probably helped to ensure that those who were previously using trains went back to doing so once the rail line was up and running again. This is the patronage from the Hutt Valley line surrounding the outage and you can see it bounced back to normal the following week.

Wellington Hutt Valley closure - rail impact

Probably the most interesting part is the assessment of the economic impacts of between $12 million and $43 million depending on how it’s calculated. Some of those costs – like the $5.3 million in repair works – are unique to the outage however the same amount again is simply due to the travel delays caused by the mode shift and ensuring congestion. This might not sound like much but consider that it is just for four working days so equates to about $1.3 million per day. That helps to give us an idea as to just how much impact the rail network in Wellington is having on congestion relief.

My understanding is that the Hutt Valley line carry’s roughly half of the patronage on the Wellington rail network while the rail network itself only accounts for about 6% of all journey to work trips. Imagining for second that someone decided to close the all of rail lines in Wellington we can probably assume that similar travel delays would occur throughout other parts of the road network. Even just using the figure of $1.3 million per work day extrapolated over a typical year (~250 working days) would see travel time delays add up to over $320 million per year.  By comparison the entire system only costs something like $80 million to run and that’s before passenger fares are taken into account.

Of course there would be a lot of other things that would need to be taken into consideration and the costs above are just very quick calculations but it does go to show that while the rail network might only play a small part overall, it does play a significant one.

How the rail network used to be

With us on the verge of finally having electric trains running around the network it’s worth remembering just how far we’ve come. Back in 1992 Auckland was reaching its lowest point ever after decades of neglect and was down to carrying only about 1 million trips a year and only heading in one direction In fact I believe there had already been suggestions of ripping out the tracks and putting roads in their place. At the same time Perth had just electrified their rail system and wanted to get rid of their old diesel trains that were no longer being used. Through some hard work and good luck (more on that story in a future post) Auckland managed to buy the trains to run on our network.

Darren Davis – who now works for AT – was advocating for PT improvements at the time and wrote this article about the upcoming introduction of these trains which helps to highlight just how far we’ve come.

Old Rail article

A couple of the key things that stand out to me are:

  • All of the stations had to have their platforms raised substantially to the height they are today – trains were definitely not for anyone who couldn’t climb up steps easily.
  • Some stations had no platforms at all and others had platforms moved.
  • There was talk about the need for integrated ticketing.
  • That the DMU’s were about 20% more efficient than the old locomotive hauled trains they replaced and that was one of the primary reasons for buying them. Remember EMU operating costs are about half again.
  • There was talk back then of a spur line to Manukau.
  • There were no weekend or evening trains.
  • Britomart was just a dream and plans for a casino at the old Auckland Railway Station and nearby land could have prevented it from ever happening.

And what was the result of all of this? Within a few years patronage had doubled back over 2 million trips a year. It was finally Britomart that saw patronage growth take off but I doubt we would have built the station if it hadn’t been for the increases in patronage seen from the buying of these trains. In effect they saved the rail network in Auckland and ended up kicking off a series of upgrades that have seen us substantially upgrade and improve the network to where it is today.

Historic Rail Patronage 1990 - now

A question of “Gauge”!

Struggling to get back into work this week, here’s a nice guest post from our good friend Warren S


I first read this in Rotary’s monthly magazine some years ago and thought it may be of holiday interest while we brace ourselves for the more important business of getting Aucklanders and the government favouring the early construction of the City Rail Link.

In the United States, the standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That is an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that’s the way they built them in England, and U.S. railroads were built by English expatriates.

Why did the English build them that way?

Because the first railway lines were built by the same people who built the pre–railway tramways, and that is the gauge they used.

Why did they use that gauge?

Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

So why did the wagons have that particularly odd spacing?

Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that was the spacing of the wheel ruts. So who built those old rutted roads?

The first long distance roads in Europe (and England) were built by Imperial Rome for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads?

The ruts in the roads, which everyone had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels, were first formed by Roman war chariots. Since the chariots were made for (or by) Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

The U.S. standard railroad gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot. So next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse’s ass came up with it you may be exactly right, because Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back end of two war horses.

Thus we have the answer to the original question.

Roman Chariot

Now for the twist to the story.

When we see a space shuttle sitting on its launching pad, there are two booster rockets attached to the side of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRB’s. The SRB’s are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah.

The engineers who designed the SRB’s might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRB’s had to be shipped by train to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory had to run through a tunnel in the mountains. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses’ rumps.

So, a major design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s rump!

And as you can see engineering must always be subordinate to the best practicality!

[editor's note: While the story is not entirely true, it's not entirely false either. There's a good run down of it here.]

Why is New Zealand not standard gauge?

Private enterprise and the Provincial governments were the initiators of railway in New Zealand but could not really command the capital necessary for extensive construction and in 1867 were forbidden by the Central Government to raise loans independently for railways and other public works. The European population at the time was only a quarter of a million and widely dispersed throughout the country. As a result of this capital raising restriction we avoided the multi-gauge Australian situation with its high cost trans- shipment problem at break-of-gauge stations.

And then in 1870 along came Julius Vogel who borrowed 10,000,000 pounds for railway construction and because of a hilly terrain the government settled on the 3 feet 6 inch gauge. These lines were built as cheaply as possible to facilitate settlement and development of land. They were expected to produce revenue quickly. High operating costs, low speeds and inconvenience in operation were secondary and accepted as necessary evils.

So, this is what we have and while standard gauge would be more desirable in the modern age it is not an impediment to an efficient metro system.

[editor's note: I think that last point is extremely important. We often see comments on other sites that say we should have changed to standard gauge but for running a commuter/metro network it makes little difference. For example most of the Toyko Metro is run on the same gauge we use and that hasn't stopped it from being one of the most used metro networks in the world.]

Barring up Britomart

Most of you are probably back at work today after what I hope was a good break and probably trying to ease back into a usual routine as slowly as possible. If you are a person who normally catches the train to work that routine is almost undoubted still disrupted thanks to the rail network still being closed north of Newmarket on the Onehunga, Southern and Western lines while closed north of Westfield on the Eastern lines. In those places the network is being kept closed so that work can continue on getting the rail network wired up for electrification. The focus this shutdown has been on getting Britomart and parts of the Eastern line wired up.

Probably the main problem with overhead electrification is the visual impact of it – although in a way it kind of acts like an advertisement of a high quality PT service at the same time. Personally I have found that in most places the impact hasn’t been too bad and the installation is certainly far less intrusive than some other overhead systems I’ve seen. However when it comes to the visual impact, Britomart and the Eastern line across Hobson Bay are arguably the two most challenging sections and the ones where people are most likely to complain. I was out yesterday and so made a slight detour to see how work was progressing.

Eastern Line

The reason I think this section is difficult is that I suspect there are some local residents between Quay Park and the Purewa tunnel for whom any change to the visual landscape will be unacceptable. Along this part of the route it isn’t just houses primarily next to the rail lines that would notice changes but quite a lot all around the bay and the view in the area often plays a large part in property values.

The wires themselves were only installed as far east as Judges Bay however the masts extended all the way past Orakei station (I decided not to both going further as had other things to do). My feeling is that while the wires weren’t installed yet, the masts showed that the visual impact on the area probably isn’t going to be too significant. For example looking from Ngapipi Rd for example across Hobson Bay they certainly didn’t seem to be an issue.

I didn’t get any photos of this section but Luke C got this one looking across Judges Bay. The visual impact across the causeway is similar to what the masts around the Pt Resolution Bridge look like in this shot.

Electrification masts - Judges Bay - Luke


Britomart is of course a completely different challenge. One of my favourite things about the station is how open and light part of the station is; it’s like a giant cavern. The risk with electrification is that it the infrastructure makes the station appear cluttered and I understand it has been something the project team have been very well aware of. I remember talking to someone involved with the project a few years ago and they said that early on they were putting a lot of effort in to the station to ensure they got it right.

One of the decisions that was made was that instead of running wires into the station – like across the rest of the network – instead a solid bar system would be used that removes the need for catenary wires thus reducing clutter. The system will also be used in the CRL tunnels once those are built meaning a smaller sized tunnel can be used compared to what would be needed to support catenary wires.

Now that the infrastructure is going in we can finally see what the station is going to look like. Here are a couple of photos of the works although they didn’t come out that well.

Electrification in Britomart

Electrification in Britomart 3

Next week the trains from everything but the eastern lines will return to Britomart, it will be interesting to see what passengers think of the changes.