Exactly five years ago last month, August 30th 2011, my first ever blog post ran on Transportblog. While I am astonished it’s already been five years, what’s really astonishing is what we, my colleagues here, you the readers, and the growing force of friends and allies elsewhere [shoutout to Generation Zero and Bike Auckland especially], and of course the many good people official roles, have helped achieve in Auckland in this time. We have certainly raised the discourse on urban issues and influenced some real outcomes, for the better. Exactly what we set out to do, and what we continue to strive for.
But there is one thing that has still remains unfixed and that is the subject of my first post, which is reproduced in full below.
Why Are There Cars on Queen St?
This is a Guest Post by regular commenter Patrick Reynolds and was originally published in Metro magazine
Queen St, from the water to Mayoral Drive, has an unusual and unexpected feature for a city street in Auckland. It’s easy to miss but it’s true: There is not one vehicle entrance to a building from Queen St. Not one car parking building, not one loading bay, not one ramp to an executive garage under a tower block. The only way to enter a building from Queen St is on foot. There are a few very short term road side parks among the bus stops and loading bays, but really every car in Queen St is on its way to and from somewhere else. And so slowly.
People often talk about traffic with words like ‘flow’ as if it is best understood as a liquid, when really what it is actually like is a gas. Traffic expands like a gas to fill any space available to it [which is why it is futile to try to road build your out of congestion]. There are cars in Queen St simply because we let them be there, like an old habit we’ve never really thought about. l think it’s time we did.
No traffic moves well on Queen St, certainly not the buses, it is usually quicker to walk from the Ferry Building to the Town Hall than to catch any Queen St bus. Emergency vehicles get stuck, deliveries battle their way through. It is clear why there is traffic on the four east-west cross streets of Customs, Victoria, Wellesley, and Mayoral. These are essential through routes to and from motorways and parking buildings. But they too get held up by all the turning in and out of the intersections with Queen St. Because as it is now the lights have long and complicated phases to handle every possible car movement and the growing volume of pedestrians.
It seems likely that simply by removing the private car from the three blocks from Mayoral Drive down to Customs St the city will function so much better. The intersections of Customs, Victoria and Wellesley, will be able to have much better phasing for both pedestrians and the cross town traffic, as well speeding the buses as they would effectively be on bus lanes all the way up Queen St. Air quality in the Queen St gully would improve immensely. The bottom of Shortland and the newly refurbished Fort streets will become the sunny plazas they should be. Inner city retailers should see the benefits of the Queen St becoming a more appealing place to be in and the cross town traffic flowing better will make car use more viable.
And there will the space to convert the smoky diesel bus routes into modern electric trams to really make the most of this improvement and speed even more shoppers and workers to and from the rest of the city.
If we’re brave enough to take this all the way up to Mayoral Drive we get the real chance to link the new Art Gallery, the Library, and St James area across the Queen St divide to Aotea Square, the Town Hall and the new Q Theatre. A chance to really build a cultural heart at this end of town.
Furthermore it could all be done with a few cones, signs, traffic light changes and a media campaign. At least to start.
And I still believe that AT/AC are not addressing this issue as well as they should. Waiting for Light Rail to improve our city’s main street lacks leadership and strategic focus, and may well even turn out to be risky to the approval that project. It will, I believe, help the argument for Light Rail here to show that Queen St isn’t a necessary or desirable place for general traffic, and that its continuing reduction is far from negative for commercial performance in the City Centre, by actively encouraging its departure. We know that the last restrictions had way better results than anticipated, halving the amount of vehicle traffic and boosting the much more valuable pedestrian numbers and economic activity, see here.
Since my post above AT have recently added partial bus lanes to the two lower blocks, which is good, but not much in five years. I would like to see these lanes continue through to Mayoral Drive. I really think this valley needs to be addressed strategically, and not just reactively, which after all has been well studied by AT, e.g. The City East West Study, CEWT.
Adding north/south of Queen St to this mix we get a hierarchy like this:
- Pedestrians in all directions
- Transit north/south on Queen and east/west on Wellesley and Customs
- General traffic east/west on Mayoral, Victoria, and Customs
And above all of this is the plan to remove all general traffic from Wakefield St north to be worked towards; to continue the current trend.
So improving the Queen St intersections by removing right hand turn options matches this hierarchy perfectly, in particular at Victoria St. This is now a more difficult idea since the Link bus turns from Queen here, but the turn could be made bus only. Victoria St is currently narrowed by CRL works, and will be permanently reduced in width by the Aotea CRL station entrance which will be in what is current road space. So getting drivers used to both the narrowed Victoria St and out of the habit of turning here is surely a strong plan.
Now of course AT are getting pressure from angry motorists over the CRL works, and seem to have responded to this by dropping the double pedestrian cycle from the big Barnes Dances on Queen. This is clearly counter productive to the strategic aims. Instead if they removed right hand turning at Victoria this would improve the adjacent Victoria St intersections for all users and enable either concurrent crossing on Queen or allow the double Barnes Dance phases to be restored. Then there is the festering sore that is lower Shortland St, which clearly has just been shoved into the too hard basket.
Oh and now I discover I have written about this in 2013 too: Clusterbus, Busageddon, Busapocalypse…
In short there are ways that AC/AT could be advancing their strategic aims in the centre city before Light Rail is begun, but they don’t seem to be doing this. I think they should.
Will I be banging on about still in another five years, or can the city grow up already?
‘…Five Years, what a surprise’
Auckland Transport have published a new version of their airport rail video, essentially stripping out the heavy rail parts while also adding a little bit more detail about the airport.
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects is it shows a bit of how light rail would get through Onehunga. It appears the plan is to elevate the light rail line over Neilson St right where AT are about to remove the bridge that lifts the road over the rail corridor.
Every time rail to the airport is discussed, here or in other places, there are a number of people who question AT’s decision to use Light Rail to connect to the airport. The biggest complaints/misconceptions I’ve seen against the idea of using light rail to the airport are:
- Light rail is slower – especially on Dominion Rd with lots of stops
- That it will be like Melbourne mixed traffic
- Light rail doesn’t have enough capacity
- It will mix with trips on Dominion Rd
- It’s light and so heavy must equal bigger and better
So let’s step through some of these and to do so, I’m going to use Seattle as an example. The reason for using Seattle is that its Link Light Rail has many characteristics that appear to be almost identical to what Auckland Transport is proposing.
First a little bit about the system.
Seattle has only recently started building its light rail system and the first section opened in July 2009. Since then there have been a couple of extensions, to the airport in the south (six months later) and just in March this year, a 5km, 2 station extension to the north. Further extensions in each direction are already under construction with other lines and extensions planned.
As of now the entire light rail system is just over 30km in length which is almost identical to the distance between Papakura and Britomart. It does have fewer stations though and outside of the city, much wider station spacing. The route is a mix of grade separated right of way with a mix of tunnels and bridges, median running and in the city centre it shares one tunnel with buses. Below is an image from Streetview showing Martin Luther King Jr Way which a 6.2km long section of median running and is similar to what we can expect along Dominion Rd. As you can see it is not mixed with traffic and the rail is separated from the road by a small kerb. Access across the tracks at intersections is controlled by lights.
The light rail vehicles used in Seattle are capable of speeds up to 105km/h which at maximum is only 5km slower than our heavy rail trains are capable of, and which ours don’t often get close to achieving in normal service. Seattle has some fairly lengthy sections which over which I imagine it is able to make the most of it’s speed. That means it only takes about 44 minutes to travel the 30km for an impressive average speed of just over 40km/h. That is about the same average speed as the Eastern line from Manukau but considerably faster on average than the Southern, Onehunga and Western lines, the latter two average less than 30km.h.
Even if you exclude the section from the Airport to Rainier Beach and from Westlake to the University of Washington, the system achieves similar average speeds to our network.
Obviously our existing trains need to be faster but that is a discussion for a separate post. What is clear is that at the very least, it is possible to get light rail up to a similar speed as what we’re achieving now with our rail network.
To achieve the times Auckland Transport claim, LRT would only have to average 30km per hour, the same as being achieved on the Rainier Beach to Westlake section. With AT planning to create a corridor like shown above (but with a single traffic lane instead of two), that should be possible. There’ll be no light rail mixing with cars and also no stopping ever few hundred metres like many buses and many traditional tram networks such as Melbourne do.
It’s all very well saying that heavy rail has more capacity but just because you can build a rail line capable of running trains with a capacity for 1,000 people every 90 seconds, it doesn’t mean you should. It is very expensive both to build and run so most cities only do it if they absolutely need to. Better to build enough capacity for what you’re going to need (plus a bit of redundancy).
As we know, AT are planning on using up to 66m long light rail vehicles (two 33m coupled together) that can carry up to 450 people running every 5 minutes. Looking over at Seattle, they have 29m long vehicles that can carry around 200 people running at up to every 6 minutes in the peak. They too can couple vehicles together and until recently were limited to joining two trains together but their system allows for up to four to be coupled. Four vehicles connected together would be around 116m long and carry up to 800 people – more than one of our 6-car trains are designed to carry (ours carry 750 people). Given the technology is obviously already available, there doesn’t seem to be a technical reason why we eventually couldn’t see longer light rail trains here – assuming we designed for the possibility.
Another way of looking at capacity to see how it’s performing. Sound Transit who run the system publish ridership data monthly. The opening of the extension to the University of Washington in March has seen ridership soar at up to a staggering 83% compared to the same month a year prior. That means over the last few months, this single LRT line is carrying more than Auckland’s entire rail network combined. The results suggest that by the time the extension has been operative for a year that their system will be carrying 20 million+ trips a year. Seattle’s weekday numbers are about the same as what we have but they do much better on weekends, something we’ll hopefully see the new network improve.
On both speed and capacity, the example for Seattle shows that Light Rail can be every bit as good as our current heavy rail system. For me the key is not the name of the mode but how it’s designed. The pressure that needs to be applied to Auckland Transport, the council and the government is to provide the funding needed as soon as possible and to ensure that it’s implemented to the level advertised in the video above (or better). Light or heavy, it’s still rail to the airport.
Within the Auckland Transport Alignment Process Interim Report is the news that the six lane highway across the harbour as currently planned, the Additional Harbour Crossing, just doesn’t work, and is now at least mortally wounded, if not actually dead.
Clearly a total re-think of ways to serve the growing movement demand between the city and the north east is required. In January the Waterview connection and the supersizing of the North Western will open, and later a new interchange between SH 18 and SH 1 will complete the next road connections between the upper harbour and the wider city.
Additionally the SkyPath, SeaPath, and improvements to ferry services will also be added to the mix for the inner harbour, for the Active modes.
The great missing piece in the movement jigsaw for this part of the city [as elsewhere] is a Rapid Transit connection across the harbour and through the Shore. The case for the next major connection across the harbour utilising the high capacity, smaller foot print, and traffic reduction outcomes of Rapid Transit is now all but made.
Here I want to explore the options for an actually successful harbour crossing, particularly in light of recent announcements about the Mangere/Airport RTN, but also because of the need for a viable near term system that fits into the longer term needs of our growing city. I can’t emphasise this enough; for a system to actually get funded and built it surely must fit both those criteria, and that is not easy.
What follows is an exploration of possibilities done with a fairly broad brush; a high altitude view, with a lot of scope for variation in detail.
In 2012 I wrote a couple of speculative posts proposing the Shore Line as an extension of our current rail network. Here and here. I was interested in looking beyond the CRL to examine future improvements to the Shore and through Mangere to the Airport. In particular in offering an Albany to Airport one seat ride through an east-west CRL II type project, like this:
CITY CENTRE ‘The Cross’
While there is some elegance to these proposals [and some problems] it is clear that I started from an unexpressed assumption that all future rail systems would be extensions of the current network. This is no longer my view primarily because our current network has very firm structural upper limits for train movements, that means at some point it becomes limiting to try to add ever more arms to this body. Adding an additional high demand area like the North Shore will bring those limits forward, especially to hard to expand pinch points like Newmarket Station and Junction. Remembering too that freight movements are growing on parts of the network too. This isn’t to criticise our re-born urban rail system, it will remain the vital core of Auckland’s RTN, growing quickly post CRL to 50m trips pa. and beyond. But rather to recognise that it needs to be free to serve these core roles, supported by other existing and enhanced networks, and some new ones.
I also suspect that the required crosstown tunnel would be prohibitively expensive, especially when combined with a cross harbour one. Together these costs could be sufficiently high to kill the plan.
Instead, adding a new and complimentary network, making connections by transfer at interchange stations, adds resilience as well as more capacity, in that problems on one network won’t affect the other. This also allows us to tailor the next network to our current demands and utilise all the latest technology and thinking without needing to accommodate it to the physical parameters of the existing system [freedom from the ‘happenstance of yore’].
On the assumption that the current Busway can be relatively easily converted to Light Rail, the obvious opportunity is leverage off AT’s Light Rail plans for a Queen St-Dominion Rd system through Mangere to the Airport so that this:
becomes this, an idea we have explored in the past:
So the return of the highly desirable one-seat ride from Albany to the Airport, on a high catchment spine; the A-Train, but this time via Light Rail, on a combination of higher speed grade separate paths, and high access street running. The advantages and disadvantages of these conditions have been debated at length on previous posts, what I want to examine here are future network possibilities of such a system, because networks are always greater than their parts. However it is worth a visit to this analysis of the recent addition of Light Rail to Paris’ Transit mix on this very issue; degrees of separation, I guess you could call it. Basically it concludes that while it is always better to strive for as much separate running as possible, this needs to be balanced against both capital cost and quality of access. And especially the quantity and quality of the transfer nodes with other major Transit Networks.
It takes just a few seconds looking at the RATP map to see why the Paris trams are so useful. In Paris’s hub-and-spoke transit network, they are the rim of the wheel, connecting the ends of Metro and RER lines in far-flung parts of the region. All nine lines offer at least two stations that connect to other modes of transit. Some offer many more:
||No. of transfers
||No. of total stations
||Pct. of stations with transfers
So returning to Auckland and the proposed A Line we can see that while it would be a great complement to our existing fast growing Rail Network, and likely further RTN extensions including AMETI, and the North-Western, it still only connects with it at the four stations indicated with blue dots above. However the possibilities for leveraging off this system to create a second route with a rich abundance of connectedness:
The western section carries along the grade separate SH20 alignment to a new station at Owairaka, then continues to Mt Albert Station, Unitec, and to the future RTN station at Pt Chev on the North-Western line, on-street [The RTN connections are why I prefer this possible extension over one to the metro-centre of New Lynn]. The southern to Puhinui Station and the Manukau City Interchange Station down Lambie Dr, again mostly on its own alignment.
Which of course can be extended to include AMETI:
The simplest idea would be to run these as two overlapping lines A and B, giving the Airport and Mangere great connectivity west, south, north, and east. Direct to the City Centre and great connectivity with every branch of the RTN, including of course the Onehunga line. Or say three lines all converging on the Airport. Such a system is also highly stageable, and you all can haggle over your favourite technology for each part….
The key principle though must be future proofing for upgrades. I think it is vital, for example, that the harbour crossing, if it is to be Light Rail, is built so it can take Light Metro for the time in the future that the demand from the Shore is high enough to justify a tunnel from Wynyard to Aotea Station and the option of implementing a fully driverless system as then it would be 100% grade separate. I’m sure some would like to start straight off with such a system, but I think it is clear that designing systems that can grow with the city is the only viable way forward.
Without trying to put a date on it, below is a pretty good integrated RTN future to aim for:
Rail running at 5min frequencies on the outer lines so a train every 2.5 mins in the CRL and other places [Red and Green]
LRT also at varying frequencies depending on place, perhaps even two routes from Wynyard to the city
More Ferries, Rapid Bus on Gt North Rd and the NW and across the Upper Harbour, although especially from Pt Chev to the city could be LRT too.
When or whether parts of this are Buses or Light Rail, are not so much my focus but rather getting the coverage optimised, and the routes protected.
No doubt it will change but here’s a potential version. Discuss:
Following on from my post a few days ago on light rail being preferred to the airport – which has been one of the most commented on that we’ve ever had – by far the most common concern is around the speed of light rail, particularly on the section along Dominion Rd.
I’ve taken a look in the past at what other cities who have built similar light rail systems to what AT are proposing and I found that a number of them are capable of the speeds suggested. But of course they aren’t Auckland so I thought I’d take a quick look at some of the things we know that AT are proposing that will help ensure light rail will be quick and reliable along this important corridor.
Fewer stops and more direct route
Buses along Dominion Rd between the Southwestern motorway and the centre town have almost 30 stops to pass along the way. There are of course bus lanes along a lot of the route but they stop short at key intersections which can cause delays. Before light rail came along, AT had planned to lengthen these bus lanes right to the intersection to help speed up buses further. The current timetable shows travel times between Denbigh Ave close to the motorway and the city taking between about 23 minutes and 41 minutes depending on the time of day.
With light rail Auckland Transport plan to significantly reduce the number of stops along the route with just eight on Dominion Rd itself and only 10 to get to the same point in town. Of course one down side to some residents is it means they may have to walk further to get to a stop. For light rail it appears they’ve effectively picked one stop in the main centres along the route with intermediate stops between them.
You can see the difference in the two in the map below. Fewer stops means vehicles can travel faster as they’re not constantly accelerating or braking.
Buses can also suffer from dwell time issues from boarding and alighting passengers. It is possible to address some of these, such as restricting cash payments, allowing all door boarding which could speed up buses a bit but off line ticketing and fast boarding are a fairly standard feature of light rail so provided that AT implement it properly that will help compared to the current situation people compare to.
In addition to fewer stops, you can see from the map above that light rail takes a more direct route to the city and so has fewer intersections to negotiate.
Buses currently are at the mercy of traffic lights and at the big intersections with long cycle times this can slow them down and cause buses to bunch. When bus frequencies get too high it results in there almost always being buses waiting to get through lights, which is often a leading cause of them bunching and is not good for operations or passengers.
One reasons we heard AT were for looking at light rail on Dominion Rd in the first place was that it allowed fewer but much larger vehicles to run. The advantage of that is it allows for signal priority to be effective and so depending on how it is set up, it could mean the light rail never has to stop at Intersections other than at its stations. Again that could end up being a significant time saving.
On a related note, we know that light rail will be able to skip one major intersection with AT have suggesting that they will tunnel under the K Rd ridgeline as part of building that part of the line. I believe this is mainly for operational reasons – removing a steep part of the hill – but it will also benefit travel times.
Centre running protected route
Running light rail down the centre of Dominion Rd means it won’t get held up by cars turning left into side streets or driveways, parking to run into the shops or drop someone off/pick them up. Cars would only be able to turn right at specific intersections and not when a light rail vehicle is around. It is also common for the light rail corridor to be protected by a raised kerb to prevent cars from accessing the tracks or using them as a median, in much the same way that kerbs are used to stop people driving in cycle lanes. Examples include the Gold Coast as shown below and Seattle.
A raised kerb can also be seen in some of the concept images AT have released in the past such as this on of Ian McKinnion Dr
When you combine all of these elements it means that light rail is able to travel down Dominion Rd pretty much completely unimpeded by other traffic and only needing to stop a few times along the way. The speed limit for light rail would almost certainly still be 50km/h but even if it could average half that, it could travel the 7km between the centre of town and SH20 in just 17 minutes. As a quick comparison, in the same timeframe leaving from Britomart would be at about Ellerslie – although admittedly we expect AT go get that time sped up a bit.
Once the route reaches SH20 the LRT route appears to be almost completely separate from traffic with the exception of a small section in Onehunga and so for most of it could easily travel at up to 100km/h if the vehicles and tracks were designed to do so – and that has been suggested by AT in the documents they’ve produced so far.
This gives me confidence that for LRT at least, the times AT have suggested are realistic but I’d add that a lot depends on just how well they implement everything.
Takapuna is considered one of Auckland’s key metropolitan centres – which the Auckland Plan describes as:
Metropolitan centres, such as Takapuna and Manukau, will accommodate a large proportion of the city’s future residential, retail and employment growth. Generally these areas will serve a sub-regional catchment and be supported by efficient transport networks.
Outside of the city centre there are 10 existing or future (emerging) metropolitan centres across the region as shown in the map below from the Auckland Plan.
The comment about these centres being supported by efficient transport networks is interesting as one thing you may notice from the map above is that all metropolitan centres sit on the current or proposed Rapid Transit Network of rail lines or busways with the exception of one, Takapuna. This is also confirmed with the latest version we’ve seen of Auckland Transports proposed rapid transit network.
As I’ll hopefully explain below, I think Takapuna needs to be added to our rapid transit network.
As a major centre and urban area within Auckland, Takapuna is quite unique being situated next to both a beach and a lake and those factors help to make it a very desirable location. With the strategy of developing the area the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan allows for quite a bit of development by way of the Metropolitan Centre (pink & purple stripes) and Terrace Housing and Apartment Buildings (Gold), although we’ll have to wait till later this year to confirm the final zones and rules. Much of the area including most of the THAB has already been listed as a Special Housing Area.
Zoning is one thing but we’re already starting to see a lot of proposals for the area popping up, particularly on and around Anzac St. Here are some of them:
Whether these exact proposals all go ahead remains to be seen but over 30 years many will and so it’s quite likely the area will look very different in the future. Regardless we can count on the centre itself looking quite different with Panuku Development Auckland looking to “unlock” it including developing some council sites such as the Anzac St carpark.
Takapuna has the chance to become one of Auckland’s urban jewels but accessing it can be already mixed bag when it comes to non-car transport. Its geographic location means the highly successful busway sails by about 1.6km away. Currently the primary bus services linking the Takapuna and the city are made up of a number of routes from the mainly the East Coast Bays that funnel through Takapuna – although given they often have long windy routes and little bus priority it means trips to the city can have very poor timekeeping at times.
The new network deals with Takapuna by way of a frequent route (N4) that starts in Milford and a couple of routes that pass through Takapuna on their way to/from Akoranga Station. In the city the N4 route will go via the middle of town.
Even with the new network, accessing Takapuna by bus from the city – like I do on a daily basis – can extremely frustrating. It’s not so bad for those that can start or end their journey in the middle of town but for those like me need to get to/from Britomart, the changes to accommodate the construction of the City Rail Link mean that it now requires two buses or one bus and a long walk. Some of the issues will be resolved by the completion of the CRL which will link in with North Shore buses along Fanshawe St giving a direct connection.
AT’s info on the services show that the N4 route would run ever 7-8 minutes in the morning and afternoon peak along with every 15 minutes during the day. With the level of growth planned that might not be enough and while more services could be added, just like in the city centre there are some real issues with not enough space on the roads.
When it comes to PT, Takapuna needs a better long term solution, and it needs to be a RTN in my view.
Using a bike to access Takapuna can be equally arduous. The main approach roads of Taharoto Rd and Lake Rd have painted cycle lanes (despite the former being massively wide) but those cycle lanes stop short of the centre itself leaving riders to brave the roads which can be particularly unpleasant on Anzac St. That of course could be fixed and along with Skypath and Seapath would provide a cycle route to the city or elsewhere.
So what options are there to include Takapuna on the RTN? We know that AT have recently been looking at RTNs to the North Shore but we don’t yet know what’s been recommended, or in fact any details about it. Despite that I think there’s quite a good chance some form of light rail will be seen as the preferred option to eventually be used on the busway and if we did that it could allow us the ability to send light rail spur off to Takapuna, perhaps something like the route below. It would require a little work and a bit of property acquisition but seems doable.
From Akoranga the route could head to the city then perhaps join up with one of the isthmus routes shown the RTN map earlier. We’ve suggested in the past that this spur could even be part of the first stage of any rail connection the shore with the second stage seeing the busway converted.
With Takapuna already a popular destination and that only likely to increase in the future with both residential and commercial developments this route is likely to be quite popular. Even today buses in the middle of the day can get very full, especially in summer.
So what do you think, should we start thinking about light rail to the sea?
Auckland recently passed 16 million annual rail boardings, quite a momentous achievement and in some respects the culmination of 10 years of effort: the implementation of the 2006 Rail Development Plan. At the heart of this plan, and in fact many of Auckland’s transport strategies over the past decade, was the creation of a true “rapid transit network”. Improvements to the rail network and construction of the Northern Busway during this time has meant that Auckland has gone from having no rapid transit network to one that extends out in most major directions from the city. It is improvements to the rapid transit network that have driven almost half of Auckland’s public transport ridership growth over the past 10 years.
Further developing the rapid transit network still rightly sits at the heart of Auckland’s transport strategies and formed the basis for our “Congestion Free Network” concept. There’s a remarkable similarity between the two actually. Firstly, the most recent official rapid transit network plan out to 2045:
And the Congestion Free Network:
Since our work on the CFN (which is actually coming up on three years old), Auckland Transport has become interested in light-rail as a way of resolving city centre bus congestion and providing a high quality public transport option to the central isthmus area. However, these are not dinky trams, but rather big multi-articulated vehicles capable of each carrying up to 400-500 people and travelling up to 80 kph. These are serious people-moving machines and sound almost identical to what’s now being built in Sydney:
The use of such high-capacity and potentially high-speed light-rail vehicles that also have the capability of travelling safety at street level along some of our major arterial roads creates a really interesting question: are these “rapid transit”? In a pure sense they are not as rapid transit is meant to be, fully grade separated from other traffic while our light-rail will need to stop at traffic lights (but presumably have some pretty amazing signal priority). But the same applies for the Northern Busway currently and the proposed AMETI busway – both of which are considered rapid transit.
The speed and capacity of these vehicles means that they could potentially be used on some of the other proposed rapid transit corridors without the need for such expensive tunnelling that heavy rail requires, or the terminal capacity issues that bus based systems seem to create. In other words, once you’ve got a bit of light-rail in Auckland, it becomes a no-brainer to think about where it might be used further and if it might be an appropriate solution for some “pure rapid transit” corridors. We’ve already seen AT suggest light rail might be a viable solution for access to the airport.
Other options include to the North Shore – perhaps even linked to an airport route, a long-term replacement of the AMETI busway and maybe even out to the Northwest?
Of course it’s easy to get excited and a bit mode obsessed about something like light-rail and one of the most important rules when it comes to good public transport planning is to think about the characteristics of the corridor you’re looking at before jumping to a conclusion about the mode to use. But the ability of light-rail to be both a very high capacity “true” rapid transit system but also something that can run at street level provides us with a pretty powerful tool that may be able to deliver very high quality rapid transit along a couple of key corridors that heavy rail options have struggled to stick.
The Harbour Bridge is Auckland’s single busiest bus corridor, with more people entering the city centre from the North Shore at peak times than arrive at Britomart station by train (although this gap has probably shrunk due to recent rail ridership growth). This is shown quite dramatically in this image from an upcoming AT presentation to the Council.
While the Northern Busway has been hugely successful, it’s hard to see how the city centre will cope with the rising number of buses from the North Shore – even with the City Rail Link and a Dominion Road light-rail route taking buses from other areas out of the city. Significant planned growth at Dairy Flat appears likely to only add to the need to essentially ‘upgrade’ the busway at some point in the next 10-20 years.
Yet heavy rail options for doing this have always been a bit messy. How do you deal with the grades? How do you “hook into” the existing rail system at the city end? Where on the North Shore do you go – just up next to the motorway with limited land-use transformation opportunities? Do you close the busway for years while you rebuild it for heavy rail? Do you go the whole hog and do a proper underground metro? But that seems to come with a $10+ billion price tag.
If sufficient capacity can be provided, light-rail is potentially a solution to a number of these issues. The “tie in” at the city end can work well by just connecting a cross-harbour tunnel into the end of the isthmus light-rail scheme which is proposed to end at Wynyard Quarter. That creates the potential for some fantastic one seat rides from Albany through the city to the Dominion Road corridor. Light-rail could also mean some branch lines off the main SH1 are possible in a way that just wouldn’t work for heavy rail. What about branches to Takapuna, Browns Bay or up Onewa Road to Birkenhead?
AMETI and Northwest
In both cases AT will be building brand new dedicated PT infrastructure where almost none exists today. If light rail is successful on other routes, could it be worth going straight to light rail in these two “rapid transit” situations too. Doing so could both (not necessarily together) save costs later on from having to convert busways to higher capacity modes later and help encourage more people in the area to use PT to get around.
Of course the biggest issue in all of this is the cost. To build a Light Rail network like discussed would be significant – especially getting over/under the harbour and these projects would need to be prioritised just like everything else. There may also be a situation where depending on the costs and funding, a busway now is better than a light rail line in 15-20 years time.
Interestingly since I wrote this post a few days ago, council’s Development Committee agenda has been released with an interesting presentation on light rail from AT. It includes this map showing almost exactly what I’ve suggested above.
It’s the last day of 2025 so it is a good time to run through the events of the last ten years in Auckland. A decade of profound transformation for New Zealand’s largest city. A coming of age.
This is Part 1 of a 2 Part scenario.
Global megatrends mean local megachange, and Auckland is fortunate to have been well placed and nimble enough to largely come out on the positive side of these forces. We have seen the global trends of the first decade and a half of the 21C accelerate over the last decade, particularly:
- Migration: Internationally another great age of people movement is clearly underway
- Urbanisation: Both the developing world and the OECD nations have continued to urbanise and cities have become the economic force of our age
- De-Carbonisation: The urgent need to reduce carbon emissions everywhere and in every way has been an increasing issue
The strong population growth in Auckland seen just before this period has continued consistently. Auckland grew at around 2.5% per year from 1.5 million in 2015 to approach 2m this year [cf 2015 pop growth was 2.9%]. This has of course not been without difficulty, requiring the government and the council to work much better together with the private sector to deliver the required new dwellings; hence the huge building ramp-up we are seeing, especially of apartments and terrace houses, but also the demand side controls finally enacted by government to reduce the more egregious forms of speculation. The adoption of the first Unitary Plan which reduced density restrictions in some areas helped enormously; and especially led to the new vibrancy around Rapid Transit stations such as Albany, Papatoetoe, and Glen Innes. Who’d have thought Glen Eden, among other places, would become as cool as it has with all those car yards and panel beaters shops around the station now sprouting apartments?
And although we are along way from the various crisis points we are still at the end of the global movement of peoples we’ve seen over the last decade as another one of history’s great ages of migration picks up strength, New Zealand remains an attractive place to live and Auckland in particular an increasingly attractive place to work. Not to mention all those returning New Zealanders and [smarter] Australians fleeing those seemingly endless destructive weather events across the Tasman. It has been much more difficult in other places, especially Europe, although there too these changes have helped offset natural declines and ageing populations, and are proving quite stimulatory as well as disruptive.
The ageing population is a huge issue here too; every year from 2011 another year of that demographic bubble from the post-war baby boom turned 65, the nominal age of retirement. The changes of this politically active and property rich cohort have had a big impact on the city and nation. Two main trends have been observable over the decade; one group have taken advantage of the secular price shift in Auckland property over their lifetime and sold up and headed for smaller centres around the country [providing population offsets there, but also en-greying these communities], the second group have downsized within Auckland; stimulating significant demand for rest homes but also smaller well placed dwellings, particularly apartments, in great locations near amenities. Thus we have seen the apartment boom driven by two very different ends of the market; older cashed up people and younger first home buyers and renters starting out. More on our new urban form below.
Next year of course, 2026, this group will enter a new phase as the first of them turns 80, we can expect further shifts in the retirement sector as well of increased hospital and care costs for the nation as a whole. The aged care sector is booming and the apartment market is diversifying as a result. And thankfully in Auckland the service and tourism sectors are growing strongly to contribute to these nationwide costs. We will need the regulatory changes that saw in the start of this period, the Unitary Plan, to continue to evolve in response.
The ‘Super Diversity’ trend has continued and strengthened, making Auckland a much more dynamic and vibrant place [eg Pakuranga Town Centre now in an intense rivalry with Balmoral for the bragging rights as the leading centre of Asian street style eating]. And a much more internationally connected and economically competitive one too; migrants always bring better and deeper connections back to their home nations for expanded trade and social interaction. Also the creative sector has witness a great outburst of productivity as people bridging more than one culture so often are stimulated to respond to the tensions of that situation creatively.
Urbanisation- and the rise of the Suburban Centres
Called the Metropolitan Revolution and the Great Inversion even before our period began, the stunning re-emgengence of cities as the economic, cultural, and environmental force of our age has continued strongly. The strength with which Auckland has risen to take its clear place as the Primary City of the South Pacific region has caused rumblings in the rest of the country, but happily successive governments have come understand the value of the city’s rise for the whole nation [and new urban policies have benefited our other urban centres too; for they too are having their own Metropolitan Revolutions]. Auckland is competing strongly with the equally resurgent cities of the Australian seaboard; Australian cities helping to soften the blow of the structural decline in the hard commodity extractive industries there, despite the climate impacts all through that continent.
Auckland City Centre population doubled from 20k in 2005 to 41k in 2015, and doubled again to over 80k now. These new apartment buildings substantially changing the skyline, and their new occupants substantially changing the street life below. Wynyard Quarter, the whole of the western side down from the Hobson St ridge, and elsewhere are now covered in new residential buildings and streets buzzing with new retail, hospo, offices, and above all that great resource; people. Architecturally the full range is on show, we all have our favourites [and otherwise]. I particularly like the new 50 story block with the grand atrium linking Fort St through to the new shared space on lower Shortland St, and of course the development of the parking stump [at last!] out the back of high street with new apartments above in the daring light-weight structure. Just a couple of examples.
But of course this growth of the centre is nowhere near the whole story, the strong boom in long dormant subcenters has been as a big if not bigger story this decade. New Lynn has its sixth apartment tower now, and looks unstoppable after the huge boost it received with the opening of the CRL [more on that in Part 2] and the conversion of industrial land to housing. Manukau City, is at last gaining a true identity on the back of its intensification, and even Pakuranga Town Centre is thriving, after that big fight over the now canned flyover; the Busway there is booming inevitably leading to talk of converting it to Light Rail in the future. Albany is now an actual place with residents in quantity giving even that maddeningly planed environment life and character, it has been extraordinary watching it really take off with the Busway extension and those new mixed-use apartments.
Every Metro Centre has benefited from the removal of Parking Minimums and the rise of ride-share [more on that tomorrow too], the range of small and affordable living spaces all across the city made possible by unbundling them from parking and the improvements in Transit quality has been great for everyone, especially students and the many singles and couples not wishing to share. It has also led to many new entrants in the development business as the cost barriers to entry are lower. Smaller building firms are now building multi-unit dwellings instead of only detached houses, creating a much more varied market.
Local quality and identity is the new groove; made possible by new high volumes of dwellings clustered around Transit Stations. All sorts of places are transforming on this model from Papatoetoe, Onehunga, and Albany and of course all along the Western line, where the transformed access to employment, education, and entertainment made possible by the CRL has led to explosions of activity.
The rapid re-greening of the whole city secured through the somewhat controversial Urban Canopy rules in the Heat Island Regulation of the second Super City Mayoralty is now accepted as universally successful. This by-law requires every public parking space to covered by a solid canopy of tree cover or face a sharp penalty was of course resisted by carpark owners, but is well loved by the public and has generated measurable heat island effect reductions and rapidly improved the city’s tree cover with all the additional ongoing positive outcomes urban trees bring. While also making many previously dreary places instantly glorious. Not to mention creating a whole industry for arborists and landscapers, that newly sexy profession. The many passionate debates about tree varieties often pitting the urban food growing movement up against the botanically correct: It is interesting to see how by choosing a consistent kind of tree a community can almost brand their neighbourhood.
But it is the Centre City that has seen the most transformation; Albert St now is giddily vertiginous with so many new tall buildings, the rebuilt leafy and peopled streetscape, and of course the sleek movement of trains below. Everywhere within the broader Queen St valley from the University ridge to the east across to the western slope down to Victoria Park is thrumming with people and largely absent of cars and fumes. And the whole roiling scene now tips effortlessly down to the newly opened waterfront which offers such an irresistable pull: This is so obviously an extraordinarily positive and productive revolution that it beggars the mind what took us so long to achieve it. Perhaps it really did need the right Zeitgeist, or simply enough people of vision in positions of power?
Part 2 up next: Transport.
NB: This ‘History of the Next Ten Years’ is a scenario, not a prediction, a possible future, perhaps even a probable one, but that depends on decisions made now and in the near future…discuss…
As regular readers will know, we’re not exactly big fans of another road-based harbour crossing being a priority. We believe that after Skypath, the next crossing should be a rapid-transit-only crossing, providing those travelling to and from the North Shore with a complete and attractive alternative to the current bridge. It could be designed to leave space so that a future road crossing could be built if still needed.
Instead, the current most likely outcome is that we’ll spend $4-6 billion on a tunnel and massive interchanges at each end. And yet, because of changes they’ll make to how the existing bridge is used, it’s likely the extra crossing won’t even provide any additional capacity to the road network. About the best we’ll get is some bus lanes – AT and the NZTA have been suggesting that light rail could possibly go over the existing bridge, but my understanding based on conversations with various staff is that this is unlikely to be a realistic option.
So if we’re going to build a road crossing that doesn’t actually do much, perhaps it’s time to reconsider a cheaper bridge option. According to the last study by NZTA in 2010, a bridge option would be around $1.4 billion cheaper. That level of saving is nothing to be sneezed at, after all the entire cost of the Waterview tunnels project is $1.4 billion!
A bridge would also be considerably cheaper to operate and maintain – about $4m per year vs $20m per year (in 2010 $). Again $16m a year, every year, is significant. That’s roughly how much public subsidy is paid each year to top up fare revenue on the North Shore bus network.
The main reason for selecting a tunnel rather than a bridge was the result of public feedback around 5 years ago on the council’s Auckland Plan, and I’d say most of that feedback took place without considering the huge cost impact of their decision. One of the main reasons for this is the view it would obviously represent a dramatic visual change, which many people would be fearful of.
But would a bridge option be all that bad? Bridges all over the world can be some of the most stunning and iconic features of cities. Designed well they are more than just function.
Below are some of the renders from the NZTA study, so take a look for yourself. We were reminded of these when leafing through some of the obscure old reports so I wonder if most people even knew this was an option?
We quite like the design, the triangular cable towers are vaguely reminiscent of volcanic cones or perhaps sails on the harbour. In any case they have a monumental look. Cable stayed bridges are quite popular these days, as they are strong, stable and self-supporting during construction, which makes them fast and cheap to build. Of course there would be other types of bridges that could work: a grand suspension bridge like the famous Golden Gate, another steel arch bridge, a very simple concrete girder or maybe something wild and unusual.
Thinking about this, we think there are some other potential benefits of a second bridge, beyond the big construction cost saving and the cheaper operations and maintenance over time.
Firstly, it would be easy to provide road and rail on the same bridge, something that is difficult and expensive to do in a tunnel. We know that Auckland Transport are currently looking at rapid transit options to the North Shore. Given they are considering light rail across the isthmus and the airport, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that they would consider it here too? And why not, light rail only takes up as much room as a traffic lane each way, and it can handle almost any grade you would want on a motorway bridge. So for the minimal cost of adding two lanes for light rail to the six lanes of motorway you could literally double the people carrying capacity of the crossing. It would also tie in nicely with the current plans for the isthmus which would see light rail along Fanshawe St to Wynyard.
There is also the possibility that you don’t need to add much at all. The NZTA designs below show a box section holding up the road deck. With a little tweaking to the design it could probably be big enough to run a rail line through each way. A rail deck inside the bridge structure is pretty common in bridges around the world, perhaps a double deck bridge is an efficient solution for Auckland?
Secondly, a new bridge would give a nice and more direct walking and cycling link, as we can see in the picture below. While we agree the Skypath is an excellent value retrofit and should proceed asap, having separate walking and cycling links on a more direct alignment would be even better in the long term. We would obviously expect walking and cycling connections to be a little wider than shown in the image below though.
Thirdly, bridges avoid a lot of the problems that tunnels can have with things like vehicle fires, water leaks and dangerous goods spills. Melbourne has had a pair of under-river tunnels since the early 2000s and it has experienced all three kinds of incidents, with many lives lost in one bad fire down in the tunnel.
So, could a relatively cheap and efficient new bridge with a mix of traffic lanes, light rail, walking and cycling be the right answer for the North Shore? Such a crossing might come in under $3 billion, less than half some of the recent estimates for doing motorway and rail in tunnels. But there might be some further savings to be had too. In the renders below we can see that the bridge itself is a fairly slender and graceful structure. But the real impact, and much of the cost, of the harbour crossing plans come from the connections either side, including what amounts to a new Spaghetti Junction in St Mary’s Bay complete with three additional tunnels under Victoria Park and a similar tangle of ramps and reclamation at Northcote Point though to Akoranga.
If the crazy plan to dump six lanes of bridge traffic onto Cook St was dropped, they could drop the duplicate Victoria Park tunnel and a mess of associated ramps and structures approaching it. The existing Victoria Park tunnel could be reconfigured into one lane each way to Cook St by adding a central fire wall, instead of building a second one next to it to get three lanes each way to the middle of town. This would improve connectivity to midtown while providing a reasonable, rather than insane, amount of vehicular capacity. Not only would this save the city from drowning in traffic that has nowhere to go from Cook St, it would also save a further half billion or so from the cost and reduce the amount of structures and reclamation on the waterfront.
A second advantage of new bridge with light rail would be the ability to drop the proposed busway additions on the old bridge. That sounds crazy coming from this blog, but you have to ask why you would need both a busway and railway next to each other when rail alone can do the job well. If you dig through the plans you can see NZTA have designed an elaborate series of busway lanes and flyovers either side of the harbour bridge, in addition to the rail designation (clearly they didn’t put much faith in rail ever actually happening). Dropping the busway links in favour of light rail only would likewise cut out a lot of concrete, and hundreds of millions of costs.
There are some further benefits of value engineering out the spurious ramps and links. With less linkages you need to reclaim less harbour and build fewer flyovers, but you’d also get to detune some of the worst bits we already have. Do the crossing right and St Marys Bay could be turned from eleven lanes of motorway into a six lane waterfront boulevard through to Fanshawe St and Cook St. It might have more in common with Tamaki Drive than Spaghetti Junction.
So what about it Auckland? Would we be happy with a new bridge if it meant traffic, rail and people could be accommodated together while saving billions of dollars and reducing the impacts on the waterfront areas? Is there a “lean and mean” road solution that could be funded and built earlier while also giving people the rapid transit crossing they want?
To finish we just have to ask, why was this option dropped so readily? Given the potential to save billions and get better outcomes shouldn’t we at least have a thorough discussion?
One of the main concerns I’ve seen raised about the idea of Light Rail to the airport has been the speed. In particular, that light rail is too slow in comparison to heavy rail, especially along the Dominion Rd section where it is also suggested it could also be held up by traffic. After I wrote about it last week Auckland Transport updated their website with some more details of the project – mostly with details from the video they’ve created but also with new a new travel time comparison as they say the times in the video are now out of date. The updated travel times are shown in the table below and as you can see are even more favourable to light rail, putting it just five minutes slower than heavy rail from Britomart and equal in travel time from Aotea.
|Britomart (downtown) to airport
|Aotea (new City Rail Link station) to airport
In the blog and other places where discussion about the idea has occurred I’ve seen people questioning the travel times claimed by Auckland Transport. If these timings are accurate I think it makes a significant difference as to the viability of light rail as an option, not just to the airport but potentially for other applications such as to the North Shore, East Auckland and the North West. With this post I thought I would examine the light rail timings in more detail to see if they stack up.
As a reminder this is the route Auckland Transport suggest.
From Britomart to SH20 via Dominion Rd the light rail route is fairly straight and AT say it would travel down the centre of the road in dedicated lanes. They also say light rail would have priority at intersections along the way so vehicles would not often need to stop unless doing so at a station. AT reaching SH20 it would then follow the motorway down to Onehunga for a short section on street before a dedicated section from there to the Airport. In total this route is around 22.6km and at 44 minutes giving an average of 31km/h. As a comparison our current rail lines achieve the following speeds (although AT do need to get them faster):
- Western Line – 27.2km – 55 minutes travel time which is 30km/h
- Southern Line – 33.1km – 56 minutes travel time which is 33km/h
- Eastern Line – 25km – 37 minutes travel time which is 41km/h
- Onehunga Line – 12.8km – 27 minutes travel time which is 28km/h
To examine the speeds suggested by AT I thought the best option would be to conduct a few case studies to see what other cities manage to achieve. Below I look at five cities that are not too dissimilar to Auckland that have working light rail systems. The travel times they achieve are based on published timetables.
Calgary’s C-Train system is one of most used light rail networks in North America with over 330k trips on an average weekday, about six times what Auckland’s current rail network achieves. The system has two lines that share a central section though the CBD, the Red line is 33km and the blue line 25.7km.
The lines generally run down either in the centre of the road or on one side and are fenced off from traffic and people however they also cross through many intersections at grade. On some intersections where the light rail route changes direction/arterial it is running on they use short underpasses so it avoids the intersection completely. In short it’s a largely dedicated corridor which is not to dissimilar to what we would expect to see in Auckland.
Calgary’s light rail vehicles are capable of speeds up to 80km/h and below is how long each line is and how much time the timetable suggests a trip the entire length will take.
- Red Line – 33km – 59 minutes travel time which is 34km/h
- Blue Line – 25.7km – 46 minutes travel time which is 34km/h
Seattle has two light rail lines, one a short shuttle in Tecoma but the main one the Central Link, is a 25.1km line from the Airport to the city that opened in mid-2009. Much of the route is elevated, in tunnels or offline (alongside a freeway) however there are a few significant sections where the route travels down the centre of a road corridor separated from traffic only by a small concrete kerb.
There are 13 stations all up. In the city station spacing is about every 600m but as it gets into the suburbs it expands and becomes more like heavy rail. There is also a 9km section with no stations which would help speeds.
Seattle uses two 29m long light rail vehicles that are coupled together able to carry a combined 400 people – they eventually plan to couple up to four vehicles together. They have a top speed of 105km/h which would be useful on the long spaced out sections.
According to the timetable a trip from the along the line would takes around 37 minutes from end to end. Over the 25km that’s an impressive average of 41km/h – quite a bit faster than all but the Manukau line on our rail network. The single line carries close to 12 million trips a year – what Auckland’s rail system carried just over a year ago but remember it’s only been open since 2009.
Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City runs a three-line light rail system through city streets in dedicated lanes and from what I can tell there is no grade separation. The system first opened in 1999 and generally tracks run down the centre of streets separated from general traffic by a small kerb. Unlike the examples above the system doesn’t have any grade separation at intersections and many side roads cross the tracks along the way. It uses signal priority to achieve a mostly uninterrupted service along the routes. The Blue Line is 31.1km, Red Line 38.1km and Green Line 24.2km.
The system uses similar vehicles to what is used in Calgary and like Calgary they have a top speed of 80km/h. The system currently carries 18-19 million trips a year. According to the timetables the three lines take the following length of time to travel end to end and following that is their average speed.
- Blue Line – 31.1km – 51 minutes – 37km/h
- Red Line – 38.1 – 59 minutes – 39km/h
- Green Line – 24.2 – 46 minutes – 32km/h
So despite not having the grade separation that the systems above have the system still manages to achieve some pretty good speeds.
Houston maybe a famous for its sprawl and massive motorways but it also happens to have an increasingly used light rail line. Its Red Line opened in 2004 was extended in late 2013 to a total of 20.6km. Two new lines opened in May last year but for this I’ll focus on the red line which carries the vast majority of over 16 million light rail trips. The system runs largely on street level in dedicated lanes down the centre of the road separated from traffic with concrete kerbs. Following the line via Google Maps shows an extensive numbers of roads that cross the tracks at points along the journey and it’s not clear if there is any signal priority and this affects the speed.
Houston’s Light Rail system includes this section through a water feature in the CBD
The system uses light rail vehicles capable of 106km/h but given the station spacing and intersections I doubt they ever get close to that. Trips along the 20.6km line take around 55 minutes giving it an average of 22km/h – a step down from the cities above.
Lastly one of the closest to home is on the Gold Coast – which I experienced myself just a few months ago. The vehicles are 44m long and can carry 309 passengers and have a top speed of 70km/h
The system is 13km long and runs in a dedicated corridor which is mostly down the centre of streets and at most intersections it has signal priority. Importantly through areas such as through Surfers Paradise it seemed to be limited in speed to around 30-40km/h for extensive sections and that limits the overall speed of services. At 37 minutes from end to end it also happens to have the slowest average of the examples at just 21km/h.
There are of course many other systems that could be examined but what is clear from the ones above is that there are a range of systems and a range in how those systems are implemented. The systems that tend to have a mix of infrastructure such as dedicated corridors and sections of on street running seem to do fairly well and those systems are also likely to be the most similar to what Auckland Transport are proposing. As such, assuming AT design the system right then a 44-minute transit time from Britomart to the airport or 41 minutes from Aotea actually seems reasonable. Further I would have expected that they’ve calculated it far more accurately that I have.
Perhaps speed isn’t quite the issue that some have made out and we can save $1.2 billion by using light rail to the airport. That might also then let us extend the light rail somewhere else such as the North, Northwest or East.
The topic of rail to the airport has been getting an airing in the last few weeks after the Herald finally published some information we originally posted back in August – that AT are considering using light rail to connect the airport with the city rather than extending the heavy rail network. The need for a decision on what mode to eventually use is being hastened as the airport company need it by the middle of the year so they can finalise their future development plans. We’ve got an exclusive video showing what the heavy and light rail options.
Before diving into the details I want to make a couple of comments.
- Unfortunately much of discussion I’ve seen in the wake of the articles has fallen into the trap of being too focused on the technology rather than the outcome and despite the focus there appears to be a general misunderstanding of the technology involved. By that I mean there seems to be an assumption that light rail is a low strength version of heavy rail, a bit like light beer vs normal beer. In reality it all depends on how each technology is implemented. There are light rail systems that are faster and have greater capacity than what our heavy rail system will have even with the CRL.
- I’ll state upfront that my preference remains that the connection be by heavy rail. I think the time competitiveness it offers is probably being undervalued by AT compared to the other factors. I also see it as a nice balance to the operating patterns proposed post CRL. In effect I see it as completing the heavy rail network.
- AT have already decided that the connection to the airport will be from Onehunga linking in Mangere Bridge and Mangere. Onehunga is also important is has been chosen by Panuku Development Auckland as one of the key areas they’ll be focusing on and so improving connections from their in either direction makes a lot of sense. The alternatives of connecting via Otahuhu have been ruled out due to the amount of property purchase that would be needed and the Puhinui option would require difficult (i.e. expensive) connections and would be a challenge operationally.
So why are AT even thinking about light rail. The simple answer is the cost. AT say that they now believe it would cost around $2 billion to build a heavy rail line to the Airport. Light rail is cheaper and easier to build with AT have estimating it at around $1 billion – but importantly that is from the end of the proposed line down Dominion Rd. AT seem pretty confident they’ll get that line signed off but whether that turns into a reality remains to be seen. However even if you take the $1 billion cost for a light rail line down Dominion Rd into account you’re still looking at a $2 billion heavy rail line serving just the southwest or a $2 billion light rail line that serves the southwest and the central isthmus. As such, on a cost/benefit comparison the latter is going to look stronger and why AT is interested.
To help show some of the differences between the two options AT have put together a fairly detailed video of them which is at the end of the post. I first saw this over a month ago and AT have now let me post show it. It was included as a part of the presentation that inspired this post. There is no narration to explain what is going on so I’ve explained it below. I understand AT are working on a narrated version for wider public use.
The video starts off showing the potential travel times between the city and the airport. Along with the time it takes is the potential variability and in that regard the rail options offer more reliable trip times than buses and much more reliability than driving. As I understand it the reason light rail is more reliable than buses is that it will have effectively an exclusive right of way down Dominion Rd combined with signal pre-emption meaning it will rarely need to stop at lights. That it might need to stop has been an issue raised against using light rail and is a case of perhaps AT not explaining clearly enough just how high the quality is that they’re proposing.
It’s also worth noting that the travel times suggested are more in line with what we’ve posted before and not as close as the herald has suggested, around 35 minutes for heavy rail and 47 minutes for light rail (herald suggested 39 and 44 respectively).
The video shows the heavy rail option. It involves double tracking the Onehunga Line and as I understand, grade separating many of the crossings. It then follow SH2o and 20A with stations at Mangere Bridge and Mangere and then crucially it would loop away from SH20 before getting to the airport itself. This is important later in the post.
Light rail would travel from Dominion Rd alongside SH20 to Onehunga and then on the same route to the airport with the exception of it staying with SH20 the entire way. In addition to what’s proposed above there would be stations at Hillsborough, Favona, Ascot and the Airport’s growing office park. From the end of Dominion Rd the 15km line to the airport would be almost completely grade separated and so would have similar performance to heavy rail. That makes the line roughly 1/3 on street and 2/3rds off street. I’m not quite sure why there couldn’t be heavy rail stations at Favona and Ascot but there definitely couldn’t be at the airport business park as the route avoids that area. The extra stations help increase the catchment in favour of light rail.
The video gets more interesting once it zooms in to show how the lines would look. Between Onehunga and the SH20/A motorway junction both heavy and light rail have virtually identical infrastructure. A bridge would span the proposed East-West Link that then passes under the motorway bridges to the western side of the motorway. From there it travels alongside the motorway rising over the Walmsley Rd/Corronation Dr interchange before rising again above SH2o. It’s from here that the differences really begin.
After crossing above the motorway the grades required for heavy rail mean there isn’t enough space to get back to ground level before reaching Bader Dr so the Heavy Rail option is elevated above it to the Mangere Station.
The same issue then occurs with Kirkbride Rd and the trench currently being built meaning the line then has to pass over Kirkbride Rd. I understand the trench is about two times too steep for heavy rail.
South of Kirkbride Rd the line returns to ground level but has to divert away from the road before reaching the airport. As I understand it all transport options will need to drop below the second runway that is proposed and again the grades mean the rail line can’t follow the road.
Lastly for some reason it’s been decided that the heavy rail line and the station has to be underground at the Airport, this obviously pushes up the cost of building the line. I also understand it has been proposed to be located a little further away from the terminal than the light rail stop at street level and the extra walking time has even been factored into the travel time calculations. Given the airport is planning a fairly blank slate redo of the road network all around the airport and building an new terminal extension, it seems strange that a heavy rail route and station at ground level couldn’t be easily integrated into masterplan.
Light rail is able to handle steeper grades and sharper curves than heavy rail is and as such is able to get back to ground level and go under Bader Dr. This means a light rail station would be located within the median of the motorway – and hopefully with some good noise protection. You may notice the station planned is much less glamorous than its heavy rail counterpart – presumably making it much cheaper.
South of the line is able to stay within the motorway median and pass through the trench currently being built and for which AT have paid $29 million to make 3.5m wider so it can accommodate rail. I’m sure visually for locals and from a consenting perspective this will be an easier sell than the elevated heavy rail option. Light rail is then able to stay with road all the way to the terminal again helping to keep it cheaper. It seems the main benefit of LRT is it’s just that much easier to bend around existing infrastructure.
AT then give a comparison between the two modes showing what they think is best. This is similar but not exactly the same as one shown in the August post. For one thing it lists the benefit cost ratio of each option suggesting that some likely early economic evaluation has already taken place. As you can see the light rail option is quite a bit higher than the heavy rail option although it is only hovering around 1 – much like many of the RoNS.
Here is the video.
The two biggest arguments against light rail seem to be the speed and capacity. I think the speed one is warranted to a large degree as I suspect offering a rail option that was almost always faster than any road option would have a huge impact on what mode people choose to use.
As for capacity I suspect that one is a bit less valid – although not completely. AT are suggesting some very heavy duty light rail vehicles capable of carrying up to 450 people each and on a route like Dominion Rd they would be running fairly frequently, potentially every few minutes if places like Melbourne are anything to go by. That is a considerable step up the capacity of buses along there now, although looking at the comparison table above they seem to be underselling it as 1,630 passengers an hour works out to only four vehicles an hour each way. The question is whether the additional patronage generated by a southwest line would then result in issues along Dominion Rd which is busy enough as it is. It would be good for AT to cover that issue in more detail.
If the figures above are accurate it’s easy to see why AT are so interested in light rail. In the current political climate it would be impossible to every get a heavy rail option over the line, it’s just too expensive. Light rail appears to be far from completely terrible and actually has a chance. A case of don’t let perfect be the enemy of good? In saying that I do get the feeling that there’s a little bias going on. For example why aren’t there extra heavy rail stations at Favona and Ascot.
What do you think of the options?
Lastly regardless of the mode, if drivers are anything like the ones in the video I think rail will be a huge success – although perhaps that just represents reality.