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.
Last week the reserve bank dropped the official cash rate to its lowest ever level in a bid to spur growth and keep inflation within its target band of 1-3%. What is unusual is the RBNZ Governor also took the step of calling for the government to increase spending on infrastructure in Auckland.
“A lot of the focus tends to be on monetary policy to work out price output splits for an economy to try to get some demand growth and output growth and also maintain low inflation,” Wheeler said.
“One of the issues is what role can fiscal policy play,” he said.
“One could mount a case for saying there’s the potential to have more infrastructure spending around Auckland.”
Wheeler said the economy was generating output worth NZ$230 billion a year.
“So some capex expenditure by the government could well be helpful to try and reduce excessive capacity in the economy and, from our point of view, reduce the output gap and build inflation pressures, so that would be something that would be helpful.”
He also talked about it on Radio NZ’s Morning Report on Friday
Or listen here
So basically we need infrastructure and policy changes to unlock capacity and make it easier to increase the supply of housing in Auckland. It’s an interesting move from the RBNZ as I can’t recall seeing them making such a suggestion ever before. Infrastructure is quite a broad area and includes things like schools, hospitals, emergency services facilities etc. but of course one of the most crucial areas highlighted is Transport.
Even if the government agreed and decided to increase spending on transport infrastructure actually doing anything is likely much more difficult. Many of the projects that may want to accelerate suffer from the same problem, they’re nowhere close to being ready for construction. Many of them are just ideas on paper and haven’t been consented actually been designed. Take the Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing as an example even if the government decided to fund it as soon as possible it would still be years away before any sod is turned as the project hasn’t even been designated yet. By the time they got to the point of getting the diggers out we’re likely to be in a different stage in the economic cycle.
Combined with the fact the government is already accelerating a number of motorway projects this means any focus would likely need to be on projects that can be designed and consented quickly or projects which are almost shovel ready. To me this means any spend up on transport infrastructure is likely to be focused on quick things like cycleways – which implementation teams are already going to struggle to use all the funding currently available – or other small local road projects.
That leaves large projects and currently there aren’t too many of those in Auckland’s plans that are close to being shovel ready – but there do happen to be a few interesting ones. The first is of course the City Rail Link which already has consent, the first stage is underway and design work is ongoing for the main works which still needs construction funding approved.
Another big exception I can think of is likely to be Auckland Transport’s light rail plans. This is because for the most part the light rail proposal uses the existing road corridor and is just a reallocation of road space so I suspect that the consenting – if any is needed – would be much faster and easier.
Bringing forward both of those projects would make for welcome announcements.
Around two weeks ago AT gave a presentation to the Council’s Infrastructure committee which contained a lot of very interesting information about some of the major projects they’re working on. I also heard a segment of the presentation at a talk last week. I won’t cover everything in the presentation as much of the charts and maps are ones we’ve seen before that I found interesting.
The presentation starts by looking at Auckland’s expected population growth in comparison to the growth happening in the rest of NZ using some charts most will probably be familiar with. Just in case you aren’t they highlight that using the medium growth projections out to 2043 that more than half of all population growth will be in Auckland and that growth alone will equal be greater than the current population of Christchurch and its expected growth. What was interesting though was the chart below showing how Auckland has grown compared to the previous population projections and as you can see the projections keep being revised upwards. The 1996 projection estimated Auckland would hit 2 million people in 2063 but the 2013 one suggests it will now be 2033.
As mentioned the growth is comparable to the expected population in Christchurch and the image below shows the land area of all of the greenfield growth (blue) and Special Housing Areas (Orange) from across the region combined into one Christchurch sized mass – I’ve also seen a version comparing it to Hamilton with roughly a Hamilton sized growth occurring in the South, about a 2/3rds Hamilton in the North West and half a Hamilton in the North.
On the topic of growth this chart highlights just how much is expected to occur in the city centre – which is the CBD and fringe suburbs such as Grafton, Newmarket Parnell, Ponsonby etc. – compared to other parts of Auckland. I’m not quite sure where the boundaries for the other areas are but it’s also interesting to see the second biggest expected employment growth area is in the North West.
Moving on to some of the more interesting aspects of the presentation, there is a series of maps showing how the Rapid Transit Network will develop over the next 30 years. Now what does that presentation format remind you of? It’s great that AT are now starting to present the information this way as personally I think it makes it much easier for the general public to understand what’s proposed for their city.
One aspect you will notice is the access to the Airport. The map shows both heavy and light rail options as it has yet to be decided which one will be built. Accompanying the presentation was an animated video that showed the options in much more detail including what they would look like between Onehunga and Kirkbride Rd. This hasn’t yet been published so I’ve asked AT when that will happen as it was very interesting. I’ll discuss a little more about this later in the post. Also the more I look at it the more I think it seems natural for light rail to be extended over to the North Shore where it can then spread out again to provide greater coverage.
On light rail the presentation moved on to AT’s proposal for it on the isthmus. A lot of the justification for it is to reduce the number of buses in the city centre as some corridors like Wellesley St will have over 180 per hour in the peak direction based on current plans. We’ve shown these maps before but they’re worth repeating.s
And with LRT in place bus numbers reduce dramatically. One thing I am aware of is that the map below is not be entirely correct as I know the board have decided not to send LRT down to Quay St, instead it will stay on Customs St (and presumably travel down Fanshawe St).
It still leaves Wellesley St as a very busy bus corridor but allows more buses from other parts of the city not served by heavy or light rail. Thee impact of not building Light Rail is highlighted in this map showing that bus congestion in the city slows buses down reducing the number of people within a 45 minute trip of the city centre. Interestingly some of the worst affected areas are the North Shore which again suggests it’s probably worth looking at something like LRT to the shore to reduce the reliance on buses.
Note: the map shows that many of the ferry routes don’t seem to be counted. My guess is this the map is based on a combination of walking time and average wait time for a service plus the travel time to a set point in the city centre.
The next map shows a great representation of how people will access the city centre by mode in the future if current plans are built. As you can see the existing rail network plus the CRL serve the South, East and West through connections with feeder buses. The central Isthmus is served by light rail, many of the coastal communities are served by ferry and the rest of the city by bus.
As mentioned earlier, there was some information on the options for rail to the airport. The three images below show how far you would get from the airport on public transport now, with heavy rail and with light rail. As a basis it seems to assume that the isthmus light rail routes have been completed and like the accessibility maps will likely be based on some average wait time and possibly only using normal PT options so no Skybus.
With Heavy Rail you can definitely get much further
And the light rail version which connect to the isthmus routes via a connection from Onehunga to Dominion Rd on a route alongside SH20.
There are some odd things with these maps, for example as I understand it the idea with the light rail option is only the Dominion Rd route would go to the airport which means a transfer for those using the other lines. Why then can you get further up Manukau Rd on LRT when Heavy Rail is much faster to get to Onehunga.
There is more info in there in the interests of time and space I might leave some aspects to another post.
All up a very interesting presentation.
This is AT’s official future vision for the Rapid Transit Network in Auckland. I feel the need to show this again in the context of a number of uninformed views about the CRL popping up again, as one of the chief misunderstandings is to treat the City Rail Link as a single route outside of the network it serves.
All successful transport systems are designed through network thinking and not just as a bunch of individual routes, this is true of our existing and extensive motorway network just as it is true for our rapidly growing Rapid Transit one. The Waterview tunnel is not being built just so people can drive from Mt Roskill to Pt Chev, and nor is the CRL just to connect Mt Eden to downtown.
The CRL is but one project on the way to a whole city-wide network, as is clearly shown below, and as such it doesn’t do everything on its own.
But then having said that because it is at the heart of the current and future city-wide network it is the most crucial and valuable point of the whole system. That is true today and will continue to true for as long as there is a city on this Isthmus. In fact it is hard to overstate the value of the CRL as by through-routing the current rail system it is as if it gives Auckland a full 100km Metro system for the cost of a pair of 3.4km tunnels and a couple of stations. This is simply the best bargain going in infrastructure in probably any city of Auckland’s size anywhere in the world and is certainly the best value transport project of scale in New Zealand. Because it is transformational* for the city and complementary to all our existing systems, especially the near complete urban motorway network.
Additionally the capacity it adds to the region’s whole travel supply is immense: taking up to 48 trains an hour this can move the equivalent of 12 motorway lanes of car traffic. All without flattening any place nor need to park or circulate those vehicles on local roads and streets. And all powered by our own renewably generated electricity. This is how the city grows both in scale and quality without also growing traffic congestion.
This map will evolve over time as each addition is examined in detail. For example I expect the cost-effectiveness and efficiency a rail system over the harbour, up the busway and to Takapuna to become increasingly apparent well before this time period. In fact as the next harbour crossing, so we are likely to see that in the next decade, otherwise this is that pattern that both the physical and social geography of Auckland calls for. Additionally Light Rail on high quality right-of-ways, although not true Rapid Transit, will also likely be added in the near term.
Welcome to Auckland: City.
* = transformational because it substantially changes not only our movement options, the quality of accessibility between places throughout the city and without the use of a car, but also Auckland’s very idea of itself; we have not been a Metro city before: It is doing things differently.
Matt suggested adding this more recent version. I agree this is a good idea, it shows just how quickly ideas are changing in Auckland right now. This is a very fluid and exciting time for the city as the new possibilities are becoming acknowledged by all sorts of significant players. It remains my view that extending our existing rail system is better for Mangere and the Airport, but that taking AT’s proposed LR across the harbour in its own new crossing is a really good option:
And just this morning we get wind of these very big changes for those making plans for Auckland. It looks like the funding roadblocks [pun intended] for the necessary urban infrastructure that the growing and shifting Auckland needs may be melting away….?
I’ve just spent a couple of days on the Gold Coast after tagging along to a work trip by my wife. Other than taking a few days off one of the things I was keen to do was to check out their new light rail system given it’s likely to be very similar to what Auckland Transport are proposing for the isthmus routes like Dominion Rd. I was very impressed by the system and the experience highlighted a number of areas where Auckland Transport could be doing better with our current rail system – there were a few areas where AT is ahead too though.
The system known as G:link is 13km long on a dedicated right of way, has 16 stations and was opened just over a year ago. It was built as a PPP at a cost of about $1.2 billion but that also includes 15 years of operational costs. The change in Prime Minister to Malcolm Turnbull almost two months ago as already seen changed attitude towards PT infrastructure and a second stage has been approved that will see the route extended 7.3km to the northwest linking the system into the heavy rail system that serves Brisbane and the travels through to the Brisbane airport. The cost for the extension hasn’t been announced yet as it’s in the middle of the tender process right now. As a comparison in Auckland, a route from Customs St, up Queen St and then down Ian McKinnon Dr and Dominion Rd to Denbigh Ave is approximately 7.7km.
The system uses 43.5m long trams that have 80 seats and are said to be able to carry 309 passengers. Auckland Transport are actually proposing light rail vehicles almost 50% longer (66m) carrying up to 450 passengers. They can travel up to about 70km/h but in the denser part of the urban area would only travel 30-40km/h. One thing that helped is they seem to have a lot of signal priority so only very rarely did they get held up at lights.
About the only disappointment I had with the trams themselves – and an area where Auckland Transport is heading in the right direction over – is that some had been wrapped completely in advertising. This is the same stuff that is used on buses with little holes so you can kind of see out the window but not quite.
Below is a shot of the interior which had a lot of poles for people standing to be able to hold on to – oh and the doors opened within a second of stopping – like Aucklands trains should be doing.
The rubber pads on the floor are to hold a surfboard in place
The digital screens you can see alternate between showing travel times for the remainder of the route and connecting bus services. Digital screens like these are a requirement for new buses and I understand will likely be installed on the trains too.
The timetable for services is impressive, they run frequently all week and even late into night. This is shown below and as you can see due to frequency it becomes very easy to communicate.
With the exception of the University/Hospital station which is underground, the stations all use a common design with a distinctive orange canopy. Some of the stations also had a coffee shack built in.
A few other aspects of stations – they had at least two ticket machines or in many cases where there were side platforms like above two machines per platform. In addition, those ticket machines sold smartcards – something ATs HOP machines strangely don’t do. Another aspect that was useful and that has long been a bugbear of mine in Auckland is that there were multiple tag posts (the yellow box) all along platforms including right next to the ticket machines Some stations had up to 6 posts per platform. In Auckland if you wanted to top up your card at most stations you have to go to the middle of the platform, top up the card then walk back to the end of the platform to tag on. Stations also had PT network and local destination maps plus one thing you can’t quite see from the photo was a drinking fountain for water.
At the southern end the line ends at Broadbeach South which is opposite the large Pacific Fair mall. This also happens to be a large bus interchange and it has clearly been designed to make transfers easy. The LRT tracks/platform are in effectively an island which is surrounded by bus stops. When the tram arrives doors on both sides can be opened making it easy to get to a bus you may be transferring to so transferring is as simple as walking across the platform. You can see this in the image below with the tram on the right and the buses on the left and this is repeated on the opposite side of the tram.
You may also notice from the image above that the platform you can see isn’t covered by the canopy. That’s because the intention is to eventually extend the line further south. The tracks are already in the ground however until the extension happens they’ve just widened the platform over the top of them.
All up it’s a fairly impressive system and already getting decent use. As a result of it public transport use on the Gold Coast is said to have risen by around 25% after just one year. In the first year there were 6.6 million trips on the system and so far is tracking to be over 7.5 million trips for the second year. That outstrips any of the individual lines in Auckland.
Lastly there was one additional outcome from the project and one that wasn’t included in any business case. The construction meant that a lot of the utilities had to be shifted which of course means they had to build new ones. Because of that the new infrastructure was of a higher quality and they’ve found has actually enabled more development to occur than was possible beforehand, in other words it wasn’t just the transport infrastructure that benefited from the project but all infrastructure in the corridor. This is perhaps a lesson for the planners and economists out there.
A light rail system like what has been built on the Gold Coast would be a fantastic addition to the central isthmus and there’s a lot from the system that AT could learn from to make the PT experience for all modes better.
The Sydney city centre is fantastic. It’s vibrant, varied, exciting:
And, like all successful cities, full of people. So how do they all get there? Of course some are there already, the City of Sydney has some 200,00 residents, but many journey in each day from the suburbs.
The streets are full of traffic, most are not like the part of Pitt St shown above, where pedestrians have priority:
The Bridge is full of traffic:
And there’s a couple of road only tunnels that were added next to the bridge, the Eastern Distributor, the Anzac Bridge, and many other roads in, so in just one of the AM peak hours 25,000 people drive into, or through, the Centre City on a weekday morning.
But that’s nothing. It’s only 14% of the total, just over twice the number that walk or cycle [source]:
80% arrive on Public Transport. Over 100,000 in that one hour on trains [2011/12]. Because they can.
They would have to, it would be spatially impossible to have such a vibrant city centre if any more than a small number accessed it by private car. There would no space for anything but roads and parking if they tried. No space for the city itself, nor for quiet places away from the hustle:
So while Sydney streets feel very busy with cars, and they certainly have priority to almost all of them, they aren’t actually as central to the the functioning of the city as they appear. There’s just is no way Sydney would be the successful, dynamic, and beautiful city it is without the investment in every other means of getting people to and through the city. Especially high capacity, spatially efficient, underground rail. And nor would the streets be able to function at all if more were forced to drive because of the absence of quality alternatives.
And more is coming too. Next month a second much bigger Light Rail project begins to add to the current one, and a new Metro line with new harbour tunnels is also underway. Driving numbers will likely stay steady into the future, but the city will only grow through the other systems. City streets are vital for delivery and emergency vehicles, but really successful city cities don’t clog them up with private cars to bring in the most essential urban component; people. That’s just not how cities work; even though that may be the impression given by the sight of bumper to bumper traffic on city streets.
And successful cities always appear congested; the footpaths are busy, the stations are crowded, and the traffic is full. Because they are alive and attractive for employment, commerce, entertainment, habitation; in short; urban life. This is the ‘seductive congestion’ of successful urban economies. To focus on reducing traffic congestion without sufficient investment in alternatives for people movement is to misunderstand what a city is and how they work. Sydney is not perfect, but it has a thriving and vibrant, properly urban centre built on properly urban movement infrastructure.
All else there stands on the quality of this investment.