Perhaps Light Rail is fast enough afterall

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the video they’ve created but also with new a new travel time comparison as they say the times in the video are now out of date.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.

LOCATION LIGHT RAIL HEAVY RAIL
Britomart (downtown) to airport 44 Minutes 39 Minutes
Aotea (new City Rail Link station) to airport 41 Minutes 41 Minutes

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.

Light Rail to Airport Route - from video

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

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.

 

Calgary_CTrain_Map

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

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

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 Light Rail - Main Street Square

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.

Gold Coast

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

Gold Coast Light Rail - Tram

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.

Light Rail to the Airport

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.

Heavy vs light rail options at Aiport

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.

Mangere Inlet Rail Crossing

Heavy Rail

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.

Mangere Heavy Rail 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.

Kirkbride Elevated Rail option

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

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.

Mangere Light Rail Station

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.

Heavy vs light rail to airport comparison

 

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.

RBNZ: Spend more in Infrastructure in Auckland

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.

Aotea Station Design Platform Oct - 15

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.

AT’s Smarter Integrated Networks presentation

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.

Auckland Population vs Stats Projections

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.

Auckalnd Population growth vs Christchurvh

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.

Auckland Education and Employment projections

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.

AT Rapid Transit Network 2015-2045

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

City Access - Do Minimum

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).

City Access - LRT

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.

City Accessability without LRT

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.

City Centre Accessability Map

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.

Accessability to Airport Now

With Heavy Rail you can definitely get much further

Accessability to Airport Heavy Rail

And the light rail version which connect to the isthmus routes via a connection from Onehunga to Dominion Rd on a route alongside SH20.

Accessability to Airport Light Rail

 

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.

Auckland Rapid Transit Network

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.

AT Rapid Transit Network - 2041

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.

UPDATE:

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:

RPTP potential LRT + RTN Map

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….?

Treasury Tweets

 

Light Rail lessons from the Gold Coast

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

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Tram 1

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

Gold Coast Light Rail Map

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

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Tram

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

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Tram Advertising

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

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Tram Interior

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

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

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Tram Interior Screens

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

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Frequency

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

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Station

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

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Station facilities

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

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Station transfer

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

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

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

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

Notes from Sydney: The Centre City

The Sydney city centre is fantastic. It’s vibrant, varied, exciting:

SYDNEY Pitt St

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:

SYDNEY_6342

The Bridge is full of traffic:
SYDNEY_6174

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]:

Travel into Sydney City Centre

80% arrive on Public Transport. Over 100,000 in that one hour on trains [2011/12]. Because they can.

SYDNEY_5246_800

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:

SYDNEY_5252_800

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.

SYDNEY CITY CENTRE ENTRY POINTS

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.

SYDNEY_6011

SYDNEY_5864

SYDNEY_5707

 

 


An update on Light Rail

Around a month ago Auckland Transport gave a presentation to the Campaign for Better Transport on their Light Rail plans. I wasn’t there however I was provided with a copy of the presentation and it contains some new information not shown before – and not all about light rail.

As a reminder of the background, AT say that even with all the improvements planned – including the CRL – the number of buses on many city centre corridors will need to be greatly increased however many of those routes are already at, or near capacity in terms of actual bus numbers. To handle the number of buses (including double deckers) they will need significant extra land for more bus lanes and infrastructure to handle the number of buses that would be required, an example would be at Wynyard where a lot of buses would need to turn around. The map below shows the bus routes through the city with the new network. Most of those bus lines will be running in the peak at least every 15 minutes with some routes such as Dominion Rd much higher resulting in over 180 buses an hour on Symonds and Wellesley Streets.

City Access - Do Minimum

By 2046 the number of buses needed would be around double the desired capacity of bus lanes and as such buses will likely be very unreliable. Improved PT speed and reliability has been a big part in the fact that now around 50% of all people arriving in the city centre in the morning peak do so on PT. Some of the improved reliability is highlighted in these two charts showing the variability of travel times by mode at different times of the day. As you can see roads suffer from wide variability while the Northern Busway and rail lines – which have accounted for most of the PT growth to the city over the last 15 years – have fairly reliable times. The Panmure result will partly explain why patronage has grown at that station by a massive 71% in the last year.

Travel time Reliability

AT say they’ve looked at a number of options and that Light Rail on the southern isthmus routes – which are some of the busiest bus routes in Auckland – allows them to significantly reduce the number of buses in the city which will be critical in achieving goals such as making the city centre more people friendly. That would change the map above to what you see below. Some parts of Symonds St would go from 180 buses an hour down to just 16 Light Rail vehicles. This is because AT are looking at large 66m long light rail vehicles capable of carrying 450 people each. Interestingly the map below also seems to suggest light rail across the viaduct whereas previous versions had it going via Fanshawe St. I remember a few board meetings ago an item in the closed session was titled LRT Fanshawe/Customs St Alignment so presumably a lot more work is happening in this area.

City Access - LRT

The presentation also included a number of new images along with some we’ve already seen. The new ones suggest some other significant aspects to the proposal. We know that stage one is to effectively replace the current City Link bus by getting light rail to Ian McKinnon Dr where there would be an initial depot. That was highlighted back in June within this document which AT have now published is now online. The presentation gives this as a view of what the depot which I assume this is on the patch of land between Ian McKinnon Dr and the motorway. I’m not sure where the NW Cycleway connects through here – let’s hope AT don’t forget that in their planning.

Ian McKinnon Depot

Just around the corner they show that at least in that section they haven’t forgotten the cycleway as part of very multi-modal street.

Ian McKinnon LRT

Where things get even more interesting is just a bit further north. The image below shows the intersection of Queen St and K Rd.

K Rd intersection LRT

You may notice there is an absence of tracks and some odd things on the side of the road. That’s because it appears Auckland Transport are planning on sending light rail tracks through an underpass which is probably about easing the steep grade coming up Queen St. You can see the underpass emerging in this next image.

K Rd LRT Underpass

From there light rail would carry on down Queen St like in the images we’ve seen so far. Below are a few more images showing light rail past the front of Britomart, on Quay St and Lower Hobson St.

LRT - Britomart

LRT - Quay St

LRT - Lower Hobson St

Lastly this next image shows what Fanshawe St could look like – obviously from a different version of the plan to the earlier map. It shows light rail in on a dedicated route on the northern side of the road. If it was installed on Fanshawe St I presume it would share that with buses from the North Shore that travel to Britomart.

LRT - Fanshawe St

Overall some interesting aspects, especially around K Rd. The last information about the project was that AT was looking to appoint a technical adviser to support further investigation of light rail. Of course there’s also the matter of how exactly it will be paid for which AT remain quiet about.

Updated RPTP consultation outcome

Back in May Auckland Transport launched a short consultation to update their Regional Public Transport Plan (RPTP) on four specific areas to reflect the work and thinking they’ve undertaken since the RPTP was released in 2013. The consultation was limited to four areas:

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

AT haven’t formally announced the outcomes of that consultation however a paper on them went to the confidential session of the AT board and that has quietly been released publicly. In total they say 1,251 submissions were received however over 1,000 of those were about SuperGold concessions. Below are the main issues and some of the key recommendations staff have made.

Simplified zone fares

AT say there were 107 submissions referring to the simplified zone fares and that people were mostly supportive of the proposal. There was some concern about specific aspects though such the exact boundaries and what happens for short trips that cross them. One example they give is Orakei where some people want it in the city zone. In addition people wanted a number of other areas considered including

  • integrating ferries into the zone system
  • the time available for transfers along with the number of transfers allowed.
  • improved education and work to get HOP n the hands of more people,
  • fare caps

In response AT have made minor changes to the document or are undertaking more research. They note that it is desirable to have ferries also integrated but that they are limited in their ability to do so due to the current exempt services that are enshrined in legislation. In the case of fare caps AT say they will look at them once the new zonal system has settled in.

Light Rail

RPTP potential LRT + RTN Map

There were 97 submissions about light rail and AT say the majority were positive however five key groups have said there isn’t enough information yet for AT to be including it now. Of these the big and most interesting one is the NZTA who I would have thought AT would have been talking to about it much more. Others with a similar view were AA, NZCID, Bus & Coach Association and the Mangere-Otahuhu local board.

One aspect I predicted would happen with Light Rail has come through with a number of submitters and local boards now also wanting Light Rail in their areas. This includes

  • replacement for the Inner Link bus route
  • connections to the North Shore
  • along the North-western Motorway
  • Panmure-Botany
  • Tamaki Drive
  • Pakuranga Highway to Howick

The main recommendation is to start releasing more intimation about the project.

Ferry development plan

AT say that overall the majority of people supported their ferry development plan although some people were also calling for new services. Other than a few wording changes, it doesn’t appear this will change much which seems reasonable.

New Network service descriptions

Most of the feedback related to the new network was actually about issues such as the SuperGold card concessions for which AT say they will improve the wording to make it clearer nothing is changing.

For the actual topic of the new network service descriptions it was raised that there is no set span of times services will run from/to. In response AT say they will add a policy looking at the issue of span of services and in the next version of the RPTP look at developing that in more detail. The policy the hearings panel recommended be included now is below.

New Network Service Span

Extend Light Rail to the North Shore?

Regular readers will be well aware that we strongly believe our transport agencies need to rethink the Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing. It appears to us that the price tag of $4-$6 billion is way out of proportion to the benefits another road crossing would provide. This view only strengthens the more we see the changes that are occurring, for example just last week we learned that the NZTA’s own post implementation reviews highlighted that traffic volumes weren’t living up to projections on a number of motorway projects. We also found out that one again that vehicle kilometres travelled in Auckland had fallen in both real and per capita measures despite strong population growth.

In Patrick’s letter to the NZTA he said:

It is our view that both a driverless Light Metro system, or a continuation of AT’s proposed Light Rail network across the Harbour, to Takapuna and up the Busway, need to be properly explored as the next possible crossing over the harbour. As they are likely to achieve all of the aims NZTA and AT are charged with delivering for the city much more completely and at a lower cost than any additional traffic lanes and without any of the disbenefits.

– the economic benefits of true spatially efficient urban transport system linking the Shore to city and the isthmus RTN
– make a massive transformational shift to public transport
– real carbon and other pollution reductions of scale from a 100% electric system
– huge place benefits, including a real reduction in city car and bus numbers
– no additional massive costs on approach roads
– resilience of additional systems as well as route

With this post I want to look at the idea of extending AT’s proposed light rail (LRT) across the harbour. So far we know that AT are looking at very high capacity LRT vehicles – up to 66m long and capable of holding around 450 people.

Town Hall LRT_800

They would run on at four LRT routes on the isthmus on Sandringham Rd, Dominion Rd, Mt Eden Rd and Manukau Rd, combining into two corridors through the CBD – Queen St and Symonds St – before terminating at Wynyard. These are shown below.

LRT routes

So what if we didn’t terminate them in Wynyard and instead extended them via a new crossing to the North Shore. As we know one of the features of LRT is that it can run at street level allowing for the network to reach past the expensive grade separated infrastructure like we see on the busway. Of course that can also be a curse if it is run mixed in with general traffic. Outside of the busway a good compromise is like what appears to be proposed for the isthmus with dedicated lanes and signal priority.

We know that the busiest bus routes on the North Shore are the Northern Busway, to Takapuna and up Onewa Rd. Those areas/routes also happen to be where some of the highest levels of development is allowed for on the North Shore as part of the proposed Unitary Plan – although I think a lot more should be allowed.

 

UP - North Shore

Combining the routes for the Isthmus with those corridors on the shore could deliver us something like the network below. You can see it features one route to Takapuna, one to Glenfield and two routes combine to serve the Northern Busway – one of which goes via the Universities, the Hospital and Newmarket

LRT to the Shore

The immediate question many of you might have is about capacity and whether LRT would have enough to serve the shore. Assuming a frequency on each route of roughly one service every 5 minutes that would combine for a capacity across the harbour of over 21,000 people per hour. To put that in perspective, currently over the two hour morning peak around 9,000 people cross the harbour bridge on buses. As such LRT would allow for more than a fourfold increase compared to what we have now and assuming they could do around 80km/h – which is the speed of the busway and seems fairly common on many overseas LRT systems – it would remain time competitive with driving at most times.

The biggest issue with any proposal will always be the cost however this is where LRT could prove a winner. In the last harbour crossing study a rail only tunnel was estimated at ~$1.6 billion – far cheaper than a road crossing. Add in converting the busway and the routes to Takapuna and Glenfield and I suspect we’d be looking at $3-3.5 billion. It’s worth noting that a high level study in 2012 estimated a similar network – but with the Takapuna branch extending all the way up East Coast Rd and to Browns Bay at around $4.5 billion.

Of all of it, it seems that the biggest challenge would end up being the section on the city side from the crossing to where the Queen St and Symonds St routes separate as that would have a high frequency of LRT vehicles through an area with a lot of intersections and conflicting movements. In saying that I’m sure it’s something our talented engineers are capable of solving.

Overall the thing I like the most about the idea is that it allows for through routed connections, removing any need for large terminals from the CBD/Wynyard which is what we would have with the current LRT proposal and/or if we decided to do a light metro or heavy rail option. Compared to other options that have been presented in the past it is also the only one that also looks at serving the western North Shore. Both the western and eastern routes could also be extended if needed. The biggest downside compared to the other rail based options is that LRT would still need a driver which would have an impact on the operational costs.

Lastly it’s worth noting that I’m fully aware that this may not be the best solution. A different solution might turn out to be better however the point of the post is to highlight that options other than the default of a new motorway tunnel exist. We want to see the NZTA and others assess any future crossing from a fresh perspective – much like what happened with the City Centre Future Access Study.