Giving the Expressway a Run for its Money – Tilt Trains?


For a long time I have been fascinated with Tilt trains, I have now decided to write a post about them. For those that don’t know a tilting train is a train that is designed to tilt with the curve as banking around it. Think of it this way, when you are riding a bike as you move into a corner you tilt inwards which allows you to take the corner better at a higher speed. By tilting the train combats the centripetal force which causes inertia e.g. when standing you losing balance as you come around a curve. So when the curve goes to the right, the train tilts right, making a more comfortable ride as well as allowing faster speeds.

In Queensland there are two regional lines that run tilt trains, an Electric tilt train entering service 1998 built by Walkers, who are now owned by Downer (Tilt Train) service between Brisbane to Rockhampton covering 638km in in 7h45min, & a Diesel tilt train entering service 2003 built by Downer (Spirit of Queensland) between Brisbane and Cairns covering 1680km in 12h20min. They both have revenue top speed of 160km/h, however the Electric Tilt train holds the Australian record in a speed run hitting nearly 210 km/h just north of Bundaberg. The yellow boxes in the first attached timetable are the tilt train times, while the blue is the standard diesel, notice the 1h5m-1h50m difference in times.


image-3You are asking why does this matter, Australia has completely different infrastructure to New Zealand, we could never make those speeds. What if I told you these run on Queensland’s rail network, which is 1067mm Cape Gauge (Narrow Gauge) the exact same as us, as well as for the Electric Tilt Train using 25 kV AC Overhead lines the same used on Auckland Electrification, and the NIMT Te Rapa-Palmerston North Electrification.

So could tilt trains be used here, Britomart to Hamilton is over 138.7km, at current there is a 87.1 km electrification gap from Papakura to Te Rapa & 60km gap if electrification to Puke goes ahead. An estimate of the cost of electrifying the former was $433m, however this was 2008 and the actual report is hard to track down. There is also a single track section between Te Kauwhata & Amokura that should also realistically be duplicated.

Interestingly I looked into CAF, who built our Class AM EMU’s, they offer tilt train technology which they call SIBI, recently they have provided 8 Diesel tilt trains to Sardinia for $88m NZD, so they have experience in designing and building using this technology.

So we have a few options depending on the level of works you want to do, however I will simplify to two as examples

  1. Go all out, finish the electrification, upgrade a few stations Huntly, Te Rapa, Hamilton (There is a underground station that exists however is closed at current, double track Te Kauwhata & Amokura, complete the 3rd main (At the very least to Westfield), plus complete any other signal/track upgrades needed. These upgrades minus the stations would benefit freight speed/capacity as well, and many would argue are needed eventually regardless of intercity passenger services being introduced. This would be a quick, clean, modern comfortable service, if built with good windows (Because everyone loves a view), in train wifi, USB charging in the seats, as well as passenger trays for a laptop to watch a movie/catch up on emails, this service could be very competitive with driving.
  2. Start Small, procure from CAF, or another company some DMU tilt trains, upgrade a few Waikato stations, double track Te Kauwhata & Amokura while completing any track/signal upgrades necessary. Over time add upgrades depending on success.

So what do you think, have something like the below running to/from Hamilton, could technology like this give the Expressway a run for its money?

RoNS 2.0 (again)

The idea of continuing the Waikato Expressway all the way to Tauranga including a tunnel under the Kaimai Ranges has once again been come up after Transport Minster Simon Bridges suggested the idea has some merit. Now apparently called the Kaimai Connection it is being pushed by a number government MPs from the region.

The Kaimai connection – completing the golden triangle between Waikato and the Bay of Plenty – is being discussed at the highest levels.

On Friday, Transport Minister Simon Bridges said he is encouraged by the idea.

“It is pretty hard to argue against, at least in principle, the idea of carrying it on to some degree to the Bay of Plenty,” said Bridges. “It is a very compelling idea to continue.”

Early in January, Hamilton City Councillor Martin Gallagher and National MP for Taupo Louise Upston called for an expressway between Hamilton and Tauranga to be prioritised.

“Of course, I’m not digging myself into any election promises at this stage, because there is a whole lot of planning and investment required,” Bridges said.

An article on the call by Martin Gallagher and Louise Upston for the road is here.

Another Government MP is supporting the call and he was also calling for it around five years ago

National’s Hamilton East MP, David Bennett agreed it is time to turn concept into reality.

“The next phase for the Waikato is to connect with the Bay of Plenty,” said Bennett. “We have an existing connection, but it certainly can be improved.”

Tauranga is ready for the next step, said Bennett, and by 2020, the Hamilton and Huntly sections of the Waikato Expressway would be complete.

Of course this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this project be raised. Almost exactly a year ago a fourth government MP was saying also the same thing.

A vehicle tunnel under the Kaimai Range needs to be considered with the same weight as a second harbour crossing in Auckland was given, Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller says.


He included an interesting analogy:

“I look at somebody like Sir Dove-Meyer Robinson. He looked at what Auckland could be “one million people by the turn of the century “and people scoffed at him.

And who was it that did the scoffing and cancelled Dove-Meyer Robinson’s plans again?

Five years ago when David Bennett was suggesting it he was also supported by the truck lobby – although they at least acknowledged it wasn’t something happening soon.

Road Transport Forum chief executive Ken Shirley said road transport operators thought a road tunnel could stack up economically within 20 years as freight grew and time and fuel costs were taken into account. “When we look at the future projections, all the modes of transport have to step up. The bulk will go by road. We believe it could well be that in the longer term a road tunnel through the Kaimais would be viable.”

So there’s a lot of support for the idea but does it stack up?

As I understand it the long term strategy from the NZTA is to make SH29 (and SH1) the main route connecting Tauranga, Hamilton and Auckland which is in part to get more trips on the Waikato Expressway which is currently being built. That would divert traffic off the SH2 route through the Karangahake Gorge and towns of Paeroa, Waihi and Katikati.

Kaimai Connection

If built as an expressway it would require something to be done about the steep grades on some parts of the road over the Kaimai Range and that’s where the tunnel comes in. Reports from a few years ago suggested the NZTA were looking at a number of tunnel options in three locations,

NZTA regional director Harry Wilson says one option involves building a road tunnel near the existing rail tunnel, another is building a tunnel near Thompsons Track, between Katikati and Apata. The third option, known as a summit-level tunnel, involves building a tunnel half-way up the existing alignment of State Highway 29.

So far 10 options have been identified in these three locations.

“To date, high-level cost estimates indicate the price for each option including approach roading would range from $1.5 to 2 billion,” Mr Wilson said.

“While we are not discounting the possibility of building a tunnel, the early indication from the cost-benefit analysis shows that the cost of building a tunnel could outweigh the benefits of the project.”

I don’t recall ever hearing what option they chose as the preferred one however I have heard the cost could be more than double the $2 billion figure suggested back then. The last statement about the costs outweighing the benefits is likely a massive understatement. The NZTA’s traffic stats indicate that SH29 over the Kaimais has only just reached an average of 10,000 vehicles per day within the last few months.

Kaimai Traffic Volumes

It’s a project that would make the Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing’s very weak business case look saintly and that’s with AWHC expected to induce up to 60,000 more vehicles a day to cross the harbour. The SH2 route through Waihi and the Karangahake Gorge just over 8,200 vehicles per day.

Back in 2012 the idea was added to the 2012-22 Government Policy Statement on transport as part of a list of potential future RoNS

28. Possible new routes have been identified through the State highway classification system. This system categorises State highways based on the function they perform, such as moving freight to and from ports or linking major population centres. The classification system provides a national consensus on the role and function of different State highways, and thus the levels of service that can be expected over a 20 year timeframe.

29. Routes that may be considered on this basis for future RoNS include:

  • Hamilton to Tauranga
  • Cambridge to Taupo
  • Napier to Hastings
  • State Highway 1 north and south of the current Christchurch motorway projects.

30. Based on the State highway classification system these four routes have high volumes of traffic, and are important for freight movements including port access.

Interestingly there was no mention of them at all in the 2015-25 GPS.

It seems to me that perhaps a key main reason these MPs are pushing for this project is that the Waikato Expressway will be completed in around four years and they are keen for more money to be poured into the Waikato which has had the second highest per capita spend on transport.

Spending - NZ - 2015 - Per Capita 3



From driving the route a few times per year I suspect there are a lot of much lower cost improvements that could make a big difference to issues like safety and travel times.


Hamilton Bypass to be Bypassed

The NZTA yesterday announced they’ve awarded a $1 billion contract to build another bypass of Hamilton and comes after they spent $200 million on the existing bypass at Te Rapa which opened three years ago. Construction won’t begin till next spring as the contract includes the detailed design work which will take place first.

A consortium of contractors and designers has been awarded a contract to build the biggest roading project to be undertaken in the Waikato, the NZ Transport Agency says.

The 21 kilometre long Hamilton section of the Waikato Expressway will be constructed by a group made up of Fletcher, Beca, Higgins and Coffey (FBHC), in an alliance with the Transport Agency.

The proposed design for the section includes five interchanges, 17 bridges and new connecting roads at Ruakura Road and Resolution Drive.

Waikato Expressway - Hamilton Bypass

As usual with these things there seems to be a fair amount of artistic licence that goes into the press releases. For example

The project is one of seven sections of the Waikato Expressway, a Road of National Significance (RoNS)identified by the Government as key to unlocking New Zealand’s potential for economic growth.

Once all seven sections are complete, the expressway is expected to cut travel times between Auckland and Tirau by up to 35 minutes and significantly improving safety.

So how much of that claimed 35 minute savings comes from this project and how much from the other sections that have already been completed or are under way? Including the time savings of other projects was one of the key criticisms of the NZTA by the board of inquiry that rejected the Basin Reserve Flyover in Wellington.


“The expressway connects inter-regional traffic with local destinations which is vital for the economy and for our vibrant communities. We have to get these things right and we can only do that if we partner up,” she says.

Hamilton Mayor Julie Hardaker says the project is important to growth and development in Hamilton and the wider Waikato region.

“We have been waiting in anticipation for completion of the Hamilton section of the expressway and it’s great to have this work now locked in,” she says.

“It is a fantastic project that will deliver considerable value to Hamilton’s economy and lifestyle.”

I’m not quite sure how a rural motorway out past the edge of town is going to do anything to make communities in Hamilton more vibrant and isn’t the point to allow traffic to bypass the city and get to or from Auckland faster. The project also isn’t likely to do much to the economy either. Even by 2041 some sections are still expected to have fewer than 10,000 vehicles per day using them – and that’s likely using the NZTAs often over-optimistic assumptions. Another way of putting that is it’s on par with what the old Kopu bridge carried back when it was a single lane bridge.


I suspect that if this section was assessed on it’s own it might be lucky to scrape above a BCR of 0.2

I wonder how liveable and vibrant Hamilton would be if $1 billion was spent on projects that more directly benefited locals?

The SH1/SH26 roundabout – what is going on?

In this recent post Matt asked why we were still building dangerous intersections. One part of his post caught my eye, specifically proposed changes to the intersection of SH1 and SH26 in the Waikato. The location of this intersection is shown below.

SH1 and SH26a


You can see that the intersection exists firmly within the Hamilton urban area. Moreover,  I understand the area to the east is planned for residential growth in the future. I.e. there will be more and more residential development to the east.

The reason this caught my eye is because the proposed changes, in my opinion, seem likely to result in a horrific clusterfuck of an intersection that will, at a minimum, destroy urban amenity and, potentially, result in pedestrian carnage. In my opinion, this roundabout design is completely inappropriate for an urban area. And unlike NZTA I don’t agree t hat potential delays to vehicles are sufficient reason to provide wholly unsatisfactory facilities for pedestrians. Facilities that are so lacking that they seem likely to increase the risk of injuries to pedestrians who need to cross at this intersection.

The proposed changes are illustrated below.

Hamilton SH1 -SH26 upgrade


Now I should mention that the NZTA press release for the changes mentions an additional pedestrian crossing is to be located on SH26 to the east, which I presume (although can’t be sure) is beyond the extent of works shown above. The press release also noted the presence of a pedestrian underpass on SH1 to the south, which is being retained in the new design.

What NZTA are proposing for the southern and eastern approaches to the roundabout is relatively poor practice and ill-suited to an urban area such as this.

But perhaps most importantly, the proposed pedestrian facilities don’t seem to address what happens on the western approach to the roundabout. As anyone can easily see from StreetView below, NZTA’s beautiful junkspace landscaping is *already* being severely trampled beneath the feet of hapless pedestrians as they scamper across the existing road. QED there’s an existing problem that needs to be resolved, not ignored as the proposed design has done.


Anyway, I was sufficiently motivated by this proposal to start digging for more information.

The background study for these intersection changes was completed in 2008. Given that it’s now almost 8 years since the study was completed, I thought I’d go and look at traffic volumes since that time. In the figure below I’ve totalled the AADT on the two closest counts on SH1 and SH26 over time (NB: This will double-count many vehicles, which is why the total AADT shown here is significantly higher than the figure of 37,000 vehicles per day using the intersection that is quoted in the NZTA in their press release. Nonetheless it’s likely to be broadly indicative of general trends in AADT).



The volumes bobble around a bit, although current AADT is about 3% below the level achieved in 2008, i.e. the time that the report supporting the proposed changes was developed. Is it reasonable to assume that vehicle volumes will increase or decrease from here?

Well, there’s some growth out this way so it’s plausible to suggest there may be more demand. On the other hand, there’s one major question that I’m not confident is addressed by the studies associated with this upgrade: The Waikato Expressway, specifically the Hamilton section.

For those who aren’t familiar with this project, it’s part of the RoNS programme.

While I’m no fan of the RoNS programme per se, if these projects are to go ahead then I would at least expect NZTA to maximise their potential benefits, especially with regards to re-configuring parallel routes to support more livable urban places. In this context, the Hamilton section of the Waikato Expressway is  high-speed, high-capacity route that seems likely to shift vehicles away from the existing SH1 and away from this roundabout. Construction of the Hamilton section is expected to start in 2016 with a target opening date of 2019.

I note that the NZTA website states that the Hamilton section of the expressway will:

  • Connect the Ngaruawahia section of the Expressway, completed in late 2013, to the Cambridge section, due for completion in late 2016.
  • Reduce traffic congestion and improve safety on Hamilton’s local road network by significantly reducing through traffic.”

And yet NZTA’s proposed changes to the SH1 and SH26 intersection (which appear to have been formulated prior to the RoN being confirmed) are designed to increase capacity.

One has to wonder why the NZ Transport Agency is spending $2 million to create a situation that is more dangerous for pedestrians than the present one, while at the same time spending the best part of half a billion dollars building a high-speed bypass around the same intersection.

Call me a simpleton if you will but I would have thought the more logical sequence of actions would be:

  1. Complete the Hamilton section of the Waikato Expressway in the next 3 years as planned; and
  2. Monitor changes to vehicle volumes in response to growth (which apparently is quite low at the moment) and expressway; and
  3. Develop options for the intersection which respond to these changes, but which are also appropriate for an urban area.

In terms of #3, this really brings us full circle. I cannot understand why NZTA would think the proposed design is appropriate for an urban area. I can tell you that in my opinion it’s most certainly not. While I’ll reserve my full and final judgment until I have more detailed information to consider, the proposed intersection seems to compromise pedestrian safety to a level bordering on negligence.

I know that’s a big call so let me present some reasons why:

  1. The design does not seem to meet the present need for a pedestrian crossing on the westbound SH1 approach, e.g. to access the adjacent school. There is already demand for this pedestrian movement, as we can see from StreetView. This demand will only increase as the area develops in the future.
  2. The approaches are wider than the current facility. The western approach on SH1 , for example, is three lanes wide. This will increase the distance pedestrians will have to cross before they reach the landscaped sliver of land in the middle of the road.
  3. The design incorporates features that seem likely to increase vehicle speeds. The western approach on SH1, for example, now includes what is effectively a “slip lane” for vehicles travelling through. This features will enable/encourage vehicles to maintain their speed on their approach to (and exit from) the intersection. This will increase risks to pedestrians who (legitimately) need to cross the western approach, and the severity of accidents.

I draw two *preliminary* conclusions from all this. First, the proposed changes to the intersection is unacceptably dangerous for pedestrians and should not proceed as designed. Second, the proposed intersection has been designed without consideration of the Waikato Expressway and thus are likely to represent poor value for money and low strategic fit.

I’d really like to know what others think: Am I mis-reading the situation here? Or is it as bad as it looks? An outdated and seemingly dangerous design being imposed on what is very much an urban area, just prior to a major expressway bypass opens? What is going on?

Move to the Waikato?

The Prime Minister has suggested a new solution to housing problems in Auckland

If you can’t afford a house in Auckland the prime minister has some advice for you – head to Waikato.

John Key was in the region yesterday for a less controversial cup of tea at Zealong Tea Estate, before heading up to Pokeno to see what he made of growth in the area.

In an interview with the Waikato Times he said moving south of New Zealand’s biggest city ought to be a “serious consideration” for buyers struggling to find the cash for Auckland homes.

“They pay less for their home so obviously they’re going to pay more to commute. It’s a tradeoff that people decide all around the world and it will give them a far higher quality of home at a lower price,” he said.

Key said the option would be particularly attractive to those who could work from home.

He added that the Waikato Expressway made it a “really legitimate option, especially for people who work in the southern part of [Auckland] city”.

If living in the Waikato and commuting were really an option for a lot of people I think we’d already have seen a lot more of it than we do. The reality is even if a person worked in South Auckland they’re still guaranteed to be locking themselves into a long daily commute, even if there wasn’t any traffic. Long commutes can impact on people’s quality of life, especially if that commute is unproductive while sitting behind a wheel.

What would make such an idea much more viable was if there was a decent and quality rail service linking at least Hamilton and Auckland. We’ve looked at a Hamilton to Auckland train service a few times in the past including most recently here and here.

Upper North island intercity rail tight frame-01

Where I differ from some of my fellow bloggers on this issue is that I don’t feel that just starting up even a bare bones service now will be that useful in providing realistic choice to people. Instead however a concerted effort was put into improving the rail network to allow for travel time of around 1½ hours between Hamilton and Britomart then it could be a significant game changer. To do that we’d need to see improvements such as the proposed 3rd (and maybe even a 4th) main line through Auckland, the CRL to free up space in Britomart, a number of track improvements along the route and some trains capable of speeds higher than 80-100kph. The good thing is with most of the infrastructure already in place such improvements probably aren’t super expensive and likely far less than a single section of the Waikato Expressway.

Of course all of this is predicated on the basis that people want to live miles from Auckland. Some of course want to but many more would probably prefer to live much closer if there were more opportunities to do so. The lack of a range of different housing choices helps push people to the edge of our cities however John Key sees this situation as something people want:

But whether or not people heeded his advice, the prime minister predicted that the flood of those choosing to live on the outskirts of Auckland was unlikely to slow. His words come as official channels signal more unease over the state of super-city house prices. Reserve Bank Governor Graeme Wheeler said yesterday that he was concerned about a “sharp correction, leading to financial instability”.

Interestingly Graeme Wheeler also said this.

In Auckland, much more needs to be done, especially in creating opportunities for residential construction in Auckland central.

New Waikato and Bay of Plenty motorways confirmed

The NZ Herald reports:

This afternoon Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee is expected to announce funding for two transformational roading projects. A $4 billion four lane motorway between Cambridge and Taupo, extending the Waikato Expressway a further 100 kilometres to the south and an $8 billion 50km motorway from Cambridge to Tauranga which includes a 14km road tunnel. Both projects were hinted at in the 2012 Government Policy Statement for Land Transport Funding. He will announce the projects at a ceremony to celebrate the extension of rail electrification into Britomart station. 

“These are critical projects for improving freight efficiency in the North Island,” says Mr Brownlee in a leaked copy of his speech. “While we realise a near $12 billion investment in two roads that each carries fewer vehicles than the Kopu Bridge did when it was still one lane may appear to some as slight overkill, we think that those opposing the project just oppose progress and want us to return to dirt tracks and horse carts.”

NZ Transport Agency Regional Director Harry Wilson said his office was in celebration mode over the Minister’s announcements. “Once the Waikato Expressway project is finished in a few years’ time, we really didn’t know what we’d do with ourselves as we’ve lived and breathed that project for the past decade or more. We’re so pleased to see the government commit to the future of the Southern Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions – even though combined they’re not really growing – which will keep us in work for many years to come!”

Mr Wilson also noted that his organisation had been instrumental in pushing for the inclusion of the two projects in the 2012 Government Policy Statement and were “enthused” the project had been given funding approval. “We’ve learned a lot from our Wellington office in the past few years about the tactics of getting unnecessary projects in parts of New Zealand that aren’t growing over the line. We’re just so proud to have come up with the two biggest and most expensive projects ever imagined in New Zealand and now have funding approval for it!” Mr Wilson added.

Minister Brownlee noted in his speech that “Much like other Roads of National Significance, the Cambridge to Taupo and Tauranga motorways will duplicate an existing route where upgrades to that road could achieve most of the benefits for a fraction of the cost, but frankly upgrading what we’ve got is just boring – I want more motorways!”

Traffic counts between Tokoroa and Taupo on State Highway 1 show a slight increase in daily vehicle volumes from 6500 in 2009 to 6700 in 2013. Mr Wilson noted that “our traffic modelling suggests traffic volumes will increase to 60,000 cars a day in the next 5 years – almost all of which will be trucks!”

On State Highway 29 over the Kaimai Ranges traffic had also slightly increased, growing from 9200 vehicles per day in 2009 to 9300 in 2013. In the next five years this route is expected to increase to over 80,000 vehicles per day. The high number of trucks is said to be a key part of the decision to construct a tunnel under the Kaimai Ranges which was first investigated by the NZTA in 2010.

Local politicians unanimously supported the project when spoken to.

South Waikato District’s mayor Neil Sinclair said the projects would boost the economic productivity of his region significantly and wasn’t worried about the impact of the new motorway bypassing Tokoroa. “Look at Pokeno, it recovered a mere 15 years after being bypassed by the Waikato Expressway,” stated Mr Sinclair.

Taupo District Council’s mayor David Trewavas also stated his strong support for the project. “We’re about an hour and a half south of the thriving metropolis of Hamilton. This motorway will cut that time by at least a minute or two, which will be transformational to our economy. A local resident walking past added that they “didn’t care what was built, as long as it meant the money couldn’t be spent in Auckland.”

New Zealand Road Transport Forum chief executive Ken Shirley said the two roads were great news and would allow trucks to even compete better with Kiwirail, especially on the Tauranga to Auckland route. “Everyone knows that the wider population and other road users subsidising trucking is a great investment and these two projects will be great for that” he said.

Details of the project’s exact route, the timing of construction and how it will be funded have yet to be determined but when questioned, Mr Brownlee said he was optimistic the money could be found for such important additions to state highway infrastructure in the Upper North Island. “Hey we could always push that silly rail loop under Auckland’s city centre back a few more years,” Mr Brownlee shouted at reporters while leaving the airport for Britomart station in a Crown limousine.

A business case for the motorway projects is expected to be presented to Cabinet for funding approval next Monday.

Cambridge to Taupo and Tauranga motorways

Portugal’s Ghost Roads

In the comments, “Handlebars Matt” provided a link to this video about how nobody is using Portugal’s motorway system – which was built at vast cost over the past decade:

I often fear that this is the future for many of the Roads of National Significance that are either under construction or due to begin construction in the next few years. Particular candidates for incredibly low levels of use seem to be:

  • Puhoi-Warkworth. Due to the new road not being much faster than what’s currently there, the Puhoi ramps providing a link between the existing Northern Gateway Road (which does provide a significant time saving) and the existing SH1 likely to be faster and cheaper for most people compared to a toll road that doesn’t even connect well to Warkworth and requires people to double back through the messy Hill Street intersection to get to the eastern beaches.
  • Tauranga Eastern Link. We all know the history of toll roads in Tauranga and I struggle to see how this won’t be another empty toll road offering drivers little incentive to use it rather than the existing route.
  • Hamilton bypass. Current projections only see 7,000 vehicles using a section of this $890 million section of the Waikato Expressway by 2021. This route seems unlikely to be tolled but will still be something of a “ghost road” even if the notoriously optimistic projections are correct.

The same might be true of many parts of the Wellington RoNS, although if they are “successful” and attract traffic the main impact will be worse congestion in downtown Wellington and reduced use of the railway line.

A shame we won’t be able to learn from Portugal until many billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money has been wasted.

Other RoNS to cut back?

Yesterday’s announcement by NZTA that they are scaling back the Otaki to Levin section of the Wellington Northern Corridor Road of National Significance, from a four-lane highway to an upgrade of the existing road, has some really interesting implications – as Matt commented on in his post last night. Perhaps the assumption that RoNS = new four lane highway has finally been broken and we can start to approach the transport area in a slightly more rational way.

Of course there are plenty of other bits of the RoNS programme which ought to be considered in a much more sensible way, as NZTA has managed with Otaki to Levin. Matt’s post discussed the infamous Puhoi-Wellsford road as a clear candidate – with the Warkworth to Wellsford section being a complete no brainer. Furthermore, a comment from “Watcher” on an earlier post suggests that NZTA may even be looking at staging the Puhoi-Warkworth section of the road – and doing the Warkworth bypass section first. Just as proposed in Operation Lifesaver, thought up by our former admin Josh. Here are the relevant bits of Watcher’s comment:

I have heard that NZTA are looking at splitting Puhoi-Warkworth into at least 3 sections with the first section to be built being Warkworth to somewhere around Perry Rd.  This would effectively act as a Warkworth bypass (non-tolled) until, at some later stage, they can link up with Puhoi. Given that this first stage has few cuts, fills and viaducts it would possibly be one of the cheaper to build – but one of the more expensive when it comes to the cost of property purchase – something which I believe is giving NZTA a bit of headache because NZTA don’t have the budget for property purchases – certainly not the numbers who wish to paid out sooner rather than later.

We certainly await with interest to see if this is true. Perhaps with Gerry Brownlee not micro-managing NZTA to the same extent as Steven Joyce did, they are able to actually do their job much more now and be a bit more sensible around the staging of projects.

Looking a bit further south though, I wonder whether there are other projects which may benefit from a more sensible approach to the RoNS programme. While there are some sensible bits to the Waikato Expressway project, there are also some incredibly expensive bits to it as well – which just seem a bit unjustifiable if you look at their details. Let’s take a look at the Hamilton bypass section for example – which is shown in the map below:

This section of the Waikato Expressway is 21.8 km long and comes at the eye-watering price tag of $890 million. Now I hate driving through Hamilton as much as the next person, but some fairly decent bypass routes already exist (SH39 to the west, SH1B or SH27 to the east). Is it really worth the money?

Looking in a bit more detail at the plans for this route, it becomes clear that – once again – bits of the proposed route make sense, but other parts seem to not require anything like a super-expensive motorway standard road. Let’s take a look at the daily traffic volumes for 2021, which is a couple of years after the route is proposed to open:

You’ll see that I’ve circled a bit of the proposed highway that has what I think are pretty low traffic volumes for what’s proposed to be a four-lane motorway. By way of comparison, in 2010 the Kopu Bridge had just under 10,000 vehicles a day across it – when it was still a single lane bridge controlled by traffic lights at each end! You would think it might be far more sensible to extend the semi-bypass that’s being built in the west part of Hamilton rather than duplicate this with a super gold plated road to the east which isn’t even going to see much traffic.

To hammer this point home a little further, the traffic projections for 2041 still show pretty low volumes for the section of road mentioned above (and remember NZTA are likely to be extremely optimistic in their projecting of future volumes): The 2041 volumes reinforce that bits of the project are necessary, but suggest that there are likely to be far more cost-effective options available than a full motorway – considering the vehicular volumes are still pretty low on some sections. It does appear as though most traffic is travelling to Hamilton – either from the north or from the south – rather than completely bypassing it. I imagine this is because of other existing bypass routes further to the east and west. Google maps suggests, for example, that the best routes from Auckland to Wellington or Auckland to Taupo go nowhere near Hamilton.

Perhaps it was with good reason that the SAHA assessment of the RoNS package gave the Waikato Expressway such a poor cost-benefit ratio:
I suspect that similar observations could be made about many more of the RoNS projects.

Edit: This is the blog’s 2000th published post. Woohoo!

Rod Oram on the holiday highway

A really interesting article by Rod Oram in the Sunday Star Times today, discussing the cost effectiveness of the government’s various roading projects. Here are a few sections:

The government told owners of 55 properties last week that their homes or other buildings could be bulldozed to make way for its $1.65 billion Puhoi to Wellsford motorway. It was a tragedy for the owners.

But what if the motorway was also a tragedy for 1.4 million Aucklanders?

It could well be. The motorway will significantly distort development patterns, thereby blighting the region. It will help push urban development out to 85km north of Auckland’s CBD over coming decades.

This will exacerbate Auckland’s weakness as a sprawling city, with dire economic consequences. Worldwide evidence shows lower density means higher infrastructure costs, favouring private over public transport and a weaker network effect. People living and working closely together generate greater wealth than those spread out.

This matter is one that made me originally opposed to the Puhoi-Wellsford project, even before I had a clue about how poor its cost-effectiveness was going to be. Over the past decade Auckland has tried really hard to change its pattern of growth from very expensive and inefficient sprawl to a more compact model based around maximising the efficiency of our existing infrastructure and reducing congestion through providing better public transport. The problem is that our transport policies haven’t changed, and have generally worked against these attempts. Building the Puhoi-Wellsford road would undoubtedly further undermine efforts to contain Auckland’s urban sprawl – bringing much of northern Rodney into the ‘commuter belt’. As an ARC study undertaken earlier this year showed, such development patterns are incredibly expensive, inefficient and generally achieve the worst economic outcomes.

Oram then turns to the economic cost-effectiveness of this particular project:

In fact, the government knew last year the motorway was uneconomic, according to the cost/benefit analysis done for it. Likewise, the Waikato Expressway and Wellington to Levin motorway were uneconomic under conventional analysis.

That was very embarrassing for the government. After all, the three projects account for almost half of its $11b, 10-year Roads of National Significance programme. And the analysis showed speeding up the projects, which the government promises, would reduce the benefits.

These were political problems it created for itself. It announced the seven roads in March 2009, nine months before it received the economic analysis. It didn’t like the analysis, so spent another seven months getting the answers it wanted, according to documents coming to light.

Transport Minister Steven Joyce is proud of the government’s work ethic. “No work had been done on this project prior to it being confirmed as a road of national significance last year so this is great progress,” he said last week when announcing the route for the first stage from Puhoi.

The government got its unwelcome news about its uneconomic road projects in the work it commissioned from SAHA, an Australian-based consultancy. SAHA’s December 2009 report, billed as its final one, showed the conventional cost/benefit ratio of the Puhoi to Wellsford project was 0.4, meaning for every $1 invested the return was 40c; the Waikato Expressway’s was 0.5 and the Wellington Northern Corridor 0.9.

These were very poor results, even by this conventional form of analysis which is notorious for underestimating costs (for example, the cost of owning and operating a vehicle on the roads is not included, neither is adequate analysis of the impact of rising fuel costs on road use); and the benefits are overstated (for example, vehicle emissions are deemed to fall thanks to free-flowing traffic, apparently delivering a saving in greenhouse gases versus vehicles stuck in traffic jams).

Moreover the analysis is very weak in its handling of induced growth – new roads create more demand so over time traffic slows, costs rise and benefits fall.

In total the ratio for the seven RoNS projects was 1.9 under the conventional analysis, thanks to the Victoria Park Tunnel and Waterview Connection in Auckland substantially bumping up the overall value. But under the accelerated programme the government is pushing, it fell to 1.5.

So there’s a study out there showing that Puhoi-Wellsford’s real cost-benefit ratio is actually 0.4, rather than the 0.8 that a decidedly dodgy SKM Business Case concluded? Why am I not surprised? I must try to get my hands on this SAHA report – as the only version I’ve seen amalgamates the BCRs of all the different projects – something that’s essentially meaningless.

After discussing matters related to the calculation of wider-economic benefits, Oram finishes his excellent article by saying this:

Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch are trying to cope with growth. They have just elected mayors and councils who believe some of the solutions are more public transport and more compact urban forms.

In contrast, the government has said bluntly it believes the opposite is true. It sees the future as a continuation of the past – more roads, more sprawl. And it is investing $11b to deliver that, not only straining government finances to do so, particularly between 2013 and 2018, but also grabbing funding from local roads and other forms of transport and skewing the analysis against them.

Thanks to the Waikato Expressway and Puhoi to Wellsford motorway, urban and peri-urban Auckland will spread 150km from north to south in coming decades. Yet, there is no room to build any more roads through the Auckland isthmus. Thus the region has to have more public transport, particularly rail. But lower density induced by $3b of uneconomic road building makes the case for it even harder.

The only solution is for the government to come clean, park its road prejudice and sit down with our three biggest cities to discuss how we can do urban development much better. If it doesn’t, our shambling cities will be to the Key government what Think Big was to Muldoon’s.

It’s pretty easy to think of better ways to spend that $3 billion.