It’s easy for one to plan dream rail networks for Auckland – heck I tend to do it all the time. And indeed, in the longer run I think it will be necessary for Auckland to embark upon a significant expansion of the rail network, starting with the CBD rail loop. However, I also think it would be worthwhile for me to talk a bit about the current upgrades to the rail network, especially as many of the projects currently underway will be completed in the next year or so.
Most of the upgrades we see underway at the moment, or completed over the last few years, have come out of the 2006 ARTA Rail Development Plan. The plan looked at the future of the railway network, both over the next ten years (2006-2016) and then further into the future. The one upgrade that wasn’t really mentioned in the 2006 plan, but has subsequently developed, is the electrification of the network. Electrification will provide some certainty about having modern trains in the future, and will also certainly make future expansion of the network a lot easier – and the trains a lot more efficient. So it will certainly provide excellent support of what was proposed in the Rail Development Plan.
The image to the left show the rail network as it was in 2006. The infrastructure hasn’t changed much since then, although service levels have been increased – particularly on the Western Line. Double-tracking of the Western Line is also now mainly complete – with only short sections around New Lynn and between Boston Road and Newmarket still remaining.
For those not familiar with Auckland’s rail network, there are basically two lines: the Western Line and the Southern/Eastern Line. Between Quay Park Junction and Westfield the Southern/Eastern line splits into two – the Eastern Line and the Southern Line. Some services terminate at Otahuhu (usually Eastern Line services I think). The Western Line runs completely separate, to the others, except for between Newmarket and Quay Park Junction, where it shares the line with the Southern Line. All lines share the same two tracks between Quay Park Junction and Britomart – the cause of most of the problems we have with the rail system here in Auckland!
In 2006 this system was almost at capacity – due to the relatively low number of trains that ran, but also because some parts of the system (particularly the single-track sections of the Western Line) made it very difficult to increase the number of trains running – even if there had been more trains available to operate on the system (which there was not). The Rail Development Plan details these constraints:
The limits on Auckland’s rail network are:
• The capacity of services is constrained by the number of trains available
• The frequency of services is constrained by the number of tracks and the signalling system capacity, and other improvements necessary if more and faster trains were utilised on the network
• The extent of services is constrained by the location of rail corridors and rolling stock
• The quality of service is constrained by old infrastructure and signalling, and the standard of stations and trains
Without further upgrades, the rail network was considered likely to reach a maximum capacity of 8 million passengers a year within the very near future. One could argue that this capacity was subsequently reached, particularly in winter last year due to the very high petrol prices.
The first steps in expanding Auckland’s rail network, to take place between 2006 and 2016, are outlined in the image to the left. The main changes are completion of double-tracking, the added Manukau Branch and also increased frequencies across the whole network. Subsequent to this plan, the Onehunga Line was included in the plan for reopening. This would add 2 tph between Onehunga (linking into the Southern Line just north of Westfield) and Britomart.
Most of these upgrades are due to be completed within the next couple of years. We heard news on the Manukau Branch just a few days ago, and the Onehunga Branch about a week and a half ago. Both should hopefully be open by the end of next year. Completion of the Western Line’s double-tracking should also be done by next year, when the New Lynn trench project is finished. The hugely upgraded Newmarket station should also be completed by the end of this year – allowing for greater train frequencies to pass through what used to be a pretty nasty bottleneck. Add to this the electrification works, and by 2013 we should have the network outlined in the image, plus the Onehunga Line, completed to a pretty high standard.
I guess the question is then where to from there? Will that network really be sufficient to get us through to 2016? Well, according to the patronage estimations outlined in the image below, by 2016 we should be expecting around 16 million passenger trips per year on the rail network – around twice current levels.
I’m still left with a couple of question about this though – firstly ‘can the network shown above actually handle 16 million passenger trips per year?’ and secondly ‘how accurate is that estimate?’ To deal with my first question, it certainly doesn’t seem like we’re going to be doubling the number of trains on the network to carry this doubled patronage level. It seems like a lot of places are going from having 4 tph to 6 tph. I guess longer trains should help – with trains going from having 4 carriages to 6 carriages, so perhaps those two combined will be enough to get us through to 16 million passengers a year without ending up crammed in like sardines. The second issue, the accuracy of the estimates, is quite necessary in my opinion. The modelling system used to determine patronage growth does not seem to take into account rising petrol prices (likely to act as a push factor away from driving and towards using public transport) and doesn’t take into account the likely patronage boost that electrification should provide. I estimate there will be around 7.6 million rail passenger journeys in the 2008/09 year (based on the May 2009 ARTA monthly business report) whereas the graph above seems to estimate between 6.5 and 7 million passenger trips for that year – so we’re already up on projections by about a million trips a year!
The image to the left shows where ARTA thinks rail developments between 2016 and 2030 are likely to occur. The big changes are the CBD rail loop (the blue lines linking Britomart with the Western Line via Wellesley Street etc.), a potential link between Onehunga and the airport and a potential link between Onehunga and Avondale.
This system would allow Auckland to break through the 16 million trips per annum cap that not having these improvements would create. The key change is the CBD rail loop, which would remove the Britomart bottleneck that even ARTA admits will choke the network from 2016 onwards (I think it might choke the system sooner than that, and remember 2016 is only seven years away!) The Rail Development Plan has this to say about the network upgrades that may be required in the 2016-2030 timeframe:
An underground CBD loop
With the Core Network Upgrade complete, an obvious shortcoming in the Auckland rail network will be the fact that services terminate at Britomart, at the bottom end of the CBD. Constructing an underground loop under the CBD, with stations at Wellesley Street and Karangahape Road, would have significant benefits to commuters and encourage even more people to use Passenger Transport. Furthermore, because Britomart would become a through station rather than a terminus, it would operate more efficiently, making it possible to increase the number of services. Overseas experience shows that significant increased economic activities occur in CBDs with high-capacity Rapid Transit systems.
New rail lines between Avondale and Southdown line paralleling State Highway 20 and to Auckland International Airport may also be completed by 2030. However, these projects have not been developed sufficiently for them to be included in the Rail Development Plan at present.
Start the planning now
Auckland will keep growing. Because of the lead times involved in the major projects required so that Passenger Transport can keep pace with that growth, ARTA intends to start work now on plans for the next generation of service and infrastructure improvements.
While I don’t think the 2030 plan goes far enough (I have suggested two options for what the 2030 network should look like) it is good to know that at least there is a long-term plan out there. I just hope that the third point outlined above – Start the Planning Now – doesn’t get ignored. I do seriously suspect that future demand projections are under-estimates, and I do question whether the 2016 network would really be able to handle 16 million passengers a year. Electrification aside, we should have most of the 2016 network in place by the end of next year, so it will be interesting to see what happens to patronage levels. It will also be interesting to see whether the network can cope.
Well in the end the 2006-2016 plan it shown below. Already the government has stuffed it up to some extent by not getting on with ordering the electric trains fast enough (the ARC was ready to go in March):