As I have mentioned in a couple of recent posts, I am extremely worried that a lot of the work going on at the moment in planning important transport projects (like AMETI) and large-scale land-use planning projects (like Flat Bush) is ignoring one of the most important pieces in the puzzle of sorting out land-use and transport planning in a huge swathe of Auckland: its southeast.
By southeast Auckland I am referring to the area east of the Tamaki River, and right down to where Te Irirangi Drive links in with Manukau City. This includes the suburbs of Howick, Pakuranga, Highland Park, Botany, Dannemora, Flat Bush and others. This area has experienced huge growth and development over the past 20-30 years, but has almost no public transport infrastructure (and pretty poor general roading linkages with the rest of Auckland). In response to the utterly unacceptable current situation, most of Auckland’s long term transport plans and strategies propose a “Rapid Transit Network” (RTN) corridor between Manukau City in the south and Panmure in the north – linking together with Flat Bush, Botany and Pakuranga. This is shown in ARTA’s Auckland Transport Plan:
As you can see it’s all spelled out pretty clearly in the Auckland Transport Plan, and basically the same route gets mention in the ARC’s 2010-2040 Regional Land Transport Strategy, although the RLTS does go one step further in its consideration of this RTN by stating this: I must say as soon as I hear the words “future proofed for light-rail” a huge red flag, flashing lights and a siren starts wailing inside my head that it’s complete and utter rubbish. Most of the things that have been future-proofed for light rail in Auckland have been done so to a vastly sub-standard level, and furthermore why the heck would we want light-rail out there? What would it link into? Would it be faster and of a higher capacity than buses? If not, why would we bother? If so, how much extra would it cost to go to heavy rail and actually link in with the existing rail system at Panmure and Manukau? I really do wonder whether any thought has gone into answering these questions.
In my mind, the huge problem with this RTN being ‘bus-based’ is the issue of “what the heck do we do at Panmure?” If we build a busway (which is what a bus-based RTN is, simple bus lanes do not constitute an RTN), then that’s going to be a pretty difficult and expensive project. There is no protected corridor anywhere near where that dotted line runs, so we’re going to have to get rid of quite a large number of houses to build this busway – so given its length we’re definitely looking at a $500 million+ project I think, if not double that (the final cost would depend largely on how we deal with Te Irirangi Drive). So we spend a huge amount of money to ship a lot of people to Panmure (and Manukau City, which is a bit more useful), but then what? We are effectively left with three options:
- We build a busway between Panmure and the CBD, right next to the existing railway line. This option is expensive and seems really stupid, given the railway line is right there, but would probably be the fastest bus option.
- We have bus lanes along Ellserlie-Panmure Highway and Great South Road and send all our buses that way into Newmarket and eventually into the CBD. This option is clearly cheaper than option one, but whereas it takes a train around 16 minutes to travel between Panmure and Britomart, at peak time it takes the 680/681 bus around 35 minutes to make that journey. So this option is around 20 minutes slower.
- We get everyone to transfer onto a train at Panmure. In the shorter term this seems like the most viable option, although it obviously depends on integrated ticketing being up and running, and the trains coming frequently enough for the transfer to be relatively painless. However, in the longer term – if this southeast RTN really comes off and is popular, we are going to end up with an awful lot of people transfering from the bus onto trains at Panmure. And there may well very much not be the available capacity on those trains (which would have already come all the way up from Manukau City) to cater for full bus-loads of passengers arriving every 2-3 minutes.
Option three clearly makes the most sense in the short-to-medium term, but in the longer term I really do think that you’re going to get problems capacity wise. One of the main reasons for this is that between Manukau and Westfield, the Southern Line and the Eastern Line share the same tracks (or will do so once Manukau is open). If we run trains on both lines at 10 minute frequencies, then that’s manageable as you have a train every 5 minutes on the combined stretch. However, if you need a lot more trains on the Eastern line to cater for passengers getting on the line at Panmure, then either you need to start “short running” quite a few trains between Panmure and Britomart (and all the scheduling havoc that would create) or you start to get trains at 2-3 minute frequencies on that Westfield to Manukau stretch of the line, which could be quite a problem.
So in the longer term I don’t think that’s going to work. Furthermore, while I am a big fan of designing a a public transport system around transfers rather than one which avoids transfer at all costs, there is certainly a limit to this being acceptable to PT users – and that limit is probably somewhere around the one transfer only level. This also becomes problematic if we stick with our “everyone change at Panmure” policy, because chances are many people would have already transferred onto the southeast busway (or whatever it’s called) at Pakuranga station, Botany station or Flat Bush station. Taking Flat Bush as an example, my recent post showed that the Flat Bush town centre is going to be at least a kilometre away from a future rapid transit station site, while most of the extra 40,000 people anticipated to live in Flat Bush will be further away again. That’s not walking distance, so it’s likely that feeder buses will be necessary to make the system work. The same for Botany Town Centre (which is surrounded by carparks more than anything else) and Pakuranga too. Even given the speed advantages of a busway between Panmure and Manukau, and utilising the very quick Eastern Line, I think that forcing potential passengers to transfer twice is probably one step too far.
Given this situation, my opinion is that there really is only one long-term solution to the “southeast Auckland RTN problem”, and that is a full heavy rail line. This is my preferred alignment for that line: A few things probably jump to mind immediately when looking at that alignment. I’ll work through them:
- But it goes to Glen Innes, not Panmure. This is my solution to the very vexed problem of how a railway corridor could be squeeze amongst the existing bridges that cross over the Tamaki River in the vicinity of Panmure, and also how it could fit in with the Eastern railway line at Panmure without wreaking havoc. This alignment also makes the line much more useful for people living in Howick, Bucklands Beach, Highland Park and other areas. Pakuranga misses out on a station, but I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Highland Park could become a useful transit-oriented development.
- How would you cross the Tamaki River? Well either by bridge or tunnel I think. A bridge would obviously be cheaper, although effects on the estuary’s visual amenity might make that a challenge (unless it was a very pretty bridge). The estuary is fairly shallow around there, so a tunnel might not be that problematic.
- Don’t you take out a lot of houses? Well interestingly enough, the answer is “no”. The line, with a couple of tunnels, manages to miss a lot of housing – although it would impact on green spaces to a greater extent. For a more detailed look at the route’s alignment, have a look here.
- Wouldn’t it be hugely expensive? Well of course, but at a guess I would say around 150,000 people live out in this part of Auckland, and another 40,000-50,000 are likely to live out here in the future. They need to get to other parts of Auckland, their current public transport options are extremely poor – whereas this proposal would provide a trip between Britomart and Botany Town centre of under half an hour. This compares with a peak hour car trip of perhaps around an hour – so I think it would be popular. Furthermore, any RTN route out here is going to be expensive because past planners were incredibly stupid and never protected a route, so even if this does cost twice what a busway would cost, if it attracts three times as many users – it’s probably worthwhile.
So that is my suggested solution to “the southeast RTN problem”. I know that the “powers to be” in ARTA and other organisations seem to have different ideas about how to implement this RTN, (or are just sticking their heads in the sand, dumping it in the “too hard basket” and ignoring the issue) but I really think this idea has merit, and is the only one that doesn’t potentially run into “fatal flaw” problems that I believe many of the alternatives suffer from.