A few commenters have been saying that to continue to build public pressure for the “City Rail Link” project, it’s necessary to articulate in layman’s terms the benefits of the project. This is particularly in terms of explaining its potential benefits for people who don’t live or work in the CBD. In my 147 posts on this project over the last couple of years I have developed quite a good understanding of the project so here’s my attempt at providing a useful “Q & A” section on the project, what its benefits will be and why I think it’s so important.
What is the City Rail Link Project?
The rail link project is a 3.5 kilometre twin track railway tunnel that will extend from Britomart train station, under Albert Street, Vincent Street, Pitt Street and across to Newton before linking up with the existing Western Railway Line near Mt Eden station. It includes three underground stations: one under Albert Street between Victoria and Wellesley Streets; one under the corner of Karangahape Road and Pitt Street and a third under the intersection of Newton Road, Symonds Street and Khyber Pass Road. This is (roughly) shown in red in the map below: How much does the Rail Link project cost, and why is it so expensive?
The cost of the rail tunnel itself is estimated at just under $2 billion. This includes 3.5 kilometres of two-track underground rail tunnel and three underground stations. A significant proportion of the cost is in the stations, some of which will be 20-30 metres below ground. The costs are approximately similar to other underground railway projects around the world, which are often very expensive because they are constructed in a very constrained environment. Further costs of up to $300 million might be necessary to purchase additional trains and undertake additional infrastructure elsewhere on the rail system, to take advantage of the larger number of trains that can operate in Auckland when the tunnel’s built.
What’s the point of the tunnel? Why do we need it?
Because every train that enters Britomart must also leave via the same two-track tunnel, the number of trains that can get in and out of the station is limited to around 20 in and 20 out per hour. By February next year we will have reached this capacity, with trains running at 10 minute frequencies on the Western, Eastern and Southern Lines – plus two trains an hour from Onehunga. Although we will have longer trains from 2013 when the electric trains arrive, until the City Rail Link is built it will be impossible to run any more trains into and out of Britomart: effectively we’re forever limited to nothing better than 10 minute frequencies on the rail system.
Further to this, the additional stations throughout the city will provide much better rail access to central and southern parts of the CBD, while the tunnel will also significantly speed up journey times from the west, slicing more than 10 minutes off a trip from New Lynn to downtown.
But I don’t work in the CBD, why should I care about the project?
Without the rail tunnel we can never run trains at frequencies of better than one every 10 minutes on the main lines. Therefore, the usefulness of the entire rail system will forever be limited without this project and over time the trains will become more and more crowded – pushing people back into their cars and back onto buses, clogging up roads throughout the entire region. With the tunnel in place, trains could probably run up to a frequencies of one service every three or four minutes: like a European Metro.
A modernised high-frequency rail system will encourage more and more people to catch the train, thereby greatly assisting in unclogging Auckland’s roads, no matter where you live or work. Each peak time rail trip in Auckland is calculated as generating $17 in road user benefits through reduced congestion.
But I live on the North Shore and we don’t even have trains, why should I care about the project?
The central city clearly has no ability to keep handling more and more traffic, and many past attempts to increase its traffic capacity have had pretty bad effects on the quality of the downtown (Mayoral Drive, Hobson Street, Nelson Street etc.) As the city centre grows over time, without the tunnel the streets will become more and more clogged with buses and cars – including for people travelling to and from the North Shore.
The tunnel enables most buses from the west and south to be turned into feeder services to the train network, freeing up space for cars and buses from areas without rail: like the North Shore. Faster and more convenient rail travel for those in the west, eastern isthmus and south should also take many thousands of cars off the road at peak time, significantly reducing congestion throughout the region. Over time, as the Northern Busway (which carries around 40% of people heading to work down SH1 each morning) requires upgrading to rail, the City Rail Link will be one option for how that line links into the rest of the rail system.
Why does the government’s numbers for the project differ so much from Auckland’s numbers?
The process for calculating whether an investment is ‘worth it’ is very complex, particularly for transport projects where complicated traffic modelling is an important part of this process. Essentially, the government’s analysis made a number of assumptions that were different to what Auckland’s analysis did: the key one being that the government thinks the inner-city’s streets can handle twice the buses and 10,000 more cars at peak times than they do now. Auckland’s analysis thought that not only was this impossible, but also that it went against all their plans to create a more pedestrian focused city centre. Therefore, Auckland’s analysis said that from 2024 the only way to get more people into the city centre was on the rail network.
There was also some debate between the parties about the effect of the project on employment numbers in the city centre, with the government being more sceptical of the project’s impact. Internationally, similar rail projects tend to stimulate significant economic development downtown but ultimately nobody knows the real answer to this question – only time will tell.
The two graphs below compare the estimated number of people arriving in the city centre in the morning peak in 2041: the first are the numbers put together by APB&B that were used in the business case and the second graph is the MoT’s estimates: As well as MoT being much more sceptical about increased numbers of people entering the CBD, the other main difference is that MoT doesn’t think the rail tunnel will be as attractive once built. Personally I think both sets of figures vastly over-estimate the ability of the road network to cope with buses and cars: with or without the tunnel built, meaning that it’s likely they both under-estimate the number of people who would use the rail tunnel. This is a key element in Auckland Council/Auckland Transport’s revised figures.
Surely there’s a cheaper alternative? More bus lanes? A bus tunnel?
While more work certainly needs to be done to explore alternatives, what has been looked at so far certainly seems to rule out both a surface bus option and a bus tunnel option. The surface bus option simply could not handle the number of buses anticipated to be travelling into the CBD in 20-30 years time without creating enormously wide bus only streets that would be incompatible with the council’s policy of creating a more pedestrian friendly downtown.
In terms of a bus tunnel option, this was looked at in the business case but was dismissed because initial costings showed it to be more expensive than the rail tunnel. Not only that, but while the bus tunnel would obviously have a northern portal to connect with the busway on the North Shore, at its southern end significant bus only streets would need to be created to cope with the number of buses.
In short, the rail tunnel removes a bottleneck in the whole rail network that’s currently meaning the rail network can only use a small portion of its full capacity. Any bus-based option will inevitably pile more vehicles onto a part of the transport system (the road network) that doesn’t have the spare capacity.
Auckland has a “Super City” council now, why doesn’t the Council just pay for the whole thing?
Compared to most countries overseas, government in New Zealand is very centralised and the councils have very limited ability to raise revenue to pay for a project like this. All fuel taxes go directly to central government, as do all sales taxes and most other forms of taxation. So the council’s ability to pay for the entire project is limited – although it’s very likely they’ll end up paying 40-50% of it at least. The council may look at innovative solutions for funding its share, such as targeted rates or tax increment financing – which basically levies a portion land value uplift generated by a project like this.
The most obvious other revenue source (aside from the council) to pay for the project is through the National Land Transport Fund – which is paid into by all fuel taxes and road user charges. As the project will generate significant congestion relief benefits for motorists, it would be logical if fuel taxes contributed to paying for it – although unfortunately current government policy prevents this.
How will the project be “transformational” as claimed by its proponents?
Auckland Council is developing a number of key policy documents: including the spatial plan and the city centre master plan. These documents are intended to integrate transport, land-use planning, economic development and environmental protection in ways that simply hasn’t been possible before: to boost Auckland’s economic growth, its social wellbeing and its level of environmental friendliness over a 20-30 year period. A key part of this strategy is making the city centre a much more attractive place for people to live, work and visit – so that the city attracts high-productivity firms, keeps tourists in the city for longer, takes advantage of what are known as ‘agglomeration economies’ (higher productivity from firms locating close to each other) and so forth.
The City Rail Link is critical to the success of these strategies. Without the project there is no way enough people can get into downtown to help make it an international city centre, with destroying the amenity value of the place to such an extent that nobody actually wants to live or work there anyway. Without the project there’s no way we can ever further extend the rail network: to the airport, to the North Shore, to Botany or Pakuranga: anywhere. Without the project there’s not even enough space at Britomart to run commuter trains between Auckland and Hamilton.
Where are things at now? Will the project fizzle and die now that government says it won’t fund it?
What got lost in the arguments over whose numbers were right last week was the agreement between all parties that it made good strategic sense to protect the route and obtain all the necessary consents to construct it. It essence, it seems as though all parties agree it is a project worth constructing at some point in the future – the main argument is when and how it should be prioritised compared to the large number of other transport projects out there.
What seems likely is that the Council will spend the next 12-18 months going through the process of protecting the route, getting the resource consents and furthering detailed design. I also imagine throughout this time there will continue to be a fine-tuning of the numbers around whether the project is worth its costs – hopefully examining issues such as the capacity of the CBD to handle more buses and cars. The real crunch time will come at the end of the consenting process, when it really is only the funding issue that’s holding up whether the project proceeds or not.
If you have further questions, further suggested Q & As or suggested alterations to what’s above, please add into the comments. Feel free to circulate this blog post to anyone who you think might benefit from it.