It has been frustrating to see the assessment of the City Rail Link’s benefits become so politicised over the past few months. You would think that something like undertaking a cost-benefit analysis of a transport project would be a fairly objective task, but as we have learned there are so many assumptions made when assessing transport projects – that the objectivity of the process has really become something of a myth. Something as seemingly benign as the different discount rate used and a different timeline over which to measure a project’s benefits can have a massive impact – as seen when comparing how the UK and New Zealand assess benefits: But that’s not the only area where there’s disagreement and subjectivity. There’s debate between the parties over the total number of trips into the city centre in 2041, as well as disagreement over the number of trips by each mode. The original business case has different numbers to the Ministry of Transport review and different numbers again to the Auckland Council/Auckland Transport review. Probably the easiest way to understand the difference in numbers (data from this graph and these graphs) is through a series of graphs, which all compare the current numbers (2010) of people entering the city centre at peak time with 2041 numbers with and without the City Rail Link:What’s somewhat strange about the numbers in the original business case is that the number of people entering the city centre in 2041 with the Rail Link seems to be slightly below the number without the rail link (unless I’m misreading this graph). You would think that the rail link would enable a greater number of people to enter the city centre easily (thereby enabling more jobs in the city centre and all the productivity benefits that brings).
Numbers from the review documents (both MoT and Auckland Transport/Auckland Council) are included below: The numbers between these two reviews are fairly similar in many respects, with just a few key differences. The differences between all the analyses: the original business case (OBC) the MoT review and the AC/AT review are most clearly outlined in the graph below, which compares how each study measured the ‘impact’ of the project (the impact being the difference between the 2041 no CRL and 2041 with CRL scenarios). Now I hope I haven’t completely lost you with the graphs so far, because there are a few more to come – because I think that, if you think logically about the impact of the City Rail Link, all three assessments are wrong and all three of them vastly under-estimate the impact of the project. To analyse why I think this, let’s take a look at a few of the statistics that I question in all three assessments – in particular the level of increase in car and bus traffic to the city centre over the next 30 years.
The graph below compares how each of the assessments measured the increase in car, bus, train and total trips from 2010 to the 2041 with the rail tunnel scenario: While looking at the graphs above, it’s worth keeping in mind the vision for downtown Auckland that the Council has – which was articulated in such glory in the City Centre Master Plan. This plan envisages a city centre with much of its streetscape reallocated to pedestrians – not exactly the kind of city that you would really expect an increase in cars, or a city centre that really lends itself to close to a doubling in the number of bus passengers. So I think that all the assessments (except for the AC/AT one when it comes to cars) have over-estimated the increase in car and bus passengers to the city centre with the CRL built. Many bus routes will obviously change from being long-haul routes to feeder buses, many people who currently drive will be put off by the reduced amount of roadspace as the City Centre Master Plan turns that over to pedestrians, while are also more likely to choose to catch the train as it provides a far better services than before.
If we take the City Centre Master Plan into proper consideration we come to a few obvious conclusions:
- The number of car trips into the city centre at peak time is likely to reduce over the next 30 years as more roadspace is reallocated to pedestrians. At a broad level, with 34,000 car trips in 2010 a reasonable estimate for 2041 with the CRL might be 30,000.
- While the number of bus trips is likely to increase to some extent – due to trips from the North Shore and other parts of Auckland (particularly on the isthmus) that aren’t served by the rail network – I think we can assume that many of the current long-haul bus routes from the west, south and southeast will become feeder buses into transport hubs (Onehunga, New Lynn, Panmure and Manukau City seem obvious candidates) with people heading downtown changing onto the rail network to enjoy a faster and more reliable trip. With 23,000 peak time bus trips into the CBD in 2010, I think it’s unlikely that in the 2041 with the CRL scenario we’d have much more than 35,000 bus trips.
- To calculate the number of rail trips, I’ve kept the “total trips” from the Auckland Transport/Auckland Council assessment the same (that being 104,000). If you take total trips and subtract car trips, bus trips and the generally agreed upon figure of 4,000 ferry trips, you get a total number of 35,000 rail trips into the city centre in 2041 with the City Rail Link.
Adding in my figures to the graph above (and adding in ferries for completeness) results in the following: Before we get on to looking at how my assessment of the ‘impact’ of the CRL compares to the other assessments, we also need to take a look at how realistic the ‘without CRL’ scenarios really are. One thing that’s always frustrated me with with Ministry of Transport review in particular is that they offered no real explanation for how the city centre would cope with all the extra bus and car traffic it would have to deal with by 2041 without the rail tunnel in place. Let alone the fundamental incompatibility of all that extra traffic with achieving any of the goals of the City Centre Master Plan.
- Once again I’m not sure whether the city centre’s roads have the ability to cope with another 7,000 cars arriving in the two hour peak period (the original business case thought this increase would be even higher). The 7,000 extra cars would simply not be possible if we hope to implement anything from the City Centre Master Plan, or if we did implement the plan anyway those cars will shift onto another mode. Overall I’m going to probably say that without the rail tunnel and trying to cope with all the extra buses, we’d probably see the number of cars going down from 34,000 to 30,000 (largely because so much roadspace would have to be set aside for bus lanes).
- The increase in number of people using the bus is also nigh on impossible for the city centre to cope with – leading to over 500 buses an hour travelling along Albert Street (both directions) and more than 300 inbound buses per hour along Symonds Street. That once again just doesn’t seem possible. More realistically we might see bus travel increase from 23,000 to 38,000 (compared to 43,000 in the MoT and AC/AT reviews).
- With electrification of the rail network allowing for much longer trains, I think the capacity of the rail network to cope with more peak time travellers will be increased quite significantly from what it was in 2010. Both the MoT and AC/AT reports suggest that we can go from around 5,000 peak time rail arrivals to 11,000. Getting above that level is likely to be physically impossible as your trains are going to be pretty squashed by that stage. So the numbers are probably about right.
What happens when you add up all my numbers (based on the assumptions above) in the “2041 no CRL” scenario is a much lower total number of trips to the city centre: simply because our transport network without the tunnel has a much lower capacity than the transport network with the tunnel. OK now hang in there because we’re almost done. One of the biggest impacts under my assessment of not doing the City Rail Link is the reduced number of total trips to downtown Auckland compared to the other assessments. As the project’s ‘wider economic benefits’ are largely based around increasing employment in the city centre (and taking advantage of agglomeration effects) this is quite a significant difference.
If we put together a comparison of the “2041 no CRL” and “2041 with CRL” scenarios to once again measure the impact of the project, under my assessment we start to really recognise the true benefit of the project – it allows the city centre to grow: If you think about it, it’s quite natural that the impact of a rail project like the City Rail Link would not necessarily be to get cars off the road or to massively reduce the number of bus passengers – because if the project doesn’t go ahead there’s a limit to what the street network can carry and therefore the city centre just simply won’t grow as much as it would with the project. Arguably the lack of a City Rail Link over the past 80 years has significantly contributed to the relatively poor performance of Auckland’s CBD – because it simply wasn’t as accessible as suburban employment areas.
What the City Rail Link ultimately achieves is allowing around 20,000 additional people to get into the city centre at peak times – enabling the city centre to grow without gridlock of buses and cars and also making the City Centre Master Plan a reality.