Last week I had some work in Sydney and while there I was able to grab a quick look at some aspects of that beautiful city. I want to start with Light Rail because Sydney has one line in operation, and is about to start another much bigger project next month, and one that is strikingly similar to what AT is proposing for Auckland. Similar in that it upgrades at capacity bus routes, links significant residential and commercial areas with the heart of the city from areas not covered by other Rapid Transit, links event locations with a major transport hub, serves some big tertiary institutions, and most importantly that it will be the catalyst for pedestrianising the main city street. For like AT’s Light Rail plan for Queen St Sydney’s also comes with the opening up of George St for pedestrians.

Below are some shots from my quick ride on the somewhat curious Dulwich Hill Line. This is mostly on the route of the old Metropolitan Goods Line, extended past the old docks of Darling Harbour for the tourist trade and terminating at the city end at at the busy Central Station. This is where I got on on a weekday morning, so heading against the flow, you’d think.


It arrives at Central on one-way loop to an elevated stop at the main concourse level of the Victorian train, Sydney’s largest. I assumed this was a built originally for Sydney’s previous trams, and so it was. The earlier system was largely about distributing into the city centre from this terminus station, but as Sydney grew a number of previously terminating lines were extended through to new underground stations in the central city and through to the bridge and across to the North Shore. The logical and very successful upgrade for a terminating city edge station, just like Britomart. In addition to the new Light Rail line they are also now planning the third underground city rail route and second rail harbour crossing: the new Sydney Metro.


The lovely CAF Urbos 3 arrived full and left full. On this evidence it looks like it could do with additional frequency.


It runs on city streets till Darling harbour then uses the impressive cuttings of the old Metropolitan Goods Line. So the route was not selected because it is necessarily the best place to run Light Rail, but because it was available. Very much like Auckland’s passenger rail network, and many new or revived urban rail systems globally [See Manchester Light Rail, and the London Overground for example].


This business of running services where there happens to be an existing route can of course lead to poor results if there isn’t a match with the surrounding land use, and this line at first did not perform as well as hoped. But that all changed with a the extension to a good anchor; Dulwich Hill rail station [opening 2014], and intensification along the route. It is now booming.


John Street Square Station with apartments and very urban open space above.



Heading back, and full again; mid morning on a week day.


Approaching Central on Hay St, crossing Pitt. Smart bit of kit.


There are obvious parallels with Auckland everywhere you look in Sydney, it is after all, pretty much just a bigger better version of a similar urban typology: a new world anglophone Pacific harbour city. It can be argued that Auckland is at a comparable point of development that Sydney was at decades ago, and while that doesn’t for a moment mean we should slavishly follow what happened there, there is much that can be learned from this city. There are a number of interesting projects underway in Sydney now, like the new Metro, which is introducing a new separate and fully automated rail system to complement the existing network. This is certainly an option for Auckland in the future, especially for upgrading Rapid Transit to our North Shore. The same universal urban forces are in play here as there, as can be seen with Light Rail in Sydney now: It is is working well simply because it delivers on the classic necessary conditions for this mode:

  • Good land-use match: intensification around stations
  • High quality right-of-way: mostly grade separate or has signal priority
  • Strong anchors at each end of the route: train stations in each case, and destinations along the way.
  • High standard of vehicle and service [sufficient frequency yet?]

The key lesson here is that if any of these conditions are missing steps must be taken to change them, as they did here. And that it is possible to exploit existing rights of way so long as there aren’t other barriers to change, especially to more intense urban land use around stations. Now that in Auckland we are well on the way to fixing the major vehicle and frequency standards on the rail network it is the development around stations that needs work. Especially as we only need to look at the improved performance of stations like Manukau City and Sylvia Park to see, yet again, how closely linked landuse and transport always are.

Looking ahead to the next Light Rail route in Sydney it is pretty certain that this will perform even better because it is designed around need not just route availability. It is hard to disagree with Alan Davies here when he writes:

There are literally hundreds of existing light rail systems in the world. The value of some is questionable, but Sydney’s proposed CBD and South East Light Rail line looks like it’ll be among the best.

And Davies, the Melburbanist, is often skeptical about high capex Transit systems, often questioning the value of ones in his own city.

I reckon that this is probably true for the proposed Auckland Light Rail programme too, with two provisos: That land around the stops is zoned for more intense use, and like in Sydney, that the through-routing of the current terminus station is at least funded and underway first. That’s the first fix.

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  1. the other clever thing Sydney did, according to their manager of cycling, is insist that all the inner city cycling infrastructure builds were completed before they dug up streets for light rail. Shifting people on to bikes so that fewer cars being disrupted in the road works.

  2. I’m struggling to see much of a parallel between light rail in Sydney and what’s proposed for Auckland.

    Central station in Sydney is about 3 blocks from where the action is. When you think about it it’s in a really strange spot. It makes sense to have a high capacity connection between the station and where people want to go because it saves them a 10-20 minute walk.

    Auckland is different in that the heavy rail stations like Britomart and Aotea are going to be right in the heart of the action. We don’t need light rail going from Sandringham to Britomart. If we are to ever need Light Rail (probably 20-30 years away) you would build it to either the K Rd, Mt Eden or Kingsland stations where commuters could then connect with the heavy rail network.

    Let’s hope we don’t follow the Sydney plan without thinking about how we can better adopt it for Auckland.

    1. I think if Light Rail was to stop at Britomart, then yes, there is an argument that for a Dominion Road route, anything north of Mt Eden station duplicates the CRL somewhat. But I am assuming that from Britomart it will eventually turn left into Quay St and through the Wynyard Quarter, linking with a future Wynyard station from the north.

      So you really need that Mt Eden-Britomart leg.

      Plus its about reducing the need for buses through this spine in the first place, so would seem a bit self-defeating to put in light rail and take out buses, only to put them back in again for the last few kms. And by the way, Dominion Rd needs a solution now, not in 20yrs time, let alone 30.

    2. So when you go home you take heavy rail to K Road to get on light rail? Light rail’s niche is finer grained than heavy rail. More stops more often, shorter headways, smaller capacity vehicles. That fine grain means that it almost has to serve hubs because that’s where riders concentrate, and then choose the mode that best suits their trip profile.

    3. Erm, Central Station is just one of seven heavy rail stations in central Sydney: they also have Town Hall, Wynyard, Circular Quay, St James, Museum and Martin Place which are right in the heart of the action, linked by not one but three sets of City Rail Link equivalent tunnels.

      The point of light rail through Sydney CBD is exactly the same as the point in Auckland: Get people from the light rail lines to their city destinations, and allow people to catch the light rail for short trips within town.

    4. There might be an argument to be had about the best way to serve Sandringham Rd (though looking at how full the current buses and trains are, I could easily see both the trains and a future LRT being chocka by Kingsland), but most of Dominion Rd is outside train station catchments, and it’s crying out for higher capacity vehicles. Plus it would take bus pressure off Symonds St and provide a high-frequency, high-capacity route along Queen St. Complementary to the Western Line, not in competition with it.

      1. I can’t see the logic in stopping a light rail line at the edge of the city just because the CRL would also go through the city. It’s a bit like saying we should stop the southern line at Newmarket because the western line also goes to Britomart. You just force a whole bunch of people to transfer for no benefit to them, and you only have to stick a whole lot of extra trains on for the last couple of stations to carry them anyway.

      2. One important but not very obvious plus for the Light Rail plan for Auckland is that it actually opens up an additional high capacity route into the Central City. And it’s hiding in plain sight right now. Queen St, Upper Queen St, and Ian McKinnon Drive are currently only used by a few drivers and cyclists and walkers, for city access. These routes are actually quite limited. The big volumes come in through Fanshaw, the motorway off-ramps, Symonds St, Quay St, and of course Britomart and the Ferry Terminal. Some additional volumes at Hopetoun, Freeman’s Bay, and Parnell.

        The Light Rail plan will suddenly bring huge numbers down this central valley, and without clogging it with heaps of vehicles [buses or cars], in fact will involve the opening up core Queen St to all people on foot. This will both take pressure off other routes and help enable growth.

        I agree there is a superficial overlap with the northern end of the CRL but that is to misunderstand the difference in reach of the two systems. The trains passing through Kingsland and Mt Eden stations in the AM peak will be full of longer distances travellers from the west, while the trams will be moving people from the closer Isthmus and more locally up and down the line.

        Like in Sydney [but at a smaller scale] no one project is the last, or finally ‘solves’ access, but accumulatively they will add huge capacity in a spatially efficient way needed if we are to maintain a thriving and successful city.

        1. Yeah, it’d make Ian McKinnon much more useful, and hopefully lead to a bit more life and better land use in the area. Do you know if they’d be keeping the flyover? Plus the NNR portion of the Sandringham route would complement the Mt Eden station in serving Eden Terrace/Newton.

          Also much more compatible than buses with a pedestrianised Queen St.

  3. The intensification will happen, even if it isn’t part of the unitary plan. There seems to be this assumption that the plan is set in place for 30 years and can never be changed, I don’t think that is the case.

    Aucklanders are getting more and more realistic about density by the day.

  4. /as a hobbly old joker I found the higher loading platforms of the Salt Lake city light rail bit daunting at some stations. i like the idea of the lower loading system as in the centre of our Trains. I wonder if we have the platforms in the centre of the street whether the lower platform may be a better option as they would protect the passengers as well as giving a good delineation for the other traffic.

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