One of the main concerns I’ve seen raised about the idea of Light Rail to the airport has been the speed. In particular, that light rail is too slow in comparison to heavy rail, especially along the Dominion Rd section where it is also suggested it could also be held up by traffic. After I wrote about it last week Auckland Transport updated their website with some more details of the project – mostly with details from the video they’ve created but also with new a new travel time comparison as they say the times in the video are now out of date. The updated travel times are shown in the table below and as you can see are even more favourable to light rail, putting it just five minutes slower than heavy rail from Britomart and equal in travel time from Aotea.
|LOCATION||LIGHT RAIL||HEAVY RAIL|
|Britomart (downtown) to airport||44 Minutes||39 Minutes|
|Aotea (new City Rail Link station) to airport||41 Minutes||41 Minutes|
In the blog and other places where discussion about the idea has occurred I’ve seen people questioning the travel times claimed by Auckland Transport. If these timings are accurate I think it makes a significant difference as to the viability of light rail as an option, not just to the airport but potentially for other applications such as to the North Shore, East Auckland and the North West. With this post I thought I would examine the light rail timings in more detail to see if they stack up.
As a reminder this is the route Auckland Transport suggest.
From Britomart to SH20 via Dominion Rd the light rail route is fairly straight and AT say it would travel down the centre of the road in dedicated lanes. They also say light rail would have priority at intersections along the way so vehicles would not often need to stop unless doing so at a station. AT reaching SH20 it would then follow the motorway down to Onehunga for a short section on street before a dedicated section from there to the Airport. In total this route is around 22.6km and at 44 minutes giving an average of 31km/h. As a comparison our current rail lines achieve the following speeds (although AT do need to get them faster):
- Western Line – 27.2km – 55 minutes travel time which is 30km/h
- Southern Line – 33.1km – 56 minutes travel time which is 33km/h
- Eastern Line – 25km – 37 minutes travel time which is 41km/h
- Onehunga Line – 12.8km – 27 minutes travel time which is 28km/h
To examine the speeds suggested by AT I thought the best option would be to conduct a few case studies to see what other cities manage to achieve. Below I look at five cities that are not too dissimilar to Auckland that have working light rail systems. The travel times they achieve are based on published timetables.
Calgary’s C-Train system is one of most used light rail networks in North America with over 330k trips on an average weekday, about six times what Auckland’s current rail network achieves. The system has two lines that share a central section though the CBD, the Red line is 33km and the blue line 25.7km.
The lines generally run down either in the centre of the road or on one side and are fenced off from traffic and people however they also cross through many intersections at grade. On some intersections where the light rail route changes direction/arterial it is running on they use short underpasses so it avoids the intersection completely. In short it’s a largely dedicated corridor which is not to dissimilar to what we would expect to see in Auckland.
Calgary’s light rail vehicles are capable of speeds up to 80km/h and below is how long each line is and how much time the timetable suggests a trip the entire length will take.
- Red Line – 33km – 59 minutes travel time which is 34km/h
- Blue Line – 25.7km – 46 minutes travel time which is 34km/h
Seattle has two light rail lines, one a short shuttle in Tecoma but the main one the Central Link, is a 25.1km line from the Airport to the city that opened in mid-2009. Much of the route is elevated, in tunnels or offline (alongside a freeway) however there are a few significant sections where the route travels down the centre of a road corridor separated from traffic only by a small concrete kerb.
There are 13 stations all up. In the city station spacing is about every 600m but as it gets into the suburbs it expands and becomes more like heavy rail. There is also a 9km section with no stations which would help speeds.
Seattle uses two 29m long light rail vehicles that are coupled together able to carry a combined 400 people – they eventually plan to couple up to four vehicles together. They have a top speed of 105km/h which would be useful on the long spaced out sections.
According to the timetable a trip from the along the line would takes around 37 minutes from end to end. Over the 25km that’s an impressive average of 41km/h – quite a bit faster than all but the Manukau line on our rail network. The single line carries close to 12 million trips a year – what Auckland’s rail system carried just over a year ago but remember it’s only been open since 2009.
Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City runs a three-line light rail system through city streets in dedicated lanes and from what I can tell there is no grade separation. The system first opened in 1999 and generally tracks run down the centre of streets separated from general traffic by a small kerb. Unlike the examples above the system doesn’t have any grade separation at intersections and many side roads cross the tracks along the way. It uses signal priority to achieve a mostly uninterrupted service along the routes. The Blue Line is 31.1km, Red Line 38.1km and Green Line 24.2km.
The system uses similar vehicles to what is used in Calgary and like Calgary they have a top speed of 80km/h. The system currently carries 18-19 million trips a year. According to the timetables the three lines take the following length of time to travel end to end and following that is their average speed.
- Blue Line – 31.1km – 51 minutes – 37km/h
- Red Line – 38.1 – 59 minutes – 39km/h
- Green Line – 24.2 – 46 minutes – 32km/h
So despite not having the grade separation that the systems above have the system still manages to achieve some pretty good speeds.
Houston maybe a famous for its sprawl and massive motorways but it also happens to have an increasingly used light rail line. Its Red Line opened in 2004 was extended in late 2013 to a total of 20.6km. Two new lines opened in May last year but for this I’ll focus on the red line which carries the vast majority of over 16 million light rail trips. The system runs largely on street level in dedicated lanes down the centre of the road separated from traffic with concrete kerbs. Following the line via Google Maps shows an extensive numbers of roads that cross the tracks at points along the journey and it’s not clear if there is any signal priority and this affects the speed.
The system uses light rail vehicles capable of 106km/h but given the station spacing and intersections I doubt they ever get close to that. Trips along the 20.6km line take around 55 minutes giving it an average of 22km/h – a step down from the cities above.
Lastly one of the closest to home is on the Gold Coast – which I experienced myself just a few months ago. The vehicles are 44m long and can carry 309 passengers and have a top speed of 70km/h
The system is 13km long and runs in a dedicated corridor which is mostly down the centre of streets and at most intersections it has signal priority. Importantly through areas such as through Surfers Paradise it seemed to be limited in speed to around 30-40km/h for extensive sections and that limits the overall speed of services. At 37 minutes from end to end it also happens to have the slowest average of the examples at just 21km/h.
There are of course many other systems that could be examined but what is clear from the ones above is that there are a range of systems and a range in how those systems are implemented. The systems that tend to have a mix of infrastructure such as dedicated corridors and sections of on street running seem to do fairly well and those systems are also likely to be the most similar to what Auckland Transport are proposing. As such, assuming AT design the system right then a 44-minute transit time from Britomart to the airport or 41 minutes from Aotea actually seems reasonable. Further I would have expected that they’ve calculated it far more accurately that I have.
Perhaps speed isn’t quite the issue that some have made out and we can save $1.2 billion by using light rail to the airport. That might also then let us extend the light rail somewhere else such as the North, Northwest or East.