Auckland recently passed 16 million annual rail boardings, quite a momentous achievement and in some respects the culmination of 10 years of effort: the implementation of the 2006 Rail Development Plan. At the heart of this plan, and in fact many of Auckland’s transport strategies over the past decade, was the creation of a true “rapid transit network”. Improvements to the rail network and construction of the Northern Busway during this time has meant that Auckland has gone from having no rapid transit network to one that extends out in most major directions from the city. It is improvements to the rapid transit network that have driven almost half of Auckland’s public transport ridership growth over the past 10 years.
Further developing the rapid transit network still rightly sits at the heart of Auckland’s transport strategies and formed the basis for our “Congestion Free Network” concept. There’s a remarkable similarity between the two actually. Firstly, the most recent official rapid transit network plan out to 2045:
And the Congestion Free Network:
Since our work on the CFN (which is actually coming up on three years old), Auckland Transport has become interested in light-rail as a way of resolving city centre bus congestion and providing a high quality public transport option to the central isthmus area. However, these are not dinky trams, but rather big multi-articulated vehicles capable of each carrying up to 400-500 people and travelling up to 80 kph. These are serious people-moving machines and sound almost identical to what’s now being built in Sydney:
The use of such high-capacity and potentially high-speed light-rail vehicles that also have the capability of travelling safety at street level along some of our major arterial roads creates a really interesting question: are these “rapid transit”? In a pure sense they are not as rapid transit is meant to be, fully grade separated from other traffic while our light-rail will need to stop at traffic lights (but presumably have some pretty amazing signal priority). But the same applies for the Northern Busway currently and the proposed AMETI busway – both of which are considered rapid transit.
The speed and capacity of these vehicles means that they could potentially be used on some of the other proposed rapid transit corridors without the need for such expensive tunnelling that heavy rail requires, or the terminal capacity issues that bus based systems seem to create. In other words, once you’ve got a bit of light-rail in Auckland, it becomes a no-brainer to think about where it might be used further and if it might be an appropriate solution for some “pure rapid transit” corridors. We’ve already seen AT suggest light rail might be a viable solution for access to the airport.
Other options include to the North Shore – perhaps even linked to an airport route, a long-term replacement of the AMETI busway and maybe even out to the Northwest?
Of course it’s easy to get excited and a bit mode obsessed about something like light-rail and one of the most important rules when it comes to good public transport planning is to think about the characteristics of the corridor you’re looking at before jumping to a conclusion about the mode to use. But the ability of light-rail to be both a very high capacity “true” rapid transit system but also something that can run at street level provides us with a pretty powerful tool that may be able to deliver very high quality rapid transit along a couple of key corridors that heavy rail options have struggled to stick.
The Harbour Bridge is Auckland’s single busiest bus corridor, with more people entering the city centre from the North Shore at peak times than arrive at Britomart station by train (although this gap has probably shrunk due to recent rail ridership growth). This is shown quite dramatically in this image from an upcoming AT presentation to the Council.
While the Northern Busway has been hugely successful, it’s hard to see how the city centre will cope with the rising number of buses from the North Shore – even with the City Rail Link and a Dominion Road light-rail route taking buses from other areas out of the city. Significant planned growth at Dairy Flat appears likely to only add to the need to essentially ‘upgrade’ the busway at some point in the next 10-20 years.
Yet heavy rail options for doing this have always been a bit messy. How do you deal with the grades? How do you “hook into” the existing rail system at the city end? Where on the North Shore do you go – just up next to the motorway with limited land-use transformation opportunities? Do you close the busway for years while you rebuild it for heavy rail? Do you go the whole hog and do a proper underground metro? But that seems to come with a $10+ billion price tag.
If sufficient capacity can be provided, light-rail is potentially a solution to a number of these issues. The “tie in” at the city end can work well by just connecting a cross-harbour tunnel into the end of the isthmus light-rail scheme which is proposed to end at Wynyard Quarter. That creates the potential for some fantastic one seat rides from Albany through the city to the Dominion Road corridor. Light-rail could also mean some branch lines off the main SH1 are possible in a way that just wouldn’t work for heavy rail. What about branches to Takapuna, Browns Bay or up Onewa Road to Birkenhead?
AMETI and Northwest
In both cases AT will be building brand new dedicated PT infrastructure where almost none exists today. If light rail is successful on other routes, could it be worth going straight to light rail in these two “rapid transit” situations too. Doing so could both (not necessarily together) save costs later on from having to convert busways to higher capacity modes later and help encourage more people in the area to use PT to get around.
Of course the biggest issue in all of this is the cost. To build a Light Rail network like discussed would be significant – especially getting over/under the harbour and these projects would need to be prioritised just like everything else. There may also be a situation where depending on the costs and funding, a busway now is better than a light rail line in 15-20 years time.
Interestingly since I wrote this post a few days ago, council’s Development Committee agenda has been released with an interesting presentation on light rail from AT. It includes this map showing almost exactly what I’ve suggested above.