On Wednesday, the council’s Finance Committee is being asked to give urgent funding approval to purchase 17 new battery powered trains, or Independently Powered Electric Multiple Units (IPEMUs) as they’re referred to officially. The council paper and the full business case notes that the urgency is because a deposit needs to be made by September this year to ensure delivery of these new trains in 2019 which is when the capacity constraints really start to bite. Given how plainly obvious this issue has been for some considerable time, it’s a bit absurd that it now needs to be made so quickly.
Auckland’s 57 new electric trains only finished rolling out two years ago but they’ve been such a success that we’ve been saying for almost as long that we’re going to need more of them. That’s in part because the use of trains has been growing much faster than expected. For example, it was initially forecast that in 2017 we’d have about 17.8 million trips, rising to 20.8 million in 2023 when the CRL opens. We actually had 19.6 million trips this year with growth remaining high at almost 17% annually. As such, even AT’s newer projections of 22.8 million trips in mid-2020 seems extremely light. While there’s still a lot that can be done to improve off-peak services, the main thing causing those low projections is a lack of capacity at peak times.
We already know that until the City Rail Link (CRL) is completed in 2023 we can’t run any more peak services. AT say that options to improve capacity with our current fleet are “close to being exhausted”. The only option really being to reconfigure seating in our existing trains to cater for more people standing. Other operational changes, such as speeding trains up, will improve services but won’t be enough to free up additional trains and therefore capacity. That means that the only other way to improve capacity before CRL is to buy more trains so that all services can run as six-car trains, except those on the Onehunga Line. We need about 15 more trains to be able to do that.
At the same time, we also need to deal with the issue of trains to Pukekohe. Diesel shuttles currently run between Papakura and Pukekohe forcing a transfer for almost all passengers. This is far from ideal from both a passenger and operational perspective. The diesel trains are old and costly to run, they are also due for a significant, and potentially expensive overhaul. In addition, the area between Papakura and Pukekohe is expected to see substantial growth in the coming decades with much of it based roughly around the rail line. Electrifying the line to Pukekohe, along with new stations to support the growth has long been on the cards to help ensure new and existing residents have options to avoid having to sit on the southern motorway to get anywhere. ATAP considers electrification to Pukekohe as a 1st decade project and expects this to cost around of $160 million.
Despite the local MP saying the government had committed to funding the project, it hasn’t appeared to have been any progress on this essential project and it was not expected that it would happen until around 2025.
The IPEMUs are meant to solve these two issues with a single solution. The idea is pretty straight forward, the new IPEMUs will be the same trains as what we have now, but they have batteries added to the roof of the central trailer car to allow the trains to run beyond the wires. Those batteries recharge again when they hook back up to the electrified network at Papakura.
In total, combined with the trains needed to increase capacity on existing services, we’ll need 17 new trains. These would all be used on the Southern Line, allowing for some of the existing trains to be used to lengthen services on other routes.
The costs of these new trains are below and it’s worth noting that Option A only deals with the capacity constraints and doesn’t involve new trains to service
To address the problems and opportunities, AT shortlisted two main options utilising the Better Business Case methodology, one of which has two variants. The options are:
- Option A: purchase 15 three-car EMUs at $133 million
- Option B: purchase 17 three-car IPEMUs
- with CAF (supplier of the current EMUs) batteries at $207 million, or
- with Korean (LG) batteries at $174 million.
Those CAF supplied batteries aren’t cheap, adding almost 40% to the cost of a train. But they note that savings from running diesel trains ($67m) and from addressing the capacity constraints, which would otherwise require more bus services ($84m) are substantial. The main benefit of going with CAF seems to be to deal with warranty issues while the Korean batteries are not only cheaper, but expected to perform better too.
The business case proposes a direct procurement from CAF – Construcciones Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles – (the provider of the current EMU fleet) conditional on CAF maintaining the prices for the base EMUs, with acceptable and transparent cost additions for the battery technology in the IPEMUs. CAF have offered a fully warranted battery solution that in AT’s opinion is low risk but high cost. AT has sourced alternative battery systems that promise simplified installation, improved range at reduced capital cost. The alternatives are still work in progress until compliance to industry standards has been demonstrated, therefore the CAF IPEMU solution has been treated as the base at $207m and the alternative solution as a sensitivity test at $173m. AT will work with CAF and the alternate battery supplier to determine whether the alternate solution can be successfully engineered and deliver the value anticipated.
Battery powered trains certainly seem like a useful addition to help extend services beyond wires. The biggest issue though, is that they only expected to last 7-8 years, after which time they’ll need to be replaced, or we’ll need extend the wires to Pukekohe. We could of course do both and allow for services to be extended further south, perhaps to Pokeno. It is expected that by the time they need to be replaced, advances in battery tech will give the IPEMUs greater range.
The business case suggests that the Benefit Cost Ratio is 2.8 with a range 2.0 – 4.1. Interestingly the 15 normal EMUs have a higher BCR at 3.2, but it doesn’t address the issue of services to Pukekohe and therefore the cost of diesel shuttles.
The report notes that the first vehicle will be available for service within 27 months, with all in service 36 months from order placement. Initially they would run as normal EMUs to boost capacity until the batteries and systems can be fully tested. One in place, the business case assumes we could reach 30 million trips annually before the CRL opens.
The council agreeing to fund these new trains will push it right up to its debt ceiling, going over that would see its credit rating downgraded and that would lead to more expensive debt costs for not just Auckland but all local council’s in NZ. As such, the funding from the council is conditional on a few things, including:
- The NZTA committing to fund at least 50%
- Auckland Transport committing at least $50m from their existing capital expenditure budgets
Overall this seems like a decent idea but I do have a few thoughts about it that I haven’t seen covered.
- The council paper notes that there will be periods when the power will be off on parts of the Western Line during CRL construction and that these could allow some services to still run. Presumably that would only work for weekend shutdowns as there wouldn’t be enough battery trains to service both Pukekohe and the Western Line if the power was shut off on a normal weekday.
- It’s not clear what would happen to these trains after the CRL is open. Presumably they’ll be designed to run safely through the CRL but current plans see the southern and eastern lines linked together and so there wouldn’t be enough of them. Although it’s worth noting that this purchase of trains is just to get us through to the CRL and we’ll need a lot more after that project is complete. In fact, we’ll probably be needing to start thinking about purchasing more at about the same time as the last of these IPEMUs goes into service.
- The business case assumes that Pukekohe will still be electrified in ~2025. This effectively lets the government off the hook for that while imposing higher costs on the council so I’m a bit concerned that this will mean the current plans to electrify to Pukekohe will be subsequently delayed as a result.
- As a counter to point 3, even if approved tomorrow, it’s excepted to take at least 4-5 years to extend the wires to Pukekohe (I’m not sure why it will take so long). This decision and additional cost to the council at least allows us to get some of these issues addressed a few years earlier.