There have been numerous reactions since Sunday following Labour’s announcement of their plan to build light rail to the airport, as part of them adopting our Congestion Free Network. Reactions have included plenty of uninformed opinion and a general misunderstanding of just what’s proposed, which tends to lead to a skepticism about the project. Although these can be hard to separate from the concern trolls who are just seeking to disrupt the conversation by claiming to support the project but only if it’s changed in some way.
A notable example that managed to pick up all the common opinion/misunderstandings floating around was the Herald in their editorial on Tuesday. I find their piece particularly egregious as pretty much all of their questions and opinions could have been answered had they bothered to do even a sliver of journalism as all the information is in the public domain on Auckland Transports website. And if they failed to find that there is of course plenty of resources, such as ourselves, they could have easily asked. I think some of this ties back to their almost complete abandoning of covering transport and other urban issues over the recent years, unless they can find a scandal in it. So I thought I’d go through and answer their questions for them.
For reference, most of the official information needed is available on the following pages on ATs website
However it is to be financed, it amounts to a substantial national investment. When a project on this scale is proposed, the public should be spare a thought for the economy. Ours is not a big economy like most of those that have installed light rail in their metropolitan centres.
A small economy is easily damaged by investment that generates a poor return compared to alternatives.
Any objective evaluation of the merits of light rail in a city the size and shape of Auckland needs to explain why they would be better value for money than the bus services the presently serve Mt Albert, Mt Roskill and Mangere.
It’s notable that we haven’t had the same level of hand wringing over the economic impact of other, large infrastructure projects, such as the East-West Link or many of the Roads of National Significance.
The Central Access Plan does exactly what the Herald ask and compares the light rail proposal against bus options. Bus options were also further examined in the Advanced Bus study but found not to be sufficient which is why the NZTA and government now support the City rail Link.
As for going to the airport, Labour will need to explain how this proposal stacks up against a much shorter rail connection to the main trunk line at Puhinui, or indeed the road journey that has just been improved by the Waterview Tunnels, completing the urban motorway network at long last.
Aucklanders in the west and north of the city and the CBD have just begun to enjoy the luxury of motorway nearly all the way to the airport.
They may take some convincing that a $3b light rail service is worth an additional tax on their petrol, or indeed that such a service is practical.
One of the major issues with discussing rail to the airport is that many people seem to assume it’s all about the airport and only there to whisk travellers to and from the city centre. Building transit for a single market, especially in a city like Auckland, is a surefire way for it to be a failure, as Toronto found out. Jarrett Walker has a great post on exactly this issue and he notes that some of the key elements to making airport lines work is to ensure they serve not just travellers but workers too and that the need to provide lots of connections to the wider transit network.
In Auckland, the goal is not just serving travel between the airport and city centre but also all the places along the way, something Jacinda Adern pointed out well at her launch. It is also highlighted in the maps below showing the number of people living and working within a short walk of a future station.
Connecting a rail service to Puhinui means that a large chunk of Auckland, the south west, won’t see improved transport as part of this project. It also creates issues of its own, such as how exactly would we run services north of Puhinui when we’re going to need all the capacity the CRL can give us just to serve our existing rail network.
To cap it off, the modelling done so far points to more people using light rail from the destinations in the South-West than airport travellers so only hooking in at Puhinui would miss all of that.
And as for Waterview, sure it’s helping reduce travel times at the moment but basing a decision on that would be the ultimate in short-sightedness as Auckland’s population continues to grow. It’s also not clear where they got the figure of $3 billion from.
Light rail through the CBD and down Dominion Rd would be running on streets, stopping frequently at traffic lights as well as to pick up passengers. Labour needs to explain how this would work.
Would travellers to or from the airport be on the same trams that would be stopping every two blocks for passengers? If so, it would seem a painfully long journey by comparison to car, shuttle or a bus on the new motorway.
And what about the baggage that air travellers haul? If airport travellers are to have an express service with fewer stops, the route would need to be double tracked, leaving little room for other traffic. Is that the plan?
At this point you have to wonder if the person writing the editorial has heard of, let alone looked at what is proposed by AT. Perhaps if they had bothered to keep an eye on transport they could answered these questions for themselves.
Yes, light rail runs on streets until it gets to SH20, but that isn’t the same as on streets mixed in traffic. The plan as I understand it, is to physically separate the light rail with kerbs or by having it raised slightly.
The vehicles also won’t be stopping frequently either as the intention is to space out the stops a bit more than buses are now. Further, it is expected that there will be signal priority at intersections so that light rail vehicles can sail through without having to stop. Travel times to Aotea are expected to be similar to heavy rail at just over 40 minutes. It’s worth noting that light rail vehicles would only have to average 30km/h to reach Onehunga in about the same time as one of our electric trains.
And then there’s the luggage. I’m honestly unsure why people think they couldn’t take luggage easily on light rail. If anything, it would probably be easier than doing so without our existing rail network as the entire vehicle would be built from scratch with level floor boarding. Hell, the Gold Coast Light Rail vehicles even have surfboard racks. In many of the places I’ve visited it’s the vehicle itself that has been easy for luggage with lugging bags up and down the stairs of old underground stations often much more challenging.
Labour sometimes refers to light rail as “rapid transit” but there is nothing rapid about rail on the streets, whether its is the smooth, quiet rolling stock of modern design or the rattling trams of yesteryear.
Rapid transit is a dedicated route such as a subway or busway, it is not a transport mode that has to share the road.
The Herald is correct that the key to rapid transit is that it has a dedicated route but dedicated route is different from a grade separated one. As mentioned above, protecting the route with kerbs will offer protection against use by cars and allow the light rail vehicles to run reliably.
It’s also worth pointing out that there’s a significant difference between the dinky of trams of the past and modern light rail. The latter could be carrying up to 450 passengers, maybe more depending on the design and as already mentioned, they’ll be on a dedicated right of way.
It’s also worth pointing out that this light rail plan isn’t just Labour’s. It’s the same plan agreed to and supported by AT and the NZTA. It’s also the same thing that the government have agreed to (eventually) and which Bill English was quoted on Sunday as saying is “a good project”.
This policy served the party’s need for its new leader to announce something bold and definitive.
Light rail is perfect for that purpose, it is flash and fashionable. But whether it could pass an economic test is the question voters should consider.
The last I checked we used defined tools and processes to determine the answers to an economic test, not a popularity contest. But if there were to be a popularity contest, I’m pretty sure most would just want the government to get on with it.