Greetings from France! Before getting into the detail, I thought I’d lull you into a sense of calm by sharing a photo from one of the little villages (Saint Beat) we recently visited. P.s. The Pyrenees are stunning.
I started writing this post while sitting on the TGV from Toulouse to Paris, which takes circa 4.5 hours via a new section of track between Bordeaux and Paris that opened approximately 2 months ago.
My partner and I were actually swooshing our way to Paris so as to see Bon Iver in concert, so I was feeling relatively in love with life. Over the last few years — especially when travelling by train — I’ve often pondered long-term heavy rail networks in Auckland, with a particular interest in how the Southern line may need to evolve into the future. My interest in this area partly reflects the fact that I grew up in Waiuku, and also that the south is the most complicated part of our rail network with the most potential for growth (NB: This is an issue to which I return below).
The complexity of the Southern line reflects at least four factors: First, the Southern line is already relatively long, and it has the potential to become longer. Second, and unlike the Western line, demand at stations on the Southern Line are relatively imbalanced: There are a large number of low-demand stations, and only a few high-demand stations. Third, in the last decade, two branch lines have been added to the Southern Line, namely the Onehunga and Manukau branches, creating both challlenges and opportunities for heavy rail operations. Finally, the Southern line experiences the most passenger-freight conflicts, undermining reliability.
Greater Auckland has considered some of these issues in the past. In the CFN2, for example, we proposed pairing the Southern line with the Eastern line and running services express between Puhinui and Newmarket. The CFN2 also pairs the Western line with the Onehunga line, and upgrades the latter to frequent status — providing frequent service to those stations that are now skipped by the Southern line itself. The CFN2 operating pattern is shown below.
There is much to like about this network in general and the heavy rail operating pattern in particular. The latter is exceedingly simple, consisting of only two lines that can — by implication — run at higher frequencies. Moreover, by skipping 5 stations (Papatoetoe, Middlemore, Penrose, Greenlane, and Remuera) on ye olde Southern line, approximately 5 minutes is saved on trips between the City Centre and stations south of Puhinui, such as Pukekohe and Papakura (NB: Note that the first two stations are still served by the Eastern tail of the red line, whereas the other three are served by the Onehunga line).
One potential downside of this operating pattern, however, is that pairing the Southern and Eastern lines creates a relatively long line that is more sensitive to issues with reliability. Such a pairing is also relatively indirect, and as such less useful than, say, pairing the Southern with a Northern line. Indeed, the CFN2 operating pattern is not particularly well-suited to expansions in the heavy rail network, especially to the north but also the south. Given the uncertainty about Auckland’s future growth, I think we should keep thinking about potentially extending heavy rail in both directions.
North of the city, heavy rail extensions could complement the two LRT lines shown in the CFN2, especially for longer journeys to places like Albany, Silverdale/Orewa, Warkworth, and (in the long, long run) Whangarei. Expanding heavy rail to the north may also free-up capacity in the CRL. If we were to build a North Shore line then the heavy rail operating pattern shown in the CFN2 would need to be re-visited. Instead, I’d expect to see a north-south pattern catering for cross-city journeys, for example from the North Shore to Newmarket. Such movements are not catered for by the LRT lines.
Potential heavy rail extensions to the south are also gaining increased attention. All political parties now accept the merits of extending electrification to Pukekohe, primarily to service the residential and employment growth that is expected down that way. In doing so, this will open up the potential for new stations between Papakura and Pukekohe, such as Drury and Paerata, and possibly beyond. Thinking further ahead, Greater Auckland’s recent work developing concepts for Regional Rapid Rail (RRR) garnered considerable attention and support. The third stage of the proposed RRR network is illustrated below.
While I like the RRR concept in general, I am sceptical of one aspect in particular: The proposal to stop RRR servicess at smaller stations on the fringe of major urban centres, such as Tuakau, Pokeno, Te Rapa, and Morrinsville. Stopping at the five stations between Hamilton and Auckland, for example, adds ~10 minutes to journeys between those points (NB: Remembering that RRR services will have longer dwell-times than Metro services). I’d argue 10 minutes is a relatively large delay in the context of a 1-2 hour journey, given that the vast majority of people will be travelling between HAM and AKL, not intermediate stations. The time savings from not serving smaller stations will be even greater if the Bombay tunnel is not forthcoming.
That’s not to say that I disagree with the RRR’s goal of supporting regional growth more broadly, including places like Pokeno and Te Rapa. I think regional growth is an important goal, albeit one that is perhaps not best achieved via RRR. Are there other options for serving these locations that would leave RRR services free to do what they do best: That is, to provide a high-speed connection between major urban centres? I think so. In general, my thinking is that small to medium-sized locations on the fringe of major urban centres would better served by a more frequent — albeit slightly slower — public transport connection to surrounding urban centres, from where people can connect to Metro and RRR services for travel further afield.
In this post, I present a high-level option that seeks to integrate the operating patterns in CFN2 and RRR and — in the process — provides an operating pattern that is readily adapted to potential heavy rail extensions to Auckland’s north and south. The general characteristics of this option could work as follows:
- Regional Rapid Rail — runs express between major urban centres, such as Auckland, Hamilton, and eventually Tauranga, with very few stops in between. Morrinsville and Huntly stand out as prime candidates. In doing so, the RRR service can run as fast and as frequently as possible, and provide a viable alternative to driving and flying for the large number of journeys between these major urban centres.
- Metro Services — are extended south from Auckland, eventually to Hamilton. Upon reaching Hamilton the services may split to serve surrounding destinations like Te Kuiti, Rotorua, and Cambridge, but at a higher frequency — and potentially with additional stops — than originally proposed in RRR. This connects regional locations to each other and the RRR, while allowing the latter to focus on its bread and butter. I talk as if these regional Metro services are operated using rail, but they could well be provided by buses, at least initially until rail infrastructure upgrades were forthcoming.
In terms of how we might configure Metro rail services south of Auckland, one idea would be to slightly modify the CFN2 operating pattern as shown below.
In this alternative option I have:
- Eastern line — running basically the same as today.
- Onehunga line — running all-stop between Onehunga and Britomart and through to Western line, as per CFN2 proposal.
- Southern line — running express all-day from Pukekohe, stopping as per CFN2. In the event HR is extended north of Auckland, however, Southern line services are extended so as to provide a rapid cross-town heavy rail service rather than paired with the Eastern line.
- Southern connector — runs between major metro stops south of Auckland, such as Puhinui, Papakura, and Pukekohe and all-stop to new rural stations further south, such as Drury, Paerata, Tuakau, Pokeno, and Te Kauwhata. If there is demand to extend the service all the way to Hamilton, then the line could at that point split to service Te Kuiti, Cambridge, and Rotorua. In doing so, the line would connnect them to their closest urban centres as well as the rapid Regional services available therefrom. I’ve shown the service stopping at Puhinui, from which people can connect to the airport. It is also likely to be relatively efficient, given its proximity to the depot.
Important note: The above operating pattern would also need to be supported by complementary changes to bus networks, which are not shown here.
What I have called the “Southern connector” represents the main point of difference between this option and what is proposed in CFN2 and RRR. Thanks to track upgrades associated with RRR, I expect such a Southern connector could operate at relatively high speeds. The Southern Connector is really an intermediary service that seeks to isolate the Regional and Metro networks. I think this delivers three main benefits:
- First, RRR services between AKL / HAM / TGN are able to run as fast and as frequently as possible, stopping only at major stations.
- Second, Southern line services are able to run express (Paris “RER” style) all-day between Pukekohe / Papakura and destinations to the north. Such an arrangement might complement the LRT services proposed in the CFN2, which — despite their advantages — still do not provide a direct nor fast connection between the northern and eastern parts of the North Shore and destinations to the south, such as Newmarket.
- Third, smaller suburban and regional destinations south of Auckland are able to be added into the rail network without compromising the speed and reliability of core RRR or Metro services. By connecting to Puhinui, people using the service from these locations would then be only one transfer removed from Auckland Airport, as noted in Patrick’s post from a couple of months ago.
The last point is not something to be sniffed at. As Auckland and Hamilton develop, there is likely to be increased demand for sub-regional travel from suburban and rural locations, especially to and from destinations south of Auckland, such as Auckland Airport. And with that demand will come increased political pressure to add new stations to the network, as we’ve already seen in Auckland. By developing a service like the Southern connector, we don’t have to be quite so brutal with regards to the criteria we use to establish new stations.
What are the downsides of this operating pattern? Well, it does rely on some infrastructure upgrades, particularly the third/fourth main and electrification to allow for express services to skip stops and overtake other services, although I note this will be necessary anyway especially if the CFN2 and RRR proposals get off the ground. Some additional rolling stock may be required, because we are effectively running an additional line, although this may be offset by efficiencies elsewhere, such as those gained from pairing the Southern line with the (new) Northern line, which would (in the case of the CFN2) require an additional stand alone line.
Finally, does the Southern connector not duplicate the Southern line? To some degree yes, as can be seen by the overlap in the Puhinui to Pukekohe segment. I’d counter this by noting that this part of the Auckland and Waikato regions lies naturally in the commuting zone for both cities. As such, it seems reasonable to provide service in both directions. One possible variant on this network, albeit one that would involve more duplication, would extend the Southern line further south to Pokeno and provide P&R so as to intercept car trips on SH1 and SH2. I’m open to this proposal, and others.
In conclusion, the purpose of this post is to highlight options for heavy rail operating patterns identified in Greater Auckland’s CFN2 and RRR proposals. Whether this is an improvement on those previous proposals is a moot point, and depends largely on how much growth we expect to occur in Auckland and Hamilton and, on a related point, the degree to which we want to extend the heavy rail network. If we expect considerable growth, and expansions in the heavy rail network, then I think we will need to think about developing a service, such as the Southern Connector, which sits between the Metro and Regional services planned in the CFN2 and RRR proposals. Interested to hear what y’all think; take care out there care bears.