The idea of providing Airport rail through a short spur from Puhinui is one of those ideas that continues to pop up. It emerged again in an opinion piece the NZ Herald ran just over a week ago (which was oddly a repeat of a piece they ran exactly a month earlier). The article is frankly quite embarrassing as it appears that the writer hasn’t even bothered to look at the issue before providing his opinions. But given how frequently similar comments come up in the public realm, it’s worth discussing again.
A light rail line from the airport to the CBD via Dominion Rd is frankly a crackpot idea when there is a shorter, far cheaper and more practical solution possible. That is, of course, running light rail from the airport to the Puhinui rail station on the Southern Line.
The ill-conceived notion supported by the Auckland Council, and offered by the Labour Party at this election, is to somehow incorporate a double-track light rail line up the motorway from the airport through Mangere, then have the tracks cross a new bridge over the Manukau Harbour to Onehunga. From there the line must ascend the very steep hill to Hillsborough Rd, then jostle for several kilometres along already congested Dominion Rd and eventually run down Symonds St and into the city centre.
There is simply not room to squeeze in a double line plus safety zones in the centre of those roads while still having cars and trucks running on either side.
If the only thing we were interested in doing was to provide a rail link between the city centre and the Airport, targeted to airport passengers, then indeed this would probably be the easiest way to do that. That’s not to suggest at all that a Puhinui rail spur would be an easy thing to actually build.
As I discussed a few months back, such a project would run into enormous challenges around how it connects back into the Southern Line, how a station would be provided at the Airport and how you could come up with a decent operating pattern.
Even setting aside all those issues, the real problem with the Puhinui spur idea is that it leaves a whole pile of issues unsolved. Because it would only add an Airport station and only link to the existing southern line and turn towards the city, it actually ignores a whole heap of transport problems facing Auckland. Let’s go through those a bit:
- You wouldn’t have done anything about the bus congestion problem on Symonds Street and in the city centre, which is driving the need for Dominion Road light-rail.
- You wouldn’t have improved access to major employment areas for the Mangere area – a part of Auckland with heaps of redevelopment potential on its Housing NZ land and around the town centre.
- You wouldn’t have connected Onehunga with the Airport via a high quality public transport option, or Onehunga to the Dominion Road corridor.
- You wouldn’t have improved access to the Airport’s employment area for those coming from the southern isthmus or Mangere, or for those trying to get to the Airport from Manukau, Flat Bush or Botany
What’s revealing about this issue, is how much emphasis commentators tend to place on the “fast Airport to City trip” made by Airport passengers, over these other, arguably more important connections. Sure, Airport passengers are important and there’s a lot of press when trips between the city and the Airport are delayed. But for the vast majority of the population, the number of times they go to the Airport to travel on a plane is vastly outweighed by the number of times they make other trips – like to work, school, shops, to visit other people or whatever else it is they do. There are some exceptions to this rule of course – the comparatively small group of people who travel to and from the Airport extremely frequently. These include:
- People who make regular business trips… and…
This isn’t to say that we should ignore the Airport in our transport planning. Far from it, the airport is growing rapidly, both in terms of passenger numbers and as a major employment hub. As a place that tens of thousands of people a day travel to and from, the Airport is clearly a location that needs a lot of transport effort over time. This is especially so because our options for adding further road connections don’t really exist and so most future growth in capacity will need to be through public transport. But serving the Airport is really the icing on the cake of major needed rapid transit lines – not the cake itself. People who talk a lot about the need for a fast trip between the Airport and the city may have, simply because of their particular circumstances, a somewhat skewed view of priorities.
Ultimately, there are two major corridors in this part of Auckland that, over the next 10 or so years, need to be provided with rapid transit. The Airport happens to be at the end of each corridor, which is great as it can act an as excellent anchor and attract fairly strong two-way use of the corridors (this is also why Botany needs to grow as a successful major centre as it can anchor the corridor to the Airport and the AMETI corridor).
Developing both these corridors as strong rapid transit links also provides a variety of options for Airport travellers. If they want to get to the city centre as quickly as possible, they have the choice of
- A one seat light-rail trip that will take around 42-44 minutes
- A frequent, high quality bus (maybe light rail in future) to an upgraded Puhinui station where with a simple transfer they can connect to the Southern or Eastern lines in either direction – this may be slightly faster to some parts of the city.
In summary, Auckland simply can’t justify a major investment that’s only about serving a relatively tiny number of “Airport to City” trips. We have way too many other priorities and needs and you simply don’t generate the quantum of benefit to justify what would still be a very tricky project. However, by adding the Airport onto projects that also do a lot of other things we can justify providing excellent quality public transport to the Airport area from both the north and the east. And solve a lot of other problems while we’re at it.