In the debate over light rail in Auckland, opposition to it generally falls into two camps
- that we should build heavy rail instead
- that we can just use buses, especially new technology buses.
In this post, I want to focus that second camp and particularly on that last part.
The need for something to be done to improve access to the city centre is increasingly clear. Over the last decade alone, bus use in Auckland has increased from around 42 million trips to 65 million trips, a 52% increase. Much of that growth is to the city centre where combined with more trips on trains and ferries, now more than 50% of people every morning arrive in the city by public transport. With the number arriving by car about the same, it means that all growth in trips to the city has come from increases in the use of public transport, walking or cycling.
At various times of the day there are often long queues of buses streaming into and out of the city. All it takes is a slight change or disruption and busaggedon occurs, like it did last week in the image below. This is only expected to become a more common sight in the future as the use of PT continues to rise.
The classic Wellesley Street bus sausage pic.twitter.com/WoOhA83QAM
— Liz Allen (@place_creative_) February 12, 2018
Whilst the need for change is now acknowledged, by most, how this is done remains a point of contention. We’re continuing to hear that some within our various transport agencies are wanting bus-based solutions. The primary reason for their opposition to light rail is the cost of building it. To avoid the cost but also provide more capacity than normal buses, the current fascination is a concept out of China dubbed ‘trackless trains’. In essence this is an electric, articulated, guided bus.
The idea has been getting plenty of press recently but is really just the latest in a long line of ideas to repackage existing bus technology and give it a new look and a new name. It’s easy to see why the idea is appealing to many, it looks almost identical to modern light rail vehicles, has a lot of capacity but is much cheaper to build/install. The idea seems almost too good to be true, and it might just be. Here are some of the reasons sticking with light rail, as planned, is likely to be the safer option
The risk of a technology cul-de-sac
The aspect that makes this different from most buses is that it is guided by a set of lines painted on the road. Guided buses aren’t a new technology and there are various different ways of doing it. There are a couple of mechanically guided busways, such as Adelaide’s O-Bahn, that use guide wheels against a kerb to keep buses on track. A couple of systems use magnetic sensors embedded in the road to guide a bus. There are even already optically guided buses, such as in Rouen, France, that like the trackless train proposal, uses painted lines on the road to guide buses.
A major concern with many of these systems is that compared to light rail, many of these systems are relatively new and not widely used. Some have already proven to be too unreliable have had to be pulled out. For example, many of the magnetically guided busways have been removed because they were unreliable and an optically guided busway in Las Vegas was removed because it was found to be too difficult to keep the markings clean.
This is further exacerbated by the fact that many of these systems tend to use proprietary technology only available from a single supplier. That creates a huge risk of lock in that could come back to haunt us down the road, especially so if the technology is no longer supported. By comparison, there a heap of suppliers to choose from that make high quality light rail vehicles.
While the examples mentioned all existed, the has been no shortage of late of other fantastical, and normally stupid, ideas. Let’s not forget the straddle bus which turned out to be a scam, or the bizzare gyro bus, or any number of other future visions being cranked out by various companies.
Auckland has enough issues as it is, we can’t afford for Auckland to be a Guinea Pig for unproven new technology
Capacity claims don’t add up
The press for the trackless train claims the vehicle can hold 300 people. This seems highly unlikely given the vehicle is only about 30m long. As a comparison, AT say that a 66m light rail vehicle will hold up to 420 people. The interior of the vehicle doesn’t suggest a huge amount of standing space either and a capacity of 180-200 people seems more realistic.
But even if it could hold 300 people, it’s not enough, which is why AT are going for higher capacity vehicles.
You can have too much frequency
One answer to capacity constraints would be to increase the frequency but that brings about its own issues. One of the features of the plans for light rail are to use signal preemption so that the vehicles get green lights all the way down Dominion Rd and the city. But this doesn’t work if frequencies get too high or other roads, like Balmoral Rd, would never get enough time in a phase. That then puts you back to the situation we have now where buses can get caught at lights and end up bunched and then platooning down the bus lanes.
The frequency issue is even more important in the city where Queen St is set to become a transit mall. One of the advantages of Light Rail, with slightly lower frequencies, is that there will generally be plenty of time when there’s not a vehicle in sight and it will be super easy to cross Queen St. More frequent buses to make up for capacity limitations will make it harder for pedestrians and so compromise on the goals for the city centre.
It might not end up that much cheaper
The cost is the big selling point for ideas like this but it’s possible they don’t end up that much cheaper in the long run. The main reason light rail costs so much is the need to dig up the road and strengthen it to handle the weight of the light rail vehicles. These buses, like light rail, are big and heavy pieces of equipment. Driven n a normal busway or road this may not be such an issue due to slight variations in the location within a lane that different drivers have. On a guided busway though, the buses will be in exactly the same location each time, day after day, year after year. This could lead to the need to more regularly repair the surface or potentially even strengthen it just like we’d have had to do with light rail.
Furthermore, while disruptive, sometimes it can be worth digging up the road anyway. One of the benefits discovered from building light rail on the Gold Coast was that by necessity they had to replace a lot of aging underground infrastructure. That meant they were able to replace infrastructure like water pipes it with modern, higher capacity versions which in turn unlocked more development capacity.
I do think that this technology is promising and definitely worth keeping an eye on, but I’m not convinced that Auckland should so quick to jump on the bandwagon. Let’s at least wait till at least a handful of cities have successfully rolled this out and ironed out all the kinks. Let’s also wait till there are multiple suppliers with inter-operable systems. Unfortunately, even without the capacity/frequency issues that I think would be an issue for the city centre, I don’t think Auckland can afford to wait. We need to get on fixing transport in this city and so should get on with installing light rail as soon as possible.
Where I think this technology, or something like it, could be particularly useful is on some of the non-city centre rapid transit routes. For example, running along the Eastern busway to Botany and Howick, from the airport to Manukau and then Botany. Perhaps also some of the slightly lower isthmus routes like Sandringham and Mt Eden Roads.