Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post was originally published by Matt in April 2017.

Since Auckland Transport and NZTA decided in the middle of last year to rule out Heavy Rail as the best way of serving the Airport with rapid transit, there has been a lot of ongoing consternation from many about this decision. The comments threads on posts about this topic are always long, sometimes enlightening, but also a lot of people seemingly talking past each other.

In general, it seems that most people broadly accept that a heavy rail link to the Airport from Onehunga is too expensive and too difficult. There remains some discussion about whether extending rail from Otahuhu is a viable option – Patrick blogged about this once – although many of the cost issues would be similar to the Onehunga option and the impact of such a route on housing in the area seems like it would be very significant. But most of the talk is about whether a route from Puhinui might be the best idea, this is also a common comment we see in other media. This was looked at in earlier phases of the Airport Rail project, with a few different alignments being examined:

As a branch line off the current Southern Line, presumably if you built this option then either some trains that are currently heading south along this line will either head to the Airport instead of their current destinations of Manukau or Papakura, or further services would need be added. This would mean something like what’s shown below:

This option obviously throws up a few questions:

What are the implications of running more trains on the southern line?

This is already the most constrained part of the rail network. Both the southern & eastern lines overlap between the Westfield and Wiri junctions, but these passenger services also overlap with the busiest section in the country for freight trains as there are shuttles from the Port of Auckland to their inland port at Wiri plus longer-distance trains heading to Tauranga or south of Hamilton. Clearly we’re going to need four-tracks along this whole section for this to work.

Furthermore, even taking freight out of the equation (say through dedicated tracks), there is still only so much capacity available across the rail network – CRL can increase this but only to a point. With Manukau already on its own branch line, another branch to the airport will mean we inevitably have to choose between running a limited number of trains to either the Airport, Manukau or Papakura. In effect, do we want three averagely serviced routes or two well serviced routes and with the way ridership continues to increase, we’re going to need all the capacity to Manukau and Papakura we can get in coming years.

How do trains connect with the North Island Main Trunk at Wiri?

Related to the above, this is a very messy area when it comes to railway tracks. There’s a lot going on here with the southern line branching east to Manukau just north of the motorway while immediately south of the motorway we have, the electric train depot to the west of the main line and the Wiri inland port to the east of it.

Auckland rail network is already constrained by the number of flat junctions it has, which makes timetabling services so they don’t suffer significant delays extremely difficult. As it is, the movements around the Wiri junction can cause issues and so adding another junction in so close would only exacerbate the issue further, both locally and across other parts of the network – for example a train held up at Wiri might go on to delay other services at Newmarket and Quay Park. Any additional branch line would almost certainly require significant junction infrastructure in the area to preserve the chance of having any reliability and that won’t come cheap.

How do you provide a heavy rail station within the Airport?

One of the key reasons why Auckland Transport ended up preferring light-rail to heavy rail was because of what happens within the Airport’s boundary itself. The AT Board paper highlighted this issue:

the heavy rail alignment is also significantly different within the airport precinct when compared to other rapid transit options. It requires tunnelling and an underground station to serve the Airport terminal. The different alignments have made the intent of the sub-regional strategy (to progressively develop up to heavy rail) problematic for Auckland International Airport Limited (AIAL) as they now have to hold two different routes over their land holding (one for light rail and one for heavy rail). This has prompted the AIAL to request clarity on the corridor as it impacts their development plans.” 

A number of different heavy rail alignments were looked at as part of the business case work. With the “red” option being the best. A link to Puhinui would probably more closely follow the green alignment, before continuing eastwards to cross the Pukaki Creek. The property impacts of this alignment are pretty obvious in the map below, while the station itself is pretty problematic given AT/NZTA have already let the Airport company know that they prefer light-rail and therefore the Airport no longer is planning its development around providing for a heavy rail corridor.

Even if you “could” build this line, should you?

Hopefully the points above have highlighted that, contrary to popular belief connecting to the heavy rail network at Puhinui isn’t really the “easy option” that it’s often made out to be. There would be extensive tunnelling within the Airport, there would be major and very complex track work around Puhinui to link in with the existing rail network and there would need to be substantial additional track infrastructure on much of the southern line to provide for these extra trains. That all adds up to a lot of money, ultimately for an option which only adds one train station onto the rail network.

One of the big advantages of the light-rail option is that you’re extending rapid transit to a pretty large chunk of Auckland, not just the Airport. Mangere, Mangere Bridge, Onehunga, Hillsborough and Mt Roskill all benefit significantly from the light-rail scheme as they gain access to fast, reliable, congestion free public transport for the wide variety of trips people take – not just for comparatively rare Airport passenger trips.

Ultimately I think the Puhinui option is not a great idea. It’s not as easy as many people think, especially because of the challenge of providing for a heavy rail corridor within the Airport and connecting to the southern line in a very busy and messy part of the rail network. Because it’s not easy, that means it’s likely to be quite a lot more expensive than you might think. But my main problem with this option is that it over-emphasises trying to serve Airport passengers, to the cost of everyone else. Analysis suggests over and over again that most people using rapid transit to the Airport in the future will be workers, not travellers. There wouldn’t be a direct service between the Airport and Manukau, or between Airport and areas to the south of Puhinui (unless you want to end up with really complex and messy, low frequency, service patterns). And huge chunks of southwest Auckland would miss out on gaining access to rapid transit.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t provide a rapid transit link from the Airport heading east. Doing so is clearly a no-brainer, but here it seems a busway through to Puhinui, Manukau, Flat Bush and Botany – with a really good interchange at Puhinui with the rail line – seems like a vastly more sensible option, and one that can be implemented much sooner too.

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  1. Let’s go stirring

    Anyway none of the suggest links work due to them running over either light or heavy industrial land that is beginning to be developed. Given the Unitary and Auckland Plans are very clear on preserving industrial land especially in the South putting over a heavy rail line will run auto contra to those two plans.

    In any case BRT or LRT is set for Botany to Airport via Manukau and Puhinui. It still serves as an express link to the airport even with the transfer at Puhinui as you could catch Regional Rapid Rail from Britomart to Puhinui, transfer and then catch whatever out to the airport all done in 30mins

    Papakura to the Airport via the Southern Line and a transfer becomes 35mins

    We also get a brand new Rapid Transit Corridor and some 16 stations too – perfect for transit orientated developments

  2. Buses are inferior. LR should go to Puhinui and Manukau at least, and maps/fares should not distinguish, as if it is the same mode as HR, just different rolling stock.

    Through services could run, but the airport station should enable layovers and changes in direction. I also think the airport LR route should run up to New Lynn and to Panmure. Service patterns could vary immensely eg New Lynn to Manukau via Airport but enable a high frequency core through Mangere. Eventually the Onehunga trains will be a capacity suck on the CRL.

    1. With LR running through Onehunga, would the current HR track (and all its expensive-to-fix level crossings) even be needed anymore?

      1. I think it will become even more important. It will be the link between the line through Mangere and the airport, to a few major points like Ellerslie, Newmarket and Parnell. Handy part of the network that.

        1. But there are only two HR stops that are specific to the Onehunga branch line: Te Papapa and Onehunga. The others you mention I agree are handy, but they are also served by the Southern line.

          If HR isn’t going to the airport via Onehunga then why have that spur if it is going to be serviced by LR via Dominion Rd and New Lynn? Seems a huge waste of time and money to me, to grade separate all the crossings for a two-stop dead-end.

        2. I had recently been leaning the same way – seeing great potential in eliminating the Onehunga line and using the corridor as part of a great East-West LR route from Panmure to Avondale and possibly beyond. Seeing the latest ATAP and RLTP documents, though, I’m now leaning back towards the line having it’s greatest strength as a connection between HR and LR networks as described by Nick R.

          The new info seems to support rumours of a Mt Smart station, 6-car compatibility and some degree of double tracking. Older info, like the proposed CRL running maps illustrate the merit of giving trains from the Western end of the combined line somewhere to terminate that doesn’t clog the main lines at bottlenecks like Newmarket and Penrose junctions.

          Either of these possibilities would be grand, and right now the one based on the status quo looks, by a narrow margin, to be the grander.

        3. “But there are only two HR stops that are specific to the Onehunga branch line: Te Papapa and Onehunga. The others you mention I agree are handy, but they are also served by the Southern line.”

          But the southern line doesn’t connect to the Mangere-Airport line, and it doesn’t provide a direct path to Parnell or Britomart.

          If you remove the Onehunga Branch, you have two parallel lines that don’t touch until K Road station.

      2. I see the Onehunga branch long-term as being part of an eventual crosstown LR line running from Rosebank to Pakuranga, connecting all the other RT lines. It would share the Airport LR alignment between Roskill and Onehunga. This would be an important and necessary development to provide an “anywhere to anywhere “ RT network.

        1. I do love this idea, but I’m stuck on how to go about arranging an LR junction at Onehunga. If we don’t want a “drive in and back out” situation like the Western trains at Newmarket, and we don’t want the E-W and N-S Onehunga stops to be in different places and we don’t want the expense of tunnelling, bridging or mass demolition, then I’m at a loss as to how to run that junction. As I write I wonder if the long term also contains a revived Symonds-Newmarket-Onehunga LR line that could ultimately become the primary North-South City-Airport route, leaving the Roskill corridor for the E-W line. Dominion, Sandringham and Mt Eden Road lines terminating at the E-W line as per the original Isthmus proposal.

        2. The HR station at Onehunga is planned to be under the LR one so changing the HR component to LR could be upgraded I’m sure to a continuous line but nothing wrong with a transfer in a sheltered building if the services are frequent.

  3. The vast majority of tourists flying into the airport will be wanting to go to Auckland CBD where their accommodation is booked. Few will want to go south, and a deviation via Puhinui is timewasting. A Puhinui rail connection won’t do anything for residents of Mangere Bridge and Mangere. Onehunga Line extension makes sense, because stations in those suburbs were always part of the plan.

    For travellers going to the airport, in addition to tourists booking out of their CBD accommodation to fly home, many outbound NZedders are business people who predominantly live in east Auckland and the North Shore. The more direct Onehunga Line extension wins here too. Those business people WILL use PT to avoid airport parking fees and vandalism in the carpark.

    1. +1. And since the proposed LRT is not about the airport then more reason to extend the HR from Onehunga to the airport.

    2. I think if well off business people are the target then LR probably wins as there will be a one ride LR trip from the North Shore to the Airport, whereas HR will require a transfer. In addition a significant proportion of these people would live on the isthmus and would find Dominion Rd LR to the airport quite handy.

      That’s academic though as I doubt business people will make this line pay, they are more likely to park in the building right by the airport so probably don’t have an issue with vandalism. Have you had a car vandalised at the airport? I have parked there many times and never had any issues.

      1. A one-trip LRT ride from the North Shore is decades away. Let’s talk about things that are doable by 2025, not 2040. The additional harbour crossing and LRT on the northern busway will not get done before 2040, trust me. Nobody at this stage can even decide on what mix of PT and private car lanes would work best for the crossing.

        1. Neil planing multi-billion dollar urban infrastructure can only be done over the long term. Underground rail systems are typically once in a century investments. Surface rail more regularly, bus systems over decades (I know; recently China has an exception to this pattern, but very exceptional circumstances there).

          AKL is getting, through a bus/train interchange at Puhinui ‘Trains to the Planes’, very very fast, by end 2020. If you will only accept a one seat train ride, then you’ll get nothing till LR is complete, and that’ll take at best twice that long, possibly a decade.

          And to flip that over the harbour? Depending on how successful a PPP model for LR they come up with is, it could either start directly after the first two lines, but certainly by mid 2030s, by which time the Busway will be rammed.

          In terms of the city’s development, these time lines are reasonable, the tragedy is that we took so long to get started, we ought to have much of this already. But we don’t, We can only start form here: We had to wait for the tarmac junkies to stop smoking all the money first.

          And for the advocates to come along and change the discourse!

        2. Even without LR to the North Shore I don’t see how a transfer from the Busway to HR is superior to Busway to LR.

          Have you looked at a map? HR going via Onehunga is not more direct, there is a significant dogleg on the trip that takes it through Penrose even though it is nowhere near a straight line between the CBD and Airport.

    3. But is that enough to justify the extra spend that would be needed? Here are some quick numbers
      There are about 5m arrivals at the international terminal every year (similar departures too). Just under half of these are on NZ Passports and so will be going somewhere within Auckland or to the domestic terminal. If you were to include locals on other passports etc, that number would increase. That might leave about 40% as tourists/visitors. Of those, a decent proportion will hire a vehicle and drive straight out of Auckland, or get a domestic flight out. Once you break it all down, you might be lucky to get 5k journeys a day, perhaps 10 with domestic trips. There’s no way you could justify the extra cost for that. As a comparison, our HR network currently moves 70k+ per day. CRL is say 50% dearer but more than doubles useage and could only just scrape across the line

      1. Bravo, Sir. Facts, facts, facts. Any discussion of public transport that focuses on the needs of tourists bedding in CBD hotels is surely doomed to miss the point. If I had a teenager handy I would commission some kind of pie chart to illustrate just how diverse the South-Western patronage is expected to be and in particular, the smallness of the proportion of international tourists bearing luggage to and from CBD hotels.

  4. I am still half and half about the benefits of LR from Auckland city to airport. I have doubts about the traffic congestion along Queens Street and Dominion Road and onto Onehunga. I understand the need to service the communities of Favona, Mangere, Ascot and the Airport Business district but would it be better to use HR from Onehunga to the Airport following the proposed LR route, especially when the CRL will relieve the current rail congestion at Britomart.

    With the completion of the CRL, frequent clockwise and anti clockwise HR trains between Britomart, Newmaket, Remuera, Ellerslie, Greenlane, Penrose, Te Papapa, Onehunga, Mangere Bridge, Favona, Mangere, Ascot, Airport Business Centre and Airport would be a better option, then using multiple stop LR system. This would be better for the 5,000 odd international tourists.

    With frequent regional rail being proposed from Hamilton and Tauranga, passengers from these cities and surrounding communities, can travel to Penrose to change for train services from Penrose to the Airport giving a good economic return on investment in suburban HR. With proposed LR system, this can not be done.

    With regards HR Puhinui to Airport, I can not see a good economic return on investment for a rail service. It would be economical to have a dedicated busway as planned.

    Just a note – InterCity Coachlines already has 4 daily non-stop coach services from SkyCity to the Airport via the Waterview Tunnel, with fares from $10.00 per adult. The running time for these services from the city to airport is 25 minutes. These services have standard and InterCity’s Gold luxury seats. There are 4 non-stop Airport to Skycity services via the Waterview Tunnel for the same fares. Skybus a frequent daily city/airport/city bus for the international tourists.

    1. “With frequent regional rail being proposed from Hamilton and Tauranga, passengers from these cities and surrounding communities, can travel to Penrose to change for train services from Penrose to the Airport giving a good economic return on investment in suburban HR. With proposed LR system, this can not be done.”

      Yes, they are planning a upgraded Puhinui station exactly for that purpose to transfer to the initial busway (then later LRT) to the airport. With the saving from not doing HR (with it’s upgrades needed) along the Onehunga Line you could pay for light rail all the way to Botany.

    2. Kris there will be no traffic congestion on Queen St because there will be no cars there at all. None. Zero.

      Traffic on Dominion Rd will be severely restricted, and we know what happens when we do that, it goes both away, and goes celsewhere. And when we add a really good alternative to driving at the same time, it will mostly just disappear, as the traffic on Albert St has during the construction. Just evaporated. From 25k to 2.5k, and with no measurable new pressure on adjacent streets.

      Please don’t worry about the city (finally) building alternatives to driving ‘causing’ traffic congestion. You know what causes traffic congestion? Traffic.

      Not building alternatives to driving, and allowing driving everywhere, is what causes this deadly blight. It’s really a societal choice, we don’t have to take part in it if we make better investment decisions.

      Like this one.

      PS. Don’t confuse a high quality transit service through the city, the Isthmus, and Mangere, that happens to end at the Airport, with stops, with a City to Airport non-stop motorway bus. That’s just for travellers. The Transit service is for all citizens and for everywhere along the route. Not apples and apples. Additionally the motorway maybe fine now but it will always be subject to congestion and crashes and therefore unpredictable journey times. I’ll be on the train or the LR, ta.

  5. This is a superb analysis of the Puhinui-Airport concept. While an express train from Britomart to the Airport via Puhinui would be a wonderful and swift thing, it could be as costly as the old and rejected Onehunga route and also have huge opportunity costs. We would kiss goodbye to hopes of light rail to the South-West, North-West, North Shore and the Manukau-Botany-Panmure crescent. We would kiss goodbye to capacity for express trains from the Southern suburbs or Hamilton and Tauranga. We would kiss goodbye to future capacity for growth in freight between the Port-Westfield-Wiri and Metroport-Tauranga and the rest of the country. The good news is that nobody who actually knows what they’re talking about, or has any influence, is fooled by this red herring of a route.

    1. If the answer to “do you want LR via Onehunga or HR via Puhinui?” is “both”, then the answer to “do you want a regional petrol tax or a 14% rates increase?” probably also has to be “both”.

  6. Normally when I fly in to Auckland, I go and wait outside (in the wind and rain cos you treat us tourists like shit) and then catch the bus. Reasonably good service as long as no one is parking in the bus lanes.

    I’m keen to try the route via Puhinui – it seems like a very simple straight route out east, but is there a bus route that goes there already? Or is it just the 380 to Papatoetoe to then wander the streets and try and find the link? Someone from AT should try the route themselves and see how hard it is if you are a tourist – especially if you are a foreign tourist who can’t speak or read the (non-existent) signs. Confusing as hell.

    Simplicity and clarity are the keys here.

    1. Yes currently it is the 380 airporter to Papatoetoe. However a bus rapid transit link to Puhinui is one of the government, and AT’s, top priorities right now and it is being investigated for rapid implementation.

    2. Having used the 380 bus in its [former] half hour frequency incarnation, more than once – and even like that its easy, and it works.

      It takes you right from the domestic terminal at the airport to the international terminal then straight on to the station at Papatoeoe, you then only have to pull your luggage up a ramp (not stairs!) to the overbridge then down a similar ramp onto the station platform – tagging on as you do so. From there catch a train north or south.

      If you miss a train, there’ll be another one is along shortly as the frequency is pretty good..

      Going in reverse (train to airport), is slightly more time sensitive at times at Papatoetoe – and you can get stuck in congested roads at Peak times e.g. evenings due to the circuit the bus does through Papatoetoe before heading to the airport. If you miss the bus connection here you could have had a half an hour wait.

      With 15 minute bus frequencies then those tight timing issues are pretty much gone.

      A big benefit is the bus drops you/picks you up right at the airport terminal door.
      So you can be half way to the train or through airport security – before a lot of folks would even have walked their luggage to/from the long term car park. Let alone “hit the road”.

  7. Under current plans we’re not even getting a dedicated bus way via Puhinui. It’s congestion lanes. Watered down version of dedicated bus way. Bus way is a watered down version of LR. LR is a watered down version of HR. More people live in Southern Auckland than on the isthmus. A lot of the industrial growth will be in the South relocating from Penrose and Onehunga. A lot of the current city infrastructure is in the South, eg airport and WaterCare. We need better transport within the South so people can stay working in South and alleviate the bottlenecks (HR, SH1, Great Sth Rd) of the thousands that travel to and from isthmus every morning and evening. Manukau metropolitan centre is currently a terminal for HR rather than a multi modal transport hub with spokes. Stop only looking at it from a city centric view but towards the future growth of the South and making Manukau the central point, spreading out east towards East Tamaki industrial and Botany, west to the airport and industrial surrounds, south through industrial Wiri, then Papakura, Pukekohe and North Waikato.

    1. I tried out the 380 the other week. Had tourist trying to catch the Yellow Hotel bus at the 380 “almost yellow” coloured stop & a couple of others all needed directions or help from the bus drivers. I think the stop caters for either direction of the 380, yet is unclear with the wording of the signage if you ask me. Currently the AT website is not showing this stop properly on it’s own website?!

    2. Great reply Tasi

      What many are also not seeing in an HR link at Puhinui is the potential to link for industry to rail. Let’s not forget passengers are not rail’s prime revenue generator.

  8. LR has more limited capacity and more variability due to commonly being on road surfaces and HR can be much more frequent and is more straightforward as it it one of the current main systems. also the entire rail network is being upgraded for the CRL and the onehunga extension could have a branching to onehunga port and have access for the industrial area. With Auckland needing to speed up growth to alleviate housing prices, we need an option here and now to serve us for a long time that won’t need replacing

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