Whether to run express services or not is an age-old debate when it comes to public transport. Speed and coverage/accessibility are some of the many variables that need to be traded off against each other when designing a network.
In Auckland, the most notable place this debate is currently occurring is in regard to the airport. As part of the many discussions here and elsewhere about how we serve the airport with high-quality public transport, a common refrain is that current proposals are too slow and that instead we need fast dedicated services Britomart to the airport via Puhinui.
The current plans would see two new high-quality connections built
- Light Rail from the city to the airport via Dominion Rd. This is has been estimated to take about 42 minutes from the middle of town and I was able to back this number up earlier this year when I built my own model to calculate travel times.
- A busway from the airport initially to a significantly upgraded Puhinui station and then Manukau but eventually all the way to Botany, a project now given the appropriate title of A2B. Using the same model, it suggested the option of a train from town to Puhinui and then a bus to the airport would take about the same time as the light rail option.
With an express service it has been suggested airport travellers could reach the airport in just over 30 minutes. But as the title of the post says, an express is not always the best. Here’s a few reasons why.
Think about the whole network
In an excellent piece on airport transit that came about following the failure of a dedicated airport express train in Toronto, Human Transit author Jarrett Walker sums up the issue well:
Do you think that specialized airport express trains are the key to high transit mode share to an airport? Think again. What matters is not just the train to downtown, but the whole transit network and the airport’s position in it. Where can you get to on that network, and how soon? (A true assessment of this issue would have included bus services too, of course.) London’s Heathrow, for example, has a high-fare express train very much like Toronto’s, but it also has a slower train that makes more stops for a lower fare, and a subway line that makes even more stops and serves even more places. Those lines connect to more services, and are therefore more useful to far more people.
Basic math: 1000 airport employees using an airport service every day are more ridership than 100,000 air travelers using it, on average, maybe a couple of times a year.
This is the simple reason that airport transit politics are so frustrating. Everyone wants to believe in transit to the airport, because they might ride it a few times a year. But to create a great airport train (or bus) for air travelers, you have to make it useful to airport employees too That generally means a service that’s an integral part of the regional transit network, not a specialized airport train.
Below is Auckland’s proposed rapid transit network from ATAP. Think about how it would compare to the express train only option some suggest which consists of a spur off the southern line at Puhinui. In particular, think about how many travellers or staff want to travel from the airport to Britomart, or vice versa. Then think about how many other people there are in Auckland who may want/need to travel to the airport for travel or work. Under such a plan would they need to make their way to Britomart first even if that meant travelling in the wrong direction for a time? For example, how would someone in Mt Roskill get to the airport by PT, would they need to catch a bus or Light Rail (on Dominion Rd only) to the city first? How about someone from Papakura, or Botany or any other location in Auckland.
To add further to the points above, it is hard to justify dedicated services that only serve a small segment of the total journeys. This means that it would be unlikely we’d be able to justify running it at any serious frequency and so it’s likely it wouldn’t run more than half hourly. That would be more than sufficient to make it not able to be relied upon for regular travel and use. In essence, pushing for an express service would be copying Toronto in trying to run before we can walk.
In this regard, Jarrett’s post mentioned above also includes this table from a Toronto study on airport lines. As you can see, all other airports listed that have express services also have metro/rapid services. It’s also interesting to note the air passenger share which is quite low, even for locations with significant PT infrastructure.
Faster trips without a dedicated express service
Finally, there are a few ways we can get some of the benefits of an express service without building a dedicated express train.
The Limited Stop Southern Line
At peak times there is already a train heading in each direction every five minutes. The City Rail Link will allow for higher frequencies and link the Southern and Eastern lines together. Where the two lines overlap, one option could be to still serve all stations on trains originating from Manukau but have the Papakura/Pukekohe originating trains skip a few stations. They could also do this on the inner southern line where they overlap with the Western line trains. With the increased frequencies this could still provide five minute frequency services to the stations skipped while also benefiting those travelling from south of Manukau to points further north. This is something we included in our Congestion Free Network map.
In total this would skip Remuera, Greenlane, Middlemore and Papatoetoe. By my calculations this option would save approximately six minutes on a trip from Aotea to Puhinui for a 26 minute journey time.
The Regional Rapid Rail express
There is growing support for inter-regional rail services. An important factor in developing these successfully will be on being able to get those services through the Auckland urban area in a timely manner. Once infrastructure such as the third, and eventually fourth, main south of Otahuhu are built, it could allow these inter-regional services to express from Britomart all the way to the upgraded Puhinui station on it’s way to Hamilton. This would allow even faster journey times and passengers could then transfer to a frequent airport connection. It should take about 20 minutes to get from Britomart to Puhinui non-stop and could allow for a trip from the city to the airport in under 30 minutes.
The option would be of use for those travelling to/from the Britomart area, such as those transferring from ferries. Of course, this would need to be priced correctly to ensure those doing longer distance travel weren’t crowded out but could provide some additional benefit for those services.