At its core, the argument over between the proposed City Centre to Mangere light-rail line and a Puhinui-Airport heavy rail spur boils down to the importance we place on serving direct trips between the City Centre and the Airport, compared to the importance we place on meeting other transport needs of the city. If the goal is simply to provide a fast trip for airport travellers who are heading downtown, then of course you can see why the rail spur idea feels like an attractive option. There’s a heavy rail line not far from the airport, the land in between is largely farmland.
Some people travel to and from airports quite frequently (politicians especially!) but for most people the Airport is a place they might visit once or twice a year, if that. Furthermore, aside from international travellers and business travellers, most people using the Airport will be coming from all places across Auckland rather than just the city centre.
What this means is that services which focus solely on Airport travellers often struggle. A good example of this is The Union-Pearson Express service in Toronto where three years ago a short 3km line was built to connect the airport to the existing rail network. On paper, the service should do well. Toronto is a large city with more than 6 million people living nearby and the airport is busy, moving more than 47 million people last year to make it the 30th busiest in the world. The service is decent enough too with trains running every 15 minutes from 5am through to 1am and averges 56km/h to cover the 23km to the city.
Yet the airport train has struggled to attract sufficient ridership because it was so focused on a narrow market:
Toronto’s high-end airport express train is a failure. A city that urgently needs better transit has been saddled with a deluxe boutique rail service that cost $456-million to build and runs nearly empty, 19 1/2 hours a day.
The Union-Pearson Express (UPX) takes just 25 minutes to make the trip between Toronto’s Pearson Airport and the Union Station transportation hub at the heart of the downtown. That’s where the good news ends.
This publicly funded line was inexplicably designed as a premium service for business travellers, with a one-way fare of $27.50. That makes it a pointless option for the average commuter. But just to emphasize that point, UPX incorporates only two inconvenient stops along its route.
Even business travellers aren’t exactly thronging to UPX. Not all of them are heading for a single-downtown destination, it turns out, and few of them are sacrificing the door-to-door convenience of a cab or limo. Trains are running at under 10 per cent capacity and carrying about 2,200 riders a day, and falling – aggravating the frustrations of ordinary Torontonians who badly want and need transit to and from downtown, but whose tax dollars were arbitrarily redirected to this white elephant on wheels.
More recently fares have been slashed and ridership has grown a bit, but a city much larger than Auckland has struggled to support a service that is so solely focused on Airport travellers.
Light-rail’s strength is that serving air passengers is just a small part of what this line will do. This is outlined in ATAP, with air travellers being probably the least important of the four key jobs the project is tasked with – notably only 4% of trips along the corridor in the morning peak are expected to be “end to end” traveller journeys:
While a heavy rail spur from Puhinui (if it was even possible to build in a cost-effective way, which is highly doubtful) would be able to meet the needs of 4% of trips along the light-rail corridor, it doesn’t help the other 96% of trips. This means it won’t help reduce city centre bus congestion, it won’t provide better access to jobs at the airport for people living in Mangere, Onehunga, Mt Roskill, or areas to the south and east of the Airport, and it won’t unlock the major growth opportunities along the corridor. In short, even if you build the heavy rail spur you still need light-rail.
The other big loser from the heavy rail spur idea are people living along the Airport to Botany corridor. This area, as shown in the map below, is a critical employment catchment for the Airport and a key part of the future rapid transit network.
While its exact route is still being worked out, conceptually this corridor provides a one-seat journey into the Airport for a large part of south and east Auckland – and then with a connection at Puhinui access to the entire rail network. Once again this is discussed in ATAP:
A heavy rail spur means that (assuming there is a connection point at Puhinui) everyone east of Puhinui now loses their one-seat ride to the Airport, while everyone south of Puhinui on the rail network still needs to change trains at Puhinui. Once again a lot of people lose out, just to save a few minutes for direct trips between the city centre and the Airport.
Therefore in summary, if you compare a Puhinui spur with light rail, you get a bit of a win for people travelling between the city centre and the Airport, but at a huge loss for everyone else. Instead of helping to fix many of Auckland’s most significant transport and housing problems, you get a line that’s probably going to be mainly used by international tourists and business travellers. That doesn’t make any sense to us, which is why we much prefer what’s outlined in ATAP and our Congestion Free Network: a light-rail link from the north and a bus rapid transit connection from the east.