There have been some slightly strange conspiracy theories floating around recently about how the City Centre to Mangere light rail project came into existence. I looked at the history recently but thought it would be worthwhile taking a more detailed walk through how the project has evolved over time, what key decisions were made, by who and when. And also to discuss the roles we have, and haven’t played, in where the project has now got to.
In January 2015 Auckland Transport surprised everyone (including the Mayor!) by including plans they’d been working on for a fairly significant isthmus light-rail network within the draft Regional Land Transport Plan. It turned out that Auckland Transport had been looking at options for addressing city centre bus congestion for some time – essentially ever since the 2012 City Centre Future Access Study had concluded the City Rail Link was necessary, but not sufficient, to meet growing travel demand to this highly constrained part of the city.
Projected bus numbers to meet forecast demand, even with CRL in place, were extremely high:
This led to the work initially recommending a four-line light-rail system. Lines would travel along Sandringham, Dominion, Mt Eden and Manukau Roads – eventually converging into Queen Street and Symonds Street.
My initial thoughts on this were cautious optimism. The Government of the day had agreed the City Rail Link was needed but didn’t think it was needed till the late 2020’s at the earliest. They didn’t even believe we’d exceed 20 million trips by 2020 (spoiler alert, we reached 20 million in mid-2017), and this seemed to potentially make that conversation a lot more difficult. On the other hand, it was great to finally see Auckland Transport showing some vision for Auckland’s future.
Herald columnist Brian Rudman was a big fan:
The mayor is struggling to put together a budget that will accommodate his magnificent obsession, the $2.5 billion underground City Rail Link (CRL), without triggering a ratepayer revolt, so his testiness over Dr Levy’s light rail proposal is understandable.
But if Mr Brown wants to be remembered as the mayor who solved Auckland’s transport congestion problems, he should be embracing the light rail proposal as though it was his idea.
His single-mindedness over the CRL is admirable. Such projects need a 24-hour-a-day champion. But it shouldn’t blind him to the bigger picture – that the heavy rail network, while vital, is only a small part of the city’s overall transport system, and that regardless of how much money is thrown at roads and buses, which the majority of commuters use, increasing congestion will inevitably induce cardiac arrest.
In February 2015 a few more details about the project emerged. For example, we saw for the first time how the different lines might work in the city centre:
Interestingly, I noted at the time that there was still no real discussion on how this network might end up being funded. There was some early discussion about PPPs, but hopefully as everyone knows by now that’s just a financing method rather than a way to actually fund a project.
By June 2015, Auckland Transport were already beginning to focus on progressing some of the network ahead of other parts, with the initial focus on Queen Street and Dominion Road.
Some key facts and figures were also emerging about the project, including some key details which haven’t really changed since – like the vehicle capacity and pedestrianising Queen Street:
Overall, the work in 2015 was largely focused on the city centre and the isthmus. It also looked at multiple corridors, although right from the start there seemed to be clear recognition that Dominion Road was the strongest of the corridors and should be “the first” to be turned from bus over to light-rail.
There was, however, some indication that Auckland Transport were already starting to look at extending light-rail right through to the Airport. In August 2015 I reported on some work that had been done comparing the merits of light-rail and heavy rail to the Airport. It’s fair to say I was pretty sceptical of the idea:
I have some serious concerns about this analysis as AT seem infatuated by light rail at the moment so it seems to me they’ve in effect stacked the deck against heavy rail. Here’s why
- The light rail option is an extension of line that doesn’t even exist yet and there’s no guarantee it ever will.
- I also wonder how practical that alignment alongside SH20 is. I know Light Rail can climb hills better than Heavy rail can but that route would be one long, steep and slow climb if it’s even possible.
- When the measurement of success seems to be based on how many people could walk to a station and catch a train then having the heavy rail option with fewer stations it’s no surprise it has a lower result. It seems to me silly not to at least have a heavy rail station around the Montgomerie Rd area which is only about 2km from Mangere and 2.5km from the airport. Other stations may be able to be justified.
- It’s no surprise that the Light Rail option has more people within walking distance of a station as it travels right through the densest residential area in Auckland – the CBD. I’m not sure if AT’s heard but there’s a heavy rail project which does that too – it’s called the City Rail Link. What’s more AT’s planned operating pattern will see trains from the western line pass through the CRL before heading towards Onehunga. It seems like there’s a bit of gerrymandering going on this. If AT are talking about delivering single seat rides then they should also include all the people next to the western line, even just the people near the inner west and CRL stations add almost an extra 60k to the walking catchment.
- With a dedicated corridor between Onehunga and the airport the travel time of light and heavy rail is not likely to be all that different. The issue comes in north of Onehunga. AT say above the extension just from Dominion Rd will have 1.9km of slow on street running, what’s not also mentioned is the on street running on the Dominion Rd corridor through to the city. The next slide looks at exactly this issue and it is perhaps the biggest argument against light rail. A 35-38 minute travel time is very competitive with all other modes at all times of the day whereas light rail is barely faster than the existing airport bus. It’s also worth contrasting this approach to what happens elsewhere in transport. As a society seem to be prepared to fork out billions with few questions to obtain a few minutes of travel time saving on roads the same but for rail it’s all about how we can do things on the cheap.
In early 2016 a bit more information started to come out of the work being done to compare light-rail and heavy rail to the Airport. This started to show how difficult and costly extending heavy rail to the Airport from Onehunga was likely to be. Major sections of elevated track would be needed, for example:
However, at that stage my preference was still for the heavy rail option, as I noted:
I’ll state upfront that my preference remains that the connection be by heavy rail. I think the time competitiveness it offers is probably being undervalued by AT compared to the other factors. I also see it as a nice balance to the operating patterns proposed post CRL. In effect I see it as completing the heavy rail network.
However, it’s fair to say that the light-rail idea was starting to grow on me. Especially as it became clear the light-rail concept being looked at wasn’t a slow, dinky tram that would stop every couple of hundred metres, but rather something resembling “surface level rapid transit” – much more like what Sydney, Seattle, Calgary and the Gold Coast have been building in recent years.
All of this work led to some big decisions in June 2016, where Auckland Transport and NZTA formally made the decision that light-rail and not heavy rail was the preferred way of serving the Airport with rapid transit. I noted at the time that cost and value for money had been the main factors in this decision:
In the end the biggest nail in the coffin for heavy rail has ended up being the cost which is now estimated at $2.6 to $3 billion. Being even more expensive than the CRL and with fewer benefits – after-all the CRL improves the entire rail network – it is always going to be hard sell and in the end AT and the NZTA have said it simply offered “low value for money” with a Benefit Cost Ratio of 0.37-0.64. As a comparison they estimate LRT could have similar or even greater overall benefits – I’ll get to that soon – but come in at less than half the price at an estimated $1.2-1.3 billion giving it a BCR of 1.11-1.72. That figure seems to be an improvement on earlier information such as the video that was released at the beginning of the year.
The biggest issue with the LRT option though is it assumes that LRT will already be in place along Dominion Rd and that this is therefore just an extension. The issue with that is so far there is no agreement from the NZTA or the government that the Dominion Rd route will be supported – although the ATAP report last week seems to confirm something more than just more buses will be needed. But even if the cost of LRT along Dominion Rd (estimated at $1 billion) was included in, it still comes in cheaper than heavy rail and would have even higher benefits.
The “two projects for the price of one” argument – where light-rail along Dominion Road and then out to the Airport was roughly the same cost as heavy rail from Onehunga to the Airport – seemed critical in making this choice. While the costs of light-rail seem to have increased over time (although it’s important to not make a mistake and compare the Mt Roskill to Airport light-rail costs with the entire City Centre to Airport costs), there’s no reason to think that the same wouldn’t have happened for heavy rail as more detailed design work proceeded.
The other key factor in the decision-making seemed to be within the Airport itself, where heavy rail would have required an underground station and very long underground section. Not only were these expensive, but the Airport would have needed the “station box” to be built pretty much straight away to fit in with their terminal upgrade projects:
This approach was subsequently confirmed through the Auckland Transport Alignment Project, which was approved by both the Government (the previous government) and Auckland Council. It clearly indicates the connection to the Airport as being “not heavy rail” and being an extension from Dominion Road.
So by mid-2016 both Auckland Transport and NZTA had made official decisions to prefer light-rail over heavy rail as the best way of serving the Airport with rapid transit. This decision had been informed by significant analysis, and was subsequently agreed to by Auckland Council and the previous Government through approving ATAP. There was a bit of teeth-gnashing over this, and the government still thought that buses might be better than light-rail for a while yet, but not much.
In early 2017, before we launched our updated Congestion Free Network, things took another step forwards when NZTA formally confirmed they agreed with Auckland Transport’s analysis that light-rail was the best long-term transport solution on the City Centre to Airport corridor.
There was still a bit more work to do in figuring out the best timing but knowing you’ll need the project in the future changes the conversation as there’s little point in investing in expensive infrastructure now if you know it’ll need to be replaced 10-15 years later.
About a month later we picked up on this broad agreement between the transport agencies on the long-term mode for this corridor by including it as light-rail in our Congestion Free Network 2 map. We also included some other light rail lines.
- We extended the line to the North Shore to replace the Northern Busway as some separate AT work showed the busway would start seeing capacity issues within a decade. This was unwittingly confirmed earlier this year with the new network rollout.
- We included a light rail line to the Northwest instead of a busway. There were a few reasons for this, including:
- There is significant growth planned for the Northwest and the existing urban areas along the route
- There remained significant bus capacity constraints in the city centre but there would be capacity on the light rail infrastructure on this section.
- It was estimated there was twice the demand from the North Shore as from Dominion Rd and so it presented new route opportunities while to help balance the demand without just having to turn half the services around to head back empty.
Later on in 2017, light-rail to the Airport became a key part of the Labour Party’s election campaign – and then after that was incorporated into their confidence and supply agreement with the Green Party. But this was really no surprise at all – given the decisions on mode had been made well over a year before in mid-2016, informed by work by Auckland Transport that went right back another couple of years.
Perhaps it’s the lack of communications about this project over the years by Auckland Transport and now by NZTA which gives the impression that it was “dreamed up” only recently by politicians, or even by advocacy groups like us. In fact, light-rail was actually pretty unusual in its initial development being kept well away from politicians and key decisions over the years about its mode have often been done through a pretty unpopular, but hard-nosed and evidence-based approach.