On Saturday, Transport Minister Phil Twyford held a public meeting in Henderson about transport in West Auckland and I was one of the speakers. At the event there was lot of discussion about rapid transit on the SH16 corridor where the government policy is for light rail to be built. That is currently meant to be being investigated by the NZTA but as Twyford explained at the event, cabinet have decided that the City Centre to Mangere project is the highest priority due to it serving both a greater population and more employment areas.
Because of this, the outcome of that procurement process could end up impacting the Northwest line and that led to a slightly sensationalist article in the Herald yesterday and later another one claiming the project was being scrapped. The key part though are these quotes form the minister.
“It’s only a contingency. If we weren’t able to fund and finance it, there are many, many calls on the transport purse, then with that corridor (to west Auckland) we would need to look at some other options. It could be bus rapid transit or other things,” he said.
“Obviously money does not grow on trees,” Twyford told the Herald.
I think part of the problem with all of this is that Light Rail is the best long term solution but in a bid to a) not spend a lot of money on infrastrucutre that will need to be replaced in a decade, and b) trying to deliver the project under a single PPP style contract has meant the project has become an all or nothing prospect.
At the same time, the Northwest simply can’t afford to wait for the rails to extend out from the city. It needs improvements urgently.
Auckland’s history has shown us that breaking projects down into stages that build upon each other is the likely to be the most successful way to deliver large projects. For example building Britomart boosted usage enough that gave officials/politicians the confidence to upgrade the rest of the network. That in turn helped lead to electrification which helped make the case for the City Rail Link.
With that in mind, in this post I thought I’d look at how improvements could be built and staged over time to give us some quick wins but lead ultimately to light rail in the corridor. Of note, this plan is essentially the same as what is proposed in the Indicative Business Case (IBC) that was completed for Auckland Transport in 2017. But just quickly before that, a quick reminder of why light rail is needed in the corridor.
- There is huge growth planned for the Northwest with tens of thousand more people expected to be living in the area in the future. This growth and areas such as Massey and Te Atatu are not served by the Western Line
- The IBC recommended a busway however crucially, it stopped short of working out how all these extra buses would operate in the city centre. Even without these Northwest buses we’re struggling to find space for all the buses we need in the city and that’s been a key driver for the City Centre to Mangere light rail project. There’s an opportunity to make more use of the city centre light rail infrastructure that’s planned to also serve the Northwest.
- Light rail would provide a faster journey time than buses and would even be faster than buses from Albany to the city along the Northern Busway.
- One thing that’s interesting to note is the capital cost of a busway and light rail corridor are actually very similar. The advantages busways have is that they can be more easily staged and compromised, such as chucking buses back on to local roads instead of building the most difficult bits but to build things properly costs about the same.
So here’s how the rollout could happen.
1. Build the Interchange stations
It’s clear we should have built a rapid transit corridor as part of the SH16 upgrade. Not doing so will go down as one of Aucklands major transport mistakes. However, while not perfect, the upgrade of SH16 did include building of some bus shoulder lanes. Getting better use out of these lanes would be a good first step.
When Auckland Transport rolled out the new bus network, one thing that seriously compromised the network in the west was that there was no ability to run buses along the motorway corridor while also allowing people to access it. This has meant that AT have had to run a number of infrequent buses along congested local streets before making use of the lanes east of Te Atatu. It also means there is no ability for someone from say Te Atatu, to catch a bus to Westgate.
As a first step in fixing the northwest, building the interchanges needed at Te Atatu and Lincoln Rd, as well as a proper interchange at Westgate would allow a frequent bus route to start operating using the bus shoulder lanes. That frequent route should probably be extended to Huapai too. This is shown below in a diagram AT created at the time of the new network consultation.
It may also be advantageous to build a short section of busway double back too much at interchanges but both that and the interchanges themselves could be designed for an easy upgrade once light rail reached this point in the future.
It’s worth noting that this is not to dissimilar to the approach taken with the Northern busway over a decade ago. Northern Express services started running over two years in advance of the busway opening to help start building ridership.
2. Start extending Light Rail from the city
Improving buses from the Northwest is critical but we expect those buses will be busy. This is going to put pressure on existing bus services at a time when there is also expected to be a lot of development in the area, even with the likes of the 18 route.
Getting a route started is often hard than extending an existing one and so building the line alongside SH16 from the city to at least Pt Chevalier would help kick things off. It would also provide benefit to the massive proposed Unitec development and others and only require about 4-5km of track.
3. Extend Light Rail from Pt Chev to Westgate
The hardest part about building a full rapid transit corridor along SH16, either busway or rail, is how you get it over the causeway. It’s likely to be very difficult to consent to widen again and the NZTA are likely to preciously guard their existing traffic lanes. By focusing design efforts on on the first two aspects mentioned, it can give others time to come up with solutions to the causeway as well as extending the line further towards Huapai/Kumeu.
As the light rail reached the already built interchanges and possible short section of busway, they could then be upgraded relatively quickly and easily. Assuming the interchanges are also built properly and have separate mainline and local bus stops, this would mean no disruption to the local bus routes while this upgrade occurred.
What’s frustrating is that so much of the thinking for this has already been done by the likes of the IBC but it seems like so many projects, the NZTA are trying to reinvent the wheel.