As described here, Auckland is in the middle of a multi-decade process of retro-fitting a Strategic Rapid Transit Network (RTN) to the city.
The process used to date for this is best described as incremental. All of our current RTN began very much below the ideal standard but have been more-or less constantly improved since. And this process is far from done.
The rail network was first revived in the 1990s with second hand trains from Perth, then brought into the city with Britomart Station in 2003, then Project Dart a system wide physical upgrade, double tracking, and branch line additions (Onehunga and Manukau City) was delivered, and finally electrification and new trains were rolled out starting in 2014. Now, wonderfully, the City Rail Link is underway.
The Northern Busway began simply as a couple of stations using motorway shoulder lanes in 2005, finally getting their own right of way, and official opening, in 2008, other improvements have followed, and now there is a full on extension of the busway proper to Albany underway. The effects of this are clearly visible the charts on Matt’s recent post about the Harbour Bridge, see the inflection point begin as the bus service starts to gradually, but significantly, improve. The busway itself opened in 2008, but the stations were in use from 2005:
Interesting too that the traffic counts start to slowly climb again as the Busway carries more and people, suggesting that the Busway has also improved the efficiency of the traffic lanes, which makes sense. Proving the old transport planning truism that it is the quality of the alternative that governs the speed of the driving route. Want a better drive? Support an improved Rapid Transit system.
As shown on the map below of the current network plan, there is now also work underway on the much needed Eastern Busway at both ends, the Northern Busway is being extended and yay! the CRL. The incremental delivery of our network continues, but routes 4 & 6 are currently in Light Rail limbo.
Having four simultaneous projects of scale underway at once as we do now isn’t bad, but could both pace and efficiencies be improved by committing to deliver bigger parts of the missing network together?
That was clearly the thinking of the current government when announced it wanted to deliver the last two missing core radial branches (4 & 6 on the map above) of the network as one big project. Most likely in conjunction with some large foreign consortium. Where this plan is at, and whether it really is better to involve private financing for big transit projects is something we await further information on.
Because these two new lines are planned to be a new railway, to maximise the additional capacity and resilience of the overall network, and because they will share track on Queen St, it clearly makes sense to bundle them together.
Any new railway, of course, does need sizeable chunks to be totally finished, including a depot and vehicles, before any part is able to open. But still they are two big projects, and even if part of one deal, will still be delivered in sections. For example downtown to Mt Roskill distance is the same as the whole Wellington Station to Airport proposal. It is a decent sized project on its own. So it is reasonable to assume that even if both these routes were signed off together there would still be an element of staging, and all indications are the NW route will be later.
And this concerns me because the NW is in desperate need. Partly this is structural, there are no parallel direct transit routes to the outer SH16, unlike Dominion Rd with arterials on either side, both the old Great North Rd and the Western Line are kilometres away from the communities it serves. But it is also because the huge work to add extra lanes and the connection of Waterview has, inevitably, induced increased driving, so the thing infarcts on a regular basis already, despite being brand new. Lord knows what the model said was supposed to happen.
But most of all it’s because NZTA have just upgraded the motorway with only the most cursory public transport improvement. There are bus shoulders though these are also vehicle breakdown lanes, and in any case the shoulders disappear at interchanges and bridges. The results for bus users are predictably appalling: Todd Niall has been describing these failures at length in articles that should send senior NZTA people reaching for their ‘please explain’ buttons:
The real frustration is when the bus reaches the northwestern motorway at Westgate. NZTA territory.
NZTA also failed to include any bus stations, the key early additions on the Northern Busway, most importantly the two vital ones at Te Atatu and Lincoln Rd, despite these being requested by AT, and even designed. Matt has described all this a couple of years ago:
Yet despite the busway being a key project, it’s not being built at the same time meaning we’re going to have to go back again in just a few years and dig everything up again. Not building it at the same time as all of the motorway widening works is quickly shaping up to being one of biggest transport mistakes of all time.
So this is where we are at. The Isthmus route is already fully staged with buses doing pretty much all they can, and tripping over themselves both there and in the city, though AT continues to improve intersections on Dominion Rd for buses and has added double deckers for more capacity. If nothing else we all should be concerned about the inefficiency of this:
But the North West has nothing going on, which makes the communities out there the most underserved major area in the city, as the East, over the Tāmaki, the other most underserved major area, is on the incremental ‘constant improvement’ ladder of AMETI.
But this can fixed.
There is a very useful interim intervention that is essentially enabling works for LR, which should, in my view, be built while LR is being both planned and delivered. As described in AT’s 2017 NW corridor study.
This study recommended a busway over Light Rail for this route, despite very similar costs, for two reasons:
- Stageability, it is undeniably easier to add sections of busway while running buses on other roads. But Light Rail can be staged in this way too, by using buses, especially because of these can keep running unhindered on Great North Rd, Pt Chev to the city, while construction is underway in the SH16 corridor, and on the existing shoulders from Pt Chev outwards. And building LR for the Isthmus route on Queen St is building a stage of LR for the North West (This efficient interlining is one of the compelling reasons for building the NW as Light Rail).
- Because the scope of the study did not include the City Centre, so the problem of bus numbers there could be waved away along with the costs; bit of a study design fail it seems; this route doesn’t suddenly evaporate at Newton. Bus volumes in the city are becoming critical already, which Light Rail effectively solves by sharing the Queen St line of LR1, thus reducing volumes on Albert St from the Northwest, and Symonds St from Dominion Rd, and all the turn around and city staging space buses require.
By adding the key stations that NZTA should have built as part of the SH16 upgrade, just the chartreuse green section on the map below, and using the existing shoulders either side of here, and Gt Nth Rd from Pt Chev to the city:
The critical problem section of this route for buses now is between Lincoln Rd and Te Atatu. There is no way for passengers to join buses on the patchy bus shoulder lanes, as there are no stations, and in any case the shoulders disappear at interchanges, making the buses subject to congestion and far too slow. So adding just two full scale bus/LR stations at Te Atatu and Lincoln Rd and proper Busway/LR right of way between would make an enormous difference to the utility of PT here. Buses would then use existing bus shoulder lanes on the causeway to Pt Chev, and then the bus lanes on Great North Road to the city, as they currently do.
Interim works in red below, including stations at Te Atatu and Lincoln Rd, deleting the Pt Chev to CC as unnecessary, that section to be straight to Light Rail, so a total of ~$350m:
And these works all to be Light Rail ready. So this both incrementally improves service on the NW and builds a section of the future Light Rail line and stations early, and staging the construction of the ultimate full noise NW RTN.
And enables access to buses on SH16 and AT to run the proper New Network pattern as planned (right) with NW services like the Shore’s NXs:
The Northwest needs work, fast.