Over the last few days the twists and turns on the light rail saga have felt more like those of a roller coaster than a mass transit system. It all started with an article in the Sunday Star times with leaked documents showing the entire process to deliver light rail was derailed by a six-slide proposal from the NZ Superfund and their Canadian partners. This comes after I looked into the dodgy funding arrangement they’re likely looking at just over a week ago.
First though, here are some of the new things we’ve learnt since my post on Monday.
The (original) NZ Infra Proposal
Yesterday Stuff’s Thomas Coughlan, who kicked off this roller coaster, dropped some more crucial details about what was been proposed by NZ Infra that got us into this mess.
A tunnel under Queen St, elevated sections over Mt Eden, and automatic driverless trains are part of the secretive bid from the Super Fund to build Auckland’s light rail.
Details of the plan and the route have been kept secret by NZ Infra, the company the fund has formed to manage the proposal.
But a massive leak of documents to Stuff shows a radical plan that differs substantially from anything previously proposed by the Government, including the well-known NZTA plan for light rail along Dominion Rd.
Renderings from the NZ Infra project show a design that looks more like heavy rail, with underground and elevated sections.
The plans date from last December, and Transport Minister Phil Twyford and the Ministry of Transport say they have been updated since.
The map behind this is below but is unfortunately low quality so is hard to make out some of the details but the big focus appears to be on speed with a claim of a 30 minute trip to the airport, I’ll deal with that part shortly. The Ministry and NZ Infra are both saying this proposal is “outdated”.
On the surface the proposal sounds exciting as a fully automated system such as the Sky-train in Vancouver would be great, but the issue comes in that being fully grade separated it would also make it extremely costly. Take the city centre section for example, we now know first-hand what digging a tunnel through the city centre costs, both in terms of disruption and money so to start with this would mean a second CRL. To remain separated through the isthmus means either buying and demolishing a heap of houses or elevating the line -you could tunnel that too but that’s even more costly. We struggle to get even some gentle density in the corridor so how easily is it going to be to get this consented?
While we’d love a fully automated system, and have talked about it before, the high cost of it means we’re not going to be able to afford to build a lot of it and that means we’re less likely to see improvements to other critical areas, like the Northwest – which with all the housing being built is probably more urgent at this stage. A properly optimised surface route would likely deliver most of the benefits of the much more expensive option for a much lower costs meaning we might be able to afford to also start building that Northwest line.
As I’ve said before, I think the best solution is to stick to the original light rail plan by Auckland Transport, which also delivers some great urban design outcomes, especially for those town centres. Then in the future, after we’ve extended light rail to the North Shore, we could look at an additional more direct, grade separated route that could be upgraded to an automated system but still leaving the surface route to serve Dominion Rd. For example, something like this.
One thing that seems to be driving all of this is that seemingly off the back of the NZ Infra proposal, the government have changed the rules of the game. Again from the Coughlan piece.
Twyford and the Ministry of Transport cautioned that the plan has been altered, after the Government changed what it wanted from the project. These new goals, set out in a “Requirements document” have not been made public.
[Transport Ministry chief executive Peter Mersi said]
“It’s important to note that what has been leaked is outdated and that both NZTA and NZ Infra are now responding to a requirements document by developing new Proposals. The requirements document sets out the outcomes the Government wants to achieve from the Auckland Light Rail project. NZTA and NZ Infra’s new Proposals will set out how they plan to meet these outcomes and may be significantly different to what we have seen from them before,” he said
I can understand not wanting to discuss or release confidential information about proposals but I can’t see any reason why the government couldn’t release the new goals and requirements. Surely we should be able to understand what their focus is.
It certainly feels like the government have been seduced by the sales pitch of a glossy brochure and so suddenly decided to prioritise speed from the city to the airport above all else. This is despite city to airport trips being relatively insignificant with ATAP finding that only 4% of trips along the corridor in the morning peak would be these journeys.
There is also suggestions that urban development has become less of a priority under the new goals and that is backed up by suggestions there will be many fewer train stations – meaning also fewer people can access the system.
One angle to emerge yesterday was the NZTA admitting they dropped the ball and delayed the process to assess the NZ Infra proposal. The Prime Minister and Transport Minister have also both pointed fingers at the NZTA for this.
NZTA’s new board chair Sir Brian Roche said the ordeal had disappointed ministers.
“We the agency were given a job to do … and for whatever reason … we didn’t get it done. That’s delayed the process, that’s frustrated ministers,” he told Morning Report.
“This is a huge project on any scale, and it took the agency by surprise, that’s understandable.”
This feels like a little bit of convenient scapegoating to me and in many ways I’m not surprised the NZTA didn’t seem to take the proposal seriously given it’s so dramatically different to what was expected of the project – it must have felt like a weird joke.
Both National and the government’s own coalition partner, NZ First, have been quick to jump to the news.
National have long been opposed to the project and have understandably jumped on the news. While we are probably in agreement on the role of the Superfund, the main problem with their position is that like when they were in government, they oppose the project but have not provided any viable alternative. For example, Simon Bridges is saying he prefers rail from Puhinui and more buses on the isthmus despite the Puhinui upgrade and bus priority to the airport already being underway while having too many buses in the city is what lead to the need for light rail in the first place.
How to fix this mess
The government are reported to be furious with the leaks that lead to all of this but perhaps they should count it as a blessing. One of the problems in all of this is that with the secret change in focus, the NZTA, who are now competing with NZ Infra for the project, are likely having to come up with a similar crazy proposal. The concern is that come February the government will be presented with two near identical bids neither of which are able to be funded or pass any kind of sanity check and the entire process/project dies for at least a few years.
As I said the timing of this should be seen as a blessing as there’s likely just enough time to change track back to something sensible – which they can then claim was the plan all along. To do this the NZTA should be asked to submit a ‘sensible’ bid which presumably would be similar to what AT spent years developing, enhanced with any insights gained from the NZ Infra proposal and anything else they’ve learnt during this process.
Even better would be if the government simultaneously ended the NZ Infra bid.
There are obviously a lot of funding pressures and ATAP only set aside $1.8 billion to kick-start the development so perhaps look at what they can get for that as even just getting a first stage of the project started, say from the city centre to Mt Roskill, will make a big difference and other parts of the route can be staged for delivery later.
It is also increasingly urgent we get improvements to the Northwest. Putting some money aside to get some interim but future proofed bus improvements, such as building the interchange stations, could make a big difference.
What could have been
A briefing document from January 2018 released by the Ministry of Transport highlights what could have been had NZ Infra not derailed the process just a few months later. In another unfortunately low quality map it highlights what the NZTA were aiming to deliver on rapid transit in 2020. I’ll decipher those boxes as best I can below
Northern Line LRT
- Busway extension (with LRT future proofing) and station upgrades Albany to Constellation operational
- Silverdale to Albany bus priority operational
- Sunnynook and Smales Farm Station upgrade operational
- Additional harbour crossing for RTN designation secured
- Northern Line LRT implementation plan completed
Airport to City Line LRT
- City to Mt Roskill services relocation and slab placement under construction
- Stoddard Depot substantially complete
- Airport to Mt Roskill enabling works contracts under construction (bridges and civil works)
- LRT vehicles ordered
Botany to Panmure (AMETI) BRT
- Pakuranga to Panmure busway operational
North-Western Line LRT
- Massey North station operational
- LRT enabling works under construction
- LRT vehicles ordered
- Depot identified and consents lodged
Airport to Puhinui Line BRT
- Puhinui interchange operational
- Airport to Puhinui bus priority and lanes operational
- Bus services enhancements
- Papakura to Pukekohe electrification construction underway
- 3rd main line under construction
Finally, I’d also recommend this great piece by Todd Niall looking at all of this and also asking the question of how much say Auckland should have in this outcome. Auckland has historically not been well served by decisions like this being made in Wellington and one of the reasons Auckland was amalgamated int he first place was to address some of this stuff.