Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post by Matt was originally published in October 2017.

The idea of providing Airport rail through a short spur from Puhinui is one of those ideas that continues to pop up. It emerged again in an opinion piece the NZ Herald ran just over a week ago (which was oddly a repeat of a piece they ran exactly a month earlier). The article is frankly quite embarrassing as it appears that the writer hasn’t even bothered to look at the issue before providing his opinions. But given how frequently similar comments come up in the public realm, it’s worth discussing again.

A light rail line from the airport to the CBD via Dominion Rd is frankly a crackpot idea when there is a shorter, far cheaper and more practical solution possible. That is, of course, running light rail from the airport to the Puhinui rail station on the Southern Line.

The ill-conceived notion supported by the Auckland Council, and offered by the Labour Party at this election, is to somehow incorporate a double-track light rail line up the motorway from the airport through Mangere, then have the tracks cross a new bridge over the Manukau Harbour to Onehunga. From there the line must ascend the very steep hill to Hillsborough Rd, then jostle for several kilometres along already congested Dominion Rd and eventually run down Symonds St and into the city centre.

There is simply not room to squeeze in a double line plus safety zones in the centre of those roads while still having cars and trucks running on either side.

If the only thing we were interested in doing was to provide a rail link between the city centre and the Airport, targeted to airport passengers, then indeed this would probably be the easiest way to do that. That’s not to suggest at all that a Puhinui rail spur would be an easy thing to actually build.

As I discussed a few months back, such a project would run into enormous challenges around how it connects back into the Southern Line, how a station would be provided at the Airport and how you could come up with a decent operating pattern.

Even setting aside all those issues, the real problem with the Puhinui spur idea is that it leaves a whole pile of issues unsolved. Because it would only add an Airport station and only link to the existing southern line and turn towards the city, it actually ignores a whole heap of transport problems facing Auckland. Let’s go through those a bit:

  • You wouldn’t have done anything about the bus congestion problem on Symonds Street and in the city centre, which is driving the need for Dominion Road light-rail.
  • You wouldn’t have improved access to major employment areas for the Mangere area – a part of Auckland with heaps of redevelopment potential on its Housing NZ land and around the town centre.
  • You wouldn’t have connected Onehunga with the Airport via a high quality public transport option, or Onehunga to the Dominion Road corridor.
  • You wouldn’t have improved access to the Airport’s employment area for those coming from the southern isthmus or Mangere, or for those trying to get to the Airport from Manukau, Flat Bush or Botany

What’s revealing about this issue, is how much emphasis commentators tend to place on the “fast Airport to City trip” made by Airport passengers, over these other, arguably more important connections. Sure, Airport passengers are important and there’s a lot of press when trips between the city and the Airport are delayed. But for the vast majority of the population, the number of times they go to the Airport to travel on a plane is vastly outweighed by the number of times they make other trips – like to work, school, shops, to visit other people or whatever else it is they do. There are some exceptions to this rule of course – the comparatively small group of people who travel to and from the Airport extremely frequently. These include:

  • People who make regular business trips… and…
  • Politicians

This isn’t to say that we should ignore the Airport in our transport planning. Far from it, the airport is growing rapidly, both in terms of passenger numbers and as a major employment hub. As a place that tens of thousands of people a day travel to and from, the Airport is clearly a location that needs a lot of transport effort over time. This is especially so because our options for adding further road connections don’t really exist and so most future growth in capacity will need to be through public transport. But serving the Airport is really the icing on the cake of major needed rapid transit lines – not the cake itself. People who talk a lot about the need for a fast trip between the Airport and the city may have, simply because of their particular circumstances, a somewhat skewed view of priorities.

Ultimately, there are two major corridors in this part of Auckland that, over the next 10 or so years, need to be provided with rapid transit. The Airport happens to be at the end of each corridor, which is great as it can act an as excellent anchor and attract fairly strong two-way use of the corridors (this is also why Botany needs to grow as a successful major centre as it can anchor the corridor to the Airport and the AMETI corridor).

Developing both these corridors as strong rapid transit links also provides a variety of options for Airport travellers. If they want to get to the city centre as quickly as possible, they have the choice of

  • A one seat light-rail trip that will take around 42-44 minutes
  • A frequent, high quality bus (maybe light rail in future) to an upgraded Puhinui station where with a simple transfer they can connect to the Southern or Eastern lines in either direction – this may be slightly faster to some parts of the city.

In summary, Auckland simply can’t justify a major investment that’s only about serving a relatively tiny number of “Airport to City” trips. We have way too many other priorities and needs and you simply don’t generate the quantum of benefit to justify what would still be a very tricky project. However, by adding the Airport onto projects that also do a lot of other things we can justify providing excellent quality public transport to the Airport area from both the north and the east. And solve a lot of other problems while we’re at it.

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  1. The similarities and differences between this and the SF schemes is interesting.
    On the south side of the Manukau the SF scheme has one extra station with locations:
    Airport terminal. airport services, airport park ‘n ride, landing exchange, montgomery rd, mangere town and favona.
    The SF “favona” station appears split between favona and mangere bridge, resulting in two extra SF stations in the airport industrial and development zone.
    North of the Manukau the SF scheme has stations at Onehunga, Hillsborogh, Mt Roskill, Duke St, Balmoral Rd, Ballantyne Square, Eden Terrace, K’Rd, Aotea, Britomart.
    So again compared with the scheme above, SF has one extra station “Duke St” which should give better access to an area likely to be redeveloped.

    1. There are four main issues with that idea.
      1) extending any heavy rail line is very expensive because of the very limited grades and curves that heavy rail can handle. You’d end up building most of it on very expensive tunnel and viaduct structures.
      2) you can’t ‘just extend’ the onehunga branch because it is an old single alignment full of level crossings with short platforms and a single track junction. To make it work you would need to buy land an demolish buildings to grade separate the line, double track, and relocate the Onehunga and probably te papapa stations. You’d also need to rebuild penrose junction which would require rebuilding penrose station. All this is very expensive.
      3) by connecting into the existing rail network you don’t actually build any more capacity, you’d just have to take train slots away from the other lines. So you have to make the other train lines worse to run an airport line.
      4) in a similar vein, extending from Onehunga only adds a couple of new stations in Mangere to the network, so despite all the extra cost and the impact on trains, you don’t move very many people.

      The superfund metro proposal is no good simply because it will be hugely expensive and hugely impactful, but at least it would deliver many new stations and a whole line of new capacity.
      Extending the heavy rail is even worse because it’s also hugely expensive and impactful yet doesn’t add any capacity and only adds a few stations.

      The AT light rail is a better option than either because it adds the same capacity and all the extra stations as the metro, but costs many billions less so actually has a chance of being funded and built. It might take ten minutes longer to get to the airport, but that’s only because it’s serving lots more people doing many other things along the way (like a normal rail line) and as we see here the airport just isn’t that important for trips.

      1. And in favour of light rail; the billions saved on the single route through Roskill can be used to run Light Rail through other places that are also being held back by congestion and facing huge development.

      2. I’m not sure that your point 3 is valid. The current operating pattern shows the western line continuing through the CRL, to turn into the onehunga line and terminating in Onehunga. If HR was extended from onehunga to the airport, this line would just terminate at the airport. It would take perhaps an extra train set or two, but you could maintain the same frequency and capacity.

        1. This would take double tracking the Onehunga branch line. Also removing many level crossings & relocating the Onehunga station to accomodate 6 or even 9 car length trains. This was roughly costed 3 1/2 years ago at about $600M depending on the option and would mean some roads dead ended.

        2. Yeah except the current train plan only runs three trains an hour from the western to and from Onehunga, not all of the western trains. It’s still the case that every extra train you put on the onehunga-airport line above those three is a train you have to take away from one of the other lines.

          And rumour has it they have a new plan that doesn’t even run Onehunga to the CRL at all, because they expect the CRL to be full with the main lines straight away.

    1. I agree to a point Brendan – unlike others commenters on this blog I imagine the superfund proposal must be quite good otherwise why persevere. But if it costs a lot (which it must) I think we would be better off with two above ground slower lines than one below ground rapid one.

      1. The slow decision making process is the problem I have the biggest issue with. I suspect NZTA were not up to the task when they were first given the job of competively comparing the two proposals.

        1. Good work for noting operating cost efficiency, but you are leaving out any discussion of capital cost. The light rail plan was $3-4b for the airport line, the superfund metro is looking like $10-12b.

          Also worth noting Helsinki took 27 year of planning followed by 16 years of staged construction to build one metro line with a branch. The decision to go with very costly metro means they took four decades for one and a bit lines, when their earlier light rail plan would have built a dozen lines in the same time.

        2. Well borrowing costs are very low, so this could be the time for NZ Inc to borrow or should I say? invest.

          Finland obviously has the advantage of starting early and being able to build in stages.

          Of note they also have modernised their trams and they are extended these routes too.

          Also Helsinki made a heavy rail airport loop track that required tunneling under their airport.

          And they moved their industrial port and rail operations from downtown Helsinki.

        3. Also the AT light rail plan could be the better proposition. I am not an avid supporter of the Super plan. My point is at the moment we do not know. We need more information.

    2. Brendon
      One of the points in your post is the key to this I believe. Are we heading towards a transport system like Vienna where mode share for cars is currently at 26% (goal 20% by 2025), or is it something different? If it is something like this then light metro may well be what is required to cope with a huge passenger volumes increase.

      Is it acceptable for Auckland Airport to be planning on 40k more car movements per day from the airport by 2040. Do Aucklanders want to pay the financial and environmental costs of that? If not how does public transport move another 2000 people per hour?

      Another significant consideration is whether air travellers should pay the carbon cost of their flight? Should this be set against the financing and operating costs of light rail/light metro to the airport? This would make the economics of the project look very different.

      For me there are so many imponderables that it difficult to know what solution is best. What I do know is that for the Shore a train trip to Puhinui is not a great solution. It’s not all about the Shore, but a PT service from the city is needed for the City and the Shore.

      And absolutely the northwest should be a priority for some public transport.

      1. “Is it acceptable for Auckland Airport to be planning on 40k more car movements per day from the airport by 2040.”

        No, nor is it acceptable for them to be planning on such a huge increase in air travel. Changing travel patterns are a result of cheap flights (thanks to the aviation industry not having to paying for the climate damage they are causing) and helped by the lucrative industry’s rewards schemes, incentives, membership deals and advertising.

        The inequity of aviation-related climate damage must be highlighted so there is political pressure on the politicians who, so far, have been unwilling to take on this monster.

        1. Cut the abuse, and do some analysis.

          Business flights make up a very small percentage of international flights into and out of NZ. Most is tourism and seeing friends. If flying is a worthy use of fossil carbon, then the ticket price can include a carbon price. Otherwise, the rest of society has to pay for emissions reductions in all sorts of other spheres, including in all sorts of business sectors.

          Overall, it’s not business that benefits from flying’s climate damage being subsidised. It’s just a few businesses. And everybody else – including the other businesses, present and future – are paying for it.

          Challenge to the current mythology is hard, but it must be done.

  2. Among the areas of Auckland that need upgrading because of growth is the Central Isthmus and the Airport area and the suburbs immediatly south of the Manukau Harbour.
    Currently the Public Transport linkage to the airport is being provided with a massive upgrade to Puhanui Railway Station to facilitate bus to rail transfers.
    Also planned are a much improved bus priority connection from this station to the airport. Currently missing is enough frequency on both the bus and rail stages.
    In my view commiting resources to any other solution before the solution currently under construction is completed is premature.
    The other problem is the three arterials, Mt Eden Rd, Dominion Road, and Sandringham Road, serving the central isthmus are at vehicle saturation as currently configured, as are the connecting roads between them and the CBD.
    As well the CBD is close to its maxing out on bus handling space.
    The dominance of large liquid fuel powered vehicles on these roads largely precludes reallocation of road space to cycles and scooters. Also the pedestrian amenity is severly degraded.
    Provision of Double decker buses has provided some relief in the meantime but for the reasons already outlined the relief will only be short lived.
    Really the only way of providing more people capacity is to improve the space efficiency of the vehicles on these routes. Relinquishing just one general traffic lane can provide sufficient width for two lanes of cycles and scooters and more potential capacity.
    Similarly multiple coupled vehicles, (trams) provide a considerable boost in capacity over large buses.
    While it is attractive to consider the creation of a completly new grade separated corridor as “the answer” we must first evaluate the costs, as expenditure on one corridor must reduce the options for upgrading other corridors.
    I am sorry I cannot see an elevated tramway down Dominion Road as being viable.
    The provision of the support pylons largely negates any spacial efficiency, and the environmental degradation at ground level would be massive.
    It appears to me that a big issue, is that a well funded and connected group are fighting on every available front any degradation of private car transit privilege. Their lifestyle choices and incomes are under threat.

  3. Heavy rail from Puhinui makes the most sense. It is easily constructed and could provide everyone living within a reasonable distance from an existing line a fast trip to the airport if express services were available. With another ten thousand plus homes slated for Karaka/Paerata and the Waikato service starting soon the link from Puhinui should be advanced without delay. Not everyone heading for the airport area leaves from Auckland. The city is just a suburb of something that is much larger.

    1. You’re right, we should ignore the congestion and transport issues affecting people trying to live their everyday lives in Auckland to make life easier for the people from outside Auckland who want to catch a train to the airport.

  4. The current PT market from the airport is probably a little more than a million passengers per year, the bulk of which will be going through to the central city. A rail link might bulk this up to about 2m pax in total per year on current airport loads of 20m per year – for a whole lot of reasons I don’t think it can capture much of the journey-to-work market at the airport – but it still isn’t very much market share.

    I think more could be done to promote public transport use to and from the airport, but that is a separate question.

  5. I am sorry but I cannot see the bulk of airport area travellers going through to the central city.
    Even when adding in those travelling to, or from the North Shore, who now must most likely will pass close by the CBD. The rest of travellers to and from the airport will travel direct to, or from their home, other accomodation, or work place, by-pasing the CBD.
    Even for those travelling to and from the CBD, large luggage, time pressures on work related travellers, and the availability of sharing taxi costs for groups travelling together means the number of potential CBD to airport public transport travellers is prone to be substantially over estimated.
    However rapidly connecting people from the Airport into an expansive, frequent, free flowing public transport network serving the Greater Auckland Area, will considerably add to the options of getting too and from the airport, especially those employed in the Airport area, and those many people, who already live near rapid transport services.

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