I’ve long been a huge supporter of the City Rail Link. It’s going to be transformative project for Auckland that will deliver many benefits for decades to come. I’m also pleased we’ve seen some positive improvements to the projects over the years, particularly that it is now being future proofed for 9-car trains and that the Beresford Square entrance will now be built.

Most key details about the project are now locked in and with construction underway but there remains one aspect of the project that is not yet confirmed that and I would like to see changed – what to do with the extra services in the west.

There are many benefits to the City Rail Link but for users, at a high level, there are three key ones.

  • It opens up the bottleneck at Britomart, ultimately allowing us to more than double the number of trains that can run on the network.
  • It creates two new stations in the city centre, putting many more residents, jobs, entertainment and other activities within close proximity to the rail network.
  • For western line users it significantly speeds up trips to the city centre by making the journey more direct and avoiding the Newmarket detour.

What has been concerning me for some time is we’re spending $4.5 billion to deliver this transformational project but that current and potential western line users past Henderson won’t get some of these benefits.

The Current State

There are three stations over the 5.4km west of Henderson, these are Sturges Rd, Ranui and Swanson. Trains currently run every 10 minutes in the morning and afternoon peaks and every 20 minutes off-peak. Swanson in particular also serves the wider rural area. Both Swanson and Sturges have Park & Rides (136 and 170 respectively).

In the year to June-2019, these stations combined accounted for over 1.3 million rail trips, or about 7% of trips on the rail network and with Sturges being one of the better performers on the Western Line. However, my personal observations are that this usage is more peak focused than some stations, such as Henderson.

Statistics NZ estimate there are currently about 29,000 people living in the yellow shaded area on the map below – although some of those are closer to Henderson. There is also a few developments in the area at the moment, most notably the Penihana development which is right next to the Swanson Station.

There is also a lot of potential for growth around Sturges and Ranui with zoning near the stations allowing for apartment buildings and outside of that up to 3-storey terraced houses. That level of development is more likely to happen after the City Rail Link opens.

The Problem

Over the last decade or so I’ve seen many different post-CRL rail network plans presented, and with varying degrees of detail and readability. It’s not entirely clear what the current plan is so the image below is just one example, but they all have one thing in common when it comes to the Western Line. There would still be a train every 10 minutes to Swanson but all extra services would start or terminate at Henderson. So too would the purple line that would run directly to Newmarket and on the inner Southern Line.

Terminating all of the extra trains at Henderson means those users west of there will never get better services than exist now (at peak). Sure, they’ll get faster journey times to the city but they’ll see no actual additional services.

Furthermore, as many readers know I’ve never been a huge fan the purple line. One of the reasons for this is it would require a double transfer for those west of Henderson.

To turn those trains around there would need to be an upgraded Henderson station with at least one new platform, possibly two longer term, so that terminating trains don’t get in the way of those travelling through. There’s not a lot in the public domain that I’m aware of about just what is planned with the best we have being this image from some CRL documents a few years ago.

I also understand the various agencies involved are finding it very difficult to work out how to make this plan work without significant extra cost as it will need to be hooked into the current station and former council building – parts of which have recently been sold.

The current timetable, which includes long dwell times and the slow detour though Newmarket, is timed to take 54 minutes to get from Swanson to Britomart, with Sturges taking 48 minutes. Due to the carpark that is SH16, at peak times this is roughly competitive with driving but off-peak it is considerably slower, taking about twice as long.

About 17 minutes of that travel time is to get from Mt Eden to Britomart and with the CRL that should drop to about 8 or 9 minutes. That means Swanson to Britomart would become about a 45 minute trip. For those travelling to one of the two new stations that travel time would be even shorter, for example, Sturges to Aotea would be about 37 minutes. Perhaps one day Auckland Transport, Transdev and Kiwirail will even get their act together and sort out train travel times. Just fixing the dwell times alone could shave about another 3 minutes off that.

I also have the initial requirements for the electric trains, that CAF said was achievable, which show a Swanson to Mt Eden time of under 30 minutes. If we got close to that it would deliver a Swanson to Britomart travel time of under 40 minutes.

With such significantly shorter travel times it will make services much more popular than they currently are as and starts to become competitive with driving off-peak. I suspect we will need more capacity not just east of Henderson but west of it too

The Solution

Thankfully the solution to all of this is fairly straightforward – run the extra trains to Swanson.

The land already exists to allow for this as earlier plans were to have a third platform at Swanson for diesel services to terminate at. On the southern side of the station there is over 20m between the edge of the platform and the kiwirail boundary so there’s probably space for up to four platforms. The only major things to move appear to be the Kiwirail hut and the shared path from the new development to the station. As such, building the extra platforms to terminate more trains at Swanson would have significantly lower capital costs.

The downside of this is that it would cost more to run the trains there and back. To get a rough estimate I asked Auckland Transport how much trains currently cost to run and how far they travel. Including all costs, such as depreciation, track access charges etc, they say the rail network costs just under $250 million a year to operate. They also say trains ran 4.343 million service kilometres compared to a planned 4.394 million kms.

Putting aside the purple line issue for a moment, a few very quick calculations suggests that extending an extra 3 trains per hour at peak the extra 5.4km to Swanson and back would add about $2.3 million per year in cost. That’s not insignificant but also comes with benefits such as more frequent trains being even more attractive/useful to users. It also allows services to the city to have regular headways instead of say, a 10 minute wait then a five minute wait then a 10 minute wait again etc.

It can also allow us to replace the need for the purple line because the more frequent trains mean that on average it will be about as fast, or even faster to just transfer at the Karangahape Rd station than wait for the next purple line train to show up (just a shame it can’t happen at Mt Eden). The capital and operational savings from that would probably cover the cost of running extra trains to Swanson

Finally, all of this isn’t to say that Henderson couldn’t do with an upgrade. At the very least improved shelter and another station access, such as from Edsel St, would be welcome.

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  1. From a layman’s perspective this makes perfect sense, what I don’t get why are they pushing for Henderson?
    What are the benefits they see with Henderson apart from lower operating costs compared to the negatives of substandard service for three stations and higher capital costs?

    1. As I understand it the people who came up with it are trains operations people who are focused on moving train sets around and not focused on things that users care about with things like frequency and legibility. It’s also a classic case of service design by spreadsheet – “the model says we can fit everyone west of Henderson on 6 trains an hour so that’s all we need to provide”.

      1. Do you get to sit down with them, Matt, and discuss all this? And is it just that the ‘trains operations people’ get to make the decisions that ‘people focused on things that users care about’ should be making? Or do AT not employ train people focused on things that users care about?

      2. “…things that users care about with things like frequency and legibility…”

        As someone who grew up using trains and who has used them for most of my adult life; my main concerns are the actual transit time of the trains (how long they take), access to the stations and parking or bus connections to the stations.
        Frequency and legibility? If you’re using the service to commute to work every day (which will be the vast majority of users); why would you need legibility? Within a week you’ll know exactly which train will take you to which destination you need to get to and what’s along the journey. And you know which train you need to catch at what time (and thus when you need to be on that platform by) to get you to the destination platform by what time and thus to work on time. You’re probably going to just catch the train 95% of the time to work and the first train you can get home.

        1. Daniel, you and I need to go on a jaunt sometime, and I’ll introduce you to the purposes of the transport network for the majority of trips – which are not for commuting.

          For these non-commuting trips, legibility is very important. And so is frequency, since they often require one or several transfers, which only work with good frequency.

        2. “If you’re using the service to commute to work every day (which will be the vast majority of users); ”
          Why would Aukland be the only city in the world where the majority of usrs are doing a regular daily commute?

        3. Legitimately is very important in attracting new users to the system too. You may have the kind of brain that can (or is willing to) work out a certain maybe slightly complex trip but many won’t. That or they get it wrong and they maybe won’t try for another two years if at all.

  2. I can’t believe the Purple Line idea hasn’t died yet. After years of work to shift to a metro-style service that’s easy to understand with high frequencies, the first thing that happens after building a $4 billion+ rail tunnel is to reallocate trains AWAY from the city centre.

    So weird.

    1. “After years of work to shift to a metro-style service that’s easy to understand with high frequencies”

      Have they really? Because that’s… …pretty stupid in my opinion if they have been.

  3. If station platform lengths were increased to take 9 cars, there wouldn’t be the clogging number of services and services beyond Henderson could become express services, cutting down their transit time.

    1. I don’t see a lot of point in express services on a line that could be less than 40 minutes and to end. Especially on the Western line where there are more destinations other than the city centre.
      Not to mention there’s not the extra track to allow for it.
      Personally I’d rather more trains than longer ones. I’d also much prefer more trains than having express services that at most might save 5 minutes.

  4. Not everyone is going to and from the CBD, why divert people to somewhere they don’t need to be. I understand issues with conflicting movements, but Auckland’s not going to have 30 tph metro-style frequencies.

    1. I don’t know of any city in the world that has a train every 2 minutes. Plus it is easy enough to change trains when it just means getting off one and waiting at the same platform for the correct one to the station you want. Such as if you are getting on the train at Panmure and don’t want to go to Manukau but a station further south on the Southern line or trying to get to Manukau from Greenlane for instance.

      1. Really, there are some cities that do, for example Moscow has some lines that have trains up to every 90 seconds, London’s Victoria line has trains about 100 seconds apart etc. Plenty of others too.
        We’re not talking about having every line at that level but only really high frequencies where they’re combined in the CRL. However it won’t handle 30tph. The long term maximum expected on CRL is about 24 per hour per direction but that could mean 15-18tph from the West with the extra peak only services from the south/east going via the eastern line.

  5. While we’re at it, run Diesels between Swanson and Huapai (maybe even Helensville) until such time as a busway or LRT is up and running there (probably a decade away). Minimal cost (the tracks and tunnel are getting upgraded anyway as part of the RGF).

    1. Great suggestion. This would fit in nicely with an expanded Swanson station, 4 platforms EMU services and a DMU shuttle platform (just like Papakura)
      Why has no one thought of this before.

  6. The NAL upgrading includes improvements to the tunnels. This might enable electrification to Waitakere or beyond, although I don’t think there’s been any details released that discuss it.
    A comparison of Henderson PAX vs stations beyond would be interesting.
    The purple line is dumb, but Mt Eden station is currently being reconfigured such that transfers between South-CBD and West-CBD trains won’t be possible there. This is also dumb.

  7. I agree with Matt L that an expansion of Henderson station is not needed, nor is the ‘Purple line; as it is currently shown. Henderson station platform could certainly do with more shelter structures though and have the 3 car citybound trains stop closer to the footbridge instead of all the way down the other end which is no mans land, such is occurring at present.

    The way the Auckland rail network will run post-CRL will enable most people to travel on one train to get to and from most parts of Auckland for most journeys, with generally only one transfer required at most for more direct or shorter journeys if not wanting to stay on the same train as it runs its full route via the CRL.

    If the Southdown-Avondale line gets built, which is looking likely, then the Purple line should be considered, but instead running from Swanson to Otahuhu via this new line.

    Swanson station should instead be upgraded and expanded with more platforms to accommodate both an ADL diesel shuttle to Huapai / Helensnville in the immediate future, and accommodate the additional Purple line services.

    Similarly at the other end of the network at Papakura, an ADL diesel shuttle should be started running from Papakura to Waiuku during the weekday peak periods.

    1. If Avondale-Southdown is built, the reasoning also included the need for 3 tracks between it and west of the Auckland passenger network (Swanson, Waitakere or Kumeu?).
      This should also be included for in any station redevelopment at Swanson.
      It will also complicate other future projects, like the St Jude St level crossing elimination.
      I have not idea how a 3rd track could be built through New Lynn without huge expense.

  8. Matt L you mentioned the transfering at Henderson to get on the purple line so what about the ones that have to transfer to the Onehunga service , and the Manukau service to Manukau and finally those that are going to Pukekohe who will need to use 4 different trains at the present but 3 only when and if the electrification finally happens . Most won’t want to go to Britomart to get a train south as it may/will take more time if a service is delayed .

    Also oneday the services may also go further north from Swanson and that could help with adding extra services on the Swanson Henderson run hopefully .

    1. Going to Manukau from west (regardless of where on the line) would be easiest just to catch a train to either K Rd, Aotea or Britomart and transfer there for a trip out via the Eastern Line.
      In this post (linked above) I calculated average travel times for a sample Henderson to Grafton trip using either the purple line or a transfer at K Rd. The direct trip is faster if you time it perfectly but if you try to turn up and go, once frequencies pick up, the transfer option comes out well

  9. People would be able to change from Western to Eastern/Southern lines at K Road Station so all rail trips could be done with only one transfer (2 for Pukekohe if electrification isn’t completed before CRL is finished). And according to the map above the Western and Onehunga lines are combined so that becomes a 1 seat trip (albeit a rather indirect one).

    1. As mentioned in the post I’ve seen many different variations of network plan. One that seems to be gaining favour right now is similar to above but to switch the purple line to terminate at Onehunga and have the Western Line terminate at Otahuhu. The main thinking behind that is it enables all main Western Line trains to be 6-9 cars in length while the Onehunga/Purple line ones could stay 3-car. It also doesn’t waste any CRL capacity on small trains but would obviously mean there is no direct trip to the city from Onehunga.

      1. Yes that could work.

        The purple line should still have a diesel connection though from Henderson / Swanson to Huapai.

        1. Actually both these suggestions make really good sense. Hopefully AT do look to do this.

      2. Hmm, I can see how this would work better operationally, but with not having a direct service between the CBD and Onehunga, could end up effectively killing off patronage on the Onehunga Line as most patronage on this line is journeys from Onehunga / Te Papapa to Britomart and vice versa, and the current express running of the service adds to this appeal.

        I’m assuming the ‘Purple line’ will stop at all stations?

        I’m not sure that the number of direct through journeys travelling west to south, and vice versa, would outweigh the number of Britomart / CBD Onehunga journeys.

        I still say the Purple line would provide a better, more useful service once there is a Southdown-Avondale line with running from Swanson to Otahuhu via this new line, which will obviously serve Onehunga along the way, as well as providing a more direct west to south service.

  10. Auckland should be adopting international best practice, and have staggered services. The further out, the less frequent. Every other city with a rail network does this, including Wellington. It’s the best way to cater for demand whilst remaining financially prudent.

    I would have 5 minutes to Henderson, 10 minutes to Swanson and 20 minutes to Huapai. That would be a fairly good match for demand.

    1. That’s not true for Wellington, the number of services at Waikanae is the same as the number of services at Linden for example.

    2. Many systems will run full services to the end of the line in the peak but cut them back off peak – which I wouldn’t have a problem with. I.e. hypothetically running trains every 5 minutes from Swanson at peak with it dropping back to every 10 minutes off-peak and with those extra services running only to say New Lynn.
      But that’s different from saying we’ll never run trains more than every 10 minutes past Henderson even at peak times.

  11. The gap in services between Henderson and Swanson with the purple line services terminating at Henderson, could be replaced with a diesel shuttle service running between Henderson and Huapai.

    Another operating configuration post-CRL and post-Southdown-Avondale line, could be to have the purple line run Henderson (or Swanson or Huapai) to Manukau via the Southdown-Avondale line which would provide a relatively direct west to south service. Have the Western Line run to Onehunga via the CRL, have the Southern Line run in alternating order via Newmarket / CRL and Panmure / CRL in a return loop from Papakura / Pukekohe.

    1. ‘The gap in services between Henderson and Swanson with the purple line services terminating at Henderson, could be replaced with a diesel shuttle service running between Henderson and Huapai.’

      Why!? If it is cheaper to build extra platforms for terminating services at Swanson, just do it there. Also eliminates pointless running of more expensive to run diesel trains under wires.

      I also can’t understand the logic of not having a direct service between Manukau and the CBD, the two biggest business centres in the city.

      1. OK yes, I agree.

        Upgrading Swanson station and having a DMU service to Huapai from there, along with running the purple line from Swanson to Onehunga (and Western Line to Otahuhu instead) like Matt L was saying, makes more sense and would actually work well.

        1. Another operating scenario: If a the second harbour crossing were to be a heavy rail only tunnel, along with converting the Northern Busway into a heavy rail line:

          – The Southern Line could run from Albany to Pukekohe via CRL (Aotea) / Grafton / Newmarket;

          – The Western Line from Swanson and Eastern Line to Manukau could be linked together via the CRL (with an ADL DMU shuttle from Swanson to Helensville);

          – The Purple line could either run from Swanson to Onehunga via Grafton, or to Otahuhu via the Southdown-Avondale line if this line gets built.

          This would ensure only 6 car EMUs are operating through the CRL as well as providing a number of direct one seat journeys such as north to south, Manukau CBD to Auckland CBD, east to west, west to south.

        2. “If a the second harbour crossing were to be a heavy rail only tunnel”

          It should be a rail-only tunnel. but i think you’ll find HR is prohibitively expensive compared to Light metro. I think this blog has done some analysis on that. Regardless, we can’t keep plugging in new lines to the current HR network. It doesn’t have the capacity. We need a new and complimenting network with interacts with the current one, which is where LR and LM come in.

          I think initial plans are that the Northern Busway would eventually be LR/LM going across the harbour and meeting with the HR network at Aotea. I can’t recall the specifics.

        3. Diesels cost a horrible amount of money to operate, which is a big reason they are getting rid of them down south.

  12. You’ve conveniently forgotten about increased freight movements to Northport.

    At the moment Kiwirail services are subordinate to AT services but that is only for current frequencies and stopping patterns.

  13. Thank you. Where was Northport in all this ? Plans for a road/rail freight distribution hub in the north west seem to been forgotten. Geographically, the preferred terrain is self-selecting. This will bring huge housing to Huapai/Helensville, with consequences to north-western commuter patterns.
    There is not that much spoil above the Waitakere tunnel. Daylight it now, and electrify through to Helensville.
    Henderson problem solved.

  14. Quite agree to extend the purple line to Swanson as more potentials to link northwest Auckland area (Westgate etc.). In the future, more electrified stations could be added to accommodate Northwest Auckland development. Highly recommend to build express transport route from Swanson to Westgate.

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