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.
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
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.