Last week we learnt that the light rail process had ended after the government parties couldn’t come to an agreement on the outcome. One reason for that that appears to have been a desire from the minister for the project to become a much more expensive, fully grade separated Light Metro system with a key requirement that it could get from the city to the airport in 30 minutes.
I’m not sure where the idea has come from that getting between the city and the airport in 30 minutes is so important and it sounds like another case of what I call “airport derangement syndrome”. Almost exactly a year ago I wrote about how there is an over-emphasis put on airport trips with two key reasons being:
- Politicians, senior bureaucrats, business leaders, media and other members of the ‘elite’ use Airports far more frequently than the average person – so therefore connections to airports are a much bigger deal for them than for most people.
- A very wide variety of people travel to the Airport over the course of a year, compared to other key places. This means that a lot of people experience travel conditions to and from airports, even if they do so quite rarely.
Notably, ATAP suggested just 4% of trips during the morning peak using light rail would be people travelling/from the airport terminals. More importantly the project was considered needed to
- address bus capacity constraints in the city centre
- improve access to the employment areas, especially those near the airport which would likely be bypassed by a metro system focused on speed to the terminals, and;
- to unlock growth opportunities in communities along the route.
However, the purpose of this post was to consider if we could achieve that 30 minute travel time from the city any other way using the network we have planned (or under consideration).
Current/Soon to be state
The first step in improving access to the airport is already underway with the construction of the significantly upgraded Puhinui Station and bus priority on State Highway 20B. Auckland Transport advertise that this will enable a reliable 45 minute journey to the airport.
Prior to the station being closed for the upgrade, the timetable for both the Southern and Eastern lines had the Britomart to Puhinui leg at 32-24 minutes. With trains every 10 minutes at peak on each of these lines, that’s a service every 5 minutes which is great. Auckland Transport suggest it will take 10 minutes for on the bus to get from Puhinui to the airport which leaves just a few minutes to transfer between them at Puhinui for the 45 minute trip.
So 45 minutes is our base trip, can we do better.
Speed up the trains
A check of google maps driving directions suggests that a 10 minute journey for the bus from Puhinui to the Airport seems about right given it will have priority.
That means the best option to get services faster is to speed up the trains. The good news is that should be possible. The image below comes from a series of documents I was given from AT when they were first purchasing our electric trains. It shows how fast they are supposed to be and shows a travel time of Britomart to Puhinui of 27 minutes, including a stop at Westfield Station, which is now closed. I have the same analysis exists for the Southern and Western lines too.
Because I’m sure someone will ask otherwise, the other lines are Britomart to Papakura at about 40 minutes and Britomart to Swanson at about 43 minutes – both about 10 minutes faster than they are today.
Recently, for another post I’ve been working on, I’ve also been collecting some timetable/performance data from other similar rail systems. This includes lines in Wellington, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth, as well as some S-Bahn lines in Munich and S-tog lines in Copenhagen. I’ll probably add more lines and cities over time and this isn’t necessarily every line in these cities/systems but just a random sample. In the analysis I’ve compared the average travel time for the line to the average distance between stations. In all cases these are all-stop service patterns and n lines where there are one or two really long sections but the rest of the stations are similarly spaced, I’ve dropped the long ones e.g. on Wellington’s Hutt Valley line I’ve only counted from Upper Hutt to Petone.
As you can see, Auckland’s network underperforms other systems with average speeds about 5-10 km/h slower than lines with comparably spaced stations elsewhere and only Wellington’s Johnsonville the other one significantly out of line with the trend – and perhaps understandably so. I’ve also included the estimations from CAF as per the documents mentioned above and they sit in line with those other systems.
What all this means is that if Auckland Transport can get our trains operating properly, this could reduce the journey to Puhinui by about 5 minutes – so about 40 minutes overall. That’s an improvement but can we go lower?
The inter-regional connection
Later this year the ‘trial’ service between Auckland and Hamilton will start, running between Hamilton and Papakura and taking 80 minutes. Waikato councillors have already suggested an investigation be made to at least extend that to Puhinui.
But the government have already been talking up bigger plans.
New Zealand’s first rapid rail service may be launched between Hamilton and Auckland, allowing commuters to travel between cities in just an hour.
The Government has confirmed they are investigating options for an express service that would see passengers catch a train in Hamilton and reach Auckland’s Britomart in 60 minutes.
Minister of Transport Phil Twyford said cabinet had approved an initial business case for the rapid rail service, due mid-year. A detailed business case would be required after that.
One option being looked at was for a rapid train with only two stops – Hamilton and Auckland – and another option was a fast train that stopped at stations north of Hamilton and in Auckland’s southern suburbs.
The Ministry of Transport was looking at a technology known as tilt trains, used frequently overseas, travelling at speeds of around 160 kilometres per hour.
It would require building an entirely new, straighter line, and the trains would be electric.
“You would be talking quite a few billion dollars.”
But it won’t be like the bullet trains in Japan, Twyford said.
“I wouldn’t want to give that impression, though it will be sleek, modern and efficient – no question.”
I can’t see a non-stop service stacking up and if there’s any station along the way you’d want an intercity train to stop at it would be Puhinui as that would give people to/from Hamilton a connection to the airport and employment around Manukau. Such services would need to make use of the 3rd main Kiwirail are about to build and may possibly also need the 4th main they would ideally be building now too – but aren’t. We also need the CRL completed to free up space in Britomart.
But the point of raising all this is that if we were to treat those Hamilton services as part of the overall Auckland network, and not just something separate that happens to pass through Auckland, then travellers needing a fast connection could use this for the Puhinui to to Britomart leg. With the Eastern Line from Puhinui to Britomart being just under 23km, if the service could average about 75km/h for this part then it would do the journey in about 18 minutes. Combine that with the 10-minute bus and you’re at the airport within 30 minutes.
While not exactly the same, a similar example to this is the Gold Coast line in Queensland. I used it last year and as it runs south of Brisbane it only stops at a handful of stations on the suburban network and seemed to average about 60km/h, then once past the edge of the urban area, and on a straighter alignment, it reaches speeds of 140km/h. So trains are used as both a limited stop and inter-urban service.
The biggest risk with this option is Auckland based commuters from clogging up the train preventing Hamilton bound passengers from boarding, however, this could be solved by way of pricing and/or using the extra passengers and potentially extra revenue could help towards justifying running those Hamilton services more frequently – with the more frequently they run, the more useful they are.
In some ways this is a bit of a roadmap – assuming people still need to even get to the airport in a post-covid world
So, if we’re able deliver a 30 minute travel time through other methods, does that mean we can rethink what the priority for light rail should be, and push it back towards some of the original goals and plans?