While in general I was somewhat critical of the National Party’s recent transport announcements, their commitment to completing Auckland’s rapid transit network was a huge positive and something that I could not have imagined a few years ago.
The second project I am announcing today as part of National’s Delivering Infrastructure Plan is Auckland Rapid Transit. We will measure our progress against those goals, of 30 minutes to get to work and one hour to get across the city, that I mentioned earlier.
Auckland’s motorway network is now nearly complete, thanks to National. The motorway network will remain absolutely essential in the rapidly approaching era of zero-carbon, self-driving, electric and hydrogen cars and trucks. Today I am announcing that National’s Plan is to also complete Auckland’s rapid transit network.
At a high level this is really good. There’s recognition that rapid transit plays a critical role in moving people quickly and efficiently around Auckland, and also recognition that it must come together as a network. Many of the problems with the development of light-rail over the past few years is that it seems the Government forgot that it forms part of a wider rapid transit and public transport network, and needs to do a whole variety of different jobs – not just quickly link a few people from the city centre to the Airport and back.
While saying the right thing at a high level, National’s transport policy then goes and undoes a lot of that good work through a whole pile of ill informed reckons about the merits of different modes for these corridors.
We don’t support light rail. National believes light rail will be to the 2020s what monorails were to the 1980s. We do support completing Auckland’s existing train and bus system. We support the vision of Len Brown’s Auckland Plan of 2012.
I am announcing, therefore, that there will be rail to the airport from Puhinui, starting in 2026, and then up to Onehunga, to create a rail loop. This was the plan for Auckland for decades, as Mike Lee will tell you.
Rather than just doing a third main rail line Quay Park to Wiri, we will do the third and fourth at the same time. This will allow the separation of commuter and freight traffic, and for express commuter services and regional rail. In the 2030s, we will look seriously at a new rail line from Avondale to Southdown, which would have major benefits for freight.
I am also announcing today that Phil Twyford’s Ghost Train will be replaced by rapid buses or trackless trams to Onehunga. National will also build the eastern busway to Botany and the northwestern busway to Hobsonville.
There’s a lot to unpick here, but to start with it is very odd to see the National Party mentioning Len Brown and Mike Lee here – the very politicians they fought so hard against in the early years of Auckland Council. There are also a number of lines missing, lines that National agreed to in their 2016 iteration of ATAP. The notable bits missing are the crosstown routes of Upper Harbour, New Lynn to Onehunga and Botany to Manukau.
Perhaps what’s most frustrating to me, and something that has been happening for some time, is that different rapid transit modes have become increasingly politicised. Heavy rail, light-rail, light-metro or bus rapid transit shouldn’t be an ideological expression, they are all simply different ‘tools’ for delivering rapid transit and each have their strengths and weaknesses.
As I discussed in October last year, the right mode for a rapid transit corridor will likely vary according to the scale of demand and the corridor’s characteristics. In some situations, bus rapid transit will be the right mode – because the level of demand might be low enough for bus volumes to remain manageable, or there might be sufficient space to accommodate very high bus volumes without hugely negative impacts or massive cost. In other situations, demand might be extremely high and heavy rail becomes the right answer, especially if there’s an opportunity to unlock latent capacity in the existing heavy rail network (e.g. City Rail Link). However, building new heavy rail corridors is likely to be extremely expensive and difficult but if demand and/or corridor constraints are too high for bus rapid transit then surface level light rail can be a really good option.
I put together a table to help illustrate some of these different strengths and weaknesses:
What’s important for rapid transit is not the specific mode but that the various routes come together to form a coherent network. The RTN map was originally introduced in the 2016 ATAP but the 2018 version took that a step further and showed – at a network level – the likely future mode of each rapid transit corridor in Auckland.
There’s a nice logic to much of this map (which is very similar to our Congestion Free Network we developed in 2017). The cross-town corridors like Henderson to Constellation, New Lynn to Onehunga, Airport to Botany and Botany to Ellerslie/Penrose are suggested for bus rapid transit – because it is generally the cheapest way of delivering rapid transit and these corridors are likely to have lower demand and there are fewer corridor constraints such as needing to run through on city centre streets. Many of the ‘advanced bus’ ideas that National suggest for Dominion Rd would work well on these corridors.
Improvements to the heavy rail network are predominantly focused on getting more out of the lines we have today, such as the third/forth mains, better signalling, improved reliability etc. – because building new lines will be costly and difficult.
The third network – light-rail – provides the three big, new corridors to the north, northwest, and to the Airport. This third network serves big radial corridors that are likely to have high enough demand in the long-term and/or corridor constraints for bus rapid transit to struggle.
As I mentioned earlier, the Government hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory either when it comes to making sensible mode choices. A lack of evidence in the mode conversations around the light-rail project has led to a bizarre situation where it seems like the coalition is split three ways, with Labour preferring a ‘light metro’ option, the Greens preferring light-rail and NZ First preferring heavy rail.
Now this doesn’t mean the map above is perfect and might not need to evolve over time. I remain convinced that light-rail is likely to be the best mode for City Centre to Mangere, in part because we’re also building the Airport to Botany route. However, I’m not as sure this will be the case for the Northwest or North Shore. These two corridors have higher long-term demands and as they will mostly run next to the motorway they may well be suited to some form of light-metro. I’ll expand on this idea in the coming weeks.
For now though, I remain a mixture of mildly optimistic, confused and annoyed by National’s rapid transit proposal. Mildly optimistic because their high level messaging is good – Auckland’s motorway network is now basically done and the city now needs to complete its complementary rapid transit network. Confused because it’s hard to understand the logic behind some of their decisions about mode for the different corridors – especially their preference for bus on Dominion Road when many studies have shown that doesn’t solve the problem, or heavy rail to the Airport where once again years of analysis has shown why this mode is so expensive and difficult. I’m also annoyed about the poorly informed ongoing arguments about mode and the absence of evidence our transport agencies have brought to this conversation. It’s now more than two years since ATAP was completed and it doesn’t seem like the diagram above has really gone anywhere or been further developed – leaving a vacuum of information which has been filled by uninformed reckons.