Te Huia, new train service between Auckland and Hamilton is now tentatively due to start in November, having been delayed by COVID-19. Though given the state of the Auckland rail network right now, I wonder if it would be better to wait till the work to fix it has been completed before launching. The service has always been considered a start-up to get things rolling, but it certainly won’t be rolling fast with an end to end journey time estimated at about 2.5 hours – they expect to be able to shave about 18 minutes off that (down to 134 minutes) once future investment in Auckland allows services to run express from Papakura through to Britomart.
Transport Minister Phil Twyford has said a number of times about a longer term aim to replace this start up service with a faster, more attractive service – in much the same way as our Regional Rapid Rail proposal from 2017 which Labour adopted.
Yesterday we got the first indications of what has been happening in this space with the release of the Hamilton to Auckland Intercity Connectivity Interim Indicative Business Case. This word salad of a name is not really a business case but more just a fancy way of saying it’s a bit of a high-level look at the options for a faster rail connection between the two cities with a focus also on supporting future urban growth along the corridor.
There are three key problems the project this plan is trying to address along with the relative weightings given to them.
- Problem 1: The amount of time taken to travel between Hamilton and Auckland (by any mode) is limiting the individual and combined economic performance including productivity of the two metropolitan areas and impacting on social wellbeing (50%).
- Problem 2: The approach taken to land use and transport planning across the metropolitan areas has not provided sufficient focus on improving inter-city connectivity (30%).
- Problem 3: The car dependent and relatively low density of urban development within the Auckland and Hamilton metropolitan areas combined with a road-vehicle dependent corridor between the two economies is hampering our ability to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, transport accidents, injuries or fatalities and improve health (20%).
The plan took a high-level look at other mode options for addressing these problems, including investing in more motorway upgrades, inter-city buses even flying but had substantial issues with them.
A long list of potential rail services and improvements were drawn up, all of which assume investments such as four tracks and level crossing removal from Pukekohe through to Wiri and a new underground station in Hamilton city centre near the bus interchange. This list was then whittled down to a shortlist of four scenarios. Each of these assume there will be just five stops on the route, Britomart, Puhinui, Southern Auckland (this isn’t defined but the report seems to favour Drury rather than Papakura), Northern Hamilton and Hamilton CBD. This assumption is tied to the idea that there would also be a local service serving the communities between Hamilton and Pukekohe along with regular express services from Pukekohe to Britomart. The shortlisted scenarios are effectively each a progression of the one before it and are:
Scenario A – Electrified and 110km/h
Electrify to Hamilton with a maximum speed along the route of 110km/h. This option is expected to cost about $2.2 billion and would see a total Britomart to Hamilton City journey time of just under two hours (113 minutes).
Scenario B – Electrified and realigned up to 160km/h
This goes a step further by including some corridor improvements to enable speeds of up to 160km/h. This is expected to cost about $5 billion and would reduce the end to end travel time to an estimated 88 minutes, or just under 1½ hours. This would put it at about the same speed as driving off-peak.
Scenario C – New dedicated 160km/h corridor
Using the same 160km/h top speeds, this takes the step of delivering it via an entirely new corridor. They estimate it would shave an extra 9-minutes off the journey for time of 79 minutes. but a completely new corridor comes with a hefty price tag of $12.2 billion
Scenario D – New dedicated 250km/h corridor
This scenario looks at what if we built that new corridor in Scenario C with standard gauge tracks with trains capable of up to 250km/h. At $13.6 billion this doesn’t cost all that much more than C but would save an additional 10 minutes on the journey for a total time of just 69 minutes. One of the issues with this however is that standard gauge track would only be between Southern Auckland and Hamilton so users would still have to transfer to an express service to get through Auckland.
The report then covers of a high-level look at the benefits of these scenarios
I find the report has taken an odd approach to assessing the potential use of these options. For example stating:
Initial ridership forecasts are based on a static land use forecast; i.e. not allowing for the effect of introducing a new rail service on land use patterns.
These forecasts were based on origin destination patterns from the Auckland and Waikato strategic models and reflect the impact different journey times have on diverting riders from the motorway choice to each specific rail scenario.
While they do look at land use change separately, this seems to be a flaw in the case as the models will almost certainly be calibrated based on current conditions but the very presence of such a service is likely to change origin-destination patterns. In short, models tend to work okay for doing more of the same but usually fail badly when it comes to transformational change.
It also seems odd to ignore land use change given that is one of the driving forces behind the study. Issues with the assumptions in the models is almost certainly responsible for this graph which is meant to represent how many people will change from driving the route to using the train in 2051. To me it seems highly unrealistic that saving 9-minutes will result in about 350% more usage.
However, one thing I do like is they’ve estimated how many passengers in total will be required to achieve a BCR of 1. This type of approach is something I’ve wanted to see for a long time as it allows others, such as planners, to ensure there is enough provision in their plans to enable those needed levels of usage.
The report gives no clear preference to what option is taken but given the costs associated, Scenario B does seem to be favoured and to me that makes the most sense.
Based on this work, cabinet has agreed for the project to be developed with greater detail, presumably a full business case. As part of that work I hope there is also greater consideration for improvements in technology and the ability to stage this to bring down the sticker shock. At a high-level this could look something like:
- Build/upgrade stations, signalling and get the network to 110km/h (where it isn’t). The cost of the wires makes up a significant chunk of the cost and overseas battery EMUs (BEMUs) are becoming an increasingly attractive option for bridging gaps in wires. A number of suppliers now coming producing them, such as this from Alstom which is capable of 160km/h under battery power and has a battery range of 120km. This step would include buying a fleet of them to start with. Of note, Wellington are also looking to buy potentially BEMUs to service Palmerston North and the Wairarapa, this could be done as a common design to bring costs down.
- Start working on the improvements and realignments needed to get speeds up to 160km/h.
- Progressively start to extend electrification. One of the ways overseas that the costs of electrification have been brought down is by delivering it as a constant stream of work rather than a series of individual projects with breaks between them. Going for BEMUs gives us the ability to do this. They also mean the trains could potentially travel off-wire past Hamilton for little extra cost.
- Start to look at larger scale realignments as suggested in Scenario C. The two main ones would likely be Drury to Pokeno and Taupiri to Hamilton
I also hope the next stage of this investigation includes what potential benefits there are to freight services from electrifying and realigning parts the network. As well it should also mention about the possibility of it being pre-requisite for other goals such as eventually extending higher speed services to Tauranga. There is no timeframe for when this next stage will be completed.