Auckland’s current rapid transit network (RTN) is fairly limited in its reach and quality but the region has some big plans for developing it going forward, some aspects of which are already under construction. Importantly and positively, over the last decade we’ve seen a big shift in thinking from central government. Processes like the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) has seen successive governments agree on the need for the RTN as well as some rough priorities. Furthermore, most of the political parties that are either currently in parliament or likely to make up the next one include some form of RTN expansion of it in their policies for the upcoming election – ACT doesn’t explicitly include it but doesn’t rule it out either.
Buses and busways will play an important role in the future but things differ on how and where we expand the role of rail in the region. For the purpose of this post, there are two main schools of thought on this, we:
- expand the existing heavy rail network; or
- introduce a new form of rapid transit, such as light metro or light rail.
We’ve seen this debate play out for almost six years after light rail re-emerged as an option being seriously being considered. In this post I want to focus on why we should introduce a new form of rapid transit
Expand the existing network
From Britomart to double tracking to electrification and now the City Rail Link, we’ve been spending, and are going to continue to spend billions on improving it. At $4.4 billion the City Rail Link alone is currently the single biggest transport project the country has ever undertaken and the project is needed to unlock capacity on the network. It will eventually allow up to 54,000 people an hour to arrive in the city centre by train, up from just a maximum over 14,000 currently. Although, to achieve those numbers significant additional investment will still be required such as signalling upgrades, level crossing removal, more trains and longer platforms.
The main argument for expanding the existing network is fairly straightforward, that we should make the most of the nearly four-fold increase in capacity the CRL allows for to serve areas not currently on the network such as the North Shore and the Airport. Other arguments often include that it allows for fleet interoperability and a wider variety of network designs.
On the surface this can sound practical or like “common sense”.
Introduce a new network
As noted above, when it comes to rail this could be in the form of light rail or light metro, both of which have been discussed here many times. Below are some of the reasons why building something different to what we currently have is not a bad thing.
If there’s anything the last few months has shown us with both the rail network and Harbour Bridge, it’s that we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket. The CRL is a fantastic and much needed project but even with it, our network remains very skinny and with still just two tracks at its core – a far cry from the sometimes lavish rail resource available in other, often older cities.
That skinniness means a single issue, be it a train breaking down, a signalling fault, a medical emergency, or a range of other things, could grind the entire network to a halt. Most regular rail users will be very familiar with the chaos that quickly spreads across the network when there something goes wrong at Britomart.
Introducing a new, independent network doesn’t stop issues from happening but it does mean when they do, the core of the entire regions PT network isn’t taken out of action.
Somewhat related to resilience is also the issue of network design. It’s one thing to be able to run trains from every line to every other line but that can mean you may end up with long waits for the exact service you want. By comparison, by having just one or two routes using a piece of infrastructure like the CRL it means you can run each route at very high frequencies. With the new independent network also operating the same way it would only require a quick and simple transfer to get to a destination served by it. I get that some people don’t like transferring but it is standard practice on metros around the world. I’d challenge people to point to a well-used network that doesn’t do this.
If people can easily transfer between services, that also means there’s no requirement that both those services be identical in design, just function.
Of course, this kind of network principle is the same thinking behind the successful bus network changes implemented a few years ago, where the graphic below comes from.
This network design philosophy also applies to future intercity trains. Why would we divert a train to serve an area many of its potential users don’t want to go when they could easily transfer like locals do.
As mentioned, the CRL provides for a nearly four-fold increase in capacity, but if we’re going to met our goals for the city and the climate, we’re going to need every bit of that just to serve the existing network.
Auckland’s Climate Plan sets the target of us needing to increase the public transport mode share to 24.5% by 2030 and to 35% by 2050. That’s a huge jump so let’s put that in perspective.
Prior to Covid we had just over 100 million trips annually on PT and that is estimated to equate to about an 8% mode share. With our currently expected population growth it means that by 2030 we need our PT system to be moving nearly 400 million trips annually and by 2050 that increases to almost 700 million trips. In other words in 30 years we need our PT system to cope with seven times the amount of trips it was doing prior to Covid.
I expect the current and future RTN will need to play a substantial role in achieving those levels of growth, much like it has over the last decade. Of course, you’ll note that a seven-fold increase is much larger than the four-fold increase the CRL allows for. Catering for much larger future growth is one of the reasons for the extra cost of the project by allowing for 9-car trains and I think there are further opportunities for increasing rail capacity, such as metro style seating. However, I also suspect a large chunk of that growth will come from making our PT network more viable off-peak and on weekends.
Capacity issues also apply to the argument about depots too. We originally bought 57 electric trains and have almost finished receiving our second batch of 15 to bring the total to 72 trains. Depots don’t have unlimited capacity though and our current one was designed for a maximum of 109 trains. We’ll need that depot capacity for all the extra trains we’ll need for the CRL. But that also means there’s no capacity available in the depot to also serve new lines. That means any new line we build will need a new depot anyway.
If based on all of the above (and more) we know we’ll need a new dedicated new line we finally need to ask ourselves if we should be saddled to legacy design standards or if we shouldn’t instead use something more modern and fit for purpose of moving people. These more modern systems also have the advantage of allowing for things such as steeper gradients and sharper curves, things which could help make such a new line cheaper and easier to build.
It’s here that we can also look to other cities and see that building new lines and modes that are not compatible with what we’ve built in the past is actually very common. For example, just over the ditch in the West Island, Sydney has added recently added two new modes, metro and light rail, that are incompatible with their existing networks. Bigger and older cities like London, Paris or Tokyo are patchwork quilts of different designs from different eras. What they have in common though is each of the systems perform part of a cohesive network.
We need to not be afraid of having different modes, if anything, they should be embraced as they could potentially open up new opportunities.