Last week the new government was officially sworn in and among other things, it means we have a new transport minister, Michael Wood. One of the biggest challenges he’ll face is making some progress on Light Rail. As I covered last week, the good news is he has previously shown himself to have a good understanding of transport issues and the light rail project. He also responded to the Herald’s Simon Wilson that he’s committed to the project.
Totally committed to that Simon. Working through the detail now to make sure we make the right decisions as we get underway with this city shaping project.
— Michael Wood (@michaelwoodnz) November 6, 2020
There is certainly plenty of detail to work through and soon that will include the Ministry’s advice on the ‘public sector delivery model’, essentially their recommendation on how to proceed with the project following cabinet ending the silly Superfund / Waka Kotahi NZTA horse race in June.
As readers will know, during that process the project evolved from light rail as was initially proposed to fully grade separated driverless light-metro solution with fewer stops and focused on speed to the airport. Different modes have different benefits, trade-offs and costs and I’ve talked before about making sensible mode decisions. The biggest difference between the light rail and light-metro is the cost. Looking at some overseas examples, at a very high-level it suggests we might expect light rail to cost about $100 million per km to build while tunneling or elevated light-metro sections might be upwards of $600 million per km – it’s no wonder the Super Fund and their Canadian partners are so keen on pushing the light-metro option, they would have been getting a guaranteed percentage return on a larger principal amount.
The concern is that in the long-term there might not be enough capacity on the network if we just use light rail. Over time our political and technical processes have evolved to take a “do it once” approach which would suggest we go straight to the 100-year solution by building light-metro up-front.
The challenge with that is that going straight to light-metro is much more expensive and therefore harder to justify and takes longer to deliver. It also potentially crowds out funding that could be used to deliver other critical parts of the network, for example, for the price of one light-metro line we could probably get a couple of light rail lines that are nearly as good and a bunch of busways too. All up that second option would give us a much better overall network and deliver greater overall mode shift.
The other issue with the “do it once” approach is it also ignores the ability to stage improvements and for the network to evolve over time. We’ve even got an extremely relevant example of this in Auckland, the upgrade to the existing rail network.
The biggest project we have on the books right now is the City Rail Link but the first iteration of plans to tunnel through the city centre date back to the early 1920’s. Then called the Morningside Deviation, it came about when the city’s rail terminal was in the process of being moved away from Britomart to make way for the Chief Post Office. The project had been approved but then a change in government saw the project scrapped. Cost was the main factor for this and nearly half of the cost was because the project would have electrified the network between Papakura and Helensville. Similar attempts with similar results happened in the 40’s/50’s and in the 60’s/70’s with Robbies Rail. In all cases the projects were essentially trying to do too much.
Then starting in the late 90’s a different approach was taken and in 2003 Britomart opened and returned rail to near the heart of the city. That and the response then provided justification for starting to upgrade the rest of the then rundown network. Stations started to be upgraded, more (diesel) trains bought, the Western line was duplicated, the Onehunga line reopened and the Manukau line built. While this happened, usage continued to grow and that provided the justification to electrify the network. The growth we’ve then seen from that investment has then highlighted the need for the City Rail Link and there will be more improvements needed in the future too.
So the question is, can we take a similar approach with light rail/metro? Can we deliver something that is affordable and useful now, that builds usage and then improve later on? I think the answer is yes.
If we take the light rail network from ATAP and look at the original light rail plans we can split it out like below. Based on this, of an over 62km network, only about 9.6km, or just over 15%, would be ‘on-street’ and the rest would be in a dedicated corridor allowing services to run reliably and at high frequency. This would of course be delivered over a period of many years in many stages.
Then at some point in the future, when demand/capacity are clearer and funding options are available we could develop the network further. For example, one option would be to build ‘CRL 2’ to perhaps link up the North Shore and Northwest lines. This would have the major benefit of creating a fully grade separated line but also free up capacity for more services on City Centre to Mangere line that remains with sections on-street. Note: the exact route would need to be assessed but we see lots of value in one that is able to serve the University, part of Ponsonby Rd and Grey Lynn.
Of course as the map earlier also shows, the section south of Onehunga was already expected to be in a dedicated corridor and so other projects, such as one I suggested here, could enable us to link that up too.
Once routes are fully grade separated then we can also consider converting them to driverless ‘metro’ style operation. This may also entail enlarging stations but that shouldn’t be a major issue if we’ve allowed for the possibility in advance.
The key point of all this is that networks are changeable. We don’t have to build the perfect network upfront. Our existing rail network shows us that the key is to get something in place that we can then expand and improve.