Tomorrow (Tuesday 31 August), the consultation for the Auckland Light Rail process closes. If you haven’t already, now’s a good time to provide some feedback.
We’ve been somewhat critical of this engagement process due to a lack of information about some of the key trade-offs that need to be made. Why, for example, has the public not seen details that we know the ALR team has, about things like comparative costs, station locations, or travel times? On the other hand, we’ve been impressed by some of the communications material. It sets a clear, inviting, and wide vision for what light rail might mean for Tāmaki Makaurau. These are the kinds of comms we’d also love to see for the entire PT and bike network – not to mention the nationwide climate action response.
Vision is one thing; actually building it is another. We’ve been following the light rail discussion closely since it first kicked off at the start of 2015. We’ve read stacks of reports and papers looking at the issues and the options, which has helped shape our views on the topic. While we don’t have any more detailed information on the plans currently being looked at, that doesn’t stop us from sharing our thoughts on what we think light rail should be.
With this post, I thought I’d lay out the Greater Auckland vision for how we think light rail should be developed in Auckland – the full picture, not just the City Centre to Mangere (CC2M) line that’s being consulted on right now.
A Greater Auckland vision for light rail
As a quick reminder, some of the key questions/decisions that need to be made are highlighted in this image from the ALR team.
Building a light rail network, or even a single line like CC2M, isn’t something that’ll happen in one go. So I’ll break this down into what we think are appropriate stages, allowing for some parts of the project to be progressed while other parts are in planning and design phases. (The exact order and timing of some of the later stages may be interchangeable or could even happen at the same time.)
Stage 1 – City Centre to Mt Roskill
For the first stage, we should build a surface light rail route from the central city and across the isthmus: from bottom of Queen St, out along Dominion Rd to around Hayr Rd in Hillsborough/Mt Roskill. A few key points to why we think this.
We think surface-level light rail should be chosen. There are a few reasons for this:
- It is a much cheaper option. As I’ve highlighted recently, based on overseas experience a cost of $150 million per km would be a conservative estimate for light rail but light metro is more likely to be $500 million per km or more. That means for the ~9km route a cost of $1.35 billion for light rail compared to $4.5 billion for light metro.
- For all that cost difference, it doesn’t actually make much difference to travel times. A travel time model I’ve built suggests it would take about 18 minutes to get from the Civic/Aotea to Hayr Rd on light rail compared to about 14 minutes for light metro. The light rail option includes maximum speeds of just 30km/h on Queen St and 40km/h on Dominion Rd. However, the light metro time doesn’t include it would take to get down into or out of underground stations so the actual difference would only really be a couple of minutes at most.
- With a light metro solution, the higher costs for underground stations means we’ll have fewer station and therefore wider station spacing. That means we’ll still need to run buses on the surface to fill in the gaps.
- A surface route is likely to involve less disruption during construction. Overseas examples suggest it is likely to take about three years to build a surface route. Even Sydney’s beleaguered project only took four years. By comparison, light metro (raised or tunneled) would likely take six to eight or more years in a realistic scenario – we only need to look at the length and level of disruption of the City Rail Link project to see this won’t be fast. Imagine that replicated all the way down Dominion Rd.
- And, for those using the service – which is kind of the whole point – surface-level is much more accessible to more sorts of people, of all abilities. As Women in Urbanism have pointed out, because street-level stops don’t require stairs or elevators to get to a station, they provide easy journeys for anyone with pushchairs or wheelchairs or accompanying children or even just shopping. You can see and be seen, which adds to the comfort and appeal of city travel.
We’ve heard concerns from some officials about the long-term passenger capacity of surface light rail. As well as expanding the network even greater than suggested here, this could also be addressed with even longer light rail vehicles. Lengths of up to 90m to 120m are starting to be seen on some systems overseas such as Seattle (up to four 29m trains) and Dallas (up to three 37.5m trains).
Dominion Rd makes the most sense for a light rail route because it is the most direct and has a number of well-established town centres. We know Sandringham Road is also being looked at, but why duplicate the Western (rail) Line? It’s hard to see why Kingsland would need to be served by high-frequency heavy and light rail routes.
The only apparent reason for Sandringham Rd is the potential for Kainga Ora development along the route, but we feel that can be dealt with separately. There’s just as much capacity for development on the Dominion Rd route if the zoning is changed to enable it – which it should be.
As for stations, there’s always a need to strike a balance between speed and accessibility. For this first stage we think a good balance is nine stations, serving the local town centres and providing good coverage while also keeping travel times competitive.
The Wynyard Question
Previous plans and the current process have suggested light rail will go to Wynyard Quarter. We think that for Stage 1 it should end at Customs St. Customs St is a key bus corridor and will become even more so in the future with Auckland Transport’s City Centre Bus Plan. Extending light rail to Wynyard will limit the number of buses able to use Customs St including important routes like the NX1.
Light rail should integrate with the network we have, not run rough-shod over it. So we feel the time to look at extending light rail to Wynyard would be in conjunction with plans for extending it to the North Shore.
In addition, not extending to Wynyard could save about $250 million – reducing the sticker shock of the project, and likely making it easier to get over the line with the public and government.
The other end (and depot)
We think Hayr Rd is a good location to end the first stage, as it keeps things fairly straightforward before getting to the trickier part of getting down the hill to Onehunga.
There is also a good potential depot location nearby in the light commercial area around Carr Rd – a decent portion of which is already in government ownership. This is only a short distance from Hayr Rd, which provides access across the motorway, meaning a station there would have a wide catchment from nearby residential areas. This spot also connects to the current 27W buses, useful for those living around the Mt Eden Rd corridor when the light rail route is extended to Mangere and the Airport.
Why start in the city?
Over the years we’ve seen suggestions of starting by building light rail somewhere else, such as from the airport to Onehunga. While these locations need light rail, previous work has suggested they won’t be the busiest sections.
Everyone is invested in a successful start for the next phase of Auckland’s transport network. The best way to build confidence and ensure buy-in to the big plan is for the first stage to be a success from Day One. And to our minds, the best chance of that happening is with a route serving the isthmus and busy city centre from Day One.
However, it would be useful to start enabling works for other parts of the route, such starting to build the Manukau Harbour Crossing, to make it easier to build the later stages.
Green Track Dominion Rd
We would also build light rail on Dominion Rd with green tracks.
Stage 2 – A New Harbour Crossing
As we’ve discussed in the past, we think the next Waitematā harbour crossing should be a combined public transport and active mode bridge, similar to the Tilikum Crossing in Portland. We think this should run between Wynyard Quarter and the old toll plaza south of Onewa Rd. Work on this needs to start now, as it will take time to design and consent and to provide an active mode crossing as soon as possible. If there’s a gap between when the bridge is finished and when it’s time to extend light rail to the Shore, we could use the vehicle space initially to provide a dedicated space for buses.
Stage 3 – Mt Roskill to Mangere
This would see light rail extended from Hayr Rd to Mangere Town Centre. We think this should largely stick to the SH20 corridor, with the exception of deviations into Onehunga and Mangere Town Centre. Overall this would add 4 stations to the network.
There are a couple of key reasons for leaving this section for later. Firstly, unlike the initial section which is mainly on existing roads or in the unused Avondale to Southdown rail corridor, Roskill to Mangere may require acquisition of new/additional land in which to build light rail.
Secondly, there are a couple of more technically tricky sections, such as getting down from Hillsborough Rd to Onehunga, a new bridge across the Manukau Harbour crossing, and getting through the SH20/20A junction and into Mangere. Separating this stage out means the first stage can be progressed sooner while the design and planning work for this stage goes ahead.
Motorway or local roads?
We’ve heard suggestions in the past about sending light rail along Bader Drive in order to serve Kainga Ora sites. We think light rail should stick to the motorway corridor for faster journeys, and also so light rail can serve as a catalyst for development on the western side of the motorway – and best serve communities on both sides of the m’way equally well. Some additional active mode crossings of the motorway will help in this regard, to reduce severance.
Mangere Town Centre
Previous plans for light rail have suggested a station in the motorway corridor around Bader Dr. This would be a faster option, but a short deviation to the town centre won’t add much trip time. Furthermore, the Light Rail team have already shared an image showing light rail serving Mangere Town Centre, which will have raised expectations in that community.
Stage 4 – Mangere to Airport
We’ve separated this section out from the one above in order to make it more manageable. Also, while it is a key employment hub, a huge question mark hangs over the airport precinct, including whether the Airport itself will support (and invest in) light rail within its boundaries and on a rational route. Traditionally they’ve not been brilliant at integrating public and active transport into their planning. Therefore, the Mangere to airport section is better left until the airport’s planning is aligned with the city’s plans.
We think there could be three stations here:
- Montgomerie Rd to help serve some of the local industrial area,
- Airport business area just north of the airport
- Airport terminal
For those worried about travel times, this route should be about 37 minutes to get from The Civic to the airport
Stage 5 – City Centre to Pt Chevalier
Interim bus improvements to the Northwest are on the way and they’ll be useful for improving public transport in the short term but long term the Northwest needs a permanent option.
The full vision as set out in ATAP is for a light rail network that also serves the Northwest. To get that started we envision light rail branching off from the CC2M route around Newton Rd and crossing over the motorway. It would then run alongside the motorway as far as Pt Chevalier with three stations.
- The Pt Chevalier station would be immediately east of Carrington Rd and would help serve the proposed Unitec development. It would also allow for connections to the Outer Link and 66 frequent buses.
- A station could also go in around St Lukes Rd which could link to a frequent 65 bus. This station would give access to Motat, Western Springs Park, and the Zoo, as well as residential areas north and south of the motorway. The motorway ramps may need to be reconfigured a bit here.
- The third station would be at either Arch Hill, perhaps with a elevator up to Gt North Rd, or at Bond St (shown below) which could provide links to the 20 frequent bus for access to Ponsonby, Wynyard or Kingsland.
Stage 6 – Pt Chevalier to Westgate
The tricky part here is getting across the causeway. The cheapest and easiest option for this would be to convert a couple of motorway lanes, especially as once road pricing and light rail is in place there should less demand on the corridor. New stations would be added at Te Atatu, Lincoln Rd, Royal Rd and Westgate.
With light rail Westgate would only take around 25 minutes to get to the middle of the city centre.
Potentially an additional station could be added between Royal Rd and Lincoln Rd, say at Huruhuru Rd.
Stage 7 – Crosstown
As I wrote about recently, we think one of the advantages of going with a surface route is it opens the opportunity for a crosstown route which would open up trips from the west to the southern isthmus. It would also help in serving the Kainga Ora land around Hendon Ave and the end of Sandringham Rd. See that post for more on this proposal – it would also replace the Onehunga branch giving it much better frequency and capacity while also simplifying the heavy rail network.
Stage 8 – North Shore
It is currently expected that following some enhancements to the Northern Busway, it should have enough capacity through till the mid-2030s, which is why it’s near the end of our list today.
Once light rail is ready to be extended to the Shore, it would travel along Fanshawe St and through Wynyard to join the new bridge. It would then replace the existing Northern Busway, while a separate branch would go to Takapuna.
Replacing the busway wouldn’t be without its challenges given how busy the buses will be, but I’m sure some clever engineers and planners can come up with a better solution than just building a parallel route.
Stage 9 – Westgate to Kumeu
The Northwest line could then be extended to Huapai with three additional stations. Brigham Creek would help in serving the new developments around Whenuapai via a bus transfer, while the stations in Kumeu and Huapai would serve the area.
With light rail Huapai would be just 35 minutes from the city.
Bringing it all together
After building all of this, here’s what we get for our light rail network. This is of course in addition to the heavy rail network as well as the Eastern Busway and Airport to Botany Busway. That’s something that would really live up to the vision promised in the light rail comms.
And once this network is built, there are all sorts of options for where to build more of it.
As a final reminder, the current consultation for light rail closes tomorrow.