Late last year I wrote about the lessons we can apply to light rail from the 100-year history of trying to build the City Rail Link. In that post, as I’ve done before, I looked at a history of the various proposals for a rail tunnel through the Auckland’s city centre.
It’s fantastic that we’re finally building the CRL, something that was far from certain of happening a decade ago, but in writing the post last year it got me thinking, which of them is the best?
Of course, the best option is the one you actually build, but if we could strap ourselves into a time machine and go back and get one of these other options over the line, which one would we choose?
This there are five major proposals that emerged over those 100 years – the 1920s, 1950s, 1960’s, 1970’s and the one we’re currently building. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, they’re all different from each other
So, let’s look at them and the pros and cons of each one.
The first official plan for something like the CRL was approved by the government in October 1924 as a line between the then new Auckland Station that was to be built, and Morningside. There’s not much in the way of maps of this route but was described as:
The route is from the new station site, across Beach Rd then by a tunnel in a straight line to a point beneath the normal school. The tunnel takes a slight curve to Wakefield Street, where the proposed underground station will be situated, with a double line platform. Thence the route is by tunnel to the vicinity of the bottom of Newton Road. An open line continues along the gully to Morningside, where there will be another short tunnel.
Stations at Karangahape Rd and in the Newton gully were added later before the project was cancelled. Interestingly the main entrance to the Karangahape Rd Station was to be on Cross St in exactly the same location as the CRL one is today.
That would suggest a route something like this:
- Being the earliest of the proposals this would have had the most opportunity to help shape Auckland around the rail network into the future.
- Being the most direct route it is also the shortest and combined with the surface section through the Newton gully means it has the least amount of tunnelling needed. This should make it the cheapest of the options.
- By using the Newton gully it makes it much less likely we would have built the motorway network in the way we did, strangling the city centre and severing it from the city fringe areas.
- The station around Wakefield St would be fairly close to the Universities.
- By using the now old Railway Station it would be great for serving both local and intercity trains
- By taking such a direct route there is a huge hole in coverage of the northern and eastern parts of the city centre.
- It’s not clear how this would operate in reality without putting a lot more service on the Western Line than the Southern and Eastern lines.
The project was cancelled in 1930 but the scheme was still on long term plans from the Ministry of Works as late as 1946.
In 1950 British consultants Halcrow & Partners produced what became known as the Halcrow-Thomas report for the Railways department. At the southern end it is similar to the 1920’s scheme but where it differs is north of Karangahape Rd with the tunnel staying west of Queen St with a station between Wellesley St and Cook St, called Civic Square Station, and an additional station to serve the northern part of the city centre at around Swanson St though they called it the Queen St Station.
- This fixes the biggest issue with the 1920’s plan by adding a northern station. That station is also arguably better located than Britomart because it has a wider catchment around it rather than nearly half of it being in the water like Britomart has today.
- Like the 1920’s plan the use of the Newton gully helps both lower the cost and also would likely have changed how we built our motorways.
- Most of the growth that had occurred in Auckland up until this point had happened around the old tram network so this would have still be early enough to help in shaping the growth of the automobile era.
- The Queen St and Civic Square stations would be only about 500m apart making for a lot of catchment overlap.
- Like the 1920s version, it’s not clear how this would operate in reality without putting a lot more service on the Western Line than the Southern and Eastern lines.
The road planners of the day were simultaneously coming up with motorway schemes and a technical advisory committee as set up to come up with a masterplan. That committee was stacked with 23 traffic engineers and just one railway engineer and the masterplan they came up with in 1955 set Auckland down its motorway focused course.
In the early 1960’s, American Consultants De Leuw Cather were hired to come up with a plan for Auckland. The report they produced expanded on the motorway and expressway excesses of the 1955 plan, but they also produced a rapid transit plan which they said needed to be built first to prevent the motorways from becoming congested. Their plans released in 1965 included a potential future regional transit network.
What was interesting is the design in the city centre which included a tight loop with two stations on it and a third around Karangahape Rd in part of what remains of the Symonds St Cemetery.
- The stations provide good coverage of the city centre
- City Loops typically have a major flaw in that you may need to travel most of the way around it if you want to get to some stations. That’s probably not so much of an issue on a tight loop like this.
- The plan was future-proofed for additional lines to both the North Shore and down Dominion Rd.
- The loop, and in particular the junctions, which I assume wouldn’t be grade separated, would likely be terrible for network reliability. A single delay at any of those junctions would quickly cascade through the system.
- Focusing an entire regional rail network on such a small bit of infrastructure would severely limit the capacity of each line.
- What is it with planners of the day and digging up cemeteries?
- This option has the longest length of tunnels of any of the plans with more than 1km more than the next highest and more than twice as much as the 1920s scheme.
- There doesn’t appear to be a station in the Mt Eden area leaving quite a gap between Kingsland and Karangahape Rd
This idea became the basis for the scheme pushed by Mayor Robbie in the 1970s
Now affectionately known as Robbie’s Rail, the city tunnels were to be just one part of the plan which also involved rebuilding parts of the existing network and removing some stations in order to speed up services. One thing that you can see from the plans is that some of the station locations are nearly identical to what we’re building now but there is quite a different route for how to get between them.
- Once the other connections were completed it would give options for how services were routed, unlike the 1920s and 1950s plans.
- The additional station at Symonds St would help in serving the University better.
- The initial plan was only to build a tunnel that connected the Southern lines, and the Eastern if funding allowed. This would have meant the Western Line would have seen no improvement until an unknown future time. Improving connections from the west has been the main purpose of the project since its inception.
- Like with the 1960s scheme, the inclusion of the future line to the shore would have resulted in less capacity and reliability on the network.
- Also like the 1960s scheme, there is a lot of tunnelling that would be involved which would have added to the cost of the project.
The scheme had popular support and Mayor Robbie even wrote a series of articles about the proposal
The first stages of the current scheme began shortly after the completion of the Britomart station in 2003 as concerns were raised that the development that is now Commercial Bay would prevent the possibility of a future connection. In 2009 the newly elected National government were hostile to the CRL but did allow for a business case to be completed which looked at various options before settling on the route that is now under construction.
- It’s actually being built
- By building Britomart first it helped build rail usage enough to make the case for investing in the CRL.
- The route is relatively direct and the stations are well spaced
- At the Mt Eden end, the junction is fully grade separated which will help improve reliability
- We’re almost certainly building the stations much larger than we would have seen from the older proposals meaning it probably has the most capacity.
- We lost the ability to integrate the old Auckland Station into the plan
- It’s a shame we couldn’t also make Mt Eden a combined stop for services travelling between Grafton and Karangahape Rd – there was originally meant to be a station just after the junction but it needed to be dropped so that the junction could be grade separated.
- By being the ‘last’ of the schemes it has the most existing development to contend with and therefore has to stick to being under roads a lot more.
So there are the five major schemes for the CRL that we’ve seen.
I think the current route is probably the best balance of the lot based on what we know now, but had we built the 1920s or 1950s version we would have seen some quite different development patterns and maybe even additional lines built that may have addressed the service routing issue. Based on that, a slightly refined version of the 1950’s plan might be what I’d pick after that time machine trip.
If you could choose one, which would it be?