We have long bemoaned the lack of a proper rapid transit plan for Auckland, one showing how the city’s rapid transit network should evolve over time to act as the core of a wider public transport network fitting of a city that will reach 2 million people within the next 10-15 years. After all, the Congestion Free Network that we first developed in 2013 and then updated in 2017 is really just a rapid transit plan for Auckland that we created to fill the void of an actual official plan.
More recently, the implications of not having a proper rapid transit plan have become more obvious than ever – through a series of baffling decisions about how to grow Auckland’s rapid transit network. For example:
- The tunnelled light-rail option for City Centre to Māngere appears to have largely been driven by the need to also accommodate light-rail from other corridors like the Northwest – even though the most recent business case for Northwest Rapid Transit suggested a busway.
- The 2020 business case for Additional Waitematā Harbour Connections seemed to suggest keeping the Northern Busway and just adding a light-rail or light-metro line from the city to Takapuna and Smales Farm, even though this would result in vast under-utilisation of this new rail connection.
- There appears to have been almost no progress at all on planning and design work for Northwest Rapid Transit over the past five years, despite multiple strategic documents suggesting it’s the most urgent new rapid transit corridor to progress.
- Most rapid transit planning work in recent times (aside from City Centre to Māngere, which is a tortuous story itself) seems to have been in greenfield areas by the Supporting Growth Alliance, even though these are the least urgent corridors to actually build or upgrade.
- The Eastern Busway is being ruined by a change to wiggle its route to try and avoid the slightest inconvenience to vehicles or impacting on commercial sites with great redevelopment potential.
However, the good (if rather late to the party) news is that it seems Auckland Transport, Auckland Council and Waka Kotahi have been quietly working away in the background on the very thing we have been calling for over the past decade: a rapid transit plan. We’ve seen some small elements of it in relation to light rail but recent LGOIMA requests have revealed more significant work on:
- A “Rapid Transit Baseline” document that highlights definitions, roles and objectives for rapid transit in Auckland.
- The beginnings of an actual plan for how our rapid transit network should grow over time.
In this post I’m going to look at the second of these documents, as I think it’s probably of most relevance to some of the issues above. The report is the more in-depth report of what we saw last year:
This means it focused on the three corridors that are planned to come together and interact in the city centre: North Shore, Northwest and City Centre to Māngere.
It seems like one of the first things the work did was undertake some high level modelling to estimate the rough level of likely future demand on these three corridors. While we are often sceptical of modelling, this is the kind of jobs it’s actually quite well suited to: a high-level rough-order estimate that’s mainly going to be used for comparative purposes between different corridors. The result of this broadly matched with what we’ve seen before and proposed in our 2017 Congestion Free Network – that North Shore broadly has the same level of demand as the other two corridors combined, and that Northwest has (slightly) higher demand than City Centre to Māngere.
There are obviously a lot of assumptions sitting behind these figures, such as where and when growth happens (these figures seem to predate the rather heroic growth assumptions in the City Centre to Māngere light-rail business case for example). But the headlines are still a useful starting point.
The next step looks at which modes may be suitable to serve projected demand in the corridor over time, by considering the capacity of different vehicles and the feasible frequency they can operate at effectively. This is also a useful graph for illustrating how the capacity of rapid transit absolutely crushes a traffic lane:
A whole pile of options for mode choice on the three corridors were then developed and underwent an initial assessment. These include:
- Surface light-rail on all three corridors (including a variant with a second city centre corridor)
- Light metro on the North Shore and CC2M corridors, and a busway to the northwest
- Light metro on all three corridors
- Light-rail on the inner part of CC2M (city centre, Mt Roskill, Onehunga) and on the Northwest, light-metro for the North Shore and along Manukau Road to the Airport.
- Light-rail on the inner part of CC2M (same as above) and the northwest, heavy rail to the North Shore and from Onehunga to the Airport
- Light-rail on CC2M and the northwest, heavy rail to the North Shore linking into the current Eastern Line.
- Light metro to the northwest and on CC2M, heavy rail to the North Shore linking into the current Eastern Line.
- Light-rail on CC2M and light-metro on North Shore and northwest
Interestingly, it appears as though light-rail was assumed in all options to run at surface (aside from potentially a tunnel under the harbour). It seems this work realised that to waste the capacity of extensive tunnels on lower-capacity light-rail might be a bit dumb.
The different options were assessed at a high level against various criteria, with four options taken through to a short-list for more detailed analysis:
The analysis seems pretty high level, with options 1, 3, 6 and 8 taken through for more analysis. This seems to have been based not only on these options performing well in the assessment above, but also to have a reasonably wide range of approaches (i.e. just light-rail, just light-metro, some heavy rail, a mix of metro and light-rail) being taken forward for further analysis.
Each of these four options was then analysed further, including transport modelling – to understand at both a corridor and overall system level what differences there were. Perhaps the most interesting result of this is how small the differences are – especially at a regional level.
Peak direction mode share on the three corridors was also looked at. Again the results are all pretty similar, with the biggest difference being lower mode shift along Dominion Road for the metro option (presumably because it’s underground rather than through reallocation of roadspace).
The one metric where there is a big variation seems to be the better employment access performance of option 3 for people living in Māngere. However, this is subsequently explained as largely being due to the slow and indirect light-rail alignment used for the CC2M corridor, which could easily be optimised.
While performance across the different options was broadly similar, the same can’t be said for costs. High level cost assumptions were used to allow comparisons to be made and while I’m sure these assumptions aren’t perfect, they seem reasonable in terms of enabling a “tunnel is x times more costly than surface” type comparisons. I assume station costs are absorbed into the overall per kilometre assumption.
Totalling up the different options you can see Option 1 (surface light rail) is around $12-15 billion cheaper than options 3 or 6, with option 8 being around $5 billion cheaper than 3 and 6.
There’s also discussion on how each option could be staged, with a key conclusion being that option 1 has the greatest flexibility.
It’s also noteworthy that the Northwest corridor is generally sequenced before North Shore in this work, which is different to the government’s announcement on light-rail in January, which seemed to suggest that North Shore had “jumped the queue”. I’ll discuss this more in an upcoming post.
Interestingly, the work concludes by discussing how Option 1 could evolve to Option 8 over time, through building the city centre tunnel as its ‘stage 4’ in the table above, allowing the Northwest and North Shore corridors to be upgraded from light-rail to light-metro as the rest of their routes run off-street (unlike CC2M). This is something we’ve suggested should happen with light rail.
Overall, while there might be a few minor things to nitpick, this is a pretty impressive piece of work. It finally works through, systematically, many of the questions that are key to developing at least this part of Auckland’s future rapid transit network. Importantly, rather than focusing on a single project, it looks at all three of these major corridors together. I think it actually makes a pretty compelling case for the staging pathway highlighted above – which is actually pretty similar to many of the points we have been making for some time.
Ironically, it seems that this work was largely ignored by the Auckland Light Rail Establishment Unit – who instead proposed an option (tunnelled light rail) that wasn’t even on the long-list of options considered in this plan. This means a huge up-front investment in a massive tunnel (something the work above was trying to avoid), while also precluding the ability to ever upgrade the Northwest and North Shore to light-metro – because the city centre tunnel they’d require is being used by light-rail.
I guess we will have to wait and see what happens with this Plan, which presumably has moved onto looking at other parts of the rapid transit network now (like heavy rail and crosstown corridors). It just seems like such a shame that the one time our transport agencies finally get around to doing the piece of planning work that’s been needed for at least a decade, it ends up being completely ignored.