As regular readers will know, we’re not fans of the current plans to put light rail in a tunnel across the isthmus at enormous financial and opportunity cost.
There are a number of factors that play into why we think a surface-running system is better for Auckland. Here’s why we think light rail should be brought back up into the light:
- It’s cheaper to build – For the same project budget as the proposed tunnel version ($15bn or so), we could also potentially build the Northwest line as far as Westgate – or, alternatively, build surface light rail for Dominion Rd and Sandringham Rd as well as our proposed crosstown route. Either of these approaches would provide better transport options to more Aucklanders, sooner.
- It’s faster to build – Most comparable overseas surface-running light rail systems tend to take 2-4 years to build. The City Centre to Mangere line is a bit longer than average, so 4-5 years is more likely, although potentially some parts could be completed and in use sooner. Whereas, the tunnelled option is at least the scale of a second City Rail Link – and that project shows us we’ll be lucky to have anything completed within eight years (of when it actually starts, which is not likely to be till around early 2026).
- The town centres need some love – The town centres along Dominion Rd are in need of an upgrade, something that would inevitably happen as part of a surface option – but unlikely with a tunnelled option, given the route won’t be anywhere near them. That means any upgrades would fall into council’s ‘who knows when, if ever’ bucket.
- It’s not, and never was, just about end-to-end journey times – While tunnelled options do have faster end-to-end journey times, most people won’t be travelling end-to-end. So from a user perspective, the difference isn’t as meaningful as the project team seems to think it is. Furthermore, the journey times presented by the ALR team so far don’t include the time it takes a person to get from an underground (or overhead) platform to the surface. Stations like Britomart and New Lynn show this can easily take a minute or more, and when this is factored in, the journey times become almost identical with surface light rail. Surface-level stations also provide easier and therefore more equitable access for those with disabilities, prams, luggage, bikes etc. as there is no need to wait for lifts or to try and negotiate stairs or escalators.
- A better viewing experience – Public transport is simply a much nicer, more rewarding and more attractive experience when you have the option to look out the window and see the city passing around you. So while tunnels can be cool as construction projects, they are incredibly boring for end-users.
- It won’t be wasted – Even with a tunnelled option tucked away underground, we will always need high-quality surface public transport for lots of people on the Queen St and Dominion Rd corridors. So why not light rail?
- The full tunnel capacity won’t be used – The light rail team themselves say one of the main reasons for the tunnel is to provide enough capacity for both the City Centre to Mangere line and a future Northwest line. That means that outside of where the two lines share a route, we’re building a very expensive bit of infrastructure – but are planning on only ever using a fraction of its potential capacity.
- Starting with surface routes doesn’t mean we can never build a tunnelled option – Seemingly in trying to justify their project by including modelling capacity out over 50+ years, the light rail team proceed as if this is the only project that can ever be built – rather than considering that a surface option could be the first stage of a wider network development. A surface option can also help build usage for further future investment. And if it does have capacity issues in the future it’s hard to see anyone complaining that it was too much of a success. No one is saying we shouldn’t have built Britomart because we now need to build the CRL, or that the Northern Busway is a failure because we need to upgrade it less than 15 years after it opened. And if we ultimately did need to build another line, that will provide a better overall network – after all, two lines are better than one.
- Better environmental outcomes – As well as having lower embodied emissions as a result of using less concrete and steel, a surface design lets us improve other environmental outcomes in the corridor through ideas such as the use of green tracking and other techniques.
The state of play
Currently the ALR project is meant to be going though a more detailed planning, design and consenting process, with a target to award the main construction contract in late 2025. It’s worth noting that by that point it will have been over 10 years since light rail was first announced by Auckland Transport and eight years since Labour campaigned on it.
Part of the work is meant to include refining the design so it will integrate with other large proposed investments, such as a future line to the Northwest.
And that got me thinking about one of my big frustrations with the project: how it so closely mimics (indeed, duplicates) the CRL, especially between Kingsland and Mt Eden. I believe the modelling even includes luring some trips off the CRL. Beyond the odd accounting, why spend all this money to basically double up on what’s already available?
Based on the maps we’ve seen so far, it appears the plan is something like the map below (note: I’ve also added a potential route for a Northwest line).
Of course, one of the benefits of tunnelling is that you don’t have to strictly follow road corridors. So if we have to have a tunnelled solution, are there options for planning the route to pick up additional new catchments?
Here are couple I’ve been thinking about:
Serving Great North Road
Could we also serve another area where a lot of development is already occurring, with more to come, with a route something like this for the Great North Road ridge:
The big challenge with this would be the grades, but given light rail and light metro can handle steep grades (Sydney’s light rail can do up to 7%) it should be feasible, and with stations shallower than Karanga a Hape will be. The route is slightly longer by about 350m than the current option and with a few more stations would be a little slower, but the trade-off is a much bigger catchment.
Serving the Hospital
Another option could be to avoid Kingsland entirely with a line that looks something like this.
This would pick up Eden Valley, Auckland Hospital (and the Domain) and a better located University station – plus is only about 100m longer than the current plan. The downside here again is the grades around Grafton Gully. Could the line cross over the top before diving underground to get below Queen St? It would also run under homes and businesses most of the way, more than the current plan.
Just to be clear, I’m not really saying either of these options are better than the current plan, or even that we should build them. I’m really just questioning if there are other options out there that could make the current plans for light rail more useful for our city and our times and the challenges we’re up against.