Auckland’s rail network is currently in the midst of a massive transformational change and I think people will be blown away the City Rail Link which is the centrepiece of that change.
That change doesn’t come cheap with the CRL currently slated to cost $4.4 billion. However, that cost is going up and we’re expecting to hear before the end of the year just how much that increase will be.
Whatever it ends up costing, probably my biggest frustration with the project is that despite spending all that money, current and potential western line users who live/travel past Henderson won’t get some of the benefits because we skimp out on running services.
There are many benefits to the City Rail Link but for users, at a high level, there are three key ones.
- It opens up the bottleneck at Britomart, ultimately allowing us to more than double the number of trains that can run on the network.
- It creates two new stations in the city centre, putting many more residents, jobs, entertainment and other activities within close proximity to the rail network.
- For western line users it significantly speeds up trips to the city centre by making the journey more direct and avoiding the Newmarket detour.
Much of this is will be a repeat of a post I wrote about two and a half years ago about the same topic. But given we still haven’t heard what is happening with Henderson and the threat of the project costing more, it’s time to revisit it and look at this option which could both save money and provide a better outcome.
The Current State
There are three stations over the 5.4km of rail line west of Henderson, these are Sturges Rd, Ranui and Swanson. Trains currently run every 10 minutes in the morning and afternoon peaks and every 20 minutes off-peak and weekends. Swanson in particular also serves the wider rural area and both Swanson and Sturges have Park & Rides (136 and 170 respectively).
In the year to June-2019, these stations combined accounted for over 1.3 million rail trips, or about 7% of trips on the rail network and with Sturges being one of the better performers on the Western Line. Combined these three stations would be about the fifth busiest station on the network. However, my personal observations are that this usage is more peak focused than some stations, such as Henderson.
There continues to be strong population growth in the area and Statistics NZ estimate there are currently about 35,000 people living in the yellow shaded area on the map below – although some of those are closer to Henderson. That’s up from about 29,000 in 2012 and the rate of growth has been consistently higher than that of Auckland as a whole. There are also another 5-10k people living in the rural areas surrounding these urban areas.
There’s plenty more potential for growth too, especially once the government’s planning rule changes are fully implemented. Even before taking those into account, Stats NZ estimates suggest that by 2050 the population in this area could be as high as 50,000 though more realistically it would be around 43,000.
The CRL Benefit
The big benefit of the CRL for Western Line users are the huge travel time savings that it enables due to trains taking a more direct route to the city instead of the current detour to Newmarket.
The current timetable, which includes long dwell times, is timed to take 56 minutes to get from Swanson to Britomart, with trips from Sturges Rd taking 50 minutes. Due to the carpark that is SH16, at peak times this is roughly competitive with driving but off-peak it is considerably slower, taking about twice as long.
With the CRL, trips from the west to Britomart should be about 10 minutes faster. That means Swanson to Britomart would become about a 46 minute trip and for those travelling to one of the two new stations that travel time would be even shorter still, for example, Sturges to Aotea would be about 37 minutes.
Travel time could be even shorter still. If Auckland Transport ever do anything about fixing dwell times, it’s these stations at the end of the line that benefit the most and could shave about another 3 minutes off that time.
Furthermore, modelling during the original tender process by CAF, the makers of our trains, suggests that with a travel time of Swanson to Mt Eden of less than 30 minutes meaning getting to Britomart could be less than 40 minutes – though combined with Kiwirail’s network fixes, it will likely require investment such as additional grade separation near some stations to achieve.
With such significantly shorter travel times it will make services much more popular than they currently are and starts to become competitive with driving off-peak too.
The CRL will initially allow for 15 trains per hour in each direction with future upgrades to allow for up to 24 trains per hour per direction.
We’re still waiting or an official post-CRL running pattern but we’ve seen a number of potential ones over the years, such as this one from the CRL website. While the various patterns we’ve seen do have some differences, they have all been consistent when it comes to what happens with the stations west of Henderson, no change from what we have now.
There would still be a train every 10 minutes to Swanson but all the extra services the CRL enables would start or terminate at Henderson. So too would the purple line that would run directly to Newmarket and on the inner Southern Line – though it’s now likely that will be joined up with the Onehunga Line.
Terminating all of the extra trains at Henderson means those users west of there will never get better services than exist now (at peak). Sure, they’ll get faster journey times to the city but they’ll see no actual additional services.
Furthermore, as many readers know I’ve never been a huge fan the purple line. One of the reasons for this is it would require a transfer for those west of Henderson.
To turn those trains around there would need to be an upgraded Henderson station with two new platforms, so that terminating trains don’t get in the way of those travelling through. There’s not a lot in the public domain about just what is planned with the best we have being this image from some CRL documents a few years ago showing the extra platforms in what is currently a carpark along with a much needed a new pedestrian overbridge and station access at the southern end of the station.
This would also require some major alterations to the former council building, most of which was sold a few years ago.
Adding extra platforms and connections at Henderson is not likely to be cheap.
Compare the response to the West to that in the South. Pukekohe currently has an urban population of about 27,000 and the government are investing $371 million to electrify the tracks. As per the map above, this will initially see services move to every 10 minutes, however, the business case for the Supporting Growth project suggests they’ll eventually be running trains every 2.5 minutes from Pukekohe with half as express services. It’s one of the reasons why just two of three new stations are costing about $250 million.
Thankfully the solution to all of this is fairly straightforward – run the extra trains to Swanson.
The land already exists to allow for this as earlier plans were to have a third platform at Swanson for diesel services to terminate at. On the southern side of the station there is over 20m between the edge of the platform and the Kiwirail boundary so there’s probably space for up to four platforms. The only major things to move appear to be the Kiwirail hut and the shared path from the new development to the station. As such, building the extra platforms to terminate more trains at Swanson would have significantly lower capital costs.
The downside of this is that it would cost more to run the trains there and back. To get a rough estimate, in the past I asked Auckland Transport how much trains cost to run and how far they travel. Including all costs, such as depreciation, track access charges etc, they say the rail network costs just under $250 million a year to operate. They also say trains ran 4.343 million service kilometres compared to a planned 4.394 million kms.
A quick calculation suggests that extending an extra 3 trains per hour at peak the extra 5.4km to Swanson and back would add about $2.3 million per year in cost. That’s not insignificant but also comes with benefits such as being more attractive/useful to residents in the area. It also allows services to the city to have regular headways at all stations, such as a train every 7 minutes instead of say, a 10 minute wait then a five minute wait then a 10 minute wait again etc.
It can also allow us to replace the need for the purple line because the more frequent trains mean that on average it will be about as fast, or even faster to just transfer at the Karanga-a-hape Station than wait for the next purple line train to show up (just a shame it can’t happen at Mt Eden). The capital and operational savings from that would probably cover the cost of running extra trains to Swanson.
It’s sad that we’re happy to spend hundreds of millions to run a gold class service to houses that may never be built, or at least not built for decades, but wont spend a fraction of that to serve houses that already exist.
Finally, all of this isn’t to say that Henderson couldn’t do with an upgrade. At the very least improved shelter and another station access, such as from Edsel St, would be welcome.