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 Problem

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.

The Solution

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.

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  1. “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”


  2. My guess is the CRL cost will go up to $7.99 billion. They don’t want a figure of 8.8 because that is double the previous so my best guess is a Briscoes 8.

    1. A Mad Butcher 8, but priced by the kilo(meter) “Fresh underground stations, joined by underground rail, only $1.99(B) per kilo!(meter)!”

      At 3.45km, the Mad Butchers CRL is only $6.85B! Much better value!

      1. I am working on the theory that if it was less than $5 billion they would have told us already. They are sitting on the cost so that implies it is a big one. More than 8 and they will probably tell us in two bites so it doesn’t seem as bad. I am expecting they will make the announcement at 5pm on December 24th when they ‘put out the rubbish’.

  3. Agree absolutely. The CRL needs to not only reduce travel times, but increase frequency on all parts of the network. To miss this opportunity would be wasting the next three years of general upgrades to the rail network. The economy of being able to build intensified living close to these Western stations would more than justify the extra cost of electric train operation. Cost should not even be an issue, this could be budgeted under climate change response, and therefore with an infinite “budget” as the finance available for true climate action is far beyond any sovereign debt that Aotearoa currently carries. Too easy if thought about with the failure of COP27 to reach consensus on the most basic issue of fossil fuel phase out in mind.

  4. I’m sure they could change it if usage picked up. But hard to justify now with such low usage on those three stations. You could make the same argument for almost every bus line that more services would drive patronage, so its not a unique situation.

      1. I think some of the most compelling argument FOR running all services to Swanson is the potential cost differences of upgrading Henderson vs Swanson. Hopefully more detailed analysis of this exists somewhere.

        1. Good point, there always needs to be a balance between capex and opex. Sometimes they spend millions in capex to save less in opex

        2. Yes would love to see a proper analysis of the difference. My understanding is this decision was pretty much “the model says there’s X amount of usage and that can all fit in the existing trains so no need to do anything more”
          Ignoring the fact the model is typically wrong, especially when it comes to transformational change, and ignoring the benefits of running higher frequency

        3. I’ve found that sometimes these sorts of decisions were made years ago for reasons and then were passed down as baseline assumptions as old people left and new people came on board until one day someone asks, ‘wait, but why?’

      1. I don’t think people fully realise how big a difference CRL will make to the Western Line. 10mins to Britomart is 20% and 35mins to K Rd is 50%!

        1. You may well be right- I actually think the time differences have been poorly communicated. Those ” Current and Future to Midtown ” diagrams don’t actually help, the current includes a walk/bus from Britomart to Aotea in the timings while the Future goes only as far as Aotea. Someone going from Glen Eden to Britomart should be given an indication of that trip in the Future diagram so they can see how quicker it will be.

  5. The only way I see a strategy of termination at Henderson rather than Swanson as being useful is if the next set of upgrades pushed electrification of the line further west to Kumeu for example.

    Without understanding of the assumptions used in the planning of decisions such as where to build further infrastructure it is difficult to challenge the assumptions and generate new decisions.

  6. Are they still keeping those train line names? Is a western line train going to be renamed to an eastern line train at Aotea? That seems a bit odd to me.

    1. Not odd at all.
      Sydney Trains arrive at Circular Quay on the T2 Line and become a T8 Service. If it can be done on the West Island then it can be done here. 🙂

  7. This blog has weird priorities. On this page you argued to increase direct access to downtown for Swanson (155 users). Yet on another page you argue to remove the Onehunga line’s (371 users) direct access to downtown. Your arguments could apply to both lines; except Onehunga has more opportunities to develop compact urban form (Onehunga is, one could argue, in the middle of Auckland; Swanson is in the middle of nowhere). This page reads like you are promoting urban sprawl, over compact urban form. What’s the deal?

    1. 1. Those numbers are thousands
      2. It’s not 155k users, it’s over 700k for all three stations combined.
      3. The huge travel time savings delivered by CRL and other improvements means there a massive potential for increase in usage in the future from existing residents
      4. Onehunga is also served by the good frequency bus routes like the 30
      5. If it ever happens, Onehunga will also get connections via Light Rail
      6. This isn’t advocating for sprawl, it’s about serving the existing urban area that already has train stations and has continued to see growth including a lot of town house developments
      7. We have advocated for turning the Onehunga line into a more frequent shuttle. This is about improving the service offering as we believe better frequency and reliability with a transfer is better than a lower frequency but direct service. This is the same reason why we’re not fans of the purple line concept.

  8. Swansons park and ride facilities are a plus, if these could be extended probably get more on the train from there. Plus of coarse many newbuilds going on out there.

  9. Wouldn’t this make the Avondale-Southdown replacement more difficult? As you would need to triple track from Henderson to Swanson in addition to the tunnel.

    Re the purple line transfer, why would the purple line not terminate at Henderson? No transfer required for CBD trips then.

    1. Avondale-Southdown isn’t going to happen regardless so not sure it’s an issue. Plus even if it did, there’s a number of places that will still only be two tracks, like through New Lynn.

      As for the purple line, the point is if people from west of Henderson wanted to catch it, they’d need to transfer anyway. But the thing is, even for those east of Henderson, as we increase the frequency of ‘normal’ western line services, it will often become faster just to catch one of those and transfer at Karang-a-hape than wait for the dedicated service. The more effort we put into increasing ‘normal’ line frequencies, the better it is for all trips.

      1. Avondale-Southdown is five to ten years away. It has been five to ten years away since the mid 1940s. Eighty years from now it will still be five to ten years away. If they admitted to a genuine time frame (or lack of time frame), they would have to remove the designation.

      2. Re Avondale-Southdown, I agree with Miffy that it’s not happening anytime soon, but I do think as post CRL our train frequencies increase, and once the Marsden Point branch is built, there will be a lot more freight demand trying to squeeze through, and eventually it’ll need to be dealt with. Not making it more difficult is fairly important.

        The purple line makes sense purely because they’ll have the capacity on the tracks to Mt Eden, and onwards to Newmarket, but not in the CRL tunnel itself. Better to run a service than not. Still seems dumb that they didn’t add platforms for the Aotea – Newmarket leg of Mt Eden station.

  10. Absolutely! And while we’re at it, grab the DMUs and use them as a shuttle from Swanson to Huapai and in to Helensville. This will help fill those extra Swanson trains and provide the rapidly growing NW with a PT option – and using an existing (and recently upgraded) piece of congestion free infrastructure.

  11. I went to Swanson once it seemed a nice enough place but wouldn’t it be better if the train went all the way to Helensville. Even a service with a 30 min frequency would be good.

    1. Absolutely!! The infrastructure is there and it’s being wasted to help the cause of a pipe dream LR project. While at the detriment of tens of thousands of Aucklanders (who pay an extra targeted rate for little in return). It’s currently adding car dependency, congestion and adding emissions.

  12. I disagree with this blog’s sentiment about the purple line. There’s a clear demand for West-South trips, there will be massive crush loads on services through the CRL, and spare track capacity through Grafton post-CRL. Why wouldn’t you make use of that capacity to make West-South trips more attractive and ease the pressure through the CRL?

    1. The counter argument is to spend the resources on upping the frequency of the main routes to ease this congestion & decrease the real trip time.

    2. The goal for all PT routes should be that they’re at ‘turn up and go’ frequencies. That is often thought of as at least every 15 minutes but is more realistically every 10 minutes or less.
      The Purple line doesn’t meet this at only every 20 minutes meaning a heavy reliance on needing to check timetables etc.
      What’s interesting is that even though going into Karanga-a-hape and transferring is a longer trip, that is often countered by it being more frequent and the benefit of that only increases as frequency increases.
      So a few quick calculations, assuming someone does use a turn up and go approach and waits for the direct purple service there’s just a 20% chance it will be fastest option. The rest of the time will depend on the frequency of the main route.
      – At 6tph in each direction (tphpd) the other times it will be no worse
      – At 8tphpd there’s a 10% chance waiting for the purple will be slower
      – At 10tphpd there’s a 25% chance waiting will be slower
      – At 12tphpd there’s a 35% chance waiting will be slower.
      Essentially yes sometimes it will be faster but most of the time it’s the same or worse than you might have by just getting the next train to the city and transferring.
      Hence I think the focus should be on how we get those frequencies as high as possible as soon as possible, that not only makes west-south trips faster more of the time but also benefits users who are going to the city centre

  13. On the other side this is really good to have a no-change service connecting such big population centers such as New Lynn, Henderson and Glenn Ines – Panmure – Otahuhu. Considering how many people have change-phobia – the purple line is definitely a good thing.

    1. People don’t have much change phobia on trains where you know you’ll be in a nice station and won’t have to go outside, especially if the trains are frequent. If they’re every 30mins, that’s another story.
      It’s more a problem with buses where you never know if you’re going to have to walk 200m across five legs of stroad in the rain and then spend 20mins at some windswept bus stop surrounded by dodgy characters and speeding cars.

  14. That current graphic for CRL running pattern doesn’t even add up. The 15 total made up of western/southern (green/red lines) both have 6 outer terminators & an additional 3 closer ones each so either the western set, Papakura/Pukekohe figures or the total is wrong. Maybe it’s meant to be 18 total.

    1. I thought I must have misunderstood it. Is that actually incorrect and AT have put it out or am I missing something?
      Even so it seems unnecessarily complicated with all the short runners.

    2. My understand of the old plans is that
      – West to city would be 9tph
      – Southern line from Pukekohe to city via Grafton would be 6tph to make up to the initial maximum of 15tph in CRL heading northbound.
      – Eastern line would be 6tph
      – There would be an additional 3tph from Papakura that would go via the Eastern line
      – Possibly an extra 3tph from Puhinui or Otahuhu

      Regardless I’m pretty sure that graphic in the post is out of date. The rumour is the Onehunga line will be hooked up to the Purple line from Henderson as well a other changes. I understand AT are working on the actual pattern at the moment.

  15. “The CRL will initially allow for 15 trains per hour in each direction”
    Why is this figure so low?
    Sydney’s city circle was running 22 per hour with traditional block signalling in the 1920s.

  16. The rail network with CRL diagram is so exciting. Out of date or not. And if it’s out of date, hopefully they’re increasing the tph even more than that.

    Can’t wait!

  17. Shortening the dwell times by even a fraction would make a massive difference for people travelling from the outer stations. Currently the off-peak travel times are so much slower than car options – often double the time – and just too hard to justify, even if travelling one way at peak (returning off-peak). Shorter dwell times will improve patronage on those satellite west stations!

    … And while they’re at it, they could speed up the station announcements a fraction, or make them less wordy. They take forever to give the name.

    1. Good point! I always get annoyed when they tell me how many carriages there are on this train. I don’t care!
      I find it also annoying that they label the routes Western/Eastern/Southern and then only display the final stations on the screens at Britomart. If the app tells me to take the Western line, I don’t want to go into the station and have to find out whether Papakura or Swanson is actually the last station of the line I want to take. Of course, with the current few lines it gets easy if you know Auckland a bit, but for people new to Auckland it can be really confusing. Please make it consistent!

      1. Yes, buses themselves often have different destinations compared to the app etc. For the trains they might have to change to using route numbers as the displays on the front and side of the trains are very limited.

    2. Agreed, the current dwell times (and running speeds for that matter) are absolutely ponderous compared to Wellington’s system. The AM class has been in service for 8 years already, has there been any improvement in that time?

      1. Sounds like a good idea to give more service to Swanson.
        I also think two peak (diesel) returns to/from Helensvilke Mon to Fri would open up a big area to service, and in the fullness of time even electrification.
        We want forward thinking, not just 3/4/5 years ahead. We should be planning transport and other infrastructure 20 to 30 years out

        1. Weekends too! Te Huia was originally aimed at commuters but it has become very popular for weekends away. Such a treat to be able to travel without always having to go by car.

  18. Hi there,
    what about Waitakere Township,
    Kumeu, Huapai, Waimauku …. to Helensville?
    Do they not count?
    Do something about it as there are more and more people living in these parts of Auckland!!!!!
    Regards Verena

    1. Probably time to have the discussion about shuttle services from Swanson further along the NAL, if we can convince people the post-CRL running patterns should be extended to Swanson.

      Not something I’ve cared for previously but Light Rail is pretty clearly not going to happen during my lifetime, or that of most of the people who comment here.

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