Tomorrow the Mayor and government ministers will find out just how much more the City Rail Link will cost and how much longer it will take to deliver. While they’re discovering that, it would pay for them to cast their minds to what impacts the factors behind those changes will have on Auckland’s other big rail project – light rail – and whether now is the time to change course for a cheaper and better alternative.
For example, City Rail Link noted last week that there has been severe price escalation since 2020 and I wonder how much, if at all that’s been factored into Light Rail’s costs. From what I can tell, they assume a 2 per cent annual inflation rate, yet we’re currently running at over 7 per cent.
Mayor Wayne Brown has already been fairly critical of the light rail project so far, but it does seem he’s open if it can be shown to be sensible.
Brown says ATAP needs to be reinvigorated in light of post-covid economic conditions, says projects like light rail are predicated on growth he doesn't see happening. But concedes that if the plan shows light rail to be a sensible thing, than he's not necessarily opposed
— Oliver Lewis (@OliverLewis) December 4, 2022
So what would a more sensible light rail plan look like?
The first step would be scaling it back to something that is achievable but that can be delivered and upgraded over time, something like a surface route from the city to Mt Roskill.
The Auckland Light Rail team, as well as other players in the infrastructure game, have convinced the government that there’s only one chance to build something and so they need biggest thing possible. The oft-touted urban myth about the harbour bridge is often used as an example here. (in short: people think the clip-ons show the project should have been more ambitious to start with, when in fact its careful scoping was what enabled it to get under way at all.)
But when it comes to public transport and this project in particular, there are a few things worth remembering.
- Attempts at mega projects in past, like earlier versions of the City Rail Link, have failed because they’re too big making it easy for the whole project to fall over. When we’ve succeeded it’s because we’ve taken a staged approach to get the ball rolling. With both the rail network over the last two decades and the Northern Busway we’ve built smaller more achievable projects and used the increased usage that results to help in justifying further investment. We wouldn’t be building the CRL now if we hadn’t first built Britomart, then improved the network and stations, then electrified the network etc.
- Even if we have to come back in 20 years time to upgrade a surface light rail line or supplement it with a new line, that is not a failure but will be a sign of it’s success. No one today is saying we shouldn’t have built Britomart because we now have to build the CRL, or that the Northern Busway is a failure because it needs upgrading. And if it’s a new line that’s needed, even better, ultimately two lines are better than one because every time we add new lines, it makes our existing ones and the wider PT network more useful.
- No matter what happens with tunnels across the isthmus, we will always need a surface route along Dominion Rd – and that corridor, along with the town centres along its length, needs upgrading.
- A surface route is not only cheaper to build, it’s easier to operate – tunnels are expensive – and its stations are faster to access and more accessible for everyone. It’s worth noting that the travel times touted by the light rail team don’t include the time it takes to get into and out of stations. Where those stations are underground that can be a few minutes each.
- Speaking of costs, even based on the extremely high costs for a surface option in the business case – which is 2-3 times more expensive per km than most light rail projects in Australia – we could build a separate line out to Westgate or a crosstown line from Avondale to Penrose.
- It is common for many cities to start with surface options and develop them over time with tunnels. What’s more important right now is that we built a rapid transit network rather than focusing all out efforts on a single line. In addition to other potential light rail lines we also need Busways like Airport to Botany and across the Upper Harbour
- The issue of disruption is overplayed and while construction is more visible with a surface route, overseas experience shows it can be completed much faster with only small sections of the road impacted at any one time. Most light rail projects are completed in 2-4 years, by comparison, we’d be lucky to complete a tunnel project with multiple stations in less than a decade – CRL will be 8 years at least and a third the size of what’s been proposed.
- As well as improving transport options, we can also improve environmental and community outcomes though green tracking light rail.
- A surface route fits in better and enhances our urban environment
This being a good time, perhaps even the last chance, to take a different approach that has more widespread support. In fact other than the project team and a few ministers, I’m not sure anybody supports the tunneled light rail option. It is after all the worst of both worlds.