Yesterday the Prime Minister laid out the next tranche of plans to scale back the ambition of Labour’s policy/delivery programme – and this time the Auckland light rail project gets a mention.
“I can also confirm today that we will roll out transport projects in Auckland in stages.
“Reducing transport emissions is critical to achieving New Zealand’s climate change targets, but we need to focus our efforts on the areas where we can achieve the greatest reductions, such as our biggest cities.
“With around a third of New Zealand’s population estimated to live in our biggest city, it’s where we can make the largest single gains in future-proofing transport systems to tackle congestion and reduce emissions.
“Work on Auckland Light Rail will continue alongside other city-shaping investments like a second Waitematā Harbour Crossing, more rapid busways, and better connections to growth areas like the North-West.
“But just like the London Underground didn’t suddenly appear fully formed, and in fact took many years to develop, Auckland Light Rail will happen in stages – with the first stage expected to be confirmed by the middle of this year.
“There’s nothing new in taking a staging approach to significant transport projects. The Wellington Northern Corridor and Northern Busway projects, for example, are being delivered by successive governments in stages.
“The Waikato Expressway started in 1993, with the Bombay Hills to Mercer construction, and was only finished last year.
“Auckland Light Rail is no different. Staging the rollout will align it with other critical transport investments, particularly the second Waitematā Harbour Crossing.
“Investing in a modern Auckland where people can get around, where there’s less congestion and cleaner travel options is the least the city should expect. Our Cabinet is absolutely agreed on that.
Firstly, focusing on the “biggest cities” to do the heavy lifting for mode shift and emissions reductions has always been the plan. There is, however, heaps of potential in many of our smaller towns and cities – especially from active modes, but also from public transport – that this government seem to be willing to forgo.
But back to Auckland light rail: staging has always been part of the answer. The long-running issue – and our point of contention – has been the push for staging to begin with an isthmus-spanning tunnel that will take a decade or more, and billions of dollars, to deliver.
Our position is that “staging” should be understood as starting with a surface solution now, with the ability to add a tunnel in the future. There will never not be a need for a surface solution on Dominion Road, so this wouldn’t be wasted money.
Furthermore, based on overseas examples, a surface solution could be delivered in just 3-4 years. Had this government not been distracted by tunnel fantasies, the first stage of Auckland Light Rail would be up and running by now.
Didn't realise you could just start construction of a light rail line rather than just talk about it for a decade, widen the scope, and then eventually cancel it when the next election rolls around pic.twitter.com/VgMselk8GL
— Isla (@IslaStewart) March 13, 2023
Light Rail Consultation
Notably, the Auckland Light Rail (ALR) team have also just launched a new consultation, primarily focusing on how they deliver light rail through Onehunga and Mangere. Bizarrely, they haven’t made an easy-to-use online form for gathering feedback.
Dominion Junction and Kingsland
ALR is confirming that there will likely be stations at the Dominion Junction, and at Kingsland. This also confirms that this part of the light rail route will largely parallel the City Rail Link.
Dominion Junction is the (provisional) name given to the area around the Dominion Rd Flyover, which if removed will free up about 3 hectares of land.
At Kingsland, ALR promises “seamless transfers to other lines by walking from platform to platform” but that doesn’t necessarily mean the stations are integrated together. What does it mean for disruption to the Western Line if a significant rebuild is required at Kingsland?
More questions here: will the zoning in Kingsland be updated to reflect that it will have some of the best transport connectivity in the country? Or will it remain largely locked away behind dubious character protections?
Making use of part of the long designated Avondale to Southdown rail corridor has been a feature of previous light rail plans. This makes sense, as there is little practical use for this corridor by Kiwirail.
But Kiwirail now claims they want to develop it, with ALR saying:
KiwiRail and Auckland Transport are in the early stages of developing plans to use the land to build a new rail line. Trains would use this line to carry goods to be delivered throughout New Zealand. It could also be used to carry people on a whole new service from Henderson in the west to Glen Innes in the east.
This seems more like Kiwirail trying to protect their patch, rather than having any meaningful or justifiable plan to do actually do what’s described. That’s because there’s almost no value in it for freight services.
Kiwirail currently only runs two freight trains a day to Northland, and while we’d all like to see more, once the CRL is in place (and if AT does its job properly), there shouldn’t be much capacity on the Western line for most of the day to run many more freight services without a massively expensive and difficult programme to add additional tracks. As such, the only time there is likely to be capacity is in the middle of the night – but at that time, freight runs might as well just use the existing tracks through Newmarket.
Moreover, while the designation might exist, there’s the not-so-insignificant issue of actually building a new line. It’s hard to imagine local residents just accepting all of the additional noise and vibration of suddenly having freight trains for neighbours.
As for Henderson to Glen Innes, that would be easier and faster via the CRL than using this corridor. We’d all be much better off with a crosstown light rail idea – possibly extended further east to Sylvia Park.
However, ALR is saying the plan is to build both corridors through here:
The route would have two tracks of light rail and two tracks of heavy rail on one shared route. They would be separated from streets either:
- on a long, raised bridge
- in a shallow trench dug out below the ground (with barriers)
Light rail trains would carry people along the line north to the city centre or south to Māngere and the airport.
Heavy rail trains would:
- carry goods to be delivered throughout New Zealand and
- carry people on a new, extra service to add to the rail lines in Auckland
So they’re now talking about a four-track trench or elevated structure – check the calendar, it’s not April 1st, is it?
The consultation is asking for feedback on how to get this four-track route between Hillsborough and Onehunga, with two options provided.
The first option runs alongside the motorway and would require a “long, raised bridge” to get the lines down the hill.
The second option makes use of the Avondale to Southdown corridor all the way down to Onehunga. This would mean a four-track trench about 3km long, with at least 14 road crossings over it – and for light rail, the loop back to Onehunga.
I don’t think that map really does justice to the land use around the corridor. As mentioned, it’s hard to see local residents just accepting all of the additional noise and vibration of suddenly having freight trains for neighbours.
Perhaps the one major benefit from this idea would be the ability to have a couple of additional stations along the route:
Also, if they’re having to build a four-track railway here, presumably they’ll need to do it between Hillsborough and Wesley too?
In Māngere, it seems ALR have finally dropped the idea of running light rail along Bader Drive and will keep the route along SH20. This makes sense, as previous information suggested using Bader Drive added about four minutes of travel time for no real benefit.
They also say that it will stick to the eastern side of SH20. Previous plans had it weaving through the motorway bridges as it crossed the Mangere Inlet, so this is likely about keeping the design simpler. Worth noting however that around 2010 the motorway between the bridge and Walmsley Rd was specifically shifted to the east to allow space for a rail corridor on the western side.
ALR is now consulting on whether to keep the corridor and station for Māngere Town Centre beside the motorway, or shift it a few hundred metres closer to the town centre.
This is the kind of question that ALR should have been asking for from the beginning instead of just showing a few pretty graphics and asking people if they like it. Of course, all of those suggested trade-offs should also include things like costs and other implications, otherwise the feedback you’re getting is not fully informed.
A shift to metro
Lastly, there are a couple of hints that perhaps ALR is shifting away from its worst of both worlds tunnelled light rail plan and to more towards a light metro style design. The consultation notes that they’re “looking at options to separate light rail from local streets and traffic“, to be able to run “longer trains at higher speeds“. Also that “drivers may not be required as the system is automatic” – something only possible on a fully separated light metro route.
This is not surprising: with longer term aims to extend light rail to the North Shore and the Northwest, both of which would likely be completely grade-separated, the design of a whole ~60km system would have been constrained by about 800m of on-street running Onehunga and Māngere.