What to do with the Onehunga Line after the City Rail Link opens has been a discussion for many years and at last Thursday’s Transport and Infrastructure Committee, Auckland Transport presented the council with their thinking along with giving a clearer indication of what their post-CRL operating plans are.
The Onehunga Line was reopened in 2010 as part of Project Dart, following a package of work driven by then Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee and supported by a grassroots campaign by the Campaign for Better Transport.
It was able to be reopened very cheaply, especially compared to project today, costing a mere $21m with half going on trackwork and half going on buying land at the Onehunga terminus and building two new stations and a third platform where the branch joins the mainline at Penrose Station.
There is a reason for this, the project was a no-frills job that did little to change the old single track freight branch other that make it functional. Its an example of how you can get things done quickly easily if you don’t load up the brief.
But it also means the level of service has always been low with trains running at most, only every 30 minutes. Prior to COVID the line carried around 750,000 trips a year, of which just over 500k were to or from Onehunga. I do wonder how much higher those numbers would be if services were able to operate at the same frequencies as the rest of the network.
The CRL work at Britomart reduced the number of platforms available from five to four. In order to serve the other, longer and busier lines, as well as keeping a platform spare for use during the transition between peak and off-peak and to help maintain reliability during the far to frequent disruptions that occur, last year Onehunga Line services were cut back to terminate at Newmarket with passengers having to transfer if they want to travel further.
AT say that to increase services will require additional infrastructure and reducing the number of Southern Line services that can run.
- The configuration of the branch line limits the length of the trains to three cars and services every 30 minutes. Due to the configuration of the connection to the main line, frequencies of service of less than 30-minutes create issues with Southern Line services having to wait at Ellerslie until the Onehunga service clears the main line into Penrose.
- Consideration for increased frequencies would require additional infrastructure (such as double tracking or a passing loop, flyover at the junction or four-tracking of the mainline), and additional safety mitigations at level crossings that are currently not funded
AT also want to try and address the loss of a direct connection between western line stations and Newmarket, which they say carried five times more people than the Onehunga line did.
As such, they came up with five options. These also confirm the plan is to link the Western and Eastern Lines together with Southern Line services looping around the CRL – as suggested last year.
Option 1: Onehunga to Henderson via Grafton
This is AT’s preferred option as it is cheap, requires no new infrastructure and provides a west to Newmarket direct service. Onehunga line users would need to transfer at either Newmarket or Maungawhau to get to the city centre stations.
For me a downside is while there will appear to be a semblance of service from the west to Newmarket, it is infrequent and most of the time it will be quicker just to catch a regular service to Karanga-a-Hape and transfer to a Southern Line service to get to Newmarket. Future improvements to frequencies will only make this easier. Also, anyone west of Henderson will have to transfer anyway.
Option 2: Onehunga to Waitemata/Britomart
This would effectively restore the Onehunga Line service to what it was prior to mid-last year. AT say this would be about 5 minutes faster than options where a transfer is involved.
AT claim it would add 15 minutes to all trips between west and inner southern stations but this seems to assume people would only want to travel on the half-hour timetable and so everyone doing that route would only ever catch this service. As mentioned above, future improvements to frequencies will make transferring even easier.
Option 3: Onehunga to Henderson via CRL
While this would have direct services for Onehunga Line trains and more services from the west, it would require using up some of the valuable, and still limited, CRL spots on 3-car trains meaning there may have to be reduction in capacity on the other, more highly used lines. It would also require more trains meaning we’d need to buy more or reduce the length of trains on other lines.
Option 4: Onehunga with CRL Loop
Like with above, this would impact on the capacity of the Western and Southern Lines.
Option 5: Onehunga to Waitemata/Britomart and Henderson to Newmarket
AT say this option has the most customer benefits but would require more investment in trains and infrastructure, both of which are currently unfunded.
This is AT’s summary of the options above
The missing option
The one main option that is missing from here is the idea of running a line as a shuttle service, which combined with a very limited amount of extra infrastructure, could enable the line to operate with higher frequencies.
Longer term I do think the best option is to replace the Onehunga Line with our Crosstown Light Rail idea.
Unfortunately, at the time of writing this post the council’s recording of the meeting wasn’t available online, so I’m not sure if any questions from councillors may have teased out any additional information. (Editor’s note: the video of the meeting is now on Council’s YouTube channel, if anyone wants to dig into it.)
The presentation to the committee wasn’t for the councillors to actually make any decisions on, however, the minutes show that Josephine Bartley, seconded by Mike Lee, moved but lost an amendment to request an immediate return of services to Britomart and then to consult the community on post-CRL options over the coming 2-3 years.