Yesterday was a dramatic day for light-rail watchers, with a number of developments.
The Mayor prefers light rail on the surface
Mayor Wayne Brown shared his thoughts on light rail with Oliver Lewis at Business Desk, and he seems to nail almost every issue with the project so far, and the trade-offs involved.
Last week Business Desk had reported that Auckland Light Rail (ALR) was doing another investigation on a surface light rail option, although ALR insisted it was all part of a normal business case process.
However, as per yesterday’s article, it seems this reinvestigation was pushed by Mayor Brown and Councillor Chris Darby – the council’s representatives on the light rail sponsors group – along with mana whenua representatives.
In an interview this week, Brown said he and Darby, as the council representatives on the light rail sponsors group, had pushed for a surface option to be given greater consideration.
“We have insisted that they are at least giving light rail the same amount of respect as metro rail,” he said.
“They’re not happy about that, but it’s not just me, the Māori sponsors think the same.”
There are three mana whenua representatives on the sponsors’ group. Ngarimu Blair, deputy chair of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Trust, said the iwi was relieved there was going to be a serious investigation of a surface-running alternative.
“We’ve always supported an at-grade option, because we believe it has better urban outcomes, better accessibility, better equity in terms of it’s a much cheaper option, and we can build more lines than one single line.”
Blair was previously on the board that oversaw an earlier stage of the light rail investigation, at which point he was the only person to dissent on the tunnelled option. He did so with good reasons, so it’s great he’s still able to provide input into this process.
The reality is that the ALR team has never given a surface option a fair chance, and that should be a scandal given how far along the process is and how much money has been spent. Instead, they came up with a design that if delivered, would be the most expensive per km anywhere in the world – and they did so by applying a raft of arbitrary restrictions on services which aren’t seen in other systems, and all of which appear to be all about not impacting car drivers. They also argue we should spend billions more right now because the line might just be busy in 50 years time.
Mayor Brown also points out the benefit of being able to build a network rather than a single line:
But even if the cheaper surface-running option cost more, it would still be significantly less expensive than tunnelling, he added.
“If you spend $30b, which is what it will be, and get one line, for $30b you’d probably get four lines of [surface light rail].”
Brown believed the tunnelled option was chosen to avoid the disruption associated with surface-level construction, but said:
“I think they’ve overegged that omelette.”
Brown doesn’t say it directly, but four lines will deliver a lot more ridership and mode-shift than any tunnelled option ever will, by expanding public transport access to more areas.
Brown also notes that surface-running light rail is likely to deliver better urban outcomes and a more enjoyable rider experience. He even seems to understand the displacement of car travel as a feature, not a bug, when it comes to liveability and climate action:
Brown said there would be high-density development in nodes around the underground stations, whereas a surface option would lead to more gentle density spread along the route.
“I think that’s more Auckland,” he said.
Sightseeing in Sydney During his whirlwind trip to Sydney, which was disrupted by another heavy rain event in Auckland, Brown said he’d been impressed by light rail on George St.
“What impressed me most about the tram was the fact it brings in new public transport users who have never got on public transport before.”
The Sydney metro was high volume, fast and efficient, however, Brown believed navigating the underground stations was more complicated for first-time users. A surface-running light rail line in Auckland would be good on environmental grounds, too, he said, as it would displace short car trips. And it would be a more pleasant user experience.
“When you’re in an underground tunnel and you look out the window and there’s nothing but black wall, you want the thing over,” Brown said.
“But when you’re in a tram and you’re gliding through the suburbs, you don’t seem to be in such a rush because there are lots to look at.”
In his observations of the Sydney example, the mayor seems drawn to the detail of how much easier it is to access a platform that is right in the middle of the action rather than one underground.
One aspect the ALR team has never included in their analysis of their preferred tunnel option is just how long it takes a person to get down to – and back up from – the platform of an underground station. This can easily add several minutes of travel time, negating any claimed travel time savings for the vast majority of users on the isthmus.
Also, the Mayor is a fan of the advantage of being able to see and enjoy where you’re going. As captured in this classic meme:
— scoot! (@ScootFoundation) June 21, 2023
ALR is hoping to put out notices of requirement for their planned station locations soon, but the mayor seems to have seen through this too.
When ALR had come to the sponsors to discuss station locations, the mayor said:
“Our view was, ‘Hang on, you’re asking us to notify the stations, but you’re in fact actually cunningly asking us to go down the route of underground.’”
One last thing to note from the interview is that it seemed he enjoyed working with Michael Wood, saying “he actually knows about Auckland transport and he’s interested in it.” However, just a few hours later…
Michael Wood resigns as a minister
Transport Minister Michael Wood resigned following the issues that emerged recently about his shareholdings. What’s important here is that Wood was a strong backer of the ALR process and of Tunnelled Light Rail, including writing a piece for us about it back in 2021.
The new Minister of Transport is David Parker, and while his views on light rail aren’t yet known, a new minister surely also makes it more feasible to have a change in approach to the project.
Light Rail Consultation Response
They say they received more than 1500 responses to the consultation, and claim 70% of people support it. If it’s so popular with people, why have they still not shared the full route and potential station locations yet?
In Onehunga, ALR consulted on a bizarre proposal to use the designated but currently unused Avondale Southdown route, which would have taken light rail out of the way and caused massive disruption, compared to a more direct option along SH20.
“We heard there was a strong preference for a simpler and more direct light rail route alongside the Southwestern Motorway (State Highway 20) and the Onehunga Bay lagoon.”
In other words, people said: use existing corridors, build it cheap, put it in the middle of the town centre
For Māngere, the consultation was about whether the station would be located in the town centre or closer to the motorway,
Unsurprisingly most people wanted the station in the town centre:
“There is a strong desire – almost 80 percent – for light rail to connect into the Māngere town centre. The motorway route option was the least preferred and is seen as too difficult for people to access.”
One other thing I found interesting from the feedback report was how support differed by age:
Finally, the team has drilled 30 boreholes along their preferred isthmus route, to check the underground conditions for any potential tunnel. They say:
“The data gives us a 3D picture of Auckland underground. As part of the drilling work, we discovered several layers of basalt lava flows 40 to 50 metres deep, belonging to the historic Auckland Volcanic Field. These are ‘no-go areas’ where it would be difficult for us to build our tunnel. It’s critical information that allows us to work out the exact path for the tunnel and where stations could be located.”
How wiggly is this tunnel going to have to be to avoid that basalt – is it even possible? It’s not like Auckland having an extensive volcanic field was unknown.