Light Rail’s Sponsored Defence – Greater Auckland

Yesterday the Herald ran a sponsored article from the Auckland Light Rail team (ALR) on their plans for tunnelled light rail. The main point of the article seems to be about trying to justify their solution compared to a surface one. That, combined with it coming at a time when there is no other news or major public discussion about light rail gives it almost a defensive feel, making me wonder if this is in part about fending off some pressure from behind the scenes for a cheaper and more likely to be delivered solution.

Let’s break it down.

The piece starts out well by explaining how the project will allow us to make better use of our existing neighbourhoods, helping to prevent sprawl. It’s great to see this being framed upfront and something that needs to continue to be pushed strongly. The biggest challenge to that is likely to be the Auckland Council who seem determined to prevent change to the inner suburbs in particular, something I’ll come back to later in the post.

Moving on to their proposed solution of tunnelled light rail, the idea of future proofing gets thrown around a lot.

The first light rail line will run in a tunnel from Wynyard Quarter to Mt. Roskill, then jump to the surface through to Onehunga, Māngere and the airport. This alignment was selected because it ensures light rail is built for the future.

With more and more people living in the city, and additional light rail lines planned to the North Shore and Northwest, the tunnel from the city centre and central isthmus is a key feature for several reasons.

“It isn’t just about transport – it’s about planning Auckland’s future and integration, improving housing access and quality of life as well,” says Parker.

Many people saw only the price tag, comparing the initial $14.6 billion initial outlay for tunnelled light rail to about $9 billion for surface light rail.

But tunnelled light rail is preferable to surface light rail because of its future-proofing, he says: “Tunnelled light rail, with a city centre tunnel, will accommodate light rail from Māngere and future lines from the North Shore and North West. With surface light rail, it would be extremely difficult to achieve connections between the services or find the space to build three street level rail lines in the city.

“Tunnelled light rail also means a seamless trip so, in the future, a student can travel from Māngere, for example, to university in Albany. That’s not possible with surface rail. There would have to be transfer points, with several surface lines intersecting in the city centre, overwhelming the area with trains – and negative effects for buses, pedestrians, and cyclists.”

Building surface light rail now, for a cheaper cost, would only postpone solving Auckland’s transport problems to sometime in the future – when attempting to add to surface rail or build tunnelled light rail would add to the overall cost and create ongoing disruption.

“We are simply seeking to avoid a short-term solution which, in years to come, may be seen as short-sighted,” he says. “What we are seeking is something a little like London’s tube system, where multiple lines come together in fixed hubs.”

There are few things to unpack here.

  1. It’s really hard for the public to understand about how the project will improve the communities it passes through when ALR release no information about where the potential stations are likely to be.
  2. I still have no idea how ALR have come up with surface light rail costing $9 billion – even though they say this is peer reviewed. In 2021 dollars this is about $296 million per km which is similar to the recent, issue ridden project in Sydney but is several orders of magnitude larger than almost any other recent surface light rail projects in Australia and other cities.
    Sydney’s procurement issues are a lesson of what not to do, not what we should be aiming for. It is also far more likely that we will see a more infrastructure intensive solution have a cost blowout.
  3. One of the things that most annoys me about the way the project is currently being framed is the idea that we only have one chance to build something and therefore we have to build a solution for 2070 and beyond. As COVID has shown us all too well, it’s hard to predict what will happen a year out, let alone 50 years. Going for a cheaper option now that we might need to upgrade or complement a few decades in the future isn’t a bad thing. Not only does that improve affordability and deliverability but also likely means we get a better overall result as a result of having multiple lines instead of one, giving us a stronger network. Put another way, building on the surface now doesn’t mean we can’t build a tunnel in the future if we need it. In addition:
    • We will always need a surface solution on a corridor like Dominion Rd.
    • Saving six billion dollars means we can afford to start rolling out other lines, like to the Northwest or maybe our Crosstown line, sooner. That means greater benefits for more of Auckland sooner.
    • Suggesting that investing in a surface solution is a wasted investment because it might be busy in 50 years’ time is like saying we should never have built Britomart and upgraded our existing rail network until we could do it at the same time as we were building the City Rail Link.
    • It also gives us a chance to start building capacity and knowledge in the industry which will be instrumental for other projects in Auckland and across New Zealand.
  4. There are many, many examples around the world of surface networks where not only do multiple lines join or intersect with each other but they also interact with pedestrian areas.
  1. There seems to be a strong aversion to transfers. Transfers when done well are not the issue that many transport planners in New Zealand seem to think they are. I find it particularly funny that they go on to reference London’s Tube system as an example of what they’re trying to achieve. The tube is network where transfers are common, so common in fact that just 37% of trips don’t involve a transfer. There is also no reason a surface route can’t provide a single seat trip.

Finally, I also wanted to address the bullet points listed on the advantages of a tunnelled solution.

  • Capacity: Tunnelled light rail can carry up to 17,000 people per hour and will meet demand up to 2070. Surface light rail can carry 8400 per hour at peak and will potentially reach capacity as early as 2051, once the extension of light rail to the North Shore occurs and patronage increases. That’s 20 years sooner than tunnelled rail. “What we build now needs to serve Aucklanders well into the future,” says Parker.

It is true that the tunnelled solution can move about 17,000 people per hour. However, that needs to be shared amongst all the lines using it. What that means is that while there may be some justification for a tunnel through the city centre where multiple lines join together, there isn’t a capacity justification for it through the middle of the isthmus.

  • Time: Travel time across the length of the tunnelled corridor is estimated at 43 minutes, compared to 57m with surface light rail – a 14-minute faster journey end to end. Faster, more frequent and reliable services attract more users and more people out of cars.

The 43 minutes journey time is for a trip from the Airport to Wynyard. Not many people are likely to be doing that journey and most trips will be to destinations along the route or to the middle of the city centre. The journey time to midtown is much closer at only around a five-minute difference.

  • Housing: The tunnelled corridor will cater to 66,000 homes directly along the route, more than 15,000 more dwellings along the corridor than surface light rail will attract. The urban planning aspect of this is to grow housing in Auckland along key rail nodes, as many other countries have done. The rail corridor will attract investment in high-quality urban forms, providing more homes and regeneration.

The number of homes along the route will depend entirely on how much growth is allowed and as mentioned earlier, Auckland Council are determined to prevent anywhere near that level of development from occurring. Putting aside the issue of planning rules, there is also no practical reason to assume that same level of development couldn’t happen with a surface solution. However, we are also seeing with development around our existing rail network, that even when planning rules allow for much more intensive developments, developers are ‘under developing’ sites. Sometimes they build 2-3 storey townhouses right next door to train stations that will be a short trip from the city once the CRL is completed.

There’s no reason this couldn’t be achieved with a surface solution

None of this isn’t to say there isn’t value in a tunnel but if we’re going to go for a tunnelled solution, we should do it properly and go for a light metro solution, which at least allows us the benefit of being able to run automated trains at even higher frequencies. As it stands, the tunnelled light rail solution remains the worst of both worlds.

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