Thoughts on Auckland’s Light Rail “shambles” – is it really all that bad?

Auckland’s light rail project has been quite the roller coaster ride. The project was started under Auckland Transport as a way of relieving increasing congestion on bus routes down Dominion Rd and though the CBD. Then, the project was extended in purpose to serve Auckland Airport. The rationale for this appears to largely be about making good use of resources; i.e. adding another bow to the light rail project as a key mass transit route, and avoiding the need for a railway line that would largely be all about serving the airport, and adding little other benefits. The light rail project was prioritised as a key infrastructure project of the current  government in late-2017, and responsibility for its development was switched to NZTA.

AkLR1
How light rail might look down Dominion Rd if the original light rail project proceeds

Another player emerges…

Since then, an unsolicited proposal for a private public partnership has come forward from CDPQ Infra – an infrastructure development company based in Quebec, Canada, and owned by Quebec super fund – and the New Zealand Super Fund (together known as NZ Infra). The government has stipulated that both projects be advanced, and are set to make a decision on a preferred delivery partner some time in February. However, whilst the original proposal was a traditional surface based light rail line, the NZ Infra proposal is at first description a grade-separated, automated light metro, similar to Vancouver’s Skytrain and Montreal’s under construction REM.

A very different scenario has started to emerge as a result of these happenings. First, going into what is essentially a show down between two different proposals, the delivery of the project has blown out. A first stage was initially proposed for delivery in 2021, and that is now certainly not going to happen. Second, the admittance of the NZ Infra proposal seems to have changed the requirements and purpose of the project somewhat (otherwise you’d have just rejected it and gone with the project in development), meaning that the NZTA proposal has probably changed greatly in detail from surface level light rail to something else to match. This raises questions of timeliness, as well as what Auckland is getting, and whether it is fit for purpose.

Cue outrage…

It comes to pass that many people are foaming at the mouth with outrage. Many don’t see the point in looking at anything beyond the original light rail proposal, and hence are worried that the mucking around with a weird two bid show down is turning into a colossal waste of precious time. The argument essentially goes that a light metro or other “bigger” proposal will be expensive and will not meet the needs of the city in the same way that the light rail project initially did. Most importantly, the light rail was intended to relieve bus congestion and encourage development along the Dominion Rd corridor. Now, it seems, those intentions have been lost in all the excitement.

Others are now calling for a return to a heavy rail solution, by either extending the Onehunga Branch or building a new link from Puhinui. This had been ruled out in the past, but there is a fear from some quarters that these options will become ever more popular as they are seen as simple and effective (even if they really aren’t in the grand scheme of things).

Does not doing heavy rail really make sense?

First, I want to knock this on the head. The comparative advantage of extending the Onehunga line or building a purpose built branch from Puhinui does not, in my view, constitute good spending of limited transport funds. The reason for this is that the only real advantage is in serving the airport. They sound nice form a high level perspective, but once you realise you are building an expensive railway to predominantly serve the Airport, red flags start going up all over the show. The Onehunga branch line just doesn’t pass through significant built up areas and strategic nodes to make an extension through Mangere and to the Airport more worthwhile, Puhinui even more so. Added to that, it takes slots through the CRL that could otherwise be used to build up frequency along the Southern, Eastern and Western Lines.

A separate route that serves a corridor like Dominion Rd, on the other hand, is a different story. That’s a brand you mass transit route serving a key development corridor (especially for high density transit oriented development), that’s already a busy public transport route that needs greater capacity, faster travel times, etc, and the Airport becomes another notch to add to its list of achievement. It might sound like it is trying to do too much, but that’s what you need in a good transit line (provided it is straight and frequent). Airport routes that predominantly serve the airport don’t tend to do well, especially in smaller cities like Auckland. A good case in point is Vancouver’s Canada Line on the Skytrain network, where the Airport forms the last stop on one branch. It’s also the reason why it is vital that Wellington’s light rail is built to serve the Newtown and Mirimar corridors before thinking about the airport, or why Christchurch’s once proposed light rail line to the airport was equally about serving busy Riccarton Rd and the UC campus at Ilam.

Vancouver Canada Line
Vancouver’s Canada Line. The Airport is just one major destination served of many.

Is the route going to be the right one?

So I think, regardless of mode, as long as these principles are adhered to, then the project continues to make sense. However, due to the lack of information coming out, and amid swirling rumours, some doubt has been cast on whether the Dominion Rd corridor will be the likely route it will take after all. One of the key reasons for this appears to be the Canadian proposal which is more akin to light metro than light rail. Because you are now talking about tunneling and elevated sections, full segregation etc, the practicalities and costs of going down Dominion Rd, and that there are limitations on how intense development can be, impacts on corridor choice. It may be that, say, Manukau Rd is a better corridor where more development can occur, and it may be easier/cheaper to build light metro.

Light rail or light metro?

All that is fine in theory, but what does this mean in regard to the original intention of light rail? Does it still leave Dominion Rd clogged with buses, is there still a part of the Auckland mass transit puzzle missing? My thoughts on this are a little yes, a little bit no. In the end, the final decision when it comes to route and mode choice is that compromises will have to be made no matter which way you go. Light rail is more intimate, suited to more stops, and probably supports a more even spread of development. Light metro is more suited to spaced out stops, and strategically located intense developments. Ultimately, I think these need to be weighed up against the other, but neither one cancels out the other necessarily. It’s really about concluding which one to prioritise. If light metro can tick off enough of the boxes from the original intent of the light rail project without too much compromise, and bring additional benefits, then it is legitimate to consider it. Then it’s down to cost and effectiveness, i.e. is it worth going to that expense now?

NZSFLR1
Underground and elevated light metro for Auckland?

One interesting point I think will come into play is – a bit strange given what I have discussed above – Auckland Airport. If modelling shows the more traditional light rail line could risk capacity constraints (i.e. it would be better a Dominion Rd light rail serve Dominion Rd), serving the airport with a light metro might be the better idea. I know the issue is much more nuanced, and we don’t know too much detail of what kind of features light rail would have, but I think it is an interesting point to dwell on nonetheless.

So is this whole thing a shambles?

My intention in writing this piece is not to say one proposal over another is necessarily better – we don’t really know enough about each one anyway, and the decision due in February is not about a solution per se – but just to try and think about the whole thing devoid of emotion. I fully accept it’s a complicated issue, and there is a lot going on behind the scenes that the public at large do not know about. However, some things expressed in public about the hopelessness and shambolic nature of the situation, appear to me to be a little too obvious, and therefore too conclusive. If you stop and think about it long enough you can see perhaps that there is some method in the madness.

The situation is not so bad, really

I do think that there is a lot of merit in a more holistic approach to coming to the right conclusion, and no good (reasonably practical) ideas should be shoved out because they “don’t suit process”. Too often we complain about how restricting government processes are, so when the government or authorities are willing to be flexible to consider the best way to spend billions of dollars instead of letting age-old processes dictate, I think it might actually be a good thing. Yes, if “play” had been pushed back in 2018 on the existing light rail proposal, perhaps much greater progress would have been made. However, it would have been on that specific proposal, and if there is an opportunity to do it better and get better outcomes for Auckland, then why not? When there is a chance to do something right first time, perhaps better than intended, I think it would be silly to ignore that.

NZSFLR2

But there are risks to this approach…

The realities of politics can get in the way, of course, and to a degree that is what we are starting to see here. Better some progress than none at all? We will have to see, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a shambles yet. If it is pulled off, it could be the most impressive transport maneuver in New Zealand history. Then again, we’ve said that about a lot of projects (remember Robbie’s Rapid Rail?). Balancing good decisions against the need for seeing action is difficult, and getting it wrong is what results in projects being delivered that are unsuitable, or projects that get permanently shelved.

However, what I would say is that the whole thing has come across as a shambles. I largely put this down to over promising too early and failing to be clear about what has changed in terms of the government’s thinking on the project and what it means in the grand scheme of things for Auckland transport and urban development. I’m hoping that when the preferred delivery partner is announced we will get a much clearer view on what is going on. This is the opportunity to really blow the public away, and given all the delays and political capital eroded over the last two years with this project, the government had better demonstrate that the have been holding out for a very good reason.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Auckland’s Light Rail “shambles” – is it really all that bad?

  1. From a purely engineering perspective, it is not such a problem: we want the best solution to win. From a political perspective, however, fast delivery makes rapid transit look more decisive and excessive dithering hurts the case for better public transport. In order to ‘sell’ the project, I think a sensible compromise would have been to retain the NZTA proposal for the airport route, while inviting NZ Infra to develop another route elsewhere. This ‘both/and’ solution would have been more attractive to voters and the genetic public than an ‘either/or’ choice, expanding Auckland transport more swiftly.

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  2. Great to hear your thoughts on this one. I agree that thinking about light-metro vs light-rail is a prudent, evidence-based way to think about strategic transit. However, I wonder whether it damaging to have the central government come over top of what was agreed by Aucklanders in the ATAP.

    Auckland had already agreed that light-rail was their mode of choice, and that it would be used down Dominion Rd, Northwest and North Shore, with the Eastern and Southwestern busways also proving main trunks. I don’t think ATAP is perfect, but its pretty good.

    I worry that this sets a dangerous precedent for ministers to decide things that they like the sound of (like they need encouraging) outside of the consultation and evidence-based local processes.

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    1. I think that’s a salient point. It could be damaging, but the lack of transparency makes it difficult to ascertain the thinking behind the process, what’s really going on, and therefore the harm it might truly be causing. In (hopefully short) time we might get a clearer picture of this. Still, I think the precedent of government interference was set long ago (i.e. Canterbury) and if government holds the purse strings, it comes with expectations. Unfortunately, Auckland’s system of local government is not really a devolution model. That’s a whole other can of worms though!

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