Can a different route repair tunnel light rail?
As regular readers know, we’re not fans of current plans to put light rail in a tunnel across the isthmus at enormous financial and opportunity cost.
There are a number of factors as to why we believe a surface racing system is better for Auckland. Here’s why we think light rail should be brought back to light:
- It’s cheaper to build – For the same project budget as the proposed tunnel version (around $15 billion), we could too possibly build the North West line to Westgate – or alternatively build surface light rail for Dominion Rd and Sandringham Road as good as our proposed crosstown route. Either approach would provide better transport options for more Aucklanders, sooner.
- It’s faster to build – The construction of most comparable overland light rail systems abroad typically takes 2-4 years. The line from town center to Mangere is a bit longer than average so 4-5 years is more likely, although some parts could potentially be completed and used sooner. While the tunnel option is at least on the scale of a second urban rail link – and this project shows us that we will be lucky to have it all completed within eight years (from when it actually starts , which probably won’t be until around early 2026).
- Town centers need love – Town centers along Dominion Rd need upgrading, which would inevitably happen under a surface option – but unlikely with a tunnel option, given that the route does not will be nowhere near them. This means that any upgrades would fall into the council’s “who knows when, if ever” bucket.
- It’s not, and never was, just a matter of end-to-end travel time – Although the tunnel options have faster end-to-end travel times, most people will not travel end-to-end. From the user’s point of view, the difference is therefore not as significant as the project team seems to think. Also, the travel times presented by the ALR team so far do not include the time it takes a person to get from an underground (or aerial) platform to the surface. Stations like Britomart and New Lynn show that it can easily take a minute or more, and when this is factored in, journey times become nearly identical to surface light rail. Surface stations also provide easier and therefore fairer access for people with disabilities, strollers, luggage, bicycles, etc., as there is no need to wait for elevators or try to negotiate stairs or escalators.
- A better viewing experience – Public transport is simply a much more pleasant, rewarding and engaging experience when you have the opportunity to look out the window and see the city go by around you. So while tunnels might be cool as construction projects, they’re incredibly boring for end users.
- It won’t be wasted – Even with a tunnel option hidden underground, we will still need high quality surface transit for many people on the Queen St and Dominion Rd corridors. So why not light rail?
- The full capacity of the tunnel will not be used – The light rail team itself says a major reason for the tunnel is to provide enough capacity for both the city center line at Mangere and a future North West line. This means that outside of where the two lines share a route, we are building very expensive infrastructure, but we plan to use only a fraction of its potential capacity.
- Starting with surface roads doesn’t mean we can never build a tunnel option – Apparently, in trying to justify their project by including a 50+ year modeling capability, the light rail team is proceeding as if it were the only project that could ever be built – rather than considering that a surface option could be the first step in broader network development. A surface option can also help expand the use for other future investments. And if he has capacity issues going forward, it’s hard to see anyone complaining that it was too big of a hit. No one is saying we shouldn’t have built Britomart because we now have to build the CRL, or that the Northern Busway is a failure because we have to upgrade it less than 15 years after it opened. And if we were to eventually build another line, it would provide a better overall network – after all, two lines are better than one.
- Better environmental results – In addition to having lower embodied emissions due to the use of less concrete and steel, a surface design allows us to improve other environmental outcomes in the corridor through ideas such as the use of green tracking and other techniques.
The state of play
Currently, the ALR project is expected to go through a more detailed planning, design and approval process, with the objective of awarding the main construction contract at the end of 2025. It should be noted that at this stage, it will be over 10 years since light rail was first announced by Auckland Transport and eight years since Labor campaigned on it.
Part of the work is aimed at refining the design so that it fits in with other major proposed investments, such as a future line to the North West.
And that made me think about one of my big frustrations with the project: how it mimics (in fact, duplicates) the CRL so closely, especially between Kingsland and Mt Eden. I believe the modeling even includes the lure of some trips out of the CRL. Beyond the odd accounting, why spend all that money on essentially doubling what’s already available?
Based on the maps we’ve seen so far, it looks like the plan looks like the map below (note: I’ve also added a potential route for a northwest line).
Of course, one of the advantages of tunneling is that you don’t have to strictly follow road corridors. So if we are going to have a tunnel solution, are there any options to plan the route to pick up additional new watersheds?
Here are a few I thought of:
Serving Great North Road
Could we also service another area where a lot of development is already underway, with more to come, with a route like this for the Great North Road ridge:
The big challenge with this would be inclines, but given that light rail and light rail can handle steep inclines (Sydney tram can be up to 7%), this should be doable, and with stations shallower than Karanga a Hape will be. The route is slightly longer by around 350m than the current option and with a few more stations it would be a little slower, but the trade-off is a much larger catchment area.
At the service of the hospital
Another option might be to avoid Kingsland altogether with a line that looks like this.
This would take Eden Valley, Auckland Hospital (and the Estate) and a better located University Station – and is only about 100m longer than the current plan. The downside here again is the grades around Grafton Gully. Could the line cross the summit before plunging underground to descend below Queen Street? It would also work under homes and businesses most of the time, more than the current plan.
Just to be clear, I’m not really saying either option is better than the current blueprint, or even that we should build them. I’m just wondering if there are other options that might make the current light rail plans more useful for our city, our times, and the challenges we face.