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A minimum viable light rail for Auckland

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This is a guest post by Simon Lyall. It was originally posted on his blog.

Background

In late January 2022, the government announced it was building a $15 billion light rail line from the airport to downtown via Mount Roskill. The line would be dug for approximately half of its length.

The response from the transportation community has not been positive. The price was extremely high, especially per kilometer for what it offered. The likely outcome seemed to be more years of pre-cancellation planning when a road-friendly national government was elected.

This article will cover an alternative. It is a relatively inexpensive surface light rail line that can be built quickly and expanded later.

Alternate line preview

The idea for the line was sparked by this Twitter thread:

My expansion on Scoot’s proposal would be a short version of the street-level light rail line originally proposed by Auckland Transport. It would cover just 3.3 kilometers from The Civic Corner to Eden Quarter along Queen Street and Dominion Road.

The system is a simple light rail on two line rail. In the inner section (north of Mayoral Drive), it would run on two central reserved lanes at street level allowing pedestrians to cross easily. Further into areas with low pedestrian volume, lanes would be raised or fenced off to further discourage traffic and allow for higher speeds. In the innermost sections, cars would be restricted while in the outer sections they would have one lane on either side of the road, but parking would be largely eliminated.

The vehicles would be 33 meter low floor (or 70% low floor) vehicles like the CAF Urbos 3. Air powered would be used.

A CAF Urbos 3 of 5 units.

The road

The line would start at Civic Corner (near Te Wai o Horotiu station and Aotea Square) and head south to Dominion Road to the Eden Quarter shopping area between Bellwood Avenue and Valley Road.

Itinerary with stations

The Civic Corner is where current Dominion Road buses terminate, so it would be the same destination for most current riders (except those going to universities). Stopping the line here would also avoid the heavily built-up half a mile north of Queen Street where there will be conflict with local traders.

Just south of the Civic Corner stop

The line would run south through Mayoral Drive and then back up Queen Street. At some point, up the hill, it would enter a tunnel under Karangahape Road. There would be a stop near here. It could be on one side of the tunnel or maybe even inside.

A train passes through the short tunnel under Karangahape Road

The line would then continue along Upper Queen Street before turning into Ian McKinnon Drive and following it to Dominion Road. Along this section we should make the line permanent for a future branch along New North Road.

Towards Ian McKinnon Drive

The next stop on the line would be on Dominion Road, near View Road. This area is a mix of offices, light industry, apartments and houses and is ripe for increased density.

The approximate location of the View Road Stop

The line would then continue south down the hill, through Walters/Valley Road and end before reaching Bellwood Avenue at the Eden Quarter stop. This stop would be placed to allow passengers to easily transfer to and from Dominion Road buses. It is also a short walk from Eden Park.

The location of the Eden Valley stop

At the last stop, the conductor would walk to the other end of the train for the return trip.


Operation

Starting from the conservative assumption that each train travels on average at 15 km/h in the city center section and at 30 km/h in the other sections with a wait of 30 seconds at each stop, we obtain the travel times following:

Stop name Distance from Civic Average speed travel time
Civic 0m n / A Departure 00:00
Karangahape Road 800m 15km/h Arrival 03:15
Departure 03:45
See the road 2600m 30km/h Arrival 07:20
Departure 07:50
Eden district 3230m 30km/h Arrival 09:00

This would be an average speed of 21 km/h which could possibly be increased, especially along the southern stretches where there is less conflict with pedestrians and cars.

Assuming we allow 2 minutes at each end to turn around, each vehicle would only take 22 minutes to complete the entire route. This means that only five vehicles should be able to maintain a gap (gap between trains) of 5 minutes in both directions.

The line’s capacity with a train every 5 minutes and using 33m light rail wagons carrying 210 people (as in the proposed Auckland light rail) would be 2,500 passengers/hour in each direction. This far exceeds what current double-decker buses carried on peak mornings in 2019.

The line should be designed to allow two cars per train bringing the length to 66 m. If these were introduced and the progression reduced to three minutes, the capacity would be 8,400 passengers/hour.

Buses coming into town would drop off passengers at a stop just before Bellwood Avenue. They then turn left onto Bellwood Avenue to Eden Park, then return to Walters Road before turning right onto Dominion Road and stopping to pick up passengers before heading south.

Dominion Road Bus Route

Currently peak hour buses take 11 minutes via Queen Street and 18 minutes via Mount Eden Road and Symonds Street, which would save most passengers time even with the transfer between bus and light rail.

service facility

The line would need a small service facility for vehicle storage and maintenance. This would eventually be replaced during the extension of the line but would be necessary to serve the initial fleet.

A property should be purchased and built. Probably near View Road, although there are other options such as public land on Ian McKinnon Drive.


build it

The total distance would be only 3.3 kilometers, which should be buildable for perhaps $300 million, including around seven vehicles. The nearly $100 million/mile cost reflects the fairly short line in a built-up area, but is actually quite conservative. The costs of similar systems abroad are generally lower.

In his original Twitter feed, Scoot suggested a prize of $100 million and that much of the cost could be covered by a special rate on developments in the area.

Construction should be possible in 3-4 years, especially with best practice of working more than 12 hour days. A comparison could be the 5.5 km Lund tram which was built for 250 million dollars (NZD) in 3.5 years.

Future expansions

Extensions should be planned as soon as possible to allow a continuous flow of work. I plan to detail them in a later post, but they could include:

  • North along Queen Street to Customs Street. Probably with a stop around Wyndham Street – 750m
  • Northeast of Queen/Customs at Wynyard Quarter. 1-1.5km
  • South on Dominion Road to State Highway 20 – 4 km
  • South along New North Road and Sandringham Road to SH20 – 5km
  • A replacement maintenance facility will also need to be constructed. Probably close to SH20
  • Further extensions south of SH20.

Questions

Q: What about the airport and Mangere?

A: We should not try to serve these areas with the same line as Dominion and Sandringham Road. Instead a high capacity light rail line through downtown Mangere, Onehunga, Manukau Road, Newmarket could serve them, see article by Matthew Beardsworth

Q: How about going to Britomart?

A: Britomart would be the natural place to end the line. However, I think there will be strong opposition to any disruption from local business owners that delays the project. Building the line as far north as Civic Corner avoids the densest shopping section of Queen Street.

However, I think the link to Britomart should be a priority and should be built as soon as possible. Building it later avoids delaying the initial construction of the line.

Q: Won’t this line fill up eventually?

A: The line is expected to handle several times the peak demand of Dominion Road and Sandringham Road in 2019. If demand eventually exceeds this, there are options ranging from lengthening the vehicles to building new lines to meet the demand (eg along Mount Eden Road.) Part of the problem with the current government proposal is that one line should cover all needs.

Q: Won’t this reduce the capacity of cars in the CBD?

A: Yes. But currently there are only 900 people in 800 cars using Dominion Road during rush hour (less on Queen Street.) Initial light rail capacity will be 3 times. The line will also reduce the number of buses entering the city centre.

Q: Would overhead lines be unsightly?

A: Most of the photographs above include overhead lines. They tend to be quite discreet. Systems that remove them cost more and are non-standard.

Q: What about university students?

A: Unfortunately, the line would eliminate direct access to universities. Students would have two main options:

  1. Get off at the Karangahape Road stop, walk to Symonds Street and take a bus further down Symonds Street.
  2. Get off at Civic Stop and go up the hill.

If you are curious, here is the post from Greater Auckland on how we would build the light rail.

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