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Airport Link: Slow Tram or Fast Train?

by Jon Reeves

A lot has been made in recent times of investment in quality transport infrastructure, improved public transport and congestion reduction; all culminating in a decision between the Green Party and Labour Party arm of the Coalition Government for “rapid light rail” (modern trams) to run from the CBD to the Auckland Airport.

As a member of the team at the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) and the National Co-ordinator of the Public Transport Users Association (PUTA) I am hugely pro-investment for quality transport infrastructure that helps reduce congestion and improves mobility for those who cannot or wish not to drive. Sadly, I do not believe the “rapid light rail” from the CBD to the Airport will do this.

One of the campaigns the PTUA has been running for the past few years is to promote a fast, modern railway link from Puhinui (near Wiri) to Auckland airport. With Mike Lee and Paul Miller, Chair of a transport advocate group NZ Transport 2050 Inc, we have met with airport workers, held well attended public meetings on Dominion Road, spoken with key businesses at the airport and addressed almost every Local Board between Franklin and the Auckland CBD. Nearly every group we have addressed has supported our call, and they are usually shocked to find out just how bad the idea of airport slow tram is.

What really is so wrong with “rapid light rail” to the airport? First of all, it is not rapid. The 25 km line, originally promoted by Auckland Transport as taking 43 minutes to travel the distance has been proven to be over-optimistic. Given most of the line has to operate at road speeds of 30 kph on Queen St, 50 kph down all other roads including Dominion Road, it will stop at around 15 – 20 tram stops, and at traffic lights, experts who AT and Phil Twyford have not engaged estimate the true travel time at between 60 and 75 minutes. That is slow. Sydney’s brand new light rail covers 12kms in 50 minutes with 19 stations en-route. They aim to get it down to 38 minutes over the next few months.

Another issue is cost. AT undertook a very poor report in 2016 to promote their light rail fantasy by over-estimating the costs of a heavy rail line from Onehunga to the airport and under-estimating the light rail costs. The Onehunga to Penrose railway line was fully rebuilt between 2008-10 for $20 million including three new railway stations.

The report AT commissioned said it would cost $500 million to double-track that section of the line if it were to be used for an airport service. That left many heavy rail transport professionals wondering how that figure could have been calculated?

The cost of light rail from the end of Dominion Road (assuming the section from CBD-Dom Road was going ahead anyway) was estimated at $1.2 billion. Combined with the first section estimated at $1.3 billion came to $2.5 billion. However, the report had another significant flaw in it. To under-estimate the light rail the report author omitted the costs of purchasing light rail vehicles, the actual trams need to carry people. It also overlooked the need to purchase a large piece of suburban land for stabling and maintenance depot for 60 light rail vehicles. Omitting those key points falsely made light around $500 million cheaper than it should have been (then). Sydney’s new light rail effectively doubled in cost and construction time.

Finally, what is the problem this light rail line is trying to solve? Mayor Goff was asked multiple times during his mayoral campaign who actually supports the “Mangere” Light Rail project in its current form? He was not able to adequately answer this. Twyford talked about urban re-development, but similar rail redevelopment schemes have occurred in other parts of Auckland in the west, Glen Innes and Manukau with very little corresponding urban and commercial development. Light rail does not help the residents with fewer stops on Dominion Road. It does not help those traveling to the airport, taking longer than the airport bus. This is a lot of money for a scheme with little support.

Through the many contacts I have in the light rail and heavy rail industries the true costs of a line to the airport will be between a staggering $6 billion to $10 billion and quite possibly higher. It will still be a very slow service. Much slower than the Skybus from downtown which typically covers the distance in 40 – 55 minutes depending on traffic.

Light rail will not be attractive to airport workers or frequent flyers. It will be suboptimal therefore most people will continue to drive adding to congestion.

Comfort is also an issue. If you believed Phil Twyford 12,000 people per hour will jam themselves on the trams on the airport – CBD line. Can you imagine regular commuters and passengers with large baggage jammed together? I recall when living in London before the Heathrow Express train commenced operation. Commuters and airport users were all jammed together. Commuters despised the large bags, the backpacks taking space at peak time. It was not comfortable at all.

Light rail has a small reach. Light rail will not benefit anyone living in South Auckland, East Auckland or our neighbours in the Waikato.

A heavy rail line would serve the wider Auckland region by adding value to the existing network. Additionally, it will make use of the $4.5 billion City Rail Link currently being built in the CBD. Imagine boarding a train at the new station near SkyCity and arriving at Auckland airport in 32 minutes, any time of the day!

The new Hamilton – Papakura trains commencing this year could be extended to run directly through to the airport. If you live in Pukekohe, it would be a 30-minute train commute to the airport and just 19 minutes from Papakura. No stress about travel time on the eternally congested motorways. No missing planes due to crashes or bad weather slowing motorists. Workers could leave their cars at home and catch a train to the airport.

A heavy rail link from Puhinui also has the benefits of being able to remove freight from trucks to onto trains. A freight hub could be set up at the airport to service the manufacturing and logistics industries in the area. Oil wagons could potentially connect to the Wiri Oil Depot.

The Minister of Transport and Auckland Transport have not undertaken an independent study into a Puhinui – Airport railway line. While Twyford waxes lyrical about “rapid light rail” to the airport which requires 25 kms of line to be built (mass disruption during construction), the simple 7 km railway line could be built across mainly empty green fields from Puhinui (with little disruption).

Cost indications for the 7 km airport railway line are between $800 million and $1.5 billion depending upon route and design options. It would use all the existing passenger trains currently operating on the Auckland network.

Auckland airport currently has 23 million passengers per year, the same as Brisbane who has a modern airport railway line. The Gatwick Express in London celebrated 30 years of service in 2019. Gatwick had 23 million passengers per year when the express commenced. All Auckland is receiving is Phil Twyford’s new construction; a $68 million bus-train transfer station at Puhinui. Drag your bags (and children) from the train and wait for a bus to slowly meander to the airport. That is not becoming for a first world city and shows how out of touch the Minister is with serious public transport solutions.

We all know after 60 years of building motorways, we can never solve congestion by covering our city in tarmac. We need serious, first world alternatives to get people out of cars. Auckland airport needs a 21st-century railway connection as soon as possible. Airport trains are “rapid” transit. Leave the slow tram back in fantasy land. It’s common sense!

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elocal Digital Edition – February 2020 (#227)

elocal Digital Edition
February 2020 (#227)

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