Is the tunnel tram the worst of both worlds?
The government will soon make a decision on the light rail (if it hasn’t already). If you’ve read our previous articles on the subject, you’ll know that we believe surface light rail is the better option over tunnel light rail or light rail. This is because not only is it a very efficient solution, it’s also the cheapest of the suggested options, meaning that we could potentially deploy it more easily in other lanes as well, in other words, for the same. price, two surface light rail lines will provide a better result for Auckland than a tunnel option.
The Auckland Light Rail (ALR) team recommended the happy medium of tunnel light rail, although they also said they believed all three options were viable. There is certainly a level of appeal to this, by tunneling it means we could achieve a higher level of reliability and frequency, although these are still very good under the surface option. It also makes it easier to use the surface space on Sandringham Rd for cycle paths and trees without the need to widen.
In addition, the president’s report suggests that it would offer similar results to a metro solution, at a lower cost. As a reminder, the light rail tunnel option was pretty much the same as the light rail between Wynyard and Onehunga, but then followed the surface road through the Mangere Bridge and downtown Mangere.
However, the more I think about it about the surface metro and light rail options, the more I feel like it is the worst of both worlds. If the government were to choose an option that includes a large amount of tunnels, we might be better off just biting the bullet and going for the complete light rail solution. Here’s why:
The driverless postman
The main advantage of the light rail over other options is that it is driverless and would be similar to systems like the Vancouver Skytrain or the Copenhagen Metro. Like these systems, it would be able to operate reliably at very high frequencies and at lower cost.
Based on figures released by the ALR team, compared to the light rail tunnel, having one less station and sticking to the motorway corridor instead of the detour via Bader Dr, the light rail is five minutes faster between downtown Mangere and other stations further north. For the residents of Mangere, they estimate that this means more than 100,000 more jobs will be accessible within 45 minutes of commuting compared to the light rail tunnel option – although I still have some skepticism about it. these modeled outputs. As a result, ALR’s modeling suggests that it makes the light rail more attractive and, therefore, it should have higher overall ridership.
The discussion revolved around the capital cost of building these options – just a quick note on that, everyone focused on the main numbers of $ 9 billion to $ 16.3 billion, but these costs are inflated. at the time of construction and more realistic. compared to today’s costs are the NPV figures of $ 7.1-11.2 billion – still very expensive.
The focus on capital costs is understandable given their scale, but also because we all tend to want a big-shot number and we tend to ignore ongoing operational costs. These costs are part of a still unseen part of the business case and we would expect some things to be similar between the options, such as the cost of maintenance and the horsepower required to run the vehicles. But the ALR team explained to me that there are indeed two other big cost factors that differentiate the options.
- Drivers – will be required for both tram options due to the on-road sections, as will our buses and trains. In comparison, the light rail option would be driverless
- Tunnels – are much more expensive to operate than surface solutions due to the need to operate such things as ventilation and security systems etc.
This means that we get the following matrix.
The light rail tunnel might be better here in the assessment, but I wonder how it holds up across the entire regional network as proposed.
The route from the city center to Mangere is meant to be the first stop on a new rapid transit network for Auckland that complements our existing (and planned) rail and bus network. Interestingly, the planned future network map was recently and discreetly updated to include a second North Shore line parallel to the bus lane. Seems like an odd choice and probably based on someone deciding that upgrading the bus lane would be disruptive, so we have to spend billions to build a parallel route.
In total, the above “red” network would be approximately 54 km and the North Shore and Northwest lines are likely to be entirely leveled. The only thing that would prevent this whole network from being driverless and the benefits that would bring would be around 6 km of track around Onehunga and Mangere.
Of course, regular readers will know that we are also in favor of staged approaches and have even suggested in the past that we could build a light rail line above ground and then a subway type solution on another corridor in the future. The difference here is that there will always be a need for a high quality surface solution on Dominion Rd, even if we eventually build a light rail elsewhere. In comparison, there probably won’t be much utility for a section of surface just between the Mangere Bridge and downtown Mangere. So, without a significant additional investment to expand the line, it looks like it could turn into a stranded asset.
If we want to finally get to the light rail for the network, there is another way of not choosing the light rail tunnel but going directly to the light rail: the types of vehicles. This would allow us to opt for raised floor metro style vehicles which have advantages such as being easier to maintain, are quieter through the use of bogies and have more interior space to stand on.
There is also something appealing about the fact that the subways are a bit square like those trains from Berlin.
And there is another cool feature on driverless trains you can look out of the front window.
As previously mentioned, we still believe that a surface solution is the best outcome for the downtown corridor in Mangere and there will always be a need for a high quality solution on Dominion Road. This does not mean that we will not be able to use the light rail in the future on other corridors. However, if the government were to go for a tunnel option, the light rail would likely be a better option in the long run.