How those rail lines to the airport will actually work

Labour has committed to the Congestion Free Network 2.0 and fast-track rapid transit to the airport – light rail from the north and a busway from the southeast. Papakura resident and transport campaigner Ben Ross explains what this will mean. 

When Labour announced on Sunday that it was adopting much the same transport policy for Auckland as the Green Party, with a focus on public transport, especially rail, and most especially rail to the airport, the first arguments against it were variations of that old favourite, “the left hates cars” (or as transport minister Simon Bridges repeatedly says about Greens spokesperson Julie-Anne Genter, “You hate roads”). There were also objections that light rail (modern trams) create havoc when they share road space with cars and that it won’t work to mix airport passengers with general commuter traffic.

Labour has proposed not one but two light rail lines: a City Line, linking the city centre with the airport, and a northwestern line linking the city centre and Westgate. It’s also signed up to a southeastern bus rapid transit line. How will they actually work?

The Congestion Free Network 2.0. The City Line (light rail) is in blue and the Southeastern Line (bus rapid transit) is in yellow

This is how the Dominion Road stretch of the City Line would work

That picture on the left is the successful Gold Coast Light Rail line running down the middle of Queensland’s Gold Coast Highway. It will eventually connect to the airport (their Light Rail Transit project is being done in stages just as ours would be). It is separated from the general traffic and has priority at intersections. From the Dominion Road interchange with State Highway 20 through to the airport, our City Line would be much the same: fully grade separated, just like our existing rail lines. No interference with traffic.

In the city centre the City Line might mix with general traffic. However, by the time the line opens I suspect general traffic will be removed from Queen Street anyway.

As for mixing patronage types, the fact is airport lines that move only airport traffic have rarely done well, as noted below:

Do we need to build a whole light rail system when it would be easier to extend the existing heavy rail line to the airport, either from Onehunga or from Puhinui near Manukau? Yes. The great advantage of the City Line, the light rail option, is that because it will run down Dominion Road, through Mt Roskill and the eastern end of Hillsborough, and then through Mangere, it will open up large areas of Auckland to good public transport for the first time.

Airport Line comparison (from various proposals over the years): Red = light rail transit proposal by Auckland Transport; Black = heavy rail route proposal. Black dash = via Otahuhu route to airport instead of Onehunga. Yellow = bus rapid transit (busway) from airport to Manukau as part of proposed Southeastern line to Botany.

The City Line will connect with (or run very close to) not only the airport but also various points on the heavy rail network, including Onehunga and all four stations on the City Rail Link (Mt Eden, Karangahape, Aotea and Britomart).

The trains to be used on the City Line can carry 420 passengers every three to five minutes. The heavy rail network can move 750 passengers every 10 minutes, or every five minutes if the signals are fully upgraded to rolling block class.

So capacity will not be an issue with the City Line, nor will general traffic interfere with its running. Travel time from Wynyard to airport will be 45 minutes or less, fully optimised.

Hauling luggage? The City Line trains and Southeastern Line buses will have floors at platform level, allowing easy access with luggage.

How the Southeastern Line will work

The Southeastern Line will be a bus rapid transit (BRT) system rolled out in stages. Initially it will connect the airport with Puhinui station, which is on the Southern Line and the Eastern Line. It will then be extended to Manukau, Flat Bush, Botany and eventually Howick, all within 10 years.

Impression of Southeastern Busway. Source: Auckland Transport

This is the Southeastern Line route (Option 1 in solid red):

AT’s proposals for the Southeastern Line to the airport. Source: Auckland Transport

You’ll be able to travel from the city centre by heavy rail on either the Southern or Eastern Line – a half-hour trip once the CRL is open – getting off at Puhinui and transferring to the Southeastern BRT for a 10-minute trip down the busway to the airport. Total travel time: about 45 minutes, including transfers. If express trains are running from Pukekohe and Papakura to Britomart, a stop at Puhinui would allow an even quicker trip to the airport.

So, coming from the CBD, you’ll have two options to get to the airport: the City Line light rail, or the Southern or Eastern Line plus Southeastern BRT.

But for me, the best reason to build the Southeastern Line is not its central city connection. It’s the same reason I have campaigned for it for the last six years: it will allow me (and the other residents of Papakura, Takanini, Manurewa, Drury and Pukekohe) a direct transit route from any of the Southern Line stations south of Homai to the airport, with a single transfer at Puhinui. No more getting stuck on the roads like last Friday, when it took 75 minutes from the airport to Takanini!

The Southeastern Line also links up southeast Auckland (Botany and Howick) to the airport and Manukau, giving them a car-free option for the first time. For those closer to Manukau itself, catching a feeder bus to Manukau then transferring to the airport bus, will also become an option, with better travel times than the current 380 Airporter bus.

Airport Origins. Source: Auckland Transport

And if you’re on the North Shore? Until they build rail across the harbour (also part of Labour and Greens policy, although not as urgent), you will catch the existing NEX to Wynyard Quarter or downtown and transfer to the City Line to carry on to the airport.

That’s rail (and rapid bus) to the airport. Both lines go to the airport, but each serves a different purpose and catchments. This is why Labour and the Greens are wise to get both lines built as soon as possible. The Southeastern Line should go first, because it will be easier and quicker, and can utilise existing networks and meet latent demand for airport transit until the City Line is operational. It’ll be a very quick win.

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