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The big dig: promises and problems with Auckland’s City Rail Link

The construction industry can hardly bear the suspense: who will win the contract to dig the tunnels for New Zealand’s first* underground railway? As for the rest of us, the question is: how good will it be? Simon Wilson went to see the project director to try to find out.

On the second-to-last day of June, government and council lawyers worked through the night to make the men – they are all men – responsible for our first underground railway look good. And in the cold winter light of the following afternoon their work was manifest: those men of the moment signed into existence the CRLL. Not a typo: that’s City Rail Link Limited, the central/local government joint-venture company that has taken over the running of the CRL. And there they were, grinning away in front of their brand-new bright-red digger: finance minister Steven Joyce, transport minister Simon Bridges, mayor Phil Goff, deputy mayor Bill Cashmore and project director Chris Meale.

The digger is a remarkable thing: it bores square holes, and although it’s very big they worked out a cunning plan to get it into the Britomart Station building so it could start the first stage of tunnelling, under the building site in front of the station.

Turns out the men of the tunnelling moment got two different memos about what tie to wear. Blue ties, from left: CRLL project director Chris Meale, deputy mayor Bill Cashmore and finance minister Steven Joyce. Striped ties, from left: mayor Phil Goff, transport minister Simon Bridges. Photo: Simon Wilson

The grins of the politicians were truly remarkable. Anyone would think, the way they talked about the “incredibly exciting day” (Bridges) and the “massive injection of capacity” (also Bridges), that they had all been diehard fans of public transport from the start. Not a bit of it, of course. The government was dragged kicking and screaming to this project, and that legal all-nighter speaks to its determination to get some kind of a pound of flesh, even at the end.

Nobody mentioned Len Brown, the mayor who made this happen. That seemed churlish all round. However, deputy mayor Bill Cashmore, speaking last, did refer to “the gentleman cast in bronze standing in Aotea Square”. He meant Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, the mayor who tried longest and hardest, and failed, to get the government of his day to agree to running a railway under downtown Auckland. Cashmore said he fancied he could hear Robbie saying, “What took you so long?”

Wry smiles all round. In fact, that observation missed the point. Building the CRL isn’t honouring the spirit of Robbie. Traffic congestion has made the CRL inevitable, and to bow to that inevitability is no more than to make a late and desperate attempt to do something about a crisis.

The spirit of Robbie is to look ahead. To foresee the way the city is likely to grow and change in the future, and to plan for it. If the politicians were truly to honour his spirit, they’d adopt the Congestion Free Network with its new light rail lines and rapid bus routes, prioritise rail to the airport, and cancel the East-West Link.

In the meantime, at CRLL they have begun the process of deciding who will dig the tunnels and build the stations along the underground route. (Work to date has largely been prep work at Britomart and cut-and-cover work up Albert St. The tunnels themselves will run from under Victoria St to Mt Eden Station.) It’s on the way, and that’s great. CRLL has its own new website, too, with lots of information, videos and concept images. It’s worth a look.

The CRL will double the capacity of the rail service coming into downtown Auckland and add 50 percent more capacity to the passenger network as a whole. Yes, good. But will it be great? Already some compromises have limited its value and more may be on their way. For now though, how it’s built has become the critical question.

I sat down with the CRLL boss, project director Chris Meale, and CRLL head of communications Carol Greensmith, to talk about the how.

Concept artwork for Karngahape Station on Mercury Lane, with the station entrance, a new tower block to be built over the station, and Mercury Theatre just up the hill. Image: CRLL

What about the Fletchers clause?

I asked Meale, is it true there’s a “Fletchers clause” in the tender documents? He looked blank, then startled.  He said he had no idea what I was talking about. A “Fletchers clause”, I said, is a clause that says the tenderer must have relevant local experience. It’s called that, colloquially, because it’s meant to favour Fletcher Construction, the enormous construction company that has built more big projects in New Zealand than any other, while creating a barrier to overseas companies that have not worked here before.

Meale said, “It is certainly not the case” that the tender documents have a clause like that.

Appendix B, schedule 3.1 of the CRL Expressions of Interest (EOI) documents states: “A minimum of 2 projects should demonstrate the Respondent’s capability in multidisciplinary design and RMA Compliance.”

You can’t have experience in RMA compliance without working on a New Zealand project.

Is this important? There are eight consortiums preparing their responses to the EOI and all of them include a mix of local and overseas companies. That means the local side know how to work within the local rules and conditions, and the offshore side brings the rail tunnelling know-how – because there have not been any rail tunnels built in New Zealand for decades so there is no local knowledge on that score.

But does it really mean that – or will experience building road tunnels be allowed to count? Meale wasn’t going to talk to me about that kind of detail in the tendering process, and fair enough. July 19 is the deadline for those EOI responses, after which two consortiums will be chosen to go to the next stage, the formal tender.

Concept artwork for entrance to Aotea Station on Wellesley St looking east. Image: CRLL

The China question

There are 500km of rail tunnels under Beijing. And right now they’re building another 500km. The CRL tunnels, on the other hand, will be 3.4km long.

China is indisputably the world leader in rail tunnelling. And if you’ve got a mental image of thousands labouring underground with picks and shovels, think again. Boring machines are now so high-tech they can be run from a control room in Shanghai, wherever in the world they happen to be doing the tunnelling.

The startling fact is that Chinese technology and experience could make the CRL project much cheaper than it’s currently budgeted at.

But we know from other construction work in New Zealand that those cost savings might not all come from technological efficiency. There are quality issues, especially in relation to steel and concrete. There are also corruption issues: tragic failures on Chinese high-speed rail lines have provided well-documented proof of that.

Choosing the best tender will not be easy. Meale said, “We don’t want cheap and cheerful.” Well, they don’t want cheap and shoddy. But they do want a rigorous approach to cost and that calls for an unsentimental commitment to technological leadership.

Meale deflected this, a little. He said, “It’s a comprehensive assessment, it’s not just construction, we’ll be looking at the whole-of-life cost.” He added, pointedly, “We’ll be making sure the concrete’s good.”

Are they open to new ideas?

They’ve gone high and wide to get to this point. An industry briefing at the Stanford Plaza was attended by 250 people (“Standing room only,” said Greensmith) and 15 companies were put through detailed interviews.

The EOI is quite prescriptive: it says, for example, that both tunnels will be bored from the south end, one at a time, and it sets out how the stations should be built. And yet Meale said, “We’re not trying to be the genius with all the solutions.”

The two consortiums chosen to tender will undertake an “interactive process”. That means they’re expected to step up with their own creative input and innovations. “It’s up to them to come up with an answer which is the best way to build it.”

They’ll be bound by the consents, which are already in place and relate largely to traffic flows, construction management and environmental management. But “nothing is locked down. We’re inviting them to take these ideas [in the EOI] and work with us.”

That’s very good news. Those tunnels and stations are budgeted to cost $3.45 billion. A billion dollars a kilometre. Technology and the benefits of using companies that are working at scale because they’re doing this all round the world, should make it possible, without compromising quality, to get that figure down.

Route of the CRL showing stations and major new buildings expected in the coming years. Image: CRLL

Is the project future proofed?

Auckland, of all places, knows exactly what happens when you build a big new project without understanding the likely future use. That’s what we did with the harbour bridge, which was at capacity almost as soon as it opened in 1959 and quickly needed four more lanes clipped to the sides.

You can’t clip more lanes onto a tunnel. Meale said, “You only get one shot when you’re building underground.”

True that. He added that the CRL will be a “hundred-year asset”. Which makes capacity an issue. The thing about that is, doubling the capacity of the existing lines is not a big target. As rail transit becomes the most appealing way for many people to get into and through the central city, demand will grow to far greater levels than that. This is something else we know in Auckland: when you build public transport, they do come. You’d be nuts not to think it will happen with the CRL.

Meale talked at length about all this. “Future proofing”, he said, was a watchword.

So I asked him, why are the platforms at Karangahape Station going to be only 150 metres long?

“Why would they be longer?” he asked.

I said that the current trains, when they have six units, are 144 metres, so if more units are added they’ll overhang the platforms.

“Who’s talking about longer trains?” he said.

But this is not a new idea. Auckland’s trains have always had the capacity to add extra units and many of the platforms on the current network are long enough to cope with that. I asked if that wasn’t part of the future proofing, to build in extra capacity by allowing for longer trains.

“Longer trains?” he said. “They may be. That’s a decision for another day.”

Not exactly a future proofing sort of thing to say.

I asked him, why will Karangahape Station have only one entrance? (It’s going to be south of K Road, down Mercury Lane, just by where the Mercury Plaza is now.)

He said the EOI requires allowance be made for a second entrance on Beresford Square, if it’s needed in the future. Yes, I said, but why not build it now?

Meale doesn’t think it will ever be built. “We’ve modelled the demand. Everything we’ve looked at suggests we won’t need a second entrance.”

Given that these days every prediction for public transport use in Auckland is quickly exceeded, this seemed bold.

You don’t think it will ever be needed?

“No.”

As for Mercury Lane, passengers will have quite a steep walk up the street to K Road. I asked why there won’t be escalators rising to Karangahape Rd itself.

“That’s not a difficult walk,” he said. “It’s good for you.”

Not difficult for him or me, perhaps, but moderately fit adults are not exactly the benchmark for ease of use.

He and Carol Greensmith both talked about how because of space and heritage issues it was relatively easy to build on Mercury Lane but not on Beresford Square. In the end, Meale said, “We took the line of least resistance.”

We’re getting what’s easier, and it isn’t the same as what’s better.

Concept artwork for Aotea Station, on the corner of Wellesley St (left) and Mayoral Drive where Griffiths Gardens is now. Image: CRLL

The news is much better at Aotea Station. It has longer platforms and three entrances, the main one on Wellesley St just up from the Civic, where the temporary little park called Griffiths Gardens is now. It’s going to be future proofed to allow for a North Shore line one day. That’s all very good, although Wellesley St is the main cross-town bus route and some serious thought will be needed to keep rail passengers from pouring out of the station onto the bus lanes.

Mt Eden Station, however, has problems. It’s oddly configured, at the junction of two routes, with two platforms some distance from each other. It’s not very near Dominion Rd, which means anyone wanting to connect with the likely route of a light rail service to the airport will have a bit of a walk.

The history here is that a new station was going to be built under Eden Terrace, but this fell victim to budget cuts and the existing Mt Eden Station is to be adapted instead. The plan feels unresolved. Meale said, “Maybe the successful tenderer will have some ideas about that.”

But he dismissed my question about not being close enough to the likely light rail route. He said he thought the station and Dominion Rd were “within cooey of each other”. Greensmith added that it’s better at the Karangahape Station, which is at one end of Cross St with the light rail route at the other, on Upper Queen St: that’s a bit over 100 metres to walk.

Concept artwork for part of Mt Eden Station. Image: CRLL

What about the aesthetics? 

Britomart is brilliant, right? A terrific mix of heritage and modern, highly functional, a building with unique aesthetic appeal. It’s in the grand tradition of railway stations, especially underground stations: in London, Moscow, Stockholm and many other cities, the important stations have been designed with their own special character. Is that happening here?

Meale explained that the “concept drawings” for the CRL were developed by Auckland Transport with “close input” from “bring young designers from different iwi”.

He said, “There’s a story being told around each station,” and the designs derive from tukutuku (weaving) patterns. Aotea, for example, used to be a “market garden” area, so that’s been captured.

I suggested the “concept drawings” have a very samey feel. They’re not conceived as unique places like Britomart was, but look like they come from the same design kitset. Meale said the stations will be “cousins rather than twins”.

He also said the contractor will be responsible for designing the “front of house”.

So the concepts can change? “Yes, but there are guidelines.”

Is there a budget for art?.

He said, “Are you offering?”

I asked if that meant there was no budget for art. He said the council has a “project envelope” for art associated with the CRL. Not a lot, then. “But,” he said, “it’s not so much about putting a sculpture here or there. We’re building art into the architecture.”

Signing the CRLL into life, watched over by their big red digger: Bill Cashmore, Simon Bridges, Phil Goff, Steven Joyce. Photo: Simon Wilson

How good will it be?

The biggest problem with the CRL is not the CRL at all. It’s the risk that it slows spending on other public transport projects – especially light rail. And because the CRL will probably be at capacity from the day it opens, several of those other projects are also urgent.

Still, as Meale said, we only get one chance to make it good. He’s just been overseas, looking at undergrounds in other cities. He mentioned Stockholm, Copenhagen, St Petersburg. “Rail tragics always say Copenhagen is the one to see,” he said. “It’s got the driverless trains, all sort of things. But it was such a disappointment.”

Why?

“Not maintained. It was grubby.”

They’re very motivated at CRLL. “I want us to leave…” Meale started to say, and then stopped – he’s not given to grandiose statements. “I want those to be really good spaces.”

Greensmith said, “It’s something we all share. It’s not business as usual here. We all love our jobs.”

That’s a good place to start. But think about that harbour bridge again. It was built too small and that had to be fixed. It was built on the cheap and it looks it. Compare it to the Sydney harbour bridge, if you’re in doubt about that. Compare it to Britomart Station, which was built to be marvellous, and is.

Will the successful tenderer have the technology and experience to reduce costs and raise the quality of the outcome? It’s not too much to ask, is it?

Oh, and they should get it done more quickly too. We need that thing for the America’s Cup defence in 2021.

* Yes, Hamiltonians, a very short piece of your rail line runs underground. Different thing, right?

@thespinoff.co.nz


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