The City Rail Link! It's happening, but what is it? And what does it mean for Auckland?

Following last week’s announcement by John Key that the government would help fund Auckland’s City Rail Link approximately two years before its previous estimation, we talked to TransportBlog’s Matt Lowrie about the announcement, the potential impact of the CRL and our changing attitudes towards public transport.

Last week, in his state of the nation speech to the Chamber of Commerce in Auckland, John Key confirmed that the government would help fund Auckland’s City Rail Link (a partially subterranean extension of the inner-city rail network from Britomart to Mt Eden) about two years earlier than previously planned. “It’s become clear that we need to provide certainty for other planned CBD developments affected by the Rail Link,” he said. “This means we see merit in starting the project sooner.”

The announcement follows years of government opposition to the plan, particularly from former Ministers of Transport, Steven Joyce and Gerry Brownlee, and (depending on your pundit of choice) represents either a generational shift in the National Party, an inevitable concession to Auckland business interests, or all of the above.

Either way, by confirming that it will help fund the process, both the Auckland Council and the developers planning shiny new buildings in Auckland’s CBD can proceed with the certainty that the project will go ahead.

Image: CRL Map c/o Auckland Council

Matt Lowrie of the TransportBlog explains...

Last week’s announcement must have been welcome news for you, were you surprised by it?

It's wasn't a surprise, but it's very welcome. We had expected that there wouldn't necessarily be funding straight away but that the support would be there, so the council would have to pay for a few years and then the government would chip in after that. But what the council needed was the certainty that the government would chip in so they could get things moving.

What turned it around? There's been years of reluctance from the government.

Two key things changed the government's mind. First, rail patronage has been growing strongly, up almost 23% annually to the end of December, which is almost the same increase as the year before. In the last year patronage has gone up by almost three million trips and there's no sign of slowing down. The government's had a target of 20 million trips by 2020 to fund it and we're looking like we'll achieve that as soon as 2017.

The other aspect is the commercial development of the city. There are a number of projects that are quite reliant on the CRL going ahead. For example, the downtown mall, called Commercial Bay now, is above where the CRL will be and they're digging the tunnels as part of that development. And there are a number of other projects that are along the route all the way up Albert Street.

There's billions of dollars of private investment just along Albert Street that needs certainty that the CRL will happen in a timely manner. What they don't want is to build their wonderful new buildings and as soon as they're finished, we're digging up the street outside to start work on digging the tunnels for five years. It makes sense to do it all at the same time, to have one bigger period of disruption, perhaps more intense but shorter overall, helping to deliver a better outcome for the city.

Image: Rod Emmerson on the New Zealand Herald

Part of the appeal of the CRL is new inner city train stops, is that enough to decrease traffic into the city?

It's not so much about the traffic itself. What will happen is if some people stop driving into the city, other people will take their place. It's about getting more people into the city overall.

Over the last 15 years, the number of cars coming into the city haven't actually changed, they've actually decreased slightly over that 15 year period. But the number of people entering the city has changed dramatically and all because of the change in public transport. Almost 50% more people come in on the train than drive down Nelson Street, which is the main motorway off-ramp. So, what we're seeing is that people are changing how they travel. During the morning peak, only 50% of people are arriving by car, the rest are by bus, by train, a ferry, walking or cycling.

Is that due to a change in the public perception of public transport?

The city has grown, more jobs have been created, and as those people are coming into the city, they've made a rational choice to use public transport because of parking costs and because of congestion issues.

So if you've got a train line that's running free and not suffering congestion, and it's relatively cheap, people will use it. And the only way we have enough capacity to move that many people is by having public transport systems operating. And the CRL allows us to put even more capacity into the system, and for that system to be more efficient and more productive.

Image c/o TransportBlog

Is the CRL more about an increase in stops and destinations or an increase in capacity?

It's both. It's not just about one issue. If we want to get more people into the city on public transport, one option is busses, but we don't have space in the city to put a lot more busses on – they'll just be gridlocked. And the rail network is getting close to capacity too, so by the end of this year, we won't be able to put anymore trains into Britomart.

CRL is part of the solution to that. It unlocks Britomart, it allows you to double the capacity of the existing routing, which means you can increase the frequency across the entire network. Plus, add in new stations which increase the usefulness of the network, and helps encourage development around those stations.

Now that the CRL has government support, what are the remaining hurdles? Does this year's mayoral election have any bearing on the project?

The next thing is funding. The council and the government are saying they need to sit down and work out exactly who's paying what, and who owns what. The council already has the funding budgeted in the long terms plan, starting from 2018. 

The early work is already underway, digging the tunnel from Britomart to just past Wyndham Street. They're currently moving water pipes for it, they'll start digging the actual tunnels about May, so people will be seeing a lot of work going on in the next few years that it already underway.

The rest of the project, the ‘main works’ as they’re calling it, from Wyndham Street all the way to Mount Eden, is one big piece of work. What the announcement is about is enabling the council to get on with that part. Now they can work with the certainty that it's going to go ahead and make sure that the plans are designed around that. And they can start the tendering process sooner so when the funding turns up in 2018, they're ready to hit the ground running.

Video: Auckland Council on Albert Street development

The announcement follows the opening of the Nelson Street Cycleway, the granting of consent to the shared path on the Harbour Bridge, is the way Aucklanders think about transport changing?

Absolutely. People who have been away for just two years are coming back to Auckland and are surprised about how much change there has been. Auckland is becoming much more of a world city. And what we're seeing from the government is a much greater recognition of the need for city-shaped thinking.

Auckland is very different to the rest of the country in size and scale. The government seems to be wanting to recognise that a lot more, or at least Key and a few others do, and that's a really positive sign. Auckland is not an overblown provincial town, it is a city that needs city-shaped thinking. And that change is just going to continue.

But public perceptions of transport issues are moving much faster than the politicians are. When Len Brown was elected, he may have been ahead of a lot of the population, and now I think he's been left behind by it. We're seeing the public really accept and adapt to change and begin thinking more like a city. And the CRL is just the tip of the iceberg. It enables Albert Street to be completely redeveloped, there's going to be new public spaces outside Britomart, around the waterfront and the ferry terminal.

The CRL is one of the big transformational projects of Auckland. The last time we saw something like it was probably the Harbour Bridge. And one of the problems of transformation is it's really hard for people to understand what the impact will be. When they built the Harbour Bridge, it was built too small and they had to expand it ten years later because no one predicted that the North Shore would take off for property development. In hindsight, it makes a lot of sense – the North Shore was right next to the city, it just needed that connection to open it up.

For Auckland, the CRL is like that too, it opens Auckland up, particularly the west, so I expect that all along the western line, we'll see greater use of trains and development around that. Nothing will be as transformal as the CRL. In a few years time, we'll all be wondering why it took so long to do it. 

(Sorry, had to do it...)