The City Rail Link: ‘A fire hose with a garden hose connected to each end’

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Construction of the Mt Eden section of the City Rail Link. Photo / Dean Purcell

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Auckland’s new City Rail Link (CRL) will be “like a fire hose with a garden hose connected to each end,” according to KiwiRail’s chief operating officer, David Gordon.

Gordon made the comment today while appearing before the inaugural meeting of Auckland Council’s new Transport and Infrastructure Committee.

The CRL will double the capacity of the city’s rail network when it opens, probably in 2025. Gordon’s comment was a warning to councillors. His message: The rest of the network needs a lot more investment or it will fail to make the most of the new potential.

Mayor Wayne Brown agrees.

He was sceptical of the benefits of the CRL during the election campaign and often criticised its board and management. But since then he’s had a briefing and a big tour of the underground project. Now he’s a fan.

“When finished, fitted out, fully tested, and supported by modernised lines, crossings, and stations throughout the region,” he said in a written statement this week, “CRL will deliver Auckland the world-class passenger train network that residents of and visitors to other large cities have taken for granted for generations.

KiwiRail's chief operating officer, David Gordon. Photo / Brett Phibbs
KiwiRail’s chief operating officer, David Gordon. Photo / Brett Phibbs

“When all planned improvements to the network are finished in the years following the completion of the CRL itself, Aucklanders and our visitors will see a nine-carriage trains arriving at stations as frequently as once every two minutes, carrying up to 54,000 people an hour at peak times across the network.”

CRL boss Sean Sweeney also addressed the transport committee today. He described the process of getting those “planned improvements” done as “turning the railway from a low-intensity freight mindset to a metro mindset”.

He said that Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne all have “large metro systems” due for completion in 2024/25. “It would be naïve to say we will not be impacted by that,” he said.

Sweeney was referring to the risk specialist staff will be wooed away by the promise of a bigger and more certain infrastructure pipeline than New Zealand offers.

His comments could be seen as a plea to politicians. Don’t undermine the infrastructure pipeline here by sneering at large projects just because they’re complex, expensive or take time to build.

City Rail Link boss Dr Sean Sweeney. Photo / Jed Bradley
City Rail Link boss Dr Sean Sweeney. Photo / Jed Bradley

The committee was told that CRL will be briefing Cabinet ministers and the mayor on cost and scheduling progress next Friday.

It was a busy meeting. Gordon updated them on KiwiRail’s “rebuild” of the Auckland rail network, which is needed because the lines are subsiding. The work will begin next month.

Councillor Josephine Bartley expressed dismay at the disruption. Councillor Daniel Newman asked Gordon how long KiwiRail had known about it.

“Clearly, we were aware for many years that the rail was built at the time for axle load of eight tonnes,” Gordon replied. “Now, we run 18 tonnes. So it was well known. But we would not have been doing the level of accelerated work without the CRL. What’s driving us is a desire to get the work done before it opens.”

He said they had looked closely at their options. One was to close the lines one way at a time, with the morning peak and then the afternoon peak remaining open.

That was too dangerous. “You can’t do the work with trains right running past and 25,000 volts of electricity overhead.”

Another option was to slow the work down and complete it over a much longer timeframe.

Gordon described that as “totally the wrong approach. The worst thing of all would be to open the CRL and then follow it with ongoing network closures.”

The work will be carried out in eight stages, beginning with a three-month closure on the Southern Line at the start of 2023. Most closures will be that length or shorter, but the Eastern Line will be closed for 10 months in 2023 and the same will happen on the Southern Line in 2024.

The entire project should be completed by July 2025. But Gordon assured the councillors the lines would be open on game days during the women’s football World Cup next year.

The debate opened up an apparent disagreement between the mayor and one of his key supporters, Councillor Mike Lee.

Lee, who has been appointed by Brown to the board of Auckland Transport, wanted the work to “minimise disruption to passengers”. To him, that meant slowing it down and taking much longer.

He said they should “not be fixated on the CRL opening”.

Waitematā councillor Mike Lee, who has been appointed to the board of Auckland Transport. Photo / Alex Burton
Waitematā councillor Mike Lee, who has been appointed to the board of Auckland Transport. Photo / Alex Burton

But Brown told the Herald he disagreed strongly with this. “What did I stand on?” he asked. “Fixing problems, right? Just get the damn thing done.”

Auckland Transport’s acting chief executive, Mark Lambert, and some of his colleagues were also there to make their quarterly report.

Gordon had revealed they will need 250 more train drivers when the CRL opens, probably in 2025. Lambert upped the ante: Auckland needs 518 more bus drivers now.

He also revealed the bad news and the good news about public transport patronage. The bad news is that it’s still only at 67 per cent of its pre-Covid level.

Ferries have “bounced back” the best and trains the worst.

The good news is that 67 per cent is extremely good compared to other cities. Work from home, along with ongoing Covid and other health problems, has significantly changed transport patterns in cities everywhere.

There was more good news on the road safety front. The lower speed limits introduced on some Auckland roads in 2020, said Lambert, have resulted in a 30 per cent drop in fatalities. On rural roads, it’s 48 per cent. Overall fatalities on roads without reduced speed limits have not fallen.

The news on emissions and cycleway progress was mixed. Six electric buses are starting on the 866 route from Albany to Newmarket this month. In June 2023, 40 more will be added to the 22 and 24 routes to New Lynn.

But in response to questioning by councillor Richard Hills, Lambert agreed there were some bike-related projects that had been started and were not currently being progressed.

AT has applied for funding under the Environment Ministry’s Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP).

But, said Hills, that plan has “more conservative targets” than the council’s own Transport Emissions Reduction Pathway. Would that mean AT adopts those lesser targets?

Lambert said it would.

Councillor Richard Hills, who is worried about Auckland Transport's commitment to emissions reduction. Photo / Dean Purcell
Councillor Richard Hills, who is worried about Auckland Transport’s commitment to emissions reduction. Photo / Dean Purcell

The mayor ended the session by telling the Auckland Transport executives what’s coming when they get their formal instructions from the new council.

“The main strategic focus will be to produce a comprehensive joined-up masterplan for transport in Auckland, which will involve you working with Waka Kotahi and all the other crowd,” he said. The “other crowd” is the Ministry of Transport, Treasury and any other relevant Government agencies.

Brown warned them “I’ve got the minister’s ear on this.” Then he added, “That’s what I have to say: smarter, better, cheaper, faster.”

Committee chair John Watson asked Lambert if he’d like to respond.

Brown, noticing that Lambert was already responding, said, “Nodding is pretty good.”

Smarter, better, cheaper, faster: Lambert agreed.

Auckland Transport also announced today that its preferred candidate for the position of chief executive has withdrawn. While the search begins again, Mark Lambert has been confirmed as acting CEO until the end of March 2023.

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