CRL should have been mostly built by now

City Rail Link is probably Auckland’s oldest transport project. Versions of it first planned on plans in the 1920s and various iterations have appeared over the subsequent decades. But the most recent investigations, that ultimately led to the tunnels currently under construction kicked off in 2004 with a Feasibility Study following the opening of Britomart in 2003.. This study proposed an alignment that’s very similar to what is being built.

Some interesting findings from that work are:

  • An estimated cost of around $500 million
  • Construction timeframes of around 2 years
  • Enhanced capacity into Britomart would be needed by 2009, and expanded further by 2021.

However, things moved pretty slowly on the project for a number of years and it wasn’t until the skyscraper Precinct are now building at Commercial Bay was consented in 2008 did we see the next step, with route protection work finally getting under way. Meanwhile the 2010 Regional Land Transport Strategy and then the 2012 Auckland Plan both said it was essential for the Link to be completed by 2021. Len Brown championed the project during his 2010 election as the first mayor of the “Auckland Super City”, and released a business case for the project, which had been underway prior to the election, in late 2010.

This is when delays started to happen. The previous government weren’t fans of the project and called for a review of the business case. The review and it’s appendices (now only found on the wayback machine) was completed by mid-2011 but was full of obvious errors to reach a conclusion that the rail tunnel wouldn’t be needed for decades and had a poor cost-benefit ratio:

Digging into the review documents in a bit more detail eventually identified the cause of these differences. These can be broadly summarised as:

  • Transport modelling at the time did not place a limit on the number of buses that can efficiently travel down a street. 20 buses an hour worked just as well in the models as 300 buses an hour.
  • Transport modelling at the time also did not place a limit on the number of people who can travel on the bus. Therefore even if something like 500 people were trying to get on a bus, in the model no problems would show up.
  • These limitations meant that bus trips into the city centre were forecast to keep growing massively in the future, even though that was practically impossible. While a key reason for CRL (and now light-rail) has always been to shift more people into the city centre because we can’t keep adding buses, the transport models were assuming this problem didn’t exist.
  • They assumed parking prices would not rise as fast as the business case and in 2041 would be at $16 (in 2006 values – $20 today). This meant there was a lot more demand for driving than the business case had assumed.

A key implication of all of this, was that the CRL business case review assumed way lower growth in rail ridership than it should have, and therefore massively under-estimated the scale of impact (and therefore the size of the benefit) CRL would have.

For example the business case review said:

I suspect we’re already exceed these levels of crowding on the trains that the business case review didn’t think would happen for 20 or more years!

Between mid-2011 and late 2012 progress on CRL was pretty slow. The Auckland Plan confirmed CRL as Auckland’s number one priority project (no doubt annoying the government!) and the City Centre Future Access Study, a joint council/government study looking at city centre access, was completed and found the CRL was the best option . Despite this, when the study was completed Gerry Brownlee (now transport minister) didn’t believe its findings.

“In a nutshell the report says the case for building the CRL is weak now, improves somewhat if it’s built closer to 2030 – based on some extremely optimistic assumptions about employment growth in the Auckland CBD – and even then would only provide about 20 per cent of the additional transport capacity needed to deal with increased congestion.”

Mr Brownlee says the study’s modelling suggests the CRL is not viable in the next 15 years.

“With a modelled benefit cost ratio of just 44 cents in the dollar, the benefits of the CRL are nowhere near the cost of building it.

“That benefit cost ratio looks decidedly questionable when you take into account the report’s assumed employment growth of 46 per cent in the Auckland city centre over the next 10 years, compared with actual growth of only 18 per cent in the previous decade.

“Yet this assumed employment growth means the bus crowding and congestion problems forecast in the draft report for 2021 are more likely to occur around 2030.

An OIA request subsequently showed that even the Ministry were saying internally that the transport models were “probably overestimating demand for private vehicle travel and therefore congestion while underestimating demand for public transport

Nothing really progressed for another six months, before in mid-2013 former Prime Minister John Key seemingly over-ruled his transport minister and finally said the government would support CRL, but on a much slower timeframe than what the Council wanted. The government also said that it would consider a faster timeframe if rail ridership reached 20 million well before 2020 and if employment growth happened quickly.

Last year, Auckland Transport’s City Centre Future Access Study concluded that the forecast growth in demand for access to the city centre would best be met with a combination of the proposed City Rail Link and substantial access upgrades for buses.

I can tell you that the Government broadly agrees with that conclusion.

We don’t, however, agree with the timeframes proposed in the report, which concluded that the City Rail Link needs to be in place by 2021.

Given the scale of the project, this would effectively mean construction would need to start in two years’ time.

So, as I indicated earlier this week, the Government is committing to a joint business plan for the City Rail Link with Auckland Council in 2017 and providing its share of funding for a construction start in 2020.

And we will be prepared to consider an earlier start date if it becomes clear that Auckland’s CBD employment and rail patronage growth hit thresholds faster than current rates of growth suggest.

Early assessments of performance the patronage targets included this comment

we expect the rate of patronage growth to slow and at this stage do not anticipate it is likely that the threshold of 20 million trips well before 2020 will be met.

Ultimately we achieved the target 3 years early in in August 2017 but by that time the government had finally gave up the fight and agreed to forget about silly targets for bringing forward construction, in part due to the billions of construction planned for the Albert St corridor. In 2016 it reached agreement with the Council on a 50/50 share of costs for the project.

While this was going on the Council and AT had been getting on with confirming resource consents and other approvals for CRL, and committed funding for some ‘early works’ (the bits that have been built over the past couple of years) to ensure the tunnels were in place at the same time as other major developments in the downtown area. But a lot of time and energy seemed to continue to be devoted to proving the need for the project.

Since 2016 obviously there has been a lot of progress made on the early works, which should be completed within the next year or so. Design and procurement for the main project has also proceeded, with a few hiccups on the way. Completion is now expected in 2024 – basically three years later than what would have happened without all that messing around between 2010 and 2016 with repeated business cases, unnecessary targets, informed by poor transport modelling.

Recently we’ve been hearing that it’s likely the cost of CRL will increase from the $3.4 billion that was estimated in 2016. There are two key reasons for this.

  1. Since then some smart decisions have been made to future-proof the tunnels for longer trains and to undo a stupid decision by Auckland Transport to remove the most important entrance to K Road station from Beresford Square. While these are obviously the right thing to do but are believed to add about $300 million to the project’s cost.
  2. The other important consideration is that construction sector costs have been increasing rapidly in recent years, due to a population boom and building boom the sector has struggled to keep up with. It is this construction sector inflation that is really hurt by the three year delay created by the previous government.

So, as a result of delays and obstruction towards the project by the previous government, it now appears Auckland ratepayers are now going to have to stump up for millions more than they would have otherwise had to. But perhaps more tragically, Auckland really needs City Rail Link now, or at worst in a couple of years time. It’s immensely frustrating to think that this project is still around five years from being completed.

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CRL should have been mostly built by now