‘Light Metro’ not ‘Light Rail’

Labour will go to the election with a radically different rail proposal to the one they did last time - it isn't light rail

The common word 'light' in both 'light rail' and 'light metro' can fool people into thinking they're a similar type of public transport. They're not.

And if Labour are re-elected, Auckland will now get a light metro system rather than light rail. That is a radically different idea to the proposal they took to the 2017 election. 

"Our policy is that light metro is the form of rapid transit that Auckland needs."

A 'light metro' rail system has more in common with the London Underground than it does with a 'slow tram' down Dominion Rd. 

Transport Minister Phil Twyford said the Ministry of Transport - which has now taken over the project - would look at a light metro system rather than a light rail one.

"Our policy is that light metro is the form of rapid transit that Auckland needs.

"We've decided very clearly that we need a rapid transit system that's not competing with pedestrians and other cars in the road corridor. A light metro system just like you see in London, New York, Tokyo, Paris, is actually faster and more efficient.

"It would allow you to get from Queen St to the Airport in 30 minutes as opposed to the 47 minutes that was projected for the old streetcar model Auckland Transport developed."

That meant the 'street car' light rail proposal Labour took to the 2017 election was no longer on the table.

"That [a light rail street car system] is not our policy. That changed two years ago," Twyford said. 

"When we set up the twin-track process, we put a premium on speed, frequency and the carrying capacity of the system. 

"And both parties in the twin track process [NZTA and NZ infra], completely independently, developed a light metro option to reflect that."

Parties line up for 'light metro' debate

Light rail is 'at grade' and involves street cars (trams) that mingle with traffic.

Light metro is grade-separated which means its trains never mix with traffic, are separated from the road and therefore can be driverless.

"In order for a light metro system to not be competing with the traffic and with pedestrians it has to be completely segregated. And therefore there are three ways you can do that [you can]: fence off part of the road corridor, you can go under, or you can go over," Twyford said.

Because of the geography of Auckland - and the ever-present threat of neighbourhood objectors along Dominion Rd - this system would likely have to be mostly underground rather than elevated or separated from the road with barriers.

"It depends what they mean by metro. Every party will have their position on these projects at the election. We will have a position and you'll see a comprehensive and credible plan around rapid transit in Auckland before the election."

It is called 'light' metro because the trains and stations involved would be much smaller than those seen on big metro systems like London Underground or the Paris Metro.

Ministry of Transport advice to Government recommended Cabinet choose the NZ Infra proposal for light metro over NZTA's, however New Zealand First was not willing to go along with this suggestion due to concerns around foreign ownership, cost, and their party's preference for heavy rail projects.

On Wednesday, NZ First leader Winston Peters left the door open to what their election and post-election position on a light metro system might be if Canadian pension fund CDPQ wasn't involved.

"You stand back and watch our campaign. We're not going to give you the script for our campaign."

Peters' objections to the light metro system proposal at Cabinet included its cost and the fact "foreign funds" were going to be used to pay for it.

"We're a party called New Zealand First. We believe in funding and getting the value in our own country.

"We believe the reason why this country is not making the progress it should is that so much of our [assets and infrastructure are] offshore-owned."

National Party transport spokesman Chris Bishop left the door open to a light metro proposal too:

"It depends what they mean by 'metro'. Every party will have their position on these projects at the election. We will have a position and you'll see a comprehensive and credible plan around rapid transit in Auckland before the election."

"I'll await like everyone else - with interest - the various Government parties' proposals."

Green MPs at Parliament implied that the Auckland Transport Alignment Project plan for light rail was still in effect now that the "twin track" process had been scuppered.

That is not technically correct, but it is true that light rail was approved in earlier Cabinet votes that ushered in the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) and the Government Policy Statement on Land Transport (GPS).

An additional Cabinet vote wouldn't be needed to get light rail off the ground if the Government as a whole still wanted a street car light rail system, but because Labour now wanted 'light metro' rather than 'light rail', a new cabinet vote would be required after the election. 

Asked what the Green Party thought of a light metro system for Auckland, a spokesman for Green MP Julie Ann Genter said they were "open minded about the best solution".

"Ultimately that'll be a call for the next government to make."

Light Metro vs Light Rail

Greater Auckland editor Matt Lowrie said he wasn't opposed to light metro for Auckland, but noted it was much more expensive than a street car system.

"Light metro would be a good longer term option for some of those routes and what we should be doing is thinking about how we can get towards that for other routes.

"That means another system again. Which puts people off, but it shouldn't. Many cities have multiple systems that are completely incompatible with each other ... the key is not the system but how they work together as a network."

The trade-off between light rail and light metro came down to a choice reported in Newsroom last year: between encouraging greater housing intensification in Auckland or a faster trip to the airport.

Urban geographer Ben Ross said a light metro system required fewer stops spaced further apart to achieve the kinds of gains that made it worthwhile to build.

That meant there would be more housing intensification within a walkable 800m radius of every station, but because stations were spaced further apart there would be less overlap between the catchment areas of each - leading to small patches of housing intensification along the route.

A street car system would stop much more frequently. This would lead to a longer trip time but enable housing intensification all along the light rail line because more parts of Auckland would be within walking distance of a station.

However, Ross said speed was never supposed to be the major priority of light rail and the Government had other projects in the pipeline to achieve that. 

A combination of the improvements planned to enable a Hamilton to Auckland express train, the City Rail Link, and the Airport to Botany connection (A2B) would achieve speed gains that could see a trip between the CBD and the airport take just half an hour - equalling the 30-minute trip that a light metro system would allegedly achieve.

"He's [Twyford] duplicating something that Auckland Transport and KiwiRail are already doing," Ross said.

The A2B project would create a separated bus corridor to Puhinui station that would allow Airport travellers to catch a rapid bus from the airport and transfer onto a train. The construction of City Rail Link would remove a bottleneck that slowed rail connections between Puhinui and Britomart. And the arrival of a Hamilton to Auckland CBD express service would mean a rapid train could connect passengers from the airport to the CBD. 

Lowrie said if speed was the main consideration, Auckland's rail network could be further accelerated if more attention was paid to squeezing greater efficiencies out of the system.

Analysis he had run showed Auckland's train journeys to Manukau were on average six to 10 minutes slower than those seen in Australia or even on our own shores in Wellington.

That wasn't down to differences in rail-types, but technical issues around how long it took for train doors to close, and the length of time each train remained at a station. 

"We could get our trains faster if we operated them better and that would also provide a faster journey to the airport."

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