Is Light Rail Comparable to Heavy Rail to the Airport or is Auckland Transport Stacking?

I would argue stacking


I noticed a piece on Transport Blog this morning indicating that Auckland Transport reckons that Light Rail is not that much slower than Heavy Rail to the Airport from the City Centre.

From Transport Blog:

Perhaps Light Rail is fast enough afterall

One of the main concerns I’ve seen raised about the idea of Light Rail to the airport has been the speed. In particular, that light rail is too slow in comparison to heavy rail, especially along the Dominion Rd section where it is also suggested it could also be held up by traffic. After I wrote about it last week Auckland Transport updated their website with some more details of the project – mostly with details from the video they’ve created but also with new a new travel time comparison as they say the times in the video are now out of date. The updated travel times are shown in the table below and as you can see are even more favourable to light rail, putting it just five minutes slower than heavy rail from Britomart and equal in travel time from Aotea.

Britomart (downtown) to airport 44 Minutes 39 Minutes
Aotea (new City Rail Link station) to airport 41 Minutes 41 Minutes

In the blog and other places where discussion about the idea has occurred I’ve seen people questioning the travel times claimed by Auckland Transport. If these timings are accurate I think it makes a significant difference as to the viability of light rail as an option, not just to the airport but potentially for other applications such as to the North Shore, East Auckland and the North West. With this post I thought I would examine the light rail timings in more detail to see if they stack up.

As a reminder this is the route Auckland Transport suggest.

Light-Rail-to-Airport-Route-from-video Source:

From Britomart to SH20 via Dominion Rd the light rail route is fairly straight and AT say it would travel down the centre of the road in dedicated lanes. They also say light rail would have priority at intersections along the way so vehicles would not often need to stop unless doing so at a station. AT reaching SH20 it would then follow the motorway down to Onehunga for a short section on street before a dedicated section from there to the Airport. In total this route is around 22.6km and at 44 minutes giving an average of 31km/h. As a comparison our current rail lines achieve the following speeds (although AT do need to get them faster):

  • Western Line – 27.2km – 55 minutes travel time which is 30km/h
  • Southern Line – 33.1km – 56 minutes travel time which is 33km/h
  • Eastern Line – 25km – 37 minutes travel time which is 41km/h
  • Onehunga Line – 12.8km – 27 minutes travel time which is 28km/h


Source for full post:


I automatically dispute those finding from Auckland Transport and have the current Local Government Official Information Act request away into their full methodology on the Airport Rail findings as I am not exactly trusting them with what they are presenting right now (see: LGOIMA to Auckland Transport #1: Airport Rail Enquiries #AKLPols)


None the less when preparing the initial case for Airport Rail via Otahuhu (see: Letter to the Ministers on Airport Rail. Also Herald and Commenters Wanting Heavy Rail Option too. #AKLPols (currently before the Minister of Transport for active consideration)) I calculated some numbers based on a suggested running pattern that goes through Otahuhu but is limited stops (compared to LRT or even heavy rail now that will stop at all stops)(see: Airport via Otahuhu Heavy Rail Suggested Running Pattern #AKLPols) and theorised the following:

I am not liking it either Bruce but I do have a LGOIMA away with Auckland Transport asking for their FULL methodology into their light vs heavy rail comparisons

Going back to doing heavy rail from Otahuhu and using this as a suggested run pattern (can work on frequencies later, I am looking at the routes and stops) I theorise the following:

  • Britomart via G.I to Airport (via Otahuhu): 30mins if the EMU can hold its speed in-between the limited stops
  • Aotea via Newmarket to the Airport (via Otahuhu): about the same
  • Papakura to the Airport with a transfer at Otahuhu: 35 mins

I also count four interchanges (bus to rail or rail to rail) (five if you include Manukau, six if you count Papakura when you start playing with Inter City running) thus widening the catchments compared to one with LRT (Britomart).

So speed? Heavy rail via Otahuhu with a limited stop program wins that one (at most 6 stops including terminus)
Frequency? Heavy rail via Otahuhu wins that one again
Capacity? Going to be hard to beat an EMU 6 car set holding 750 passengers running every 10 minutes to and from the airport
Catchment? Heavy rail via Otahuhu given I count upwards of 6 interchanges or transfer points to LRTs 1
Cost? Heavy Rail via Otahuhu given you dont have the expensive duplication of the Mangere Bridge (again)

How to serve the South West? LRT to Dominion Road, Mt Roskill Spur to Dominion Road, 10 minute frequent buses down the South Western Motorway with dedicated bus shoulders down SH20A to the Airport or even Mangere Station (gives redundancy capacity)

So I think the winner is heavy rail via Otahuhu no matter what Auckland Transport is trying to shove.


Note: I have posted the full comment to allow context as I was answering a question from a fellow commenter over at the Transport Blog post.


Someone then asked comparisons from other areas of Auckland (seeming not all roads lead to the City Centre and they don’t) so I calculated the following for the NEX from Albany:

Brendan I just posted the times using via Otahuhu further up.
The NEX and Western Line (until a Mt Roskill Spur was built) should be easy enough to add on as you just add the relative NEX time to the Britomart to Airport via G.I or Western Line to K Road/Aotea then transfer to the Airport Line from there.

So Albany to the Airport with a transfer at Britomart onto the Airport Line via G.I and Otahuhu would be:
Apparently looking at the AT Journey Planner the NEX from Albany to Britomart ranges from 31-37mins. Add five minutes to walk into Britomart and board the train then the 30mins from Britomart via G.I and Otahuhu (limited stops) and the total trip time I theorise is 1:12 hours.

Papakura to Airport via Otahuhu I already calculated at 35 mins

From Howick we need dedicated bus priorities down Te Irirangi Drive, Cavendish Drive and SH20B.



As for why heavy rail is slow at the moment? Again from another comment I have left:

Heavy Rail can be sped up through the following:

Door operation at Stations is faster than what it is now
Dwell times are sped up
Signalling is a heck of a lot better to allow the trains to get to maximum speed (they are slowed down in the Meadowbank tunnel and again at Penrose)

Getting the third main built to remove the DL’s off the Southern Line to their own dedicated track.


Limited stops would also speed things up.


So it ultimately goes to the question what are you trying to achieve with an Airport Line.

The answer is a fast, efficient, and frequent service between the airport and major interchange points. Heavy Rail via Otahuhu would be the only option that allows this with the West and South West looked after as I suggested further back up.


So come on Auckland Transport let’s be a tad more transparent here with the most efficient and connected route to and from the Airport


Airport via Otahuhu Running route. Two trains per hour in each direction (clockwise and counter clockwise) giving a total of 4 trains an hour to and from the Airport and Britomart
Airport via Otahuhu Running route.
Two trains per hour in each direction (clockwise and counter clockwise) giving a total of 4 trains an hour to and from the Airport and Britomart


2 thoughts on “Is Light Rail Comparable to Heavy Rail to the Airport or is Auckland Transport Stacking?

  1. Light Rail is faster – Only if you don’t count all the stops on Dominion Road & run the EMU’s at the same atrocious speeds they do now even though you trenched the
    Onehunga Line so errrr

    Light Rail has more catchment, only if you count the Dominion Rd LRT which would built regardless of the option picked for SMART & disregard the whole notion of an integrated network with transfers which you are building.

    Otahuhu is the best for line management as you can extend the purple crosstown line to the Airport allowing a direct West-Southwest Line, as well as allowing the Eastern Line Passengers & a big chunk of the New Network Southern transfers on the Southern Line via CBD & Airport

    1. I have a letter away to the Ministers of Finance and Transport on Airport Rail via Otahuhu. The letter is on Simon Bridge’s desk for his active consideration and I will know one way or the other his views on the matter in due time.

      In the meantime I am preparing a presentation for the Auckland Development Committee when it reconvenes next month on Airport Rail. Hopefully with a bit of luck I can persuade some Councillors to look at the Otahuhu route.

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