Building a resilient Auckland for future generations has never been more front of mind. And, with a million more people set to call Auckland home over the next 30 years, we must have the systems in place that enable New Zealand’s largest city to adapt and thrive no matter what.
We often refer to the City Rail Link as a game changer for Auckland, a city-shaping project that will transform the way we work, live, and play here. But what does that look like in reality?
A resilient, thriving city needs world-class public transport systems that connect communities and entice people out of their cars.
A system that provides more travel choices to help ease pressure on the roads for those who need to use them. Good public transport systems keep our city connected, and they’re better for our environment.
I often hear the City Rail Link referred to as a loop. Let’s be clear, it is a link, a missing link, that will open up the entire rail network.
Removing the “dead end” at Waitematā Station (Britomart) and joining the new underground line with the Western Line at Mount Eden will double our rail capacity and create a mass rapid urban transit system - much like how the Waterview Tunnel has opened up the city’s motorway network.
It will provide direct links between the west and the south and the west and the east, and it will double the number of people who live within 30 minutes of the city centre - New Zealand’s economic hub.
This is particularly important given the significant expansion happening in our outer suburbs to accommodate our growing population.
Direct services between these hubs means less time travelling and more time where people want to be. In addition, Te Waihorotiu Station is being future-proofed for a connection to the North Shore - adding to the resilience of Auckland’s entire transport system.
Catering for future growth is exactly why our project scope was expanded in 2019 - at additional cost to what was originally funded - to allow for longer nine-car carriage trains.
That means that at its peak operation, the City Rail Link will be able to carry 54,000 people per hour. That’s the equivalent capacity of three Auckland Harbour Bridges or 16 extra traffic lanes into the city centre at peak times. Because future-proofing now means we’re ready to accommodate the need in the future.
But the City Rail Link is about more than just improving public transport. It’s a transformative project that will lead the way in integrated transport and urban development.
Three brand-new stations will encourage significant residential and commercial development that will create new urban precincts, support our housing needs, enhance our environment and make Auckland a more attractive place to live and do business.
It will drive business investment and increase employment density within the city centre.
This will increase our productivity and economic output and lift Auckland’s overall GDP.
Recently, the City Rail Link and its numbers have been getting a fair bit of coverage.
This follows the funding request we submitted to our sponsors that reflected increased cost (now $5.49 billion) and time (an additional year) for the project to be completed.
The reality of building large, complex projects is that we are always subject to the unknown.
A major unknown of course was a global pandemic that has affected projects the world over.
Covid conditions affected every aspect of the City Rail Link’s construction. Over the last three years, we have endured six months of lockdowns, restricted working for 280 days (traffic system), 3.2 million hours lost to illness and 800-plus workers infected. The cost of materials soared - building supplies increased nearly 20 per cent in the 18 months to Q2 2022 - while shipping, materials and labour constraints also imposed delays and extra costs on the project.
And our project is not unique in this. Increased costs and time overruns for major infrastructure projects are a global issue and under Covid conditions and international inflationary pressures, these problems have metastasised.
Despite these headwinds, we did well to contain the cost and continue to progress the project at pace - while also securing opportunities to help realise the full benefits of City Rail Link. And we are very confident that had it not been for Covid we would not have been in the position of needing to submit a request for further funds.
Inevitably, when a cost increase is announced, questions will be asked about the value the project will deliver within the new funding envelope.
For infrastructure, we often use a benefit-cost ratio (BCR) as an indicator to determine the ratio of benefits a project will bring in monetary terms relative to its cost - anything over 1.0 is considered an excellent result.
A recently updated PwC economic assessment found that even with the increased cost, the City Rail Link has a BCR of 2.0, creating $11.93b in benefits from the project over 60 years.
If you increased the assessment period from 60 years to 80 years (the City Rail Link has been designed to achieve a 100-year lifetime) the project delivers $14.4b in benefits and an even larger BCR.
There is no doubt that $5.49b is a large number to swallow, particularly in a country where projects of this size and scale have not been undertaken until now.
But if you compare that globally, the cost of the City Rail Link is similar to the Melbourne Metro, the Sydney Metro and the UK Crossrail on a dollars-per-kilometre basis. Because building rail tunnels underground and large new stations does not come cheap.
But the cost of doing nothing is greater. The pressure on Auckland’s roading system is already a constant talking point at barbecues.
Anyone who has driven home at peak hour in the rain has experienced the stand-still effect of congestion. Our buses are running out of bus transit capacity, and we need viable alternatives that rapidly move large amounts of people. Auckland is a city that must keep moving.
We are going to deliver the project a year later than we had set out to achieve before Covid hit. But there is light at the end of the tunnel and we are getting ever closer.
We have completed about 95 per cent of our civil works, we’ve finished boring the tunnels and the construction of our station buildings is well under way.
We are already starting urban realm works in the city centre and when that is complete the project will be less impactful on the surface, with more work taking place underneath and behind the stations’ walls.
We are cracking on to get this project delivered as quickly as we can because, like Auckland, we want to see it delivering its full potential as soon as possible.
Moving a sold-out Eden Park crowd into downtown Auckland in 15 minutes? Now that’s a game-changer.
●Sean Sweeney is chief executive of the City Rail Link (CRL)
CRL is an advertising sponsor of the Herald’s Project Auckland report.