Opinion: The Minister of Transport, rather like a desperate gambler having a bad night at the casino, is reportedly ‘doubling down’ on the Government’s ill-starred light rail project. He now wants to extend light rail to the North Shore. The problem is five years on, the Government has yet to build anything to extend it from, not a millimetre of track. And embarrassingly, has been unable to produce a business case. Nevertheless, Treasury last year costed the present scheme (city to airport) at $14.6 billion up to $29.2 billion. Fortunately for the minister (but unfortunately for the New Zealand taxpayer) it’s not his money at stake here. And if one thing is certain about this project, it’s that we, the taxpayers, are most likely to lose our shirts.

Labour’s light rail at the end of the tunnel
Who really wants Auckland’s light rail plan?

The Auckland light rail project has, in all its various iterations, been plagued with problems going back as far as 2016. These are not going away anytime soon, because they are the inevitable result of a politically-driven shift from the purpose of the original light rail plan set out in the Auckland Regional Land Transport Plan of 2015-25. This was, if anyone can remember, a technological step-change from buses to light rail vehicles (trams) on city arterials, specifically Sandringham, Dominion, Mt Eden and Manukau Roads, Symonds and Queen Streets, to overcome future grid-lock congestion revealed by transport modelling at that time.

It was a future network approach centred on the CBD, rather like Melbourne’s but of course on a much more modest scale. This sensible but unfunded plan was suddenly and mysteriously replaced in mid-2016 by a proposed 24km single line to Auckland Airport (the latter subsequently rebranded as ‘Māngere’). In 2017 this became a keynote government policy, and was promoted as a catalyst for investment in intensified development along this corridor, originally Dominion Rd, and now apparently Sandringham Rd, (much of which is now planned to be in a tunnel).

The construction of this one thin line, according to its promoters led by then transport minister Phil Twyford, was to be a ‘game changer’ and a ‘magnet’ for property investment. That a scheme with eight tram stations rather than 20 bus stops on an intensified Dominion Road was likely to exacerbate traffic congestion rather than reduce it was evidently never considered. ‘Game changer’ or not, the scheme was not designed for the convenience of public transport users – whether they be future airport passengers (too slow) or local residents (not enough stops). That minister has long since gone, but the legacy of strategic confusion still reigns.

Despite five years of head-scratching by bureaucrats and consultants (the latter costing $60m at last count with a lot more to come), there is a fundamental contradiction lying at the heart of this plan. The light rail scheme is trying to deal with two separate public transport problems at the same time, serving Auckland Airport, whose passenger throughput is predicted to grow in the post-pandemic world to reach estimates of 40 million in 10 years, and reducing congestion by providing better public transport (in one corridor) on an intensified isthmus.

Attempts to achieve these two objectives with a single solution are suboptimal for both. They are, in effect, contradictory. The faster and more convenient the airport service (the fewer stops, currently 18, the better), the more inferior the public transport service along the corridor – and vice versa. It is this strategic confusion that no amount of determined attempts to hammer a square peg into a round hole can solve. This stubborn contradiction will be a key part of the explanation for the failure to produce a business case, especially the benefit/cost analysis usually mandatory for taxpayer-funded transport projects.

Undeterred, the Government has set up a company ‘Auckland Light Rail Ltd’ with a board of appointed directors chaired by an ex-Wellington politician Dame Fran Wilde, and a CEO, Tommy Parker, ex-NZTA and ex-Arup NZ, a tunnelling company.

Auckland Light Rail’s publicity on display at Auckland Airport. Photo: Supplied

Auckland Light Rail Ltd, despite failing to come up with a business case or much of a coherent plan, has now embarked on an expensive public relations campaign. Despite making little tangible progress in actually building light rail, its greater ambitions are becoming clear. Apart from the single line to the airport, Auckland Light Rail Ltd wants to build light rail to the North Shore, to the Northwest, and even to run light rail in competition with trains down the future Avondale to Southdown rail corridor.

The ambition, no less, is to build a parallel passenger rail system in Auckland, with separate rolling stock, different gauge lines, catenary, signalling, etc., to, in effect, duplicate the heavy rail system for which the ratepayers and taxpayers of Auckland have already invested so dearly. Leaving aside the multi-billion-dollar costs of the City Rail Link, Auckland ratepayers are still paying off a multi-million dollar loan for electric trains. Such duplication is not rational and certainly not affordable for a city and country of this scale.

Meanwhile, the elephant in the room, the other, (previous) government-created entity, CRL Ltd, has announced another billion-dollar blowout, taking the cost from the original $2.4b in 2011 to $5.49b. The completion date, mirage-like, has again drifted further into the distance, this time to ‘late 2025’. Further costs and more delays are to be expected.

However, despite the lamentable failures of its Link-Alliance construction, the City Rail Link project is at least coherent in intent; a 3.4km double-tracked heavy rail tunnel linking the existing rail corridor under downtown Auckland to the Western Line at Mt Eden. Similar projects have been on the books since the mid-20th Century. Given this scale of investment, would it not make sense to at least scope the use of heavy rail for future long-distance services, e.g. to the Airport and the North Shore, rather than light rail trams, the optimum use for which is as a short-distance people mover?

Herald Digipoll response from 2018.

The over-reliance on consultants, the hallmark of the Auckland light rail project, is undoubtedly due to a deficit of technical knowledge. This has always struck me as peculiar given that ample know-how and experience exist only three hours’ flight away in Australia. A key indicator of this knowledge deficit is the constant, vacuous assertions of officialdom that light rail is ‘rapid transit’. However, as the builder and manager of the successful, 20km with 19 stations, G-Link light rail on Australia’s Gold Coast, Phil Mumford told an Auckland Transport delegation I was a part of in 2015 – “Important thing to remember guys light rail is NOT rapid transit – it’s mass transit”.

Unlike our bureaucrats and consultants, Mumford knew what he was talking about. The popular G-Link, competently built and operated since 2014, moves thousands of people per day (‘mass transit’) in comfort and with zero emissions, but its average speed (30km per hour) is still slower over comparable distances than buses and trains. That said, it is considerably faster than Sydney’s newest light rail service. While light rail has many city-building benefits, ‘rapid transit’ is not one of them. To proceed on the basis of this misunderstanding is a fundamental error.

Mike Lee is the Auckland Councillor for the Waitematā and Gulf Islands ward, and a former chair of the Auckland Regional Council.

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