The history of Auckland’s light rail project has been one of strategic incoherence and poor technical advice. The projected costings have gone from $3.5 billion through various variations to $6b to the present plan for light rail in a tunnel costing $14.6b, to probably $29.2b. This would be a record per kilometre cost of any light rail build, by a considerable margin, anywhere in the world.
The only beneficiaries thus far have been the private consultants battening on as the project refuses to die and blunders onward, haemorrhaging public money and stinking of political death.
There is, I believe, a way forward out of this mess, one which will help the Government in the short term and Auckland and the country in the long.
I suggest it’s time for another look at Auckland Transport’s original light rail plan, set out in the draft Auckland Regional Land Transport Plan of 2015-2025 and which received clear support from Aucklanders’ public submissions – the last time they were asked. This was for a conventional Melbourne-style light rail network on Auckland’s busiest arterials as an analogue for buses. A good plan but with no funding. Interestingly, now we have the opposite – a thoroughly bad plan fuelled by the confident expectation of billions of dollars of funding. A considerable amount of technical work and planning was completed by Auckland Transport before this original project was mysteriously shelved late in 2015/early 2016. Also, at that time, set out in the first version of the 2012 Auckland Plan was the longstanding commitment to extend a heavy rail connection to Auckland International Airport upon completion of the City Rail Link project.
Late that same year, in November 2015, I was present at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron when mayoral candidate Phil Goff MP launched his mayoral campaign, pledging to build a light rail line to the airport. Things, if you forgive the expression, went off the tracks from that moment onwards – and have remained that way ever since. Goff, after handing his ‘pledge’ on to his Labour Party parliamentary protégés Phil Twyford and Michael Wood, quietly distanced himself from the idea.
How did this all happen? Some explanation is needed here. I don’t profess to know the full story but I can say, despite the generally positive response from Aucklanders I have good reason to believe AT’s light rail plan unveiled in early 2015 was received with some consternation – if not anger – at the highest levels in Wellington, still grappling with Auckland’s City Rail Link project. Not the least in the office of the then Minister of Transport Simon Bridges. I was in Wellington early in February doing some library research when I received a phone call from the Opposition spokesperson on Auckland issues Phil Goff who seemed a little disconcerted himself about the RLTP light rail initiative. I reassured him it all made sense in terms of future planning and I promised to get him a briefing with a senior manager in AT. (A situation not without some irony as it turned out). Little did I know at the time that under intense government pressure AT was beginning to back off the light rail network plan and cribbing together a compromise. So, the briefing with AT I arranged for Goff according to what he later told me, did not turn out the way I had presumed. In June 2016 the AT Board following the board of NZTA, formally resolved to abandon the long planned heavy rail connection to Auckland Airport in favour of ‘high capacity’ buses – and light rail:
“1. That Management discount heavy rail to the airport from any further option development due to its poor value for money proposition;
2. Instructs Management to:
a) Develop a bus based high capacity mode to the same level of detail as the LRT option to allow a value for money comparison with the LRT option and submit this to ATAP for consideration;
b) Refine the LRT option further to address the high risk issues as articulated in this paper;
c) Report back to the Board on the findings of the bus based high capacity mode and LRT comparison.
d) Progress with route protection for bus / light rail, not heavy rail;
Under the government of the day’s non statutory ‘Auckland Transport Alignment Plan’ (ATAP), light rail to the airport was relegated to some time around 2030 – buses were to be the preferred solution. That was to change in 2017 with a new government and the advent of Minister Phil Twyford. Only the Official Information Act is likely to reveal the full story but this is how I believe we got to the situation we are in today.
Given these problems, (which very much include ‘value for money’ or the lack of it) there is merit in at least exploring an alternative approach that would deliver a more financially responsible solution without retreating from the original concept of building a future light rail system in Auckland. The strategic objective of this would be to reduce road congestion, move more people around the city, and significantly uplift Auckland’s woeful public transport patronage (currently still just over 60 percent of pre-Covid levels) while reducing carbon emissions.
This by a fresh look at the original plans, the staged replacement by light rail of bus services on Auckland’s congested main arteries. Judging by overseas experience, especially in France and Australia, this would enhance urban quality of life, but it would also have absolutely nothing to do with expensive tunnels, nor should it have anything to do with Auckland International Airport. It may or may not be ‘a magnet’ for property investment, which could be a happy outcome, but it cannot be a strategic purpose.
A proposal by the think-tank NZ Transport 2050 would involve building the light rail system in sequenced stages (e.g. 5km packets). A sensible approach in the current economic climate. Starting from the city waterfront, the first stage would link high passenger nodes close to the Auckland city centre, which are not currently well served. This would entail a line via Symonds Street (as in the original RLTP) serving the University of Auckland and Auckland hospital. The line could terminate at the hospital or link to the existing Grafton Rail Station, the subsequent stages to be rolled out after further planning and public consultation.
A key part of the package would be to capitalise on the massive spend on the City Rail Link by restoring the original 2012 Auckland Plan objective of linking the Main Trunk Line (heavy rail) with Auckland International Airport at Puhinui, just 7km away. This would also place Waikato and the city of Hamilton within convenient reach of Auckland International Airport.
I would add a final caveat, however, and that is no major rail or similar transport construction project (e.g. the proposed harbour crossing) should proceed in Auckland until there has been a thorough and independent review of the City Rail Link project and the lessons from this taken on board. The objective should be to build the country’s rail infrastructure, not bankrupt it.