Officials from KiwiRail and Auckland Transport have fronted to the region’s councillors to discuss more than $20 billion worth of long-term plans for Auckland’s heavy rail network over the next 30 years.
The agencies plan to more than triple annual passenger trips from pre-pandemic levels to over 76 million trips and 17 million freight tonnes by 2051.
They say this would be equivalent to providing three more lanes of motorway capacity in each direction across the isthmus.
It comes as a new National-led government puts the future of light rail in Auckland in doubt.
Speaking from his old primary school, incoming Prime Minister Christopher Luxon said he wanted to get rid of light rail but offered the slimmest sliver of wriggle room by saying he’d prioritise negotiations with Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown.
“It has to be said, we want to cancel light rail, we think it’s been a white elephant,” he said. “But again, we want to work very closely with the Mayor of Auckland and the council.”
He mentioned National’s policy of city and regional deals, in which central and local government agree on a set of projects and work out the funding between them.
“Once we form a government, I’ve already spoken to Mayor Brown since the election, and I’m very confident we’ll have a very constructive relationship.”
He might find Auckland’s mayor keener to push for more rail funding than he expects.
As Brown said in yesterday’s meeting: “We do need to support rail. We’ve got a new government who are pretty anti-rail. And so it is actually the simplest and easiest way to gain greenhouse gas progress.”
Things are perhaps a little sunnier in the world of heavy rail, with the City Rail Link expected to breathe new life into the system in the next few years.
But the two agencies came with a warning for councillors as well – though use of the network for passengers and freight is expected to grow through the rest of this decade, that increase may also overload capacity by around 2032.
Luxon said he’d rather see the potential $30 billion cost of light rail go into other transport solutions.
That sounds like a good opportunity for Auckland’s heavy rail system to garner some investment from central government – however, most of National’s favoured plans involve cars or buses.
The money Labour would have spent on Auckland’s light rail has been earmarked for the roads of national significance and finishing Auckland’s busways.
What funding there is for heavy rail seems to be focused on the lower North Island, where National has promised improvements to increase capacity and reliability for passengers and freight.
Nevertheless, KiwiRail and Auckland Transport have worked together to calculate exactly what they can deliver for the rail system over the next 30 years.
It’s a long time, but it seems the mood among a number of the councillors was that the map of Auckland Rail 2050 is too similar to what it looks like today.
At first glance they look near identical, aside from a route crossing Onehunga between Avondale and Southdown and the Britomart to Mt Eden track which closes off the City Rail Link.
Waitematā and Gulf councillor Mike Lee was “extremely underwhelmed” by a vision that didn’t include the provision of passenger services to the quickly growing northwest of the city.
“We’re talking about 30 years, right? This is a 30-year vision? That looks to me like the 1929 Auckland rail network, with Avondale to Southdown… but apart from that and of course the CRL, that’s your 30-year vision?”
KiwiRail general manager Dave Gordon pointed out the plan included a number of improvements to the system other than adding new lines. These included new tracks along main corridors, shifting to electric trains, and resealing tracks so trains can run closer together.
Gordon said there had been a “very conscious choice to stay within the existing Metro Rail boundary” in the plans, as more services on the outskirts would put pressure on already highly pressurised rail corridors in the centre of the city.
“We’ve got to keep fixing the core as opposed to adding bits to it,” he said. “It’s great Waikato want to send more trains – but if those trains ultimately run into a congested core than it’s to no effect.”
Waitākere councillor Shane Henderson questioned why the plan didn’t consider replacing the Northern Busway with a rail line or extending the Western Line further than Swanson.
“This is a 30-year plan, not a 10-year plan, so it needs to be sufficiently visionary,” he said. “In 30 years, we aren’t going to act on either of those things?”
Gordon argued the heavy rail network had to work in conjunction with other forms of rapid transit and defended the plan as a “credible view of what a heavy rail system can do for Auckland”.
“It’s a $22b investment over the next 30 years,” he said. “If we start extending heavy rail to other areas, we’ll get it up to $50b without trying too hard.”
He doubted the Northern Busway would be an appropriate grade to replace with a rail line.
Other rail options favoured by councillors Gordon shot down included extending heavy rail from Puhinui Station to Auckland Airport.
Albany councillor Wayne Walker wanted to know whether KiwiRail could bridge the six kilometres from the main trunk line to the airport.
“We’ve had a change in government and it looks like light rail is going to be scrapped,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean to say that we haven’t negated the need for mobility. Are you reconsidering the prospect of heavy rail to the airport?”
Gordon said this move would “chew capacity” on the main trunk line and would not be usable for freight services.
“[It] doesn’t to my mind stack up relative to putting the money elsewhere and I think that potentially a dedicated busway to Puhinui would probably be a better use of capital.”
Another unanswered question for Auckland’s rail system is what to do about level crossings.
The number of road crossings on the Western Line currently poses constraints on the amount of trains that can be run from the City Rail Link, and Auckland Transport has warned that to get full use of the infrastructure changes will need to be funded.
KiwiRail has offered about $3b to tackle the level crossing challenge – whether that comes in the form of cutting off through-roads or raising or lowering the road around the track.
Gordon said the answers around this weren’t clear but something needed to be done.
“I’m of the view that in 30 years’ time you cannot have road and rail mixing in Auckland.”
Acting Auckland Council CEO Barry Potter said the councillors would soon be engaged on workshops over how best to figure out the level crossing problem.
Maungakiekie-Tāmaki councillor Josephine Bartley said it was unfair and insensitive to be dismissive of residents’ fears about a new line through Onehunga.
“I’m just wondering what can be done, otherwise I’m going to keep raising it every time you come here.”
Gordon said the issue was at an impasse, with the plans having been in place for the line since the 1940s.
“I accept that for most residents they would have expected that to never happen, and for it to suddenly come along is a shock.”
He said if he’d lived by a quiet park for 30 years he’d also be upset if a railway line came along: “But it can’t go anywhere else.”
The mayor wasn’t keen to get into the woes of Bartley’s community, adding in his final comments that it’s “something much bigger than Onehunga, it’s actually for the integration and shifting of goods all the way from Tauranga right through to Whangārei – you have to have a way through the city.”
He said sometimes communities needed to see themselves as something bigger than where they are.
“If you haven’t noticed something that’s been there for 80 years, it’s not my fault.”