Historian Barbara Tuchman’s acclaimed March of Folly – from Troy to Vietnam published in 1985 was about ‘the pervasive presence, through the ages, of failure, mismanagement, and delusion in government – contrary to its own self interest.’
I think about Barbara Tuchman’s book whenever the question of rail to Auckland airport comes up. There could no clearer example of Tuchman’s thesis than the boards of Auckland Transport (AT) and NZTA marching in lockstep to rule out even the possibility of future trains to Auckland Airport. And, it’s not just words, over the Christmas holidays AT demolished Onehunga’s Nielson Street overbridge rebuilding the road at grade, thereby physically blocking the rail corridor to the airport.
Deliberately sabotaging the rail corridor to Auckland International Airport is one of the most irresponsible acts I have witnessed during my time in local government.
Auckland International Airport is of critical economic importance to Auckland and to New Zealand – it is the gateway to the country. Despite hundreds of millions spent in road construction in recent years, congestion on the route to the city is already near where it was 10 years ago, chronic at peak times, periodically at grid-lock. With airport passenger movements currently 17 million per year, and predicted to increase to 20 million by 2020 and 40 million in 2044, this congestion can only become more dire.
Following on from work initiated by the former Auckland Regional Council, in September 2011, a multi-agency study involving Auckland Council, Auckland Transport, NZTA, KiwiRail and Auckland International Airport Ltd, with consultants GHD, after examining light rail (trams), busway and heavy rail (electric train) options, concluded that heavy rail from Onehunga 10km to the airport and 6.8km from Puhinui on the main trunk line would be the ‘most economically efficient’ solution – providing a fast, single-seat journey from airport to downtown Auckland (including the CRL stations), and all points on the rail network including Newmarket, Henderson, Glen Innes, Pukekohe, and ultimately Hamilton.
In 2012, this recommendation, after public consultation became a commitment in the Auckland Plan: ‘route protect a dedicated rail connection in the first decade (2011-2020); construct in the second decade (2021-2030).’
However in November 2014, Auckland Transport ‘planners’ (un-named) announced to the NZ Herald their preference for light rail. A year or so after AT came up with a business case ‘proving’ extending (non-existing) light rail from Dominion Road to the airport would be more economic than extending (existing) heavy rail from Onehunga. As an example of the credibility of this business case, it claimed a second track for the 3.5 km Onehunga Branch Line would cost $578m, (notwithstanding it cost KiwiRail $9m to build the first track in 2010). It also claimed a tram coming from the airport via Dominion Road, despite stopping at 20 tram stops and numerous intersections while keeping to a 50kph speed limit, would get to the CBD within one minute of an electric train travelling at 110kph! There are other claims which stretch credibility but let’s leave that to one side.
Melbourne is one major Australian city that does not yet have airport rail but it does have the most extensive light rail system in the world. Unlike Auckland however, the Victorian government is not planning on light rail for Melbourne Airport but heavy rail. This on the grounds that trains as international best practice demonstrates, provide a faster, more predictable journey-time and carry a lot more people and luggage than street-running trams.
However I should point out that the question of light rail to the airport is something of a sham; (one of the few people still taking it seriously is Mayor Phil Goff), given the government’s recently announced answer for Auckland Airport’s transport problems: light rail in 2047, buses in the meantime. I should add the only other supporters for trams to the airport are the bloggers at Transport Blog – self-styled experts who obligingly changed their Congestion Free Network ‘vision’ from trains to trams in line with the corporate position of Auckland Transport and NZTA. Vision on demand?
Rather than facing up to the growing transport crisis at Auckland Airport, the government is pushing the bizarre ‘East-West Link’ along the Onehunga foreshore, at $1.8b the most expensive road in New Zealand history with no cost benefit analysis (and the reason why the rail corridor from Onehunga was blocked). The only demonstrated benefit of the East-West Link would seem to be better truck access to the Penrose ‘inland port’ owned by the Port of Tauranga. Given Auckland’s long list of infrastructure priorities that would seem a rather expensive gift to the shareholders of the Port of Tauranga. (What electorate does the Minister of Transport Simon Bridges represent again?)
Last month AT’s ‘Project Director Key Strategic Initiatives’ Theunis Van Schalkwyk, whose responsibilities also happen to include the East-West Link, and who commissioned the business case that ‘proved’ trams superior to trains, and who along with his boss David Warburton persuaded the boards of NZTA and AT to exclude heavy rail from any consideration for Auckland Airport, announced to bemused Auckland councillors that ‘mass transit’ services will begin at Auckland Airport in 2024. When questioned on what he meant by ‘mass transit, he answered ‘advanced buses.’
However in arguing Auckland Airport’s transport problems can solved with more buses (‘advanced’ or otherwise), the government and AT’s bureaucrats have apparently forgotten their own Centre City Future Access Study of 2012, the modelling in which revealed that inner Auckland streets will be so congested with buses by 2021 that average road speeds will be down to 7kph. Now they are proposing to add ‘platoons’ of airport buses to the city in 2024! What confidence can Aucklanders have in these people’s advice?
Barbara Tuchman made up some rules on how policy decisions get to qualify as a ‘March of Folly’. First the policy must be contrary to self-interest, [check]; secondly a feasible alternative policy must be available [check]; and finally the policy must be that of a group (not an individual (mad) ruler) [check].
The feasible alternative option of connecting Auckland International Airport by rail to the electrified main trunk line at Puhinui 6.8 km away must be carried out urgently before that option too is sabotaged.
This article appears in the May 2017 issue of Ponsonby News and The Daily Blog.