How ego, technical ignorance and group-think sabotaged two sensible rail plans for Auckland

People may have noticed a subtle change in the wording of the latest official publicity about the proposed $3.5b light rail to Auckland International Airport project. Mysteriously the word airport’ has been airbrushed out. ‘City to Airport’ has been replaced with ‘City to Māngere’. What can this mean?

It would appear that the idea of trams providing a feasible ‘rapid transit’? (average speed 23.3 km per hour) solution to and from Auckland airport has been grudgingly accepted by officialdom as unrealistic. Not that officialdom would ever admit this. It’s just the latest twist in Auckland’s light rail saga, which tragically has become dominated by political egos, technical ignorance and group-think instead of being about Aucklanders’ needs and reducing traffic congestion.

It wasn’t always so. As recently as May 2015 I was able to write in ‘Ponsonby News’ and on my website:
Auckland Transport’s announcement in January that it was seriously investigating a Light Rail solution for Auckland as a part of the draft Regional Land Transport Plan, came as a surprise to a lot of people but it’s the best news on the transport front for Auckland since the go-ahead for rail electrification.
Auckland Transport (AT) has taken this remarkable step – leap more like it – because its modelling and number crunching in the City Centre Future Access Study kept pointing to the inescapable conclusion that by 2021, the recommended maximum of 130 buses per hour on key city corridors like Symonds Street will be seriously exceeded – even with the City Rail Link. This means chronic grid-lock.
AT is therefore scoping a modern Light Rail Transit (LRT) system comprising four lines, Dominion, Sandringham, Mt Eden and Manukau Roads, converging on Queen Street and Symonds Street, with the first stage a 7 km Wynyard Quarter, Queens Street, Dominion Road line. Much more modest than Auckland’s historic 72km electric tramway but, in our time, without doubt a bold and visionary concept
.”

Sadly that original sensible approach, phasing in modern trams to replace buses on congested arterials, well supported by Aucklanders at the time, was received with behind-the-scenes anger by the National government. In response Auckland Transport senior management ditched the previously agreed future heavy rail link to the airport, proposing instead a single tramline via Dominion Road. They also quietly dropped original plans for a Melbourne-style modern tram network for the Auckland isthmus and inner city. Excuse the pun, but things went off the rails from then on. In late 2015 Phil Goff, after briefings from AT, announced light rail to the airport as a key policy of his mayoral campaign. In June 2016 the Board of NZTA voted to exclude any future heavy rail connection to Auckland International Airport. A couple of weeks later the board of AT followed in lockstep with only one director voting against – me. A few months later, cheered on by the trucking lobby, AT demolished the Neilson Street overbridge replacing the road at grade, thus blocking the rail corridor from Onehunga to the airport. In 2017, taking the cue from his old political mentor, Labour’s Phil Twyford took up the policy of light rail to the airport – taking it over completely when Goff, after commissioning another secret report, this time from AT, and evidently being frightened by what he read, appeared to lose interest. Ironically, responsibilty for the light rail project has been taken off AT and placed in the hands of NZTA which has always been a roads agency.

No matter, NZTA appears to have the requisite enthusiasm. In a recent ‘Herald’ ‘Opinion’ piece its CEO Fergus Gammie extolled the “transformational”, “rapid” light rail plan as a “game changer” etc.

But our politicians and bureaucrats have been too clever by half and have got themselves into a strategic muddle. Servicing Auckland airport and reducing road congestion the original primary objectives are now being downplayed, the new reason for light rail as Mr Gammie enthusiastically announced is as a catalyst for more residential housing investment and ‘growth’. Graphically underscoring just how removed from the practical realities of public transport and the best use of light rail our decision makers are, they intend to replace 20 existing bus stops in the Dominion Road corridor (south of New North Road) with only 8 tram stops. As for residents and business owners in the Dominion Road area, after putting up with prolonged disruption from construction, they can look forward to a rather long walk to catch a tram. This can only mean more use of cars and so even more congestion.

This does not mean the powers-that-be are now open to a separate solution for the 25 million passengers predicted to use Auckland International Airport by 2028 – namely a 6.8km fast electric train connection from Puhinui. No. Long distance passengers with their baggage not willing to take the slow, crowded tram will have to take a bus (perhaps one day a tram) to and from Puhini train station. Researcher Paul Miller who is about to launch a new transport lobby group, START (Straight To Airport Rapid Trains), recently released data showing Twyford’s trams to the airport will be one of the slowest airport rail services in the world. “Transformational?”
$3.5b and counting is a huge amount of money just to sabotage two very sensible transport plans and turn them into a dysfunctional lash-up. Auckland deserves better than this.

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