Auckland Transport’s March of Folly

One of Auckland's new EMUs - but according to NZTA  & AT you won't be catching one of these to Auckland airport - not now - not ever.

One of Auckland’s new EMUs – but according to NZTA & AT you won’t be catching one of these to Auckland airport – not now – not ever.

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.

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5 Responses

  1. Colin says:

    I have had direct experience of the folly of relying on light rail as the primary mass transit link with an airport, in Porto in northern Portugal.

    When developing its new light rail system Porto constructed one of the six lines out to the airport. It was completed in 2006. The problem is that the trams fill up with passengers at the airport, almost all of whom are travelling the whole length of the line into the central city. Then en-route to and from the airport the trams stop about 14 times, with local passengers seeking to board at each station. The trams become very overcrowded, with suitcases having to be manhandled at each stop so that people can get on and off the tram. Each stop became an ordeal; we ended up standing the entire way and having to juggle ourselves and our luggage for most of the journey. It was clear that the locals were fed up as well. I was travelling with my elderly father – it wasn’t a happy arrival in the city and we regretted not using a taxi.

    The problem was not with the trams, which are well designed and have areas for luggage. It was simply that light rail vehicles could not accommodate the numbers of airport and local passengers, and this situation had come about within 10 years of the line’s completion.

    Do the Auckland planners seriously envisage trams filling up with city centre bound passengers and luggage at the airport then being able to accommodate local passengers boarding and alighting at every stop on the way in to town? Heavy rail is definitely the best option, and again I write from the experience of visiting many European cities with fast, comfortable, heavy rail links from airport to city centre. Aucklanders seeking to catch a tram along Dominion Road won’t be pleased when they are left standing on platforms because the trams are full of airport passengers and their luggage.

    Oh, and Auckland airport is a much busier airport than Porto’s and will be even busier by the time a light rail link is completed. Bonkers!

    • Mike Lee says:

      Exactly Colin,
      All of the key players involved in this decision have had no practical experience building or managing LRT. One of the key Auckland Council planners told me he had never been to Melbourne!

  2. Mike Lee says:

    Thanks Mike,

    Tried to respond on your web blog but there is an error with the captcha function.

    Completely agree with all the points you have raised on your site about the Auckland Airport Link. The only beneficiary of the proposed slow link to the airport would be those living in the vicinity of the line. If Aucklanders wanted to travel from Albany, Pakuranga or Waitakere why would they consider such a slow journey to link via Britomart over taking a car or taxi which is crazy. Hamilton too could benefit as mentioned. We need an integrated solution for airport links that provides a fast and convenient link. We seem to be getting bullied by a self-appointed group from the Transport Blog set who want any excuse to put in Trams that have no issue hijacking what should be an unrelated project.

    I live within 50 metres of Dominion Rd but still think this is totally wrong. Please let me know how I can advocate against this?


    Paul Mlller

    • Mike Lee says:

      Good points Paul. The more idea this comes under scrutiny the weaker it looks. A March of Folly indeed.

    • Mike Lee says:

      Thanks Paul. Anyone reading this site can see I was advocating for trams long before AT and the claque of bloggers who act as AT’s cheerleaders.
      But heavy rail (trains) is clearly the international best practice solution for Auckland International Airport for the 21st century.

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