Trams to the airport – the March of Folly continues

Well, thank goodness for David Parker.   By his stepping in to stop another Auckland Council/CCO planning debacle the Minister for the Environment, Attorney-General etc, etc, has achieved a much better outcome for the waterfront and the America’s Cup. It’s a pity this highly-intelligent, experienced politician (and Grey Lynn resident) is not in charge of transport as he was during the Clark government. Instead of the dubious proposition of light rail (trams) to the airport, Auckland could be focussing on light rail on the waterfront, where the existing heritage tramway (engineered to modern light rail standards) could readily be connected to Britomart and the CRL, as pledged in the 2012 Waterfront Plan, in time for the America’s Cup.

I wrote a year ago on the trams to the airport debacle citing historian Barbara Tuchman’s acclaimed March of Folly – from Troy to Vietnam (1985). Tuchman’s book was about ‘the pervasive presence, through the ages, of failure, mismanagement, and delusion in government – contrary to its own self interest.’ It will be recalled this particular ‘March of Folly’- began in June 2016 when the boards of NZTA and Auckland Transport overturned previous plans for heavy rail (trains) to the airport. Unfortunately new mayor Phil Goff and the new governnent led by tyro transport ministers Phil Twyford and Julie Anne Genter (but not Winston Peters who prefers trains) have fallen into lockstep.

The government’s light rail to the airport folly is against its own interests but Jacinda has placed her faith in the two Phils – Goff and Twyford.

Auckland International Airport is of critical economic importance to Auckland and to New Zealand – the premier gateway to the country. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars recently spent on road construction, congestion on the route to the airport is already back where it was 10 years ago, chronic at peak times, periodically at grid-lock. With airport passenger movements currently 19 million per year and predicted to increase to 40 million by 2040, this chronic congestion can only get worse – with serious consequences.

It need not be so. Following on from work initiated by the Auckland Regional Council, in September 2011, a multi-agency study after examining light rail, busway and heavy rail options, concluded that heavy rail from Onehunga and Puhinui (10 km and 6.8 km from airport respectively) would be the ‘most economically efficient’ solution – providing a fast train journey to and from downtown Auckland, including the future CRL stations like Aotea and K Road, and, in some with cases cross-platform transfers, all points on the rail network eg Parnell, Newmarket, Henderson, Glen Innes, Papakura, Pukekohe, and ultimately Hamilton.

In 2012, endorsed by AT and after wide public consultation this became a policy commitment in the Auckland Plan: ‘route protect a dedicated rail connection in the first decade (2011-2020); construct in the second decade (2021-2030)’ – [after the City Rail Link (CRL)].

However the consensus, as so often happens (Auckland has a history of this), was overturned when AT bureaucrats (none of whom had any experience with light rail) claimed trams travelling from the CBD to the airport via Dominion Road despite stopping at 20 tram stops and numerous intersections while keeping to the 50 kph speed limit would get to the airport within one minute of electric trains travelling up to 110 kph. In late 2016 soon after the election of Mayor Goff, the favoured Onehunga to airport rail corridor was blocked by AT when it demolished the Neilson Street overbridge immediately to the south of the Onehunga train station, putting the road straight across the rail corridor.

Melbourne which operates the biggest light rail system in the world has opted for heavy rail for Melbourne International Airport.

Melbourne has the most highly developed, sophisticated light rail system in the world. Unlike Auckland however Melbourne is NOT opting for a light rail connection to its international airport – but heavy rail. This on the grounds that trains can carry a lot more people and luggage, and providing a faster, more predictable journey-time than street-running trams. It’s a decision based on decades of experience operating both light and heavy rail modes.

Last month the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a A$5 billion Federal government contribution to building four dedicated heavy rail routes between Melbourne International Airport and the CBD. The Australian decision is instructive and should give our new government reason to pause.

However in Auckland there seems there is a yawning gap opening up between the political class and ordinary citizens. To most Aucklanders I speak to, the idea of trams to the airport is a joke – and now not so funny given Aucklanders will have to pay for the $4 billion estimated cost of the airport and Westgate tram lines, not only in their rates but also in an extra double-whammy fuel tax – for a project that has no business case.

Light rail to the airport will take a lot longer to build, provide a slower journey, serve a much more restricted catchment and be considerably more expensive than extending the existing rail network. Why on earth isn’t the new government capitalising on the huge strategic investment going into the CRL?

Barbara Tuchman made up some rules on how government 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 insane ruler) [Check].

The feasible alternative of connecting Auckland Airport to the main trunk line at Puhinui has been costed by one recent study at around $750m. This corridor must be protected urgently before it too is sabotaged. There certainly is a role for modern trams as we reach maximum bus capacity in our busy inner city routes and waterfront – but trams will be a hugely expensive failure as an Airport connection. David Parker help!

Versions of this article were published in May editions of Ponsonby News, The Hobson and NZ Herald (1 May 2018) and on The Daily Blog and on Whale Oil blog sites.

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8 Responses

  1. Stu says:

    Excellent article Mike, as usual the voice of reason and sense.
    Light rail with its multitude of stops along the way is not going to win any supporters who have just come off a 12 hour flight with luggage and want to leave the airport and head to the CBD.
    Heavy rail, with an express service or reduced stops is the answer.
    The question is – do we stand any chance of changing Aunty Jacinda’s mind on this and getting traction on heavy rail?

    • Mike Lee says:

      Thanks Stu,
      I have received an amazing number of very similarly worded emails and texts. I think the best approach is for people to write to the prime minister. This is a huge issue which will make or break this government. The political class has to start listening to Aucklanders.

  2. Brian MacCormack says:

    I’m with you on heavy rail to the airport but couldn’t see an answer to the problems raised on the Greater Auckland website( ). Do you have one?

    • Mike Lee says:

      Not sure what specific objections you refer to. Transport Blog now “Great Auckland” originally supported heavy rail to the airport but changed its ‘vision’ in step with Auckland Transport. Some of their people have been outed with conflicts of interest vis-vis Auckland Transport in the NZ Herald so I don’t take them too seriously.

  3. Robert Logan says:

    I would be for re-instating Nielson Street Bridge and build heavy rail to airport, through Onehunga, then to NIMT at Puhenui for Pax to be able to transfer to southern destinations.
    Also, rebore Waitakere tunnel on NAL and electric rails to Helensville with possible extension to Kaukapakapa. Huapai and Kumeu are just about built out, Waimauku is soon to be the same, many Life Style blocks abound. If Electric heavy rail gets to Kaukapakapa, not too far to Orewa, Silverdale and Whangaparaoa.
    Cheers, Bob from the old Firm, NZR.


  4. John Webley says:

    Hi Mike,

    I have just become aware of your posts regarding the Airport Light Rail. Formerly holding the position of District Engineer, NZR , Auckland and then Regional Engineer and Regional Freight Manager for the Railway Corporation before retiring in 1988 I have followed the development of this proposal with no little concern. Following my retirement I worked in the UK from 1991 until 1998 with the Nichols Group, a firm of project managers specialising in transport projects. During this time I had a long assignment with the London CrossRail project and shorter ones on Docklands and other heavy and light rail projects. Nichols Group had managed the procurement of Docklands Light Rail Design and Construction of infrastructure and rolling stock including the various expansion projects from the beginning and the extension projects still on-going at the time of my retirement. From this background I believe I have a suitable knowledge and experience to be able to comment on the LRT proposals which I find to be seriously lacking in credibility. I have prepared some comments on the proposals that you may be interested in. If you would like me to copy them to you, please contact me.


    John Webley

    • Mike Lee says:

      Thanks John,
      I would very much appreciate to learn your views on these projects. You will appreciate that in NZ there is a lack of technical knowledge about the optimum uses of light rail versus heavy rail, as well as quite amazing ignorance of both the limitations and the strengths of light rail – especially on the part of transport decision makers.
      My email address:

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