A visualisation of light rail along the Northwestern motorway (Photo: Supplied)

Derailed: How Auckland’s light rail network went off the tracks

Plans for a modern, efficient light rail network have taken an unexpected detour. Greater Auckland editor Matt Lowrie recounts the brief history of how we got here, and how there may still be light at the end of the tunnel.

The good news is we’re not going to be sending billions of dollars offshore to pay for Canadian retirements. The bad news is building light rail in Auckland is on hold – at least for now.

But given what’s happened to the project over the last few years, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing. 

Back around 2012, the then National-led government was furiously trying to find ways to oppose the City Rail Link (CRL). One of the studies they undertook had the opposite effect. It found that not only was the CRL necessary but that the city centre wouldn’t cope with the number of buses from places not served by the existing rail network.

To help solve this issue, Auckland Transport in 2015 announced it wanted to build light rail on Dominion Road between the city and Mt Roskill. Far from how it’s most recently been characterised as dinky old trams stuck in traffic, the plan was for modern, fast, high-capacity light rail in dedicated lanes and with priority at traffic signals, much like what’s recently been built on the Gold Coast, in Sydney and in Canberra. And yes, contrary to some claims, there would’ve been space for cars.

Proposed light rail, Ian McKinnon Drive (Photo: greaterauckland.org)

Like with the CRL, the government was sceptical and didn’t want to commit to light rail either, going as far as commissioning studies into bus alternatives, only to find they didn’t stack up as well.

There’s always been a bubbling discussion about getting rail to the airport and shortly after light rail was announced, Auckland Airport once again started progressing its plans for a second runway. A decision needed to be made on how to do that so it could be future-proofed or we’d lose our opportunity to do so.

Light rail won that decision for a few key reasons:

  • Extending the existing rail network from either Onehunga or Puhinui was found to be much more expensive than previously thought, as it would require long tunnels in places.
  • By linking up with the light rail to Mt Roskill, it would open up a whole new rapid transit line through the region providing greater overall benefit.
  • The performance of modern light rail is not that different from our existing rail network.

It was also decided at the time that we should build a dedicated busway between Puhinui and the airport and parts of that are now under construction.

Fast forward a year or so and Auckland Council and the government had come up with a coordinated plan for transport in the city called the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP). In it, the government admitted for the first time that we couldn’t build our way out of congestion with more roads and that Auckland needed a full rapid transit network. Rapid transit includes things like the rail network, dedicated busways and light rail that form the high-capacity, high-quality core of a public transport system.

The government also agreed that light rail would likely be needed at some point within the next 30 years. So the question became: if we know we’ll need it in the not-too-distant future, why not just build it now?

In 2017, freshly minted Labour leader Jacinda Ardern made building light rail her first election policy and it also became a condition in Labour’s confidence and supply agreement with the Greens. 

Auckland Transport had continued to work on the project and at this point, it was effectively shovel-ready. The decision was also made to hand the project over to Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) because the government would be paying for it in full and the agency was perceived as better able to deliver big projects.

Proposed light rail, Balmoral (Photo: greaterauckland.org)

The government put aside funding for the project and the agency got the green light to start the procurement process. In May 2018 it began talks with the construction industry. At the same time, the government announced that the NZ Super Fund had joined together with a Canadian pension fund in an entity called NZ Infra, submitting an unsolicited proposal to build and operate the new transport network. With hindsight, it’s clear this is where things started to go off the tracks.

NZTA assessed the Super Fund proposal as they would any other unsolicited bid and found it didn’t stack up. One reason for that is they proposed building something completely different from what had already been agreed. Instead, they suggested what’s known as automated light metro and prioritised speed to the airport over serving local communities. This type of system is used in places such as Vancouver and is great but comes at a much higher price as the entire route needs to be separated using either tunnels or viaducts. 

However, it was during NZTA’s assessment process that the government became convinced of NZ Infra’s arguments. So after NZTA rejected the bid, the government started a new process to determine who would deliver the flagship project. It decided to pit the NZTA and NZ Infra off against each other. It also changed the outcomes they sought from the project, which have still not been publicly released. The Ministry of Transport was put in charge of assessing the bids despite having no history in procuring transport projects, let alone one of this scale.

The last 18 months or so have seen these two entities developing their proposals and the ministry assessing them. Much of the detail of what NZTA and NZ Infra proposed remains unknown but what has been gleaned from various statements suggests:

  • Both proposals ended up being relatively similar, suggesting automated light metro and a focus on serving the airport with only a few stations along the way, though they may have had slightly different routes in mind. This would have meant we’d still need to run lots of parallel buses into the city, negating one of the key reasons for initiating the project.
  • Both proposals would have required a second CRL though the city.
  • We don’t know the proposed budget, but with the CRL costing $4.5 billion we can expect light metro would have been at least that plus the rest of the route. It seems unlikely we would’ve seen much change from $10 billion, though the government has said the bids are below this.
  • The NZ Infra proposal is understood to involve the government paying them a 7% return on the cost over 50 years. About half of that would’ve gone offshore. Even last year that kind of ongoing payment was untenable, but with the cost of government borrowing at record lows, it would’ve been unconscionable to even consider that kind of deal. We’re also seeing first-hand the issues of this type of deal with the challenges of completing Transmission Gully.

In the end, the project became overscaled and unaffordable. Hopefully, this gives the government an opportunity to reconsider and return to something more sensible and achievable. 

There’s been plenty of blame already directed at NZ First for stopping the project, but it must be remembered they were only able to do so because the door was opened for them. The funding was in place and construction would been underway by now had the process not been derailed by metro fantasies.

Matt Lowrie is the editor of the Auckland transport and urban planning blog Greater Auckland



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