An artist’s depiction of light rail in Mt Roskill .
By Samuel Hill
After several years of talks about light rail coming to Auckland, the Government confirmed earlier this year that work will proceed on a partially-tunnelled light rail line extending from the CBD to Auckland Airport . The project has been the subject of much debate and it is worth exploring the history and goals of the project to see how the current proposal has taken shape.
The Beginnings of Light Rail in Auckland
When people think about rail, the first thing that comes to mind is probably heavy rail – high speed trains on devoted rights-of-way (train tracks) . Light rail systems sit somewhere between heavy rail and trams. They can run along streets like trams but feature train-like vehicles that allow for higher speeds and capacities . Light rail was initially proposed for Auckland in 2015 by Auckland Transport (AT) as a replacement for buses along key arterial routes across central Auckland, such as Dominion Road and Manukau Road . This was because bus volumes were projected to exceed the capacity of these routes in the near future, worsening the quality of these services . Light rail was seen as a better alternative to buses on these routes due to having at least twice the capacity . It was noted at the time that many of these routes were previously serviced by Auckland’s tram network that ran until the mid-1950s.
The scope of light rail in Auckland then expanded in 2016, when Auckland Transport determined that it was preferable to connect Auckland’s CBD to the airport via light rail, rather than heavy rail. Key to this decision was a benefit to cost ratio (BCR) showing that a light rail line was roughly three times better than a heavy rail line . By 2017, Transport Minister Simon Bridges had signalled approval for light rail to Auckland Airport after Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) agreed with AT’s analysis, but warned that it could take up to thirty years. Meanwhile, newly appointed Labour leader Jacinda Ardern announced an election policy to build light rail to Mt Roskill within four years, and light rail to the airport and to West Auckland within a decade . The CBD to Airport line would connect roughly ten percent of Auckland’s population  and was expected to encourage high density development along the corridor .
Light Rail Gets Derailed
Following the formation of a Labour-led coalition in 2017, NZTA took over the project from Auckland Transport . Things became complicated in May 2018 when the Government received an unsolicited proposal from NZ Infra to design, build, and operate the light rail project. NZ Infra is an international consortium led by the New Zealand Superannuation Fund in partnership with CDPQ Infra, a subsidiary of the Canadian pension fund that was already developing Montreal’s light rail network . The arrangement proposed was effectively a Public Private Partnership (PPP), meaning that the Government would be involved in the design of the project but most of the risk and financing would fall on NZ Infra . PPP’s have previously been used for the Pūhoi to Warkworth motorway, as well as the much-delayed Transmission Gully motorway .
The proposal from NZ Infra led to Cabinet asking the Ministry of Transport to evaluate the NZTA proposal against the NZ Infra proposal and determine which delivery partner would be best. This was commonly referred to as a twin-track process . By the time the twin-track process kicked off, there were rumours that NZ Infra were considering a new light rail design that involved tunnelling under Queen St, signalling a departure from the street-level light rail originally proposed by Auckland Transport . These rumours were confirmed when Transport Minister Phil Twyford stated that street-level light rail was no longer being looked at. Instead, NZTA and NZ Infra were creating competing light metro plans. Light metro would be grade-separated, meaning it would run either in tunnels or above streets, rather than on streets. Twyford emphasised ‘speed, frequency and carrying capacity’ as important aspects of the system and cited the benefit of faster journey times between Queen St and Auckland Airport . The Ministry of Transport recommended that NZ Infra was the preferred delivery partner and Cabinet met to discuss the recommendations. Ultimately, the process was halted in June of 2020 after Cabinet failed to reach an agreement. It was heavily suggested that Labour’s coalition partner NZ First were the main obstacle due to concerns over cost and the involvement of overseas investors .
Former Transport Minister Phil Twyford .
At this point, the light rail project was in an uncertain position. What started off as a solution to bus congestion along arterial roads had morphed into a significantly more expensive project, with a focus on getting people from the city centre to the airport as fast as possible. The process had also caused upset for many affected industries. Chief executive of the Association of Consulting Engineers, Paul Evans, even warned that it may stop firms from bidding for Government projects in the future . Still, light rail remained in plans for Auckland’s transport network. As such, the Ministry of Transport and the Treasury were tasked with reporting back on the best way for the project to be delivered by the public sector after the 2020 general election .
Light Rail Gets Back on Track
Following the re-election of a Labour Government, Mt Roskill MP Michael Wood became the new Transport Minister. In March 2021, he announced the creation of an Establishment Unit that would draw expertise from a range of agencies such as Auckland Transport, Auckland Council, and Kāinga Ora. Wood acknowledged the problems with the previous twin-track process and wanted there to be a ‘strong focus on engagement’ with stakeholders and communities moving forward. The Establishment Unit, known as Auckland Light Rail Group (ALRG), was given a time frame of six months to develop an indicative business case that would allow decisions to be made on things like mode of transport, route, and delivery partner .
As this new process was kicking off, it was clear that the objectives of the project had largely shifted back to what they originally were. While the previous Transport Minister had put emphasis on the speed of the journey to the airport, ALRG’s website described the wide-reaching goals of the project such as reducing car dependency and bus congestion, reducing carbon emissions, and encouraging greater investment along the route .
Last October, ALRG released a summary of the indicative business case they had developed. This confirmed the need for light rail in Auckland and presented three options for Cabinet to consider, including a recommended option .
Light Rail, Tunnelled Light Rail, or Light Metro?
The cheapest option presented ($9.0 Bn), simply referred to as Light Rail, would run at street level along tracks embedded into the road but separated from traffic. This would connect the CBD to Mt Roskill via Dominion Rd and is the most similar to the original plans for light rail along the corridor. According to ALRG, this is the slowest option and offers the least development along the route. However, it is significantly cheaper than the other two options, offers better accessibility through providing more stops and being at street level, and would become carbon neutral the fastest . The light rail option also had the backing of some urbanist advocate groups such as Women in Urbanism .
At the other end of the scale is Light Metro, sitting at a price tag of $16.3 Bn. Light metro is a rail-based mode and would be fully grade-separated, mostly travelling through tunnels. The proposed route is slightly different to light rail, most likely going under Sandringham Rd to access Kāinga Ora land near Wesley that will become housing. This is the fastest option due to its different vehicles, fewer stops, and grade separation – the other two options would feature sections on streets. These factors would allow for an estimated journey time of 36 minutes from Wynyard Quarter to the airport. Light metro also has the best long-term capacity but would take until approximately 2054 to become carbon neutral, the longest of the three options .
Then we arrive at the recommended option, Tunnelled Light Rail. This option can be seen as a hybrid of the other two options. It would involve tunnelling from the Wynyard Quarter to Mt Roskill under Sandringham Rd, before emerging above the ground and running along the surface through Mangere Town Centre on the way to the airport. The hybrid nature of this option also means that it ranks in the middle in terms of speed, capacity, carbon emissions reduction, and cost ($14.6 Bn). While all three options had similarly positive BCRs, tunnelled light rail was chosen for a number of given reasons. These included a similar urban uplift potential to light metro but at a lower cost, lower disruption during construction than light rail due to tunnelling, and better future connectivity to an assumed tunnel to the North Shore . The Treasury took a different stance however, noting that in their review of the indicative business case that they did not consider the reasons listed to sufficiently support the choice of tunnelled light rail over surface running light rail .
The proposed route for each option .
The Government’s Preferred Route and the Future of the Project
As previously stated, Cabinet did in fact agree with the recommendation of ALRG over the preferred type of light rail, announcing their decision to pursue tunnelled light rail in January. Some of the benefits of the 24km line listed in the press release include the creation of 97,000 jobs and 66,000 extra homes by 2051 . This announcement was met with some scepticism on both sides of the debate. Both the National and ACT Party were highly critical of the cost of the project, with ACT Party transport spokesperson Simon Court calling it ‘a disaster’ . The Green Party supported the project, but still preferred a street-level option due to its greater accessibility and potential to reallocate road space away from cars . Urbanist transport blog Greater Auckland, who have covered Auckland Light Rail in extensive detail, also expressed their disappointment over the chosen option after previously describing tunnelled light rail as the ‘worst of both worlds’ .
Tunnelled light rail .
The final choice on the delivery entity for the project is yet to be made, but ALRG has suggested either a new purpose-designed Schedule 4A company, or Waka Kotahi . From here, it is expected that the detailed business case and consenting will take three to four years, after which construction will take six to eight years.
So, Aucklanders will have to wait until at least the start of next decade for light rail to come to their city. Even then there remains uncertainty over the project’s future, with the National Party promising to scrap light rail in Auckland should they win the 2023 election . Will there be any twists in the tail of this project? What will the final route be and where will the stations be located? For now, there remain plenty of unanswered questions. However, given the price and scale of Auckland Light Rail, what we can be sure of is that it will remain a topic of public discourse for years to come.