GUEST BLOG: Mike Lee – Auckland Transport’s March of Folly


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, 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.

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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 argument in Auckland between light rail and heavy rail 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, good old 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 [funny that isn’t it].  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.



  1. But Mike, I don’t want to go by train to the airport!

    It’s a shit idea.

    How to carry my 20kg of bags to the nearest railway station?

    In the rain.

    The future is freedom: Electrical autonomous vehicles using renewable power to whisk us wherever we wish to go using the existing road infrastructure.

    Your train fixation is 19th century, a bit like your political philosophy.

    • Andrew still stuck in the road pollution are you.

      Don’t you know that studies have proven that spending more time travelling behind our vehicles and waiting at busy road blocks shortens your life and going by a clean electric train saves your health and the environment.

      Oh I guess you don’t care about that eh?

    • The future is not roads Steven Joyce, or haven’t you noticed the almost constant gridlock during daylight hours in Auckland and into the early evening. How does more cars fix that?

    • And your Autonomous vehicle will sit in the same traffic jams as buses, trucks, cars. The tech maybe new, but the roadway is old tech. With Rail the technology is in the right of way as well as the above rail infrastructure.

  2. Auckland “A world class city”

    I don’t think so Martyn.

    Try Toronto where I as a 22yr old kiwi made my home in 1968, they had three rail corridors then.

    1/The Canadian National & Canadian pacific railroad all across Canada,
    2/ The fast rail “Go Train” a suburban commuter 49 km rail.
    3/ Underground TTC Toronto Transit Commission
    a city wide light underground rail network.

    Then all local bus, streetcar, and all TTC services have interchange ticket systems so I hardly needed a car during that time.

    Now that’s a ‘world class city”

    Auckland is a joke as is the councillors.

  3. How is David Warburton still an AT boss after the St Lukes overpass fiasco?
    Russell Brown recently posted about the interchange’s dead lane.

    “Auckland Transport’s engineers fought for two right-turn lanes from the St Lukes bridge on to the motorway west, reasoning that the interchange would become a crucial entry-point for the northwestern motorway leading to Waterview and its promise of really quick trips to the airport.
    But the engineers made the fatal assumption that they could make their plan work by converting the free left turn at the top of the St Lukes off-ramp to a Give Way and getting rid of the slip-lane that was there. They couldn’t. Without the slip-lane, the intersection was a disaster and traffic backed up onto the motorway every evening.
    So the slip-lane was restored – and the left-hand lane, the would-be through lane, had nowhere to go…
    … the lane they can’t work out what the hell to do with is the lane Auckland Transport’s engineers wanted to cut down six old pohutukawa for.

    How can we trust that David Warburton hasn’t got it wrong again?

    • How did anyone in a decision making capacity with St Lukes over-bridge not get sacked? A huge amount of public money was built almost gold plating it but even then it hardly works any better.

      Similarly is the Lincoln Rd motorway over-bridge. A massive spend up there did little to improve traffic flows precisely because they did not eliminate any of the many conflicting intersections, rather they added to them.

      The North Western Motorway is now four lanes each way, with gentle curves, break down strips either side, fully lit, fully equipped with barriers and in places lane control lights. Hundreds of millions if not into the billions spent on the most premium motorway in New Zealand and next minute, NZTA have reduced the maximum speed you can travel on it to 80 km/hr. Why?? What a waste of money!!!!

      There seems to be no control, no vetting and an endless supply of money and over spending money on motorway related infrastructure.
      It’s do as you please and yet we keep getting these white elephants and an ongoing black hole of money pouring into it.

      Time for a change people!

  4. The $9m for the Onehunga Line was to rehabilitate the existing formation.

    Because the apartments have been built very close to the rail corridor laying double track there is going to be difficult and create environmental problems for those living in the apartments.

    KR’s quote of $578m is surely for the full line to the airport?

    Mike needs to retire – one hopes that his claims for passenger usage at Parnell are realised, if not will he pay the cost of that very expensive station?

  5. The problem is very simple. Too many people are making too much money without rail.
    The Airport Company with parking and taxi fees
    The roading contractors who are building and repairing the roads But th name just the main two. While this money water fall remains nothing will change.

    • You got it in a nutshell. Old money with investment in roads, roads, roads and all they entail, buses, trucks, cars. The illusion of independance (the capitalist dream) vs the bogey man of Socialism and big Govt and Council organised mass transit.

  6. One thing Aucklanders have to get over is the concept of visual pollution, specifically, antipathy towards flyovers.
    We could have had the Waterview motorway link faster and cheaper, by building the link on a flyover, not building tunnels. Tunnels are the last choice for construction costs, flyovers are the 2nd choice, after surface construction.
    The essence of solutions to urban traffic congestion are quick construction, limits to obstruction by the RMA, and limited stops on some routes. Solutions which appear in 2024- let alone 2047 !- simply match the rise in congestion.
    So why not look at a rail flyover from Wiri, where there is room for a junction connecting the CBD and the AIRPORT ? Zoning would not be a major, and construction of a flyover would be easy.
    Other countries build flyovers when and where they need them, why don’t we? We need to get over our self-righteous claims to the moral high ground, when questions of city congestion arise.

  7. What confidence can Aucklanders have in these people’s advice? – ZERO – it’s pretty clear they make it up as they go along!!

    Transport advice is meaningless and based on top down decisions based on some corrupt crony advantage. Transport blog has been encapsulated by their corruption.

    AT jobs as serving the public, is satire. The billion dollars they receive from Auckland council rate payers would be better spent on a bonfire as their advice and reports are as fake and bogus as the fake invoices that the transport officials were convicted off in the high court recently.

    Sad you are not on the AT board Mike Lee, as someone who actually lives in Auckland, not encapsulated by big business neoliberal crap, and wants an efficient transport result, live in Auckland sometime this decade!

    We will all have died from pollution by then, but don’t worry I think as contingency they also have board members on health boards also doing running them into the ground…

    AT seem to have appointed more out of touch dinosaurs who are known ‘names’ who also know nothing of transport and only of big business or government – they probably don’t even live in Auckland.

    Nice job wrecking society and having cosy wine and cigars while complaining of how much work you do, if you can get it.

    • Or in the case of Cullen, live in a world where you don’t understand post truth politics and believe all those 1000 page reports are ‘objective’ and the advice is in the best interests of the public not written for the “financial and power interests” of AT and transport officials and managers who have created the Kafka zone of cars and trucks over rail transport over the last decade and are still deflecting blame.

      WAKE UP, I’ve experienced cheaper and better transport option in Africa getting around than Auckland! Yep countries with people who live on $1 a day and have millions in their population still have better and cheaper public transport, than Auckland.

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