GUEST BLOG: Mike Lee – The March of Folly continues – Labour and the Greens fall into lock-step – the airport rail debacle


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 whenever the question of rail to Auckland International Airport comes up. There could no more graphic example of Tuchman’s thesis than the decision to rule out the possibility of trains servicing our airport. Since NZTA and Auckland Transport took this foolish decision in mid 2016, the new mayor Phil Goff and now the new Labour-led government (cheered on by the Greens but not Winston Peters and NZ First which favours heavy rail) have fallen into lockstep.

Auckland International Airport is of critical economic importance to Auckland and to New Zealand – it is the premier gateway to the country. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on 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 19 million per year and predicted to increase to 40 million  2040, this chronic congestion can only become worse – with dire consequences.

It need not be so. 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, Auckland International Airport Ltd, and GHD consultants, after examining light rail (trams), busway and heavy rail (electric train) options, concluded that heavy rail loop 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 future CRL stations; and, with in some cases with cross-platform transfers, all points on the rail network including Newmarket, Henderson, Glen Innes, Pukekohe, and ultimately Hamilton.

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In 2012, this recommendation, after wide public consultation became a commitment in the Council ‘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.

However these carefully laid plans, as so often happens (Auckland has a history of this), were overturned by AT bureaucrats claiming a tram travelling from the CBD to the airport via Dominion Road despite stopping at 20 tram stops and numerous intersections while keeping to a 50 kph speed limit would get to the airport within one minute of an electric train travelling up to 110 kph.  In late 2016 following the election of Phil Goff, the favoured Onehunga – Mangere rail corridor was deliberately blocked by AT when it demolished the Neilson Street overbridge immediately to the south of the Onehunga train station, placing the road straight across the rail corridor.

Melbourne is one major Australian city that does not yet have airport rail but it does have the most highly developed, sophisticated light rail system in the world. Unlike Auckland however, the Victorian government is NOT planning on light rail for Melbourne International Airport but heavy rail. This on the grounds that trains provide a faster, more predictable journey-time and can carry a lot more people and luggage than street-running trams.  This week the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a A$5 billion Federal government contribution to building four dedicated heavy rail routes between Melbourne Airport and the CBD.

It would seem then there is a yawning gap opening up between the views of Aucklanders and our own political class.  To most Aucklanders I speak to the idea of trams to the airport remains something of a joke – and now not so funny given the cost of $4 billion just for an airport and Westgate tram line.  Aucklanders are being told they will have to pay for this not only in their rates but also in an extra double whammy fuel tax. What is extraordinary is that on the advice of tyro transport ministers Phil Twyford and Julie Anne Genter this tax is to be imposed for a project that has no business case.

Light rail (trams) to the airport will provide an inferior traveller experience, be slower to build, provide a slower journey, serve a more restricted catchment and be much more expensive than extending the existing rail network.  Why on earth isn’t the new government capitalising on the huge public investment going into the City Rail Link?

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 option of connecting Auckland International Airport to the electrified main trunk line at Puhinui has been costed by one recent study at around $750m.  This rail corridor must be protected urgently before this option too is sabotaged. There certainly is a role for light rail in Auckland as we max out bus capacity on our busy inner city routes – but it will be a hugely expensive failure as a rapid transit airport solution.


Mike Lee is an Auckland Councillor 



  1. “much more expensive than extending the existing rail network.”

    So Council build an extension to this existing rail system and make a heavy rail service for passengers and freight to get more trucks off our roads as many other global cities do; – Auckland.!!!!!!

  2. ‘With airport passenger movements currently 19 million per year and predicted to increase to 40 million 2040,’

    Really! What sort of idiot would make that kind of prediction when global extraction of oil peaked several years ago and is in terminal decline?

    And, as if that were not bad enough, we are in the midst of an abrupt climate change evert which will almost certainly demolish current economic well before 2040.

    So, perhaps we should rewrite that extract as follows: ‘With airport passenger movements currently 19 million per year and predicted to decline to zero before 2040’

    ‘The March of Folly continues’. It sure does, with Mike Lee leading the way.

    • You scare me so much with your crisis and that nonplanes will fly l just did a large poo! Did you have a poo?

      • You should be scared!

        You should be very scared that the official narratives that drive policy completely ignore all the scientific evidence, and even ignore the reality of what we are experiencing right now, and are predicated on absurd notions such as infinite growth on a finite planet. You should be scared, if not for your own life then at least for lives of your progeny, if you have any. However, there is abundant evidence that the life of everyone under the age of 70 is going to be seriously disrupted by what is underway with respect to energy and the environment.

        You should be very scared that all government policies (and the idiotic policies of local and regional councils) are predicated on misinformation or no information at all, and are simply concerned with keeping business-as-usual -whatever rorts and scams that are currently in place- going for just a little longer.

        Try the graph at this link if you really want evidence.

        And recognize that all official policy is geared to making everything that matters much worse.

    • Yes it has Kim Dandy in many more ways than just one way; “cut its nose off in spite of its face.”

      I was born there in Auckland and went to school at Pt Chevalier but left under seven for Napier and hate going there to Auckland now sadly.

  3. Cui bono? Who benefits?

    Policy isn’t chosen out of a hat, it comes from somewhere. It comes from some one. It has a source. It has a constituency.

    Not only that, but for a ludicrous policy to survive and be driven through all the obstacles of government, everyone along the way must in some sense agree that the core constituents of the policy are worthy of support, against all reason and all opposition.

    This has been the history of the previous governments obsession with roading, and now this absurd light rail plan.

    Who benefits? It may be a collective plan by a small group of insiders to redevelop the Dominion Road corridor that began years ago. Many government insiders and friends may have bought property there in expectation of profit in decades to come, that a light rail could only enhance. These cliques would view heavy rail as toxic to all their plans. What is best for the city is bad for them, so they would likely exert all of their not inconsiderable influence at every turn to ensuring the Dominion Road light rail and redevelopment goes through.

    I saw this at Glenn Innes, during the State Housing struggle there – very angry old white men coming out at night to supervise the Police action and aggressively take photos of local participants. They were there to protect their investments.

    The thesis that government is simply stupid is wrong – stupid things come out of the system, but there is always a cause. Find who benefits. Literally. Whoever and whatever it is, find them and expose them. Identify their property interests, publish their names, show how they have influenced the process, how they were involved in subverting the greater good. Shine a light on them. Take it all the way up to the top and make it clear that support for this policy brings with it a taint of corruption. Do this, and it will fold.

    If you can’t muster that, then in 7 years, expect to be hauling your bloody suitcases onto a god damn tram while you spend a leisurely hour and a half crawling along a newly gentrified Dominion Road on your way to the airport.

  4. “… AT bureaucrats claiming a tram travelling from the CBD to the airport via Dominion Road despite stopping at 20 tram stops and numerous intersections while keeping to a 50 kph speed limit would get to the airport within one minute of an electric train travelling up to 110 kph…”

    110km/h? Really? What train goes that fast on the Auckland netwok? Do you actually ever catch an AT electric train, or are you talking out of a hole in your hat?

  5. “expect to be hauling your bloody suitcases onto a god damn tram “

    There’s time sensitive freight headed to the airport for both domestic and international travel.

    There are lots of people doing the same.

    Have any of these so-called planners had to haul heavy suitcases, squeaking kids, zimmer frames and other clutter down the road to the tram stop or train? Ever?! Or is it cars as usual? (With the occasional life-risking bike.)

    Just building the shelters is going to be a classic – four suitcases, a pram, the take on luggage – and that’s just one average travelling group.

    These are not lightly burdened commuters clutching coffee and bus pass. Many of these travellers are seldom to leave home and they take quite a lot of gear. Look at the trolleys at the airport. Chokka.

    Where will the luggage go on this system? Who loads it/unloads it at the destination? How long does it take to get even one party on and off? What happens to the inevitable ‘running late! Special person!’ set?

    Will there be secure long stay parking near the pick up points? Who collects the fees? Who stomps on the taggers and opportunists?

    What happens to the unfortunates from other parts of the country who have no idea about the byzantine nature of Auckland? For the hicks from the sticks – including those from the further suburbs of the Auckland connurbation.

    Where are the connections and amenities???

    C’mon Auckland. You’ve sucked up billions over the years. You’ve bragged and bleated. If we gave you a brewery could you manage to get the party launched? Or will you flunk as usual?

  6. Because Labours end goal is to turn a large chunk of Auckland into Hong Kong.

    People living in 40m2 hi-rise apartments sited along the length of the new light rail system.

    The tram goes to the airport because that’s what Labour are using as the “selling point”, the real reason wouldn’t be quite as popular.

  7. Why provide public transport to the airport when Jacinda won’t allow us to have any fossil fuel to power the planes by 2050 ?


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