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The case against light rail

By   /  May 14, 2018  /  18 Comments

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The Government’s announcements that they are to accelerate the procurement process for light rail to the airport and to the NorthWest including Kumeu, had some pundits and young transport enthusiasts breathless with excitement.

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The Government’s announcements that they are to accelerate the procurement process for light rail to the airport and to the NorthWest including Kumeu, had some pundits and young transport enthusiasts breathless with excitement.

Commentators suspended disbelief, reporting ‘work would start right away’, there would be light rail services to Westgate ‘quite soon’, and business should be ‘salivating’ about the opportunities from urban renewal arising from light rail in the next few years. Accompanying graphics reduced communities, topography, coastal areas and existing infrastructure constraints to simple bold lines on maps where nothing – not finances, timing, election cycles, or practicalities could stand in the way.

But the futuristic graphics failed to include existing lines on the railway network, in particular, the North Auckland Line beyond Swanson and out through Kumeu, which local communities and advocates argue should be revived for passenger services in advance of expensive new light rail.

The Public Transport Users Association’s Trains to Huapai campaign supports regular rail passenger services beyond the current Swanson terminus, using lines, rolling stock and stations that already exist. The Trains to Huapai campaign has support from Swanson residents swamped by commuters from the far west driving over the Waitakere hill to catch the train from the new and now full Swanson Park and Ride. Waitakere township’s refurbished park and ride sits empty since rail services stopped in 2014.

In Kumeu and surrounding townships, new and old growth, oriented around rail, sits like a bride without a groom. People lured to the area by the apparent benefit of a railway line are surprised and appalled that no services run. In every consultation by Auckland Transport, Auckland Council and the Rodney Local Board, calls for trains to Huapai are a clamour.

It’s a clamour that’s ignored by the powers that be, preferring a hypothetical, uncosted, light rail service that no-one really believes will reach Kumeu any time soon.

The Minister of Transport, Urban Development and Housing, Phil Twyford, suggests the Kumeu valley could accommodate another 20-30,000 houses. He argues for the removal of the Rural Urban Boundary, inaccurately perceiving that it’s an impediment to growth. Special Housing Areas fast-tracked by the previous Government have brought thousands of new residents to this already growing periurban zone. Transport routes have become immobilised by the influx of vehicles arising from the housing boom. The 18,000+ vehicles a day through Kumeu, are doubled in the weekend, and traffic on the one lane each way State Highway 16, is stationary in both directions at many times of night and day. A survey just conducted by the Public Transport Users Association conservatively estimated social and economic congestion costs to Kumeu commuters of four million hours a year and $30million.

The plans for light rail along the NorthWestern corridor promise services within an improbable six year timeframe, and combined with the questionable proposition of light rail to the airport, come to an estimated cost of $6billion.

Transport lobbyists Greater Auckland oppose the use of the existing rail line to Kumeu. They say, ‘it’s too expensive’; ‘no one would use it’; ‘people don’t all go into the city to work”; “The Waitakere tunnel is too narrow”. Yet they accept at face value, the creation of a whole new rapid transit corridor with an unrealistic timeframe, which entails ripping up just-laid motorway lanes, massive added community severance, the destruction of houses, sports fields, school precincts, reserves, the coastal marine area and existing infrastructure to create a transport corridor at least 15 lanes wide in part. Other than following the existing State Highway, the route is unclear, as is how to retrofit NorthWestern light rail into the constrained central city. Feeder routes and services from NorthWest suburbs would still also be required.

With technology and enough money, of course anything is possible. But using existing, dedicated rail corridors must be cheaper, and a better fit with the government’s claimed support for regional rail renewal – even including the costs of widening the Waitakere tunnel (not essential) and investing in improved or additional diesel rolling stock. Even electrifying the North Auckland Line to Kumeu from Swanson must be cheaper than a whole new light rail line.

Light rail is the new nirvana, and the apparent offer of SuperFund finances is a clear inducement for the project. But the proposed regional fuel tax and the SuperFunds, are not free money. There’s a cost, however the starting bid of $6billion is paid.

In his recent Herald opinion piece critiquing Airport light rail, ex-ARC chair Mike Lee said ‘there’s a yawning gap between the views of Aucklanders and our own political class’. When it comes to the logic of using the existing rail line to Kumeu, the gap looks like a chasm.

Kumeu resident Christine Rose is the Chair of the Public Transport Users Association and the Trains to Huapai campaign, and was Chair of the Auckland Regional Transport Committee from 2007-10.

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  1. e-clectic says:

    Classic case of – we’ve got the solution, now what was the problem?

    • CLEANGREEN says:

      Classic case of someone in charge of this plan who obviously doesn’t understand how to make a rail notwork ‘complete so it can be used at a “multi-modal” network’ by using the whole NZ rail network to offer to local rail service users a wider range of rail travel.

      Most important is that when more use of the wider rail network is used by placing local travelers on the mainline the income delivered by the ‘increased track charge’ generated is paid back to Kiwi rail to fund track improvements and higher maintenance to it’s network also!!!!!

      So it is a win-win every time!! – so wake up Government, this is “common sense”.

  2. Sanctuary says:

    What a load of old clarts. The light rail will serve Te Atatu, Massey, Royal heights, West Harbour and Hobsonville as well as Pt. Chev and Grey Lynn. It can be extended East to Albany to serve Greenhithe and Paremoremo.

    Heavy rail swings west from Henderson and then meanders north through various now (very) sleepy hollows to Wellsford. Heavy rail serves towns established to chop down the native forests and now that is mission accomplished, it’s route is largely irrelevant.

    • CLEANGREEN says:


      Heavy rail cuts the heavy truck use that is now killing a lot of folks on our now collapsing roads!!!!

      So if you understand that rail was originally made to cut road freight down to a sustainable level then it is not ‘irrelevant’ to keep heavy rail at all.

    • Brigid says:

      “Heavy rail swings west from Henderson and then meanders north through various now (very) sleepy hollows to Wellsford”
      You obviously know nothing of the road congestion from Helensville south that the huge housing developments have created. Did you not read what Christine wrote? It seems not.
      The rail line that could serve this community exists. Why can it not be used immediately?

      • savenz says:

        I’m afraid many in the transport sector only believe transport is needed in the North Shore, West Auckland and central Auckland.

        They don’t have the foggiest what’s going on in the rest of Auckland, but only too happy to ‘volunteer’ areas in North West Auckland like Kumeu without transport links in place as area’s to solve the housing crisis!

        Sadly those in transport and housing are often ignorant morons who giving more money too, is like giving a 2 yo with matches another lighter.

        The entire sector is full of conflict of interests and cheerleaders by so called independent blogs like ‘greater Auckland’ and Gen Z, who when delving into it and their sponsors many of whom seem to be in engineering and construction and so forth, seem not to be so independent after all.

        Hey, like the new Charities like Kidscan, it’s all about the marketing and the networking and the soundbite and under some ‘social’ moniker to sort of give yourself a job and sponsors.

        • Brigid says:

          Too true.

          Incidentally, that bloody tunnel, that seems to cause so much angst, is about 30 metres below the ground line.
          Half a dozen wo/men with a shovel would render it cutting in a weekend.

  3. savenz says:

    +10000 %

    It is completely crazy in the middle of at transport crisis that has been created by the zealous crazies in charge building loads of million dollar houses around areas like Kumeu without opening up the train line and arranging where people using it, will park.

    Basically Auckland has been hijacked by lobbyists who have numerous ways to get their money by ‘plans’ for new transport which co incidentally often have the same set of beneficiaries cheerleading the new infrastructure. Funny enough nobody seems to keen to cheer on the old infrastructure that is already there and weirdly not being used, not enough money in that, for the blood suckers at public teat, obviously.

    It is not just about not using the existing train line, it is also about providing a service on the commute. You are not going to get people out of a car when public transport takes twice as long as a car, is expensive, doesn’t link up and is full of stress with train changes.

    Look at normal countries like UK and Europe. You get on a train, they go every 20 minutes, they have coffee and snacks on board, you get to your destination radically faster than if you were to go by car.

    In NZ, it is the opposite, public transport takes between 100 to 500% longer than a car, even on short journeys. They also don’t have enough journey’s going and so you are expected to plan your entire work day or event around the scant options available which is not viable for most people. Using public transport is not comfortable and your lose productivity, whereas correctly designed it should be the opposite. Nobody should be changing a train from Kumeu to CBD – if they do that, few people are going to want to use it.

    Not only that, areas like Helensville are on the same train line, and many people have moved there for cheaper prices. Time to get that entire line moving and do it right for a change. Not like housing have the prime objective to suck out public money on new builds while making transport difficult for years if not decades.

    • Marc says:

      “Look at normal countries like UK and Europe. You get on a train, they go every 20 minutes, they have coffee and snacks on board, you get to your destination radically faster than if you were to go by car. ”

      I agree with most of your comment, and I like that bit just quoted. Sometimes I wonder about the people running the show in Aotearoa NZ, aka Sleepy Hobbit Land.

  4. Strypey says:

    I don’t think it’s necessary to posit conspiracy theories about other public transport lobby groups when there is a simpler explanation. Public transport has been so under-prioritized in Tamaki Makaurau for so long, that any hint of progress is seized on as the return of the Messiah, even if it’s far from ideal, and corrupted by conflicts of interest.

    One thing I’ve never been able to understand is why more use isn’t made of Aucklands waterways as public transport corridors. The isthmus is so narrow in places that in pre-European times mana whenua used to carry their waka between the harbours, and this narrow point just happens to be where the airport is now. Why not have a network of small, fast, frequent ferries running up and down each coast, linking with existing bus and rail networks at critical nodes? This would be a convenient and scenic way to move travellers between the city and the airport without building any new rail infrastructure. Services could be easily scaled up and down to meet demand by adding more sailings and, if necessary, putting more ferries in service. Ideally the ferries would all be electric or run on some other renewably generated energy source.

    Two major advantages of this over either light *or* heavy rail for an airport to city link:
    * the service could adapt to sea level rise much more easily than coastal roads or rail, as long as the jetties and other shoreside infrastructure is build with this in mind, and would interfere much less with the coastal environment then building more of either.
    * the airport will decline in importance as a destination as global oil availability declines. Any major investment in rail connecting city and airport might seem like a white elephant in 20 years time, and almost definitely in 50 (unless renewably powered planes become viable within that timeframe, which seems unlikely at present).

    The only argument against this anyone has ever been unable to come up with is that the ferries may be prevented from running in heavy weather. That’s true, but it’s also true that a lot of people choose not to travel at all in heavy weather if they don’t have to. Besides, how often many days a year does Tamaki Makaurau get weather bad enough that the existing ferries can’t run? Yes, on those days, people who would normally travel by ferry would be crammed back onto the roads and bus and train services, but is that really an argument against the pressure taken off that infrastructure on the vast majority of other days?

    • savenz says:

      Exactly use the ferries more! The only scenario that concerns me about more ferry use is the pollution aspect but hopefully there are non polluting ocean ferries option’s available!

      My feeling is that AT and NZTA seem to want to divert the money to as many non core scenarios and their own paper plans and endless consultants and rather than just allocate money straight away for more services whether ferry, bus or trains.

      They ain’t getting anyone out of a car until they make their public transport service better than a car, that means quicker than a car, cheaper than a car and as comfortable and convenient as a car!

      AT and NZTA don’t even understand the basics sadly. So their main device is to try to charge people out of a car and make money which they like to spend on their own musings and salaries, rather than concentrate on luring people onto convenient well run public transport (which they currently in most cases don’t provide).

  5. savenz says:

    Someone was also saying that they make people change from Kumeu out Swanson way to get to the CBD because they didn’t plan enough train tracks into Britomart or wherever they go!

    Typical stupidity, they build a railway station at Britomart at great cost but forget to plan for lots of trains in the excitement of blowing loads of public money on a giant train station (that doesn’t have many train tracks going into or out of it).

    As usual in NZ the concerns of building real estate seem to be more important and at the top of any decision making tree in both local and central government than the end result working properly.

    For most people train stations are about the amount of trains you can get in and out simultaneously. But nope in NZ, it seems to be how much money can be spent on the construction and appearance of a train station at the expense of planning enough actual train journeys themselves.

    And of course the use the cheapest materials possible…. with the cheapest labour probably heavily subcontracted out so that the end worker is probably on minimum wages and unskilled, safety and longevity someone else’s problem..

    Faulty Chinese steel thought to be behind Britomart train derailment

    But wait, lets just keep making the same mistakes…

    • Marc says:

      “As usual in NZ the concerns of building real estate seem to be more important and at the top of any decision making tree in both local and central government than the end result working properly. ”

      So true!

  6. Marc says:

    Good considerations, arguments and a good post altogether! Light rails is only good in parts of central Auckland and inner suburbs and overrated otherwise.

  7. Te Atadude says:

    This is a load of bitter sensationalist claptrap. What do you think you’re going to achieve by pissing in the cornflakes of every other West Auckland transport user?

    “a hypothetical, uncosted, light rail service that no-one really believes will reach Kumeu any time soon” – Really? Change light rail for diesel shuttle and it fits perfectly. Stop wasting everyone’s time with this sabotage campaign and do some real work to establish what is actually possible, how to do it and what it will cost.

    If these bilious attacks result in the rest of us losing our chance at the biggest public transport advance in a century, Trains to Huapai campaigners had better get out of dodge pdq, because a LOT of people are going to know who and why.

    • savenz says:

      The rail line is already there in Kumeu and to Helensville, nobodies trying to cut off unbuilt light rail in other areas but it’s going to take years to build and cost billions, they should be using existing rail way lines that will create the quickest journeys to those commuters and then add more public transport on yet to be built!

    • Wayne says:

      Te ATADUDE

      You are so blinded by light rail that you are ignoring an obvious and relatively cheap solution that already exists. And abusing anyone who has a different view to you.

      The rail line to Kumeu (and to Helensville) could be upgraded to electric at a relatively cheap cost compared to a completely new light rail line, and it could happen within three years. Light rail all the way out to the west will be at least 10 years away.

      Realistically light rail will happen to some extent, but it is not the only solution. And it may not happen to nearly the extent that its promoters think. Not unless the current government lasts at least three terms. A different govt will put the cost benefit ratio of light rail under a very sharp analysis.

    • Pat L says:

      My guess is Te Tatadude is a “greater auckland” nobody judging by his rant and threats. They are a nasty bunch of nerds.

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