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.