GUEST BLOG: Mike Lee – How ego, technical ignorance and group-think sabotaged two sensible rail plans for Auckland


People may have noticed a subtle change in the wording of the latest official publicity about the proposed $3.5b light rail to Auckland International Airport project.  Mysteriously the word airport’ has been airbrushed out. ‘City to Airport’ has been replaced with ‘City to Māngere’. What can this mean?

It would appear that the idea of trams providing a feasible ‘rapid transit’? (average speed 23.3 km per hour) solution to and from Auckland airport has been grudgingly accepted by officialdom as unrealistic.  Not that officialdom would ever admit this. It’s just the latest twist in Auckland’s light rail saga, which tragically has become dominated by political egos, technical ignorance and group-think instead of being about Aucklanders’ needs and reducing traffic congestion.  

It wasn’t always so.  As recently as May 2015 I was able to write in ‘Ponsonby News’ and on my website:

Auckland Transport’s announcement in January that it was seriously investigating a Light Rail solution for Auckland as a part of the draft Regional Land Transport Plan, came as a surprise to a lot of people but it’s the best news on the transport front for Auckland since the go-ahead for rail electrification.

Auckland Transport (AT) has taken this remarkable step – leap more like it – because its modelling and number crunching in the City Centre Future Access Study kept pointing to the inescapable conclusion that by 2021, the recommended maximum of 130 buses per hour on key city corridors like Symonds Street will be seriously exceeded – even with the City Rail Link. This means chronic grid-lock.

AT is therefore scoping a modern Light Rail Transit (LRT) system comprising four lines, Dominion, Sandringham, Mt Eden and Manukau Roads, converging on Queen Street and Symonds Street, with the first stage a 7 km Wynyard Quarter, Queens Street, Dominion Road line. Much more modest than Auckland’s historic 72km electric tramway but, in our time, without doubt a bold and visionary concept.”

Sadly that original sensible approach, phasing in modern trams to replace buses on congested arterials, well supported by Aucklanders at the time, was received with behind-the-scenes anger by the National government.  In response Auckland Transport senior management ditched the previously agreed future heavy rail link to the airport, proposing instead a single tramline via Dominion Road. They also quietly dropped original plans for a Melbourne-style modern tram network for the Auckland isthmus and inner city.   Excuse the pun, but things went off the rails from then on. In late 2015 Phil Goff, after briefings from AT, announced light rail to the airport as a key policy of his mayoral campaign. In June 2016 the Board of NZTA voted to exclude any future heavy rail connection to Auckland International Airport.   A couple of weeks later the board of AT followed in lockstep with only one director voting against – me.  A few months later, cheered on by the trucking lobby, AT demolished the Neilson Street overbridge replacing the road at grade, thus blocking the rail corridor from Onehunga to the airport. In 2017, taking the cue from his old political mentor, Labour’s Phil Twyford took up the policy of light rail to the airport – taking it over completely when Goff, after commissioning another secret report, this time from AT, and evidently being frightened by what he read, appeared to lose interest. Ironically, responsibilty for the light rail project has been taken off AT and placed in the hands of NZTA which has always been a roads agency.

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No matter, NZTA appears to have the requisite enthusiasm. In a recent ‘Herald’ ‘Opinion’ piece its CEO Fergus Gammie extolled the “transformational”, “rapid” light rail plan as a “game changer” etc.   

But our politicians and bureaucrats have been too clever by half and have got themselves into a strategic muddle. Servicing Auckland airport and reducing road congestion the original primary objectives are now being downplayed, the new reason for light rail as Mr Gammie enthusiastically announced is as a catalyst for more residential housing investment and ‘growth’. Graphically underscoring just how removed from the practical realities of public transport and the best use of light rail our decision makers are, they intend to replace 20 existing bus stops in the Dominion Road corridor (south of New North Road) with only 8 tram stops. As for residents and business owners in the Dominion Road area, after putting up with prolonged disruption from construction, they can look forward to a rather long walk to catch a tram. This can only mean more use of cars and so even more congestion.

This does not mean the powers-that-be are now open to a separate solution for the 25 million passengers predicted to use Auckland International Airport by 2028 – namely a 6.8km fast electric train connection from Puhinui.  No. Long distance passengers with their baggage not willing to take the slow, crowded tram will have to take a bus (perhaps one day a tram) to and from Puhini train station. Researcher Paul Miller who is about to launch a new transport lobby group, START (Straight To Airport Rapid Trains), recently released data showing Twyford’s trams to the airport will be one of the slowest airport rail services in the world.  “Transformational?”

$3.5b and counting is a huge amount of money just to sabotage two very sensible transport plans and turn them into a dysfunctional lash-up. Auckland deserves better than this.


Mike Lee is an Auckland City Councillor  


  1. “A few months later, cheered on by the trucking lobby, AT demolished the Neilson Street overbridge replacing the road at grade, thus blocking the rail corridor from Onehunga to the airport.”

    Welome to the corrupt power play of the trucking lobby backed up by the oil companies who like using roads as they use more oil products so more bussiness for them and more corruption in NZ politics, now even under a new labour lead government with Auckland residents PM and Minister of Transport Phil Twyford also right there.
    labournwill be voted out come ext election because they have failed to move to rail from roads, and this is haoppening also in Napier as the trucking lobby is as corrupt as hell as is in Auckland so it’s an uphill battle here sadly until Labour get real before they get booted out again and listen to hellen clark as she had best means to deal with errant ministers.

    Here is our current Napier story.

    Helen is a gem that must be respected as the media is playing this climate change down due to pressures from the industries that want to keep emitting carbon emissions until they can’t any more.

    I am using Helen’s letter to me she sent to me on 28th October 2003 when she addressed the letter correctly to me as ‘secretary of the Pirimai Residents Association Incorporated’.

    Helen in the 28/10/2003 letter to me said she is sending to our committee the Minister of Transport Mark Gosche and the Minister of Finance, Michael Cullen and the CEO of Transit NZ Robin Dunlop to discuss how to restore the rail service and lower the truck noise vibrations and air pollution affecting all the residents health and wellbeing living alongside the ‘HB Expressway’ that was first designated in the NZ Gazette in 1961 as a “commuter route” for the people of Hastings who lost the bad to have the airport located in Hastings so this road was never intended to be a truck route as it is now sadly and Helen was wanting the government to fix the problems now caused by inappropriate use of a residential zone as a truck route.

    Helen kept her word better than any other PM since regarding her concerns over overuse of truck freight over rail as we are all aware that rail is five times less carbon emitting than trucking freight is per tonne per km.

    Helen must be regarded by the labour party as the way forward for their “transformational government or they will never be voted back in 2020, that is a certainty..

  2. “modern trams”

    Now there’s an oxymoron! 🙂

    When I go to the airport, with my 20kg of luggage I’m not going to wait for a bus to get into town to the “modern tram” station, wait for the next one to arrive, lug my baggage onto said tram, travel at “high speed” (23kph) to the airport and then drag my bags from the tram on to the departures concourse.

    No. Instead I shall hail an Uber using my iphone and go straight to the airport, averaging 80kph. That Uber may be an EV in a few years time, and already it’s a hybrid.

    Trams are about as out of date as, oh, Marxism (Late 19th century)

    • Sorry ANDREW; – if you are trying to pull that ‘green cloak’ over your shoulders by suggesting ‘EV vehicles’ are the gold standard ‘fix all’ sorry, now, check to see what the tyres they use are made of and you will see that only rail is the gold standard as they use steel wheels and tracks not 1,3,Butadienee styrene as tyres use and the roads are made from oil products also so if we used electric trains and trams we are in the golden seat of the lowest emissions’ of pollution and toxins.

      by the way if you want to know what NIOSH says about exposure to 1,3, butadiene just look at what the lowest possible exposure level (Ca) 90.19 ppm LOQ will do to you.

      quote from the NIOSH database;
      CAS # 106-97-8 EI42000000 1,3,butadiene – Health effects;

      Hematopoietic cancer, tetrogenic and reproductive effects.

      ANDREW next time you drive that EV car with ‘nylon’ tyres full of PAH’s ‘Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons’ and Vinyl Chloride – PVC remember you are poisoning someone. Just like what they have found also now in childrens toys.

      Based on a German study of toys and childcare articles that found high
      concentrations of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), the Danish
      Environmental Protection Agency initiated this survey of PAHs in toys and childcare articles on the Danish market.

      The project consists of a literature survey and a chemical screening of selected articles.

      The project has been performed by National Environmental Research
      Institute (NERI) at Aarhus University by Leif Hoffmann, Marianne
      Thomsen, Charlotte Dahl Schiødt and Pia Lassen as project leader.
      The project has been performed for the Danish Environmental Protection
      Agency (DEPA).


        Add in the cost of overlaying tram lines on existing roads and you’ll find we can drive around in cars for decades before their pollution catches up with the one-off construction carbon output of ripping up Dominion Road and laying tracks.

        But that wasn’t really my point. What I was trying to say was that public transport of this type is more suitable for the century before last, not the future. It’s slow, inconvenient and doesn’t take me from where I am to where I want to go.

  3. Trains?… What are trains? Oh wait… are they those things they had back in old days? Like steam engines on long ass pieces of metal instead of using tires? :confused:

  4. “…A couple of weeks later the board of AT followed in lockstep with only one director voting against – me…”

    This should tell people all they need to know.

    A quarter of a century ago Mike Lee managed to get something right by importing ex-Australian diesel rail cars, thus setting the stage for the revival of heavy rail in Auckland. Unfortunately, it seems this was the result not of any deep insight into public transport but simple happenstance, and like a superstitious shaman who got lucky once, he now relentlessly beats the drum of what worked for him – heavy rail – even if it means he displays utter ignorance of how the PT debate has moved on in 25 years.

    • Our train systems suck, horribly. Dosnt matter how awesome some one is. If it sucks, you can’t shine it pretty. I have no pity left to give. Get out of Auckland. Get out now before its to late.

  5. what is wrong with the idea of a dedicated busway from city to airport..?..much much cheaper to build..much quicker to build..and much more adaptable to change…and would get the job done..

    each time mr lee has been on this forum with his train-talk i have asked this question..

    but mr lee is a seagull commentator – drops his load and then flies off/away..

    so i have never had an answer to that question..

    but i’ll keep on trying..

  6. So Mike. When are you going to make it official? I’m not talking about you entering the boat race mate!? 🙂

  7. Thanks Mike. A good summary of how the much-needed ‘airport rail’ concept has been watered down to a paltry shuttle bus from Puhinui Station.

    And for those commenters above who insist that Rail is ‘last century technology’, just have a look at the huge numbers of people who are voting Yes with their feet and continuing to use it. Then consider how another piece of ‘last century technology’ (the car) has spectacularly failed to deliver all that it was supposed to. . . As we may well find with driverless cars also.

  8. ‘City to Airport’ has been replaced with ‘City to Māngere’ because the ratepayers and taxpayers are thinking if it’s airport to city, why not a tourist tax for it as an airport charge on each ticket into Auckland, instead of hitting up the locals every second for money for rich industries that should be paying for the service and organising it themselves.

    If tourism is so profitable and exploding all over NZ maybe take those profits and use them for tourist businesses to pay for their own rail to the airport not expect the poorer ratepayers from Mangere and everywhere else in Auckland to pay for them.

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