Light rail - ideology over practicality?

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the consulting firm MRCagney was behind the latest recommendation for LRT to the airport. That recommendation was from work undertaken by Jacobs Arup and MRCagney had no role in it. MR Cagney previously worked on a CBD-Mt Roskill light rail project and since the Jacobs and Arup report has provided some background information to the NZ Transport Agency-led team now looking at light rail to the airport. Newsroom apologises to MRCagney for the error.

There's unease in Auckland over plans for light rail from the city to the airport - with one advocacy group saying the move is driven by political ideology, not international best practice.

NZ Transport 2050 is questioning the latest report that backs light rail running up Dominion Rd, after previous reports in 2008 and 2011 (by Beca and GHD respectively) that dismiss it in favour of heavy trains fed from existing lines. The report and LRT recommendation was prepared by consultants Jacobs and Arup JV.

Earlier work on light rail along Dominion Rd, but not extending to the airport, was undertaken by consulting firm M R Cagney, which has as its principal economist Peter Nunns, who is the partner of Greens Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter.

The Green Party's coalition agreement with Labour states that "work will begin on light rail from the city to the airport in Auckland".

Auckland Transport ruled out heavy rail in 2016, the NZ Transport Agency and former National Government identified light rail as an option to the airport in 2017 and both the Greens and the Labour Party backed light rail before the last general election, thus its inclusion in the coalition agreement. 

NZ Transport 2050's Paul Miller asks why light rail was specifically stated as the answer to the airport link problem before feasibility studies were completed, and questions if the agreement means the Government is now on a track it can't jump off. He also questions the political influence involved, suggesting the debate has been hijacked by people only interested in their own vision. 

The Transport Agency, which has taken over the lead for the project, is currently in the throes of delivering a business case for light rail which it was hoping would be delivered this year, but that's now looking unlikely. There is still a lot of work and consultation to be done, and light rail is not a completely done deal. But Miller is becoming increasingly concerned that Transport Minister Phil Twyford is in thrall to another public transport lobby group, Greater Auckland, whose policies and people line up with new developments. Greater Auckland members Luke Christensen and Nicolas Reid are also transport planners at M R Cagney. 

National calls Minister Phil Twyford's "fixation" on light rail - even before a business plan has been drawn up - "bewildering". “In reality, this decision was made during the Labour-Greens Coalition negotiations, in the absence of any real data," says transport spokesman Paul Goldsmith. 

Veteran Auckland Councillor Mike Lee says Twyford is relying on "experts" - who he doesn't name - to justify the project, and is shutting down opposition to it by plans to override the council's Unitary Plan and the Resource Management Act.

Miller says we need to put the brakes on the project now, because the due diligence is not being done properly. 

"It's already gone from an estimate of $1.3 billion to $1.5b and now suddenly it's $3.7b - this is now seen by NZTA to be very risky and the contingency needs to be high."

Miller, who lives off Dominion Rd, concedes he'll be affected by the years of disruption under the tramway to the airport scheme. He says the majority of locals don't want the Dominion Rd connection - but it's not a NIMBY thing.

"I would love a light rail going down Dominion Rd but what they're proposing isn't a Melbourne-style light rail system that works in with the road itself. They're using it as a mass transit rail corridor. It's not even fast mass transit, at 23 kilometres an hour [average journey speed]. It's pretty concerning." Miller says the road won't be big enough to fit cars, rail and cycle ways.

Other residents have raised issues about tram stops being spaced far apart; the inevitable hit to businesses during construction; they've questioned the lack of turning space for the trams to corner; the destruction of heritage buildings to make room for tracks; and the likelihood that turns into cross-roads will be severely restricted once the trams are in and raised boarding platforms are installed.

"We have already invested in a heavy rail system in Auckland - and we have the Central Rail Link that's going in ... why would we not want to just connect to that? No one wants this, other than the Government and these narrow little (advocacy) groups."

Miller says international best practice for this type of connection (city to airport) is heavy rail - faster services, roomier units for those carrying bags, and greater capacities. His group has worked out that of 72 international cities, Auckland with light rail would have the fourth-slowest airport transit system. The journey from the city to the airport would take 47 minutes. "This is not rapid rail."

Sydney's light rail debacle has parallels with Auckland's. It was a pet project of a new federal government; infrastructure experts warned against it saying it would be a disaster; it now faces massive cost blow-outs and the company building it is on the verge of going broke. Many businesses along the route, which has carved up inner city roads for years, have gone bust and government compensation has been paid out to more than 50 others. 

One of the issues has been ancient infrastructure under the roads being dug up - much like Auckland's 100-year-old sewer lines. 

"The cost blowout when you run lines on an active key corridor is significant," says Miller. "I would like to see NZTA tasked to use actual heavy rail specialists to review the whole decision to see what makes sense, not just in a token way. We don't have these people just sitting around but all the global companies are here and we could bring in people to do something."

He says this is just a knee-jerk reaction taking place over just one election term. Miller is welcoming the establishment of an independent infrastructure body for the country, which will be free of political influence, to provide some certainty of planning on issues such as this - but it hasn't even been formed yet.

"We don't need another four-lane harbour bridge, or two-track Britomart thing built here. We need a proper adult conversation about it.

"This is not fit for purpose for an airport connection, or a high-speed connection across the city. And to build it just to cater for the housing intensification happening in the Mt Roskill area is not enough ... that's all based on this assumption that suddenly there is going to be this huge growth along a transport corridor."

Phil Twyford in writing for the Herald called light rail a "game changer". He said it is not just about connecting the airport to the CBD. It is about building a network across the city that can carry as many people as a motorway, while taking up far less land and using electricity, not fossil fuels.

As for the question of why you wouldn't connect to existing heavy rail services - it would be surprisingly expensive. If you look at a rail map it would seem obvious to build a spur from Puhinui but the estimated cost in a 2016 Jacobs NZ report was put at $2.2b to $2.37b for heavy rail compared to (at the time) $1.2b - $1.3b for light rail. The cost benefit ratio was also significantly in favour of light rail. The Jacobs report said the heavy rail option performed well in terms of travel time and future patronage demand. But it had risks associated with tunnelling in poor ground conditions at the airport and has a considerable land requirement during construction. "One of the key issues with heavy rail is the high cost of the option due to large infrastructure requirements and construction methodologies." Those issues include having to cut and cover a train tunnel, and space problems at the airport end.

The current thinking is to develop a bus service from the Puhinui train station to the airport, but that would mean travellers having to change modes of transport for the trip. Miller says travellers are not going to lug their bags onto a bus after a long flight, to then try and change to a train and find their way into town. He wants an efficient line that would cater for the 15,000 people who work at the airport as well as visitors passing through it - especially as the growth projections for visitors will see it become as busy as Gatwick or Sydney in the next 20 odd years. 

"Many New Zealanders have travelled and seen what good transport looks like," says Miller  "... we're not stupid. This plan will provide no reason for people to get out of their cars." 

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