The trams that could've stopped Auckland's traffic nightmare

Twice each day, Auckland's roads grind to a halt during rush-hour traffic, as commuters make the frustrating journey from the suburbs into town and back again.

With the city's population growing by 44,000 each year, the length of these rush-hour periods is growing, extending beyond 10:30am and 7:30pm on some motorways.

But it wasn't always like this - half a century ago, Auckland had one of the most extensive electric tram networks in the world, built specifically to transport the city's workers.

Auckland once had one of the most extensive tram networks in the world.
Auckland once had one of the most extensive tram networks in the world. Photo credit: Newshub

The tram lines developed outwards from downtown Auckland to the suburbs in the 1920s, eventually reaching to Point Chevalier beach and Avondale in the west, south to Owairaka, Mt Roskill and Three Kings, and east to Meadowbank.

There were also links to Eden Park and Ellerslie Racecourse, Greenlane Hospital and the Auckland Showgrounds.

An extensive tram network also linked Herne Bay and Westmere, through Grey Lynn and Ponsonby.

Trams running along Sandringham Rd.
Trams running along Sandringham Rd. Photo credit: Graham Stewart

The network even reached all the way south to Onehunga and Manukau Harbour - the world's first coast-to-coast electric tram service.

But 60 years ago, Auckland's planners decided to rip up the tram tracks in favour of using diesel trolley buses and building motorways for cars.

The only tram track still in existence is a single 1.8km route running from MOTAT in Western Springs to Auckland Zoo and the Aviation Hall.

This was built by MOTAT volunteers to give Aucklanders a small taste of the city's old network.

The same tram lines being ripped on Sandringham Rd in the 1950s.
The same tram lines being ripped on Sandringham Rd in the 1950s. Photo credit: Graham Stewart

Of course, Auckland was a much smaller city 60 years ago, with a population of only half a million, but the tram network could have been modernised, with larger carriages to cater for more commuters.

Just look across the Tasman at Melbourne's fantastic tram network to see what could have been possible.

"It would've been absolutely wonderful to see a tramway network in Auckland, maintained and modernised as Melbourne's was," MOTAT spokesperson Toby Hutton told Newshub.

"Melbourne was lucky to continue building trams during the Second World War and into the 50s as well."

So what killed Auckland's tram network?

Mr Hutton says World War II was a major catalyst for Auckland's tram network falling into disrepair.

"During any major world conflict, there's always a competing resource allocation, so all the steel that would have gone into the railway, that material was being used for weapons of war," Mr Hutton says.

"At the time, there was no major tramway maintenance or construction of new trams going on, the last Auckland trams built were in the late 1930s."

Kiwi soldiers meeting Winston Churchill in London during WWII - Auckland's tram network fell into disrepair during the war.
Kiwi soldiers meeting Winston Churchill in London during WWII - Auckland's tram network fell into disrepair during the war. Photo credit: Getty

One benefit that came during the war was that a team of women tram conductors helped run the network. They were among the first female workers in New Zealand to receive equal pay with their male colleagues.

But Mr Hutton says the tram network was, by then, in its dying days.

"By the 1950s, you've got more and more cars on the road, more people competing for space on the streets."

Instead of modernising the tram network, Auckland's planners had the tracks ripped up, and poured money into building a road network that has required constant expansion and upgrading since - but the trams could be about to make a comeback.

'Onehunga via Town Hall' by tram? Those were the days.
'Onehunga via Town Hall' by tram? Those were the days. Photo credit: Graham Stewart

Will we ever see a light rail network in Auckland again?

Both the new Labour-led Government and Auckland Mayor Phil Goff are keen to see the trams return to help unclog Auckland's congested roads.

This could likely mean light rail all the way to Auckland Airport and as part of its confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Greens, the Labour Government is already committed to start work on this project. 

Backed by Mayor Goff's keen interest in light rail, Auckland Transport is investigating bringing trams back along some of the old routes used 60 years ago, including down Queen and Symonds St, along Sandringham and Dominion Rds, and also along Manukau Rd to Onehunga.

How much will this cost and who pays?

Depending on the extent of any new light rail system for Auckland, costs have been estimated anywhere between $1.5-5 billion dollars.

Mayor Goff says it would cost up to $2.5 billion alone for light rail to Auckland Airport.

In a recent update to the Auckland Transport Alignment Project, it was revealed that a light rail line up Queen St to Mt Roskill would cost at least $700 million.

Trams running up through the heart of Queen St - Mayor Goff wants them to return.
Trams running up through the heart of Queen St - Mayor Goff wants them to return. Photo credit: Graham Stewart

Mayor Goff says his council could contribute up to $1.5 billion, funded by higher rates for property owners living near the proposed light rail routes.

He also says a regional fuel tax over a 10 year period could contribute another $1.5 billion.

The new Government has remained cagey on how much it would contribute, as it sorts out its funding priorities.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pledged her support to back Mayor Goff's light rail vision back in November, but gave no exact figures on what her Government would contribute.

In a speech to the Auckland Chamber of Commerce in December, Finance Minister Grant Robertson said the light rail options were only being investigated.

"There are other priorities around New Zealand as well, in terms of investing in rail and getting coastal shipping going, improving our regional roads," he said.

All going well, when could the trams be back?

Work could begin on the highly anticipated light rail link to Auckland Airport within three years, while the rapid-transit line up Queen St to Mt Roskill could be at least 10 years away.

Any meaningful construction will depend on funding, and whether Mayor Goff can get what he needs from his proposed regional fuel tax, rates rise, and what the Government will offer him.

Auckland's tram network could be the Pacific's version of Geneva

A fine example of what could be achieved can be found half a world away - in Switzerland.

Like Auckland, Geneva once had an extensive tram network - indeed, the largest in Europe in the 1920s - but it too was gutted, ripped up and almost lost to existence.

Trams are now the dominant form of transport for Geneva's workers.
Trams are now the dominant form of transport for Geneva's workers. Photo credit: Getty

However, the Swiss city welcomed back trams with open arms in the late 1990s and they are now the dominant form of public transport for workers, with a network of lines running out west, south and east from the city's lakeside harbour.

Sound familiar?

Newshub.

 

Contact Newshub with your story tips:
news@newshub.co.nz