'Ignoring the obvious': Transport expert implores light rail rethink

The Government could save $2.5 billion if it's willing to ditch its Auckland CBD to airport light rail plan in favour of extending existing rail lines, an expert says. 

Transport advocates have called the Government's plans to build a light rail link from Auckland CBD to Auckland Airport "short-sighted" and a "disaster" for the city. 

Advocates claim the light rail project could be replaced with a 6km heavy rail line to Puhinui to join up with the existing lines into the city centre - a rethink which could potentially save the Government around $2.5 billion. 

"In what's being planned, it's kind of like a modern version of a tram service, especially when it runs alongside an existing street. It's not like a heavy rail network which has its own corridor," says NZ Transport 2050 chair Paul Miller. 

There's a vast area of unused land that covers 6.5km between the south-western motorway, the main rail line, and the airport, Mr Miller told The AM Show on Wednesday. It's only a short distance to connect the existing line to the airport, he says. 

"We don't really understand why [the Government isn't] looking at this. This seems the most obvious thing. We're investing $3 billion in the central rail loop at the moment that's going to make heavy rail really useful for Auckland." 

The promise to build light rail from Auckland's CBD to Auckland Airport within a decade was Jacinda Ardern's first major policy announcement as Leader of the Opposition last year. The plan was backed by the Greens who want rail to the airport by 2021. 

Extending existing rail lines could be completed for just $500 million, says NZ Transport 2050 chair Paul Miller.
Extending existing rail lines could be completed for just $500 million, says NZ Transport 2050 chair Paul Miller. Photo credit: Newshub

"[The Government] made a big election promise about light rail and how it can solve every problem in the public transport world. But they are ignoring the obvious, and that's the challenge that we have with them," Mr Miller says. 

The Government plans to build a light rail track running alongside Dominion Rd. But Mr Miller says the proposed light rail track will not be able to cope with the number of passengers, which is expected to double in the next 10 years. 

He told The AM Show the only international city to have light rail as their primary airport link is Seattle in Washington. He said, if Seattle had the opportunity to extend their existing rail lines, they would have done so. 

But Transport Minister Phil Twyford has said the planned light rail was not about making an express service, but about building a rapid transport network across Auckland City, whereby it could encourage people to not drive. 

He brushed off calls to extend the existing line in June, saying "heavy engineering" at the Puhinui end would make the project too expensive. 

"This is not primarily about giving tourists an express train to the airport to catch a plane; it's about connecting the two biggest concentrations - the CBD and airport precinct," said Mr Twyford. 

But Mr Miller says the extending existing rail lines could be completed for just $500 million, in contract to the estimated $3.5 billion cost projected by Mr Twyford for the Dominion Rd light rail to the airport. 

"I live off Dominion Rd, and I would love to see light rail on Dominion Rd, but fit for purpose light rail, not something that's the equivalent of the southern motorway going down it," he said.