Phil Twyford on how Labour can progress Auckland light rail without New Zealand First

Labour's Phil Twyford wants to "get cracking" with light rail now that New Zealand First isn't in the picture, three years after promising to build it from Auckland CBD to Mt Roskill by 2021.

Twyford, who served as Transport Minister and is yet to be confirmed in the role for a second term, said Labour and NZ First "achieved a lot" as a coalition Government but he acknowledged it was NZ First that stopped light rail from progressing.

"You're telling me that?" he laughed, when it was put to him that NZ First was the reason light rail didn't get across the line. "There's no question that the fewer parties you have in Government, the less transactions there are, and the easier it is."

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern pledged during the 2017 election campaign that Labour would build light rail from downtown Auckland to the airport within a decade. 

Labour had already promised to build light rail from Auckland CBD to Mt Roskill and Ardern said at the time it would be complete in four years, but three years have passed and light rail is nowhere to be seen in the country's biggest city.

Speaking as the Labour transport spokesperson and caretaker minister, Twyford said the Ministry of Transport has been working on advice for the last few months and that would "come forward in short order" now that Labour has a strong mandate.

"It'll go to Cabinet," he said. "But you know, we've been very clear all through the campaign and since the original Cabinet decision to not proceed with the decision... we've been very clear about what our preferred option is and we want to get cracking on it."

Labour's Phil Twyford.
Labour's Phil Twyford. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

What went wrong?

Progress has been made. The Auckland Light Rail project is a key priority in the Auckland Transport Alignment Project 2018 which identifies the Government's and Auckland Council's transport priorities for Auckland.

In 2018, the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) began working on a business case for CC2M, a light rail track that would connect Auckland CBD to Māngere. It was suggested the track would then be expanded north and north-west in the future.

In April 2018, the Government received an unsolicited bid from NZ Infra, a joint venture between the NZ Super Fund and a Canadian investment group. It was estimated at $10bn and proposed a tunnel under Queen St and elevated sections over Mt Eden.

The unsolicited bid from NZ Infra was dismissed by then-interim chair of NZTA Nick Rogers. Twyford criticised NZTA in 2019 for not properly assessing the proposal and responsibility for light rail was given to Treasury and the Ministry of Transport.

In December 2019, the Secretary for Transport Peter Mersi confirmed that both NZTA and NZ Infra had submitted proposals for light rail and that the Ministry of Transport would lead the process to consider them. 

The evaluation process ended without the appointment of a preferred delivery partner. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed the process down and it became clear that Cabinet could not reach consensus.

What light rail could look like in Auckland.
What light rail could look like in Auckland. Photo credit: Auckland Transport

Twyford announced in June that Cabinet had agreed to suspend the light rail project until after the election because the Government parties "were unable to reach an agreement" - the Greens were in favour but not NZ First.

Twyford told reporters at the time he worked hard on getting light rail across the line and was disappointed NZ First could not be convinced.

"I'm sick of sitting in traffic. I know that what Auckland needs is a modern rapid transit system - and light rail or a light metro system would deliver that."

NZ First leader Winston Peters denied he blocked it from going forward but expressed concern about the potential multibillion-dollar cost. He also didn't like the idea of the Canadian proposal with a contract going overseas.

"I'm not blocking light rail or any other rail," he said. "As a fiscal proposition, with offshore proprietorship, it did not work. The reality is that every programme has got to stack up, has got to be fiscally sound and it's got to work."

The NZ Infra offer is no longer on the table, a spokesperson confirmed to Newshub. 

Now that NZ First has been voted out of Parliament and Labour has won a majority, Twyford said he's looking forward to getting started on light rail - but he paid respect to NZ First for what the coalition Government achieved.

"We feel that we achieved a lot over the last three years with New Zealand First and I don't want to disrespect that legacy," he said. "I've had communications with some of them. We worked really closely together - they were colleagues."

Labour's Damien O'Connor didn't mince his words when asked if it will be easier for Labour governing without NZ First.

"Yes, it will be."

What happens next?

When the new Government is formed, the Ministry of Transport and Treasury will present its recommendations for light rail going forward.

The cost of the project is still unknown because the Government will need to make decisions before the costs and time frames can be confirmed. 

National criticised Labour during the election campaign for not including light rail in its financial plan, but Ardern said that was "ridiculous" because a business case was yet to be completed.  

The project is approximately 23km in length from the city centre through to Auckland Airport.

A Cabinet paper says the number of people living, working and travelling within the CC2M corridor is expected to grow significantly over the next 30 years hence the reason for the location. It contains areas of publicly owned land for which the Government has housing redevelopment plans.

The light rail project is being planned alongside City Rail Link, a 3.45km twin-tunnel underground rail up to 42 metres below the Auckland city centre.

The City Rail Link is due for completion in late 2024 and costs $4.419 billion.