Fancy a rail commute from Auckland Airport to CBD? A closer look at $14 billion light rail vision

Picture this: Your journey starts at Auckland Airport - you travel through Māngere, over Manukau Harbour to Mt Roskill, and then underground where you end up at Wynyard Quarter. 

That's the multibillion-dollar light rail vision a group of experts have recommended to the Government, to support more housing, give people transport choices, and build a linked up transport network for congested Auckland.

But it won't come cheap. The Government has already spent more than $30 million since October 2017 on light rail, despite no shovels in the ground. And the new preferred option, tunnelled light rail, has a $14.6 billion price tag. 

"For a similar price tag Auckland could get itself a second, much needed, multimodal harbour crossing," says National transport spokesperson David Bennett. "This would be a much smarter strategic investment for our largest city."

Transport Minister Michael Wood sent light rail back to the drawing board in March, tasking a group of experts to develop a business case to revive the project. The Government will make decisions later this year, with design work expected to start in early 2022.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pledged during the 2017 election campaign that Labour would build light rail from downtown Auckland to the airport within a decade. That leaves just six years to get light rail finished. 

Light rail would be constructed alongside the $4.4 billion underground City Rail Link, which is on schedule to deliver two underground train tunnels and stations connecting Mt Eden to Karangahape Rd and the CBD, by late-2024. 

How would light rail work?

The Auckland Light Rail team of experts have decided that tunnelled light rail is the best option going forward, compared to surface light rail with a $9 billion price tag and light metro which would cost a whopping $16.3 billion. 

The experts said tunnel light rail would provide the least disruption, and the best opportunities for future network integration to a wider rail network. The tunnel would extend from the Wynyard Quarter to Mt Roskill.

The surface running light rail option, while much cheaper, would significantly disrupt Dominion Rd and wouldn't deliver on expectations. 

All options require construction in heavily populated areas of Auckland, however, including the CBD, Onehunga and Māngere town centre, so it's guaranteed the construction will spell major disruption to businesses. 

The light rail option would require surface construction for the entire length of the route and is likely to require partial and full road closures for periods of three to five years, depending on the location. 

Fancy a rail commute from Auckland Airport to CBD? A closer look at $14 billion light rail vision
Photo credit: Supplied

The favoured tunnelled light rail option would reduce surface impacts to the locations of stops, but requires landing areas for tunnel boring machines. These locations would likely experience significant disruption due to the depth and complexity of construction.

But it remains the most promising option because the tunnel could be extended to connect with the future North Shore and Northwest lines which are also expected to be tunnelled. 

It also has significantly higher capacity than the surface light rail option. This is important because passenger demand is tipped to increase by around 20 to 30 percent when North Shore and Northwest lines are connected because more people will want to use the service.

Being underground also means the train would not be competing for road space with cars. It would mean more space for cyclists, scooters and pedestrians. In the future, North Shore passengers would be able to travel all the way through to the airport if they needed to. 

Fancy a rail commute from Auckland Airport to CBD? A closer look at $14 billion light rail vision
Photo credit: Supplied

Why is light rail needed?

National views the proposed $14 billion for a "tram" as "economic lunacy". 

"It's over $600 million a kilometre to build and will service only 10 percent of Auckland's expected growth," says transport spokesperson David Bennett. 

"This massive spend doesn't stack up economically and is another political decision rather than a strategic decision for the future of Auckland."

Bennett is right. The Auckland Light Rail team of experts say the corridor which light rail will service contains 60,000 households. By 2051, there will be potentially 31,000 additional households which equates to 10.5 percent of Auckland's forecast growth.

But by that time, the ability of buses to operate effectively at such higher volumes will be constrained, so well before 2051 they will not meet forecast travel demand and New Zealand could not meet its net zero carbon target by 2050. 

Therefore, the Auckland Light Rail team say rapid transit is the way to go. 

Fancy a rail commute from Auckland Airport to CBD? A closer look at $14 billion light rail vision
Photo credit: Supplied

But around 3000 additional households will be needed every year over 20 years in the corridor to meet demand. That level of development will only be achievable if the investment in rapid transit is accompanied with the required urban interventions.

The Government is expected to fund most of the costs, while Auckland Council would be expected to make a material contribution to operating costs.

What do Aucklanders think?

During their consultations, the Auckland Light Rail team found that 66 percent of people supported light rail, with corridor communities and south Auckland communities showing strongest support. 

They found that the affordability of using light rail will affect whether people choose it over other forms of transport. People also want places of civic and heritage value along the corridor to be protected.