I have had this idea for a while now. It seems a strange one at first, a kind of weird overkill that originally doesn’t seem particularly feasible, but I reckon it could work. The idea takes a lot from San Francisco, where the F-Line has operated enormously successfully for the last 15 or so years. Basically, it involves bringing trams back to Auckland. In particular, for them to run along Queen Street and Tamaki Drive, providing both a commuter service for people living in the eastern suburbs (which is a reasonably popular series of bus routes, although I’ve never caught any because it’s not that obvious where the route starts and finishes) and also a great tourist attraction.
Now there’s actually nothing particularly new about the idea of running trams along Queen Street. In fact, Auckland’s suburban development was largely dependent on the tram system – which first opened in 1900. Most of the bus routes that link the CBD with parts of the isthmus are the remnants of tram routes that used to run throughout the city. While we never had a system approaching the complexity and vastness of American cities such as Boston and New York, for Auckland’s size the tram system was fairly significant. It reached as far as Onehunga, Avondale and Ellerslie. The layout of streets in areas served by trams was largely a result of their presence, with a semi-grid format allowing quick access to the main arterial routes for as many people as possible. Most of these routes fed into Queen Street, which truly was the tram hub of the city, as a photo from 1919 below shows:
Auckland’s transportation heritage isn’t particularly well celebrated. Sure, we have MOTAT (the Museum of Transport and Technology), and a tourist tram line running between the two halves of this museum, but apart from that our general attitude towards transportation has been ‘out with the old, in with the new’. Classic examples of this include having an incredibly grand railway station which has been neglected to the point where it can’t even be used as student accommodation any longer as it was pretty much falling apart, the removal of the whole tram system in the 1950s, and the way the Newmarket train station building has been ‘hidden somewhere’. Bringing back trams to Auckland’s CBD would be a great way to celebrate our transportation heritage in my opinion. MOTAT continues to have a large number of old heritage trams, while I am sure there are many others out there somewhere just awaiting a reason to be restored to their former glory. San Francisco uses restored trams from all around the USA, and also some that have been imported from Milan in Italy, to fulfil its demand. I’m sure that Auckland could pull off something similar.
However, although the heritage reasons for this idea are important, in the end it should be mainly looked at as a way to improve transportation access in and around the parts of Auckland where it would travel. In my opinion, Queen Street does suffer from having too many buses run along it. Until we have all our buses being quiet and non-polluting, they are somewhat of a blight on what should be a predominantly pedestrian focused street. Whilst it is obvious that many buses will need to continue to use Queen Street, hopefully a tram route which travels along its entire length would mean that routes which begin and end on Queen Street might not have to run along its entire length. Secondly, the route along Tamaki Drive out to Mission Bay and St Heliers is one of Auckland’s most scenic. Driving along there certainly makes me happy to live in this city, particularly on a nice sunny day. On weekends there is significant congestion trying to get through Mission Bay, simply because there are so many people there. I haven’t yet caught a bus along Tamaki Drive on the weekend, but I am guessing that they would be pretty popular. During the week I also imagine that it’s a fairly popular bus route for commuters, and also for tourists visiting Kelly Tarlton’s, Mission Bay or St Helier’s Beach.
The map below shows the route of my proposed tram line:
But why a tram? Isn’t it going to be super-expensive? Yes I certainly agree there will be a reasonably significant cost in establishing this line. Tracks would need to be laid, the roads might need widening in areas (particularly along Tamaki Drive) and there would need to be overhead wires too. However, in my opinion the success of this route is dependent on it being a tram and not just another bus route. Riding the tram would be part of the experience, and therefore it would capture a LOT of tourists, and also Aucklanders travelling around their city for play on weekends, or to get to work during the week. Because a tram has fixed infrastructure, people have some faith in knowing where the tram they get on is going to go – the simplicity of the single route would attract a lot of people who would normally not be bothered with public transport and just take their car. In fact, if there has been a problem with the F Line in San Francisco, it is that the line has been FAR too popular. The operators of the line, MUNI, are scrambling to ensure they have enough streetcars, as the line has been enormously popular with tourists and local alike.