You would think that when a survey of voters in the Auckland region highlights that transport is the most important issue in their minds, and then also highlight various rail projects as those considered most necessary by voters to “fixing” the transport problem, our main newspaper might actually do a bit of investigation into the projects being talked about? Well, up until now you’d be absolutely wrong.

As I noted in the blog post I wrote on the results of a survey undertaken by the NZ Herald into what local government voters thought were the most pressing issues, it was pretty amazing to see rail projects score so highly – as one of the options was simply “improve Auckland’s roading system”. Furthermore, I noted that the higher score of rail to the airport compared to the CBD rail tunnel was probably the result of not many people knowing that the CBD tunnel is probably necessary to enable airport rail to happen – because of Britomart’s capacity constraints. You would think that Auckland’s leading newspaper might be interested in exploring these big transport projects that people are saying they really want. After all there are plenty of interesting points of debate – the kind of thing that newspapers generally love:

  1. What are the costs of the various big rail projects (CBD rail tunnel, rail to the airport, North Shore rail and so on), how might they be paid for and what other projects might need to be delayed in order to build these ones (such as the holiday highway)?
  2. What progress has previously occurred on the big projects – where are they at and how realistic are the timeframes that are being bandied about for completing the projects?
  3. What do each of the projects actually entail – what stations would we have on an airport line, how fast would a trip from the airport to Britomart actually be?
  4. What are the likely benefits of each of the projects – the capacity improvements of the CBD tunnel, the speed improvements of a North Shore railway line, the wider economic benefits of an airport line?
  5. What other cities around the world have recently done similar projects – Brisbane airport rail, Vancouver’s Canada Line and so forth, and how are these projects working out?

It seems as though the Herald generally measures the success of its stories by the level of feedback and discussion it gets. If there are heaps of letters to the editor on an issue, then they’ll generally follow it up with other articles. One would think that an analysis of the pros and cons of the various big transport projects would generate significant debate – especially if a few opinion pieces and perhaps an editorial, even if it’s written by John Roughan and rubbishes rail as per usual, would stir up huge debate. Kind of odd that they haven’t done such a thing over the past few weeks.

Well, perhaps the Herald has finally come to the realisation that people are interested about improving our rail system and want to know a bit more about these big rail projects that everyone is talking about – as there’s quite a detailed article in today’s paper about the Airport Line: its likely cost, its possible benefits and where things are at.

There are a number of useful extracts, which seem uncannily similar to a blog post I did a couple of days ago.

Six organisations including the Transport Agency, KiwiRail, the Auckland Regional Transport Authority and Auckland International Airport Ltd are preparing to sign a memorandum of understanding to begin detailed planning investigations for airport rail services through both Onehunga and Puhinui.

Auckland Regional Council and Manukau City Council have also agreed to sign the document, even though they are about to be supplanted by the Super City.

This agreement has been in the works for quite a while, and I have blogged about it previously. A bit of last-minute fixing was required as the MoU was not specific enough about the airport connection being a railway line (even though previous studies suggest that a busway or light-rail would be stupid) but now that is fixed up, one hopes that we will see a similar study and phasing of the project as what is happening with the CBD rail tunnel (which reminds me, when is the Business Case for the CBD rail tunnel being released – I thought a preliminary study was due out in September??)

The article continues with some useful information on the details of the Airport Line – sourced from the same Beca report that I referred to a couple of days back:

In 2008, consultants recommended to the transport authority an airport loop costing about $1.5 billion and a $729 million heavy rail link between Onehunga and the western line at Avondale as offering greater connectivity than light rail or busways.

They estimated that a double-tracked railway from Penrose to Onehunga with bridges or tunnels replacing the sector’s eight road level-crossings would cost $271 million, and that running a line to the airport – across Manukau Harbour and then parallel to State Highway 20 and George Bolt Drive – would cost $707 million.

A 6.5km link west to the airport from Puhinui Station would cost about $471 million, providing greater initial cost-effectiveness but longer trips from Britomart.

Getting some further detail on the costs and benefits of this project is critical so we know where it should rank in terms of transport priorities for Auckland. Furthermore, getting the route protected as soon as possible is utterly essential – both to ensure there aren’t buildings erected in the way and also to ensure any future NZTA upgrades to SH20A are future-proofed to make it easier for rail (such as longer bridge spans if they ever get around to grade-separating Kirkbride Road).

The article also talks a lot about the difference between John Banks and Len Brown in terms of where they see the Airport Line in a list of transport priorities. I won’t dwell particularly much on that, as we’ve heard it all before. I’m just happy to finally see a NZ Herald article offering a bit of detail on these big rail projects everyone keeps talking about. Hopefully they’ll get around to doing an article on the necessity of the CBD rail tunnel some time soon.

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  1. It’s unfortunate that the Herald chose not to publish the projected annual and per trip cost to ratepayers implied by the Beca estimates. There’s also no indication that their survey respondents were given that information. It would be interesting to see what the tone of debate would be if people actually realized what those numbers are.

    1. If you are referring to the numbers I mentioned on another thread, your recollection is not right. Capital cost divided by peak patronage on one day would indeed be meaningless.

      The roughly $120/trip figure I mentioned was the sum of annual operating & maintenance costs plus annualized construction costs (amortized over 40 years), less fare revenue, all divided by the projected total patronage over a whole year. I’m still open to correction from anyone who has read the report and come to a different conclusion.

      1. Mark I did answer your post. The capital cost is surely treated separately from the operational and maintenance number, and amortised over an almost limitless period. The resultant number that this study reached is $19 per trip [$33.5m by 1.73m journeys p/a], still unrealistically high in my view but certainly one that is dealt with by the $17 economic ‘Road User Benefit’.

        1. Sorry Patrick, I read your response but I did miss your point. However I don’t think you can just ignore the capital cost. As far as I can tell the annualized figure in the table is real money that has to be paid to service the debt that would have to be incurred to build the system. Pushing the term out to infinity – if that were actually possible, might save you something, but it doesn’t avoid the fact that interest still has to be paid.

        2. “$17 economic ‘Road User Benefit’”

          My understanding is that the $17 per trip figure is only for trips to parts of the city that are heavily congested at the time. Such as in to the CBD at rush hour. While there probably are peaks of business air travel at the start and end of the business day, on the whole air travel is spread more evenly throughout the day. (Which is how airlines stay solvent – aircraft sitting on the ground aren’t even slightly profitable.) Couple that with the airport being situated in Mangere rather than the CBD and the benefits per trip will be a lot less.

          But if the supercity council wants to construct the rail line then it could finance most of it by selling its airport shares. Apparently owning a chunk of mackay, Cairns, and Queenstown airports is a higher priority than the rail line.

  2. Well I’ve done my bit: trying to get across a complex argument in 199 words is like trying to compose a Hiaku, so will be well pissed in the morning when they run the rantings of some road-only twonk instead my finely crafted response….

    The main thrust of which is this: It’s not about making money, does the road to the airport make money? No of course not. Should it? Well no, and should we expect a rail line to either? No, rail systems, like road systems, are services that are evaluated on an economic basis not a financial one. Please please don’t have a debate about investing in transport infrastructure like it is the same as running a lemonade stand at a fair: cost of lemons: x, price of lemonade x+1 = happiness. This is math even I can do, come on folks this is a slightly more complex business….. arrrrrg.

    Furthermore if you want to discredit any infrastructure investment, say a holiday highway, demand of it that it returns a profit, in actual cash. That is the point of Banks’ rant. To make this demand is a way of saying [speak like Humpty now] ‘I don’t like it, I don’t want it, I won’t do it’.

  3. Patrick you are completely right. There seems to be this sudden desire for rail to pay its way. It’s never going to do that in a pure profit and loss sense in most cases. What it does do directly is lessen the need to build and expand expensive roads and (speaking for public transport in total) for some individuals to not have to run an expensive car.

    Roads are currently well funded through fuel exercise tax and road user charges, amongst over things. The current government believes that migating the use of these roads (and therefore the cost of maintaining and expanding those roads) with cost effective alternatives is not sound, but that is odd. If I want gas at my house I can get it piped off the street (if it runs past my house) or I can get large bottles of it delivered. Either way I have gas. The government is saying ‘only piped gas works for us, so that’s all we fund’. At the end of the day both road and PT provide transport options. If the most cost effective way of expanding any given route is converting journey types then this is what we should do. And despite what the road lobby say we do not have endless capacity to build roads nor deal with the resulting number of cars that need to be parked at journey’s end.

    Anyway, back to the subject of this blog. I would not hold your breath on the Herald achieving anything in this space. They’ve run a three day campaign ‘to save the St James’ and it already seems to be petering out…that’s a $50m investment. How they going to go on something in the billions?

    1. I tend to use this analogy:

      Basically, saying that petrol tax money can only be spent on road improvements is like saying that money from tobacco excise can only be spent on addressing the negative health impacts of smoking (ie. not on smoking prevention). Allowing fuel tax to be spent on rail, coastal shipping and so forth is a way of preventing the problems (congestion, safety, pollution) caused by an over-reliance on our road network.

      People would call you insane if you said tobacco excise dollars cannot be spent on preventative measures, like trying to get people to quit smoking – yet with transport policy we see the exact equivalent.

  4. I think the key message when someone says “rail doesn’t pay its way” is to constantly mention the NZTA table saying that each peak hour rail trip generates $17 in road user benefits. Rail does “pay its way” in a broad sense, just that the benefits are enjoyed by road users, by the city generally (in that it requires fewer motorways and carparks) and in other uncosted ways such as reduced pollution.

    1. Mentioning the $17 may not help if the costs I mentioned elsewhere are correct… and keep in mind that those costs were averaged over the whole year, not just for peak hour. If the road user benefits are also averaged over all trips the comparison will only get worse.

  5. Well the answer to your question flopped into my letterbox this morning [I know, I know, I actually send them money? Well I’m used to having something to shout at over breakfast]. No follow up of any kind on the rail issue, certainly not my letter, but not even something by a ‘pave, baby pave’ Cromagnon.
    It’s all too consistent, they hate that transit is the issue and they want to bury it. Or what? They can’t read polls? or they can but don’t think there’s any commercial reason to play the dominant issue of concern for their readers during an election? Or are they so arrogant that they think it’s their responsibility to ‘guide’ us poor souls? Or are they just thick? This is a case where some competition would be good.

    Anyhoo, in order to help me not slide into total frustration here’s the 199 words the Herald won’t print [perhaps I can’t write?]:

    Most of the discussion about a proposed rail line through Southwest Auckland including the airport is about whether it can make a profit.

    Is this really the right question? Does the road to the airport make a profit? To demand that such a service makes money is to oppose the very idea of it. No road makes a profit. Both road systems and rail systems are services with benefits that are calculated economically not financially.

    The NZTA states that for every $1 spent on public transport in Auckland it saves $4.40 in ‘Road user Benefits’. This is a 4.4 to 1 return for its investment. Not bad. And one that is experienced by road users through reduced congestion. This is a cost benefit ratio way better, for example, than the one expected from the proposed Puhoi Wellsford highway.

    As these major transit decisions largely shape our city and our lives clearly it is time they were discussed on the same basis so we can choose the best way forward.

    For is it not essential we grasp that Auckland is no longer a provincial town and needs planning of a different quality to what we have had up till now?

  6. “(such as longer bridge spans if they ever get around to grade-separating Kirkbride Road).”

    They are working on that, is likely to happen within 1-2 years.

    “No follow up of any kind on the rail issue, certainly not my letter, but not even something by a ‘pave, baby pave’ Cromagnon.”

    Often, they do wait 1-2 days at least until a couple of letters have accumulated, or some more reporting is done. There’s no certainty of course, but I wouldn’t be quite so negative just because there’s a day without them mentioning it. A good rail article every couple weeks or months over the coming years would be quite sufficient. After all, we are rail nerds, but the rest of the world isn’t – they may like to actually RIDE a train, but they won’t think all the long lead-up to build a new line to e as interesting as we do.

  7. OK, OK, I’ll calm down. My point is that if I were running a paper and every poll said this is what the people care about and there was an election running I do would be cranking up coverage of the issue from every angle and doing my level best to being relevant and even leading the issue. I’m not expecting them to agree with the views on this site or anything, in fact again if i were the ed, I’d be winding up every view; pouring petrol onto any disagreement to get a good old stoush going- and doing my level best to being the place where that stoush is happening. I guess because of the Herald’s monopoly it has yet to feel the new tech heat like so many other papers- its circulation has been rising unlike Fairfax’s papers.

    But also I do just feel that time is running out, by the time Joyce is done there will be no money left for major capital works and we’ll have done little to prepare for the new unaffordable oil age. Read this, very compelling, and wonderfully written too:

  8. Just cos ARTA is meant to be sending a draft business case to Joyce in September doesn’t necessarily mean it will be released publicly. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t come out till 24th of December 🙂

  9. “But also I do just feel that time is running out, by the time Joyce is done there will be no money left for major capital works and we’ll have done little to prepare for the new unaffordable oil age.”

    I agree, we are digging a deeper hole at the moment. On the other hand, some of the really big and most wasteful projects in Joyce inventory (Puhoi, Second Harbour Crossing as a train route-preventing bridge) are still many years away, so a lot can happen before that money is spent.

  10. There you go Patrick, your letter has been printed along with another one talking about the benefits to communities like Mangere 🙂

  11. Thanks Matt I’m on a roll! Do you think it might even provoke Humpty to get a staffer to fire back? Something sneery about ‘not understanding how these things work’ etc…. or even that vile right wing thinktank dude….

  12. Unfortunately any time topics like this get too popular they drag out Mr McShane to provide the libertarian right winger 1960s ‘alternate perspective’.

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