On the 7th of July 2003 – 10 years ago today – the very first train pulled into Britomart. It was a historic moment that brought the rail network back to the edge of the city for the first time in over 70 years, and helped spark the revival of not only the rail network, but public transport in general – as well as urban regeneration. In this post I’m going to look at some of the history behind Britomart, as well as the impact it has had on transport in Auckland. We will look at the impacts the project has had on the urban environment of the city in a separate post.
The area around Britomart was originally in the middle of the water in what was then known as Commercial Bay, and on the eastern edge of the bay was a large headland known as Point Britomart. In the 1870’s and 1880’s the headland was levelled to, among other things, allow for the rail network to reach into the burgeoning settlement.
In the 1920s, it was decided to move the station east to Beach Road, to provide more space for the increasing amount of train movements as well having a station which could provide a grand entrance to Auckland. It was recognised at the time that this location wasn’t ideal for passengers, and that an extension through the centre of town would be needed. It was known as the Morningside Deviation, and it was initially supported and even given funding by the government of the day. However, in 1930, just before the new Auckland Railway station opened, the scheme was cancelled by the government – leaving the rail stranded away from where most people were wanting to be.
Similar schemes to bring rail back to CBD came up in the 1950’s and 60’s through the Master Transportation Plan, which called for integrated road and PT developments. However, only the roading aspects were ever progressed. The idea was pushed once again in the 1970’s by Mayor Sir Dove Myer Robinson, in what became known Robbie’s Rapid Rail, which was eventually accepted by the Labour government of the day but cancelled by Robert Muldoon’s incoming government.
But perhaps the one thing that undid all of these previous plans was their pure size. They all involved not just extending the rail network through the city, but electrification and other network upgrades and extensions. In each case the price tag for everything simply became too scary and the schemes were abandoned. Britomart was then left to languish, as an area home to plenty of run down buildings, a car park and the city’s bus station.
In the mid 1995 Mayor Les Mills proposed to bring rail back to the city once again through a massive scheme. This time though it wasn’t the massive rail works that put people off but other aspects of the proposal. There was a five-storey underground transport interchange containing a train station with four rail lines and the provision for light rail, an underground bus terminal, and 2,900 car parking spaces. On top of that, many of the heritage buildings in the area were to make way for high-rise development. Also proposed was putting Quay Street underground and new public spaces. It was to be paid for in a partnership with an overseas developer. The underground works including the station were to occur in the first stage and would have cost up to $376 million, of which the council would pay $164 million. The developer was to pay the rest, and would then be able to redevelop many of the sites around the area.
The local body elections of 1998 saw a lot of people voted in on the campaign promise of “Rethink Britomart”, and this included Mayor Christine Fletcher. With the private developer also unable to raise the funding he needed for his share of the project, the Les Mills plan was scrapped and the council went back to the drawing board. They eventually came up with a smaller scheme, which revolved around an underground train station and restoration of the heritage buildings in the precinct. But it wasn’t without its challenges: the biggest issue was around funding, and while the overall scheme was smaller than that proposed in 1995, the council would have to pay for all of it, so the cost to the public actually increased. That naturally saw a lot more questions raised about the project. One example is this op-ed piece from then councillor Victoria Carter.
People have been saying for years that Auckland City needs trains to come into Queen St. It was only thanks to a strange quirk of politics that the railway station was built at the Strand, kilometres from Queen St. But is it too late? Even the Prime Minister has said that most Aucklanders don’t live within a cooee of a rail station.
Queen St has suffered from the movement of many businesses to the suburbs and to low-rise buildings with lots of carparking. The number of people who come to the central city to work has been decreasing for years. Now, more people travel around the city on the motorway system to get to their work or homes.
There is also the question of the patronage numbers that Auckland City councillors have been given to support the case for the terminal. When the terminal opens in 2003, an extra 400 people are expected to use the train. That’s a $260 million building for an extra 400 people in the first year.
Is an extra 400 people a year or projected growth of 13 per cent a year on trains sufficient justification for spending this huge amount of money?
Beca Carter has told the city council that by 2021 we can conservatively expect 10,000 people to use the terminal.
But we have no idea where the trains will run from in the future, what sort they will be, who will use them, whether they will be used by Auckland City’s ratepayers, or even if this is a mode people will choose to use.
History shows that even with new rolling stock and timetables, rail patronage is not increasing to the same degree as bus use.
With the cost of building the interchange increasing every year, ratepayers must ask: do we need a grand terminal like this? We must all ask ourselves whether we are really going to get out of our cars and on to a train. Or do we think it is our neighbours or the other person we pass on the motorway who should be using public transport?
Another is this from the Herald’s John Roughan on the cost of the project.
The problem of Britomart remains the same as it was: it arises from a vision no wider than a few blocks either side of Queen St. Just about all the planners, politicians – and now the boosters and business backers of Britomart II – spend their days in the central business district. They constantly forget that the vast majority of Aucklanders do not.
In fact, many of the region’s residents have no reason to come near the city centre and no wish to. That is a matter of natural concern to Queen St traders who style themselves “Heart of the City.” But it is not a reason to spend $1.3 billion on a centrally focused public transport system and $250 million on a downtown terminal alone.
Thankfully Christine Fletcher stood strong on the plan that was developed, signing the construction contract in her last days in office, before losing the mayoralty to John Banks who had called the project a “temple at the bottom of Queen St”, and vowed to stop it.
But construction went ahead, and the first train rolled into the station a few years later on this day in 2003.
The final touches were put on the station in the following few weeks, and it formally opened 25 July 2003 which included a parade down Queen St.
The impact of Britomart opening has been enormous. Rail patronage rose dramatically from around 2.5 million per year in 2003 to 10 million per year now.
It is often mentioned that the growth came about through cannibalising patronage on buses, and while that might have happened initially, bus use has actually increased from around 46 million to 54 million in the last decade. Ferries have also increased from 3.7 million to 5.4 million.
Not only has patronage increased, usage of Britomart has also beaten expectations. The business case in 2001 predicted that by 2011, 18,000 people would be using the station, and that 2021, just under 22,000 would be doing so. In 2011 the actual number of passengers recorded as using Britomart was over 25,000, well ahead of even the 2021 projections.
In other words, the station has been a resounding success. Without it, we probably wouldn’t have seen a revival in public transport to the same extent that we’ve seen. Without it, we probably wouldn’t have seen projects like double-tracking the western line, or electrification, and we certainly wouldn’t be talking about the City Rail Link. Without it we probably wouldn’t have seen the city start to regenerate itself in the way that it has. I would argue that Britomart is the single most important positive thing that has happened to urban Auckland in at least the last 60 years, maybe longer.
So thank you to Christine Fletcher and all of those who had the vision of making Auckland a better place. Those who saw that Auckland didn’t have to be consigned to a future of car-only development, and that we could do better, and made the project happen. The city has clearly become a much better place as a result of the work you did.
I suspect the next 10 years in the life of Britomart will be just as eventful as the first decade. Within the next year, the station will be wired up as part of electrification, and in April next year the first passenger-carrying electric trains will start arriving in the station. A few years later, we are likely to start seeing construction start for the City Rail Link. This will finally see the rail network extended through the centre of the CBD, similar to what was envisioned 90 years ago, and my guess is it will open in 2023, 20 years after rail was returned to the Auckland city centre.
If you have some good photos of Britomart that you want to share, put links to them in the comments and I will add some of them to the post.