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.

AT-ARTA-Image-TrainsAtBritomart

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.

Britomart History 1

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.

Original Auckland Rail Station

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.

robbie-system

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.

Rail Patronage 1990-2013

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.

Britomart Projection Numbers

Britomart Projection Numbers Graph

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.

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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.

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56 comments

  1. Awesome post. I was living in Auckland in 1998-1999, and recall the myopic squabbling that occurred around the construction of Britomart. Thankfully it ended up being built.

  2. First scheduled services began on 23 July 2003. And here’s the proof – the only train ticket I’ve ever kept:

    1. I believe that was the official opening day but some services started using it from 7th July
      Here is the press release from the council back then about it. http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/AK0307/S00040.htm

      World class travel for Britomart users

      Monday, 7 July 2003, 9:39 am
      Press Release: Auckland City Council
      World class travel for Britomart users

      Aucklanders were able to witness a moment in history today when the first passenger train rolled in to the impressive Britomart Transport Centre early this morning.

      Britomart railway station is now fully operational and providing a convenient hub for commuters in downtown Auckland. This opening is one of the first event milestones for Auckland City Council: it is the culmination of all the hard construction work started in November 2001.

      Temporary access arrangements have been provided, as the final touches are being made: Access to the station is by;
      – stairs via the concourse under the former Chief Post Office (CPO)
      – lifts via the glasshouse that connects the station with the former CPO
      – lifts, stairs and escalators at the eastern end of the station Passengers can be dropped off or picked up on Galway Street. Tickets can be purchased at the temporary ticketing and information area at the eastern end (B1 level). Ambassadors will be on site to help and answer any queries.

      The opening of the train station supports Auckland City Council’s inspired vision for the Central Business District (CBD). It is a beginning for Auckland and its public transport network. The new Britomart Transport Centre will serve existing bus and rail services and the adjacent ferry to suburban destinations around the harbour.

      “Britomart is a major step in creating a modern, integrated public transport network for Auckland,” says Councillor Greg McKeown. “Britomart not only gives the CBD a world class transport centre, but it is also a crucial part of an integrated public transport network, that will link many thriving centres within Auckland City and the region.”

      The Britomart Transport Centre will officially open on Friday 25 July 2003 and a free public festival day will follow on Saturday 26 July 2003. This festival day will provide an opportunity for all to fully explore the station and celebrate the successful completion of Britomart.

    2. Oops. I meant, of course, 26 July: I caught the first Western line train in to the station (no, I’m not a train obsessive; I was finishing an MA thesis, so, en charette!) and, like today, it was a two car ADL; and, like today, it was hourly services on the Western line during weekends. So some things just don’t change.

  3. From your graph of rail patronage – any idea what brought about the rise in passenger numbers between 1993 and 1996 and why it then levelled off until Britomart opened?

    1. 1993 was when the ADK/ADL diesels from Perth were introduced, with some timetable improvements and station upgrading – platforms had to be raised to near floor height because, unlike the 56-foot carriages used until then, the units have no external steps. (Wiri had no platform at all!)

      1. Thanks. Remarkable then (and noteworthy) that all it took to double patronage at that time was to replace very old rolling stock with second hand rolling stock. Imagine if we could have had new trains 20 years ago.

  4. Distinguishing between the date a facility opens to the public and the date of an official opening (often some time later, sometimes beforehand) is a bit of minefield for historians, particularly when the dates are close together. In this case, just to complicate the issue even further the ticket shows that there was an Opening Festival Day on yet another date.

    So Britomart and the line from Quay Park junction opened to the public on 7 July, the station was officially opened on 25 July, and there was on opening festival on 26 July 2003.

  5. Yes happy birthday Britomart. I was at the terminal this morning, I thought there may have been some sort of occasion to mark ten years but no sign of this. Was I there two early in the day?

    I asked a guy at the customer service centre but he wasn’t aware it was the ten year anniversary.

    Surely this is worth a bit more recognition?

      1. Okay thanks. Sadly I’ll be at work so won’t be able to share in this. Must be for politicians and staff.

  6. Wouldn’t mind seeing photos of before and afters of the area around Britomart, when I was in Auckland last year I was stunned at how different the area around Britomart had changed for the better (ie around the Westpac building area). I can’t even remember what it looked like 10-15 years ago.

    1. Here is one from Auckland Transport.

      Edit: A couple more of the old bus station

      Or this one from 1999

      And this one showing the old carpark on the site

  7. For those interested, here is a heap of links to old Herald articles and a few other pieces from around 2000 and 2001 when Britomart was being debated.

    Auckland City Council And Britomart Budget Blowout
    David Thornton 13/03/2001
    http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/AK0103/S00042.htm

    Britomart’s cost goes up $75.5m
    16/03/2001
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=177517

    Baby Britomart puts on weight
    20/03/2001
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=178184

    Dialogue: Grave doubts plague Son of Britomart
    04/05/2001
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=186809

    Dialogue: Britomart must not be allowed to stagnate
    04/05/2001
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=187571

    Dialogue: Britomart decisions most vital since harbour bridge
    16/05/2001
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=189010

    Editorial: Don’t sell us short on Britomart plan
    18/07/2001
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=200638

    Cash blow threatens Britomart
    19/07/2001
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=200961

    Dialogue: Reality check for Queen St temple
    21/07/2001
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=201249

    Full speed backwards on road to Britomart
    30/07/2001
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=202794

    Govt. Bullying Tactics On Britomart Out Of Order
    David Thornton 30/07/2001
    http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/AK0107/S00071.htm

    $45m kickstarts Britomart
    06/08/2001
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=204187

    Study favours bus use
    AA – 12/09/2001
    http://natlib.govt.nz/records/30812061?search%5Bi%5D%5Bsubject%5D%5B%5D=Auckland+City+Council&search%5Bi%5D%5Bsubject%5D%5B%5D=Public+transportation&search%5Bil%5D%5Bcontent_partner%5D=Auckland+Libraries&search%5Bil%5D%5Bprimary_collection%5D=findNZarticles&search%5Bpage%5D=3&search%5Bpath%5D=items

    Auckland’s great headache
    29/09/2001
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=219422

    Former mayor shuns Britomart opening
    18/06/2003
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=3507958+

    Britomart Transport Centre Opens
    07/07/2003
    http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0307/S00046.htm

    World class travel for Britomart users
    07/07/2003
    http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/AK0307/S00040.htm

    Cartoon http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22304563
    08/07/2003

    How new transport centre was born
    26/07/2003
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=3514766

    1. Interesting reading the criticism from former councillors voicing concern about the cost and maybe we should just run buses. You don’t hear much from them now.

      Thank goodness for people with some vision!

  8. It would be quite good to see some anti Britomart, and anti CRL articles next to eachother so that the similarity of the arguments can be highlighted and the opponents ridiculed.

    1. That assumes Britomart has been a success in the eyes of the opponents, to the point where it has somehow proved their opinions wrong.

        1. I’m afraid that even now there are still such people around. I have the occasional debate at work with colleagues who swear blind that Britomart and the rail network are not worth spending any more money on. Showing them graphs or data such as that given above is an exercise in futility.

      1. Well the arguments were that no one would use it and that it wouldn’t be good for urban renewal, those seem to have been largely disproven.

        1. Yes, agreed about those two arguments. There were other arguments about the desicion to invest capital into passenger rail without a coherent path to profitability. Those types of argument haven’t been disproven by the performance to date.

          1. A coherent path to rail profitability would have to begin with a parallel path to road profitability. A rather lofty goal to couple to ACC building a railway station downtown.

          2. Not to mention a path to profitability for footpaths, public toilets, parks, libraries, pools, recycling, and all the other stuff councils do that we don’t expect to be profitable.

  9. Thanks for this post. The link will be built and the John Roughan style myopia that has for so long blighted Auckland will be consigned to histories ash heap. I hope that Mayor Robinson will be commemorated in some way too.

    1. Well, there’s already a statue of him in Aotea Square and a park named after him in Parnell, at Judges Bay.

      1. Once Aotea Station is opened, we should move that statue of his to the main entry! Imagine getting off the first train to roll into the city on opening day, and getting off to throw his fist salute back at him!

  10. I’ve only started using Britomart in the last few months, so was surprised to learn 10 years have passed already! It’s holding up well for 10 years use, but parts of it do leak in wet weather resulting in lots of yellow “slippery” signs and some staining in sections of the concrete. As a business analyst, I’m always fascinated to watch two trains arrive simultaneously and the passengers disgorge from the station. It works extremely well, with minimal queuing.

    It is really pure luck that the politics of the day managed to push it over the line, and we continue to fight the same fights today. One of my work colleagues (who uses the Eastern Line daily) is adamant we don’t need the CRL and if only the “throat” of Britomart had been built wider, all problems would have been removed. Ironically he is of the political persuasion that was against Britomart in the first place, and conveniently forgets that we’re lucky to have a “throat” and a station at all.

    Thanks for the showing the projected stats, and the actual results. I am puzzled why the planners overestimated the number of Britomart boardings during the 2 hour morning peak, implying that passengers would taking the train away from the CBD to work elsewhere – at a time when fewer people lived in the CBD than today.

    Oh, and suck it Gerry “Aucklanders only want their cars” Brownlee. Build it and they will come.

    1. I agree, it has held up extremely well.

      Ironically, using the prescribed transport discount rate of the day (10%), by 2013 Britomart is conferring relatively little benefit to the city. Hmm … 🙂

      1. Stu I think we need a post on that 🙂

        And yes I agree it has held up very well. Arriving in the station you don’t feel like it is 10 years old which is excellent.

      2. Indeed, that is only 35% of the benefits stillbeing seen as applicable.

        I love Britomart, it is a very handsome station.

        1. Indeed, full credit to Mayor Fletcher, and none but birckbats to John “Motorway” Banks.

          Oh and while we’re at it Loser Banks, getting your mate Don Brash to recommend that Auckland City Council sell off half the Auckland Council owned airport shares to “reduce debt” has cost the Auckland City Council (and now Auckland Council) way more than Britomart cost to build when you consider in lost dividends and the missed capital growth on those shares.

          Back.to Britomart, my wife had never been in Britomart until about 18 months ago when we used it to get to/from Pacifica the last 2 times. She was very impressed and compared it the sort of thing they build in Europe. And she could not believe this could be built here. And that was after 8.5 years of use.

          Those old Bus station photos look really ancient now, even though they are *only* a decade or so old.
          And consider that in about 10 years when CRL is fully up and running,
          The entire CRl argument, the CBD growth predictions and the disjointed transport mode arrangements (including pending EMU arrival) from this year will all seem as old fashioned and irrelevant as the Britomart “to build it or not” arguments seem to use now.

      3. That isn’t really what discount rates mean Stu. Remember they are ex ante so have a risk component, as well as a “time preference” component. So a discount rate isn’t about what use future people will have for a project post facto. Although I agree 10% is fairly high.

  11. We’ve come a really long way in 10years I’m really keen to look at what the best route options we can do once the new trains arrive and electrification and ticket integration happens.
    I was reading some of the older articles (http://greaterakl.wpengine.com/2012/06/20/an-auckland-metro-possibilities-complications-and-conclusions/#comment-40619) among others and I decided to make a updated graphic of the one that the other chap made along the same lines but with a few tiny adjustments. It would be great to have a crosstown link to really capture all those new passengers that currently aren’t served by swapping trains and want to go directly.

    1. Our preference is to have much more through routing and use Britomart as much less of a Terminus post CRL. We have some new maps coming over the next few days for y’all.

      One interesting advantage of working those two outer platforms for the local intra-city routes is that it does free up the three central slots for inter-city trains….

        1. i.e what possible routes could we do with our current network to boost passenger numbers to allow the construction of the CRL to be bought forward. That route diagram is based on the one the other guy did based off your comments? In terms of working with our current assets a cross town route seems like it would not only capture new passengers that it served better, but take away some stress from britomart.

  12. happy birthday Britomart, it was great when it opened in July 2003, it made it easier to get into the city rather than to walk from The Strand

  13. What a great birthday present to hear they’re starting the CRL under Downtown early.

    Having the Britomart entrance tunnel built early (it was complete and boarded up for a few years from memory, perhaps Geoff has photos?) was a key factor in ensuring the station would eventually and definitely be built.

  14. Are there any plans to have a proper bus terminal as there was pre Britomart. (I realise it did not accommodate all services back then), rather than the shambles that exists post Britomart

    1. In theory you will start to see fewer and fewer buses needing to travel all the way into the CBD as they will be turned into feeders. In theory only buses from the Shore, inner Isthmus, and the eastern bays will be required to come all the way in. Once the CRL comes in you will be able to provide for transfer for these services at any one of four inner city stations which will reduce the amount of buses converging on the downtown area even further.

      1. A lot of services will start to run through the CBD instead of terminate there. A bus terminal is planned somewhere around Wynyard as part of the new network even before the CRL that will take Dominion and Sandringham Rd services amongst others, while other routes will run straight through the CBD and out the other end (such as Mt Albert-Herne Bay-CBD-Glen Innes, and Onehunga-CBD-Takapuna).

        1. I wasn’t suggesting they terminate at stations but that you have four stations so you can potentially take some of the load off the downtown streets by running them past Newton or K Road stations.

  15. Yes Happy Birthday Britomart!
    I now unfortunately live in Rotorua, But was born in Auckland in 1946.
    This makes me of the age when we visit Auckland I travel for free, and always visit that rail citidael Britomart! There is a NZR&LS meeting I am attending tonight in town & it will be interesting to see if the fans present know what happened on 25th July 2003!

  16. Thanks for this most enlightening post Matt. The move to Britomart has been such a clear success story, and it really does show that projects like the CRL and expansion of the rail network can reap surprisingly large benefits even at this early stage in the development of our public transport system.

    I like Waspman’s comment above – seeing those pictures from the 80’s made me remember the old bus station, through which I would commute to far-flung student summer jobs before the crack of dawn. It was by no means the grandest or most elegant of bus stations, but it was very functional and easy to find the bus you wanted because they mostly left from the same place, and in the same direction, and the platforms were set out like in a railway station.

    I wonder where planning is at with this because it would be great to recapture that efficiency somehow.

  17. Great to see these pictures of Britomart before and after.

    These are some pictures from Assen in the Netherlands before and after the campaign there to make cycling safer.http://hembrow.eu/cycling/assenverandert.html

    I really hope one day I can show my grandchildren photos like this about Auckland and they will be shocked by the massive traffic sewers we now call streets.

  18. The station has been a “resounding success”? Except for, you know, bus users, in which case it’s been a humungous non-event. $300 million plus for 20 million rail trips. Something close to zero dollars for 50 million bus trips. In exchange for… bus spread confusingly around the CBD, next to zero bus priority areas in the CBD, inadequate seating, zero staff on hand for bus service information, few if any amenities for bus users, and for most of the period paying higher prices than train passengers.

    Yeah, Britomart’s been great for the minority. A shame they entirely forgot to do anything for the majority of public transport users. and does anyone else remember the “pedestrian boulevard” we were goignt o have stretching from Britomart to Vector Arena? Uhuh.

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