By the time the City Rail Link opens in 2022/23, the idea will have been over 100 years in the making, in one form or another. I thought I’d look at how the project and concept have evolved over that century.

The idea originally started in the early 1910’s by people living in the west and north-west who wanted shorten the journey to the city via a spur from around Morningside to the back of the Town Hall, with a terminus station likely taking over Myers Park.

In 1924 the government approved a large package of works for rail all around the country. In Auckland that included building the Eastern line and shifting the train station and freight facilities to Beach Rd. Included as an integral part of the plans was the Morningside Deviation – the first iteration of CRL. It was also expected that electrification of the network would be needed. There are no images from the time but the route, including a tunnel of just over 2.3km, was fairly direct between Beach Rd and Morningside. It was described as:

The route is from the new station site, across Beach Rd then by a tunnel in a straight line to a point beneath the normal school. The tunnel takes a slight curve to Wakefield Street, where the proposed underground station will be situated, with a double line platform. Thence the route is by tunnel to the vicinity of the bottom of Newton Road. An open line continues along the gully to Morningside, where there will be another short tunnel.

There’s a little more detail on the route here too.

Note: it is often quoted that the CRL was first approved in 1923 however the first newspaper reports I can find of the government approving it were in October 1924. There was also a lot of talk at the time for another deviation going from Morningside all the way to Kumeu effectively along what is now SH16.

In early 1930, the government abandoned the project, primarily citing the cost. But it seems they may have deliberately stacked the odds against the project, with more than half of the cost being to electrify the network from Papakura to Helensville. Organisations such as the Auckland Chamber of Commerce were quick to question why it was necessary to electrify to Helensville instead of just Swanson like earlier experts had suggested. It was also pointed out that the only reason people were complacent about the moving of the Auckland station out of the city was because the tunnel had been promised at the same time. One interesting aspect that emerged later was the government also added two extra stations to the plans, one near Karangahape Rd and one in the Arch Hill gully. Interestingly the K Rd station entrance is in exactly the same place at the end of Cross St as AT are building.

1929 - Morningside Deviation - K Rd station

In 1946 the Ministry of Works included the project in their fairly well balanced transport plan for Auckland, using what appears to be the same route as described in the 1920’s. It’s also interesting to note what else they proposed at the time, including not sending motorways through the existing urban area.


In 1950 British consultants Halcrow & Partners produced what became known as the Halcrow-Thomas report for the Railways department. Among other things, they recommended the electrification of the Auckland rail network and the building of the Morningside Deviation, although slightly differently to what had been proposed in the past.


Road planners were also coming up with motorway schemes, and so with arguments developing over future plans, a technical advisory committee was set up to come up with a Master Plan. As the late Paul Mees explains the committee was stacked with 23 traffic engineers and only one railway engineer, so it was no surprise when the 1955 the Master Transportation Plan really set Auckland on its motorway focused ways. It proposed a motorway network which even today politicians and road lobbyists call for the completion of. It argued that the Morningside Deviation couldn’t be justified compared to the cheap motorways (they turned out to be anything but cheap). However even in this road orgy of a plan it was suggested that rail needed to be closer to the centre of town, and they proposed a spur from the Beach Rd station to Victoria St – interestingly to the site of what is now the Victoria St carpark.


Victoria St rail spur plan

In the early 1960’s, American Consultants De Leuw Cather were hired to come up with a plan for Auckland. The report they produced expanded on the motorway and expressway excesses of the 1955 plan, but they also produced a rapid transit plan which they said needed to be built first to prevent the motorways from becoming congested. Their plans released in 1965 included a potential future regional transit network.

De Leuw Cather Report 1965: Rapid Transit plan for Auckland

To start with it, seems they suggested a route along Beach Rd with a station near the Queen St/Custom St intersection and another one at Aotea, with the potential to be extended further.

de leuw cather transit map

Included was this design for the Queen/Customs Station. There were also plans for suburban stations with integrated bus facilities.


Despite the recommendation that the transit parts of the plan needed to be pursued at the very least at the same time as the motorway plan, it seems that part of the report was simply ignored by the powers of the day.

In 1972 the most famous scheme of all was promoted by mayor Sir Dove-Myer Robinson. Based on the 1965 De Leuw Cather report the network proposed looks the same – and I suspect before the image above which appears a more scaled back version.

1972 Auckland rail network proposal

What was interesting is the design in the city centre which included a tight loop with two stations. Quite whether the close junctions could handle all of the train movements isn’t clear, but this is probably where the Loop name originated.

The City Loop proposal from 1972. Click to view full detail.
The City Loop proposal from 1972. Click to view full detail.

By 1974 this had morphed into the Auckland Rapid Transit System, which was focused on just the city centre and Southern/Eastern lines. Extensions of it to the West and North could come later. Again it was suggested to be built in phases, effectively duplicating the rail network we already had, and also dramatically reducing stations which would have sped up services.


There is more of the article here.

Archives NZ says this plan was from c.1970 and appears to be more of the plan above showing the potential future regional network rather than directly related to the 1965 and 1972 versions.

1970 - Proposed Rapid Transit Network

After the Muldoon government killed the project in 1976, plans went quiet for some time until Britomart was built. Prior to that Auckland had been discussing surface-based light rail. Then in 2001 everything changed with the council agreeing to build Britomart. That effectively changed the conversation of extending rail through a tunnel from “if” to “when”.

In 2004 a study for the Auckland City Council looked at a number of options for extending the rail network through Britomart, and came up with close to what we have today after analysing a number of routes settling on one that only varies from what is now going to be built south of the motorway.

2004 study urs1

It also included a junction for a North Shore line. If a North Shore line ever happens, it is expected to travel under Wellesley St with a station linked into the to-be-built Aotea Station.


By 2010 the project seemed to be getting closer, and the current project again looked at options. Some are similar to the previous report and some are quite different.


In the end the route selected combined a few aspects of the ones above at the Southern End. Also since this time the Newton station has been dropped.

CRL Route

There could be a lot of debate about what version would have been best, and obviously building it earlier would have had a profound effect on transport in Auckland, but the great thing about this version is that it’s actually being built.

Share this


    1. In many ways it was not the right time, rampant inflation, broken balance of payments crisis, his own appalling financial management, recent disastrous civil works blow-outs, energy crisis [although it would have helped with that]…. However what was completely criminal was the wholesale abandonment of the right-of-ways and the vicious and pointed killing of the project for decades. And not just by that petty Trumpesque figure, also by the usual local anti-Transit powers-that-be, those exact types that we saw in action last week. Always petty in victory that lot.

      Even if the timing wasn’t right, the obvious thing was to reserve the right-of-ways, keep a skeleton design team refining it, and truly ‘future-proof’ the city for growth. Even though that was fairly anaemic then because of the nation’s poor management and the city’s spread-out weakness.

      We are still failing to plan for the future; still few if any dedicated Rapid Transit corridors reserved across green fields. We’re slow learners, it seems, perhaps with insufficient history.

      1. There was also a proposal by Railways Corporation in the 1980s – I think it was their alternative to the 70s BART type system, which Railways had opposed (because it was based on standard gauge).

        1. BART is 1676 mm gauge (broad) so curious that a “BART type” system would be standard gauge.

        2. “BART-type” may be referring to an intention to provide car-like levels of comfort (eg seats for everyone) rather than the gauge, which would be invisible to passengers – and having it standard rather than Cape gauge would mean that it would achieve the intention of BART’s broad gauge, preventing through running with mainline railways.

        3. But if NZR was opposed to it based on gauge, as Lewis claims, then gauge was clearly a sticking point. That notwithstanding, my memories of BART (I stayed in El Cerrito for a few weeks in the early 80s) was the advanced ticketing system; coin and note machines that issued a ticket that was effectively an account. Feed the ticket back into a machine and the credit could be topped up with more cash. The trains themselves were unremarkable to me (and I am a rail aficionado).

        4. BART chose brand gauge to ensure it remained separate it from the local (standard gauge) main lines; in Auckland, choosing standard gauge would have had exactly the same effect with respect to the (narrow gauge) main lines. It’s the difference in gauge that’s of significance for BART, not its absolute dimensions.

          BART certainly made an effort to provide a higher standard of passenger accommodation than other US urban networks in order to attract car users, and I’ve noticed the difference in this respect between it and the NY subway, for example.

        5. Yes, Lewis is correct (I remember reading the NZR report in the (then) Carrington Polytechnic library in the early 1990s).

          As I recall it, NZR did oppose the standard gauge (which for NZ is a “broad” gauge) Rapid Rail/ART schemes on the grounds of unnecessary duplication of existing routes, and taking up too much of their railway reserve. Instead, NZR proposed a scheme with much the same routes as the Rapid Rail/ART schemes, integrated with the existing suburban railway network, which was to be all electrified, and also to include the Southdown-Avondale route, with a grade-separated 4-way flying junction at Southdown to enable an East-West double-track line to pass over (or under?) the existing North-South double-track line in order to create an “outer loop” out of the Eastern Line and the Southdown-Avondale line, as well as retaining or adding turning connections for all directions.

          I wouldn’t be surprised if Kiwirail denied the existence of this document now, but I definitely remember reading it (along with the ARA Transport Planning Steering Committee’s study and report for the Rapid Rail scheme).

        6. What on earth makes you thing KiwiRail would want to deny details of a near-50-year-old scheme prepared by its distant ancestor (or any other scheme, for that matter? Apart from anything else, there’ll be no-one left there who has any knowledge of those plans, and all documentation will have long gone to Archives (or the tip, if it survived to privatisation).

      2. Yes RoW need to be secured for infrastructure when the price of land is low due to it’s underdevelopment rather than having to pay through the nose later when it is developed. Albany-Warkworth comes to mind for a future rail line at some point. Likewise Westgate-Constellation and around Pakuranga/Botany-Manukau.

        On a side note I haven’t seen it mentioned but 7 (I think) rail bridges are being replaced on the NIMT around Taumaranui right now over the next few months. The new bridges will apparently require a lot less maintenance and have greater capacity/removal of speed restrictions. So that is one other positive for rail in NZ.

  1. If you look at the plan closely, the tight loop with two stations has the tracks and platforms at two different levels. I’m pretty sure it’s a four track double decker loop, like the Melbourne one. That would take care of the junctions as they would be mostly grade separated.

  2. Once the CRL is completed in 2023, it will be 67 years after Sydney completed their CBD rail link – in 1956!

    1. Considering Sydneys population hit 2m in 1962, so was just under 2m in 1956 (it was rapidly growing at this time), Aucklands population should by 2022 be similar to Sydneys when its city rail link was oppened

  3. Viewed at macro scale, we are right now undergoing the kind of sea-change in urban priorities that last happen in the 1950s. Then the historically dominant mode [railways] was being abandoned, it’s institutions loosing power, to the point of near obscurity. Since then the hegemony of the driving complex has become total. Now the limits of unchecked auto-dependency are clear; congestion, pollution, urban blight, rural sprawl, in short spatial inefficiency, and the institutions that feed it need to be pulled back from their ‘Brave New World’ super-dominance.

    The change his time however is not either a return to the previous system, nor the abandonment of the current incumbent; but a synthesis to a balanced place between, and this time adding much more emphasis on the third mode; walking and cycling and the key to them all: place quality and proximity.

    So instead of the violent ruptures of Thesis -> Antithesis -> Thesis we get: Thesis -> Antithesis -> Synthesis

    The urban motorway era with its violent ruptures of whole communities and the extreme reshaping of geography was a revolution; what we need now is evolution.

    1. Revolution? Evolution? How about reclamation? Reclamation of the NORMAL and NATURAL development path for urban environments anywhere, before motorway mania derailed everything.

      Although it is not always helpful to keep looking back, we must not lose awareness of the horrendous waste of time, resources and opportunity that has occurred as a result of wrong-headed political decisions.

      In many ways, we need to start back where we would have been 50 years ago, had this monumental misjudgement never been made. Then, in 50 years time, we will be where we could have been today. That’s the sad reality of it.
      Lest we forget.

      And even as Auckland wakes up, down here in Wellington we are STILL madly committing major resources to this misguided modus. Lots of m-words here.

  4. I still don’t understand why our politicians still insist on building more and more roads. We have a housing crisis, and all they can think of is to use that land for more roads! Hundreds of houses had or will be demolished just to make way for more roading projects that will only benefit single occupancy drivers.

    1. I was wondering the same thing for a long time, and then I tried to imagine myself being Joyce (Steven, not James), and then I had a brainwave (maybe): On paper (now on computer) – and therefore in the minds of bureaucrats and politicians: Roads = Revenue (from fuel excises, RUCs, GST, etc.) = good for budget, whereas Rail = Expenditure = bad for budget. Maybe it’s that simple. Maybe if rail was put on the same playing field with roads (the NLTF), and the playing field was levelled (the “externalities” were internalised in the accounting), attitudes might change (over time).

  5. I agree with Alex and David B, why are we building more roads?

    To me it short sighted and expensive thinking, especially we are now in the era of global warming.

    The planet has warmed by 1 degree in the last 5-10 years, so we are half way to the 2% cap set down at the Paris conference last year on emissions.

    Maybe, when the sea levels start to flooding politicians back yards in Auckland or drought threaten their farms, then we might see some action.

    1. Agree with your line of argument Kris.. Though note the +1 C increase has taken >100 years, not 5-10. At present rates, it may take another 20-25 years to get to 2 C..

      But only if we follow the IPCC’s lowest emissions scenario RCP2.6

      Of course we’re not following this low emission pathway at all, so depending which forecast you prefer it may be only 15 years or so. Well within the lifetime of most infrastructure assets.

      Actually, things are worse than that, considering the future emissions of things bought today like cars, trucks, aircraft, coal-fired power stations and so on. A good estimate I’ve seen that takes that into account says the 2 C budget is effectively blown in 2018. There’s no way EVs are going to deliver in that time frame. We’ll have to drive less.

      Unfortunately, sea level changes will come along much too late.. they’re a lagging indicator if you like. Meanwhile we have this wholesale cognitive dissonance going on. Madness.

      1. Roading that improves FLOWs will lower emissions. ever thought that vehicles actually moving at an efficient pace create less pollution than vehicles that take an hour or more to cover 15km do? All the so called ‘traffic calming’ road humps, on ramp lights, poor phased traffic lights, 3 lanes into 2, then into 3 again, etc CONTRIBUTE to the pollution you are concerned about. Maybe a word to the Council pointing this out might help. There’s a lot of verbage on this site about making trains and buses more efficient, so the natural unblinkered logic is to make ALL forms of transport more efficient, surely? Then pollution levels may drop.

        1. Nope, speeding simply traffic induces more traffic, creates higher NET higher emissions [seen you seem think all caps are somehow magical]. The only way to MEANINGFULLY reduce emissions is the reduce the number and length of private vehicle journeys. Fiddling with colour lights and over building ENDLESS additional roads for them is what we already do and that induces more and more driving higher pollution, and enforces greater dispersal. And the greater the dispersal, SPRAWL, the greater the pollution of all forms.

          But these facts cause cognitive dissonance for acolytes of the religion of FLOW. So they get upset and hit the all caps lock.

          So it goes.

        2. so instead we take out traffic lanes and mark them as cycle lanes creating queues where previously there was none and ignore the increase in CO2. But hey it was never about that in the first place it was about making people conform to some dude’s plan. Greenies are the current version of authoritarianism.

        3. John, thinking like a true traffic engineer. You have to take the emissions of the whole system, not simply one stretch of road at one period. I know it is high in the TE’s religion that motor vehicles must be moving at speed at all times, so they kept at emissions issues as a way to stress this importance, cleverly. But it doesn’t stack up, a reduction in vehicle journeys is always going to completely trump speed existing volumes for emissions improvements. And of course road widening doesn’t even achieve that, it simply induces more vehicles to idle and pump out fumes.

          The ’emissions benefits’ that NZTA and AT award themselves for road projects are entirely fraudulent, or more accurately; a totally obscene gaming of the economic evaluation process simply In order to maintain the dreary ‘business as usual’ in transport funding allocation.

        4. While individual vehicles may be more efficient, the induced demand that results more than makes up for the savings

        5. Have to agree with Patrick and Matt.

          I used to think it was crazy of HNO to keep the 3- to 2- to 3-lane squeeze on the Southern Motorway at Mt Wellington Highway, but now I think it’s genius, as the amount of traffic would be much more without that regulator in place.

          As geniuses, HNO realise that this regulator is saving them billions, which will be why there are no plans to change it (even with the East-West stealth motorway).

          The more people sit in traffic being muppets, the more people will vote with their feet and decide not to be muppets and choose a muppet-free alternative (providing the availability of the alternatives). -> Maybe the Congestion Free Network should be rebranded as the Muppet-Free Network (as with drunk driving, our collective experience shows that people soon change their behaviour when they run the risk of being seen to be a muppet).

  6. That link to the NZ Herald from 3/10/1924 also talks about a costed proposal from the Railways Minister Coates of duplicating the Western Line (to New Lynn only in that article). Only took another eight decades or so to complete that project!

  7. Let’s say that the De Leuw Cather proposal had gone ahead. How different would the city be today? How much better off would we be. Would the valuable horticultural lands to the south be in crops if development on the Shore had been facilitated earlier?

    1. The city would have a significantly different, and better, urban form. Transport infrastructure shapes settlement and development pattern, building only roads focussed on the private vehicle and road freight not only serves a dispersed urban form, but enforces more of it. Efficient and attractive Transit systems incentivises density of habitation and employment around nodes on those systems.

      So if Robbie’s Rail, or any other of the systems above had been built AND run well, then Auckland would already have the more of the efficient form that is recognised as desirable for urban economic success, and much less of a traffic congestion problem than it does, for such a small city. Along side the auto-dependent type we almost only have built in the last half century.

  8. The De Leuw Cather plan looks remarkable like the AT airport LRT plus the North Shore that we are keen on, except it goes all the way over a Penlink type bridge!

    Anyway it goes to show that the spatial logic of a city’s geography is near timeless; Auckland is long and linear and suits rail Transit very well.

    And we happily already have the bones of a network and it only takes political will to turn that into a real useful and transformational system to complement the existing vast road systems- and keen them flowing while helping top fix our flabby urban form.

  9. Comparing dates with Sydney – Stage 1 of their underground opened in about 1928 when their population was just over 1.5 million – in other words Auckland is following Sidney’s lead but about a century behind. Indeed if you look at London their underground was started about 150 years ago when their population was in the same 1.5-2 million bracket.

    1. I don’t know that it is valid to use overall population figures as a gauge of when urban rail facilities should be built. A significant difference between London in 1900 / Sydney in 1928 and Auckland today is the massive swing to motor transport that has occurred. Both London and Sydney developed their rail systems before this happened, therefore they did so based on a level of pre-emptive foresight which Auckland has lacked. Auckland (or rather, the NZ government) has dithered until virtually forced into acting.

  10. It really is a shame the morning side deviation was scraped. To me it looks like a better run, maybe even better then the crl as we know it today, as it has less corners and I think it isn’t as steep.
    But anyway I look forward to seeing construction start on the crl.
    And it would be great if we some how put a stop to all transport infrastructure for the next 2 decades. No more motorways rail etc. Much like I did when I dropped my phone. And now have glass coming out of the screen. I now have the choice of buying a cheap $150 pH now or stick some tape over the hole in my screen and in a few months time I can get the Samsung galaxy s7 or Nexus 6p,
    Well… My point is we always go with the quick cheap option. And we never have money for any projects.
    So maybe the government n council should just take a few steps back once the crl is complete.
    And save some money for the real projects in 20 years time.
    And everyone will be forced onto buses as roads will be gridlocked.

  11. The current CRL route connecting at Mt Eden offers a good compromise allowing both southern and western services to connect relatively directly to Aotea, the centre of the CBD. The is the first reason I think the CRL is better that previous deviations connecting at Morningside or Kingsland.
    An arch hill station may have made sense in the past but the bulk of its catchment is now paved with motorway so it is no longer relevant. The remaining catchment is well served by frequent buses on Gt Nth Rd and New Nth Rd.
    Robbies rapid rail features an underground loop in the CBD. This suggests an operating pattern where trains enter and exit on the same track. Again I think the CRL is a better arrangement promoting cross town services. The CRL is also cheaper with less CBD tunnelling, while K’Rd, Aotea and Britomart still cover similar catchments to Robbies 3 proposed CBD stations.
    1974 Auckland rapid transit also maintains similar CBD stations but also adds a lot of expense duplicating Grafton and including more tunnelling. So again I see the CRL as being better.
    The options studies carried out this millennium offer good commentary over why the CRL was chosen as best over other routes.
    The latest CRL design has brought in grade separation at Mt Eden, offering higher possible operating frequencies than with junctions at grade which featured in a number of earlier configurations.
    The only thing I see missing from the CRL design is firm planning and operating pattern for connection to the north shore, and anything else this might connect to. Subtle changes to CRL alignment and station design may save money in future, also designating the north shore route will will mean development occurs both pre-emptively and in harmony.

    1. jackson I agree. At least by waiting this long we are getting a better railway, especially compared to the loop pattern.

      The planning, we are told, for the North Shore connection is a perpendicular station below Aotea CRL

      There is one other thing that would improve the CRL in the future at that would be bypassing the slow loop around the Vector by taking the Parnell line into an east-west CRL-2 to link to the Shore Line at Aotea.

      A strong cross pattern through the city north-south east-west, also removes the conflict at the Britomart throat, but does put more pressure back on the flat NM junction. The week point.

      1. Yea I agree the crl on its own has much better catchment, as morningside missed the lower half of town.
        But I think if it was built back then, The north shore line would of already been built, partly to fix the inner city catchment problem of the morning side line.
        I also noticed in most of the maps showen hea they had rail running under buildings (not confined under roads), so I guess it would of restricted larger buildings being built over the tunnel.
        And if CRL 2 or CXR is built it will be better then the morning side with north shore line.
        But no one has the money. And the north shore line has been cut back to a bus way. With no vision greater then light rail, even LR is a tall ask.

        1. There’s money, it’s political will. But people have been saying to us for years that the CRL will never get built, so…. times-a changing, the unchanging realities of the economics of space and the power of cities march on regardless of wilful ignorance of some….

        2. That’s right Patrick, at the opening of the symposium on Robbie’s Rapid Rail scheme in 1969, Muldoon told the audience that money was not a problem [as an accountant and finance minister, Muldoon knew that money was nothing but an accounting entry], he said the problem was resources; whether NZ wanted to put that much cement and steel into that scheme, when that much cement and steel could be used for other things elsewhere in NZ. I’ve got a copy of the proceedings, if anyone’s interested, I’ll transcribe that part. At that time, electorally, Auckland was not so important, so there was insufficient political will to support it.

  12. I remember sometime in the 1980’s Euan McQueen showing me the gap in the buildings along Beach Rd where the designation for the tunnel entrance to the Morningside deviation had been.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *