The years of work and millions of dollars that have already been spent on designing and developing light-rail potentially end up going down the drain if the Government picks the Super Fund option. But as I’ll cover below, large projects not only tend to take a long time to deliver but significant changes in them are almost a certainty.

Waterview Connection

The original idea for what became the Waterview connection dates back to at least the middle of the 20th century when the first plans for Auckland’s motorway network were drawn up but the more modern iteration of the project goes back to 2000 when Transit NZ, the predecessor to the NZTA, started investigating specific routes for connecting SH20 to SH16. Debates at that time focused around whether it should cut under Avondale Heights and run along the Rosebank Peninsula or go through Waterview.

In 2003 they announced their draft preferred route as being through Waterview with a mostly surface option through parks and other open space. There was also an interchange with a new road linked from Gt North Rd. This was confirmed in 2005. Notably, the former Auckland Regional Council opposed this route and preferred the Rosebank option.

In February 2008 the then Transit NZ announced the project would be a pair of two-lane tunnels on a similar but longer alignment to what we have now.

Just under a year later, and with a new government concerned at the cost of the tunnels and that they would only be two lanes, the NZTA were instructed to review the proposals. In May, just four months later, they came back with a plan that would see the road extended along the surface through Alan Wood Reserve then through a short bored tunnel, another open section then a cut and cover tunnel under Gt North Rd.

By September of 2009 they were committed to that route and were convinced they could mitigate the effects. Then in December they changed that again and decided they would once again dig a continuous tunnel but with three lanes and around 800m shorter than the original proposal. The May and December alignments are shown here.

That design was what then went through the consenting and procurement process during 2010/11 and ultimately started construction in early 2012 with the tunnel opening in July 2017.

So the whole project took 17 years from the time they started investigating it till the time it was completed and during that time the project design changed (publicly) at least four times.

City Rail Link

Iterations of what became the City Rail Link have emerged every one to two decades since the 1920s. While there were earlier reports and studies, the version of CRL we now have underway got serious in 2008 when the proposed redevelopment of the Downtown Shopping Centre, what since became the Commercial Bay development, forced the then Auckland Regional and City Councils to take steps to protect the route otherwise there would be no viable way to get out of Britomart. That led to a study and eventual business case kicking off in mid-2009 to identify exactly which route would the tunnel would take. This was released near the end of 2010, just after the inaugural election for an amalgamated Auckland in which the project was strongly supported by both main candidates but opposed by the government.

Much of the debate and delay around the CRL was political but the project has seen a few different design iterations. The initial route was the same as it is now but with a station in Newton. The station would have an it’s entrance on the other side of the Mt Eden Rd/Symonds St intersection and Auckland Transport had already bought the land for this.

One of the issues with Auckland’s rail network and how trains will operate after the CRL opens is that the network is ‘unbalanced’. There is a single line to the west but two and a bit major lines coming the South/East. In 2012 it was proposed to address this by building what was called the Inner West Interchange. The intention was that Southern and Eastern line trains would enter Britomart as they do now, travel through the CRL and then some would terminate here then head back through the tunnel. This would also have allowed AT to drop the East Facing Connection to save money but which would have meant trains coming from Newmarket/Grafton wouldn’t be able to access the CRL.

In 2014 we saw the next big change. The Inner West Interchange was dropped again but so too was the Newton Station, in favour of redeveloping the Mt Eden Station. This was for a few stated reasons.

  • It was cheaper – the Newton Station would have been very expensive to build
  • There was more development potential around the Mt Eden station
  • It allowed for the underground junction to be grade separated, improving reliability

The final change came about just last year when it was agreed to future-proof the stations by allowing for 9-car trains. This primarily only impacted on the Karangahape Rd station but positively also meant they would build a station entrance in Beresford Square.

The first part of the CRL has been under construction for a few years now and the rest of the works are now kicking off with completion expected in 2024. That would make it about 16 years from inception to completion. Obviously the political debates about funding CRL contributed to this long gestation period, but having discussed this with a few people who have been intimately involved with CRL for a long time, they don’t think the delay from the funding discussions was particularly huge because there was a lot of design and consenting work that was going on behind the scenes.

CRL Construction. Source: https://www.cityraillink.co.nz/images-augustseptember-2019

Electric trains

The building of Britomart in 2003 set in motion a need to upgrade the rest of the rail network if we were to make the most of that investment. That would include upgrading all of the stations, double tracking the Western Line, re-opening the Onehunga line and building the branch line to Manukau as well as new/improved rolling stock to run on it. One of the most significant decisions was to electrify the network. In 2006 the Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA) released their Rail Development Plan which included a case for electrifying the network.

In 2008 the then Labour government agreed to electrify the network. They would pay for the physical infrastructure while Auckland would pay for the trains to run on the network from some of the proceeds of a regional fuel tax. ARTA had planned to buy 70 two-car trains (140 carriages) with each carriage being 20m long. They started the procurement process.

The the National government, elected later that year, were opposed to the regional fuel tax but had committed to the project during their campaign. Early in 2009 they announced a review of the project and there were concerns that could see the project cancelled entirely. The review cut the number of trains back to 25 three-car trains but lengthened the carriages to 24m. This would have required 17 electric locomotives to pull the old SA/SD carriages.

In November of that year they confirmed electrification would go ahead but that we would get 38 three-car trains plus 12 electric locomotives, certainly an improvement on what the working group recommended.

The final change came in September 2011 when the government announced Auckland would get 57 EMUs, enough to run all services on the electrified network. There were a variety of factors behind this including that it would be cheaper to run a homogeneous fleet and that all trains would be capable of running through the future CRL, something not possible with the loco-hauled trains.

The first trains went into service in April 2014 and all lines were operated by electric trains in July 2015 – the final of the 57 trains arrived just under a month later. Of course since then ridership grew so much, roughly doubling, we’ve had to order another 15 to cope with the demand and the first of those arrived last week.

So all up about 9-10 years from the start of work till the completion of electrification.


These are just a few examples and it seems light rail is just the latest in a long line of these.

With so much we need to build to ‘catch up’, we really need to find a way of cutting through this consultant make-work scheme.

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21 comments

  1. Light Rail is different as it’s being built is very political party dependent. National get back in its extra lanes on roads and motorways and extreme backward thinking.

    What it needed was a strong willed leader of the policy who knew what was required and the absolute drive to achieve it. Instead we got the polar opposite, Phil!

    If Labour goes, it goes but lately I’m thinking even if Labour manage to pull out of their current torpor and nose dive there’s no guarantees. They just don’t seem to get it. If Twyford retains his seat and even worse remains Transport Minister or a minister of anything then theres even less chance given his woeful track record of non achievements and bungling. And the PM’s indecision and inability to see promises like this major one delivered, the problems its stalled progress create and firmly address them is also of concern.

    It’s an absolute shame and currently looking like a once in a generation chance squandered.

    1. While LR is notionally tied to labour politically and national may cancel it if elected to office, the reasons as to why it’s needed won’t go away so I think it will live on in the same way the CRL happened despite national opposing it for so long. It’s just going to be a longer and more drawn out process than it could have been.

      1. I hope that is the case but the difference between the two was Mayor Len Brown was like a dog with a bone with the CRL and carried on getting it underway regardless of the opposition and then complete indifference from Keys government, until it became an election issue that the opposition were gaining ground on.

        There is no such person of influence going into bat for Light Rail.

        1. Len Brown had to be “like a dog with a bone” because otherwise the Commercial Bay development would have rendered CRL extremely difficult and expensive to virtually impossible. That’s not to take away the enormous credit due to Len Brown in getting the whole thing finally underway after 80+ years of planning. The Light Rail scheme doesn’t have any thing similar threatening to block the whole project. Obviously the ‘new’ Mangere Bridge should have included proper provision for rail but that just reflects the fact that until recently, there almost no consideration given to anything other than roads.

        2. Yes Len Brown did make a big difference I think. Phil Goff needs to keep pushing for light rail even though it is now more in NZTA & the Govt’s hands than AT’s.

        3. @Zippo – The uncertainty for years, and still on going on to some degree, the East West Link means planning around Onehunga has been very difficult I can imagine. Certainly affected bridge design & connections.

  2. You would have to think light rail is now dead. Twyford is still claiming the superfund bid was unsolicited despite him meeting with them at the behest of Cullen and Brian Roche. The Government have since made Roche the chairman of NZTA who are also responsible for the light rail option. He says there is no conflict of interest as he isn’t the decider. But can you imagine anyone at NZTA trying hard to promote a scheme their chairman was against? Now if the government chooses the Superfund option it will appear like a biased choice. If they don’t choose the superfund option they will appear to have squandered time and money. They have no winning play anymore.
    We seem to have slid back to the days where an incompetent politician decided what engines Air NZ could have on their planes.

  3. While I agree the delays are frustrating, I often think the delays end up leading to a superior design when things finally happen.

    For example the delay in the CRL has allowed it to be much better future proofed than it would have been otherwise, Waterview also is probably a better solution than the original plans as well.

    If we had just cracked on with a second harbour crossing there would probably be a road only tunnel under the harbour by now.

    1. i feel this blog had an influence on the changes made to the CRL. I’m pretty sure I read an analysis on the Inner West Interchange and alternatives on this blog first.

    1. Sadly amongst the comments on this is one that mentions that with the NW to be widened soon it will be easy to put in the busway. If only eh!

  4. The electric trains story isn’t complete. The electrification of Papakura to Pukekohe has not started and the DMU’s are still in service there.
    In September 2017 AT opted to spend $207 million on 17 battery-powered trains.
    In November 2017 with the change in government this order was changed to $133m for 15 new electric trains instead.
    The first of these units was shipped in September 2019

    1. Anthony we are still waiting for the motorway over-bridge at Drury to be rebuilt. Apparently that starts when Takanini-Papakura motorway work is finished. Give it ten years after that based on the Takanini fiasco.

  5. With state highways stalled as well as the light rail, what will keep the big hungry engineering firms fed over coming years?
    They will be sweating on the Nats winning next year and getting stuck back into highway building.

  6. Matt L , I hope AT/AC don’t sell that parcel of land in Symonds St that was goingto be the Newton Station , as sometime in the near future it may be needed if that area ever becomes over developed .

    And with those Electric Loco’s they should have purchase a number of them as when they start the 9 car EMU consets they may need they on the new Henderson/Otahuhu run and also the Onehunga route . And as of now they could have leased them to KR for running frieght throw Auckland as they have a faster pick up speed . And if and when they also could be used on the H2A run when that section is finally Electricified .

  7. Thanks for this angle, GA. Yet the long time from start to finish for these projects doesn’t seem right. In a little country you’d think things should be easier. Are cities in Europe able to make the recent changes you’ve written about in other posts because there’s more direction from the EU?

    Is there more to read between the lines in the last comment about consultant “make-work” schemes?

  8. Never mind the 17 years it took for CRL to be finished, it took AT 8 years to roll out the ‘New Bus Network’ which has since been trimmed to give a service that is equally bad is the services pre-“new Bus Network”

    1. I think a lot to do with the networks being trimmed is they don’t have the Drivers .

      Here on Waiheke 1 run has 4x as many buses running per hour and the other routr has doubled . They also started a new service which runs between 9-5 and there will be another starting mid next year and the local bus company is having a job getting drivers , they now have to bring some over from Auckland for the shifts required .

    2. My service on the the new network is way way better than it was previously. Previously I had to walk 1km to a bus that come once an hour, now I have every fifteen minutes 300m away.

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