In his guest post last week on his view about light rail, Transport Minister Michael Wood started with a lesson from history.
Firstly, a few words about the history. This matters because the historic failure to secure the necessary political support and investment for rapid transit in Auckland tells us something about what we might need to do differently if we want the project to advance this time.
The starting point has to be Mayor Robbie’s Rapid Rail scheme – not light rail to be sure, but the main post-war attempt to develop a linked-up mass rapid transit scheme for the city. Tāmaki Makaurau would be unrecognisable had the plan gone ahead. Its failure was one of the key junctures that set us on a path of congestion, urban sprawl, and car dependency in the ensuing decades. It was of course quashed by the incoming Muldoon National government in 1975. Lacking central government support, it was simply unable to proceed.
Under Len Brown’s leadership, the new Auckland Council established in 2010 faced down an unwilling National government and secured shared funding for the CRL, but was unable to generate central government support for the Isthmus Light Rail network proposals it developed in the mid-part of that decade. The government of the day continued to fixate on a handful of mega-roading projects such as the East-West Link.
Finally, with Labour elected to government in 2017, central government was back at the table and with the Greens, two out of three government parties were keen to make mass rapid transit happen.
Having political support for rapid transit is essential and Auckland absolutely would look a lot different today had Robbie’s scheme gone ahead. But there’s another, equally important lesson from the failure of Robbie’s scheme that is extremely relevant to the current light rail process. What’s more, Robbie’s scheme wasn’t the first time it has happened. That lesson is “don’t go too big” and it’s only something we only properly learnt with the development of the rail network over the last two decades. Let’s look at some of that history.
1920’s Morningside Deviation
In 1924 the government approved a large package of works on the rail network all around the country. In Auckland that included building the Eastern line and shifting the main train station to Beach Rd, away from its location at what is now Britomart.
Also included as an integral part of the plans was the Morningside Deviation, a ~5km route through the city from Beach Rd to Morningside with the Western line being duplicated between Morningside and New Lynn.
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.
In 1929 a predecessor to the National Party was elected to government and in early 1930, they abandoned the project. The justification for this was the cost and a quick estimation based on government revenue and expenditure at the time suggests the expected cost of £2,174,570 would be the equivalent to today’s government building a single $10 billion project.
Though it seems they may have deliberately stacked the odds against the project as more than half of the cost was to electrify the network from Papakura to Helensville. Local politicians and 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 moving 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 the CRL will have. In another similarity to today, the government used the prospect of a harbour crossing as a diversion tool.
In 1950 the Morningside Deviation was proposed again, though with a slightly different alignment and adding an additional station. At the same time road planners were coming up with motorway schemes and 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 argued that the Morningside Deviation couldn’t be justified compared to the cheap motorways (they turned out to be anything but cheap).
The plan however did suggest building a spur line under Albert Park with a terminus station at what became the Victoria St carpark.
With debate continuing, 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.
It was from this plan that Robbie’s Auckland Rapid Transit scheme was based off. However, like with the Morningside deviation of nearly 50 years earlier, it too was based on a single big project that completely overhauled rail and bus services across much of Auckland. The network would have been electrified, there would be fewer stations but they would have big bus interchange and park and ride facilities included. A third track was also to be added to some parts of the network.
The first stage of the plan was to do the city section along with the Southern and Eastern lines. Just those two lines alone were expected to cost the government the equivalent of about a $8b project today. Meanwhile plans for extensions to Henderson and to Albany would have brought the equivalent cost to closer to around $15 billion today. There was also the suggestion of future spurs to the Airport and Manukau.
For a bit more history, here is a selection of six articles written by Sir Dove-Myer Robinson in 1975 promoting his scheme.
- Great Financial Savings in Bus-Rail Scheme
- ‘All-Bus’ Scheme a Non-starter on Capital Cost
- Question of Who Pays the Operating Costs
- Millions Vehicles Strong Argument for Rail
- Rapid-Rail Helps City Development
- Decision on Harbour Crossing Urgent
In 1975 the National Party under Robert Muldoon was elected and in 1976 they killed the project. While some of the reason will have been ideological, a big part of the reason would also have been simply the cost.
One thing that frustrates me the most about all the previous schemes is that while the government failed to fund them, nothing was done to protect the corridors or look for opportunities to deliver parts of it. They became all or nothing affairs and we got nothing, until …..
Britomart, Rail Revival, Electrification and the City Rail Link
While there are some differences to those earlier schemes, for the most part the network we will have when the CRL opens in (hopefully) 2024 will be similar to what was proposed nearly 100 and 50 years ago. Where we’ve succeeded this time in getting the project built is that we broke the upgrade down to smaller chunks.
First we built Britomart which opened in mid-2003 returning trains closer to the city centre and became key catalyst for rail usage to grow. That growth gave confidence to further invest in the network such as upgrading stations, double tracking the Western Line, building the Manukau spur and reopening the Onehunga Line. Tied to that was also the introduction of more frequent services and combined usage grew even stronger. That further growth meant that when National was elected in 2008 they couldn’t just scrap the proposed investment in electrification, which led to the next surge in usage and meant they eventually had to agree to the City Rail Link.
Lessons for Light Rail
Perhaps the key lessons for the government from the CRL’s history is that projects that are too big make it easy for the whole project to fall over. You need a high-level vision but getting something built and starting the usage ball rolling is more likely to result in long term success than getting the perfect scheme from day one. This is also exactly the approach taken by the motorway builders, build a section and use the demand for that and the issues that demand creates to build the next section and the section after that.
There’s a lot of work on design, consenting and procurement that needs to happen before any shovels hit the ground for light rail regardless of what decisions are made. As it is, for a project of the scale proposed it feels like it will be a stretch to achieve all that before the next election.
With all of that in mind, it is one of the reasons we’ve been so supportive of the surface light rail option. As well as being more affordable, meaning we could deliver more investment across the region, we believe that it gives us a better ability to stage the delivery and importantly, actually get something built and start transforming parts of our city.
We can always come back later and build a bigger scale project, such as undergrounding part of the route or adding another corridor to address issues. The business case processes might not like it but far from being a negative, it would likely result in additional benefits to Auckland’s PT network. Furthermore, we’ll always need something on the surface on Queen St and Dominion Rd so it’s not like any investment in this corridor now will be wasted if we need to build a tunnel in the future.