Back in March we learnt about the change in cost and timeline for the City Rail Link. An article in the Herald the other day brought the issue of the timeline back up again

Auckland’s $5.5 billion City Rail Link (CRL) will not open until sometime in 2026 or later, the Herald can reveal.

This is at least 18 months longer than what was forecasted only a few months ago when the cost of the project blew out by $1.1b to $5.5b and the completion date moved from late 2024 to November 2025.

In an exclusive interview during a tour of the mega-project, City Rail Link chief executive Dr Sean Sweeney said the latest completion date is not when Aucklanders will get to ride the underground railway.

He said November 2025 is when City Rail Link Ltd hands over the brand spanking new 3.4-kilometre track from Britomart to Mt Eden to Auckland Transport and KiwiRail, which then have to do extensive testing before it opens to passengers.

Sweeney was reluctant to say how long that could be, but when pressed said: “As a ballpark guess, I’d say six months, but people need to understand that numbers could change a lot, based on what happens.”


Full testing of the new systems is expected to begin in mid-2024 and will take about a year, said Sweeney, who is planning to finish the job before the November 2025 date.

One of the biggest issues that needs testing, he said, is a fire on a train in the tunnel.

After the handover, AT and KiwiRail have to go through another set of tests, which Sweeney said is not straightforward and involves a lot of operational and training exercises.

“There are exhaustive tests that they will have to go through, and safety checks, before they are allowed to run passengers,” Sweeney said.

For example, every one of the 240 drivers in Auckland will have to go through the tunnels for training.

The delay to opening the CRL is something that I worry about far more than the cost increase and there are a couple of things that I keep thinking about in relation to it – some of which I mentioned in that post when it was announced.

Kiwirail Network Rebuild Timing

Kiwrail are currently upgrading the foundations and drainage under the tracks across the network through a series of rail network closures – the first section from Newmarket to Otahuhu was reopened in late March and the Eastern Line between Britomart and Otahuhu is currently underway.

Rail Network Rebuild – Looking west towards Meadowbank

The rest of the Southern Line is likely due to start at the end of the year and the Western Line sometime in next year.

A large part of the justification for the very disruptive closures has been so that Kiwirail can get the works completed in time for the opening of the CRL. But with passengers likely not seeing the inside of the CRL 18 or more months after it originally expected, is there the opportunity for the works to take longer, but with less disruption to passengers?

The CRL works around Mt Eden have shown that we’ve still been able to operate a normal timetable over a couple of kilometres of single track and with significant construction right next to it. Likewise I recall services still able to operate right next to new track under construction when the Western Line was double tracked. Even if just peak services were able to be run it would likely take a lot of pressure off other parts of our transport system.

Level Crossings and other improvements

Auckland still has far too many level crossings, especially on the Western Line and not only is that a safety issue, but is something that limits the long term ability to run more frequent services. Removing level crossings, either through closing them or grade separating them has long been on various plans to do.

Closing level crossings is relatively straightforward but in cases where grade separation is required, depending on the method of separation required, there may be disruption to the rail network. I can certainly see a case where some crossings it may be advantageous to lower the tracks slightly to make an overbridge easier.

On that note, I am aware that Auckland Transport are currently working on a business case for level crossing removal and Mayor Wayne Brown has listed level crossing removal as one of his public transport priorities.

  • Making the most out of large investments, including CRL and the Eastern Busway: which includes securing funding for level crossing removal.

Removing level crossings where there is also going to be disruption to the rail network at the same time as the rail network rebuild makes a lot of sense. Could this delay in the opening of the CRL be enough time for AT to get those sorted?

Light Rail Timelines

City Rail Link started construction in June 2016 so it will be 10 years of construction by the time it’s finished. That followed a number of years of design and consenting.

Light rail are proposing to build a tunnel about three times as long, including what is effectively a second CRL in the city centre as well as some likely tricky surface connections. Yet they claim it will take 2-3 years to plan and consent and then 6-8 years to construct.

Given how much larger light rail is, not to mention it will likely have an even longer commissioning time as there’ll also be the need to test and train all of the new trains that will use it. It’s hard to see a tunnelled solution operating before 2035 and maybe not even till around 2040.

By comparison, based off the experience of various light rail projects around the world, including those in Sydney, Canberra and the Gold Coast, we should be able to get a surface solution from the city to at least as far as Mt Roskill or Onehunga built in 3-4 years.

Is it really worth the large amount of extra cost and construction time for the small amount of extra benefit in capacity and travel time a tunnelled solution offers? It certainly doesn’t seem to.

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  1. How it takes an entire year to test 3.45km of tunnel is quite beyond me. According to the Herald article

    “The big issue vexing the minds of Sweeney and the Alliance contractor is moving from the construction of the tunnels and stations to the complex and risky phase of installing bespoke software and signalling work, and plugging a state-of-the-art railway into the existing, fault-ridden network.”

    Which sound awfully like they are sandbagging the testing phase to accomodate the snail’s pace that Kiwirail seem to work at.

    1. I would suggest, the risk is they find issues that need reworking during the testing. The Waterview tunnels had a delayed opening due to unforseen commissioning problems.

    2. Cross Rail in London was delayed three years by exactly this, it is a real issue that Sweeney is concerned about.

      1. Correct, Jezza – the unwary can easily fall into the trap of thinking that tunnel=railway. It’s not that it’ll take that time to test the tunnel, but to test the performance and interoperation of the systems within and around the tunnel (trains, signalling, traction, ventilation, platform doors, fire equipment, passenger information, …) as well as the basic tunnel hardware.

        Completion of tunnel construction is very different from completion of the railway (as London belatedly discovered), and it’s the latter date that actually matters. The former is just a waypoint (albeit a very significant one) on the way.

        1. Yes, but… ummmm, the CRL is just 3.45km in length. Not only has it been built at the glacial speed of about 6.6m per week, it is also now going to take an entire day to test about nine and a half metres of it over a year?

        2. I’m sure Dr Sweeney would greatly appreciate your obvious expertise in speeding this up!

          PS length and complexity are not necessarily related: the CRL will have the roughly the same number of systems to integrate safely as Crossrail had, and that took them the best part of four years (which took them by surprise!). Underground stations are a particular issue – CRL has less than a tenth of Crossrail’s tunnel length, but nearly half its number of underground station platforms.

      2. Cross rail, including testing, took 13 years to build a 42km long line with ten stations through areas often littered with a couple of thousand years worth of archaeology and infrastructure.

        We are going to take ten years to build 3.45km of line through relatively virgin ground with just three stations. The time taken to build the CRL it has been ridiculous, and threatens to turn the whole thing into a giant multi-billion dollar waste of time.

        1. No chance of that. It was a giant multi-billion dollar waste of time (and money) already.

        2. “No chance of that. It was a giant multi-billion dollar waste of time (and money) already.”

          I want a mural wall with these kinds of comments in Aotea Station so the hundreds of millions of people who will be using it in the next century will be able to see it. This stuff needs to be preserved to show why you just gotta ignore the naysayers sometimes.

        3. Sorry Gurf. CRL has used up all the money Auckland Council and Auckland Transport would have had for the next 30 years so there won’t be any funds available for a mural. Enjoy your expensive tunnel.

  2. On level crossings… is there anyone in the agencies who can elevate the need for this planning to be about more than just rail and minimising traffic impacts? It needs to become a truly integral part of the city’s transport system transformation. When you can affect both the traffic circulation, and the accessibility by active modes so strongly, the potential for really shifting the dial on mode share is huge.

    One of the TERP “immediate actions (2022/23)” that AT will *undoubtedly* already have underway is “Deliver a network of low-traffic neighbourhoods across Auckland”. The level crossing work should be integrated with that.

    By doing it in a planned way, including with some standardised designs for new walking and cycling bridges to heal severance, the level crossings can be removed as part of area wide changes that vastly increase access.

    1. It is difficult to add affordable footbridges for connectivity, where these need long accessible ramps or lifts. Some will be part of the crossing removal programme, but cannot be provided at all locations and, as you say, there are currently severed communities where a new bridge would be more desirable than replacements for some of the existing crossings.
      Road crossings are to be either grade separated or closed, to enable developing the transport networks. These require Business Case study, possible designation for land purchase, design, consenting and procurement. None are shovel-ready, but support from the Mayor may enable them to make their best speed through the process.

      1. If there is any low traffic neighbourhood planning map that the level crossing work is being informed by, and informing in return, AT should use it for good comms to raise public trust in their commitment to the TERP and to a liveable city.

        If there isn’t one, who in the organisation would get it happening? I know there are plenty of AT staff willing and able to do the work (and maybe the new CEO will restructure out the ELT reluctance to LTN’s).

  3. You seem to have forgotten the effect of the pandemic on work progress. Not only work stopped for months but also international supply chain blockages and staff problems. Also the CRL may have ‘begun’ in 2016 but that was driven by the need to construct tunnels under Commercial Bay. The rest of the project started much later, for example, buildings near the Mt Eden station were only demolished in early 2020.

    1. The tunnelled light rail is likely to face international disruption too; climate change and its geopolitical and economic effects pretty much guarantee it will. Similarly, the project will need to be coordinated with – and may face delays due to – other major construction and infrastructure projects. The bigger a project is, the harder it is to get a clear run.

  4. Hopefully Matt you can see that the degree of corrosion of public wanting to come back to the city centre is now close-to irreparable.

    Auckland Council has just gutted staff and budget from Auckland Unlimited that might have addressed this in campaigns.

    There is also no singly agency responsible for public transport either in New Zealand or in Auckland.

    These things are related. It is amazing Wood is letting the primary population and commercial engine centre of New Zealand just throttle back into first gear.

  5. It’s hard to see how Mr Wood can change this particular situation, and Auckland is unique in NZ in that it does have a single agency responsible for all aspects of public transport provision.

    1. All aspects of public transport provision are not under Auckland Transport’s management or control, otherwise Kiwirail would not have stuffed up the rail network for over a year. Also if AT were in control they would be designing and implementing light rail (or whatever it is) which they ain’t.

      1. All planning and construction are not AT’s responsibility, but all current provision is. KiwiRail is a supplier to AT, just like (for instance) bus and train operators are, and as we know only too well all such suppliers are capable of stuffing up the services that they are supposed to be supplying to AT (and hence the public).

  6. Disappointing to see Herald article suggesting to lengthy delay in opening of CRL somehow equates to further disruption for businesses along the route (e.g. in Albert Street). Testing and Commissioning delays will have no effect on the streets above – indeed my understanding is that street-level restoration is to happen in the coming months.

    1. Certainly there is disruption around each of the station construction sites, and traffic cannot pass along Albert St, with pedestrians hindered there and Pitt St. Bus routes are still diverted from what what they used to be.

      1. On the other hand, it’s much easier to get around by bike now for confident cyclists than it was. The bare bones of a network exist, and there are places where the construction may require hopping off the bike and pushing it along the footpath but either side of that, less traffic means it feels a lot safer.

        On Queen St itself I hope they have cycle counters installed on all the lanes (the fast feet lane, the bus/commercial lane, and up on the steeper traffic lanes, too) as I won’t be alone in having switched most of my trips from Nelson St or Grafton Gully to now go down Queen St instead.

  7. I hope lessons are learned from the crl project, after looking at the progress on the crl Facebook page, it is impressive what is happening, and I can see why it has become so expensive, with 200 metre underground stations and bespoke engineering.
    I would hope any future rail lines would keep things more basic, and I don’t think stations should need to be longer then 60 or 70 meters, especially if you can run trains every minute or 2 during peak hours.

    1. Let’s hope any future lines are on the surface and then the stations can be no more than 6-7m with 2-3 minute frequency.

      1. 6 meters? I don’t think that would be long enough for a bus.
        But yes, on the surface or just above the surface preferable, unfortunately there is a new found obsession with tunnels in this country.

      2. If we’re talking about light rail, on the surface is good; but the CRL is heavy rail, where level crossings are something that should be avoided (Melbourne is spending billions getting rid of theirs), so elevated or below surface level (trenched or tunneled, as Melbourne is doing, may well be preferable.

  8. Genuine question: have you been into central Auckland recently?
    I come in regularly for work and leisure and it’s rarely anything but humming. There’s 60k+ people who live there too.

    1. You may not have been out there recently since the early 20th century but it’s not paddocks anymore. There’s the odd one or two buildings and some people already using the space. The odd intersection too…

      Additionally, any surface solution nowadays would still need it’s own right of way to be worth it. Otherwise we could just keep using buses.

      So it IS a lot of difference between then and now, yes.

  9. From the Herald today, I take it this is a mistake or do we just walk underground between Mercury Lane and Aotea
    “Te Waihorotiu Station
    The underground Te Waihorotiu station is expected to become the busiest rail station in New Zealand when opened and serving the Aotea Centre, Auckland Town Hall and Skycity Auckland. Te Waihorotiu station is also the biggest of the new stations below Albert St, with entrances at Mercury Lane and Beresford Square and Te Waihorotiu (Aotea) at Victoria and Wellesley Streets, midtown.”

    1. Hmm. So we could open the CRL tunnel as a walkway and cycle track between the city centre and Mt. Eden Station?

  10. Glad to see somebody ask the question, with CRL delayed, why are we closing the southern line south of Otahuhu for most of 2024. Irreparable damage has already done to rail patronage and confidence, Nobody will be able to travel Papakura to Otahuhu by rail for over 6 months in 2024, When CRL finally opens commuters will have already made other plans.

  11. Surely some/most of the KR work can be done concurrently with the final fitout given that access is no longer an issue?
    Installing and testing train signals for example shouldn’t be an issue especially given this tunnel isn’t really that big in the international sense.
    Yes there are some tasks that must be done after, but if we can get this time reduced to a minimum then that will make a huge difference.

    Same goes for the level crossings, they really should be getting sorted at the same time as these closures – especially now that the timeframe can be extended due to CRL delays. Those delays also really should mean spreading out the work to minimise disruption to the whole network.

  12. In the Melbourne Metro they plan to run trains and test systems long before the stations are completed. Rails have already been layed and control systems on the approach lines are currently undergoing testing, even though opening is targetted for about August 2025. For the Auckland CRL it seems the construction authority is planning a single handover date of the entire system rather than a “soft” handover of train operations first (for testing and training), with station completion several months later.

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