Yesterday the government made an announcement that should surprise almost no-one, finally making it official that light rail is dead.
The coalition Government continues to deliver on its 100-day plan with the decision to cancel the Auckland Light Rail project.
“Auckland Light Rail would have cost taxpayers $15 billion, with advice showing the cost could increase to $29.2 billion,” Transport Minister Simeon Brown says.
“The previous government committed to building light rail to Mt Roskill within four years of being elected. After six years and over $228 million spent on the project, not a single metre of track has been delivered and congestion has only worsened in the city.
“Scrapping the expensive project is part of the coalition agreements and we have taken swift action. Auckland Light Rail Limited has been instructed to immediately cease work on the project, and to take the necessary steps to wind up the company.
“The Government is committed to delivering infrastructure that will reduce congestion, boost productivity, and create a more reliable and resilient transport network that drives economic growth.
“Our focus is on building a rapid transit network in Auckland, including completion of the City Rail Link, which was started by the last National Government, and starting work on a Northwest Rapid Transit corridor, alongside other projects to deliver reduced congestion for Aucklanders.
“Work is underway on rewriting the Government Policy Statement on land transport which will reflect these priorities.
“The Government’s decision to scrap Auckland Light Rail means that we can stop work on a project which has not delivered and get on with delivering the critical transport infrastructure that Auckland needs.”
As a huge advocate for better public transport in Auckland, it continues to feel a bit weird that I’m not upset that a major public transport project is being cancelled. Instead I continue to feel disappointed and frustrated at the previous government for botching this project so badly that it was further from becoming a reality in 2023 than it was when they took it over in 2017.
It was a key part of Labour’s policy platform when they were elected to office in 2017 – and they were handed a scheme by Auckland Transport that had seen significant design work already undertaken.
Under Labour’s first transport minister Phil Twyford, Waka Kotahi were also ready to start delivering it, and my understanding is they had contracts ready to sign to start enabling works – that was, until the government got distracted by the NZ Super Fund proposal – which then led to the bizarre twin-track process that saw Waka Kotahi competing with the NZ Super Fund for who would build it. It turns out the Super Fund would have won the gig, had Winston Peters not blocked it a few months out from the 2020 election.
The new transport minister, Michael Wood, reset the process in 2021 – but notably put in charge the same consultants who were behind Waka Kotahi’s failed bid in the previous process; and this resulted in the tunnelled light rail proposal we have today.
I feel that both Phil Twyford and Michael Wood got distracted by thinking they could be the ones to right the wrongs of the past – for example, the abandonment of schemes like that pushed by Sir Dove-Myer Robinson. Both often repeated the urban legends that have built up around ‘Robbie’s Rail‘ but ignored the hard-learned lessons, that any programme needs to be fundable and builable in a rational, staged way. They were certainly encouraged by some officials and industry players to ‘build big‘ from the start, and not repeat the experience of the Harbour Bridge which soon needed to be expanded again – even though (as the Harbour Bridge example shows), taking a staged approach would likely have resulted in a better overall system.
Had they not been distracted, light rail along Dominion Rd would be in operation now – but sadly, the concept is probably now dead for a generation due to Labour’s mismanagement.
Business Desk have reported on Mayor Wayne Brown’s response to the news
“They’re stopping things, but between now and the end of the month, I expect to sit down with government leaders to work out the things they want to do.”
Referring to the work undertaken on light rail to-date, Brown said: “They didn’t achieve much.”
He agreed there could be a chilling effect on the possibility of future light rail schemes, given the lack of delivery.
“It’s certainly set things back many, many years,” Brown said.
“It was a clear example of how to completely stuff everything up.”
I do think discussion about Light Rail will come back at some stage, but probably not for a decade or more. The reality is the factors behind the need for it still exist, such as that there is only limited space in the city centre for more buses. Reductions in public transport use since COVID have brought probably a few years reprieve but usage is rising again and will eventually get back to, and exceed, those pre-pandemic levels and that will reignite the discussion about higher capacity options.
And speaking of the type of capacity light rail can deliver, it’s notable that Sydney’s 12km CBD and Southeast light rail line, which opened just before the pandemic, recorded 31 million trips in 2023. That’s the same as what Labour’s Tunnelled Light Rail was estimated to achieve in 30 years.
Coming back to yesterday’s announcement, one thing that is somewhat pleasing is that Transport Minister Simeon Brown did include the need to continue with the Northwest Rapid Transit in the announcement. While it was part of their election policy, including it in this announcement hopefully means the work already underway on it will continue rather than be paused till later in the government’s term.