Auckland Light Rail Has Never Been About The Airport.

Newsroom has just published a pair of articles by Mike Lee, an Auckland Councillor of quite some longstanding. He was on the Council from 2010 to 2019 and was re-elected in the local government elections last year. Before that he was a member of the Auckland Regional Council from 1992 to 2010, the last six years as chair. Lee’s main focus has been on public transport, but he is frequently at odd with Auckland Transport because he denigrates most forms of active transport and therefore opposes the cycleway programme that has been led by AT in recent terms.

It would be as well for readers of this blog to outline the key players in public transport lobbying in Auckland:

  • Greater Auckland is made up of contributors either with a local council background or in allied fields such as planning, but who for the most part have not held political office. It evolved out of the Auckland Transport Blog (known as Transportblog) operated by Josh Arbury. When Arbury moved on to employment at AC, Transportblog was rolled into the Greater Auckland page. A “Transport Blog” web page displaying information about Auckland public transport issues has recently been recreated at the original website address ( but is unrelated to Greater Auckland.
  • Campaign for Better Transport (NZ) is a group that is made up of people interested in improving the public transport system in NZ, with a primary focus on Auckland, and a key interest in heavy rail passenger services.
  • Public Transport Users Association (NZ) is an offshoot from CBT headed by Jon Reeves, a member and former candidate for the NZ First political party.
  • NZ Transport 2050 Inc is an incorporated society to encourage smart public transport infrastructure decision-making for current and future transport users across New Zealand. NZ Transport 2050 also has a joint campaign START (Straight To Airport Rapid Train) with the Public Transport User Association NZ (PTUA).

Out of those groups, in the opinion of TSBNZ, Greater Auckland and Campaign for Better Transport are the groups that have the greatest credibility. This is because the other two groups have been lobbying for fast rail to the airport, despite it being clearly identified in business cases that the passenger numbers will not stack up. This is largely a political focus for PTUA and NZT2050, but has not as yet gained enough support for anyone other than Lee to win election to Auckland Council either as a Councillor or Local Board member.

As the title of this blog makes clear, it is necessary to differentiate all of the proposals for public transport infrastructure to the vicinity of the airport from the campaign that Lee writes about in his Newsroom posts, namely that there have been longstanding proposals for either light or heavy rail infrastructure to be constructed through Onehunga and Mangere to open up a new public transport corridor for South Auckland. The heavy rail option has been the extension of the Onehunga Branch to Mangere, whilst for light rail a completely new corridor would need to be built from Britomart through Sandringham and Mount Roskill (most probably via Dominion Road, a historic street tramway route until the 1950s). An assigned corridor alongside the SH20 motorway would enable the light rail to reach Onehunga where it would cross the harbour in a slightly different alignment from heavy rail, one that would duck under the middle of the Mangere Bridge to provide a grade separated crossing (the design of the Mangere Bridge piers was specifically adapted to allow for the deck of the light rail bridge to make the sharp curves necessary to cross underneath on a skew). Either option would eventually fetch up at a passenger terminal at Auckland Airport, passing through the industrial area immediately north of the airport. Both have been touted by fast airport heavy rail campaigners as possible sources of freight traffic, although the airport itself is unlikely to generate any meaningful volume considering the nature of airfreight operations in general.

So one might be confused on reading this, if the light or heavy rail line does get to Auckland Airport, why isn’t that a key purpose of constructing the rail line? Simply put, as mentioned above, business modelling for the Mangere rail corridor has indicated to date that there will not be sufficient passengers using this public transport link to Auckland Airport to make it viable. In other words, it is only possible to have an Auckland Airport connection on the basis that passenger numbers elsewhere in the network pay for the small extension needed to get to the airport from where the residential neighbourhoods that create most of the traffic volume are located, about 3 km north of the main airport passenger terminals. The main passengers on the extension are likely to be people who work at various industries along this section, including the airport and adjacent industrial area.

The main problem is that we now have two competing projects clamouring for public attention. Firstly we have a straightforward public transport corridor project to be delivered by either heavy or light rail – the latter mode is the current one that the Government is working on. The problem inherent to the latter is that it has been a white elephant that has been delayed and repurposed multiple times, evolving far beyond what was originally expected of it. The realisation that bringing light rail through Sandringham and Mount Eden would be difficult without bulldozing a new corridor led to the idea that it should morph into a light metro system constructed underground, which has greatly inflated the cost. This has substantially eroded the much touted original benefit given for the adoption of light rail in the first place – that it was going to save money compared to heavy rail. The SMART indicative business case produced by international consulting firm Jacobs in 2016 sets out the particular numbers, suggesting that light rail would be cheaper, of the order of $1 billion in establishment costs, compared to the heavy rail option at around $2 billion. One of the benefits touted for light rail is that the new corridor is substantially longer and will therefore generate additional passenger numbers. This is because the heavy rail line begins as an extension of an existing line at Onehunga rather than being a complete 24 km new corridor as the light rail route is. The dollar numbers would be rather different today but not to the extent that the light rail costs have blown out in the last six years.

As Lee outlines in his article, the original light proposals for Auckland, which he supports, were for a network of lines radiating out into places like Mount Roskill, which would have terminated before reaching SH20. Instead this was changed somewhat abruptly and mysteriously, probably as a result of the SMART (South-Western Multi-modal Airport Rapid Transit) business case development in 2016, into the 24 km route to the airport. This in turn was hijacked by “fast airport rail” lobbyists into a new heavy rail proposal completely at odds with the SMART case’s treatment of heavy rail. The fast airport rail proposals have morphed into a single campaign called START (Straight To Airport Rapid Trains) so that will be the label used for the rest of this post, notwithstanding the similarity and possible confusion with SMART. One of the latter aspects of START has been to change the route of the proposed heavy rail corridor to make it a simple spur off the NIMT at Puhinui, rather than the extension from the Onehunga Branch. This would supposedly improve the economics of the START proposal by reducing the construction costs but the flipside of that is it would completely change the SMART proposal from a new public transport corridor serving a significant residential population, to little more than an extension of existing public transport services on the NIMT in Auckland. As such, it would completely divert from the intention of the SMART project, despite the same destination being the objective.

Lee is correct in picking up on the scope change in light rail proposals and the resulting and unnecessary delay in getting the project off the ground as key issues in the case of developing Auckland public transport infrastructure although a great deal of this is due to ministerial political incompetence. The first Labour transport minister Phil Twyford was blindsided by a proposal from the NZ Super Fund in partnership with an overseas pension fund to change the light rail proposal into underground light metro. This would have been as a PPP with substantial public funding subsidies. This was eventually rejected, but it still appears to influence the nature of the light rail project as it is now, specifically in the underground component of part of it. Both of the underground proposals have recognised that surface running in an existing shared road corridor would be quite slow due to safety issues. Greater Auckland has stood alone in consistently campaigning for the reallocation of lane space in Dominion Road, which appears to have become politically infeasible in reality. Minister Twyford was eventually dropped from his role, but his successor Michael Wood has proven little better at solving any public transport issues around NZ. In short, the present Labour administration has shown itself to have a conspicuous lack of capability in this area compared to its predecessors’ illustrious record in 1999-2008, which included doubling and electrifying the entire Auckland suburban rail network and building the Northern Busway. Labour’s incompetence is also quite visible in stalled public transport development proposals in Wellington and Christchurch which have not progressed as promised.

Lee titled his article “Auckland light rail’s legacy of strategic confusion“, the problem with this title being that the START campaign he supports and is writing on behalf of has created the same issue itself in a different form. The basis of SMART has been to serve the people of South Auckland with a new public transport corridor with the airport only incidental to that and not relevant to rapid transport. Yet START is based on changing the whole nature of SMART into an airport rapid transit scenario. As Lee himself opines, the light rail is supposedly trying to solve two transport problems in one solution. That is, in fact, not the case at all. Mike Lee has completely misrepresented what SMART is about. It is clear from reading all of the documentation for SMART that airport rapid transit is not the solution being sought, and that has never been the case. What Lee and fellow travellers have done is try to hijack the existing SMART proposal and change it into their proposed solutions: a constricted light rail network servicing the middle of Auckland (inner suburbs south of the CBD) and a completely new idea of airport rapid transit, which has never been part of the SMART case despite its name. Despite a lengthy campaign, the START proposal has never been taken seriously outside of the small political community it originated from. The financial case for START does not add up and there is almost no support for it.

The problem for START in general is that its proponents are of a small segment of the political spectrum: centre-right politicians who favour a public transport system. For these people, roads are still the main priority. Anything that interferes with roads is in their book, warped and wrong. This is why this grouping have campaigned against the cycleway programme being undertaken by Auckland Transport. Their vision for public or sustainable transport is almost completely based around heavy rail and is largely an attempt to win support from that community. In effect, the political support for START is based on a collection of transport niches: roads (including motorways) and heavy rail for the most part. Since most residents are likely to support the roads network, this gives them reliable political support in local government politics where the majority of voters prefer roads. But it doesn’t win them much support on a national stage where the kinds of people that favour expansion of rail networks also are in favour of sustainable transport generally and therefore have tended to ignore the START proposal. It also doesn’t help that START is an Auckland-centric campaign either. Few politicians have been able to get elected in Auckland on the type of “roads plus heavy rail” platform championed by START’s supporters; people who want more balanced transport in the city are far more likely to support Greens or other left-wing candidates. The roots of START appear to be based mostly in the community of heavy rail supporters, which is mostly confined to those who work in the industry along with a few thousand members of railway heritage and other enthusiast groups around NZ. A commonly held trait of the latter community is that many of its members are neurodiverse, a type of personality feature that is often associated with narrow minded fanaticism and lack of public awareness. In some respects, the single-minded dogmatic zeal with which a small number of people have dominated the START campaign could be seen as reflective of neurodiverse personality traits.

The challenge for SMART/START is that its supporters are split between these two competing objectives, and in some respects divided further into subcategories. Broadly speaking, SMART as originally conceived presented heavy and light rail as two competing transport modes to be evaluated along with several others (the short option list evaluates HR, LR and BRT (bus rapid transit) as the leading options for the south western corridor). All the options considered followed the same final alignment into the airport, coming from the north via Onehunga and Mangere. The narrow minded viewpoint of the START people has polarised and divided the sustainable transport community: rather than accepting that airport rapid transit might be an achievable objective in the long term, they have insisted that that is the most important objective and much superior to the general public transport needs of the South Auckland population. The subcategorisation comes about because START supporters have more recently changed tack to emphasise the Puhinui spur as their preferable outcome. Currently an option is available for airport passengers to take a train to Puhinui and transfer from there to a dedicated bus to the airport but passenger counts show only a few dozen people a day taking up this option despite the purported advantages and benefits; this was always to be expected as most people who are able to pay the high cost of air travel can also afford to pay for private transport options which are much more convenient particularly with baggage. So to summarise/conclude, this series of articles by Mike Lee do not aid in any way the debate on the SMART/START options and are mainly produced as a promotional exercise by the START campaign, and are not going to further elevate START’s lack of serious political or general support whether in Auckland or anywhere else.