The real benefits of light rail

Auckland's new tunnelled rail network to meet demand up to 2070.

7 July 2022

As Auckland continues to grow, it’s vital that “liveability” isn’t damaged in our planning approach, according to Tommy Parker, Project Director, Auckland Light Rail Group.

Auckland can extend further out to the fringes, depleting rural land and disconnecting a vast sprawling Auckland – or it can better utilise existing neighbourhoods to improve infrastructure and create better urban outcomes for Aucklanders to live, work and raise families. 

“This is top of mind for Auckland Light Rail,” Parker says. “There are significant future-proofing, housing and public transport benefits for the planned light rail project stretching from the CBD to Auckland Airport – and it’s important to understand the enormous cost of settling for a cheaper scheme or doing nothing.”

The first light rail line will run in a tunnel from Wynyard Quarter to Mt. Roskill, then jump to  the surface through to Onehunga, Māngere and the airport. This alignment was selected because it ensures light rail is built for the future. 

With more and more people living in the city, and additional light rail lines planned to the North Shore and Northwest, the tunnel from the city centre and central isthmus is a key feature for several reasons. 

“It isn’t just about transport – it’s about planning Auckland’s future and integration, improving housing access and quality of life as well,” says Parker.

Many people saw only the price tag, comparing the initial $14.6 billion initial outlay for tunnelled light rail to about $9 billion for surface light rail. 

But tunnelled light rail is preferable to surface light rail because of its future-proofing, he says: “Tunnelled light rail, with a city centre tunnel, will accommodate light rail from Māngere and future lines from the North Shore and North West. With surface light rail, it would be extremely difficult to achieve connections between the services or find the space to build three street level rail lines in the city.

“Tunnelled light rail also means a seamless trip so, in the future, a student can travel from Māngere, for example, to university in Albany. That’s not possible with surface rail. There would have to be transfer points, with several surface lines intersecting in the city centre, overwhelming the area with trains – and negative effects for buses, pedestrians, and cyclists.”  

Building surface light rail now, for a cheaper cost, would only postpone solving Auckland’s transport problems to sometime in the future – when attempting to add to surface rail or build tunnelled light rail would add to the overall cost and create ongoing disruption.    

“We are simply seeking to avoid a short-term solution which, in years to come, may be seen as short-sighted,” he says. “What we are seeking is something a little like London’s tube system, where multiple lines come together in fixed hubs.”

“Meanwhile the cost of doing nothing is enormous,” says Parker. “Congestion costs Auckland about $1.36 billion a year. What we are planning with tunnelled light rail is the first step of a big, new network, eventually including lines to the north and then the north-west of Auckland. “It will provide capacity for increased rail and public transport until about 2070.”

The advantages of tunnelled light rail are:
  • Capacity: Tunnelled light rail can carry up to 17,000 people per hour and will meet demand up to 2070.  Surface light rail can carry 8400 per hour at peak and will potentially reach capacity as early as 2051, once the extension of light rail to the North Shore occurs and patronage increases. That’s 20 years sooner than tunnelled rail. “What we build now needs to serve Aucklanders well into the future,” says Parker.
  • Time: Travel time across the length of the tunnelled corridor is estimated at 43 minutes, compared to 57m with surface light rail – a 14-minute faster journey end to end.  Faster, more frequent and reliable services attract more users and more people out of cars.
  • Housing:  The tunnelled corridor will cater to 66,000 homes directly along the route, more than 15,000 more dwellings along the corridor than surface light rail will attract. The urban planning aspect of this is to grow housing in Auckland along key rail nodes, as many other countries have done.  The rail corridor will attract investment in high-quality urban forms, providing more homes and regeneration.
  • Future-proofing: When the three lines are in operation, demand for light rail is expected to increase by 20-30 per cent. Surface light rail could not handle that – and there is a distinct advantage to not following a road corridor, as surface rail must.  

Parker says a tunnel creates an underground home base for future lines to meet, realising a joined-up rapid transit system and providing flexibility for a new tunnel or bridge across the harbour and setting the stage for transfer-free trips across Auckland. 

“Tunnelled light rail also has the ability to unlock significant urban benefits,” he says. “Because the route doesn’t have to follow an existing road corridor, we have a chance to maximise urban development opportunities in the right places, so light rail stations become hubs of activity, with lots of new homes along with retail, offices and community facilities.

“Auckland is on a journey to create urban areas where people can live, work, shop and access services within walking distance,” he says, “all in close range of reliable and convenient rapid transport to connect to other parts of the city without reliance on a car.”