Infrastructure Report: Accelerating light rail to make Auckland prosper

22 November 2022

Opinion: Tommy Parker

This op-ed was originally featured in the NZ Herald Infrastructure Report - November 2022.

Two generations ago, in 1956, thousands of people and a brass band packed central Auckland to farewell the city’s last tram. As Tram Number 304 rumbled along Queen St for the last time, many thought that journey marked the end of the city’s decades-old relationship with light rail. Far from it.

Auckland Light Rail Station Artist Impression
Artist Impression: Auckland isthmus light rail station

Since the 1950s, the city’s growth has been significant, putting Tāmaki Makaurau’s infrastructure and housing under increasing pressure.

It is estimated 320,000 new homes will need to be built by 2050. Growth brings both opportunities and challenges, and the need to do things differently. The cars and buses that replaced our old trams can no longer provide all the transport solutions for a growing city.

Various national and regional investigations over the past 10 years — including the joint Government/Auckland Council Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) — identified the need for rapid mass transit or light rail to support the city.

Let me be clear: the case for Auckland Light Rail (ALR) is strong and it’s not a recent whim. Light rail has a clear problem to solve — we are not building a stand-alone transport system. It is an important building block in a much wider transport plan that includes roads, heavy rail, ferries and walking and cycling to help Auckland grow and prosper.

Land, or the lack of it, is a constraint to growth. At the skinniest part of the central isthmus, barely a couple of kilometres separate the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea. Crowded roads, busy bus corridors, railways, electricity, gas and telecommunications links, pipes for clean and dirty water, and homes and businesses squeeze into that space, underpinning the importance of making sure the development of transport and land use are planned together.

A big chunk — 21 per cent — of those 320,000 new homes for Auckland will be built along ALR’s indicative corridor across the isthmus. Those homeowners, and many, many other Aucklanders, will need the substantial and positive changes ignited by light rail — easier and congestion-free journeys to access jobs and education, communities that are safer and more pleasant to call home, and a cleaner and healthier environment.

That’s the why, this is the how

Planning and designing a 24km-long, world-class light rail system linking the airport precinct and central Auckland job centres with communities across the central isthmus is well underway.

Auckland Light Rail is huge in its vision and its scope — nothing on this scale has been built in New Zealand before — but we must not run away from big infrastructure. If we take that attitude, the Waterview tunnel, the City Rail Link and the Central Interceptor may never have been more than dreams and visions.

Auckland’s record delivering huge infrastructure is impressive. The key to success is managing the risks and challenges big projects will throw up. We’re taking the first steps to do that.

A stand-alone company with an independent board called Auckland Light Rail Ltd (ALR Ltd) has been set up as a Crown Entity Company. It puts us in a better position to deliver the project.

ARL Ltd has approved the Project Funding and Finance Agreement (PPFA) which sets out the objectives, terms and conditions the company is expected to progress the project, as well as its assurance and monitoring arrangements and the roles of the Crown and partners, including Crown funding.

ALR Ltd’s establishment coincides with the announcement of Aurecon and Arup as preferred alliance partners to work with us on our planning and design phase.

We’re operating in a very competitive international market, but we’ve attracted some of the world’s best talent — brilliant people with impressive international records.

With the project gaining momentum, New Zealand is seen by many of them as a great destination for the next chapter in their careers.

Our team has the light rail skills not found in New Zealand — the engineers, infrastructure planners and designers, station architects, environmentalists and economists who have helped build light rail systems around the world and are now helping deliver our own from scratch.

They’re working on developing ALR’s route and the proposed locations of up to 18 stations, preparing the Corridor Business Case, looking at how the system will be built and funded, and getting ready the consents needed for construction.

Our short-term goals are demanding, and our working environment is fast paced.
We will soon start our geotech programme — sinking the first boreholes to test if soil conditions support tunnelling.

Early in the new year we will start engaging with communities on our preferred route and station locations

Mid-2023, the first of the consents we need to further progress the project will be lodged. Around the same time, we aim to have our Corridor Business Case completed, the document we need to secure further funding.
Alongside the alliance, a separate stream of work is already underway to plan how a completed Auckland Light Rail will be operated — everything from the type of trains we should have, their depots and maintenance, and the signalling systems.

Outside our own programmes, we are working closely with Auckland Airport, a key destination for the many thousands who will work there, and travellers too, to ensure continuity with its expansion plans and ours for light rail.

It is further evidence that we’re pressing hard on the accelerator to deliver a project that will bring huge and exciting changes to Auckland, and to New Zealand as well.
ALR construction will employ thousands of Kiwis — local infrastructure and construction companies, subbies and workers. There’s a lot more to it than a weekly pay cheque going into people’s pockets. Our construction complexities and challenges will upskill our workforce and that will benefit New Zealand today and well into the future.

Worldwide, light rail is resurgent reflecting the growth in city living

By my count from 2010-19, more than 400 projects are underway — 33 new systems have opened recently in the Asia-Pacific region — and another 500 or so are being planned. In North America, where the car is king, 16-lane motorway cities like Houston in Texas and Toronto in Canada are embracing light rail.

US studies indicate business investment and location decisions are being influenced by access to light rail systems and the ease for people to get to and from work — they call it a virtuous economic cycle benefiting workers and employers alike.

Conversely, cities that do not invest in rail transit are finding that congestion and pollution quickly increase, a problem that accelerates with growth and negatively impacts their ability to expand their economies and achieve a good quality of life.

Now it’s the turn of Auckland. We are now three times larger than New Zealand’s next biggest city, and this country’s premier international gateway to the world. The city’s growth will continue, and light rail will be critical to help manage and support it.
I can’t guarantee a hat-wearing crowd or a brass band, but I reckon that when today’s modern version of light rail — one that is high-tech, frequent, fast and safe — returns to Auckland there will be plenty to celebrate in a healthier city that is more accessible, more productive and more prosperous.

Project Fact Sheet

  • Auckland Light Rail’s vision is broad and ambitious — it will allow a vibrant and modern Auckland to grow and prosper, and make it easier for Aucklanders to live, work and play in their city.
  • Auckland Light Rail’s 24-km-long route and 18 stations connect people to the central city and airport job centres across Auckland’s central isthmus and communities at Māngere, Onehunga and Mt Roskill.
  • Detailed planning has started on developing the route and design. This will help narrow down construction costs.
  • Largely Crown-funded rather than ratepayers, with work underway on funding and finance mechanisms with the objective of including additional private/developer investment.
  • Forget the timetable — state-of-the-art, high-tech light rail services will be frequent, quicker, safer and more reliable — travel times to the central city from most destinations will be more than halved.
  • Light rail will help Auckland grow — it will drive housing and business growth along its route, and be the catalyst for neighbourhood regeneration and people-friendly streets.
  • 17 per cent of Auckland’s population growth and 33 per cent of job growth will happen along the light rail corridor over the next 30 years.
  • Light rail’s impressive “green” dividend makes the city cleaner and healthier — car and bus congestion and pollution are cut, and around 14,500 fewer vehicles need to be on the road during rush hours.
  • Light rail will carry a lot more people each trip than a car or double-decker bus and the frequency of services is higher than heavy rail.
  • Investing in high-capacity, high-quality, and rapid transit is critical to developing a modern, international, connected city.
  • It will expand Auckland’s public transport network, connecting with city-wide bus, heavy rail and ferry services.
  • Building light rail is huge — the country’s largest transport infrastructure project.
  • Half the route will be tunnelled, avoiding disruption and delay on busy streets, especially around the city centre.
  • Light rail is separate from other vehicles on its own lanes and free from traffic signals and congestion.
  • Central city to the airport will be the backbone of a light rail network that can extend to the city’s northwest and across the Waitematā Harbour to the North Shore in the future.

Tommy Parker is the chief executive of Auckland Light Rail.