NZ Transport Ministry mulls Auckland Light Rail

AUCKLAND: The Ministry of Transport is currently looking at two proposals to build Auckland’s light rail, one is from the Government’s Transport Agency, NZTA, the other comes from the NZ Super Fund.

Both are shrouded in secrecy, although we’ve seen early versions of NZTA’s plan and Stuff published details of an early version of the Super Fund’s plan last week.

The Ministry for Transport now has the job of looking at the two plans and deciding which one to recommend to Cabinet, which will decide which one to build.

For what promises to be one of the biggest transport projects ever built in New Zealand, very little is known for sure about the two proposals. Even the all important “requirements document”, which sets what the Government wants the two projects to deliver, is a secret.

The best way to understand what the Government wants from light rail is to look at the December 2018 proposal from the Super Fund that was leaked to Stuff and published last week. No more recent plans have been leaked or published.

The Super Fund says the plan has changed considerably since then, but leaked letters from NZTA’s former interim board chair Nick Rogers say that the agency now believes the Super Fund’s proposal is preferred by the Government, and is what its proposal will be measured against.

With that in mind, it’s safe to assume that the plans currently being looked at are some version of what the Super Fund put forward in December.

This plan promised fast, 30 minute trips between the central city and the airport, along a network that would eventually comprise 47 kilometres of track spread over two lines: the first from central Auckland to the Airport, and the second heading Northwest to Kumeu.

The Fund promised a fleet of roughly 76 cars running as two car trams. The peak-time frequency of one train every four minutes and an off-peak frequency of one train every 8 minutes.

It promised a capacity of 4500 passengers per hour per direction, which it said could be upgraded to 18,000 “without major system upgrades”.

This is impressive stuff transport-wise. Greater Auckland blog’s Matt Lowrie likened it to building the entire London Underground at once.

The Fund’s promises are achievable because of two major departures from what had previously been signalled. First, the proposal would be mainly ‘grade separated’ meaning the train carriages would not share the road with cars. Second, it would have far fewer stations than the NZTA’s plan, allowing faster journey times.

But fewer stations came at the cost of urban regeneration, one of the aims of the project. If the train stops less, fewer people will use it to commute as they’ll have to walk (or drive) further to get to a station. One of the original goals of the project was to densify the corridor down Dominion road. The Super Fund’s plan appears to put this in jeopardy.

And the cost of full grade separation is more mundane: it’s exceedingly expensive. The first proposal plans to bury two stations down Queen Street, and eventually send the cars on elevated rails, assumed to be roughly 6 metres high, over the suburbs of Auckland to the airport.

Now, that’s fast and efficient transport, but can Auckland – or the country – afford it?

NZTA’s initial plan had been for surface level light rail – more or less a tram. This was what Auckland Transport, the first organisation to begin work on light rail, wanted too. It’s a more modest plan, but it’s likely to come at a more modest cost, perhaps $4-6 billion versus the $10 billion that has been speculated as the cost of the Super Fund’s plan.

NZTA’s rail line would not be completely grade separated, meaning it would run on the road and therefore be subject to the many varied whims of traffic. It would have dedicated lanes, meaning it could avoid most traffic, and it would likely have priority signalling, which means it could get across intersections faster. But priority signalling also has the potential to cause traffic problems for cars stopped to let the light rail through.

However, this is still not quite the same as being completely grade separated. Crashes, intersections, and all manner of other traffic problems could cause delays or stoppages in the network. Advocates say it gives most of the benefits of grade separation at a fraction of the cost.

One of the most important things about both plans is how they’ll be funded. There is surprisingly little information available on this. Looking at what the Super Fund’s Canadian partner has built over there, it looks like the Government could sign up to a 99 year contract to pay the fund for operating the network, whilst also fronting up with some initial money for its construction. This would allow a more expensive network to be built initially, but cost New Zealand more over the long term.

With Government borrowing rates at record lows, critics will reasonably ask why the Government doesn’t just borrow to pay for a Super Fund-style scheme itself.

A decision is expected on which plan will get the go-ahead early next year.