How realistic are Auckland's light rail plans?

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 4 February 2022
A visualisation of the Māngere town centre station.

A visualisation of the Māngere town centre station. Photo: Supplied / Ministry of Transport

The Auckland light rail saga continues … but are we looking at the beginning of an end this time, or another stop on a mythical rail line that never breaks ground?

The latest plan is a partially tunnelled option that's going to cost an eye watering $14.6b. (At least, that’s what the estimate is today.)

Transport Minister Michael Wood and Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson made the announcement last Friday, the latter saying this was "the most important infrastructure project that New Zealand has ever undertaken."

Today The Detail's Jessie Chiang talks to the director of urban and transport advocacy group Greater Auckland, Matt Lowrie, about the new plan and what’s behind it.

Light rail, whether to build it and how to build it, has had a long and highly charged political history.

Jacinda Ardern campaigned on it in 2017 before she went on to win the election. But coalition partner NZ First then blocked anything going through before the 2020 election.

Now, five years after Ardern said she would build light rail, we have this plan - a 24km route running through tunnels from the city centre, along Sandringham Rd rather than Dominion Rd, to Mount Roskill where it will pop up onto the surface through Māngere and all the way to the airport. There'll be 18 stations and trains every five minutes.

Minister for Infrastructure Grant Robertson say option was chosen as it will integrate with other major infrastructure projects.

 Minister for Infrastructure Grant Robertson says this option was chosen as it will integrate with other major infrastructure projects. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

Lowrie says it's the wrong option.

He's an advocate for a complete surface option - no tunnels.

"There's enough money in the difference between the chosen option and the surface option to build 15-plus kilometres of light rail somewhere else in Auckland."

And if the current cost wasn't a big enough price tag, it's likely to rise, even though the government has already accounted for inflation.

"The cost is what's called a P50 estimate, there's a 50 percent chance the cost will go up in the future. There's also a 50 percent chance it will go down but given the complexity, the tunnels, the geology and all of that, there's a really good chance that it's more likely to be on that higher side," says Lowrie.

"It's not just Auckland that needs this investment," he says. "Wellington is talking about light rail as well, we need to do things for Christchurch, Tauranga and Hamilton and other cities."

The Detail looks at who's footing the bill and whether this time, light rail has a chance of getting built.

"People are nervous that in six months or a year's time that the project might be cancelled, particularly if costs increase, which is quite a high likelihood," says Lowrie.

"There's concern that actually, 'is this even real?'"


PIJF Photo: .