Light rail in Auckland: should Wellington be afraid?

We’re barely back at the desk and already the blockbuster announcement of the year: finally, grownup-city mass transit for our largest metropolitan centre! But a lot of smart people have made a lot of weird decisions in there… could Wellington experience similar weird?

So after an interminable-feeling period of cluster-shemozzle uber-bungle, it was Officially Declared: Auckland will get $10.3 *billion* spent on mass transit for the city in today’s money, which will be $14.6 billion with inflation by the time it’s finished! A unit turning up every 5 minutes for much of the city!! With all the associated benefits for people being able to live better lives in 15-minute neighbourhoods!!! And reducing (at least a bit) their huge transport carbon emissions!!!!


So why is Greater Auckland, stalwart supporters of efficient and climate-friendly transport for over a decade, writing that they “feel somewhat disappointed by it all”?

Their spokesperson and frequent author Matt Lowrie sums it up:

Thinking about it all over the weekend I think this is primarily for two reasons.

1 -That the government have chosen what we think is the ‘worst of both worlds‘ option of tunnelled light rail, the poor process that led to it and the huge opportunity cost it entails.

2 – Because of the scale of the investment, there is an ongoing concern that this will end up the same way as the Northern Path bridge, with the government cancelling it in a few months/years – or, given how long it will take to get spades in the ground, that a future government will do so.

Why does Light Rail in Auckland matter for us?

In short, there’s no city monopoly on institutional silliness. Wellington’s big transport plans – Let’s Get Wellington Moving, plus the other stuff in the Regional Land Transport Plan – are prey to the same structural biases, procedural perversions and tunnel vision (no pun intended) as Auckland’s. And Auckland’s key programme hasn’t been in the doldrums like ours, which would suggest they can attract and retain even higher-calibre brains to their mahi than those we can. And yet…

They’ve gone and picked “the worst of both worlds” for their mass transit investment, semi-tunnelled.

A visualisation of light rail under a road in Auckland

Should we worry for our decision-making ahead?

Well, this hasn’t changed anything materially for Wellington but it’s made us at Talk Wellington feel a bit more nervous about how capably Wellington will do the decisions ahead.

For a few reasons…

  • LGWM’s weird constitutional structure baked in some leadership issues [PDF], meaning a really unfortunate blurring of political and popularity-driven influences with the cold hard realities of urban physics. And bonus, it continues to have generally poor transparency which makes these influences really hard to tease apart in any decision – including the Very Big Ones. We’d love to say we trust the politicians (of all stripes) to make good calls with their influence but frankly… given short political terms and the general brokenness of our local government… yeah nah.
  • And then there’s a persistent, inexplicable whiff of “just build a great big civil engineering thing!” hanging around LGWM. You can smell it in places like the insistence on grade-separating modes at the Basin when there’d be much better bang we could get for all those bucks, and in the surprisingly enduring consideration given to batsh*t crazy things like tunnelling under the entire of Te Aro. We wonder: is this “I wanna cut a ribbon and get in the media for my constituents”, coming from the politicians? Or “I wanna get a big picture of a cool Big Boys’ Civils Build I can splash all over my CV?”, coming from the high-ranking engineers within LGWM? Either, or both…?
  • A lot of the transport goodness we need in Wellington will be coming from things that are even more vulnerable than LGWM to weird politician-driven decisions, like the city street improvements of the Transitional Programme [PDF] and the travel demand management around Let’s Get Wellington Moving [PDF] which need local government support and implementation. And… it’s a local government election year. See above for trusting politicians, but turned up to 11 in an election year.


In light of Auckland light rail decisions, are you feeling more optimistic about the decision-making nous in Te Whanganui-a-Tara? Please say!

Banner image credit:

Auckland Light Rail

4 comments on “Light rail in Auckland: should Wellington be afraid?”

  • Luke says:

    Nothing will happen, eventually there will be a change of government, the new government will promise some buses and then build wider roads. Car dependence locked in for another generation.

  • filosofos says:

    LGWM is as “unhealthy” as ever, as evidenced by the four options they put forward for consultation in November. They were basically the same pig, thinly disguised with a slightly different shade of lipstick.
    The problem with Auckland installing light rail ahead of us is that they will most likely install it to standard gauge and we will be told to do the same. That will make it incompatible with the existing mass transit we already have and future generations will curse us for it.
    A heavy rail system that dumps people on the edge of town and forces them to change at the point of maximum ridership, is going to continue missing out on a large slice of potential patronage and this will only get worse when Transmission Gully finally opens.
    We don’t need LGWM (which has inexplicably morphed into Let’s Get Island Bay Densifying). Just resurrect all the light rail studies which were carried out in the 1990s by real experts. Who remembers them?

    • Timmo says:

      ‘forces people to change’ – Why is changing a bad thing? Look at all the great rail stations of the world – they let you off, you change to another line or another mode, they have nice spaces to wait, heaps of stuff to look at and buy while you’re there. The welly rail station used to be good like that back in the day (1950s), even had a mothers room.

      • filosofos says:

        Changing is only a bad thing when everyone is forced to do it at the same time. Vehicles loaded to (often) 110% forced to empty completely, then change ends and reload them. This should only happen in the outer suburbs when they are almost empty. It’s a principle of good mass transit. From outer suburb, through the dense centre of high demand and out the other side.
        A rail spine from the north through town and out the other side would see a few people interchange at several points along its length. THAT is good interchanging.
        Many of the “great rail stations” are either located close to points of high demand or aren’t stub terminals at all and people can continue their journey. Look at Melbourne’s heavy rail suburban system which has several major stations within the city but no train actually terminates at any of them. They enter the city, do a full or partial circle and out the other side. No terminating in the city centre. Passengers are not forced to change at one particular station.

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