Auckland light rail: what went wrong?


Light rail was a key part of Labour’s policy platform when they were elected to office in 2017 – they were even handed a scheme by Auckland Transport that had seen significant design work already undertaken, yet in six years nothing was achieved and the project has been cancelled, Greater Auckland’s Matt Lowrie says

I continue to feel disappointed and frustrated at the previous government for botching this project so badly that it was further from becoming a reality in 2023 than it was when they took it over in 2017.

Under Labour’s first transport minister Phil Twyford, Waka Kotahi were ready to start delivering it, and my understanding is they had contracts ready to sign to start enabling works – that was, until the government got distracted by the NZ Super Fund proposal – which then led to the bizarre twin-track process that saw Waka Kotahi competing with the NZ Super Fund for who would build it. It turns out the Super Fund would have won the gig, had Winston Peters not blocked it a few months out from the 2020 election.

The next transport minister, Michael Wood, reset the process in 2021 – but notably put in charge the same consultants who were behind Waka Kotahi’s failed bid in the previous process; and this resulted in the tunnelled light rail proposal which bloated the cost of the project.

I feel that both Phil Twyford and Michael Wood got distracted by thinking they could be the ones to right the wrongs of the past – for example, the abandonment of schemes like that pushed by Sir Dove-Myer Robinson. Both often repeated the urban legends that have built up around ‘Robbie’s Rail‘ but ignored the hard-learned lessons, that any programme needs to be fundable and builable in a rational, staged way. They were certainly encouraged by some officials and industry players to ‘build big‘ from the start, and not repeat the experience of the Harbour Bridge which soon needed to be expanded again – even though (as the Harbour Bridge example shows), taking a staged approach would likely have resulted in a better overall system.

Had they not been distracted, light rail along Dominion Rd would be in operation now – but sadly, the concept is probably now dead for a generation due to Labour’s mismanagement.

I do think discussion about Light Rail will come back at some stage, but probably not for a decade or more. The reality is the factors behind the need for it still exist, such as that there is only limited space in the city centre for more buses. Reductions in public transport use since COVID have brought probably a few years reprieve but usage is rising again and will eventually get back to, and exceed, those pre-pandemic levels and that will reignite the discussion about higher capacity options.

And speaking of the type of capacity light rail can deliver, it’s notable that Sydney’s 12km CBD and Southeast light rail line, which opened just before the pandemic, recorded 31 million trips in 2023. That’s the same as what Labour’s Tunnelled Light Rail was estimated to achieve in 30 years.