Gary Taylor: Auckland needs a proper metro rail system

Auckland suffers from a lack of long-term ambition regarding its transport system.

The mistakes of the past are being repeated. The fixation on light rail down Dominion Road exemplifies the point.

I was once a director of Auckland LRT Limited which tried to get successive governments to back light rail, to no avail.

That was in the 1990s before the region's population explosion. Auckland had 950,000 residents in 1991. Now it's 1.7 million. We have grown so big, light rail is yesterday's solution.

What is needed is an integrated, full-blown metro rail network covering the whole region. It would be built partly on the surface and partly underground. It would future-proof Auckland and enable all our communities to be serviced by high quality public transport. It would expand on the existing network.

What would this metro rail system look like? It would be like Paris, or London, but on a smaller scale. It would use modern electric rolling stock like we have at present. Trains would be progressively modernised over time. They would be fast and frequent at peak. The network would enable cross-town routes to be developed, to minimise travel distances to workplaces, and not just focus on the CBD as a destination.

First, it would service the North Shore. When the North Shore Busway was approved way back in 1988, it was intended to be converted to rail when it reached capacity, given rail's higher capacity. The time for that to happen is now.

The Busway was expressly designed with that conversion in mind. It has stations, park and ride facilities and a dedicated route that runs up the populated spine of the northern suburbs.

Of necessity, it would need a tunnel under the harbour to connect to the existing rail system to the south. Just imagine, you could get on a train at Takapuna Station and be in the heart of the city centre in less than ten minutes.

The tunnel is now an urgent thing for a number of reasons, not least the fragility of the harbour bridge and the throttling congestion it causes. If any government in this country thought about the most significant risk to its longevity, it would be failure of the bridge which would bring Auckland to its knees.

That is a very real possibility and one that recent revelations about soft foundations under one of the piers makes real. An earthquake or unanticipated structural failure could occur at any time. It would take many years to build a fix from scratch.

We should stop mucking around on this. A tunnel has been on transport planners' agendas for decades. Let's get it underway while money is cheap.

To provide resilience in the system, it should combine metro rail and road access leaving a lane on the existing bridge to be dedicated to cycling.

Secondly, the expanded metro rail should run alongside the Northwestern motorway to provide a link to the rapidly growing Northwestern suburbs including the satellite township of Helensville.

By all means extend the Western line to Kumeu and Helensville in the interim but that is a long and indirect route to the city. Most of this new route parallel with SH16 could be at grade – on the surface – and much more direct.

Thirdly, the link to the airport should form part of the metro network. It is vital that public transport avoids mode shifts for maximum efficiency and attractiveness to users. People with luggage don't want to transfer from a bus to train or light rail to a bus.

The idea of a light rail service, with all its stops, providing an effective airport service is silly. We need an equivalent to the Heathrow Express, with a loop line from the airport to Penrose and Puhinui Station, and a dedicated express line to Aotea Station and north under the harbour.

What about the Dominion Road light rail project: how does that fit into this more ambitious scheme? If we are going to tunnel under the harbour then it makes sense to consider tunnelling a route from Mt Eden Station southwards, a proper tunnel, not a highly disruptive cut and cover route.

Light rail or a street car is introducing a third mode, in addition to rail and buses, into the network. It cannot form part of a fully integrated system because of its limited scope. And anyway it would be building for today's capacity, not tomorrow's. Put simply, Auckland will outgrow light rail in short order.

So what I am arguing for is a long-term vision and a plan to create a proper metro rail network for Auckland; a comprehensive, fully integrated network that can be planned now and built progressively over the next two or three decades.

It would enhance the liveability of the region for generations to come and provide a genuinely attractive, zero emissions alternative to cars. But it needs some big-picture ambition and drive.

It needs central and local government to shift away from piecemeal thinking and focus on creating a modern, fast public transport network fit for future generations.

Gary Taylor CNZM QSO is a former Director of Auckland LRT Limited, Infrastructure Auckland and the Auckland Regional Transport Authority. He is currently CEO of the Environmental Defence Society.

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