Franklin County News
Stark choice: Light rail or flood protection?
Our politicians do have to choose between trains, drains and automobiles. They can’t fund them all, writes Sam Stubbs.
OPINION: Last year I wrote that the proposed $14 billion Auckland Light Rail project was a Harry Potter fantasy. Why? Because politicians love the allure of trains. Our new Prime Minister has confirmed it, with the light rail link surviving the Government’s policy cull announced earlier this month.
For voters, trains are an easy sell: an aspirational form of transport and because rail projects take so long to build, voters can pretend someone else will pay for it.
But let’s look at the numbers, especially after the recent floods and cyclone, because we face vast bills to fix – never mind futureproof – vital infrastructure across the North Island.
First let’s look at the train line we’re already building, the Central Rail Link (CRL). It’s
3.5km long, with a current cost estimate of $4.4b. That’s $1.25b per kilometre, making it the second most expensive rail line in the world, ever. Only New York has spent more. It’s not a competition anyone wants to win.
But it gets worse: $4.4b is a 2019 estimate, with a recent warning it will rise. That could mean a final bill of more than $5b, compared to the 2010 estimate of $2.3b.
Let this be a lesson.
The real bill for a single light rail line is likely to be much higher than the $14b ‘‘estimate’’ the politicians currently use to justify the project. Why could they get it wrong a second time?
Again, let’s look at the maths. The line is estimated at 24km, 12 underground and 12 overground. Assuming the current cost of the central rail link of $1.25b per km, that’s at least $15b for the underground section, before we get to the other 12km overground.
If we repeat the Central Rail Link experience, and double the estimate, the proposed line could cost more than $28b. NonAucklanders should be concerned, because the Light Rail Establishment Unit says ‘‘the Crown is expected to fund most of the capital costs of the project’’, meaning all taxpayers will pay.
After speaking with transportation experts, overseas and in New Zealand, it is clear the current light rail proposal has some basic flaws. In trying to please everyone, it will disappoint them all. For example, it wants to efficiently connect passengers from central Auckland to the airport. But the proposed 18 stops will make that journey frustratingly slow. Anyone who has taken the Piccadilly line in London (also 18 stops to the airport) knows how that feels.
It’s 18 stops because the line also wants to serve as a local metro but a train line will only serve a part of South Auckland. Everyone else will still need to connect via buses, which will likely remain underfunded for the many years it will take the rail line to be completed.
Another problem is that underground tunnels and stations are extremely expensive to build and maintain.
Also, the underground Auckland Central Station (with only four platforms) will be a choke point for three rail lines at rush hour. We will have to pay a huge additional price to enlarge it.
Is there a better way? Yes, and it’s cheaper, faster, easier, and leaves billions for the new infrastructure we will need.
When done well, dedicated busways really work. The infrastructure required – roads – are usually delivered in New Zealand on time and on budget. A dedicated bus network could be expanded much further, much faster, and at a much lower cost.
Modern electric buses cost about $800,000 each, so $650m would replace every public bus in Auckland with a new, quieter, electric equivalent.
Auckland Transport trials show that every electric bus saves $10,900 in operational costs and 160 tonnes of carbon dioxide, every year. An all-electric fleet would prevent 128,000 tonnes of carbon from going into the atmosphere, and save $8.7m in operational costs, every year. Yet under current planning, we will only get to a zero-emission bus fleet in Auckland by 2040, and will still be buying new diesel buses for the next three years.
In 2021 the world had 425,000 electric buses operating. New Zealand had 19. Go figure.
The reason there is so much transport poverty in South Auckland is because buses have not been properly funded. A new rail line is likely to extend this horrible reality for decades.
Misinformation plagues the public transport debate. For example, the light rail proposal, as presented by planners and politicians, is justified because ‘‘the roads and bus lanes are full’’ and ‘‘buses can’t park or turn around in Central Auckland’’.
Anyone driving past the northern busway can see it is hugely under-used. It’s ‘‘full’’ because we need more car parks at bus stops to increase capacity.
And if we can park thousands of cars on the Auckland wharves, we can certainly park and turn around buses on those wharves.
Spending a small fraction of the $14b on expanding Auckland’s cycleways is a better choice, too.
We could do all this, and still have plenty of change from $14b for more flood protection, or hospitals and schools, across all of New Zealand. Our politicians do have to choose between trains, drains and automobiles. They can’t fund them all.