Light Rail to the Future

30 JAN 2021
Light Rail in Auckland is a perennial discussion, but with little action to show for all the talk. Greater Auckland reports - Light Rail to Fill the Void - how in 2015 the Mayor of Auckland announced the intention to build a light rail line from the city centre to the airport. But then progress bogged down in the details or alignment, cost, funding, and even ownership.

With such a clear and present need, it is surprising that concrete plans have not been developed. And this bodes ill for other cities in New Zealand that could benefit from the revival of the old tram network - especially Christchurch and Wellington.

The cost of light rail will drive how many lines we can build, and where. If we can plan and coordinate a national strategy for the procurement of light rail systems then surely we can achieve enough scale to keep costs in check. The alternative to such a national plan would be a series of expensive, small and effective bespoke systems that would serve no one well.

Central Government should mandate the tier one cities (Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington, Hamilton, and Tauranga) to define routes for a series of light rail lines to serve their communities. Further studies would then be undertaken to determine timelines for the rollout of each system. Generally all light rail rolling stock can be the same. Identical carriages, maintenance facilities, signalling, and rail infrastructure. There may be some differences in the power trains to allow for differing terrain - but by and large a light rail vehicle that would run on one system could be deployed on another system in a different city.

This means if become attractive to more suppliers - a larger contract means it is worth their while to customise the vehicles for New Zealand conditions - because the rail guage in New Zealand is not a universal standard. A possible discussion point might be - should light rail have to be the narrow gauge that our heavy rail uses - or could a more popular gauge be used if there is no need for inter-running of trams on rail tracks.

Timelines become important now because costs are generally dependent upon capacity. The CRL project in Auckland has developed capacity that we should understand redeploy for our light rail rollout. Then that expertise can move from project to project in a smooth and economical manner. So decisions made in Auckland now may affect whether Christchurch can build out a light rail network in a cheap and timely manner.

A national plan for development might also enable local coach building to move more of the manufacture to New Zealand - if this is cost effective. It certainly would not for small runs of rolling stock.

In the same manner if Christchurch is to revive the heavy rail lines that once connected Rangiora, to Rolleston, to Little River, to Oxford via Christchurch and Lyttleton - then perhaps some of the CRL expertise should be brought to bear.

In Hong Kong the initial phase of MTR development built out three main lines (Kwun Tong, Tsuen Wan, Island Lines) and then there was a pause. This meant the closure of the MTR rail development teams. So when the Airport Railway was developed a new team had to be built from scratch, and new culture developed. Since then the MTR has developed a planned series of new lines - each building on the expertise developed by the one before. And when the KCRC created its own West Rail team it soon became clear that the MTR should really have been the one to develop that line and so the Ma On Shan KCR line started under KCRC but moved to the MTRC for completion. Now the entire Hong Kong system is run by a unified entity. That same team now runs systems in Melbourne and for the forthcoming Elizabeth Line in London.

New Zealand needs a coordinated approach, one that avoids being picked off by suppliers selling their bespoke systems. In that way we can get more, better, and cheaper systems throughout the tier one centres. So we need to keep an eye on decisions made in Auckland - it may affect all of New Zealand.
By Hab3