Airport rail link: will it take off?

By Ewan McDonald


Saturday morning. My stepson Sam is picking up his mate from the airport at 10.30am so they can go kitesurfing, rockclimbing, kayaking, tramping and other strenuous activities that do not mesh with my idea of what a weekend is for: the 'rest' part of 'rest and recreation'.

We live in Parnell and take a regular route to pick up or drop off friends, relatives and passing-through acquaintances at Mangere, which one of the three in the household has to do every fortnight at least. Avoid Newmarket, scoot through suburban streets to Market Rd, down Manukau and Pah, on to the motorway and you're at the terminal in half an hour. Or so. Depends, like everything in Auckland, on traffic.

Just before Sam was about to leave he got the call that someone hadn't fronted at work, could he cover?

"No sweat, I'll pick up Benny, bring him home," I offered.

The trip would have taken half an hour on a quietish weekend but someone had the bright idea of opening a super-size-me branch of The Warehouse on Pah Rd, bottlenecking the two-lane bottleneck to the airport into one lane, because thousands of locals wanted to see what this branch of the Big Red Shed was selling that the other three huge red sheds within a radius of 5km were not.

So I arrived 20 minutes after the plane, which was a bonus because it arrived on time, and by the time my pick-up had taxied, deplaned (okay ... disembarked), and picked up bag from the carousel, I had parked in the free 10-minute zone and wandered across to the terminal.

The bonus was that it's a five-minute walk from there to the terminal: most times it's simply not possible to time your run, or trot, to meet someone, wait for them to arrive and find their bags, guide them back to the car and leave the carpark within the free time. In those cases, it's another $5 into Auckland Airport's profits. Or more, if your mate is landing on a budget airline that's forgotten to factor an hour for daylight saving into its computers ... or spins you the line that the plane was late because the previous plane was late. Even when it's a 7am flight.

Aucklanders know about getting to the airport. What about the many hundreds of thousands from north of the Brynderwyns, south of the Bombays, or the hapless buggers from other parts of the world? How does getting 22km from Downtown to, or from, the airport stack up against other liveable cities of the world?

To the airport - for the unititiated

Click on the Maxx regional transport website for a midweek morning and a traveller will be offered bus, train, car and walking options. Forget car because it's unlikely many backpacker tourists or five-star hotel visitors will drive themselves. Walking is not really a viable choice, either.

By a process of elimination the tourist is down to taxi (at least $60 from Downtown) or the bus. One visit to Maxx mentioned the privately operated Airbus, but amusingly recommended taking a regular suburban bus from Britomart to Three Kings, humorously timed at eight minutes, and getting the airport express from there. For some reason best known to himself Maxx added a 14-minute, 952m walk from the domestic terminal to the international, when the Airbus stops at both places.

On another visit to the site, it suggested getting the Airbus from the Downtown Ferry Terminal, just over the zebra crossing from Britomart. Total travel, 1 hour 11 minutes. Go to the Airbus website and you'll get clear instructions and schedules. Travel time, 55 minutes.

Melbourne has a similar setup to Auckland: the airport is 25km from the city and dedicated Skybuses run every 15 minutes in daytime, hourly at night. The trip is claimed to take 25 minutes but it can take 40. Depends on traffic, of course. The catch is that Melbourne has to cope with 2 million international arrivals a year.

Sydney's airport is 15km from George St; trains leave every five minutes, or better, and will dump you at Central Station 12 minutes later.

Kuala Lumpur's airport is 60km from the city: 28 minutes by express train.

Hong Kong to Central, 35km, 24 minutes.

Heathrow to Paddington, 22km, 15 minutes.

Paris to the Hotel de Ville, 23km and 25 minutes on an express metro.

So back to Auckland. An airport-Britomart rail link has been mooted for decades. The arguments for extending the line those last few kilometres from Onehunga are so strong that, a year ago, the Auckland Council, Government and airport company - the major agencies involved - agreed it's the best way forward.

The airport company reports 563,243 international passengers and 516,598 domestic arrivals in August. Well over a million comings and goings a month, most of them needing public transport, are a fair-sized customer base. Add to that the airport company's estimate of more than 12,000 people working in the wider airport precinct. It's predicted airport users will treble to 40 million a year by 2040.

There's even a plan called "the South-Western Airport Multi-modal Corridor Project", looking at a route, a timeline and funding.

But it's on the council's 20-year wishlist. And Stephen Joyce has warned it may not get a Government cheque "for some time".

Until then, international visitors will have to rely on Queen St's electronic bus signs to get them through the traffic before check-in closes, and locals will be dropping their Visa cards into the machine to feed the 6730 parking spaces around the airport. Ka-ching.


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- THE AUCKLANDER

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