Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: Sad lack of heritage trams makes ultra-modern railway better option

Auckland's heritage ‘Streamliner’ tram  withdrawn from service in 1956 now operating at Motat. Photo / Supplied
Auckland's heritage ‘Streamliner’ tram withdrawn from service in 1956 now operating at Motat. Photo / Supplied

Auckland regional councillors are rushing through plans for their little Tank Farm heritage tramway, claiming it's all about the Rugby World Cup. But the haste has much more to do with the desire of light rail enthusiasts like chairman Mike Lee, to scrawl "Kilroy was here" before the waterfront falls into the clutches of the new waterfront CCO in a few months.

There's an almost evangelical hope that once built, this 1.5km circuit around the boundaries of the Wynyard Quarter development site will prove so popular, that the inheritors of the ARC dream will have no option but to extend the tranway into the CBD and onwards along the waterfront, up Queen St, down Dominion Rd and who knows where else.

As a fan of a waterfront light rail, I'd love them to be right. But I fear it's just as likely to become a little-used, out-of-the-way clanger that puts the cause back another 50 years.

And it's not me saying that, it's the ARC officials who prepared the Auckland Waterfront Tramway Feasibility Study last November. It discusses how a heritage tramway system could link CBD tourist attractions, including a redeveloped Queen's Wharf, with destinations in the Viaduct Basin and Wynyard Quarter. Then comes the warning: "If a scheme is delivered in the Jellicoe Street/Daldy St area alone" - which is what the ARC endorsed this week- "and doesn't provide this linkage to the potential customer base available from the Britomart area, the project will not be as attractive to tourists (particularly if it is installed well in advance of development in the area) and would probably not be viable to operate."

A big part of the appeal of a heritage tramway to me is that it would get old Auckland trams out of storage at the Museum of Transport and Technology and back on the tracks. ARC councillors were of similar mind, expressing the wish to see Auckland heritage trams on the waterfront. But the November report says this is wishful thinking.

"There are very few original Auckland heritage trams remaining. Motat has two but these are rare models which could not be released for use other than possibly for occasional very special events." Motat tramway manager Colin Zeff confirmed that to me yesterday. At the end of trams in 1956, only three were saved complete. There's No 11, Auckland's first electric tram from 1902 and a valuable museum piece, and two "Streamliner" models from the 1950s, one in working order.

The plan is to borrow a couple of Melbourne trams from the Victorian State Government. But, as the officials point out, "these are not Auckland trams and do not represent Auckland's heritage." Mr Zeff says they don't even look the same.

Adding to the lack of authenticity, there'll be no overhead wiring. With the proposed tramway having to share road space with high-masted vessels travelling back and forth to shipyards, it would have been a dangerous mix. Instead, the trams will be converted to battery power. To me an Auckland tram to even pretend to be authentic, needs a power pole at either end, emitting sparks alarmingly when the pole runs across a join or junction in the power line.

Given the heritage won't be our heritage, wouldn't it be better to go the other way and create an ultra-modern light-rail system, something light and manoeuvrable and if we were really adventurous, driverless. One that was flexible enough to easily travel along Viaduct Harbour Rd and Quay St to Britomart Station and back and be a tourist attraction in its own right.

The alternative connection routes are either across the proposed Te Wero bridge, or along Fanshawe St. The latter is so congested it's a non-starter. As for the $50 million plus Te Wero "legacy" fantasy of Auckland City bureaucrats, this is gathering dust on the "too expensive" shelf. Hopefully it will be binned by the new broom administration. Even if it survives, we're talking the post 2015 never-never.

The big appeal of the ARC's little tramway proposal is that it's cheap, at around $7 million, can be funded through ARC's proxy development company, Sea+City, and be locked into place before the November 1, Super City takeover. But in the haste to leave a legacy, the risk is it will become a legacy of the wrong sort, a reminder of why the November revolution was needed. I hope not.

- NZ Herald

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