It is not yet precisely clear how the Auckland Council and the Government propose to share the cost of the city's underground rail link but the fact that the Prime Minister and Transport Minister joined Mayor Len Brown for a ground-breaking ceremony this week suggests the $2.5 billion project is going ahead. After so many plans, so much argument and so much hope, the moment feels truly historic.
Mr Brown believes a central rail circuit will change the shape of Auckland. Perhaps it will. The loop will allow trains to run much more frequently than they can with all lines terminating at Britomart. If the railway works as its planners intend, it will make Auckland a more compact city, boosting its central business district and attracting more dense development around the three rail lines radiating from it. Suburban stations will become hubs of activity with local bus routes oriented to rail connections and with the ease of transfer on a pre-paid card, Auckland commuters will take to public transport at last, forsaking their cars and consigning road congestion to the past.
All of that might have happened long ago if Auckland's post-war planners had focused on railways rather than motorways and a harbour bridge. It might still have happened if the bridge had been built to earlier designs for trains as well as wheeled traffic. But then, as now, governments were hard to convince and the bridge had to be financed by traffic tolls. Aucklanders readily paid them, crossing the bridge in such numbers that its capacity had to be doubled within a few years of its opening. Meanwhile, motorways to the south and west became far more popular commuting arteries than the railways alongside them. The causeway to Te Atatu reshaped the west.
So it is probably too much to expect the long-awaited central rail link to change the face of Auckland. The city's beaches, coastal attractions and bay suburbs will remain more readily reachable by road and, outside peak hours at least, the convenience and privacy of the personal car will be hard for public transport to beat. But the city's population is growing at such a rate that roads and motorways would not be enough for its transport needs. Fortunately, the new population is more accustomed to apartment living and urban rail services. Patronage has been rising for several years, as the lines have been electrified and new trains provided.
If the central rail link's new stations under Albert St and Karangahape Rd turn out as expansive and attractive as the artists' impressions, they will bring a new dimension to the CBD as well as many more people.
But effective urban rail services need to be not only frequent but fast, and above all, reliable. It will require more than a turning circle to make Auckland's rail service fast and reliable. The western line is made slow by level crossings of roads, and some of the eastern line's stations are desolate places. For some reason, despite electrification and new trains, it still proves unreliable too often.
Sir Dove Myer Robinson called his vision rapid rail. He would settle for no less when the Kirk Government offered him slow rail. That was 43 years ago. The rail enthusiasts who have kept his dream alive, and especially his successor, Mr Brown, have put a stake in the ground and can take a bow.