Rail projects - way of future or a train wreck?

By Mathew Dearnaley, Isaac Davison

Photo / Greg Bowker
Photo / Greg Bowker

Auckland Super City mayor Len Brown swept to power after promising three ambitious rail projects within 15 years.

His vision is already putting his new council on a collision course with the Government, and yesterday Prime Minister John Key tried to rein in Aucklanders' expectations.

Mr Brown wants the projects completed consecutively, in blocks of roughly five years. The first would see a rail tunnel to service the western side of the central business district, between Britomart and Mt Eden.

That would be followed by a link or links to the airport and then a line from central Auckland to Albany through tunnels under the Waitemata Harbour.

1. CENTRAL CITY TUNNEL

A 3.5km link, including three underground stations between Britomart and the western line, to complete a central city loop allowing more trains through Auckland's rail network and within easier reach of downtown offices and shops.

Cost: $1 billion to $1.5 billion.

Political support: Twelve of the new 20-member council yesterday pledged support for the tunnel; eight were undecided and none opposed it. Transport Minister Steven Joyce has described it as "the only serious major project worth considering in the foreseeable future for Auckland commuter rail" but a big commitment.

Progress: A $5 million study for KiwiRail and the Auckland Regional Transport Authority has identified a preferred route between Albert St and Upper Symonds St, and a business case is being peer-reviewed.

Obstacles: Care will be needed to avoid digging too close to building foundations, and tender documents for Auckland's new electric trains stipulate they must be capable of operating on a steep gradient rising to 70m above the waterfront.

2. RAIL LINK(S) TO AIRPORT

Planners have identified rail as the preferred long-term rapid transit between Auckland and the airport. Their preference is for links from Onehunga and Puhinui on the main trunk line.

Cost: $471 million (for a 6.5km link from Puhinui only) to $1.45 billion for a full circuit including Onehunga, which has just had its branch line reopened for passenger trains and is 9km from the airport.

Political support: Ten councillors supported airport rail, 10 were undecided and none opposed it.

Progress: The new duplicate road bridge across Manukau Harbour has been built strong enough to carry trains beneath it, and the section of motorway from there to Walmsley Rd in Mangere has been realigned to make room for a railway. A memorandum of understanding to begin detailed planning investigations before protecting the rest of the route with land designations is close to being signed by the Transport Agency, KiwiRail, Auckland Airport, regional transport authority, regional council and Manukau City Council.

Obstacles: Rapid land development between Kirkbride Rd and the airport in particular means part of the route may have to be tunnelled to save property purchase costs. Transport planners believe the central city loop tunnel will have to be built first, to allow Britomart to take more trains, but regional council chairman (and new Auckland councillor) Mike Lee is confident four services an hour could run from the airport through Onehunga without over-taxing the existing network. Australia has two examples of successful airport rail services, but they had financial trouble in their early years, before patronage grew.

3. RAIL LINK TO ALBANY

A 4.2km pair of tunnels between the Tank Farm and Esmonde Rd, Takapuna, then a 9.5km extension to Albany.

Cost: $1.6 billion to $1.8 billion if the railway replaces the Northern Busway on its land route, or up to three times that much if the entire link to Albany is tunnelled.

Political support: Eight councillors supported the link, 12 were undecided, none opposed it.

Progress: A 2008 study for the former Transit NZ and Auckland councils evaluated more than 150 route options for a new Waitemata Harbour crossing before recommending two pairs of tunnels, one for State Highway 1 traffic and the other for trains. The agency and KiwiRail are seeking designations for the preferred route, although another study is in progress following a Government request to determine whether the crossing should be through tunnels or over a new bridge.

Obstacles: A bridge instead of tunnels may be too steep for heavy rail, although it may be able to carry trams. Using the Northern Busway route could mean having to close the busway for two or more years, which is likely to be unacceptable. North Shore City and KiwiRail are believed to have discussed a tunnel route west of the Northern Motorway, although a proposed study did not proceed.

- NZ Herald

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