Lester Levy: Electric update transports city 'back to future'

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Auckland Transport's new electric trains set a critical foundation for the next 50 years in the evolution of the city's transit network.  Photo / Dean Purcell
Auckland Transport's new electric trains set a critical foundation for the next 50 years in the evolution of the city's transit network. Photo / Dean Purcell

1902 was a year for firsts. Teddy Roosevelt became the first United States President to ride in a car, the air conditioner and neon light were invented, a radio transmission was received and the Mayor of Auckland, Alfred Kidd, started the Hobson St power station generators which kicked the world's first coast-to-coast electric tram system into life.

Mr Kidd and his council made the decision to shift from horse-drawn trams that had served Auckland since 1884 and start the country's biggest engineering project.

Men using picks and shovels built the Auckland Electric Tramway. Horses helped move and install heavy poles for the overhead lines.

The system, completed in just over a year, started with 43 trams, all shipped from England and assembled in Ponsonby.

The first trams ran from downtown to Onehunga. The new electric trains start on the Onehunga line.

Mr Kidd was a visionary. The 600,000 invested in the electric tram system for a city of just 60,000 people was the equivalent of $100 million in today's terms.

For the next 50 or so years, Auckland's growth was led by the vision of Mr Kidd and his council - until 1956 when the unfathomable decision was taken to remove the electric trams from city streets.

So here we are, 50 years and hundreds of millions of dollars later trying to recreate history through investment in infrastructure and services that will guide and direct Auckland for the next 50 years and beyond.

And while Monday appears to be all about the new electric trains, the reality is that it is about more than just rail. The new trains in themselves are breathtakingly wonderful, faster, quieter and smarter than before.

But they cannot be seen in isolation, more importantly than the comfort, speed and reliability they will provide our customers on a day to day basis, they will create the critical spine for a new rapid transit network in Auckland, off which an expanded and more frequent bus network will flourish.

Who knows, we may move even further "back to the future" with light rail - the equivalent of Mayor Kidd's electrified trams - as we continue the transformation of transport in Auckland. But that is perhaps a story for another day.

In many ways what we are celebrating here on Monday is Auckland coming full circle with trains, buses and other modes such as cycling returning to take their place in a balanced, rapid, public transport system.

I feel sure that Mayor Kidd would be scratching his head as to how we managed to find ourselves in the predicament that we are now climbing out of.

But equally, I am sure he would be tipping his top-hat to both governments and councils who, like him, grasped the nettle and have been bold enough to invest thoughtfully into both today's and future generations.

Never again should we let happen what happened in 1956, an act which marginalised public transport in Auckland for a very long time.

In the same way that electric trams ushered in affordable and rapid public transport, changing the city of Auckland, our developing rapid transit network will do the same - it is a matter of "back to the future".

• Dr Lester Levy is chairman of Auckland Transport.

- NZ Herald

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