Brian Rudman

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

Brian Rudman: Govt's head in the clouds - Auckland needs that rail loop

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It's time for an Auckland rail loop, writes Brian Rudman. Photo / Dean Purcell
It's time for an Auckland rail loop, writes Brian Rudman. Photo / Dean Purcell

Waiting 25 minutes in the autumn chill yesterday morning for a bus timetabled to arrive every 10 minutes, it struck me that Transport Minister Steven Joyce and Mayor Len Brown must be residents of some other planet.

The 70,000-odd Aucklanders heading into the CBD each day need help getting to work now, not in 2021, when the proposed CBD train tunnel is supposed to open.

Or in 2041, the date the cost benefit analysts of this hole in the ground seem fixated on.

For months, competing armies of politicians, bureaucrats and consultants have been squaring off over the merits and costs of this underground rail loop, the magic link that will open up the cul-de-sac that is the Britomart Train Station, to the western rail line.

It's the latest chapter in a battle between central and local government dating back to at least 1923, and yet again, Auckland has lost. For now at least. The Government has looked into its crystal ball and found none of the future economic benefits that are showing up in the Auckland experts' tea leaves.

We were expecting a joint report, with perhaps differing conclusions.

But for this week's announcement, the two sides couldn't bring themselves to share space in the same document, let alone conference room.

Instead they fired salvos from respective bunkers in Wellington and the Town Hall. About the only area of agreement was the estimated cost of $2.4 billion.

Otherwise, the Government side dismissed the Auckland team's case as not justifying further consideration for central government funding because it didn't represent "an economically effective investment".

Mr Joyce admitted that longer term, it's "the most likely next rail project for Auckland", but wants a better case put for it. Meanwhile, his bureaucrats have told Auckland to look more closely at bus-related alternatives, such as providing increased on-street priority for buses, a bus tunnel between Fanshawe St and Upper Symonds St (already dismissed by Auckland Transport as more expensive than the rail tunnel) and rationalising the bus terminal stops on the CBD.

Government officials bemoan the lack of detailed investigation about the bus tunnel which "would have a much larger effect in removing buses from the city streets than the rail tunnel" and complain that "the on-surface bus route improvements option is not worked up into a specific scenario that could be evaluated and costed".

Vaguely they conclude the latter "is likely to be significantly cheaper than the rail tunnel but there is no indication of how much cheaper ..."

While acknowledging that if future transport growth is restricted to the streets this will add to congestion, the officials seem to imagine this is manageable.

They request that "someone with expertise and a belief in bus systems should develop the best possible configuration of bus lanes, bus stops, bus types, traffic management arrangements etc that achieve the critical success factors. Current bus ownership arrangements and contract forms should not be regarded as constraints".

To Aucklanders just seeking a reliable ride to and from work, this sort of theorising is just fantasyland musings. In a rebuttal of this "more bus" proposal, Auckland Transport's experts argued that without the rail loop, by 2041 Auckland would need exclusive busways, four-lanes wide, running out of the city.

"In many circumstances in Auckland this would take the entire width of the roadway and effectively stop all general traffic from using those roads." How happy this would make motorists is not discussed.

Adding to the fantasy is the suggestion that Auckland planners should not regard "current bus ownership arrangements ... as constraints". There's no doubt they are a huge constraint, but the present Government has made it plain it is not going to alter the private ownership system or impose more controls.

Of course, improvements to the existing set-up are to be encouraged. A redrawing of the route map is 50 years overdue. So is policing by Auckland Transport to ensure bus operators actually provide the services they are contracted to deliver. More bus lanes are needed as are new priority measures such as forcing motorists to give way to buses pulling out of bus stops, as happens in Sydney.

But none of the above improvements are going to cope with the predicted 32,000 extra passengers into the CBD in the 2041 morning peak. For that we need the rail loop.

- NZ Herald

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