Even Frank Allen was surprised. The uptake for the Dublin light rail system, running at street level, was so swift that the authorities soon extended the network and introduced longer trams.
Allen, who was the chief executive of the Irish Government's Railway Procurement Agency for 10 years when light rail was designed, established and then expanded, said the network reached capacity constraint within three to four years "and we had to respond."
The light rail system named Luas (Irish for speed) was initially developed with two separate main lines covering 25km — the Green Line which opened in June 2004, and the Red Line, operating in September the same year after construction began in August 1999.
Because of demand, the lines now intersect and connect in the city centre, and the network, with 67 stations, travels 42.5km around Dublin, which has a similar population to Auckland. At each stop, there is information and a map of the neighbourhood.
"People came out and used Luas from the first weekend and the numbers substantially exceeded forecasts," said Allen.
"Government provided the capital to build the network but we never went back to them for money to operate the system.
"If you meet people and ask how they feel about Luas, they say it's had a positive impact. If you had asked them during the implementation stage, they were less positive because of construction fatigue and all that. We wondered what would happen if we had empty trams.
"People were driving two hours to work every morning and the government found a way to get them to leave their cars at home and use public transport," said Allen.
"One woman wrote to me saying Luas had changed her life. She used to drive her wheelchair-bound husband everywhere. Then, she dropped him off at the station and he took himself into town to meet his friends.
"People made a lifestyle choice — they used Luas to come into the heart of city for shopping, theatre and other activity. We went into the schools and promoted the network — the Irish kids love it. People saw that we were out selling our product."
Allen said the light rail was designed for people to walk up to 500m to a tram station.
"We soon found they were walking up to1km to a stop. The catchment was significantly greater. But the downside was the network started reaching capacity constraints.
"People walked the longer distance and couldn't get on the tram because it was full. That wasn't good news, and we scrambled pretty quickly."
Allen went back to the Irish Government and asked for money to buy more trams.
The original trams were 30m in length and the platforms were designed for 40m. Many of the platforms were extended, and now half of the trams on the Luas lines are 55m. They carry more than 42 million passengers a year.
Said Allen: "Property developers approached us and asked, 'What can we do to extend the light rail system?' The transport economists just looked at the journey time savings and wondered if the money spent was worth it. They are quieter now, and the politicians are saying 'we always knew it would be a great system'."
Luas was not just about quicker journeys — it was about influencing urban form and development.
Luas services the old Dublin docklands area which has been transformed into an international banking and shopping destination with high-density housing. The port was moved further down the river to make way for new development (Auckland, take note).
"The heart of the city is now a lot different and a more pleasant place to be," said Allen.
New suburbs or transit-oriented developments, with a mix of residential, retail and offices, also popped up as the light rail system was extended.
"When we extended the line to the west, at a cost of 180 million euros, we asked the property developers to pay half and they could have another one or two extra floors on their apartment and office buildings within vicinity of Luas.
"It worked well in a buoyant property market. But it would not have been possible to attract this pattern of development without Luas," said Allen.
Government-funded Luas is operated independently by French-based Transdev under tender from Transport Infrastructure Ireland.
Transdev operates in 17 countries, including running the Auckland and Wellington passenger rail and urban bus services. It owns Mana Coach Services, and Howick and Eastern Buses.
After seeing through the implementation of the Dublin light right system, Allen was an adviser on public transport projects in Indonesia, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine and Poland — and now Auckland.
He had earlier negotiated public-private partnership funding for Infraspeed, the Dutch high speed rail project, as head of infrastructure finance at KBC Bank.
From Dublin to Auckland
On his first day in Auckland, Allen walked the whole of the proposed light rail route from the city centre to Māngere.
"I like to get a sense of the neighbourhoods and communities the light rail will serve.
"There were so many places with low density development, off-street parking and two or three cars — that's the competition. The sprawling nature of the urban development surprised me and is part of the reason for the traffic congestion.
"You will need to work hard on the planning side to encourage more compact development," Allen said.
Allen — who was a leading figure in the rollout of Dublin's light rail — joined the Auckland Light Rail Group's assurance panel. "He is a bit of a mentor," said the group's project director, Tommy Parker.
"Frank has met my team and board a number of times and provided an oversight on the challenges we face and the direction we should take."
Allen said: "My first advice to them was to clarify your objectives, and scope and project design should follow. Is light rail being seen narrowly in a transport sense or is it seen as influencing urban growth?
Some cities hadn't made up their mind on that."
He suggested that a street-level light rail system in Auckland would provide adequate capacity for the long term — and it's more affordable. Queen St was natural for the route and with streetscaping Dominion Rd can be used.
"It makes sense to have small tunnel sections along the route because of the topography. But running at street level means light rail will squeeze the space for cars, and that's how it should be.
"One of the benefits of light rail is that it enables traffic calming and making it more pleasant for pedestrians and cyclists. We started in Dublin with one line and it worked well, and we have now built a network of public transport," said Allen.