A Government Minister says Auckland's big new city-tram project will start in two years. The planned line has drawn businesses from China and France who plan to bid.

Sydney's A$2.1 billion CBD light-rail project is due to open next year, and a French business in the consortium behind that is eyeing Auckland's Wynyard-airport light-rail plans, as well as a second Sydney deal.

Jean-Francois Blanc of Alstom rides a tram in Reims, France. Photo/Anne Gibson
Jean-Francois Blanc of Alstom rides a tram in Reims, France. Photo/Anne Gibson

Transport Minister Phil Twyford wants the Auckland project to start soon.

Read more: Chinese super-tram system touted for Auckland

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Paris-headquartered Alstom has expressed an interest in bidding for Auckland, as has Chinese company Silk Road, which last year took Auckland Council officials to see its trams in action.

Twyford told the Herald: "I'm looking to move ahead with the light-rail project from Wynyard to the airport. I hope that we can have the project consented, financed and contracted, with work under way within the next two years.

"Plans are progressing well. Subject to Cabinet agreement, we will be taking this project out to the market in the next few months," he said.

Jean-Francois Blanc of Alstom at the Reims tram project. Photo/Anne Gibson
Jean-Francois Blanc of Alstom at the Reims tram project. Photo/Anne Gibson

At Alstom's Paris headquarters, tramway and metro-system market and portfolio director Jean-Francois Blanc said Auckland was an attractive project. "We are very keen [to be present in this tender] and very happy to be able to participate in renovating the city centre and harbour."

He explained some of the new features of the trams his business made: the Citadis XO5 is Alstom's latest-generation tram, about to make its world debut in Sydney next year. The new tramway carriages have low-slung windows to give better sight lines, travel as fast as 80km/h and are almost silent.

Blanc sees this part of the world as having big growth potential and he is au fait with Auckland's light-rail plans.

"We are now keen to engage in discussions," he said of the Auckland tender process.

The Asia-Pacific area accounts for only 6 per cent of the 32,800-employee giant's €10 billion ($17.1b) annual order book, spread across many of the 60 countries in which it operates.

Blanc wants to change that, and his trip to Auckland late last year was an indication of his intentions.

He visited with Alstom's Australia and New Zealand marketing and communications director Sheldon Young last August. Together, they staged a function at the Hilton Auckland for Auckland Transport officials, transport and engineering consultants and others.

Their purpose was to re-establish connections here, with a view to tendering to build the Wynyard-airport light-rail line.

Phil Twyford: Auckland's tram project to start in two years. Photo/Jason Oxenham
Phil Twyford: Auckland's tram project to start in two years. Photo/Jason Oxenham

Auckland Transport (AT) and the NZ Transport Agency have "agreed to progress light rail for Auckland to urgently address Auckland's growing congestion and accessibility problems," AT says.

Mayor Phil Goff said last year "Auckland adds 45,000 people a year and our transport system is not coping".

The proposed tram line would connect the waterfront area near Westhaven to the CBD via a route up Queen St, then run down Dominion Rd, providing better access to that area, before heading to the airport. It could be built in two phases: an initial CBD run, then the more ambitious airport connection.

Asked about the length of the planned Auckland light-rail journey, Blanc said new-generation vehicles could travel at up to 80km/h and the airport run was easily achievable.

Overhead wires could be eliminated on at least part of the run by using the new battery-powered generation of trams. Blanc showed how grass could be planted in the track area to provide visual relief. The tracks are only electrified as the tram passes over them, so the rail is not dangerous to pedestrians to walk on.

Former Auckland Waterfront chief executive John Dalzell. Photo/George Novak
Former Auckland Waterfront chief executive John Dalzell. Photo/George Novak

By 2050, about 70 per cent of the world's population is projected to be urbanised, and Alstom wants to play an increasing role in moving these city dwellers around.

John Dalzell, managing director of Chinese business Silk Road Management in Auckland, also wants to win the Auckland tender and said his business could offer the city a more innovative tram project.

"With the volume of market activity occurring in China and the commitment to [infrastructure], this is where much of the global innovation is occurring in new systems, technology, new building materials and products. So if you want to see the innovation, we need to go to China after you have done Paris."

In October, Dalzell arranged for Goff, city planning committee chairman Chris Darby and councillor Ross Clow to see a super-tram operating in Guangzhou. Dalzell said the Chinese electric tram system was the best option for Auckland and Darby also expressed enthusiasm.

Alstom invited the Herald to France to see its operations, manufacturing and assembly business and visit La Rochelle on the west coast where some carriages for the new Sydney project have been made. Others are made in Spain.

Young said: "We were not in Auckland as part of a hard sell. The visit was ... to provide insights into the latest global innovations in light rail."

In Sydney, Alstom is in the ALTRAC consortium, along with Transdev, Acciona Infrastructure and Capella Capital, which has nearly finished building the 12.4km line due to open next year. The Sydney CBD and South East Light Rail line will run from Circular Quay along George St to Central Station, through Surry Hills to Moore Park, then to Kensington and Kingsford.

Alstom is no stranger to New Zealand, having supplied and maintained electricity generation assets, though in the past few years it has not been as active here. It sold New Zealand assets in 2015 as part of an international deal with GE. Alstom is now solely focused on transport around the world.

Blanc described some major Alstom light-rail projects in Bordeaux (opened in 2004), Reims (2011), Rio de Janiero (2016) and Dublin (2004).

The world's light-rail market was worth €3.3b annually and growing at 7 per cent, Alstom's presentations showed. There is "significant growth in all geographical regions", it noted, citing 13 per cent growth in the Asia Pacific region as second only to 15 per cent in the Middle East and Africa.

At La Rochelle, Alstom is making new-generation Citadis XO5 light-rail vehicles in factories near where it also makes new high-speed heavy rail TGV stock and many other products.

This month it invited more than 30 journalists from around the world to see its manufacturing plant, the latest trams and ride battery-powered vehicles, which recharge in the seconds it takes for passengers to get on and off.

Many types of trams are manufactured in La Rochelle. Young said the company responded to different markets' needs by designing rail assets to reflect demand, city size, topography and other aspects.

The business, headquartered in Saint-Ouen, Paris, is keen to know more about Auckland's plans, including viewing tender documents, and showed off its Reims tram to illustrate how the systems ran in urban areas.

Alstom wants to expand further in Australasia, tendering for a second Sydney project - Transport for NSW's Parramatta light-rail project, with an initial 12km track planned to open in 2023.

Citadis X05, Alstom's new-generation light rail

• Wider centre aisles than previous models

• Travels at up to 80km/h

• Entire tram length has double doors for easier access

• Trams can be from 24m to 44m long

• Anne Gibson travelled to France with Alstom