Auckland’s $5.5 billion City Rail Link (CRL) will not open until sometime in 2026 or later, the Herald can reveal.
This is at least 18 months longer than what was forecasted only a few months ago when the cost of the project blew out by $1.1b to $5.5b and the completion date moved from late 2024 to November 2025.
In an exclusive interview during a tour of the mega-project, City Rail Link chief executive Dr Sean Sweeney said the latest completion date is not when Aucklanders will get to ride the underground railway.
He said November 2025 is when City Rail Link Ltd hands over the brand spanking new 3.4-kilometre track from Britomart to Mt Eden to Auckland Transport and KiwiRail, which then have to do extensive testing before it opens to passengers.
Sweeney was reluctant to say how long that could be, but when pressed said: “As a ballpark guess, I’d say six months, but people need to understand that numbers could change a lot, based on what happens.”
The big issue vexing the minds of Sweeney and the Alliance contractor is moving from the construction of the tunnels and stations to the complex and risky phase of installing bespoke software and signalling work, and plugging a state-of-the-art railway into the existing, fault-ridden network.
Three years ago, Sweeney told the Herald there are going to be challenges at the “back end”, and the problem is made worse because a metro rail system has never been built in New Zealand.
At the time, he was commenting on the Crossrail line under London that encountered massive and costly overruns after back-end problems just as everyone was doing victory laps - the chairman got a knighthood and later got sacked.
Sweeney said Crossrail was a much more complex project and does not envisage similar problems with the CRL, but did acknowledge plugging new plants and equipment into the existing rail network could lead to “unintended consequences”.
Full testing of the new systems is expected to begin in mid-2024 and will take about a year, said Sweeney, who is planning to finish the job before the November 2025 date.
One of the biggest issues that needs testing, he said, is a fire on a train in the tunnel.
After the handover, AT and KiwiRail have to go through another set of tests, which Sweeney said is not straightforward and involves a lot of operational and training exercises.
“There are exhaustive tests that they will have to go through, and safety checks, before they are allowed to run passengers,” Sweeney said.
For example, every one of the 240 drivers in Auckland will have to go through the tunnels for training.
An AT spokeswoman could not say when trains will start running on the CRL, saying it is working with CRL Ltd and the Alliance contractor, Auckland One Rail, the rail safety regular Waka Kotahi New Zealand Transport Agency and other stakeholders on a plan to begin as early as possible.
The plan involved critical testing of the new systems before trains can operate, including emergency and evacuation protocols, driver training, signalling and other important systems needed to operate the CRL safely.
“We will be able to confirm the dates for CRL operations once this programme is complete,” she said.
Auckland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Simon Bridges, who was Minister of Transport when work started on the CRL in 2016, said a 2026 opening date is far too long.
“While most big infrastructure projects do take longer than is said when they start, a critical mistake here was not continuing during Covid lockdowns, when in hindsight we could have, if anything, picked up the pace in a safe and appropriate way.
“That said, when it does open, my pick is that the vast majority of people will forget all the criticism, and Auckland will be in for a pretty golden period given the upgraded transport link, a new convention centre, and hopefully, an upward swing in cyclical economic activity,” said the former MP for Tauranga, who’s now a resident of and cheerleader for the Super City.
Bridges said the long wait to get to the finish line is little comfort to businesses disrupted - and in some cases, devastated - by the construction works.
“But in a wider Auckland sense, it will be exciting when it eventually opens,” he said.
Heart of the City chief executive Vic Beck, who has battled tirelessly for businesses impacted by the CRL works, said uncertainty looms large for the project.
“It is extremely disappointing for the city that the benefits won’t be reaped sooner, and particularly for those impacted by construction. This creates more anxiety because there is no fixed date for it to be operational. For some, that could now be up to 10 years of major disruption and impacts on them and their business,” she said.
Beck has called for a review of the $12 million fund set aside for affected businesses to be sped up, saying no one should lose their livelihood for a public project.