When most of us look at a map of Auckland's railways, a spur line to the airport appears obvious and easy. The main line south runs through Wiri and its Puhinui Station is about 5km from the air terminals. A track could be laid through largely open land to the airport perimeter. What could be simpler?
Alas, simple solutions seem not to be welcome in the organisations charged with planning Auckland's transport. There are at least three of them: the Auckland Council, the Wellington-based NZ Transport Agency and Auckland Transport, which does the contracting of the city's bus, train and ferry services. All of them agree a rail service to the airport is desirable but when they contemplate routes they have usually envisaged an extension of the Onehunga spur which goes to the small port on the Manukau.
That would require 7km of track crossing the harbour by bridge or tunnel and clearing a path through built-up Mangere. How that could possibly be preferred to a 5km line through the green fields of Puhinui has been just one of the mysteries of Auckland planning. Now it has been superseded by a pearler from Wellington. The NZTA no longer favours a dedicated railway to the airport on any route. It has decided "light rail" is the answer, or maybe small driverless buses.
Both of these could use existing roads. Light rail are modern trams that trundle along the centre of roads, stopping at intersections like the rest of the traffic as well as at their platforms. They are not quick. Auckland Transport also likes light rail, proposing to run it from the city centre to the nearer central and western suburbs using Dominion Rd.
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NZTA imagines the Dominion Rd track continuing to the airport, presumably along the southwestern motorway. Even avid rail advocates such as Auckland Council's infrastructure committee chairman, Mike Lee, and Cameron Pitches of the Campaign for Better Transport, struggle to share this vision. It is hard to imagine airline passengers with their weighty luggage getting on and off streetcars, easier to envisage them and their baggage finding room on trains.
Rail enthusiasts seem to have given up hope of a train service to the airport because a possible route from the airport northward to Onehunga has not been protected. But a route eastward to Puhinui Station could surely be designated. It is becoming important to do so without further delay. The airport company needs to know by next month what form of public transport to include in its plans for a new domestic terminal.
Ideally, those plans would include an underground rail terminal for a train line that would continue under the harbour inlet east of the airport, surfacing at Wiri on its way to meet the main trunk at Puhinui. That would open the possibility of trains to the airport not just from Auckland but Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. The only reason light rail is now preferred, according to the Auckland Transport Alignment Project agreed between Auckland Transport and the NZTA, is that route protection for "heavy rail" would be expensive. They are looking at the wrong route.