COMMENT: Advocates of a fast train to Auckland Airport appear to be building quite a head of steam against the Government's commitment to light rail for the purpose.
The fact that one of those making the case is Auckland councillor Mike Lee, well known to be a tram enthusiast in other circumstances, lends weight to the argument. Trams might be fit for the purpose of providing public transport between the central city and its closer suburbs but not for the much-needed rail service to the airport.
How Auckland Transport ever came to believe light rail down Dominion Rd could successfully continue to the airport is a mystery to many, probably most, Aucklanders. Either the journey would be achingly slow, inconvenient for air passengers with baggage, or the number of stops would have to be reduced so much that its primary purpose would be compromised. People would have to walk too far to catch a tram.
Yet Phil Goff, when running for mayor in 2016, seized on AT's proposal as a project to call his own and the following year the Labour Party adopted it as an election promise. It was the first policy announcement by Jacinda Ardern just after becoming the party leader but it would have been adopted when the party looked unlikely to have to carry it through.
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Now it is one of those ill-considered commitments politicians are too proud to reconsider. Transport Minister Phil Twyford declares himself still convinced light rail to the airport would be more efficient and versatile than trains and would encourage more investment and development along its route.
He has taken the project from AT and put it in the hands of the NZ Transport Agency which has not been as convinced. The agency's chief executive, Fergus Gammie, told us in July the best route from the CBD to the airport would be by train on the existing southern line as far as to Puhinui and a bus transfer to the airport.
He is right as far as Puhinui but Lee and his fellow train advocates argue for rail all the way to the air terminals. They are right. Air travellers burdened with baggage do not want to be clambering onto buses and changing to trains part way along the journey to the city. Travellers to and from the airport want one thing — a fast train to take them all the way.
It could be done fairly simply if a double line was laid along the short distance through mostly open fields between Puhinui and the airport. Passenger trains on the eastern or southern lines could easily include the airport loop in their schedules, as could trains from Hamilton and the Bay of Plenty. It is a solution so obvious that it will probably happen even if trams are trundling as far as Mangere.
In fact, light rail's enthusiasts have started to downplay its airport connection and stress its benefits for development along the route from Mt Roskill through Onehunga to the Mangere town centre.
That was probably AT's priority from the beginning. But if trams are not to primarily serve the airport the Government should say so, and get on with building the train line Auckland really needs.