Trams could be heading into Auckland city again, almost 60 years after the original tracks were torn up. Andrew Laxon asks whether this time the plans will get out of the station

Why are we talking about this now?

Auckland Transport chairman Lester Levy first dropped the bombshell announcement last week - just as Mayor Len Brown was launching the city's 10-year budget, based on the much-debated $2.4 billion underground City Rail Link. Outlining the tram proposal to the Weekend Herald this week, Levy stresses the CRL is still the number one priority for the region but it leaves a "void" in the suburbs directly south of the city centre, which are not served by rail. Buses are already clogging many of these routes, such as Dominion Rd and Symonds St, in rush hour.


Dr Lester Levy, Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Jason Oxenham, Sarah Ivey

By 2041 their numbers are predicted to reach about 200 an hour, bringing traffic on inner city roads to a virtual standstill. Double decker buses and more bus lanes will buy only a limited amount of time, says Levy. With Auckland growing by 110,000 people between 2006 and 2013 - almost the population of Tauranga - the most reliable and environmentally sound way to break the gridlock is light rail, the modern version of trams, which can carry three times as many people as buses.

What's the plan?

Auckland Transport is investigating light rail on six main arterial roads, based on the old tram network, which was ripped up (a "very shortsighted" decision, says Levy) in the 1950s.

The first stage would run from Wynyard Quarter, where an historic tram service already operates, to Britomart, up Queen St and along Dominion Rd. The network could then branch off into other major roads which used to have trams - Symonds St, Mt Eden Rd, Manukau Rd and Sandringham Rd. Levy says the first stage could cost less than $1 billion but is non-committal about costs after that. He says either light or conventional rail could be extended to the airport and light rail could ultimately run out to Botany and along the Northwestern Motorway.

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Light rail or trams - what's the difference?

Essentially none, although some transport enthusiasts argue that trams (known as streetcars in the United States) are more like buses on rails, whereas true light rail is faster, with less frequent stops - like conventional rail, only cheaper. The definitions get blurred because many cities have mixed the bus and rail elements to fit their purposes. In Auckland the system would be known as light rail, but would effectively replicate part of the old tram network and replace modern buses, not trains.

Where will the money come from?

Levy has suggested some form of private funding, which will mean no cost to ratepayers for the first five years. Asked if this means a public-private partnership (PPP) scheme (which usually involves a private company building and operating a scheme and gradually charging the cost back to ratepayers or taxpayers) he says it may not be the traditional PPP model. He won't be drawn on likely costs or partnerships here but says Auckland Transport has been keeping a close eye on three Australian light rail projects on the Gold Coast (A$1.6 billion [$1.8 billion] for a 13km line), Canberra (construction starts next year) and Sydney (where one line is in operation and work has just begun on a $2.2 billion second line into the city centre by 2019).

Aren't we supposed to be building an underground rail line instead?

Levy says light rail is not in competition with the $2.4 billion City Rail Link - which will run rail under Queen St to link the central Britomart station with the western line - and that the announcement clashed with the council's 10-year plan only because the law required it.

There was no ambush, he insists. Staff had been working on the plan for about six months and had to include it in the regional land transport plan or they would have been unable to progress it for the next three years.

"We had kept [Brown] and his office well informed, including about the media release ... We were just up against a statutory deadline."

Brown replies that it's great to see Auckland Transport taking an innovative approach but adds that there is no money or timeframe for the project and if it did happen, it would be at the expense of some other transport project.

"I'm not leading this. If it is a project that I think is critical for Auckland now, then I will lead it and it will be a different story altogether.

So are we getting mixed messages on this new project?

Absolutely, says the Automobile Association's Auckland spokesman, Barney Irvine. "The way this has been brought to the table is really ham-fisted. The council's asking the public to look closely at the transport programme and to make some really tough decisions, yet all of a sudden they're announcing a massive project that no one's ever heard of before, not even councillors. "On the one hand there are these messages from councillors about fiscal restraint. On the other, we're suddenly talking about a $1 billion light rail project."

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Irvine says it's confusing for people to hear that the City Rail Link will transform the city, then to be told a big section of the city won't benefit at all and we need a second rail project. "The whole thing is a bit of a dog's breakfast and the question we have is; how is the average Aucklander supposed to make sense of this and make informed decisions?"

There is a lot for people to think about, concedes Levy.

"We've got congestion on our roads and congestion on our projects and priorities. That's because we're so far behind."

But Brown rejects any suggestion that the two projects are confusing. "The average person really just wants to fix transport in Auckland. This is about inner city transport over bus or light rail, not about the rail network, which services the whole of the region, and I think everyone gets that."

What would the new trams look like?

Similar to most pictures you see of sleek, modern trams in Australia, the US and Europe, according to Levy. They would carry about 300 passengers each, with no overhead cables because the electrical current would come from non-lethal induction plates on the track. He wants a "turn up and go" system, where trams arrive every few minutes, so passengers don't need to consult a timetable. Stops would probably be further apart than buses but closer together than train stations. The system is supposed to cost less to run than buses on the same routes, partly because fewer trams could still carry more passengers, saving on wage costs for drivers. They would also be able to travel straight down the steepest part of Queen St, which was an engineering concern with earlier proposals.

Would they share the road with cars or have their own space?

The answer to this question could be crucial. According to Auckland Transport, buses sharing the road with cars can travel up to 14km/h and move 2,500 people per hour. With a busway, these figures rise to 18km/h and 4,000 people per hour. Even if trams share the road with cars, they can move 12,000 people per hour because they are bigger. But if they have a priority lane, they can average up to 40km/h and move 18,000 people per hour, only slightly behind commuter rail at 20,000-25,000 people.

Levy says AT is aiming for priority lanes wherever possible but concedes trams might have to share the road with cars at some points. He adds that road widening and "massive property acquisitions" are not an option - planners will have to make do with existing road widths, which were created for trams in the first place.

Will cars be squeezed to make room for the trams?

This was supposedly one of the reasons why Auckland and many other cities dumped trams in the 1950s, as growing numbers of car drivers complained the trams were getting in their way. Levy answers the question with one of his own: "Car users should think about what happens if we don't address congestion. It doesn't matter how much space you've got, you won't be going anywhere very quickly."

It seems likely that if the plan goes ahead, cars will get a single lane each way down all the affected main streets, with little or no room for street parking. Levy says no decision has been made on whether the trams will travel down the middle or the sides of the road but public transport researcher Matt Lowrie of transportblog.co.nz says the middle is more normal, as this makes left turns easier for cars. Either way, he predicts, a tram service will spell the end of parking spaces, which could revive a long-running debate about council plans to remove parking on Dominion Rd. However Lowrie is optimistic that this debate can be resolved as enthusiasm for the new technology builds. "Light rail has almost a magic pixie dust about it ... Lots of smelly buses running down the corridor is not very appealing to a lot of people but put that into light rail and somehow people's objections magically disappear."

Council planners have been talking about light rail for years - will anything happen this time?

Light rail has been vigorously debated for the past 25 years, including an attempt by former mayor Christine Fletcher to bring trams back to the city centre a decade ago. It still faces considerable scepticism from many councillors, who felt blindsided by the announcement, and sceptics such as Irvine, who argues, "In an ideal world it might be worth looking at, but now is not the time."

Lowrie believes the public mood towards ambitious public transport projects has already changed with the success of Britomart and the Northern Busway. He says people living in the target area are among the highest public transport users in Auckland, so light rail is likely to get high passenger numbers from the start.

Levy, a prominent fix-it man for the National-led Government with close links to business, could also make a difference. He says the first step is making a compelling case to the Auckland Transport board next March, followed by the council. But he says the decision can't wait much longer because Auckland's transport problems are rapidly getting worse.

"We're trying to no longer be slow and ponderous," he says, with a hint of frustration. "We need to be more creative in how we bring these things forward and that's what we've done here."

Future Auckland: Readers' views

Photo / Steven McNicholl

In response to our series this week, Herald readers list what they would like to see in the city.

Richard Goldie, architect

• Fit buses with roof-based exhaust pipes so people waiting on the street aren't exposed to fumes. These are already operating in overseas cities, including Sydney.

• Make bus engines quieter. Standing on a street corner when a bus goes by isn't a pleasant experience.

• Turn all traffic lights off on Sunday, except at dangerous intersections. Paint a big circle in the middle of the intersection so it can be used as a roundabout.

• Make Quay St more people friendly by closing it to vehicles during low-traffic hours. Motorists can go along Customs St instead, and tennis courts could be set out on Quay St.

Ben Ross

• Audit parks in Auckland to find out which ones are being utilised. If parks are not being used, or if some have spare space, convert them into community gardens.

• Manukau South Rail Link: build a single rail line from the main Southern Line to Manukau Line which would allow direct Papakura to Manukau services.

• Consider developing a second CBD in Manukau to complement existing Auckland CBD. This concept is already being developed in Sydney, with the New South Wales Government planning to develop Parramatta as Sydney's second CBD. The Manukau CBD would be a secondary hub which services all of Southern Auckland, the northern Waikato and the heavy industrial complexes.

• A separate price system for short bus trips, especially for school childchildren who might only be travelling a kilometre to their designated stop.

Ann Ryan

• Half-price public transport at weekend to encourage families to use services.

Simon Woodward

• Develop existing ferry network in East Auckland. Start by building another wharf around Point England so a ferry service could link St Heliers and surrounding suburbs to existing service at Half Moon Bay.

• Improve the health of waterways to make swimming in harbour and inner city beaches better.

Annie Cao

• Make Queen St a vehicle-free zone.