By Mike Lee

Light rail from the CBD to the airport risks being a costly failure.

Historian Barbara Tuchman's acclaimed March of Folly — from Troy to Vietnam published in 1985 was about "the pervasive presence, through the ages, of failure, mismanagement and delusion in government — contrary to its own self interest".

I think about Tuchman whenever the question of rail to Auckland Airport comes up. There could be no more graphic example of Tuchman's thesis than the decision to rule out the possibility of trains servicing our airport.

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Since NZTA and Auckland Transport took this foolish decision in mid 2016, mayor Phil Goff and now the Labour-led Government (cheered on by the Greens but not NZ First which favours heavy rail) have fallen into lockstep.

Auckland Airport is of critical economic importance to Auckland and to New Zealand — it is the premier gateway to the country. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on road construction in recent years, congestion on the route to the city is already near where it was 10 years ago, chronic at peak times, periodically at gridlock. With airport passenger movements currently 19 million per year and predicted to increase to 40 million by 2040, this chronic congestion can only become worse — with dire consequences.

It need not be so. Following on from work initiated by the former Auckland Regional Council, in September 2011, a multi-agency study involving Auckland Council, Auckland Transport, NZTA, KiwiRail, Auckland International Airport Ltd, and GHD consultants, after examining light rail (trams), busway and heavy rail (electric train) options, concluded that a heavy rail loop from Onehunga 10km to the airport and 6.8km from Puhinui on the main trunk line would be the "most economically efficient" solution — providing a fast, single-seat journey from airport to downtown Auckland, including the future CRL stations; and in some cases with cross-platform transfers, all points on the rail network including Newmarket, Henderson, Glen Innes, Pukekohe, and ultimately Hamilton.

In 2012, this recommendation, after wide public consultation, became a commitment in the Council's Auckland Plan: "route protect a dedicated rail connection in the first decade (2011-2020); construct in the second decade (2021-2030)" — (after the City Rail Link).

However these carefully laid plans were overturned by AT bureaucrats (none of whom had any experience with light rail) claiming a tram travelling from the CBD to the airport via Dominion Rd despite stopping at 20 tram stops and numerous intersections while keeping to a 50km/h speed limit would get to the airport within one minute of an electric train travelling up to 110km/h.

In late 2016 following the election of Phil Goff, the favoured Onehunga-Mangere rail corridor was deliberately blocked by AT when it demolished the Neilson St overbridge south of the Onehunga train station, placing the road across the rail corridor.

Melbourne is one major Australian city that does not yet have airport rail but it does have the most highly developed, sophisticated light rail system in the world. Unlike Auckland however, the Victorian Government is NOT planning on light rail for Melbourne Airport but heavy rail. This on the grounds that trains provide a faster, more predictable journey time and can carry a lot more people and luggage than street-running trams.

This week Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a A$5 billion ($5.4b) Federal government contribution to building four dedicated heavy rail routes between Melbourne Airport and the CBD.

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It would seem then there is a yawning gap opening up between the views of Aucklanders and our own political class. To most Aucklanders I speak to the idea of trams to the airport remains something of a joke — and now not so funny given the cost of $4b just for an airport and Westgate tram line. Aucklanders are being told they will have to pay for this not only in their rates but also in an extra fuel tax. Extraordinarily, on the advice of tyro transport ministers Phil Twyford and Julie Anne Genter this tax is to be imposed for a project that has no business case.

Light rail (trams) to the airport will be slower to build, provide a slower journey, serve a more restricted catchment and cost far more than extending the existing rail network. Why isn't the Government capitalising on the huge strategic investment going into the City Rail Link?

Tuchman's made up some rules on how government policy decisions qualify as a "March of Folly". First the policy must be contrary to self-interest, (check); secondly a feasible alternative policy must be available (check); and finally the policy must be that of a group (not an individual insane ruler) (check).

The feasible alternative of connecting Auckland Airport to the electrified main trunk line at Puhinui has been costed by one recent study at around $750m. This rail corridor must be protected urgently before this option too is sabotaged.

There certainly is a role for light rail in Auckland as we max out bus capacity on our inner city routes — but light rail will be a hugely expensive failure as a rapid transit airport solution.

Mike Lee is an Auckland Councillor. He is a former director of Auckland Transport (2010-16) and a former chair of Auckland Regional Council (2004-10).