Major changes are on the way for Auckland's $6 billion light rail programme, including extending the modern-day version of trams to Kumeu in the northwest.

In an exclusive interview with the Herald, NZTA chief executive Fergus Gammie said the plan for trams from the CBD to Westgate will probably be extended to Kumeu.

Gammie also revealed that NZTA believes that the best route between the CBD and the airport is by train to Puhinui and transferring to buses or trams for the 6km leg to the airport.

What we are trying to achieve in the longer term is a system that enables people to spend a lot more of their life on public transport

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The transport agency still intends to build a $3.7b line for modern trams, referred to as light rail, from the CBD to the airport but sees the line as combining transport and development opportunities along the corridor, Gammie said.

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For this reason, the project has been renamed the CBD to Māngere project, which will still serve the airport and allow workers to travel to the airport, a major employment centre.

The changes have been made after Labour handed over responsibility for light rail from Auckland Transport to the transport agency, which is going from being a road builder to looking at all forms of transport to benefit people and communities.

New homes like this one in Westgate are adding to congestion in the northwest
New homes like this one in Westgate are adding to congestion in the northwest

"What we are trying to achieve in the longer term is a system that enables people to spend a lot more of their life on public transport," Gammie said.

Labour has promised to build light rail from the CBD to the airport and West Auckland within a decade, described as a "game changer" by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Labour's plans for fast public transport separated from vehicles, known as rapid transit, also include a busway running from Botany to Puhinui train station, and on to the airport.

A spokeswoman for Transport Minister Phil Twyford issued a brief statement, saying the minister was on the same page as Gammie and there was nothing more he could add.

Extending modern trams to Kumeu is being driven by already congested roads from a housing boom and projections of 25,000 more homes in the northwest by 2032.

However, the idea is not supported by the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA), which favours extending rail from Swanson to Kumeu and running rail directly from the CBD to the airport via Puhinui.

PTUA co-ordinator Jon Reeves said trams are slow and very expensive, whereas trains can provide fast, frequent and reliable service at less cost. What's more, rail can carry freight to the airport and reduce congestion on the roads, he said.

Reeves said there had been no official study comparing the cost of rail, modern trams or a busway from Puhinui to the airport.

He said running trains directly from Britomart to the airport via Puhinui would take 33 minutes. Auckland Transport has estimated it will take 42 minutes for light rail via the Māngere route.

Gammie said the transport agency was undertaking detailed business cases for the two light rail lines, which would be completed by early next year, and would soon begin public consultation.

"These projects are not easy because they do make a big difference to the local community," said Gammie, who as the former director-general for transport services in New South Wales was involved in light rail projects in Newcastle and Sydney.

"Every light rail project around the world has been disruptive, but everyone loves light rail when it is finished," he said.

Trams or rail 'as long as it's faster'

Yelena Khalevina was excited to hear Auckland Transport's plans for a possible tram line to Kumeu. Photo / Greg Bowke
Yelena Khalevina was excited to hear Auckland Transport's plans for a possible tram line to Kumeu. Photo / Greg Bowke

When quality time with your three-year-old son consists of being stuck in a car for three hours a day, the prospect of modern trams is very enticing.

Every workday, Yelena Khalevina, her husband and son leave home in Huapai at 6.30am for the long 30km crawl into the city. With jobs and daycare over, they get back in the car at 5pm and don't get home until 6.30pm.

There's a stash of books and toys for the "quality time" they spend with their toddler, who's tucked up in bed soon after they get home and feed him.

"I would gladly take the bus," says Yelena, except it takes longer than the drive to and from her job as a digital analyst in the city.

The family recently moved into a new subdivision in the rural community of Huapai, part of a housing boom in the northwest causing congestion with more than 18,000 vehicles driving on State Highway 16 per day and causing a bottleneck through Kumeu.

Yelena says the family made the decision to move to Huapai for the lifestyle, knowing that being stuck in traffic is something that goes with living in a big city.

They plan to live in the area long-term, says Yelena, who is very excited that one day, perhaps 10 years away, they will be able to go into the city on trams or rail.

As well as plans by the New Zealand Transport Agency for modern trams, locals are campaigning for trains to Kumeu/Huapai with billboards erected on the roadside encouraging people to sign up.

It wouldn't make any difference, trams or rail, says Yelena, "so long as it is faster than being stuck in traffic".