As Mayor Len Brown and his councillors agonise over how they are going to fund their half of the $2.4 billion City Rail Link - to say nothing of a further $460 million for new rolling stock to run through it - one obvious question is never asked.

Why is the Government demanding that Auckland ratepayers part-fund a new rail tunnel that will immediately become part of the national rail network asset bank? Not only will the Government's rail company control the new tunnel but it will charge Aucklanders an annual access fee before we can drive the trains we had to pay for through the tunnel we helped to build.

As tunnels go, this is an aberration. Except for a handful of 19th century tunnels, which were begun as part of private railways, New Zealand's 145 tunnels, ranging in length from 50m to 9km, were largely undertaken by the Public Works Department - later the Ministry of Works and Development. Their maintenance and modification was the job of New Zealand Government Railways until 1991. After a decade in private ownership, it was bought back by the Government.

For example, in the run-up to the start of the new electric train service between Johnsonville and Wellington in March 2012, the Government's company, KiwiRail, paid to lower and widen seven tunnels and to reconstruct some platforms and upgrade the rest of the eight stations along the way.


And rightly so. The Government shouldn't suddenly decide that ratepayers be forced to beggar themselves to maintain and upgrade a public transport system.

Back in 2006, then Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee had endless battles trying to persuade Labour Finance Minister Michael Cullen to fund the electrification of train services in Auckland. At that stage, Dr Cullen came back with an offer of the Government paying for all track work and overhead wiring, and the region fully funding new stations and trains. Which roughly pans out to the present 50:50 split formula.

At the time, Mr Lee pointed out how unfair this was in contrast to Wellington, which was receiving an effective 80 per cent government contribution to its rail upgrade. Mr Lee warned the Government's formula would result in regional rates hikes of 19 per cent for each of the next 10 years.

Unfortunately for Aucklanders, both Labour and National have persisted with this new orthodoxy that urban rail tunnels - well in Auckland anyway - should be part-funded through rates. Labour's only point of difference at the last election was that it would abandon the "unnecessary" Puhoi to Wellsford "holiday highway" and use $1.2 billion saved from that $1.7 billion road project to fast-track the Government's half-contribution to the CRL.

March 2012 wasn't the first time the Government came to the rescue of Wellington's popular Johnsonville commuter line. In July 1938, 600 invited guests gathered at Wellington station to hear government and civic leaders wax lyrical about the government-funded electrification of this railway line.

Mayor T.C.A. Hislop is reported in the August 1, 1938, issue of NZ Railways Magazine praising the Government's help. "It has solved for Wellington a problem which was causing us much concern because obviously if we had had to replace the railway service here, it was going to involve the city in a very heavy expenditure indeed."

A local MP, Mr C.H. Chapman, also noted that "it would be a partial solution of the acute housing problem in Wellington".

Nearly 80 years on, how relevant these comments sound to modern-day Auckland.


Unfortunately, National's Transport Minister, Gerry Brownlee, and his Labour shadow, Phil Twyford, seem to find sparring about the Puhoi to Wellsford "holiday highway" more interesting. Still, there's always New Zealand First.

I must confess that Winston Peters' transport policy has never caught my attention before. He's usually so distracted with scare stories about immigrants and ferries scraping their bottoms on Cook Strait and the like to deal in the mundane.

But his push in this month's policy document for "Railways of National Importance ", a tongue-in-cheek jibe at National's cynical, vote-seeking Roads of National Importance, made me sit up. Not only is he promising passenger rail services between "main centres", but in a subsequent interview he's backing Auckland Transport's desire to electrify Auckland's rail network beyond the present Papakura stopping point, to Pukekohe.

As for his public transport policy, that sounds positively Green, with his pledge for "excellent quality public transport ... in all major population centres". He promises "to subject every major new urban roading project to a requirement that its transport objectives cannot better be achieved partly or wholly through an alternative public transport strategy criteria".

It's almost enough to make one hope Winston becomes a possible kingmaker in the September election.

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