AT needs to drop romantic idea of trains and trams rescuing Auckland and optimise wheels on roads.

In Sydney last weekend, I took a walk near the CBD and noticed the city's first "light rail" line crossing George St.

Here, I realised, was the inspiration for Auckland Transport's interest in reviving trams for our own fair city. I thought I should sample it.

In the nearest news agency, I asked where I could buy a boarding card. "It's not worth it," the newsagent told me. "From here, you can walk to Darling Harbour in the time that thing will take, and there's no point going in the other direction. It goes out to a suburb and there's nothing there."

I took his advice, mainly because it chimed with my recollection of light rail in the only other place I'd seen it, Valencia, when it hosted the America's Cup. The yacht harbour was a long but not daunting walk from the city centre. A gleaming new street rail service followed the same route and it was enticing - once.

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On board, it was quiet and comfortable but not fast. Though the streetcar whirred from stop to stop, it stopped often. On subsequent walks to the waterfront I always intended to use it again if it arrived at a stop at the same time I did. But it never did. I'd have had to stop and wait for it and there seemed no point. It was just as easy to walk and just as quick.

This year, Auckland Transport has been contemplating light rail from the western waterfront, along Fanshawe St and up Queen St by 2019. It would then be extended to Dominion Rd and run deep into Mt Roskill. That would be followed in 2021 by a line along Sandringham Rd, then another from Onehunga along Manukau Rd in 2030, reaching Mt Eden in 2035 and eventually ending in Symonds St.

The trams would travel on double tracks along the middle of the roads leaving one lane on each side for cars. Chairman Lester Levy thinks the first line could be built for under $1 billion and he hopes to attract private investment for it.

The Herald farewelled a fine editor yesterday. Tim Murphy had an acute filter for news that he called "things we'll never see". It would be a slow day if this scheme made his front page.

Auckland Transport is free to dream. It is a unique Super City creation, the only "council-controlled organisation" that is answerable to both the Auckland Council and the Government, which means it's controlled by neither.

It reports to the council on what roading or public transport work it has decided to do or not do and there is nothing the council can do about it. The Government doesn't take much interest in AT's operational decisions for Auckland's buses and trains and when the Government contemplates the city's congestion it prefers the advice of the NZ Transport Agency.

Thanks to the national transport planners, the part of Auckland that is probably best served by public transport is the one part that has no railway. The North Shore's busway is probably the fastest flowing artery in the region and it is about to get better. AT has posted out a plan to Shore households this month that simplified all bus routes into loops between busway stations. It looks ideal.

Transport planners can do so much more with wheels on roads that it is hard to fathom their attachment to iron rails. Trains have a romantic hold on the human imagination, mine included. Long-distance rail journeys are some of the happiest travel I have had. But the romance shouldn't blind so many to its limitations, particularly in this country.

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The narrow gauge railway system laid through New Zealand in the 19th century is a dog, not just for urban commuting but obviously for national freight too. The present Government put more than $1 billion into a "turnaround" plan for Labour's renationalised KiwiRail in its early budgets. We have never heard where that money went.

The company got another $400 million committed in the latest Budget with no talk of a turnaround any more. Two private operators could not make the railway pay for its maintenance and now the system is back to where it was in the 1970s, sucking on taxpayers for its survival.

An underground link to give Auckland's lines a central turning loop is said to be the key to unlocking their potential for urban commuters. It's not. It would remove just one of several reasons the trains are too slow.

Light rail in the streets with traffic and stoplights is even slower. Yet the fascination remains. Something about iron tracks makes them hard to let go. They may be a solid line to other places and to the past, but they've had their day.