Were we supposed to go WOW! when the Government announced it would build a rail link to Auckland airport by… 2030? Maybe 2050?
TV3 news (sorry, Newshub) carried the story last month. And it featured something so familiar that it felt like déjà vu, yet there it was on our TV screens.
The scene was Auckland’s Dominion Road terminus where we went to school, where the trams stopped (because the road South had yet to be fully formed) and where, by the standards of the time, a new shopping centre had begun to thrive.
The reporter stood in the middle of the road and we could see the entire strip stretching shimmering towards the City and that relative newcomer, The Sky Tower. But something was out of place, and it was the animated light rail carriage disappearing down the hill. It was intended to demonstrate how light rail could run from the Terminus to the City, helping to solve the paralysis of Auckland traffic.
For most baby-boomers that animation would have taken them back to a time when a real tram did just what the Government proposal for light rail to the airport might do. But why does it have to wait that long? My bet is that planners still believe the car is still king when all the evidence contradicts that.
When it comes to transport, Auckland has seen blunders which have blighted the city. The Harbour Bridge was a whopper – opened with fanfare – and just four lanes in 1959.
According to Wikipedia, the recommendations of the design team and the report of the 1946 Royal Commission were for five or six traffic lanes, with one or two of them to be reversed in direction depending on the flow of traffic, and with a footpath for pedestrians on each side.
Those imaginative features were dropped ‘for cost reasons before construction started, the First National Government of New Zealand opting for an ‘austerity’ design of four lanes without footpaths, and including an approach road network only after local outcry over traffic effects. The decision to reduce the bridge in this way has been called “a ringing testament to […] the peril of short-term thinking and penny-pinching”.
The North Shore developed rapidly – and ten years later the bridge had to be enlarged with what we knew as ‘Nippon clip-ons’ – additional lanes made in Japan. Compounding that initial mistake was a National Government decision not to allow a rail line on the proposed bridge. It beggars belief but then so does the removal of our trams.
Throughout the 1950s our short-sighted leaders took trams off their rails in every major city in the country, replacing them with electric or diesel buses. Locals protested and mourned their loss for trams were part of the family. My colleague Graham Stewart, a rail buff and former Illustrations Editor of the Herald wrote in his book From Rails to Rubber:
As the suburban lines closed – farewells by the public were unbelievable – hundreds of locals would gather at their suburban terminal at midnight to say goodbye and witness the last tram disappear forever…
He went on to say that other major cities including Los Angeles and Paris had brought back trams to solve traffic congestion – and he described the modern day counterpart of the tram we once knew:
One coupled set of light rail vehicles (LRV) – the modern term for the tram – is said to be able to carry as many passengers as cars in a traffic jam banked up two lanes wide for one kilometre. The tram of today is a dream vehicle, has wheelchair access, with airline comfort interiors – and glides along city streets like a regal swan.
Not at all like the old trams with their wooden seats as punishing as church pews; with exterior hooks for the huge prams of the day. Just boarding a tram was memorable for on it was a uniformed conductor who rang a bell at each stop, alerting the driver that all the new passengers were on board. From his worn leather pouch the collector would do just what his job title said: collect our fares, and we would pay as the tram rattled along.
The trams went, but light rail was a glimmer in one man’s eyes, our far-seeing Mayor Sir Dove-Myer Robinson. You can see his bronze statue outside the old Town Hall, raising his fist for the good fight which for him, was always for his Auckland.
He had saved the sparkling Waitemata almost single handedly – funding a campaign which stopped authorities pouring sewerage into the harbour. Re-elected as Mayor, he never swerved from his vision of rapid rail for Auckland and was supported in 1973 by the Labour Government. National took power in 1975 and one cocktail gathering in the Council Chambers, the guest of honour was Minister of Finance Rob Muldoon. Robbie was furious at him. I was there as a reporter and he took me into a corner of the room, a long way from Muldoon and spat it out:
“That little bastard Muldoon – he’s just killed my rapid rail”.
Once more a National Government had served Auckland short. Forty six years later, we’re stuck in traffic in a city swollen in part by rapid population growth caused by open door immigration policies and a lack of infrastructure.
But hey, we’ve got 2030, or 2040 or possibly 2050 to look forward to. No worries.
- Photo credit – Graham Stewart