Going off the rails…

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.[16] 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”.[16]

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
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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.