Light Rail: Back To Future


My joy at the waterfront trams proposal is that at last the idea of light rail is back on the table.

Modern light rail is doing amazing things for cities overseas.

Heritage trams rolling through a small part of the yet to be fully developed Auckland waterfront is not anyone’s idea but at least it has made something happen - and is a start.

But let’s hope the on again off again light rail plans for Auckand don’t disappear yet once again.

I’m worried the critics of the waterfront tram will condemn it to the same fate as earlier plans for light rail.

So let’s just remind ourselves of those missed opportunities and think how better off we would have been.

We wouldn’t be talking now of MOTAT trains but enjoying light rail.

In 1999, Mayor Christine Fletcher promised to build a light rail system.

The original plan involved a ground level light rail-bus corridor from Britomart station up Queen St, along Wellesley St, then across the Grafton Gully motorway on its own bridge, continuing in a tunnel under the hospital - with an underground station there - and then on to the western rail line at Boston Rd.

Then in 2001, the next council under Mayor John Banks was elected. That council cancelled the Fletcher light rail plan in favour of exploring a 3km heavy rail underground loop from Britomart via Albert St and Mayoral Drive to the western rail line at Mt Eden or Kingsland.

Later when Banks was asked why he said:

“The region - not Auckland City alone - cancelled the light rail Option 2A plan in July 2002 because it didn’t stack up compared to other options either on cost or patronage. Work by Auckland City, the Mayoral Forum, the Regional Council and others found that a better option was to upgrade existing heavy rail and improve bus connections, saving $2 billion on what Option 2A would have costed ratepayers.”

The present council opted for buses, abandoning Queen St , and routing the buses up Anzac Ave across Grafton Bridge branded as “central connector.”

Christine Fletcher still preaching the idea in 2004:

“Britomart was the circuit breaker. It is the interchange for a new system where commuters transfer between state of the art rail, bus and ferry services.

For this to work we must urgently upgrade our underutilised railway investment, with the rail corridors now back in control with fast new electric trains and light rail. Light rail above ground (tram based) to link the CBD through Britomart with the universities, Newmarket and the Western line. I want people to rave about our public transport system just as they do when they return from Melbourne or Perth. Don’t let them fool you that we have to become a larger city for light rail to work. That is nonsense. We can do it now on our existing population base.

SH 20 is the priority for completion mitigating the environmental effects. (Using cut and cover techniques.) We require new piers and greater choice of ferry services, taking advantage of our harbour city status, just as Sydney has done. We must complete the bus lanes and provide really safe “park and ride” facilities preventing the current crowding of inner-city streets.

Finally Auckland must be a pedestrian and bicycle friendly city. We must invest in our footpaths and cycle ways. Our children should be walking and cycling to school not driving a car.”

Queen St in 1957 before trams ended

Then in 2007, Dick Hubbard raised the issue of light rail up Queen St.

He launched a “waterfront masterplan proposing light rail along Quay St. The options included light rail along Tamaki Drive as far as St Heliers and across the proposed new bridge to what was then called the Tank Farm.

He said Queen St was a long term possibility but his council was taking of bus lanes there with one lane only for cars.

Trams in Queen St

And let’s just shed a tear or two for the plans for some form of underground rail in central Auckland that go back before that!

  • In 1969, the “amazing high rise” a new Auckland Savings Bank building on the corner of Wellesley St and Queen St was future-proofed for a possible underground rail station being there.
  • This was a precursor to Auckland mayor Robbie (Sir Dove-Myer Robinson)’s famous plan for a rapid rail scheme, including a tunnel under Queen St,costing a massive $140m!
  • Labour’s 1972 government backed it but Rob Muldoon killed it off in 1976 when National won power.

And if we go back beyond that:

  • In 1923, the railways minister Gordon Coates was talking of a Morningside to downtown underground rail link.
  • It was raised again in depressed 1937 as an infrastructure project to give to  those out of work.
  • The 1949 government promised an electric train system for Auckland but in the early 50s, Auckland city officials, dreaming of Los Angeles, pushed for a motorway /roads policy for the city.  Politicians started to share the fantasy. And trams were taken off the roads. The rest of the story is obvious!

And while we are nostalgic.. here’s a treat.

A 35 minute video of a 1956 NZ Railways newsreel.




  1. Carl says:

    noting the picture above, i think this is the silly idea people instantly get about overhead wires…. but 1/2 of those wires shown are no under the ground.

    I think the general non traveled public only have this idea because no where in NZ is there anything new.

    Fletcher’s speech sounded awesome at the time, I remember studying at the NZ maritime school ( thats building next door to britomart that has the x’s on the cladding of the building) and seeing the massive hole being dug everyday. then going away for 2 years and coming back, going is that all… =( I actually thought it was going to be epic station haha.

    again i stress this needs to be pushed as far as it can go, it seems people back home are good at talking about a lot of things, but never actually doing it. I understand there is a lot of good work going on, but guys and girls, we all know its about 70 years to late…

  2. DanC says:

    Sounds like it’s time for them to be brought back. The main reason for me is the culture *feel* it brings to a city.

  3. DanC says:

    Sounds like it’s time for them to be brought back. The main reason for me is the culture *feel* it brings to a city. I would like to see the poles go up (are any of the original cast iron ones still around?) and have the route go from Victoria Park Market under the Victoria Park flyover up Beaumont turning into Jellicoe. (Not going the full loop around Halsey) Once the Te Wero bridge is complete this can then carry on to Britomart. That would be a great service for Auckland and would be a catalyst for further expansion. Cummuters from Britomart to Wyanyard point sorted, Victoria Park Market / Freemans bay linked to the waterfront sorted. (I would like to see the Victoria Park Market end carry on up Napier Lane and Hepburn to Ponsonby Road and the other end to St Heliers but small steps are needed to get his off the ground)

  4. Matt L says:

    I think one of the problems that killed Fletchers idea was that they wanted to use the train lines for light rail. This would have stopped freight from being used on them and wouldn’t have had the capacity we are now getting.

    One thing I did hear is that Transrail wanted to double track the western line in the 90′s but the ARC stopped them because of the desire for light rail and the assumption that it was going to solve all of Aucklands traffic problems. In fact even today it seems that some politicians think we can only have one form of rail, light or heavy but not both without realising that each has a different purpose.

  5. max says:

    If the previous schemes got killed off because people felt they were too ambitious, I hope this one doesn’t fail for being too small. Look at Christchurch - their heritage tram was a lot better and travelling through much more pleasant areas than the Wynyard Quarter trams will - and still it took them decades before they agreed to an extension (now ongoing) - which will still not make it into a real public transport link.

    I just hope that the 70/30 PT/car split envisaged for the Tank Farm will be enough of an aspiration to ensure that the trams don’t languish on a toy loop.


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