THE first railway through Auckland was inaugurated in 1873, only 33 years after the city was founded in 1840 by New Zealand’s first governor, Mr William Hobson. By 1902 an electric tramway was operating from the city centre to Onehunga, the world’s first coast-to-coast tramway, and rail looked as if it would become an integral part of the way residents in the relatively young city would move around.

But social developments and major policy changes in the 1950s and 1960s saw a switch away from rail in favour of a Los Angeles-style motorway network. The city’s tram lines were torn up and replaced with buses as the main form of public transport in the city, and the nation’s propensity for cars began. In 2006 there was one car for every 1.5 people in Auckland, and 17% of Auckland households had three cars or more. Most people were dependent on cars for work, school, shopping and holidays, but high vehicle use meant the city’s roads became congested, with a 2018 study by the Automobile Association showing Aucklanders spend close to 80 hours stuck in motorway traffic each year.

Towards the turn of the century, the Auckland Regional Authority, which was later amalgamated into the Auckland Council, revived the push for electrification and expansion of the passenger rail network and in 1993 purchased 19 second-hand railcars from Perth as an interim measure.

Electrification was announced by the government in May 2007, with the first train arriving in 2013 and entering service on the Onehunga line in April 2014. The $NZ 1.7bn ($US 1.1bn) project included buying 57 232-seat trains from CAF, and electrification extended from Papakura in the south to Swanson in the west, including the Onehunga Branch Line and Manukau Rail Link. In May 2015, electric trains began to operate on all of Auckland’s lines.

But more capacity is needed. Today, Auckland is home to a third of New Zealand’s 4.8 million residents, but that is expected to increase by up to one million in the next 30 years and Auckland Council says the city’s current transport network cannot cope with the rapid population increase.

In 2009, national railway KiwiRail and Auckland Regional Transport Agency (ARTA), which later became Auckland Transport (AT), announced the launch of a detailed study into an underground route that would link the Britomart rail terminal in the city centre with the Mount Eden station on the Western Line. The plans formed the basis for the City Rail Link (CRL), with the cost of a double-track tunnel estimated at more than $NZ 1bn.

Between 2003 and 2017, public transport patronage in the city increased by 63%, more than double the population growth of 28%. Led by former mayor, Mr Len Brown, Auckland Council decided not to wait for government funding and pushed ahead with the tendering of the first two contracts in 2015 to prepare for a $NZ 3.4bn project. This would include the construction of a 3.4km line under Auckland’s city centre from Britomart Station through to Mt Eden station at up to 42m below ground, as well as the construction of the new Aotea and Karangahape stations at 13m and 33m below ground respectively. Construction was launched with a ceremony at Britomart Station on June 2 2016 while plans for an additional station at Newton have since been dropped in favour of upgrading Mt Eden station.


The government’s target of 20 million trips per year set as the trigger for funding the CRL was achieved in 2016, three years earlier than expected. An agreement was subsequently signed on September 16 2016 between the government and Auckland Council which finalised a 50:50 funding arrangement for the project and laid the groundwork for the establishment of City Rail Link Limited (CRLL) to oversee delivery of the project.

Mr Sean Sweeney, who joined CRLL as CEO on July 2, returned to New Zealand after 20 years in Australia to replace former CEO, Mr Chris Meale, who retired in March. He says despite an “extremely difficult market climate,” including a construction boom resulting in a shortage of skilled workers in the country, work is progressing strongly and the project remains on schedule.

On January 17 2017, a temporary entrance from Commerce, Galway and Tyler Streets to Britomart station, the current terminal, was opened while the 106-year-old Chief Post Office (CPO), which formed the existing entrance, was closed to allow the Downer-Soletanche Bachy Joint Venture (DSBJV) to complete the weight transfer of the Category 1-listed heritage building onto a series of underpinning frames to protect it from damage while CRL infrastructure is built underneath.

The 1km section from Britomart station to the new Aotea station is currently under construction along Albert Street using cut-and-cover tunnelling, with the first stages of work launching on July 24. DSBJV, which was awarded Contract 1, began excavating a 5m layer of ground from Lower Queen Street to lower the ground level and enable excavators to start digging under Britomart Station’s CPO building. A single 25m-wide trench will be excavated in Lower Queen Street and two 10m-wide trenches under the CPO.

Connectus Joint Venture (McConnell Dowell and Downer NZ), which was awarded contract 2 for the 350m Albert Street tunnel box, has completed 168m of the floor, 120m of walls and 36m of roof in the Albert Street trench, with more than 90% of excavation now complete. The tunnel box is currently formed by 204m of floor, 156m of walls and 72m of roof.

A March Bessac Joint Venture was awarded the $NZ 16.5m contract 6 to reroute stormwater pipes under Albert Street and this will be completed in 2019.

While the current contracts already let amount to around 20% of the capital costs, the bulk of the project has been split into two contracts, C3 and C7, with C5, which involves upgrades to the Western Line, likely to be folded into C3 and C7.

C3 is worth more than $NZ 1bn and involves excavating two 2.2km-long tunnels using a 7m wide tunnel boring machine (TBM) as well as the construction of Aotea and Karangahape stations. C7 covers the installation of track and other systems, and the integration and commissioning of the line.

In February, the tendering process for C3 was delayed by around three months after Fletcher Construction, a major New Zealand construction firm, withdrew from the tendering process due to financial difficulties after being named as preferred bidder. At the time CRLL said it was in discussions with another bidder, and announced in September it had issued a Request for Proposals for C3 from two shortlisted tenders:

  • Downer New Zealand, Vinci Construction Grands Projets, Soletanche Bachy International NZ, Aecom, Tonkin & Taylor and WSP Opus, and
  • CPB Contractors, UGL (NZ), Beca, McMillen Jacobs and Jacobs New Zealand.

CRLL is due to announce an Interim Project Alliance Agreement (IPAA) for C7.

If negotiations go well, Sweeny says the contracts could be signed by the end of the first quarter of next year, with construction well underway in 2020 ahead of an expected completion by 2024. At launch, the line will be able to transport the equivalent of 16 extra lanes of traffic into the city centre in the peak period.

The line was initially designed for a peak capacity of 36,000 passengers per hour, but CRLL found that capacity would be reached by 2035. In August, it announced plans to increase capacity to 54,000 passengers per hour, which Sweeny says will add $NZ 250m - $NZ 300m to the original cost. The extra capacity will be achieved by lengthening the platforms of the underground stations to accommodate nine-car trains instead of the original six cars as well as adding a second entrance to Karangahape station.

Following completion of the CRL, the line will be handed over to AT and integrated into the wider network. Sweeny says the introduction of a new timetable made possible by the line provides the potential for other benefits for the wider Auckland rail network, including a new service directly between west and south Auckland which will enable passengers to avoid the city centre.

“Without CRL, future growth of the rail network is constrained by a dead-end at Britomart limiting the entire network’s capacity,” Sweeny says. “CRL opens the network to through trains running in both directions so more trains can get in and out of the city.”

After living in Melbourne, which also went through a modal shift from private to public transport, Sweeny says he is excited to see the same happening in Auckland, but adds that an accessible, reliable service needs to be in place to facilitate the switch.

The development of a light rail network from the city centre to the northwest and south (see panel) is also in the early stages, and when completed will provide a rail option for travel to and from Auckland airport while also linking residential areas along the routes.

“We see rapid transit and rail as vital to reducing congestion in our biggest cities and making our regional roads safer by taking some of the large trucks off the roads,” says transport minister, Mr Phil Twyford. “Rail has the ability to connect our regional communities and improve New Zealand’s productivity.”

The 10-year government policy statement (GPS) on land transport released on June 28, the first published by the new Labour-led government, features a reduction in funding for state highway improvements and the creation of two new funding classes covering rapid transit and transitional rail. This will provide funding until the release of the second stage GPS, due next year, which will further consider the role and funding of rail and will be informed by the Future of Rail study, which is currently underway.

Writing in the New Zealand Herald, NZTA chief executive, Mr Fergus Gammie, says the GPS puts more focus on encouraging people to use public transport or active options such as walking and cycling. Gammie says a shift is needed with the industry considering a broader approach to the investment programme across the entire transport sector, instead of focusing on the state highway network.

Between $NZ 1.7bn and $NZ 4.8bn has been budgeted for rapid transit funding over 10 years, which the government says could further help deliver the modal shift to public transport, walking and cycling. Discussions about a commuter rail link with Hamilton and Tauranga to the south have also been revived after the idea was abandoned in 2011, with an announcement expected soon from KiwiRail on whether it will fund the line, which would connect just under half of New Zealand’s population. In time, the city could come full circle with rail once again becoming a major part of the city’s transport network.


Light rail plans take shape

LIGHT rail in Auckland has been under discussion for decades, but the idea has picked up momentum over the past few years. Auckland Transport’s (AT) Draft Regional Land Transport Plan 2015-2025, which described the public transport network proposed for the region, identified necessary services over a 10-year period and included the policy changes needed to facilitate a light rail network.

In April, the government allocated $NZ 1.8bn ($US 1.1bn) through the 2018 Auckland Transport Alignment Project (Atap), which aligns Auckland Council and government policy, to leverage funding and financing and progress the city-airport and north west corridors by 2028. NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) will lead development of a business case for the City Centre to Mangere line with the support of Auckland Council, AT, and HLC, a subsidiary of state-owned housing provider, Housing New Zealand.

In May, the government announced it had received an unsolicited proposal the previous month from the NZ Super Fund and Canadian pension fund CDPQ, which offered to assess the viability of the Auckland Light Rail Project for commercial investment.
Following the proposal, transport minister, Mr Phil Twyford, and finance minister, Mr Grant Robertson, announced on May 9 that the cabinet had agreed to launch an open procurement process for the two-line light rail network. On July 31, the NZTA met with more than 450 national and international suppliers to brief them on the Auckland light rail project.

NZTA chief executive, Mr Fergus Gammie, says light rail will become the centrepiece of the city’s rapid transport network and the agency is focused on early engagement with the industry to identify new and innovative ways to procure, deliver and finance the project.

The first line, City Centre to Mangere (CC2M), will run 22km south, eventually connecting with Auckland International Airport beside Manukau Harbour. While the exact route is subject to the outcome of a business case currently under development, it will connect Queen Street in Auckland’s city centre with Dominion Road, Mount Roskill, Onehunga and Mangere.

Plans for the city centre to Northwest Line are less defined, but the project is expected to be similar in scope to CC2M. Originally identified in 2015 funding plans as a second decade project, it was brought forward in the Atap for completion within the next 10 years. Atap has signalled that the route is likely to follow State Highway 16 between the city centre and Kumeu/Huapai.