Recently in transport news there has been a lot of debate over the shelving of the Auckland light rail to the airport proposals. Much of that has centred around the role played by NZ First which is implacably opposed to the development, to the extent that their representatives have waged an acromonious campaign throughout the news media and the rail community for the abandonment of the light rail development that has been a flagship Labour/Greens policy this term of government.
To understand the nature of this we have to dig deeply into NZ First itself and its political objectives and imperatives. New Zealand First is Winston Peters’ personal political vehicle which evolved out of his split from the National Party in the early 1990s. Although it is called a party and involves other people, it is and has always been unlike most other parties in NZ in the fact that it is best characterised as a populist personality cult revolving around the leader himself. This is best understood when we examine that NZF has only ever had one leader in the past 25 years and they do not have the open democratic process for leadership selection that prevails in other Parliamentary parties. Because NZ First is a split off National, their policy focus essentially follows the same social-conservative theme that is prevalent throughout the National Party, but at the more moderate end of the NP spectrum, causing NZF to be characterised as more into the centre of politics in NZ. The political centre has become much more important in NZ since the advent of MMP and nowadays all parties have to acknowledge it in order to gain and remain in power. However, the major parties in NZ are made up from dominant left and right ideological blocs and generally achieve electoral success by moderating their particular platforms by moderating their core ideology to capture more of the centre. Parties that focus more on the centre must necessarily be seen as combining policies from both the left and right wings of politics and have failed to capture more than a few percent of electoral support in NZ long term.
NZ First at its core, being a split from National, has a bedrock right wing policy approach and tends to cleave more to that side of the political spectrum. When they are inclined to come further left, it is usually by cherry picking key policy areas of from Labour or the Greens. One of those focuses for the past few terms has been in the NZ rail network largely driven by an ambitious Auckland-based member who won’t be named in this post. However NZ First is essentially having a buck both ways on transport development by playing both sides of the fence, campaigning on the same pro-roads platform as National whilst at the same time championing rail development. This leads to many contradictions, which are most visible in public transport in particular. It must be plainly obvious to the majority of public transport campaigners that PT is highly necessary in major urban environments as part of a wider platform of mitigating the adverse environmental impacts caused by unrestricted growth in private vehicle use and therefore, it is necessary at some point to put limits on vehicle usage. The NZ First approach to any form of rail based transport tries to pretend that it is possible to have unrestricted car growth and a viable public transport system, in order to capture votes from both camps. The problem with this is that the two camps are usually implacably opposed to each other (the old left/right political dynamic) and a party like NZF coming into the picture is generally seen to be focused mainly on short term political objectives and not on a long term viable approach to solving the bigger problems that need to be addressed in urban development in cities.
Auckland has been through a long series of processes over many years to attempt to determine future avenues of development of the public transport networks that will be needed over the longer term. There have been some monumental projects undertaken in the last couple of decades, among them are the DART project in West Auckland that doubled and upgraded the urban part of the North Auckland Line from Newmarket to Swanson, the Britomart underground rail terminal in the Auckland CBD, and the City Rail Loop that extends Britomart to allow through train running for greater capacity. Public transport is essential to the future of the city and it will continue to be handled by multiple modes, which at the moment include the Northern Busway and heavy rail. The biggest debate in the last five years has focused around creating several light rail corridors that will extend as far north as Kumeu and terminate at the airport in Mangere. NZ First has been implacably opposed to both Kumeu and the airport being served by light rail, as both areas are also close to existing heavy rail lines which they claim should be the focus of new PT services. This ignores that all the light rail corridors that have been proposed are completely new routes that open up rail access to additional areas of the city that are not currently so served and using the existing heavy rail corridors would not extend the reach of public transport to the same extent. The stage has been set therefore for a fractious and mostly unnecessary debate about the different merits of light vs heavy rail for public transport (the differences are comparitively minor in relation to passenger carriage) and is largely driven by NZ First’s representatives attempting to tap into the small and insular rail heritage community for votes.
The airport light rail development proposals can best be summed up as not actually being focussed particularly on the small number of passengers who would be likely to use it to meet flights. This market is so small that the services would not be able to pay their way if they were focused primarily on serving it. Hence the light rail proposal is for a line that serves urban population catchments around Mangere and for people that work at the airport, rather than flyers. The same impact could be achieved by extending existing heavy rail from Onehunga and is probably a better long term objective because it can serve the actual growth in airport traffic in the longer term when that eventually develops to become more viable, while in the shorter term it enables the servicing of the additional urban population catchments between Onehunga and the airport. However, NZ First is campaigning on a rail line from the airport via Puhinui that would not serve any additional urban population due to it running through the airport noise corridor, on the basis that it is claimed that passenger trains from Hamilton to the south and the greater Waikato could become viable. The problem with assuming Hamilton would be a significant catchment is that it is only about 120 km from there to the airport, which is quite driveable for a lot of people and well served by existing road shuttles that the rail would be hard pressed to compete against, especially on fares. The possibility of getting a lot of passengers from the south is really a very long term outcome that will be driven by massive population increase in that corridor over decades and again, in the short term, is simply a nonsense proposition.
The light rail debate for Auckland has become drawn out due to scope changes by the government that have obscured the important outcomes. The Government has failed to understand the background of the original light rail proposals and allowed itself to be sidetracked into supporting a proposed PPP for a very expensive airport focused metro line. This is as nonsensical as NZ First’s Puhinui heavy rail proposal. Neither of these achieves the development objectives that the original heavy rail (via Onehunga) and light rail plans were intended to achieve. If the Government proceeds with the airport metro line it will be an expensive white elephant around the necks of taxpayers and ratepayers for decades whilst funnelling fistfuls of their money into a Canadian pension fund that will profit handsomely. Incredibly, this has continued to be at the forefront of Labour’s blatant hijack of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project in its present term, and since Labour has now dropped the original ATAP light rail plans in favour of the metro white elephant, it will remain contentious should they win the election later this year. NZ First’s pitch for a heavy rail line from Puhinui to the airport is mostly about capturing votes from both sides of the political divide from being cheaper to construct than light rail and supposedly enabling fast train services to the airport from all around the Auckland and Waikato regions. Neither of these is relevant in the short tot medium term as the economics do not actually stack up. The best outcome really for Auckland is to build the extension of the Onehunga heavy rail to the airport and develop the light rail separately without reference to South Auckland – earlier proposals were to take a light rail line from the city to Mt Roskill without heading further south as ATAP proposes. NZ First taking their high road over stymying Labour’s airport metro project is ignoring the fact that their alternative is not better than various alternatives that have been on the table in recent times. The NZ First Party has employed a range of questionable tactics in its campaigns on the issue due to attempting to straddle both sides of the political fence and their attempts to divide and conquer the public transport landscape are not material to their lack of long term political viability because the key factors concerning this are deeply rooted in the Party’s history and culture and the important differences between it and other Parliamentary parties. Ultimately, whilst we believe there are serious and valid concerns that have been raised by NZ First over the government’s flagship light rail/metro policy platform, they are not in a position to claim any moral high ground in the debate because their alternative is not any more credible.