The Worst Laid Plans: Examining the City Rail Link


By Talia Parker

Ministers claim the blowout was ‘unforeseeable’ – but do you need a crystal ball to see a billion extra dollars?

In March of this year, Auckland received a great honour: the title of Australasia’s Most Congested City. [1] Everyone who has ever come within fifty kilometres of Auckland knows that the traffic is horrendous. It has been found that the average Aucklander spends 80 hours a year stuck in traffic. [2] The impact of attempts to alleviate traffic have been feather light. It seems no-one can stop the endless flow of vehicles converging on our nation’s largest metropolis. 

Enter the City Rail Link project. By turning the Britomart station into a double through-way, and upgrading and expanding the current carriages and tracks, the project purports to double Auckland’s rail capacity. [3] Depending on who you ask (and their political affiliations), it is either an innovative stroke of forward-thinking genius or a catastrophic example of everything wrong with government. It is high time for an unbiased and fact-based analysis of the project’s actual strengths and weaknesses. How did we get here, and what can this process teach us?

Despite being perceived as a Labour Party creation, the project began to take shape under National in 2010. It was eventually catalysed by former mayor Len Brown in 2016. [4] Since then, the cost and the timeline have increased exponentially. [5] The official City Rail Link website states that construction will be completed in 2024 and gives a revised cost of $4.419 billion – a $1 billion increase from the original estimate, which is said to reflect “significant changes impacting the project” that “no one could have foreseen”. [6] But were these problems truly unforeseeable? Such a massive and expensive project should certainly be subject to due consideration. 

Just a short while ago, the Auckland Council unanimously declared climate change a state of emergency. [7] This decision is justified by growing evidence that humanity is running out of time to reverse catastrophic damage to our environment. Scientists have estimated that we have mere decades before we cross the irreversible threshold of temperature rises above 2 degrees Celsius. [8] Therefore, attempts to improve our environment are sorely needed – and fast. The evidence illustrates that we need less diesel and petrol cars on the road to achieve this goal. Studies have found that air pollution is responsible for 6% of deaths in Europe, and half of those (25,000) are directly attributable to traffic. [9]  

“By allowing people to quickly and easily access the central city, Aucklanders could be able to move further outwards, reducing their cost of living and increasing the number of people able to work in the central city.”

The City Rail Link could help move us towards a more sustainable transport future. Public transport can aid in reducing greenhouse gases (by keeping vehicles off the road), saving energy and improving air quality. [10] By making trains more efficient and accessible, the City Rail Link claims to make public transport easier, more reliable and more available for the average Aucklander, and therefore encourage them to leave their cars at home. With (hopefully) fewer cars on the road, those who choose to drive will theoretically face less traffic and shorter drive times, which will therefore reduce the amount of pollution that drivers produce (as they spend less time on the road). 

In addition to environmental factors, effective and accessible trains might also allow more Aucklanders to pay less for their housing. Inner city prices are nigh on catastrophic, and unaffordable to the vast majority of the middle class. This contributes to issues such as the shortage of teachers in Central Auckland. [11] It is claimed that the City Rail Link will allow an extra 40,000 people to get into Auckland City per hour, and that this can be achieved without all the land acquisition and space required for roads. [12] By allowing people to quickly and easily access the central city, Aucklanders could be able to move further outwards, reducing their cost of living and increasing the number of people able to work in the central city. [13] All of this sounds fabulous. But, what is written on paper may differ from what manifests in practice. 

Perhaps the clearest (and most often targeted) failure of the project is its massive cost blowout. This is something the opposition has seized on, with the National Party pointing out that the Labour Minister of Transport Phil Twyford has been silent on the issue. [14] National MP Paul Goldsmith accused Twyford of mismanagement and the New Zealand Automobile Association claimed that the public “deserves better”. [15] Such strong words are an indication of the passion and importance this project holds. So, why the massive cost increase? 

Transport expert Professor John Tookey blamed a number of factors. He claimed that the ever-increasing sprawl of Auckland, the numerous other projects on the go (such as the new Convention Centre) and the fact that the original cost estimates were made in 2014 (meaning they needed to be adjusted to reflect today’s prices due to inflation) all contributed to the blowout. [16] While this would seem to absolve Twyford and the government of blame, as they should not be expected to control factors that are uncontrollable, it is hard to imagine that a thorough and expert assessment of the project at its inception would have failed to reveal these factors. Even Tookey said that he found the blowout unsurprising – which makes the assertion that no one could have foreseen it seem a little weak. 

“Even the best laid plans can encounter unexpected or at least surprisingly significant hiccups. This begs the question: was the City Rail Link the best laid plan? It appears not.”

Dr Sean Sweeney – the chief executive of the City Rail Link – claimed that the blowout is due to competitive pressures in the construction industry, the increased scope of the project to accommodate nine-metre carriages, inflation, and the increase in contingency risk allowance for future unplanned events. [17] Again, it is hard to imagine these things being utterly unforeseeable to an experienced professional. What seems to be a more plausible explanation is political pressure to keep the costs down, incited by former Mayor Len Brown’s need to convince the National government to fund the project. [18] Both parties wanted to get elected and stay elected, and asking the public for $4 billion dollars outright is not generally a crowd-pleaser.

Still, it is not necessarily fair to entirely claim political number-fudging or lay blame at the feet of any one individual. Even the best laid plans can encounter unexpected or at least surprisingly significant hiccups. This begs the question: was the City Rail Link the best laid plan? It appears not. From the start, the plan seems to have highlighted all the wrong things. To this writer’s eyes, The New Zealand Herald’s report on the plan seems to be more focused on the cultural meaning of the wooden handrails and the ‘community spirit’ of train stations than the project’s fiscal and practical efficacy. [19] It seems that from the beginning, the focus was more on what the project might mean in the future than how we can actually get there. This apparent lack of focus on practical realities could result in the omission of important features that need to be accounted for, such as inflation or competitive pricing, and might help explain the ‘unforeseeable’ blowout. 

It seems that the City Rail Link was flawed from the ground up. But there is no need to take it from this writer – take it from the extensive studies that undermine the assertion that public transport fulfils its desired purpose. Research has found that owning and using a private car is strongly linked to feels of independence and convenience, and it is therefore extremely difficult to convince drivers to stop using their cars. [20] This finding suggests an emotional rather than logical decision making process when it comes to travel methods, which is far more difficult to overcome. Drivers will not simply be persuaded to give up their cars because there is a convenient or cheap public transport option, because they see their car as a symbol of their autonomy. The issue is more complicated than simply providing a new train – the project has neglected the fundamental attitude change that is needed to make the end result achievable. 

The scheme also fails to account for the future of public transport. The Economist has theorised that public transport will be made obsolete by driverless cars, and that increased technological alternatives such as Uber and e-bike/e-scooters are supplanting public transport for their convenience. [21] These offer the ease and relative cheapness of public transport, whilst retaining most of the independence that a car provides. On top of all this, the government’s own statistics show that the popularity of electric cars is increasing [22], which would also help protect the environment and maintain independence. There is a very real possibility that we are haemorrhaging billions upon billions of dollars into a scheme that could well be obsolete in the not too distant future.

To be fair, none of these alternatives (besides e-Scooters, which come with their own cavalcade of problems and dangers) solves the issue of congestion. But, it’s arguable that public transport does not help it either. Research Anthony Downs suggested a ‘fundamental rule’ of traffic congestion, which stated that cars will fill up whatever road space is available. [23] University of Toronto economists applied this rule to public transport and found that it has little impact on congestion because as soon as one driver leaves the road for public transport, another one takes their place. [24] Given all this evidence, and the fact that the government still went ahead with the project, it seems unlikely that the City Rail Link constitutes the best laid plan. 

The reality is that the City Rail Link is happening, for better or for billions. Now that we have an accurate sense of where the project’s shortcomings lie, it is for the experts to be honest with themselves and do everything they can to make the City Rail Link a success. Our climate is changing, we are spending hours a day in traffic and Lime is becoming some people’s key mode of transport. The situation is clearly dire. Expert intervention is long overdue and is, in this writer’s opinion, the only thing that can save us from another billion dollar increase before the estimated 2024 completion. Gee, who would’ve thought that inflation was a thing? 

The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. No information on this blog will be understood as official. The Equal Justice Project makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The Equal Justice Project will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information.

[1] Caroline Williams “Auckland is Australasia’s Most Congested City – More ‘Dynamic Traffic Lanes’ Planned to Help” (14 March 2019) Stuff <>.

[2] Alice Peacock “Congestion Chaos: Aucklanders Spend 80 Hours a Year Stuck in Traffic Jam” (1 March 2018) NZ Herald <>.

[3] “The City Rail Link (CRL) is a game-changer for Auckland. It’s NZ’s largest transport infrastructure project ever.” (No Date Provided) City Rail Link <>.

[4] “CRL Milestones Before 2017” (No Date Provided) City Rail Link <>.

[5] Todd Niall “Auckland City Rail Link Project Cost to Rise to $4.4 Billion” (17 April 2019) Stuff <>.

[6] “Cost and Timeline” (No Date Provided) City Rail Link <>.

[7] “Auckland Council Declares Climate Emergency” (11 June 2019) Our Auckland <>.

[8] Alister Doyle “Time Running Out To Meet Global Warming Target” (No Date Provided) Scientific American <>.

[9] N Kunzuli et al. “Public Health Impact of Outdoor and Traffic-Related Air Pollution: A European Assessment” (2000) 365 The Lancet 795 at 795.

[10] “Auckland Council Declares Climate Emergency” (11 June 2019) Our Auckland <>.

[11] Simon Collins “Teacher shortage: One in six Auckland schools starting year with vacancies” (28 January 2019) NZ Herald <>.

[12] “Dispelling the City Rail Link Myths” (30 January 2019) Our Auckland <>.

[13] It should be noted that this may additionally contribute to problems of Auckland’s ever-increasing sprawl, which negatively impacts the environment. 

[14] Paul Goldsmith “Minister Silent on the City Rail Link Cost Blowout” (26 January 2019) National <>.

[15] Zane Small and Mitch McCann “Auckland City Rail Link: Phil Twyford Blamed For ‘Biggest Project Blowout’” (18 April 2019) Newshub <>.

[16] Katie Fitzgerald “City Rail Link Cost Blowout Unsurprising – Expert” (18 April 2019) Newshub <>.

[17] Simon Collins “Auckland’s City Rail Link Cost Jumps to $4.419 Billion” (17 April 2019) NZ Herald <>.

[18] Tom Furley “City Rail Link Cost Underestimate Tide to Political Pressure – Infrastructure NZ” (18 April 2019) Radio New Zealand <>.

[19] Simon Wilson “What Lies Beneath: Auckland City Rail Link Plans Unveiled” (3 March 2018) NZ Herald <>.

[20] Gerard Tetoolen, Dik Van Kreveld, Ben Verstraten “Psychological Resistance Against Attempts to Reduce Private Car Use” (1998) 32 TRPA 171 at 171.

[21] J.B. “Why Fewer People Use Public Transport” (25 June 2018) The Economist <>.

[22] “Monthly electric and hybrid light vehicle tables” (Updated 4 June 2019) Ministry of Transport <>.

[23] Anthony Downs “The Law of Peak-Hour Expressway Congestion” (1962) 16 TQ 393 at 393. 

[24] Eric Jaffe “The Only Hope for Reducing Traffic” (19 October 2011) Citylab <>.