Why Auckland's City Rail Link is an infrastructure game changer

The NZ$4.4bn City Rail Link (CRL) project in Auckland is the largest transport infrastructure investment ever undertaken in New Zealand. Dr Sean Sweeney, Chief Executive Officer of CRL, explains why the new rail link is a game changer for the nation, doubling passenger capacity, opening up social and economic development and boosting employment across the commercial centre of New Zealand.

As a modern, expanding city, an effective and reliable public transport system is central to underpinning Auckland’s economic and social growth, enabling the city to develop sustainably, and creating new opportunities.

The city has made considerable investments in its transport interchanges, bus networks and electrification of the rail network since 2000, to tempt drivers out of their cars and relieve congestion for the first time since the 1950s tram-driven heyday.

This change has created relentless growth – outstripping all modelling predictions – requiring a step change in investment to enable passenger capacity to keep up with projected patronage growth.

The CRL project is that step change in public transport investment. As a major public investment of NZ$4.4bn, the new metro rail scheme will communicate the reduced congestion and lower pollution benefits of public transport to a growing, car-bound city population.

“It is a transformational project,” explains Dr Sean Sweeney, Chief Executive of CRL, the independent public sector organisation responsible for delivering the ambitious project. “It puts public transport first and firmly at the centre of the community.”

Redefining public infrastructure investment

Proposals to improve rail access to Auckland’s city centre have been around since the 1920s. However, the scheme accelerated after the 2012 Auckland Spatial Plan described it as the city’s “most important transport investment”.

The first tunnelling works for the project kicked off in 2016 as the result of the Auckland Council and then Mayor Len Brown taking a risk to start work without central government backing. This was needed to be able to incorporate the required tunnels under a large commercial development planned adjacent to the main city centre Britomart station.

Central government committed funding in 2017. With main construction starting in 2019, it is expected to be complete and ready to hand over to operator Auckland Transport late 2024/2025.

“This project is unique for New Zealand,” says Sweeney, reiterating that over the last 30 years or more, the country has failed to invest in major public transport infrastructure projects.

“It recognises that roads – in particular toll roads – cannot solve the transport problems of the nation alone,” he adds.

The rail system had been run down. People couldn't imagine living without cars, but now there's a modern railway planned they are pleased to change their view.

A modern public transport system

Sweeney was headhunted to join the project as chief executive in 2018 just after the New Zealand government agreed to be a 50:50 investor in the project alongside Auckland Council.

Under his guidance, the project will create a true metro train service. A 3.45km twin-tunnel up to 42m below the city centre turns the downtown Britomart Station terminal into a two-way through station, joining up existing lines to form a rail ‘loop’ around the city.

This effectively doubles the existing capacity of Auckland’s rail system and dramatically increases the number of Aucklanders with a commute of less than 30 minutes.

Initially the project was planned as a six-car system to carry around 14,000 passengers an hour. However, projected rail transport growth statistics suggested that by 2035, CRL stations will need to cope with 54,000 passengers an hour at peak travel times, prompting the project to scale up to accommodate nine-car trains.

“Auckland is growing inexorably and predicted to have a two million population very soon,” he says, pointing out that even if post-COVID, 20 percent of people work from home on any given day, public transport is critical to the city development. “We are ensuring that what we are building is also facilitating appropriate development, not shutting it out.”

Creating cost clarity

Sweeney’s project delivery ethos is built around collaboration and working to a common purpose, and this sits at the heart of the Link Alliance delivering the project. A consortium of six private sector companies plus client CRL, it was set up specifically to deliver the main stations and tunnels for the project.

From the outset he was intent on also ensuring that the project is a game changer for New Zealand in terms of being delivered to expectation. “Optimism bias is a normal hazard so that every major project starts with one foot in the grave,” he says.

When I arrived, based on my experiences with previous major public projects, I told the Board I didn’t believe the existing cost estimates. As a result, the Board asked me to advise what I thought the project might actually cost.

Sweeney commissioned us to carry out an independent cost review for him to uncover the truth – as opposed to the hopes - about what this complex project was likely to cost.

“The Crown used their own advisers and came in within three percent of my estimate,” he explains. “That essentially said we needed to spend NZ$1bn more. This included an additional NZ$250m for the nine car trains.

The target cost for the project now sits at NZ$4.4bn, a figure that Sweeney accepts is still ambitious. However, he is also very open about the realities of the challenge and the need for engineers and project managers to be bolder about the challenges and benefits of investing infrastructure.

“More time and effort need to go into explaining how incredibly complex, risky and uncertain these ventures are,” he says. “A single price and opening date can never be a certainty.”

Local employment game changer

Of course, no amount of pre-planning and pre-contract analysis could have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic, which Sweeney describes as “one of the biggest challenges on the project to date”. With New Zealand closing its borders for the best part of 18 months, getting key people and key material through has taken a lot of effort.

Being a small nation, New Zealand typically relies on a transient workforce from Asia. Even before COVID, the global construction boom meant that there was a shortage of civil and structural engineers, designers and architects. COVID accentuated the challenge, Sweeney explains.

Sweeney sees the CRL project - New Zealand’s highest value employment project - as having the ability to be a positive impact on the New Zealand construction industry. The scale of the project means that it can have a game-changing impact on lives and communities which have for too long been excluded.

In particular, he is committed to ensuring the project helps the indigenous Māori and Pacific Island communities to become more integrated by providing bespoke training and employment through the project’s Progressive Employment Programme. 

I took a view that we should do whatever we could to even the table. I wanted to use the range and reach of the project to create employment opportunities.

This outreach programme to support Auckland’s indigenous communities also extends down the supply chain, where Sweeney has committed to supporting Māori and Pacific Island family firms by removing many of the contractual or financial obstacles that prevent them being involved in large projects and bringing them into the project.

Securing New Zealand’s future pipeline

Sweeney highlights that the success of CRL is crucial to securing the future infrastructure investment pipeline across New Zealand. The lack of redundancy in the country’s infrastructure and need to drive towards a net-zero carbon future, means it is vital that this investment goes ahead to reinforce the nation’s ageing infrastructure.

“City Rail Link is probably the most ambitious project in New Zealand in terms of sustainability," he says, pointing out that in 2018 the project won New Zealand’s top sustainability award.

The end state for us is absolutely green – the power that drives City Rail Link will be renewable so we will be taking you out of your car and putting you onto a green mode of transport.”

With its game-changing scale, complexity and cost, the successful delivery of the CRL project is vital in building confidence in the industry that will be central to this future.

“New Zealand has never built an underground metro railway before, so we are into the unknown as far as our industry goes,” he says. “Hopefully it will be delivered in a way that gives successive governments confidence to invest in other big infrastructure projects.”

For further information contact:

Ralph Ellis
Director, Infrastructure Australia\New Zealand