In many of the debates about whether building a railway line to Auckland Airport should be a priority or not, most of the focus has been on making it easier for travellers to get between the city and the airport. This is somewhat understandable, as for regular travellers it seems bizarre for the trip between the city and the airport to take longer than the flight between Auckland and Wellington. Furthermore, having a congestion free option, which generally only rail can provide (I’m yet to see how a busway could be provided between the Airport and the central city) provides a level of reliability to travel times that I’m sure would be much appreciated.
But rail to Auckland Airport would be pretty expensive – north of a billion dollars according to a study undertaken in 2008 (although this does seem to have ‘gold-plated’ the cost quite a bit compared to other similar projects). Furthermore, only a proportion of travellers (generally business travellers and tourists) would be making trips between the CBD and the Airport that would be best served by this rail line. It seems doubtful whether that would generate enough demand, in and of itself, to justify such a big expenditure.
However, thinking about ‘rail to the airport’ as merely providing a connection for travellers hugely under-estimates its potential in my opinion. In fact, while “rail to the airport” has been a useful term in gaining public support of this project, I think referring to the line as the “Southwest Line” would actually be more useful in recognising its wider benefits.
One of the main reasons for constructing this line is emphasised by a report that Auckland Airport had undertaken recently: pointing out the growing importance of the Airport to Auckland’s and New Zealand’s economy. Not only is this importance evident in the wider benefits of the Airport, but also in the area around the Airport’s growing significance as an employment hub. Put simply, a lot of people work either at the airport or around the airport and over the next 10-20 that number of employees is likely to increase very significantly.
The study, by consultancy Market Economics, also highlights the increasing importance as an economic growth node of the airport focused and supporting businesses located at or near Auckland Airport – within the Auckland Airport Business District (comprising land owned by Auckland Airport) or on neighbouring land. This growth node has been called the Airport Corridor.
The Airport Corridor already generates or facilitates around $3 billion of GDP annually and its contribution is expected to grow to $5-6 billion by 2031. This growth is expected to increase employment in the Airport Corridor from a current estimate of 21,000 workers to as many as 38,000 by 2031.
The study notes the correlation between jobs created in the Airport Corridor and growth in Auckland Airport’s traffic volumes – as the more vibrant the Airport becomes, the more companies want to locate close to it. Currently, there are about 1,800 jobs within the Airport Corridor for every million passengers passing through the Airport.
The Market Economics study concludes, “Auckland Airport facilitates substantial levels of business activity by enabling and supporting tourism and trade in Auckland and throughout New Zealand. As Auckland Airport (and the air transport sector generally) grows more rapidly than the economy as a whole, its role as a facilitator and generator of business activity is expected to steadily increase into the longer term. Within the Auckland spatial economy, the Airport Corridor will be a major focus of business activity, and a catalyst for economic growth across the region. Its significance as a driver of economic growth should not be under-estimated.”
There are around 80,000 people employed in Auckland’s CBD at the moment, so creating an employment node at the Airport of nearly 40,000 by 2031 gives a good indication of how significant that would be. The table below shows the increase:
The Airport picks up on the need to plan carefully for how this would work, and what infrastructure would be needed to support such an employment node:
Auckland Airport’s chief executive Simon Moutter said, “This study reinforces the important role that Auckland Airport plays in helping grow New Zealand tourism and trade by improving the air services connections between New Zealand and the world…
…“On a regional basis, it is important that Auckland Airport is seen not just as part of Auckland’s transport infrastructure, but a key driver of the supercity’s future economic prosperity and visitor economy.
“By commissioning this study, we hope to improve understanding about the strong growth potential of both Auckland Airport and the Airport Corridor. It is important that this growth is factored into planning decisions in areas such as land development, transport infrastructure and public transport services.”
A lot of the land surrounding the Airport is currently used for carparking. But with the area becoming such an important employment node in the future I do wonder whether wasting such valuable land on parking (surface level parking at least) will be feasible and desirable: both from the Airport’s perspective and from the perspective of Auckland as a whole. But if the attractiveness of the area as an employment node is going to continue it will need to be easy for people to get to work there – which is where the Airport Railway Line comes in.
As far as I can see, there will be three main users of the Airport Railway Line:
- Travellers themselves
- People working around the Airport and nearby employment centres (this is likely to be the biggest share of potential users)
- People living in Mangere and its surrounding suburbs, who work in Newmarket, the CBD, Manukau or other parts of the rail network
It’s pretty unlikely that spending close to a billion dollars on constructing the Airport Line would make sense if it were only to fulfil one, or even two, of these three functions. But the fact that it can provide all three – coupled with the predicted speedy growth of the area as an employment hub – means that I think it would be viable. Certainly in my opinion the CBD Rail Tunnel is more necessary, but in 10 years time if we haven’t built the Airport Line I think we’re really going to leave Auckland in a bit of a messy situation of having another car-dependent Albany or East Tamaki: just bigger, uglier and more congested.
The full study into the contribution of Auckland Airport to Auckland and New Zealand’s economy is here.