Electric transport comes to Auckland (again)

A century after the first wave of electric cars and trams rolled along the streets of New Zealand, then receded, a new wave is rolling in. Tomorrow, Auckland’s first electric trains will start running on the Onehunga line.

Fifty seven electric trains will replace the diesel locomotives that have propelled Auckland’s commuter rail system since the end of the Age of Steam.

But it was one hundred years earlier that the world’s first coast-to-coast electric public transport system sparked into life in Auckland city.

The Auckland Electric Tramway ran from the CBD to Onehunga, and connecting the Pacific ocean’s waters in the Waitemata Harbour to Manukau Harbour and the Tasman Sea.. Starting with forty three electric trams, this ‘light rail’ service ran for half a century.

In the 1950s Auckland’s once extensive tram system was dismantled and replaced by electric trolleybuses and diesel buses, and investment went into building a motorway system.

Electric trams on Queen Street, Auckland, New Zealand in 1919
Electric trams on Queen Street, Auckland, New Zealand in 1919

In the early days of the automobile, electricity once vied with petrol to be the chosen power source. Energy dense hydrocarbons won the day over heavy lead-acid batteries, but for a decade or two electric “horseless carriages” could be seen travelling the streets alongside the electric trams in cities like Auckland and Christchurch. During February 2014 some beautifully restored examples of these early battery powered cars were put on display in the “pop up” district of the slowly recovering CBD of earthquake-ravaged Christchurch:

(Left) 1903 Lems Electric car. (Middle) Dashboard Volt meter and Ammeter. (Right) 1904 Baker Electric Carriage that has a 40 km/h top speed and driving time of 2 hours
Left – 1903 Lems Electric carriage. Middle – a dashboard Volt meter and Ammeter. Right – 1904 Baker Electric Carriage that has a 40 km/h top speed and driving time of 2 hours (Thomas Edison owned one of these). Photos taken by Philip Bendall in Christchurch, February 2014.

Fast-forward 100 years and the electric car is making a comeback, with hyrbids such as the Prius leading the way at the end of last century. The first right-hand-drive editions of Lithium-battery-packed Tesla Model S are due to reach New Zealand later this year. The Model S is the “family sports saloon” successor to the pioneering Tesla Roadster electric sports car. Philip Bendall was fortunate enough to sit in a development version of this incredible little sports car in 2008 when he visited the Tesla factory in California.

New Zealanders have been early adopters of another electric, zero-emission vehicle as well – the Segway Personal Transporter (PT). This 21st century creation has become popular amongst commuters, mobility users, security companies and public safety workers, delivery companies, and for Segway Tours. In May 2010 we wrote:

“Despite a world recession and difficult trading conditions between mid 2008 through to the end of 2009…our country remain[ed] the regional leader in Segway PT ownership per capita. At about 1 PT per 16,000 people NZ ranks close to the highest in the world, even before normalising for GDP.”

One could say that New Zealand’s fascination with all things electric began when the South Island town of Reefton switched on electric street lighting in August 1888. With the flick of a switch Reefton became the first town in the Southern Hemisphere have this luxury – beating even the fashionable streets of New York and London.

Fifty years ago, futurist Bernard Roundhill predicted an Auckland in the year 2000 with electric overhead ‘aerial tramways.’ Instead, we’ve only just getting electric trains at ground level.

We haven’t got flying cars either…but at least we’ve got Segway PTs for ‘last mile’ journeys and convenient, agile personal inner city transportation.


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