Studying transport and comparing one system with another is very very difficult - there are so many variables. However back about 2004 I read a speech by US transport critic Wendell Cox made in Wellington in 2001, in which he pooh-poohed comparisons of NZ with Europe and suggested there was greater affinity of key demographic factors between Canada, Australia, NZ and USA - he called them "the four colonies". Of course there were many many other colonies "Rhodesia" [ now Zimbabwe], Malawi, Samoa, South Africa etc. but I imagine Cox is referring to the places where the white man (and woman) became the majority population, where populations per land area remain small [even in the vast USA], where urban density for most part is low, and most larger cities developed and spread after car use became widespread. And there is no huge impoverished underclass totally dependent on public transport. Settler based colonies.
I am quite aware Cox is a neo-conservative and associated with the right wing of Americans that challenge almost any form of public expenditure! However being a promiscuous old wabbit I'll sleep with anyone, including political opposites and foes if they whisper sweet SOMETHINGS in the night. And it makes a lot of sense to compare apples with apples; carrots with carrots; and pear shaped with pear shaped.
I have made it my mission to study public transport in smaller cities in C-A-NZ-US over the last couple of years. Being a part-time hobby, study is a grand word but I've had an elongated peep at about 120 smaller cities, a "study"ranging from 5 minutes in some cases to an hour or two engrossed in their strategy documents (virtually every city has them). Certainly rail and light rail (a) gets mentioned in many strategies (b) gets rejected as too expensive, inappropriate for a small city in almost every study (c) Yeah, crazy task - I've haven't yet quite figured out yet how many angels on a pinhead. But thank God for arcane knowledge.
I was very suprised to read Professor Glen Koorey of Lincoln, in an opinion piece in The Press, (1 November 2010) hauling out the largely discredited (in burrow council eyes anyway) notion that Christchurch, ranked 980th in the world population size, can in anyway be compared to small cities in Europe. In his opinion piece (which wisely suggested busway corridors could lay the groundwork for light rail in the future) Koorey says;
"Some observers have pointed out that these urban areas, all with well over a million people in them, are not exactly comparable to greater Christchurch (population 400,000) and that significant rail- based networks are more viable in such larger conurbations. While that may be pertinent, it hasn’t prevented smaller cities elsewhere from implementing light rail (or “trams” or “streetcars”) as part of their transport mix, including Freiburg, Germany (population 220,000), Saint-Etienne, France (population 320,000) and Graz, Austria (population 370,000). "
I will now have the impertience to suggest deeper analysis might suggest there is little in our situation to make Christchurch comparable to any of these three cities; viz the following [note; I like saying viz, though nobody else uses such an archaic language structure nowadays], sussed out from a quick flyover trip around the web and wiki.
Christchurch (metropop) 405,000
Region Canterbury, population 560,000
Land area 45,000 sq km
New Zealand - national population 4 million
Graz (metropop) 370,000
Region Styria 1.2 million
Land area 16,000 sq km (= one third that of Canterbury)
Austria - national 8 million (land area c 84,000 sq km - less than twice the size of Canterbury)
Approximate "apples com peared"; Styria twice the population one and third the land area = 6 taxpayers per kilometre of line laid for every one in Canterbury.
Freiburg, a German town in the province of Baden-Wurttenburg, a region at 35,000 sq km not quite as big as Canterbury but with almost 20 times times the poulation at 10.7 million. If light rail in Freiburg was only funded by provincial taxes the cost to build a twenty kilometre line would be the same cost as building a one kilometre line would be to Cantabrians! Actually The German standard equation for transport infra-structure funding is Federal taxes 60%; provincial taxes 30%; city/location contribution 10% - a billion Deutsch-mark light rail system, similar to the 13 km Gold Coast City line could be built for $100 million from the pockets of local taxpayers (ratepayers).
Saint-Etienne, 320,000 population, a French town about the same distance from France's second biggest city, Lyon, 1.7 million, as Rakaia is from Christchurch, 60km. In other words a significantly urban region! Both cities in the Rhone-Alps region, an area very similar in land area to Canterbury, of 43,000 sq km but with a population one and a half times the whole population of New Zealand at 6 million.
The joy of living in New Zealand, the Southern hemisphere's equivalent of Iceland [OK slight over-statement, slightly larger, more populated, equally gross teenage binge drinking patterns and NZ punching beyond its weight according to Hilary Clinton] is we get heaps of space -everytime we open the back door of a a city its incredible !! If it is not a mountain it's a gorgeous bay or a bush covered hilllside [translation; bush=local rain forest]. Earthquakes bring nature right inside our houses! BUT. A realistic downside; we don't have enough population, national or local, or residents living tightly crowded in high rise along corridors to fund light rail in a way that doesn't stretch local funds. Kiwis already finance a larger conventional rail system in kilometres per capita than Germany [the ultimate rail country!] and look how our rail system struggles to achieve world quality.
In the New Zealand our context suggests any stretch of light rail will cost about 5-10 times more per taxpayer than in Europe, with likelihood of carrying only a fraction of the the annual loading, typical on most European systems. We don't even have enough tourists per year - most light rail world-wide is mainly city and inner suburbs (as in Melbourne) and serves and relies upon high tourist numbers in these inner areas. Austria at 8 million population gets 250% the population size in tourist numbers - about 21 million tourists per year (2007), many car-less visitors; added farebox to boost funding of light rail in a way that makes it cost-effective.
Cheaper to transport locals by white elephant methinks. Is our own "Think Big Bob" making a Jumbo mistake?