Thursday, October 1, 2009

Missing the Train in Halifax

In my ongoing trip to CANZUS (the cities 300,000-1 million metropolitan area - the area defined in the US census as easy commuting distance) in Canada, Australia, NZ and USA, I tried catching the bus, light rail and commuter rail in the cities along the way. It is not uncommon to hear Christchurch people say, in casual conversation, or in letters to The Editor, that we need a commuter rail system from Rangiora or Rolleston. Environment Canterbury commisioned a couple of studies of commuter rail potential for Greater Christchurch, in 2005, and more recently. Both came up nil match in cost effective terms. Rail is tremendously expensive to build and operate. Looking through the data base on "The Transport Politic" [see profile] which is very consistently updated, or the commuter rail listings on the APTA (American Public Transport Association) website, small cities under a million don't even feature.

I haven't consistently read all the lengthy strategic plans of CANZUS cities (my interest in transit is a part-time hobby!) but of those I have checked out, several feature sections describing how the possibility of commuter rail has been studied and found far too expensive, or/and in other inappropriate for that particular city. One of the most graphic illustrations of this is provided in a pamphlet put out by the Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, transit authorities. Halifax is one of our true sister cities, at 385,000 almost identical to greater Christchurch in population size and like most Canadian cities having much in common with NZ patterns. The pamphlet was responding to public pressure to utilise a disused freight line to create a rail commuter connection to the city. I won't say any more, because thanks to the marvel of the clever Mr Bloggs, that very pamphlet with its graphic graph is even this moment waiting behind the curtain at the side of the stage. Or rather, hiding nervously behind the title box of this posting, just waiting to be clicked on!

There are commuter rail services to a few small cities in the USA but, as far as I can determine, all exist as a "counter commuter" flow on lines that are maintained primarily as commuter lines to much bigger cities. In other words Tacoma, Washington, probably wouldn't have a commuter rail system by itself, if it was not part of the much larger Sounds Transit network feeding into Seattle (2.7 mil metropop). Likewise catching commuter rail into one the smaller cities of Connecticut, USA, is really a backflow (or passing through) benefit of commuter lines built to serve New York. Coming back to this side of the world, in Australia a similar pattern is found. The Illawarra Mercury [16 May 2008] noted " The figures show the number of people commuting from Sydney to Wollongong each day jumped 20 per cent over five years to 4300. While the number of commuters heading north from Wollongong was 19,000 - making it the largest single commuter flow between cities in Australia". It is impressive that the small city of Wollongong, 284,000 can attract over 4000 rail commuters. Undoubtably this reflects the popularity of rail over longer distances and the how well suited rail is to that area - basically a 40km long narrow resdential coastal corridor. But this said almost 80% of the traffic, is commuter flow to Sydney. Take away the Sydney factor and reduce the lines income to only 20% (possibly much less, analysing which direction attracts the highest portion of the longer trips)would drastically effect viability. A similar pattern will apply for Newcastle, which also sees commuter trains departing mainly from Sydney, two hour forty minutes away (the first at 4am having problems from drunks from the night before!).

So we arrive at last at only similar match smaller city in NZ, Wellington. When we fly over CANZUS - all 117 cities - we get a bit better perspective. I stand ready to be corrected but from studies of commuter rail listings and of individual cities, it appears to me that Wellington is the ONLY small city in these four countries with their similar transit relevant demographics to operate its own complete commuter rail network.

It goes without saying Greater Wellington has unique factors - a perfect breeze in terms of rail - almost half of its 410,000 population living up two very long narrow corridors - the Porirua-Kapiti Coast and the Hutt Valley. The alternative for many commuters is a lengthy drive along motorways that bottleneck at a single area (high speed roading corridors so vulnerable to long delays caused by fatal crashes on narrow sections that about two years ago the local head of Transit NZ, recommended car commuters always carry water bottles to avoid dehydration when traffic is halted for long periods on hot days!). Wellington as a capital is full of Government departments and various head office high rises (white collar workers a prime commuter group). The city has an uniquely dense major employment zone, narrow streets, limited and expensive parking. The central business area is elongated Lambton Quay to Courtnay Place - which fosters short hop bus use. Wellington also had the "sunk cost" factor of two existing railway lines - the Wairarapa line and the former privately owned Manawatu line - when the population expanded in the thirties the room to expand in the Hutt Valley was impossibly far from Wellington workplaces in days when car ownership was still not widespread.

Wellington punches way above its weight with commuter patronage - with 17% of people travelling to work by public transport and 34 million passengers a year, Wellington is pro -rata, the most successful transit system in patronage in CANZUS. There is a rider to this - in fact several million riders - the number of inner city bus journeys being taken by commuters coming off trains will significantly effect bus patronage figures. The portion of trips involving transfers will be much higher than prevails in most small city public transport patronage figures, where a higher percentage of passengers typically bus point to point.

Rail advocates will say Wellington's high public transport use proves the success of rail, and despite my love of buses,too much diesel in my blood, I agree. It appears rail will attract significantly greater patronage, if the right circumstances can be found to support its implementation. I don't think these exist in Greater Christchurch, and any chance to tilt the balance here, by designing Rangiora, Rolleston, and Pegasus etc, right from the start to foster commuter rail is past. As noted by former North Shore City Mayor [see Herald article in previous posting] industry now goes out to where people live, minimising the value of public transport systems relying upon concentrated locations. On present circumstances the relatively short distances of commuting, and relatively low cost of fuel, suggest that rail can not take enough people where they want to, in terms anywhere near cost effectiveness, cash or journey time.

Flying over CANZUS makes me realise commuter rail as an option features higher in popular imagination amongst Christchurch people than is realistic, by virtue of casually transposing the Wellington situation to Christchurch. I don't think too many people realise - I certainly didn't - that Wellington is a rather unique situation, a rare small city in countries of low density population with high incomes and high car ownership operating a big city electrified commuter network. It sneaks onto the radar because it has to - and hundreds of millions are needed to maintain and upgrade the rail system. Christchurch with a population size only slightly below Wellington needs to look for different solutions if it wishes to lift its fairly small portion of peak hour commuters using public transport (4.5%) to a more healthy level. Light rail? Wabit will catch a tram to CANZUS after a weekend trip to the West Coast

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