Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Rail - a journey into the past?

I don't see rail as a very attractive option to car use and unlike Auckland and Wellington I don't see Christchurch forced to make that choice.

I have just had eight days in the North Island, a rather crazy and unusual eight days, not so much a holiday as a few nights catching up with a few old friends and family while during the days sussing out the state of public transport around New Zealand. I spent two days in Auckland (first time there since 1976!) and then time in Raglan, Hamilton, Rotorua, Taupo, Taihape, Fielding, Otaki and Wellington. To call it a fact finding tour would be as nonsensical as call a two week flying visit to a handful of very large North American cities a fact finding tour! It was more an impressions tour, some visual images to complement projects I have been reading about for years.

Unlike the South Island quite a few chunks of my journey could be conveniently done by rail. For instance I stayed at Bethells Beach (ironically given its proximity to Auckland the least despoiled, commercialised or obliterated by loudly painted buildings area in all my travels - a real old kiwiana beach of  baches or bach styled houses and toi toi and river estuary). To get to and from the point in Henderson where my friends/hosts worked meant catching the commuter rail service on the Western line to and from Swanson which  I did several times. Swanson is the second to last station, 17km from the city and an hour long journey, so it gave a good chance to see a significant chunk of the  Auckland commuter rail network in operation or construction. This route passes hundreds of millions of dollars of new infrastructure, notably the very attractive Brittomart Station; the giant multi-level station complex at Newmarket; the $120 million dollar trencing of rail beneath ground level at the New Lynn rail/bus centre under construction; and various new suburban stations such as that at Swanson, illustrated below, with their H shaped towers - lift wells complementing the stairs and footbridges. 

Part of the Newmarket rail station complex

New Lynn bus and (underground) rail centre under construction beside temporary surface level rail line

Swanson - new footbridge/lift towers and waiting areas from older station and cafe area

In general I was very impressed with what money can buy in terms of infrastructure and also with the service efficiency. For example each carriage unit holding about 70 people had its own dedicated guard, host person or whatever it is called these days. When the trains stop they each step out on to the platform and monitor and assist if needed those who hop on to their particular segment of the train. This seems likely to virtually eliminate fare dodging which loses  many millions of dollars in overseas rail systems such as Sydney - it also feels very supportive in terms of safety, comfort or access to information. However it rules out the argument of rail advocates that less staff is needed to operate trains than buses, always somewhat dubious given the high number of track inspection and rail maintenance crews and other support personnel involved in rail. Nor are trains particularly fast. To serve a wide swathe of west Auckland, and also no doubt to generate sufficient patronage, the commuter line (original track alignment built years ago) curves down through New Lynn and then back up to Henderson, making for a 6km longer journey from Henderson to Auckland's CBD than might be the case if the line was direct.  I guess such a long commute is the price of living in a large city and certainly trains were capable of carrying large numbers, such as when students from the the various high schools along the track poured in to carriages along the way.   

Spending two days idly railing and bussing across large areas of Auckland I was reminded how huge it is in its geographical footprint. Because of its rolling hills, again and again as the bus or rail reaches a higher point one sees vistas of housing, shops, apartment blocks, industry spreading as far as the eye can see. - Auckland is said to be the 19th biggest urban area in the world - which seems an extra-ordinary [unlikely?] claim given there are hundreds of cities with a bigger population (what is even more boggling to a naieve country boy like me is than Los Angeles is about eight times larger still in area!). From the start of the more or less continuous built up residential areas to the south, Papakura, to the point where more or less continuous housing ends in the north, Albany, is about 45 kilometres. Papakura itself (44,000) is about the same distance as Rangiora (12,000) is from Christchurch central, and connected by both direct rail services and by trains travelling via the eastern loop route. A not irrelevant factor in terms of rail patronage -  a further 370,000 people live between Papakura and the Manakau Harbour - a population the size of Christchurch before one even gets to the boundary of Auckland City (410,000) proper. I note that this is this slightly more people than between Rangiora and Christchurch's boundary at Belfast - indeed more Kaiapoi and Spencerville/Brooklands combined !

I also caught several buses and apart from the Northern Busway services, notwithstanding sections of bus lane (where buses hurtle along seemingly only inches from the overhang of shop verandhas or within feet of crowds waiting at stops for other services) found these relatively slow and clumsy. Auckland is just so vast and complex that whatever time is saved in bus lanes a large amount then seems to be lost at complex multiple-phase long wait traffic lights which occur every couple of minutes along the way.

 Later in my travels I was to journey by electric commuter train in from Paraparaumu to Wellington station, a distance of 50 km. Although this trip includes many segments of rural land, it also includes residential areas with a population of over 80,000, and more further north in rapidly growing Waikanae (my journey took me past construction works for extending double tracking and electrification and commuter rail services to Waikanae). A similar equation in Canterbury would see multiple housing settlements, large and small between Amberly and Christchurch, Kaiapoi a city bigger than Timaru and a population of around 30,000 plus in Waipara. Yes, well, not quite! A third rail trip I took was on "The Overlander" fromTaihape to Feilding, described at the end of this article.

I thought I might become a fan of rail, which I had barely travelled on in 20 years, and it does have a certain charisma. The enormous power implicit in the huge body and length of the train being pulled by the huge engines, diesel or electric, certainly has presence. But it is also - at least in New Zealand with its very narrow guauge - it is a fairly rough, lurching and jolting, clunking and banging across points, graunching and squealing, and tugging violently, jerl, jerk, jerk around tight bends.  It seems in many ways a hangover from the Victorian period, to use such heavy machinery to carry such relatively small numbers and weights as a few hundred people, unnecesarily complex to have to cradle something as simple as mobility in a huge heavy engineering infrastructure of cuttings, tunnels,  platforms, maintenance crews, guards and security personnel etc, Despite all this huge expense and infrastructure it is still only possible to travel in a few limited directions,  contrasting poorly with the flexibility of car travel. UK studies (in a country where rail is widely used) suggest the amount of dead time - empty or half empty carriages at the beginning or end of journeys renders rail ineffective in environmental terms. Scanning my files I see that "The Auckland Regional Transport Authority has estimated that by 2016 around 440,000 people will be within 800m walk of a railway station and over one million within 5kms, which creates an opportunity to use electrified rail as the backbone of a mass transit system with greater urban densities around the rail corridors". Well that doesn't impress me - I wouldn't want to be someone who had to walk almost a kilometre each morning and evening on my work commutes, or if I go out for the night, and then perhaps have to wait ten or fifteen minutes on (in Christchurch/Wellington anyway!) a windswept platform for a journey that maybe stately in its controlled acceleration and deceleration but otherwise relatively slow and clunky in its nature, and in most cases will require a transfer to a bus at the end. A rail service within 5kms can only be impressive when the total journey itself is over 15 or 20km and involves a lot of traffic congestion - in Christchurch a 15km radius virtually covers most of the population!

Rail is an effective work commute system in Wellington and Auckland because the distances are huge; the alternative roading is tedious and stressful to drive (madhouse motorways or endless intersections and traffic light queues);  sheer intensity and extensity of population gives them rail value greater as mass transit, capable of carrying very large numbers. None of these factors really fit Christchurch, now or in the immediate - 20 year - future. I don't see rail as a very attractive option to car use and unlike Auckland and Wellington I don't see Christchurch forced to make that choice. Whatever romance there maybe with rail, it hardly warrants spending sitting on trains two hours a day, when an effective high speed rapid bus network could get me too and from work, irrespective of which direction that may be, and in the evenings and weekends to multiple destinations, in less than 25 minutes. This would require buses within five minutes maximum walk of every resident (as 95% of Christchurch residents already are, thanks to Mero strategy); running via bus lanes, traffic light priority signals, cut throughs, under-passes, over-passes and tunnel sections so they rarely stop at traffic lights and one can get anywhere across the city in a time comparable to car use (without need to find a car-park). Segregated sections of route would be in many cases on guided busways offering 100% smooth journeys, at computer controlled frequencies. The pattern of services - which might vary across the week - would be so consistently integrated that passengers could tell when buses are due to within five minutes just by looking at the colour and thickness of routes marked on a map.

There are a number of factors to be addressed - removing the lurch factor, yes buses lurch too,  by monitoring and upgrading road surfaces of on-street bus routes and creating bowling green smooth flow surfaces on segregated corridors ; removing the cowboy factor -  the one in twenty-five(?)  bus driver who drives carelessly and roughly, or is surly and aggressive, creating unpleasant journeys and doing enormous damage to the over-all credibility of bus use  - with modification systems such as DriveRight; improving the quality of buses (including surcharged luxury premium express services); more mini-stations with door level platform and glassed in waiting areas. If this city is going to spend hundreds of millions on rail or light rail (and theses systems are not typically implemented for anything less) I suggest it spend ten or twenty million first on creating a showcase rapid bus corridor and do some sophisticated comparative analysis with rail costs, to the city,  or the costs to individual in terms of time use and comparative driving expenditure. We have the unique opportunity of creating a holistic city wide system of super comfortable, suitable accessible, multi-directional rapid transit, facing the 21st century rather than re-invoking the 19th century!

As a footnote to my (non) romance with rail I apparently did something very bizarre in this nation of car addicts. From Taihape to Feilding I switched from long distance coach services to "The Overlander" the Auckland-Wellington passenger rail service. I enjoyed the crazy fun of the late running train roaring and clattering down the spectacular Rangitikei gorge area, slowing slightly only  to cross several hugely high viaducts. At times the height of these bridges or the escarpment along which the track wound was so high that the views from the open-air observation platform  felt closer to flying than land travel,  such as this view below. 
The guards on the train were greatly bemused with the idea that anyone not an overseas tourist or travelling a great distance would want to catch a train merely as the simplest way of travelling between points G and K (for instance). When I came to alight at Feilding the guard used the PA system to ask other passengers to stay on board and then, with an amused twinkle in her voice,  thanked "the gentleman who is leaving us at Fielding for his unusually short journey with us from Taihape".  Isn't it bizarre that the rail system, the primary public transport around the country of yesteryear has become so debased that the announcers had to struggle not to chortle at my weird behaviour!  


  1. Love it. Always a good read. Cheers David :)

  2. Rail would work easily in Christchurch, along with light rail on certain corridors.

    Remember, many said rail would never work in Auckland....until 8 years ago when the Auckland Regional Council invested in the rail network.

    Christchurch has some extensive rail lines through it. It ONLY needs a central station for it to work. Just like Britomart re-vived Auckland passenger rail.

    The Campaign For Better Transport now has members and across the South Island. Just has what has happened in Auckland and the Waikato, as CBT membership grows it will challenge the existing "roads only" mentality which holds back most NZ cities.

    Most NZ councils lack foresight and lack anyone with real transport knowledge, just roading engineers. What do roading engineers propose...roading solutions.

    Time for a change.