Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sending in a few lines to the Memorial Avenue Over bridge (or not) Consultation

A lovely evocative photo of a Trans Metro EMU riding through the early morning autumn mist,
courtesy of the photographer Joseph Christianson and Wikipedia Commons. 
The author of this posting suggests it may be many moons before the sun rises on a similar service in the greater Christchurch!!

If a commuter rail system ran from Rangiora to Rolleston via the current rail system it would (if achieving the unlikely success of Wellington which has very high public transport usage by comparable world standards) carry one fifth the Wellington total. That is around 2 million passengers a year.

I have made a throw away submission the the NZ Transport agency consultation about the overbridge/underpass or whatever is decided for the junction of SH1 (Russley Road) and Memorial Avenue. When I say throw away I mean just filled out the online comment form, from the top of my head, rather than spending several weeks preparing careful arguments and documented source info etc. as has often been the case with specific bus service submissions. Rather ironically my comment suggests that before any fly-over structures are build investigation should establish where any future rail alignment past the airport would need to run. I say ironically because I am probably the only local voice publicly and consistently casting doubt upon the unlikely value of rail (or light rail) in the context of Christchurch's small population, radial shape with low peripheral settlement and over-all low density.  Here in NZ we are misled by Wellington commuter rail's existence. Forget Wellington with its unusual combination of circumstances favourable to commuter rail - it's a freak situation. No other small city ( 300,000 and under 1 million population) of the 120 that I have found in Canada, Australia, NZ or USA [CANZUS] the countries comparable,  operates a commuter rail system specifically for that city. About a dozen gain backflow benefit from commuter rail systems primarily operated to get the small city locals to a much larger city (Wollongong to Sydney, Bridgeport to New York etc). These systems would clearly not operate for the small city alone and anyway rarely operate more than peak hours and a couple of middle of the day services.

It is my understanding commuter rail - all day services at not less than 30 minute intervals - needs about 15,000 passengers a day to get to some minimal viability. Not sure how this "viability" is measured,  but probably based on overseas patterns, meaning farebox recovery is at least 30% of total operating costs. According to a  page on America Public Transport Association web site I read a couple of years back [alas, a page I haven't been able to find again] the average farebox recovery for public transport in the 100 largest cities of the USA is 18% -  82% of operating costs met from various taxes and other income.  Heavy rail systems are bloody expensive to build and operate even with denser populations. 

Wellington's commuter rail system serves Porirua and the Kapiti Coast, and the Hutt Valley and the Wairarapa - a total catchment of 210,000 residents in the greater Wellington areas, and 32,000 in the Wairarapa (though a relatively small portion would commute to work in Wellington). Shall we say Wellington's Tranz Metro system serves a possible rail commuter market of 215,000, which generates about 11 million passenger trips a year. Let us compare; adding together all of Christchurch's "external" population, notably Rangiora, Kaiapoi, Woodend, Pegasus to the north, and Templeton and Rolleston to the south - ie the population adjoining the rail corridor - my figures come in around 40,000 current population. If a commuter rail system ran from Rangiora to Rolleston via the current rail system it would (if achieving the unlikely success of Wellington which has very high public transport usage by comparable world standards) carry one fifth the Wellington total. That is around 2 million passengers a year. Given the total travel distances, and congestion, in Christchurch are much lower than driving from Upper Hutt, Porirua, Paraparaumu etc, to Wellington's CBD and also need the clumsy need to then switch into buses for most commuters, discouraging wider use of rail, and given also we haven't had fifty years of building residential areas and factories orientated to a commuter line, realistically it would seem 1 million rail passengers a year would be a more realistic - and still challenging - target!  It will no doubt be pointed out that passengers will board at Belfast, Papanui and Hornby, but I suspect not very many unless they were travelling longer distances, Hornby to Belfast for instance. Sensibly the ratio of time waste in journey time and transfers needed using rail to access the city from the ring of outer suburbs would compare very poorly with private car, bike or bus use. Every stop that is added in also slows the journey for the travellers from further out - it ceases to be a rapid transit option which is really one of the main arguments favouring rail. Reference will no doubt also be made to rapid growth in these areas - sure but a long way, several decades,  from a 100,000 total catchment and - has any body in the public noticed - the increasing industrial areas at Rolleston or in the north of the city aimed in part to attract employees from these new areas and voiding need for systems that are really only competitive over long distances.

The cost of creating this rail system, on past studies commisioned by Ecan, would not be less than $100 million, a basic system with double tracking needed from Addington through to Papanui - incidentally also destroying the most marvellous "motorway" for pedestrians and cyclists. Building new stations would absorb millions (it is costing over a million dollars each just to lengthen the platforms and upgrade existing stations, such as Pukerua Bay on Wellington's commuter rail system). On an hour long through-journey, Rolleston-City-Rangiora, at half hourly headways, at least six double unit diesel railcars would be needed, they start at around $14 million each - unless we get second or third hand cast offs from Auckland or overseas, perhaps at a third the cost.

All this to transport about 5% of the public transport passengers in Christchurch
[I am presuming that current bus patronage (17 million passengers a year) will have surpassed the 20 million per year mark by the time the rail system was operating]. Would it not be cheaper to spend this $150 million plus on building several attractive platformed enclosed waiting area bus stations at Rangiora, Kaiapoi, Rolleston etc and buying say 30  luxury (but with back-door) style coaches, with full head rest, well padded seats, wi-fi access (total cost around $20 million) and running a service every 15 minutes from each end. This could be one that runs directly into and out of the central city no transfers needed. Possibly with enough spare buses to also interweave between this 15 minute pattern, at peak hours,  buses from  and to Timaru and Ashburton, Oxford and Swannanoa, Darfield and West Melton, and Waipara and Amberly, creating a service every 8 minutes through Rolleston and Kaiapoi. Some services would enter and leave the city via the airport. Frequent, fast, comfortable, multi-directional buses rather than half hourly mono-route trains.

You may see why I think rail is a poorly thought through fantasy! So why make the submission on a rail corridor? Because nobody knows how hard or how fast the decline in consumer orientated lifestyles will be, once oil really starts to move upwards in cost. They say it takes 10 kilojoules of fossil fuel to create one kilojoule of food in our industrialised farming and long food miles system. How many thousand cars drive from Timaru to Christchurch or vice versa each day, how many are going to keep to these patterns when fuel reaches $3 or $4 a litre? Can we afford to build the huge new power stations needed to run any sizeable proportion of cars on electricity? I consider conventional rail largely a 19th century technology except for its one redeeming value in being able to transport very large tonnages of freight or human cargo. Therefore the potential corridor for rail into the city should be identified and protected now, though it may be ten, twenty or thirty years away before it is constructed. Sensibly it seems to me, given the current rail corridor doesn't serve most areas very effectively, consideration should be made now (while land remains bare) to creating a link from Islington up past the airport and then under Johns Road across to Styx Mill to rejoin the SIMT line, just south of the road overbridge. This creates a loop, and if the new track was double track, three lines into the city from the north, two via airport, one via existing line, voiding the need to double track through Bryndwyr. It also gives far more flexibility in both passenger and freight movements, a sort of rail roundabout which can run in either direction, passengers from Timaru getting off directly at airport on way into city via Papanui etc.  

Despite my submission to the Memorial Avenue/Russley Road overbridge consultation I don't really believe the rail line needs to run close to Russley Road - it would make more sense to create an underground trench around the eastern end of the east-west runway and under Orchard Road closer to the airport, perhaps with a separated (walled off) second track section for freight trains.  I raise the issue in this consultation, to wave the flag of better public transport in Christchurch!! And to promote forward thinking as an antidote to having heard twenty years of generalisation ("we need rail") unsupported by any analysis.  Perhaps too, if we can scare the current Government and NZ Transport Agency that we might come wanting our share of the hundreds of millions invested in rail in Auckland and Wellington  they might suddenly get keen to maintain funding and support for bus lanes - better still segregated busways that completely bypass congestion, a technology and strategy replacing rail investment in many situations worldwide, curiously ignored by Christchurch local body politicians and planners.

From Beijing (building 20 busways) to Johannesburg (building 270km of bus lanes and busways) and Leeds opting for busways over light rail (with 7 million population in area) to Ottawa-Gatineau (highest patronage per capita of any North America city below 2 million and almost entirely achieved by bus and rapid bus systems), to Auckland's northern busway, and Brisbanes mushrooming busway patronage; segregated busways combining the advantages of both rail and bus,  a system - unlike rail or light rail -  immensely adaptable to smaller cities like Christchurch.  

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