Friday, July 30, 2010

Christchurch rail study (again) - Even looking in the right places still railing against the odds!

Lyttelton,  Port of Canterbury - grossly unsuited for commuter rail?? Photo PhillipC - Wikipedia Commons

A few weeks ago the Tony Marryatt, CEO of Christchurch City Council was instructed by a council motion to organise an investigation of light rail and commuter rail options for Christchurch. It is about time we had another study of rail, a perennial favourite in Christchurch, a city with only the loosest understanding of public transport parameters and options! Other public transport technologies and variants - of which there are dozens - appear to be precluded from the study by the wording of the motion.

It will be five years ago next week since the release in The Press of a previous study of commuter rail options for the greater Christchurch area undertaken by Environment Canterbury [ECan]. This was not an intensive study but rather prelimary findings of a consultancy firm, based on standard costings for various infrastructure likely to be needed, drawing from overseas examples, did not consider site specific issues and offered only ball park figures. "You are looking at figures which could be plus or minus 50%. This is very much a preliminary investigation," James Leach of international infrastructure firm GDH told Ecan (The Press 4 August 2005). "Leach said the most expensive option would give Christchurch a world-class commuter rail system".

The five options thast were considered in 2005, are described in The Press article as follows

* Option 1: using existing rail lines. This would cost $55 million, plus $3.7m a year. Service frequency would be limited by existing freight and ferry timetables.

* Option 2: double-tracking between Islington (west Christchurch), Christchurch, Belfast (north Christchurch) and Heathcote. This would cost $105.5m, plus $5.5m a year, and enable a frequent service.

* Option 3: double-tracking between Islington and Rangiora. This would cost an estimated $201.5m, plus $7.9m a year, and allow a frequent service between Islington and Rangiora, and Islington and Lyttelton.

* Option 4: double-tracking between Rangiora and Rolleston. The cost of this would be $246m and $9.9m a year. This would allow frequent services across the network and could mean branch lines to areas such as Oxford and Prebbleton could be reopened to ease road traffic congestion.

* Option 5: a central city underground and double-tracking from Rangiora to Rolleston, costing $690m, plus $26m a year.

All would require new stations and platforms, estimated at $2m each.

No doubt the brief of GDH was to look at all options but Ecan has since referred to commuter rail for Christchurch as costing "at least $250 million". (The Press 7 May 2008) This suggests recognition that the first two options above, at least, are considered unworkable, because of track sharing difficulties with freight services and because without running to at Rangiora and Rolleston, much of the point and patronage of any commuter rail system would be lost.

The problems of sharing tracks with freight systems can not be under-estimated. Large amounts of money are currently being spent in Sydney, just as one example, to try to retrospectively create segregated passenger and freight corridors north and south out of the city. A recent posting on the Transport Politic blog [love that brill photo!] also highlights the speed compatibility problem of mixing freight and passenger services.

The current freight movements out of Christchurch, I imagine, will be fairly tightly timetabled, just as any commuter rail would need to be time-tabled. Rail traffic on the single track northern main line has a strong component of interconnection to the Picton-Wellington rail ferry, while traffic on the Lyttelton-Rolleston section is closely bound to the 12 trains each way carrying coal from the West Coast to the export wharf at Lyttelton In single track scenarios of rail,and freight sharing the same corridor delays on one or other system will impose on the other - and it doesn't take too many of these to dispersuade customers, whether those in freight forwarding or or passengers commuting to work, to look for other options. The need for double tracking, or even triple tracking in sections, to protect the efficiency of key drivers of the South Island economy is obvious. Just as the political difficulty of double tracking up (and greatly increasing rail traffic) through well established up market housing areas is also obvious. Or the outcry if the mother of all cycle ways - that fabulous broad 6km cycleway and pedestrian path from Riccarton to Northlands (and now Tuckers Road) was destroyed to allow an added track on the rail line.

Despite only a solitary cyclist in this Wikipedia photo the
very popular and well used Christchurch railway cycleway
6km long and cutting across multiple arterial roads (with cyclist
activated lights) in the inner western suburbs of Christchurch

Safety would be a big concern too, either from a train running a signal or a passing train derailing, mixing lightweight and heavy weight rail systems, and mixing fast and slow trains would fall outside good practice. The need for commuter rail system to stop often enough to generate sufficient patronage, and the time it takes for heavier trains to decelerate and accelerate as well as load at stations, suggests express services would not be viable and commuter rail in Christchurch would hardly achieve "rapid transit" status, competitive with using a car or indeed competitive with the more direct, door to door, benefits of express quality bus/coach services. Closer to the city - between Hornby and the city, Papanui and the City - many residents are too close to warrant park and ride, or transferring to rail from bus, at either end of their journey as would be necessary.

I also find it difficult to see the rationale of including Lyttelton in any commuter rail study. The combined population of Lyttelton, Heathcote, and Diamond Harbour (accessed via the ferry) would not collectively surpass 6,000 with constraining landscape restricting growth, a population base way way below any sensible threshold for commuter rail viability. It seems to me only lazy thinking would include this destination in a commuter rail study, superimposing past but now irrelevant factors on to the present situation. In the old days this line was Christchurch's main suburban line but none of the factors that once supported this service now remain. Before the road tunnel opened in 1964 the only road access was via winding steep hill roads at Dyers Pass or Evans Pass - making the direct rail line very competitive - not least to the 500-700 Lyttelton ferry passengers arriving and departing Lyttelton each morning and evening, or the many hundreds of waterfront workers in the days when ships were loaded and unloaded and stacked largely by manual labour.

As soon as the road tunnel opened patronage plummeted - 25% in the first year and by 1972 the railways were losing $100,000 a year [at a very rough guess, that is around $1 million a year in modern terms] and opted then only to run a service to link to Lyttelton-Wellington ferry arrivals and departures. On September 14th 1976 the ferry too ceased and rail with it - commuter rail services between Christchurch and Lyttelton had lost any rationale for their existence.

It is hard to imagine - in this day and age - why anyone would want to forsake a quick comfortable and fairly direct and fast bus service from the city and up into the heart of Lyttelton for the clumsy catching of a bus to a railway station in Christchurch and a rail trip followed by a long trudge up steep hills in all weather to access town and residential areas. Passenger traffic from Diamond Harbour is not likely to surpass bus capacity levels in our life time, if ever. If there is a demand for tourists from ocean liners to rail out, this is easily and more likely to be incorporated in the flexibility of a chartered (and time flexible) train. Nor is it possible to imagine KiwiRail being very attracted to running comuter rail through the bottleneck of the Lyttelton tunnel, inevitably compromising the flow or flexibility of coal train and container shipping movements. The rest of the Lyttelton line services mainly warehousing type industries, around Hillsborough and Chapmans Road, or housing areas too far from the track or too close to the city to allow effective commuter rail. Despite including the biggest piece of rail infrastructure in Canterbury - the Lyttelton rail tunnel (astoundingly built in 1864 when the whole province had only 12,000 residents!!) the return of commuter rail to the port seems pure fantasy.

If local passenger rail was rebuilt tomorrow I would see the natural terminus of the line as being at Ensors Road, opposite the Sullivan Avenue campus of CPIT. This would allow link up to the major road east-south road corridor and bus corridor, not least The Orbiter bus service. Presuming the Probation service leaves enough room this could make use of the partially converted rail yards with a small terminus station and another platform only, events passenger loading area, at the Stadium formerly known as Lancaster Park.

In receiving the original report back in 2005, then Ecan Councillor, Nicky Wagner said ECan had to understand the level of public demand for rail and how many people would use it. "This should be done by patronage, not just where the tracks are now," she said. Quite so. The way I see it is that current tracks don't necessarily service useful areas and to be effective at all, much of the patronage would be determined by judicious combination of fuure rail planning and land use, much as the rail line through the Hutt Valley line shifted westwards, over towards Taita in the 1950s at the same time as large blocks of new state housing were built.

In this light would seem more logical to me to either create a city circular route, by adding a double track line from Islington up past (and under the forecourt land) of the airport and joining onto the current northern line at Styx Mill. OR, even to do way with the railway line between Addington and Northlands altogether and run all trains via the aforementioned corridor, with small spurs to Northlands and to the present long distance station, with a small city commuter station somewhere near the Colombo Street, Durham Street area.

It is legend that Germany gained infrastructure advantage after world war two, by starting rail from a clean slate (so to speak, albeit it was dirty,dusty rubble) the existing systems destroyed. Any venture into rail in Christchurch could gain much from the Islington-Styx Mill link by virtue of the fact it is currently, largely, a blank slate, covering many many hectares but also links (in a continuous loop) to major employment zones at Belfast, Northlands, Addington, Middleton, Hornby, Sheffield Crescent and at and around the Airport. Building freight yards, industries needing rail sidings, and new residential areas near Islington and Styx Mill housing could all be done to benefit from and contribute towards the success of such a line.

I would like to think the city council in studying rail has the sense to least evaluate this as an option - although one of the more obvious possibilities, it was not included in the 2005 study.

I also wonder - with Auckland building an underground trench for rail at New Lynne ($160 million) and a 300 metre underground trench for rail entering Onehunga (part of the $90 million extension of commuter rail services to this suburb) - is it not time Christchurch stood up for its own situation? The adding of 6000 jobs in several new office parks in the Addington area, not to mention the major growth current and planned around Halswell, Henderson and Awatea , all suggests that it is no longer appropriate to have surface road/rail level crossings at Lincoln Road, Whiteleigh Avenue-Claridges Road. I am sure the traffic on these crossings must equal or exceed traffic on similar points in Auckland - any rail study might ask is a trench technically feasible and politically achievable.  We don't need any more great ugly flyovers of the Durham Street type, especially in these areas (x2) if rail could cross below road level on the hugely busy roads. Roads which can only get busier, many times over, in the years ahead.
I haven't heard this raised anywhere but it seems to me it must be addressed sooner rather than later.

Leave out Lyttelton; investigate the north-western Styx -Airport-Islington loop rail corridor; investigate a trenching of the main trunk line south around Addington - three things that an amateur trainspotter (really buspotter) suggests any rail study must sensibly do  - and yet even then I am still dubious of commuter rail as an appropriate technology in Christchurch.

At the 2005 ECan reception of the report, according to The Press, then ECan Councilor "Ross Little said most commuter rail services were in cities larger than Christchurch. He wondered if the city was big enough to warrant commuter rail."

He wondered and this blogger has wondered this too! Across the last few years I have tried to identify similar cities to Christchurch (in key demographics such as population size/density/car ownership/wealth distribution) in Canada and Australia, NZ and even USA and found - to my surprise - out of 120 that match up only one city has its own proper commuter rail system, and that doubtless because of a combination of unique factors, Wellington NZ.! Where commuter rail service connections to smaller exist elsewhere it is primarily to link to much larger cities nearby, Wollongong for example benefits from reverse flow rail commuters, though almost 80% of rail patronage is towards Sydney.  In contrast many of these cities appear to have considered rail options, some with published studies (two samples Halifax Nova Scotia and Victoria British Columbia) and found them not cost/effective for the size of the city - even when rail corridors already exist.

Does anyone else out there hear dem warning signal bells a ding-ding-dinging ??

Bonus reprise!  Can't remove it!!

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