Wednesday, July 21, 2010

No accounting for tastes - wild wabbit again

Hop to it! Bus Rapid Transit Station in Santiago de Cali, Colombia - but it could be
Burwood Hospital or Avonhead mall,  if we  took the unseen potential of  buses as
seriously as  they do in South America, Africa, China, Canada Photo courtesy of ITDP

One thing I note with rail and light rail advocates is that they very rarely include capital costs in their descriptions of "successful rail projects". Hundreds of millions can be spent for systems that carry only a few million passenger trips a year, if that. That sort of patronage level is nothing in world terms. Allowing too that patronage is, often, mostly the same people making morning/evening (or after school commutes) each weekday, it can mean a lot of money is going down black hole of a rail tunnel to support relatively few commuters. Not surprisingly despite the huge investments in rail, in the same city the over-all proportion of people commuting to work by public transport barely alters.

Not counting the capital costs of major infrastructure is as if the cost of establishing the infrastructure is paid for by some benign God-like father figure. Actually it is not. It is paid by you and me. Or has to be found at the expense of some other project. Who would borrow a million to open a shop and then say he was successful, though his profits didn't cover the loan repayment costs? While I acccept public transport works to different rules and has social, environmental or cost saving (elsewhere) factors, I think there is definitely a limit to how far that sort of thinking can justifiably be applied. Sustainability must also stand on hard rock.

The operating costs of public transport are only partly met by fares paid by passengers - New Zealand's best farebox recovery level is that of Wellington's public transport system with (by world standards) the fairly high return of 51% of operating costs met by passenger payment. I believe in public transport operating costs do not incorporate major capital expenditure, al though they may include incremental costs such as repairing a rail culvert or removing a slipped hillside from a cutting.

Wellington is undergoing a long overdue upgrade of rail infrastructure costing over $550 million. Wellington commuter rail currently carries 11 million passengers a year and will doubtlessly grow as services are modernised and become more reliable, and as population in outlying areas such the Hutt Valley and Kapiti Coast grows. This said it is a well established mature system, already carrying very high levels of patronage by world standards and operating in an era where work places continue to decentralise. Athough Wellington commuter rail systems may eventually carry 20 million passengers a year in 25 years time, my suspicion is the average for a year measured across the whole period would be closer to 15 million.

Annualizing the capital costs of the $550 million upgrading over a 25 year period - presuming money came straight from taxes, nothing was borrowed (no interest) and not another penny was spent on Wellington rail infrastructure over the next 25 years, gives us a cost per year of $22 million. That is a relatively modest $1.50 per trip - for commuters making five weekly return trips a week $15 per week. I don't know what the average fare is in Wellington - on one hand it will be off set by child fares, and on the other raised by more longer distance rail fares than most systems, (guessing wildly) it will probably be in the order of $3-4 dollar a boarding, $30-40 per weekly commuter. Presuming half the cost is met, as now, out of local rates and national taxes that is another $15 to $20 a week for a 10 trip a week commuter. Let us say all regular commuters in Wellington (irrespective of age or fare paid) get an average subsidy from NZ taxpayers and local rate-payers of $30 a week minimum.

I imagine this is actually very conservative figure.

Annualized costs in Auckland, where much more capital outlay is needed to build the public transit systems that were never built while NZ was subsidizing massive motorway projects, are much higher. As a rough guide $600 million was spent double tracking rail and building new stations etc, and $600 million is needed to electrify rail and buy electric trains (albeit a loan from Government to KiwiRail for latter) and $300 million to build the northern busway (I'm not counting the $84 million from North shore ratepayers for the bus stations). That is a round sum, conservatively, of $1.5 billion. Auckland rail currently carries 8 million passengers a year. Unlike Wellington its a new system and in a city almost four times larger in poulation, let's say it averages 25 million passengers per year averaged across a 25 year infrastructure evaluation period. That is a annualised capital works cost per year of $60 million or around $2.50 per trip annualised cost per passenger - or for regular 10 trip a week commuters $25 a week minimum annualized "capital cost" subsidy. One probably equalled by the operating cost subsidy - in other words about $50 a week per regular passenger subsidy.

Again I suspect this is a very conservative figure.

These are figures for rail systems achieving some sort of benchmark figures of mass patronage. They are presumed on averages, retrospectively looking back from year 2035 - not on current annual subsidy rates which in Wellington's case are currently 50% higher, and Auckland, in the scenario as above, currently heading towards three times higher i.e $120 plus per each weekday regular commuter.

If Christchurch was to introduce a modest rail system between Rangiora and Rolleston at peak hours Mon-Fri only and at 30 minute intervals, this would probably require at least five diesel units, (i.e. that can be driven from either end) four in service and one to cover repairs and breakdowns, and double tracking large sections of the line from Rangiora to the city, new signal equipment etc and building or rebuilding and extending various stations. At  most optimistic calculations (I imagine), based on similar systems in NZ and elsewhere it might cost a $150 million to create - depending on new trains or recycled Auckland (ex Perth ) DMU - and in extreme optimism it might carry 1 million passengers a year (though more likely less than 300,000 given the small population bases it serves!). Even in the optimistic case the annualised capital cost of subsidy per weekly commuter would be somewhere in the order of $60 a week , and operating costs subsidy about $30 a week per passenger.

For what? A fairly klutzy old system, far too heavy (literally and figuratively) for a progressive modern city, a service that doesn't run at weekends or evenings (couldn't afford to) and only runs every 30 minutes, means most people have to transfer bus/rail or rail/bus enroute and directly benefitting probably less than 5% of the population. Man crazy stuff from rail nutters!!

Why not run luxury coaches with armchair seating and wi-fi?  Departing every 5 minutes during peak hours from both Rolleston and Rangiora, some running to or via the airport, some running via a Belfast-City 12 minute busway , some via Northlands, some via The Palms - it will offer far more relaxing journeys, door to door and the total cost across 25 years will still come in way below the $150 million plus operating millions in in operational subsidies. Think rail, build bus, go hog wild!

Ok these are just wild wabbit figures I know. But even in the wildest, vaguest way, people (tax payers, greenies, rail fans, you and me) need to keep in mind the real costs. Of course in none of these cities have I mentioned a high portion of these commuters must travel to to station in a car (hidden car parking space costs borne by ratepayer? - Metlink Wellington astoundingly has 4613 (free?) commuter car parks) or by bus, and/or travel from the rail station by bus, adding another $20 a week in subsidized operating costs etc; that is the nature of rail, its linear nature ensures relatively small numbers of people are within easy walking distance.

Although a good busway network in Christchurch - with sections of segregated road, or underpasses or flyovers, and a couple of dozen proper keypoint enclosed waiting platform level stations, with computerised articulated buses and roads resurfaced to smooth cruising levels, and a (railway like) computerised network integration system might cost $200 million plus, it would directly benefit about 85% of the city, potentially carry over 10 million passengers plus a year (on top of current patronage) revitalise the central city and have real subsidy costs way below Auckland and Wellington ratios.  The city that jumped into the future!

I imagine this is a fairly conservative picture of the real benefits.

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