Saturday, August 28, 2010

Snakes on the track - Christchurch-Auckland rail corridor upgrade

"But hey, like Johnny Cash " I hear the train a comin'; it's rollin' 'round the bend...."

I don't know much about rail at all but it would seem to me that if the Christchurch-Auckland Rail Corridor  is going to be a real goer surely a primary need will be to double-track much of the line heading out through the north of Christchurch"

Did anyone else in Christchurch feel a minor ground tremor back in May when the Government announced the $4.6 billion attempt to return rail to some almost level of commercial viability including focussing on long haul freight on the "Auckland-Christchurch corridor".

What a funny feeling that last expression gave me!

For years I've been a mainlander and studying (in my own way) developing transport infrastructure, mostly passenger transit orientated, in New Zealand. In the last decade this mainly consists of reading about new motorways, ring roads, bridges, transmission gulleys, commuter trains, electrification, etc in Auckland and Wellington!! Here in Te Wai Pounamu we have had our self-funded [first] Bus Exchange; the somewhat bizarre elimination of trains from Christchurch's centre to a rather strange tourist train only station, without free directional flow in Addington; the upgrading to more and bigger West Coal coal trains and the impressive Otira viaduct and associated work - yet none of this huge compared to what Maui's fish has gobbled up from the national kete!

Not much seems to happen in the sleepy south! All the money spent on transport infrastructure has flowed north (our contributed share, pro rata, a few hundred million). The feeling for me, for a very long time, has been New Zealand in the world of tran-sport is a game of two halves. But one of the teams forgot to turn up. When Stephen Joyce used the expression "Auckland-Christchurch rail corridor" it almost felt like, hey, someone remembers we are part of the NZ economy!!

To hear that the Government was committed to spending big money in the South, on the Southern motorway, was quickly followed by a second earthquake - the strange concept that Christchurch should be economically brought into conscious committed rail connection with Te Ika a Maui (where 75% of the population live). A major investment is to be made in to upgrading rail ferries and lines to reclaim much of the long haul trade railways have lost (down to only 18% of this freight sector nowadays), on the "Auckland-Christchurch corridor" - this mysterious term that marries Auckland and Christchurch in one phrase, so close the warmth of each other breath is felt, with a hyphen for a witness and a few hundred kilometres of steel rail for a wedding ring.

It sounds great to me, foccussing rail on long haul and bulk loading is doing what rail does best! By my reading, all this sort of "branch lines to little towns stuff" was already on the way out, even as far back as the 1930s. Rail used in that way was ridiculously expensive and clumsy, many times more so for a country with such low density as New Zealand, but the only option in earlier decades of settlement for many back country areas. From about 1930 onwards improvements in roading and the evolution of the diesel engine into the mainstay of trucking and bussing rendered using heavy rail infrastructure to pull only handful of wagons or one or two passenger carriages absurd. This is even more so given in both small freight and passenger traffic, rail offers only a part journey. Much extra support from smaller vehicles with rubber tyres is needed for small use rail to even operate, real costs even higher.

As will be obvious from past raves, although I read all the local books and mags about rail and feel the normal human being's awe for these mighty machines, and get shivers up my spine with steam whistles blowing, I am not ultimately a rail spotter.

But hey, like Johnny Cash, " I hear the train a comin'; it's rollin' 'round the bend...."

I don't know much about rail at all but it would seem to me that if the Christchurch-Auckland Rail Corridor (let's get these names in the right order!!) is going to be a real goer surely a primary move will need to be double-tracking much of the line heading out through the north of Christchurch. No serious 24-hour a day modern urban freight corridor is going to be competitive relying on that rather anaemic single track up through Bryndwyr and Papanui, and again after Styx Bridge, through Belfast.

And where is the politician in Christchurch who will go door to door selling the idea to these inner areas near the existing line (which include top of the market housing) the city's need for rail to double-track and the line to become a much more active industrial corridor; or where is the Green shine council  to tell the cyclists on that marvellous cycleway no more, "on yer bike but not around here", we need the land for double tracking.

I don't know anything about rail but I think the case for a new double traced western entry corridor into Christchurch via Styx Mill area, via the Airport and down to Islington - before curving back towards Hornby, the city and Lyttelton - is surely stronger now than ever. It allows top, latest, rail infrastructure technology to be built from scratch and protects and enhances Christchurch's economy, its major export sectors and guarantees rapid reliable access tofro Lyttelton. With the existing Bryndwr-Papanui- Styx Mill corridor it creates and protects a very useful potential passenger train loop - with three spurs, for future generations.

I strongly believe whoever gets elected to Christchurch City Council needs to begin immediate talks with KiwiRail and Ontrack (does the latter still exist?) and with Christchurch International Airport Limited and needs to sound out if there is value and viability in creating a western city entry corridor from Islington to Styx Mill for rail freight purposes, one which might also open the door to a modest passenger regional rail system, and commuter system, if not mmediately one day. Upto the 1980s railways held such a corridor that ran to Sockburn, but this was was sold off in the new right's "fire-sale the family jewells" is a difference era, a different location, a different economy. I am sure it warrants examination anew.

This is the tail of an upgraded line stretching alway from Auckland to Christchurch . I presume it would cost a couple of hundred million plus (no rail is cheap) but if KiwiRail and other parties saw a good balance of cost-benefit ratio in this, then it seems to me there is some small chance, then and possibly only then, to piggyback a modest regional and commuter rail system onto the added line capacity, one which could be built simultaneously with new infrastructure.

The line through Bryndwr and Papanui might then revert to be used only for commuter trains, part of a very useful loop allowing access tofro central city in various patterns from both north and south. In contrast heavy freight could almost always run past the western outskirts of the city and under an enclosed trench by-passing under the airport area.

My arrogance in suggesting this is aburd I know; at least I can claim some background in the bus industry but what would I know about rail?? Bloody hell mate I don't know much at all.

But I do know new industrial subdivisions are already being built at Islington and near the airport at Dakota Park and along Orchard Road which might benefit from the added rail access factor; or they could severely compromise future options. What makes this issue particularly poignant to me is that almost all the land needed is not built upon, yet, is still in open farmland already tagged for factory and subdivision; some of it lies in the airport noise zone and seems admirably suited to a rail corridor, which can if need be, itself be noise reduced by using embankments.

How sickening it would be to find the city - despite all its rail fantasies - never deeply examined this possibility. And this scenario of blindeness seems quite possible, given the past decade when opportunities were let slip away for lack of common rapid transit strategy. Indeed ratepayers are still waiting to hear when this city is going to get a comprehensive forward thinking strategic rapid transport plan - more than buses (even on lanes) and more realistic than unanchored rail fantasies.

The upgraded Christchurch-Auckland rail freight corridor will snake its way up to Auckland, funding already assured.  I think it is a snake Christchurch needs to grab by the tail!


  1. Unless I am a psychic influenced by forces beyond my ken (unlikely) the several references to earth tremors and earthquakes in this posting are just pure chance!! (Exactly one week later a 7.1 earthquake hit Christchurch at 4.35 am and did billions of dollars of damage to Christchurch - by some miracle for such a large earthquake no lives were lost)

  2. Unfortunately, an aftershock of 6.3 richter scale but a ground acceleration rate rarely occurring anywhere in the world, occurred six days after I added the above note. It cause huge devastation and took 182 lives. Again, the reference to a "second earthquake" above feels uncanny but I am sure is just coincidental.