Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Joining Mayor Parker in "Absolute vindication"

All over the world - bus systems are starting to get the investment appropriate to their potential capacity, flexibility, frequency, and ability to reach all corners of a city AND run express, as here in Xiaxen, where the busway is built as a viaduct snaking across and above the city. Photo thanks to ITDP

To be fair to Mayor Bob Parker newspapers rarely get it right and many reports misintepret or put things the wrong way.

I say this because it is hard to make much sense of a recent news item in The Press Parker renews tram-train call. [The Press 16 Oct 2010]

To quote "Bob Parker, buoyed by the ‘‘absolute vindication’’ of the light-rail policies of the new Auckland and Wellington mayors, said yesterday he hoped the first street-based tram trains would be running within five years".

First off, light rail in the normal sense of the word (modern trams) has made no foothold in Auckland or Wellington yet other than the decision by Auckland Regional Council in June to build a heritage tram line similar to, Christchurch, along the waterfront tourist area from the Britomart area. Presumably this competing for the same dollar, given one tram trip a holiday is probably plenty enough for most overseas tourists, potentially reducing patronage of Christchurch trams, albeit only marginally. Still no call for a buoyish grin here.

However I am presuming Bob Parker didn't use or mean the expression "light rail" in this particular context but "rail". Even so it is hard to see what "absolute vindication" exists in the rebuilding and upgrading of conventional commuter rail in Auckland and Wellington.

These projects have cost the New Zealand taxpayer over $2 billion dollars in capital works and between the two systems carry less than 21 million passenger trips a year* other words not counting the operating subsidies in tens of millions per year they carry 14% more passengers than Christchurch's Metro bus system which has achieved this with (to date) a few million dollars of infrastructure funding.

Only a trainspotter could see that as vindicating success versus local failure!!

Ok to be fair to the windies and the jaffas sure there is a strong case for commuter rail, and both systems now upgraded will attract much greater patronage, logically Auckland more so. According to former long time North Shore Mayor (and newly elected "supercity"councillor)
George Wood in a NZ Herald article in 2009 the Auckland Regional Council was originally advised that commuter rail would carry 25 million passengers per year by 2015, this was subsequently scaled back to 17 million by 2016, but by 2008 commuter rail had only reached an Auckland area ridership of 8.9 million.

But I am going be exceedingly generous and say Wellington and Auckland commuter rail systems grow steadily and averaged out across the next 25 years carry 40 million passengers a year, and in that time only a further $4 billion is spent on infrastructure - notably the underground Auckland rail link Britomart to Mt Eden ($1.5b) the Airport loop ($1 billion) and the - structural necessity - of replacing the Auckland Harbour Bridge in that time including rail tunnels worth ?? That would mean a billion passengers over 25 years, with the equivalent spread infrastructure costs of $6 per loading - a subsidy of $60 per week for each working week commuter.

But that is only spread costs not operating costs- lets face it - for rail these can be huge and only in one or two places, notably heavily urbanised Japan can commuter trains run at profit. For example the Parry Report investigating rail commuting in Sydney identified that less than a quarter of the RailCorp costs were recovered from fares (compared to currently 46% of Christchurch bus costs) and the $1.8 billion dollar a year subsidies consumed almost 5% of the New South Wales State budget.

Also, because rail is relatively inflexible most of these passengers have to walk, bus or car ride to or from stations at either or both ends, hugely adding to this figure. Greater Wellington Regional Council for instance has 4613 parking spaces at railway stations, many hectares that are either being paid for in fares or rates or alternately costing lost revenue. Or the same passengers also are carried by subsidised bus systems, with this adding to the "unseen" cost of rail, whilst given overall transit ridership an inflated figure. In contrast most bus passengers walk to the bus departure point and typically a smaller percentage need to transfer, given the greater span and route directions of bus than rail systems.

If we say, measured across 25 years of infrastructure spread costs plus operating costs, it will cost taxpayers $100 a week to carry each Auckland or Wellington rail commuter (Mon-Fri return trip or equivalent, including of course each school child) we might be getting closer to the truth. Of course the current Government is very aware of all this, in general, and is trying to crowbar the costs back onto the city's involved - Transport Minister Joyce has already told both cities they will have to pay for their own dreams - unlikely to get very far given the political clout (number of votes) of these cities.

The National Government agencies have already cut funding to cycleways in Christchurch, probably the best value for dollar of any transport expenditure (and the most unfairly disadvantaged pro-rata). It has refused funding to underground the Bus Exchange and said it will not finance light rail in Christchurch.

Hey, I agree with some thing that Bob Parker has said, for a change. I agree with the words "absolute vindication".

If we look at the huge cost of rail, the shape of Christchurch, the prospect of getting Government funding for cycle lanes let alone light rail, the decade of potential funding from the Labour Government wasted by previous councils saddled with the same disorientating rail fantasies so poorly researched and so inappropriate to our city size and shape, we do arrive at a place called "absolute vindication".

It is an "absolute vindication" of the realisation that a city which has the right shape to create a superb integrated bus and busway system could bypass all the old rail technologies and jump into the future by creating a very dynamic, cost effective, ecomically advantaging bus based public transport system. The potential here is to carry more people for less, and more effectively and gain an economic advantage in the marketplace over cities saddled with more expensive and limited systems. Unlike rail based systems where vehicles get outmoded, in style or technology and are often too expensive to replace or difficult to upgrade, bus based systems renew themselves naturally and continuously. Indeed under the tendering system most the capital costs are born by the private operators.

Time wasted commuting and transport costs could be far, far below other cities, certain corridors for busways could also be used judiciously by delivery systems. Direct link busways cutting from outer areas straight into the heart of the city could keep the city's heart alive and the city's identity cohesive. Beautiful big trunkline articulated buses could easily carry the patronage level of rail - with five minute departures instead of every 15 or 30 minutes - and still be be cheaper to run than rail. And offer faster home to work overall journey times in almost every case.

Such a system, recognises a range of technologies and attitude shifts is redefining buses across the world, and that previously low levels of investment in bus systems long limited buses to an inferior "social" role. Computer chip cards, GPS, new era diesel, transmission and electric tech, low floors, real time signage, pre-pay machines and purpose built lanes and segregated corridors all over the world are being used to eliminate the "when's it going to come?", stop-start, slow to load, high steps, bog down in traffic quality and unreliablity of previous bus systems.

Such a system in Christchurch could utilise multiple transfer stations and attractive node points, miniature platformed stations, an integrated pulsed system of buses running and criss-crossing with each other, with a centralised control room identifying and resolving any service glitches as soon as they occur. To link outer areas relatively low impact (in building and operation) five or six long smooth run corridors would allow virtually non-stop express articulated hybrid or electric buses, to carry large numbers into the city and major work and study zones at frequent intervals avoiding almost completely peak-hour congestion. Building on the city's shape, tight interactive route network and existing high quality bus system Christchurch could become a world leader in small city public transport frequency, accessibility and quality offering in the long run a bus every 5 or 10 minutes in every direction, predictable, symetrical, hugely reliable. It is a system that needs vision and thoroughly developed game plan but one, unlike any rail corridor system, that can be built piece by piece like a jigsaw, integrated with redevelopment or new roading patterns in each area in a cost effective way. A system which benefits every corner of the city.

Or we could waste $500 million plus running a quarter hourly tram between the university and the city blocking up Riccarton Road even further. Justified no doubt by circumstances of "absolute vindication".

- Mere Rabbit of the Burrow Council

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