Friday, June 3, 2011

The Magic of Light Rail

NZ in Tranzit - Opinion David Welch

Ah, the mysticism of Light Rail

In the debate going on about re-building Christchurch I love the way a lot of people say so brightly and with such certainty "we need Light Rail" (the capital letters in the tone of voice used)

From Mayor Bob Parker down (or is it sideways in a democracy) the words "light rail" are said as an incantation.

Rarely is thought is given to how or  where, or why a city that sprawls across a large radial clock face would gain much from creating a single line heading between A and B,  or K and S etc

If challenged the argument comes forth that light rail has greater capacity and only needs one driver to pull 200 people etc.

This ignores the easily measurable fact, short of fuel getting to $8 a litre or something very extreme, that we don't have the public transport catching  population along any particular corridor to generate the that capacity sufficiently to make light rail cost-benefit effective.

How do I know?...well it is just a loose version of what international transport consultants calculate more precisely...even the most attractive system in the world will stay within the parameters of typical percentiles of people catching public transport  in cities of similar size, income distribution, geographic footprint, and population density.

For a city of profile of Christchurch to attract more than 20% of commuter (peak usage) would be virtually unknown.

Generally light rail becomes economically viable only when public transport usage along a corridor starts getting above 7,000 an hour - to the best of my knowledge our busiest corridor is Riccarton Road at under 4,000 - and most of these passengers are not coming off Riccarton Road itself, but from a wide arc of suburbs further out, which would be impossible (into the billions) to service effectively by light rail.

Who but a few rail-heads would want to travel from Hei Hei or Wigram, or Lincoln, by bus to Church Corner or Ilam Uni stop and then have to transfer to light rail? Particularly if ways can be found to make the bus trip into town even quicker. Light rail in these circumstances might deceptively generate extra patronage on the rail line itself (notably x number of students catching trams twice as often as they currently catch buses) but it would almost certainly undermine funding for the over-all bus network which is already grossly underfunded in terms of effective infrastructure.

Which brings up the added important factor is our shape, the footprint of the city. Currently despite a great bus service (before earthquake), frequent services across the hours and days better than many other smaller cities,  Christchurch Metro was attracting less than 5% peak hour commuter patronage.....warning bells, wake up!! As much as this blogster,  NZ in Tranzit,  criticises Metro  for various reasons, "could do better" as the school reports so often read, I am also aware that city shape (relative speed of movement  across the whole city and ease of parking) is almost certainly the single biggest factor in keeping commuter usage lower than most ...and this over-arching factor certainly is not about to change just because light rail travels along one corridor.

The recent suggestion -  seemingly off the top of his head - by retailing sector patriarch Richard Ballantyne, of an Airport to Sumner light rail route, on comparable  international figures (not allowing for greater costs in Exchange rates and imported steel etc) would cost over a billion dollar but at best could only provide a tram every 15 minutes along one route. A fraction of the same funding could place the Airport in  a strategic pattern of quality upgraded buses in a pattern of six different directions (including Rangiora and Rolleston) with services to the city itself every five or 10 minutes!

Let's talk money ....

Judging by the cost of light rail in Adelaide, SA, Gold Coast QL, in Victoria BC and Waterloo Ont, and the short track already built in Tacoma Washington USA , the smallest comparable cities I can find building light rail, at very minimum $600 million would be needed for even 12km - equivalent distance to one half of one bus through-route.  (Note; earthquake recovery aside, the city's previous biggest infrastructure project the outfall project cost "only" $87 million)

It is worth noting the NZ Government is loaning KiwiRail $500 million to buy Auckland's new electric trains; as any mortgage paying home-owner knows borrowing large sums over can double or triple the totally amount paid back across a life-time. It should be noted cash up front for major light rail projects (indeed all transit infrastructure projects) flows a lot easier from the wealthy tax take of densely populated states or oil and mineral provinces and states such as Western Australia, Queensland, and Alberta, Canada...home to many of the oft quoted attractive rail and light rail projects. Read their histories and note large sum grants made at various points. I wouldn't think Christchurch could expect too many of these. Elsewhere in Europe or USA or Asia modern light rail systems are very rarely built in any city which does not have a metropolitan (commuting area) population over 2 million, or as in France and Germany, a large immediate regional and national tax payer base and input. Regions typically are smaller than Selwyn District but have populations into the millions, which is why public transport in Germany is usually funded 50% from national taxes; 40% from regional taxes and only 10% from the actual city taxes (rates).

NZ is somewhat more modest in resources and population (the equivalent land area to Te Wai Pounamu in Germany supports 60 million people to our 1 million!). The Government is loaning money to buy trains for the same reason most people don't buy a house for cash - there isn't enough money to go round, we just aren't that rich [but yes, look at our beautiful landscape and  generous living space, in the street, yard, house, on holiday, everywhere].

Generally Light Rail often seems to be something of the "spoiled kid" in the transit family requiring huge amounts of money and taking funding away from more comprehensive and more widely accessible bus services elsewhere in the same cities - such as Melbourne and Portland, Oregon, both of which have bus networks considered to be significantly inadequate.  For all the billions spent by Portland Oregon USA (metropop about 2.26 million, visited by our Mayor a year or so back) on light rail the city public transport system usage is about 50 trips per capita per year. This is only marginally above Christchurch at 43 trips per capita per year, and well below the public transport systems in the Ottawa-Gatineau metropolitan area (1.3 million metropop), almost entirely bus and bus rapid transit,  which is around 85 trips per capita per year.

Any fixed rail needs feeder buses, or park and ride, and when total costs per person, or to the city, and in home-destination (etc) journey times, are added together, this magic that needs to be so heavily propped up may not look quite so good. Except in semi-rural areas, major transit stations with huge car-parks or all day on-street parking can add considerable noise and traffic stress to surrounding neighbourhoods, also a cost someone pays in one way or other.

Whenever I question someone's endorsement of light rail I find there is absolutely no comprehension of the actual costs or demographic requirements needed to even begin to approach viability.

Yet in the real and actual world of what works and doesn't work, all these factors above and many more need to be taken into the equation.

With such huge sums needed to implement light rail, voters relying on fantasy and magic rather than sensible investigation could well add one more disaster for Christchurch.

The magic of light rail might be no more than making large sums of funding disappear for small return!

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