Sunday, October 30, 2011

Getting around the one track mindset of city hall

Diesel railcar in suburban service in Adelaide  Photo Wikimedia Commons

I have just made an updated version of the submission I made to the Central City Draft Plan to the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) Draft Recovery Plan calling on CERA to pressure the City Council to include Busways and commuter rail in the $4 million study of light rail.

To me it seems absurd that city councilors with no obvious background depth in public transport principles, accounting or technology have already ditched by far the most established forms of public transport - systems used by over 95% of all public transport systems/users in the world* - in favour of one far more expensive and far less common, particular in CANZUS and in cities under a million population, light rail.

Most of the ideas included in that submission to CERA have already appeared in my blogs over the last few weeks, but I expand here why I believe that for commuter rail to have viability in Christchurch it needs an expanded route system. (ps I have also updated the previous route map to make the suggested  link to Woodend/Pegasus more sensible and easily accessible to residents from both these settlements and north Kaiapoi)

Essentially the populations of the out rigger towns - the ones where longer distances from the city are likely to encourage rail commutes is too small. Combining Rolleston, Rangiora and Kaiapoi and other bits and pieces only comes to about 35, 000... and that is an exceedingly generous figure! This is only one sixth the "out rigger" population of the Greater Wellington region where approximately 90,000 live up the Kapiti Coast and 115,000 live up the Hutt Valley. Yes our own peripheral towns will grow (and commuter rail will foster growth) but still remain relatively small.   In themselves I believe far too small to sufficiently support a rail system only serving limited facilities.

On the other hand between Papanui and the city; Hornby and the city, Hillsborough and the city the number of people using rail to get into the city is not likely to great just because the ratios of distance and wait and walk to time saved would just be too cumbersome for most and in no way time competitive with car or suburb-to-city bus use. Of course some of the commuters from these same stops will go to workplaces other than the city centre, such as Chapmans Road or Middleton. Nonethless unless the line passes through sufficient suburbs and settlements of dense population and easy access to rail further out from their destination this number will remain too small. Middle distant catchment areas such as Belfast or Islington, Templeton are so thin, or still too thin yet, such relatively small settlements they would not provide a big user group to boost or to help carry services/spread costs either.

As for Lyttelton, once the busiest commuter route in the former suburban rail network there is nothing to warrant commuter rail now. The daily population no longer consists of 700- 1000 waterside workers, 750 ferry passengers twice a day, 500-1000 seamen in port on 20 or so heavily crewed ships for three weeks while ships were unloaded by crane and slings, or barrowed bags, nor close to 4000 residents with no road tunnel before 1964!  Why would anyone nowadays want to catch a train to Lyttelton and then have to walk a kilometre up a steep street in all weathers just to get to the shops, let alone houses, when a bus (two routes)  is just as fast and takes them much further up the hill?  This is quite apart from the huge amount of coal trains, log trains and container traffic that already has to be managed through the rail tunnel choke-point.

Ostensibly "light rail" might be able to use the road tunnel, but what a huge disruption trying to build that at night, what a huge cost to implement, what heap of dead running, and for what? A population at last census of 3062 in an area of constrained land growth and in Diamond Harbour (via Ferry) and an area that gets many visitors (or did) but usually linked to car use, campervan tourists, evening social trips or Sunday drivers etc. 

When I saw the City Council in its Central City Draft plan  including Lyttelton in the multi-billion "light rail future network"  it just made me laugh. Extraopolating the distance from the Riccarton Road proposal to a light rail roughly Waltham-Opawa-Heathcote-Lyttelton it would cost three quarters of a billion dollars to serve less than 5% of the city's population. It makes as much or as little sense to run light rail to Beckenham or Parklands.

So my thinking is commuter rail can only really be warranted, worthwhile and successful if it links lots of residential areas (including those planned to build in direct relationship to rail access), if it is a system that particularly addresses longer journeys and the if the rail  itself also serves lots of traffic generator points.

In this scenario at almost every station people are getting off AND getting on.That can only happen if rail services multiple points and multiple functions and does so intensely, not just carrying commuters from the outskits to city centre and back again patterns, even if this would still be the single most common trip pattern. The system will need continuous patronage in all directions, and short hop trips within longer journeys and the fare structure to foster this, people going tofro a major employment zone or shopping or sports facility and/or tofro a relatively dense residential area, all facilities within easy rail station access or linked to co-ordinated frequent bus services via the station.

A comparison might be made with The Orbiter, the city's most successful bus route which even when it only has a handful of people on board at any one point may be picking up the equivalent of a  full bus load of passengers every circuit. Public transport transport typically operates around a quarter to a third full, that is its nature by virtue of tidal commuter flow at peak hours and maintaining sufficient spread of services to attract commuter traffic and meet social goals.  Even a full load on a typical peak-hour city-suburban train, tram or bus route doesn't achieve full loading until after it is half-way to its destination; or is reduced to half a load before it gets halfway out from the city towards its terminii.

Ideally a pattern of land use and employment zone and recreational facility and residential development that fosters an even flow of passengers getting on and off is the key, the same seat is sold more than once. A half filled bus or train operates each trip at a patronage level beyond at its actual seating number capacity yet is rarely over-full, or crowded because all the passengers are not on at the same moment. I do not believe this latter goal can be achieved successfully enough with the current inverted "T" railway lines from North and South that meet at Addington. There would not be enough locations, a rich enough network of connections served or journey options, to feed this constant process. So many Christchurch residents would have to walk, drive, bus or bike so far to access a station on the current route pattern, they may as well travel direct to work by the same mode - and the they would!  Joining the three spurs to a loop and adding another  tp Restons, through purpose build new subdivisions with concentrated hubs near stations, ticks vastly more boxes, including sports stadium/event centre direct access and a link to the airport as both an airport and major employment zone.

This said, including the option of rail to the airport is certainly no instant panacea, it has not done so well in other CANZUS cities, it does not automatically attract a huge percentage of travellers. Sensitivity to luggage portage, shuttle bus or trolley connection, and other issues (friends coming to say goodbye or greet etc) needs to be well factored into any design and fare structure.

A thoughtful article in the NZ Herald last year by Michael Barnett -questioning Auckland's push for rail to airport - noted  "Unchallenged evidence tabled at the Auckland Regional Council some years ago projected the passenger mode share for a CBD-Airport rail service would be, at best, about 6 per cent. This is similar to airports in Australia and the United States and makes no difference to the numbers of cars going to the airport.". It is my understanding that regular commuters, working at airports, often form the backbone of such services.

However Christchurch does have one advantage, the city's airport is not out on a limb, not out 25km or more from the city centre, but sits neatly on the edge of town where it can be integrated into a passing train service. We can take advantage of that. The airport averages 115,000 passengers a week, 5000 people work on the airport campus. Probably almost as many work in Sheffield Crescent only a 5 minute bus trip away. According to a New Zealand Transport Agency pamphlet on the Western Corridor Road 37,000 vehicles a (working) day head into Christchurch from the north through Belfast. Building the western corridor around the back of Belfast to link up with Johns Road will reduced that amount by 17,000 vehicles. Only 10% of these travel beyond Hornby, so adding in the classic 1.2 passengers per car that source delivers about 18,000 commuters to try to woo to rail.

There will be an over lap in all these figures but let's assume rail can win 5% of the traffic from these sources, averaged daily. Rounded up that's 850 air passengers and perhaps another 100 friends etc going to say Goodbye or meet and greet; 250 of the 5000 workers in the area; 900 of those commuters traveling in from the North into (currently) Johns Road. In all about 2000 commuters a day, with two trips (there and back) applying for the majority....let's say 3,500 passengers trips a day utilising the new link Redwood to airport. That is, before we count in new population in the Upper Styx area where subdivisions can be built to foster rail usage, if only to shop at the airport shopping complex, The Spitfire Centre;  or factor in the rail patronage of those travelling from Papanui, Rolleston or Heathcote etc to work industrial areas close to the airport such as Sheffield Crescent; or those using the park-and-ride at Russley to access the CBD or Woolston/Opawa industrial area; or those traveling tofro Islington Park industrial area; or full trains to a Saturday test match at Addington City Stadium; or Broomfield kids traveling to Hornby High School et etc

It would seem about a 5000 trips a day could be generated from this link on a relatively conservative base of 5% of likely traffic using rail. Of course the idea is to grow far more, and ideally start getting 10-15% using rail, from existing facilities or new ones. However there is nothing more short-sighted to me than "talking up" public transport figures and then wasting too much money on a single system that could have been more effectively spent elsewhere. The same services not based on reality are then liable to get cut back or canned completely at the next big recession. Few things can waste public money faster than an ineffective public transport system, pumping out excessive losses unrelentingly day after day,

Allowing for quieter weekends (apart from  later Sunday air passengers and big events) that might allow us to estimate a bottom-line of 30,000 trips a week, or 1.5 million passenger trips a year, generated by including that section of track. If oil was to go through the roof - doubling or tripling as has been predicted once the current plateau [ceiling?] of production of 75 billion barrels per day starts to decline - this is likely to rise, exponentially. Anyone building rail in this era is well advised to build long platforms! This increased patronage allows/demands increased frequency and in turn stimulates further patronage gains.

But even assuming all these oil price rise predictions are bosh, 1.5 million trips per year seems like it might be a feasible start point to build a 10 kilometre link which I would guess would  probably cost (with various overbridges apart from the Memorial Avenue one already included in roading budget) under $200 million to build,  Redwood to Islington. (And probably the same amount again to upgrade the existing corridors, add a spur to Prestons and build a central rail/bus centre in Sydenham or Addington).

If patronage never grew much beyond 1.5 million trips per year, this link would still generate about 40 million passenger trips across 25 years, as well as generating freight benefits,  tourist support and city imagery benefits, and regional rail benefits. This gives an immediate cost benefit ratio which might give us a spread fixed cost per passenger trip of under $4 per loading plus operating costs plus a lot of added intangibles nonetheless worth millions of dollars. This seems fairly similar to rail elsewhere, and probably comparable to car use in real costs to society (though who can count the millions of lives damaged by global warming in which heavy carbon generated by cars plays such a significant part).

I also imagine some of that amount will also be regained by the classic non-resident (non-Metro Card) cash fare from the airport being higher for tourists, as operates in most cities.  Even at its lowest (as on current bus services to the Christchurch airport at $7 non-resident) typically fares are two to three times the standard fare for the same distance.

Of course all this calculating is just wild guestimate!! I could be miles out. But it is good to try to get some fix on how realistic things may or may not be. Everybody also knows big projects can skyrocket in costs from earlier estimates.  But I do know good public transport is very much about getting it right in the various details, careful conservative estimates [albeit with room to grow exponentially] not just fanciful images and wishful thinking.

Obviously the whole "loop and spurs" commuter rail for Christchurch concept would need to be looked at by professional consultants from one of the big international transport engineering firms that has a long history in such matters -  just a pity that our city council has already committed ** $4 million to studying light rail instead!

* I am basing this on the fact that the world's top public transport federation (to which most major NZ public transport bodies also belong) the UITP says over 80% of the world's public passenger traffic is carried by bus PLUS the enormous size of patronage and number of rail and subway systems in the world's 200  largest cities, contrasted to the comparatively few light rail systems and even fewer large passenger carriers (over 100 million passengers per year).

** Carried by a comparatively thin margin 6-4 with three more votes absent, the decision also dropped the predetermination of a  light rail route, city to the University, proposed in the Central City Draft plan.  Historically the great expense of light rail versus proportion of residents served has made light rail a particularly hot potato in the low density CANZUS countries, with debates and studies etc spanning years and unseating or installing Mayors and Councils as tides change - eg Honolulu, Winnipeg, Kitchener-Waterloo [Canada]. Cities in oil or mineral rich areas Edmonton, Calgary, Gold Coast City, Perth etc often had substantial grants (gifts)  from Provincial or State Governments towards light rail and other expensive public transport infrastructure and appear to have not encountered the same degree of local tax payer resistance.

1 comment:

  1. What I don't understand is how with the recent Earthquake they aren't considering building a rail spur into or adjacent to the CBD!

    For example; at the site of the New Bus exchange they could easily build a brand new ~4 platform Terminus with two-track spur and safeguard any future expansions/extensions. And the could also easily get a compulsory acquisition on the Mercedes dealership on Blenheim rd in Addington and demolish it in the interests of re-laying the connection. Then they could utilize the existing rail corridors in the three directions for brand new stations every 800m-1km initially as far as Rolleston, Lyttelton and Belfast.
    The SA & SD carriages that will become surplus from the Auckland network once that gets its EMU's could be used in a push-pull arrangement with Diesel Locos.
    Integrate ticketing with the existing bus network, rework the outer bus network as feeders to the new train system and maybe even integrate the CBD tramway you've got the nucleus of a decent PT system.
    And that could be easily improved and expanded in the future with extensions to Kaiapoi once that gets rebuilt, getting dedicated DMU's (and possibly electrification and EMU's), reestablishing the Prebbleton branch and maybe extending out to Lincoln, then maybe looping the rail to the outer western areas and maybe extending the existing tramway to the surviving Eastern and Southern suburbs.

    It all seems so obvious to me, and I really don't understand why the council is persisting with trying to start with expensive train-trams or modern tramways that will offer inferior services and that the government is highly unlikely to allow funding for.