Sunday, November 6, 2011

Heritage trams - out of place in the new Christchurch?

Temporary shop built in containers - stylistic harbinger of a very different city?

I was in that part of the central city of Christchurch now re-opened to the public the other evening. The temporary Cashel Mall shopping centre built in containers was fantastic, really worked. Hopefully when new building's are built they can capture that same mix of open space and intimate lane feel as well. It is also possible to walk around much of the Central city west of Colombo Street in this area - not least because so much of the land is vacant, cleared, gravelled or even tar sealed into car park.

In this area there are perhaps a third to a half of the buildings still standing, mostly nondescript and/or modern. What comes home to any Christchurch citizen must surely be this, that there will be virtually no buildings of historic character left in the central city east of the Avon River.  One or two 1930s buildings, nice enough but probably barely noticed in the past, and the cute little wooden shop Shand's Emporium, in wood, build 1853 are all that seems to remain in the area around which I walked with a friend. Far from from being a "heritage city" we will have fewer older buildings in the business area than most other small to medium cities.

On the other hand the area west of the Avon, with the Arts Centre, Museum, Christ's College etc and many fine old wooden houses remains more or less intact, with its overall integrity and needs "nothing more" than a few tens of millions and several years  to restore. There seems to me to be a much more distinct dividing line now, between new city and old city and the importance of maintaining the integrity of the whole Arts Centre zone can only become more important.

Less important I suspect are the graceful old heritage trams that have operated in Christchurch for the last 16 years. These had a natural synergy with the older character of Christchurch, they created an iconic image and a binding of the old and new together.  The contrast between old and new - such as the photo in the sidebar of this blog, a tram heading towards high rise buildings,  had its own energy. But now - New Regent Street aside - in an entirely new city I suspect such ornate old trams will appear oddly out of place. Without older buildings they will appear slightly pathetic, sad, like some poor old soul with dementia wandering, looking for a past that no longer exists.

The earthquakes and their devastation have changed many things and one of them may be the relevance of heritage trams in the city centre.

One of the problems for locals long before any earthquake was that trams played no useful role for residents. Although the tramway operations added value to the tourists, stopping and starting and sight seeing commentary provided, they were so slow as to be utterly useless as a form of public transport, even with a resident annual pass. I bought an annual ticket one year, mistakenly thinking I could add this to my transport options, traveling Cathedral Square  to Arts Centre or Hagley Park (etc) instead of walking, but it was so painfully slow I never used it again. Information in the commentary was old hat to locals, the long stops and intrusive voice (for me) just tedious. And I could walk the distance twice as fast.

I have always suspected that the continuous expansion of the Heritage Tramway in Christchurch, with all its likelihood of reducing returns to the operating company ( it all takes wages and resources to go the extra distance when the added route section unlikely to attract significantly more tourists than the existing one) was also an attempt to build a future light rail circuit -  before the city had actually agreed to build light rail! And it was being done cheaper than might otherwise be the case because the line building budgets were slipped into other upgrades,  such as the resurfacing of High Street and Cashel Mall.

This said, how modern trams/streetcars could be inserted into that scenario was for me the curious question. With so few passing loops, and such ponderously slow tourist trams in the way, how could a brisker schedule of modern circuit trams running simultaneously be created ? Also how could a free tram or minimal cost tram designed to circulate local shoppers operate without significantly cutting into the profits of the heritage trams?  Most travelers are keen to pick up hints from other travelers, especially those on backpacker or a mum, dad and the kids budget. I can imagine talk in Picton motor camp or an Auckland bed and breakfast along the lines  "Oh when you're in Christchurch  just catch a normal tram, it's fraction of the cost and you see all the same things as the old ones, you just don't get to ride on a vintage tram or a commentary".

In the new circumstances it would seem to me somewhat irrelevant to operate Heritage Trams through a consistently non-heritage central city, east of the Avon. On the other hand much of the work for a light rail (street car type) has been done.

If Christchurch wants to score above its weight - hugely above its weight in transport sophistication -  I suggest reversing the estimated expenditure pattern for public transport put forward in the Central City Draft plan. This was  $40 million for the whole city wide 250 km (?) bus network [offering next to nothing in support infrastructure !]  and $406 million for light rail - for one length of 7.5km light rail !

I suggest Christchurch gets its own light rail variant - the modern streetcar - by putting the $40 million into finishing a revised central city tram circuit and buying three or four lightweight, low floor, wide door, modern light rail vehicles for a central city circulator system. These will cost about $5 million each leaving about  $20 million for track extension. And then, sensibly,  put the $406 million side of the equation into a region wide commuter rail and busway corridor system and - not least - into the dozens of bus infrastructure projects that need doing (intersection widening at key congestion points for added straight through bus lanes, intelligent road signals that read bus needs etc).

The Heritage trams might continue to operate across the wider route network, but just say four trips a day, a sort of advertising circuit, with most Heritage tram rides on the existing circuit which covers new Regent Street and the Arts Centre with other added value thrown in, as specifically tourist trams focused on our remaining "heritage zone", Hagley Park and the Botanic Gardens. It could even travel in some part into the gardens or Hagley Park.  In these circumstances it does not seem to me to be so incongruous, not a defining image of the city, just an occasional visitor to the new city, a reminder of the heritage area west of the CBD for tourists

The rest of the city tramway could be recreated in a shorter faster circuit - Cashel Mall then up Oxford Terrace to Victoria Square, then back onto existing tram tracks or a new circuit across Tuam Street to the bus station.

If commuter rail became a fact utilising the area (possibly the huge building) between Colombo and Durham Street overbridges in Sydenham for a station, as previously advocated in NZ in Tranzit, the streetcar style modern trams could not only run to the station but being electric and non-polluting could also run right through part of the building itself, at floor level or on a mezzanine. Running trams every five minutes to the city centre would offer continuous rail access with one short walk (10 metres across the platform from train to tram) from as far afield as Rangiora, Rolleston or even Picton, Dunedin and Timaru right into the very heart of Christchurch. Frequency is speed in public transport and offering virtually a  "no wait" commuter rail or longer distance train-to-tram transfer for incoming passengers would be a key factor in the city centre's recovery.

The over-all effect - the new Christchurch would have a modern light rail system and morale boosting image; the old Christchurch would retain a presence and link to the city centre. Both systems would logically be operated by the one tramway company, as now under a single contracted  agreement,  without or without  subsidies as determined etc.

As with commuter rail I am now advocating a rail based solution, this time for central city!!

This is highly ironic because I believe - know -  buses can do every form of public transport much faster, frequently and more effectively, in multiple directions, if given the sort of financial support enjoyed by rail, and at half the cost and twice the quality of service.  Certainly there are parts outside this loop that could be as well or better handled by our existing shuttle buses, with an upgrade.

This said, I accept people get a buzz off rail systems and will use it more.  This suggestion, light rail in city centre only, seems like a win-win situation, offers something to all parties.
It is a solution that would allow  the city  - long distracted by the fantasy of light rail - to get on with the REAL TASK so long sidelined by repeated administrations, the task of moving our public transport system as much as possible off [congested ] roads and into the 21st century.  


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