Monday, November 14, 2011

NZ passenger rail projects struggle for traction

The last month or two has certainly been a bit of a roller coaster ride for those who support implementing new light rail and commuter rail projects around New Zealand.

Columnist Chris Hutching in the The National Business Review on 20th October said that the CERA (Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority) submission to the Central City Draft Plan made it clear they did not buy a lot of the Council agenda, including height restrictions on new buildings. Based on his analysis of the submission process Hutching noted "light rail is also highly unlikely" in Christchurch and its  recovery scenario

Despite the word "submission", CERA is very much the chief driver in this situation and the City Council the junior player in this scenario with light rail funding unlikely unless CERA is in the cab and Gerry Brownlee is pushing from behind (with a fat wallet ready to split open).

Meanwhile in Auckland, on October 28th Mayor Len Brown put forward a possible funding scenario for the proposed central city rail link, to built mostly underground linking Britomart to Mount Eden station, at a cost of $2.4 billion.  According to Brown this project could be funded 16.6 per cent by ratepayers, 2.5% by developers, 30.9% by "alternate transport funding" [presumably he means congestion fees or motorway tolls or similar ] with taxpayers footing the other 50% of the cost. This cost split was immediately rubbished by Minister of Transport Stephen Joyce's office, which has consistently disputed the business case for the rail tunnel.

According to a report in the NZ Herald, "Brown has previously floated congestion and network fees as an alternative way to fund transport projects while keeping rates low. The fees were all but rejected by Joyce who said motorists already contribute enough to public transport through fuel taxes. "

However response in the same fortnight from the other major political parties has been much more positive . The Greens announced they would meet 60% of the cost out of Government coffers; Labour announced it would fund the 50% and meet the costs by dropping Joyce's Puhoi to Wellsford "Holiday Highway" our-lane Auckland as far as Puhoi at a cost of $1.2 , part of the Roads of National Significance strategy. To pay for the rail link, the party would scrap National's plans for the new highway north of Auckland, which would cost nearly $1.7 billion and has little identified cost-benefit return.

Labour favours a $320 million alternative that includes a Warkworth bypass and improvements to the existing road. he alternative road and the rail link would be less than what National budgeted for the highway.

Labour also announced it will investigate establishing a Hamilton-to-Auckland commuter rail service, extra funding to promote coastal shipping, and re-evaluating National's roads of national significance program.

The recent revival of interest in establishing commuter rail between Hamilton-Auckland followed a petition in 2009 signed by over 11,000 Waikato residents. A logistical problem is that there would be no room for a peak hour trains to travel into Britomart. An alternate proposal to use the platforms (with a basic but expensive make-over) of the former Auckland railway station at The Strand taking some of the shine off the proposal.. As always with rail projects relying on significant local funding it is hard to win wide support for a narrow corridor of line where the alignment of which or the purpose can only serve a small portion of the population.
Transport Auckland has said the project does not deliver enough benefit to Aucklander's to be considered within their areas of governance and was not prepared to help fund a two year trial, which anyway offered only two trips a day [just one of the several long distance coach service providers between Auckland and Hamilton, InterCity Coachlines, claims it offers 23 services a day to choose from] .

The rail plan that was proposed calculated as many as (or should that be, as little as?) 130 regular commuters a day using this Waikato to Auckland rail.  This said, even this might be unduly optimistic.When the previous passenger rail service was withdrawn in 2001 it was reported in the Waikato Times (June 21 2001) only 12 people were commuting every day between the two cities.

In the Waikato itself, constituent district council Waipa said they could not support the costs for so limited benefit, Waikato Regional Council  made its position clear by making no budgetary allowance for the project in the current 2012-2022 ten year plan, saying it was no go unless funding partners came forward.  A few days later Hamilton City Council gave it the thumbs down as well.

Also struggling for its existence is the Capital Connection which is part of the KiwiRail long distance rail system, but has acted essentially as a commuter train between Palmerston North and Wellington. As with many long distance commuter services the costs of the early stages of the longer run, where fewer passengers typically board, are in large part met by the greater number of shorter trip passengers boarding as the train gets within easier commuting distance of the metropolitan hub. In this case it has been the passengers boarding in the Waikanae area, until recently beyond  easy access to the terminus of Wellington's electrified commuter rail, that have boosted the Capital Connections operating income. Since the extension of the commuter rail to Waikanae, Capital Connection patronage has slumped below viable margins.

According to a recent report in the Dominion Post " While the northbound service from Wellington to Palmerston North had remained largely unaffected, southbound passenger numbers had continued to drop. About 630 people now catch the Capital Connection every day, down from 708 a year ago. KiwiRail is monitoring the service and if patronage does not pick up options such as subsidising or closing it would be considered. ....[and this is real down to the wire reality!].... The service needs an extra 38 passengers per day for the service to break even".

In general despite a huge investment into the hundreds of millions Wellington commuter rail has yet to start growing a bigger patronage. In August the Dominion-Post reported  Wellington City Council's submission to the regional transport plan saying;

"Wellingtonians are high users of public transport relative to other cities in New Zealand, but patronage has not been growing in recent years, partly as a result of reliability issues and fare increases," the submission says. Though the regional land transport strategy (RLTS) aimed to increase annual passenger trips from 36 million in 2009-10 to at least 50 million trips in 2020, the region's public transport patronage had only grown slightly since 2005.

"Achieving the RLTS goals for public transport will require major improvements in how public transport services are delivered. While major improvements are now being made to rail infrastructure and services, two-thirds of Wellington's passenger transport trips are made by bus, and improvements in how bus services operate are also critical."

It also noted how the need to increase fares to cover this big expansion had reduced the accessible pricing image of public transport "However, figures from a quality of life survey show the proportion of Wellingtonians who believe public transport is affordable has plunged from 72 per cent in 2003 to 46 per cent last year".

At the last  Census, in 2006,  17% of greater Wellington residents indicated they used public transport to travel to work, a figure only about 12% greater than the percentage in 1996. However the 2006  This compares with just 7% in Auckland and 4% in Canterbury. Whether it is the constant breakdowns and delays caused by the run down older infrastructure or the interruptions caused by the introduction of the new system, there would rarely be a week where Wellington doesn't have service problems or suspensions. The new Matangi trains in particular offer (appropriate expression!) new light at the end of this upgraded tunnel but it can not be entirely discounted that Wellington public transport use is close to its likely ceiling, other than the effects of very large oil price rises. At 17% Wellington punches far above its size in public transport patronage, far above the 120 other or so cities under 800,000 in CANZUS. Even amongst much larger cities over the million mark only the largest (usually with subways) achieve above 20% of peak commuter patronage, the only exception being Ottawa with 22% and its extensive network of off-road busways and associated bus lanes.

Busways have turned up trumps in Brisbane too, this year celebrating the 10th anniversary of the opening of the first full busway corridor in 2001. Bus usage has since increased 65% since FR 2003/4 to 71 million trips a year, outstripping a more modest 20% increase in rail patronage to 57 million per year.

Meanwhile in Auckland a survey of 1,822 members by the Automobile Association found that 52% of members considered a bus their most likely alternative to car use, only 32% a train. This possibly reflects the limited ease of access to fixed rail corridors, or lack of direct connection between home areas and work areas, problems inherent in any fixed rail system. The survey results make for interesting reading and appear to echo trends overseas in many larger cities, where traffic congestion now costs so much in lost time waste and creates such lifestyle deterioration that even motorists are becoming big supporters of improved and increased public transport.

Says this article posted on Voxy News "The AA has acknowledged the Council's balanced list of public transport and roading projects. However, given the lack of available funding, we have expressed concern about the Council's failure to prioritise regional projects in a transparent manner which focuses on the principles of benefit-cost efficiency, geographic distribution and customer preference," says Mr Lambourne.  AA believes Council should prioritise bus improvements.

"The AA believes the Council's public transport priority should be upgrading the existing bus and rail networks, infrastructure and services across the region. Only once this is done should the Council consider expanding them."

Quite so!
The AA is also concerned about the generic nature of the Auckland Draft Plan and lack of specific detail.

Hmmm that's a big problem everywhere I suspect! Just this morning the NZ Herald carries a story that Standard & Poor have threatened to reduce Auckland City Council's credit rating (from AA to AA - ) because projected rail projects will put the city too far in debt. This could increase cost of borrowing money for all council projects.

NZ in Tranzit has put forward a scenario for a commuter rail in Christchurch, not least to build a solid foundation for the future and build in resilience against future oil shocks but please let us not pretend doing rail anywhere is an easy or an instant ticket to success.


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