Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Christchurch rebuild - will it create a drain or train?

The Crown Plaza Hotel (ugly bloody thing) and its neighbour, the fairly nondescript Copthorne Hotel (Durham Street) were among the hundreds of buildings compromised by the violence of Christchurch earthquakes, since demolished (amazing machines) and ground to dust (amazing machines). The city now needs tens of thousands of construction workers and rail could play a part.  

The March/April 2012 edition of Architecture NZ magazine features a big article on the post quake rebuild in Christchurch. 

Over 40 new major construction projects are identified, each with a small illustration and expected time of completion, The great majority are blocks of shops/offices/apartments (often a combination of two or even all three), mostly three to six storey buildings, though one or two bucking the new trend not get to get too far off the ground with up to 10 storeys. 

Almost all are expected to be completed in 2012 and 2013. And this is only the tip of the ice berg of the Christchurch rebuild. These are only the first cabs off the rank,  insurance payout and EQC monies etc already in hand.  There are literally hundreds of other mostly substantial buildings to be rebuilt.

It is expected that for the next five years the added construction workforce (and associated families) will increase the population by a massive 26,000 people. The city already has a housing shortage, and tens of thousands of private houses need to be rebuilt to replace those lost in the quake; add to this natural growth and the added accommodation of 26,000 construction workers!!

The potential would seem to exist to attract hundreds if not thousands of skilled and semi-skilled workers from other areas of New Zealand - including from around "the mainland" Te Wai Pounamu into Christchurch. 

But could the other population centres in the South carry such a loss?  

Dunedin, Invercargill, Nelson, Timaru all are relatively small cities where I would imagine the loss of a few hundred tradesmen and experienced workers (including most likely the youngest, the coming generation, tomorrow's replacement of current senior and experienced tradesmen) would impact significantly, and badly, upon local industry and possibly even deflate house prices and rating bases and impact on retail spending etc.    

This potential problem has been directly addressed in Dunedin according to an article in yesterday's Otago Daily Times

According to the ODT article " [Dunedin City] Council economic development unit manager Peter Harris said Dunedin faced significant risks, as well as rewards, that could be "bigger than ever imagined", from rebuilding activity in Christchurch.  "The amount of money that is going to be spent up there is really beyond anything that's ever happened in New Zealand.
"The risks to Dunedin are huge, and so are the opportunities."
The opportunity here would seem to be to create a much tighter regional bloc, all of Te Wai Pounamu, working together, with restoration of Christchurch being as far as possible apportioned across the whole of our island**. 
At least some of the prefabrication buildings, or sections of buildings, or pre-stressed beams etc could be done in other centres, as well as thousands of minor manufactures, keeping the work force in their home towns and local economies benefiting from added earnings rather than losing out. 
In short, the aim - avoiding the rebuild of Christchurch being at the expense of other areas. 
On the other hand it has been suggested workers could commute from other centres - perhaps not daily in most cases but for a week of work, returning home at weekends. Then again the demand for labour might be so high, especially as days lengthen after winter, that some city job sites or major new subdivisions might work a 16 hour day in two shifts, or some workers might work 4 x 10 hours day and then have a three day weekend, facilitating commutes from further afield.  
Why this most interests a public transport blog, is that a strategy of "sharing the burden, sharing the benefits" could also have a huge spin-off for rail in the South Island.  
Indeed this idea is raised in the same ODT article by construction business consultant Graham Williams, who was yesterday named as the Dunedin City Council facilitator tasked with handling Dunedin's response to the $30 billion rebuilding of Christchurch. According to Williams;
"Commuter trains could be used to ferry Dunedin tradespeople to and from rebuilding jobs in Christchurch, to avoid a permanent exodus of workers and their families from the deep South."
Too right! 
Was there ever a better time to investigate re-introducing passenger rail on the east coast of Te Wai Pounamu between Christchurch and Dunedin ? 
In the world of public transport a commuter is an ace in the pack - tourists, shoppers etc will travel here and there, now and then, but each commuter travels (if daily) over 400 trips a year, and even if not daily create a regular and usually predictable flow, a consistent market, for months or years. 
A well planned rail service could match the weekly/daily commuter needs and marry this to the relatively sparse existing  tourist services; then calculate in the potentially large tertiary student movement -  either way; add the weekend traffic to the sports stadiums at (or proposed) near rail in both Dunedin and Christchurch; and factor in  the rising star of east coast tourism (especially for repeat visit tourists)  - notably heritage Oamaru and (further south) The Catlins and Southern Scenic Route; and - the cherry on the cake -  NZ in Tranzit blog's suggested regional rail link from South  direct to Christchurch International airport . Six key markets like pillars of support for general use?
All passenger rail and long distance coach transport in the South Island is essentially "anti-commuter", flows in the opposite direction to the main traffic flows trying to get to work .
The opportunity here is to add in a reverse flow and restore a service*** tofro Dunedin, possibly in the late afternoon/early evening. This would allow early shift workers (who had worked that day, say 6am - 3pm ) to travel home to Timaru or Dunedin same evening at the end of their week (whether that week is 4 days, 5 days, or even 10 days) . Coming up from the South it would allow those starting work the next day most of the day at home and to get into Christchurch before 10pm the preceding night. In a quality service at a good price or employer subsidy leaving cars behind at either end could be very attractive - who wants a long drive at the end of a hard week...the trend to quality leather seating and wi fi resources and travel entertainment and relaxation,  now taking over the world of rail and bus could even reach Ashburton ...and beyond!   There is a huge surge in public transport, all over the world, with further long term oil increases likely it could escalate rapidly. Couple this with the turn away from car use, particularly amongst students and the better educated, who increasingly see travel (even urban bus travel) as time to relax with ipod or laptop etc, not waste time sitting in queues or stressing out.
Add to this mix the suggested tourist (oil fired) Iconic East Coast Steam Train train travelling down to Dunedin on Fridays and back on Mondays - with added student and worker (or rugby fan) carriages; and add to this mix quality same day XPT coaches (luxury buses) leaving Timaru early morning, return after five.  

Wouldn't it be bloody marvellous if the impact of the earthquake recovery rebuild process, instead of knocking the south for a six, lifted the whole abysmal current inter-city public transport pattern out of the doldrums,  into a cohesive layered network of regional services - commuter friendly quality coaches, tofro Timaru - Christchurch; "commuter" useful rail services Dunedin -Christchurch each way after 4pm or thereabouts; and an Iconic Tourist orientated East Coast - oil fired - Steam train (also of use to locals) are just some of the possibilities. 
**NOTE:  Underlying this to, for me and perhaps quite other few mainlanders, is the huge mistrust towards of the enormous political power gifted to an amalgamated Auckland, a city state big enough bully its needs and wants, cutting right  across needs of the rest of New Zealand. This is already happening in the billions of dollars of commuter rail and motorway investment, a per capita spending far far out of proportion to any other city or town. Current Government resistance to Auckland appeals reflect political differences  (love this Chris Slane cartoon) that arise between a National Govt and Labour led Council

But even this natural degree of "balance and checks" could go out the window at some future election, creating a marriage of "same politics" Government and Auckland City State at even greater expense of the other "provinces" and their politicians. In Christchurch's case these "leaders" - it seems to me - have been incredibly naive and provincial, over the last decade winning probably less than 10% per head, of the equivalent transit funding that Auckland has achieved - a distortion far beyond any case for major city centralisation of resources might warrant!! 

*** Much more strongly than The Southerner I remember the hugely useful diesel rail-car that used to run in the 1970s after 5pm arriving in Dunedin about 11pm - fantastic for visiting friends in the day or getting a whole day in Christchurch before getting home to the south. 

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately a 4hr++ frustrating train journey is a non starter. Youd be lucky to run a successful commuter service from Ashburton at current speed/reliability.
    Spend a lot of money on an up to 360km/h std. rail system, alowing the trip to take 1.5hrs then maybe.
    I firmly believe 'if' NZ finds and decides to exploit offshore oil reserves, such projects should be undertaken in the long term national interest to insulate us from future oil reliance.