Monday, June 4, 2012

A Commuter rail network for Christchurch still on track? Reading between the lines, NZ in Tranzit thinks it may be closer than we think

Photo of Diesel Units (eventually to become surplus ?) at Britomart Station  in Auckland -  could this be a photo of Christchurch International Airport, Bus and Rail Station  in 2018? - Wikipedia

Can National maintain credibility continuing to massively fund public transport infrastructure in Auckland (photo) and Wellington whilst short-changing Christchurch's naive and gullible local bodies?  Or is the Government going to step into the picture with its own trump card?  NZ in Tranzit indulges in some intuitive speculation

Commuter rail for Christchurch may be just down the track. That is what NZ in Tranzit is reading between the lines in recent news about rail funding.

It now appears fairly likely that the National Government/NZTA or KiwiRail (or all three) are currently scoping out the costs and benefits of up-grading rail in general, and introducing some sort of commuter rail system, for Christchurch as a big infrastructure boost to the earthquake ravished city  An obvious stepping stone to this was the dropping of the rather ludicrous proposals for light rail from the city rebuild plan back in April, which would have diverted a huge amount of money away from actual public transport.

Back at the time of the Budget the Government announced that the first beneficiary of assets sales - notably the Mighty River Power Company - would be KiwiRail, receiving a further $250 million towards its $750 million turn around plan.

This weekend another massive grant, with a focus on further upgrades to commuter rail in Auckland and Wellington has been announced

According to Saturday's STUFF online

The New Zealand Transport Agency announced yesterday it would pump $9 billion into upgrading existing local transport systems over the next three years.

The money includes nearly $900m – a 33 per cent hike – devoted to public transport, "with a particular focus on improving the reliability and punctuality of commuter rail services in Auckland and Wellington".

NZTA chief executive Geoff Dangerfield said it was the biggest investment in public transport under the National Land Transport Programme. The investment followed discussions with councils about their transport priorities over the next three years and would give them certainty as they prepared long-term infrastructure programmes.

Details of exactly what would be funded would not be released for several months. But the increased spending on public transport was targeted at "improving peak-time services which help to reduce severe congestion", Mr Dangerfield said.

Over $2 billion has already been invested in Auckland and Wellington rail and busway infrastructure over the last decade. The strategic mass transit plans of these centres,made back around the turn of the century, have now been largely completed. On a per capita basis without regional fuel taxes in NZ, approximately 10-13% of this amount will have come from the pockets of Canterbury taxpayers ($210-$260 million?).

For Auckland this amount included double tracking all lines, creating a loop pattern around the main body of the Waitemata isthmus, rebuilding and opening suburban extension lines to Manakau and Onehunga, electrification and purchase of electric trains; for Wellington this included the complete upgrade of the Wairarapa line and replacement with more modern superior carriages, extending the Kapiti Line to Waikanae; dropping tunnel floors (removing one tunnel completely) around Pukerua Bay and expanding the capacity of the Wellington railway yards to handle greater traffic more effectively.

Both cities still have large ticket agendas being promoted by their respective Mayors; Auckland's Len Brown wants to create a 3km underground loop between Britomart Station, the city's main terminus, and Mount Eden (expected cost around $3 billion) and in Wellington, green Mayor Celia Wade-Brown wants light rail from Wellington Railway station and the CBD station to Wellington airport - though this would fall outside KiwiRail funding.

With one project too big and the Government unsympathetic, there are two or three reasons why preparing funding streams for a rail upgrade in Christchurch MAY be hidden in these massive cash dispersements to KiwiRail.

The first factor is the Government's stated commitment to the "Auckland-Christchurch rail corridor" as the major heavy freight backbone of New Zealand. A major aim of course will be to cut running times, meet schedules consistently (including inter-island rail ferry sailings) and increase loading capacity and rail-road trucking transfer systems.

I make no claims to be an expert in rail, but logically (if nothing else) Christchurch will not be left out of this upgrade.

Effectiveness of rail in our area, my guess, currently has several major challenges; an anaemic single track through tight housing with multiple grade level crossings coming from the North - a line which can not turn eastwards at Addington, even when freight (such as logs) is destined straight to Lyttelton; around sixteen lengthy and relatively slow coal trains a day (ie 8 full, 8 empty) coming off the Midland line, each of these needing to be scheduled through both the Lyttelton tunnel and Otira Tunnel (where added engines are use on steep tunnel gradient) as well as fitting in with conventional container train movements etc. Adding to this the is the rapid increasing road traffic movements linked to the area now being nicknamed SoMo (south of Moorhouse) and planned large increase in South West area subdivisions, creating competition between rail and road access on level crossings, particularly at Annex Road; Matipo Street;Whiteleigh Avenue; Lincoln Road. There are multiple problems here if rail traffic is to significantly increase or the city wishes to future-proof as a base for population and economic growth, to cover the decades ahead.

A second factor is that Christchurch stands at a cusp, of still having open and undeveloped land in the north-west of the city, mostly tagged for housing or new industrial and office park developments. Over 10,000 earthquakes have shown "older" land (much longer compacted former swamp land?) to be far more stable than eastern riverside and estuarine lands - the base of the Port Hills where the Heathcote River now flows was actually still sea a mere 20,000 years ago. It seems the process of shifting the population fulcrum of the city north and west will accelerate. The chance to built an exceptionally high quality new rail link Styx Bridge to Islington - using embankments or contoured land forms to create grade separated crossings, underpasses or overpasses, and double tracked to the latest technology, before or as part of new developments is a rare opportunity for any city!

It would be a very foolish Council indeed that ignored such a remarkable opportunity, as our two Councils  seems to have done. At very least it should be evaluated by a professional consultancy team for cost benefit factors.

Being able to incorporate the Airport and several major commercial and industrial zones, as well incorporate the city's premier sports stadium and large venue entertainment zone  at Addington, gives a huge seven day and evening week patronage generating factor, an advantage over many urban rail corridors only really servicing peak hour commuters.  Access to these facilities is also linked also directly to largest Metropolitan area outer settlements Rangiora and Rolleston, as well as to the Province, notably Ashburton and Timaru; as well as Dunedin and Greymouth. Such easy Island wide access means bigger crowds and bigger name performers. All of this would add enormous punch to including a commuter rail element in that likely  freight upgrade.

And was ever a city so suited for bikes on trains??

By world standards this must be almost unique -  a ten aces winner!!! - freight upgrade; commuter system introduction; easy central city access; city wide-residential workplace access; worker/traveller airport access; chance to create a fully integrated cycleway-rail-cycle carriage system; city wide link to primary sports stadium/largest event centre; regional and Te Wai Pounamu wide doorstop access to all of the above.

With a "figure "8" and spurs" rail pattern, as below, this would also consolidate the urban development strategy not so much by restriction and legislative enforcement as by the strong commercial and social incentive to be close to the line and associated hub points - tying extended urban growth to a high density corridor naturally.

NZ in Tranzit suggested ultimate rail pattern (light green = new industrial; dark green =  new residential areas)

Even though the rolling stock is probably getting bit long in the tooth, or may need a major refit, it can’t escape the notice of KiwiRail/the Government that dozens of diesel rail car units will become available when Auckland goes electric - a saving of hundreds of millions - if used to jumpstart a Christchurch ciommuter system. It is a means by which commuter rail costs in Christchurch could be kept low at early stages, new vehicles phased in further down the track.

A third factor is the sheer in-balance of public transport infrastructure spending - it is absurd that a city almost the size of Wellington has received only a tiny fraction of the money invested in transit builds in Auckland and Wellington. National really needs an attractive "flagship" project to mark a visionary leadership role in restoring Christchurch, and to counter-act its tattered reputation for unpopular arrogance and disinterest in preserving democratic process, embodied in Tsar Brownlee's crude manner.
Hitler built the autobahns, Stalin the Moscow underground; and John Keys ..... ok this is pushing the analogy a bit far!! But it is amazing how much leadership that delivers palpable gains will be forgiven the methods used!

Ideally a system of very high quality segregated bus-ways would be far more effective and flexible than commuter rail, well suited to our smaller city. These could serve broader areas more frequently and far more directly for much less cost than rail. But unfortunately fifty years of degraded bus services, never receiving a fraction of the infrastructure funding rail has received, run as "on street, back of the traffic queue" budget options creates the illusion that buses are passe or down-market, ineffective, slow, vulnerable to poor driving or rude drivers. These are all things that can overcome in a properly funded, integrated, bus system, but the capacity of rail to bring huge numbers into the city at peak times and for big events can’t be denied. Politically the kiwi citizen's strong sense of justice and fairness in all things and the obvious natural symmetry between the three sister larger city axis of Auckland/Wellington/Christchurch implies commuter rail for all three. Busways in this context will need to be implemented on the tailcoat of rail, part of a larger scheme.

A fourth reason to suspect commuter rail is being checked out – despite Christchurch’s much higher profile these days and the role transport systems will play in reviving the city the word “Christchurch” does not appear in recent funding reports about public transport, suggesting something very big is under wraps, until all the cost benefit ratios and implications are seriously researched and fully examined fully.

Up to now various Government's have been able to trade on the appalling weak leadership, lack of quality research and misguided and appallingly amateurish visions on public transport issues in Christchurch by elected leaders and planners - and this extends right from the days of Mayor Garry Moore through to Mayor Bob Parker, and ECan governance from Sir Kerry Burke to Dame Margaret Bazely. This won't last forever, as streets get more and more congested, as fuel costs climb steadily upwards, people will begin to ask more and more "What the hell were these people doing all the years?"

Why are millions of Canterbury dollars being spent on rail in Auckland and Wellington and next to nothing in Christchurch and Canterbury will inevitably become a major issue if car use gets less  and less attractive.

Transport corridors and public transport projects (or not) are often the single biggest election issues in the rise and fall of Mayors, Councils and Members of Parliament in multiple cities around the world. The transport issue was a major issue in the case in the [largely unexpected?] defeat of John Banks and election of Len Brown to Mayor of Auckland.

Light rail was virtually anyway guaranteed to be an election loser for Mayor Parker at the polls (for goodness sake, why would ratepayers vote for such a hugely expensive system only accessible or useful for about 10% of those voting?). In contrast commuter rail incorporating large areas of metropolitan Christchurch, mostly paid for by NZ taxpayers rather than ratepayers, could be a winner for National Government to regain popularity - and they probably know it!

Yep - I think I still hear a train a coming ...

PS -  For a totally different perspective be sure to check out the links sent by one of the blog's readers, Glen, click on in the comments section below!!


  1. I wouldn't read too much into the supposed "boost" in PT funding; it's largely spin:


  2. Thanks Glen. I see what you mean (for those who don't read comments I've shifted the links you give to the bottom of the text itself).

    My thinking when writing the above was this could be an utter load of bullshit, but it least it will expose what COULD have been done had the city quality leadership on...that is more or less the bottom line of all my postings.

    1. ...should read quality leadership on public transport issues...that is more or less (etc)


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