Is rail still on the table?

Posted on April 22, 2012 by

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A discussion that seems to be doing the rounds at the moment is whether last weeks announcement on the Christchurch Central City Plan amounts to a dumping of the big transport projects, specifically the plans for light rail. The “100 day blueprint” for the central city, to be drawn up by the new Christchurch Central Development Unit, will not include the big-ticket transport items, such as light rail, and instead they will be given “greater consideration” at a later date. The Greens have voiced disappointment  at the move, saying that the government needs to give further consideration to the idea of light rail, although that does seem to be what is intended (or is it?).

At the end of the day, the light rail and other transport aspects have certainly been put to the side, and not dumped. However, if they are to survive, then changes will be on the way, that is for sure. Questions will surely be asked about each of them, and it may just be that the Government has desired outcomes (i.e, they don’t want to “limit” car access, nor waste money on transport items that they believe won’t be used due to continued high car use). We know the current government is not a fan of rail and public transport in general, especially Brownlee who I believe once slandered rail as outdated 19th century technology (obviously he never read that the automobile is also a product of the 19th century, nor does it seem he has ever been overseas!). The big questions will be exactly what message Gerry Brownlee is trying to send here, and what the next steps are. The answers to those two questions will determine the fate of the transport plans.

Brownlee’s decision to put transport issues aside while the Christchurch Central Development Unit puts together its 100 day blueprint for the central city is basically nothing short of disaster. How can you plan a city well when you don’t consider what transport outcomes you are wanting? Land-use planning and transport planning go hand-in-hand. If you want a city that functions well, you need to consider them together as one. The form and function of the central city hinges on things like the future of the one-way system, the slow core-street concept, improved public transport, and car parking policy. That is my biggest disappointment out of this.

It is extremely odd that Brownlee has called the plan “good” and that they are effectively accepting it as it is (well, volume one anyway), yet he has “put aside” probably some of the most important aspects of it for “further consideration”, hasn’t adopted volume two, and has appointed a new unit to draw up what will effectively be a new plan – minus transport. However, they are planning to effectively redraw it, and most of it is being put to one side for the time being with no decision yet made on how to move forward. All that in four months! To me, that is not agreeing to it!

Nevertheless, what is done is done, we have to live with it. So what happens now with transport? That is an interesting question, and it was extremely disappointing that there was no indication given by Brownlee as to what the next steps are. Ultimately, transport will have to be considered (preferably now, but hey, thems the breaks), but exactly what, how, and by who are the big questions. Being optimistic, you would hope that everything is considered, but there are no guarantees on that. There are also no guarantees that another appointed business leader will not be given a brief to go through it all and “sort it out” – Gerry style. My hope is that the Council now have a chance to respond to government concerns, and show how they can develop a rail system that is both affordable and effective as part of a wider transport plan. My worry is that they won’t, and recent history suggests that might be a distinct possibility. It also seems abundantly clear that the Government does not agree with the CCC and ECan that it is desirable to increase public transport usage, this is despite the fact that even under a business as usual model public transport use in Christchurch will have to double to avoid chronic congestion. You would think the Government were smart enough to learn from history. Obviously not.

Whether rail is still a possibility at all hinges on what is exactly meant by “further consideration”. Who will consider what, and how? Ultimately, it depends on whether the Government agrees with the CCC’s views that increasing public transport use into the CBD is highly desirable, and the indications so far is that it is not the case. Nevertheless, it isn’t completely dumped, yet, but until we know what is going to happen with transport, we just don’t know what the future holds. In any case, I think we can kiss goodbye the “light rail network” as outlined, although that may have always been the intention – plus it was kind of ambiguous, and really just an indication anyway. Something may still be possible, but I imagine it will be something very much watered down for consideration, and it all depends on whether there is an opportunity given to do that. What that watered down version of a rail plan might be, well, I plan to speculate on that in the next post (probably one of my last!).