The cover story of this month’s Avenues magazine – “the magazine Christchurch lives by” – is a celebration of the iconic Christchurch trams, just in time for the trams’ 15th birthday. Originally, the trams were the backbone of the transport network from 1882, with electric trams introduced in 1905. The trams ran all over the city; from Sumner beach, Papanui, up to Cashmere and most parts in between, at its peak in the 1920s it was the largest tram network in the country. By the 1950s however, the trams were out of favour, and by 1954 when, as in so many cities around the world, they were replaced with buses.
Little today remains of the original tram network, though little reminders can be found dotted around the city. A poster high on Cashmere hill commemorates the route the power cables travelled to supply the trams. In the CCC’s Riccarton Service Centre, tucked behind a postcard display, on the floor last I looked, lies another poster commemorating the trams that ran down Riccarton Road.
However, the trams refused to be forgotten. Some ten years after the trams stopped running, a group of restorers set to work. No.178 ‘The Brill’ (above) had by the mid-60s been turned into a bach. It was the first of the electric trams to be rescued by what is now the Ferrymead-based Tramway Historical Society. The THS slowly restored other trams, running in Ferrymead Heritage Park. In the mid-90s, the CCC, the THS, and the Christchurch Tramway Society built a 2.5km track through the central city, with the restored trams from Ferrymead running as a tourist attraction. It has been a resounding success, with over 1.6million rides since 1995.
As the article says, many vistors, especially cruise ship visitors (and there were three cruise ships docked in Lyttleton over the weekend), get bussed into the Square, take the tram on the loop, and then leave, thinking what they’ve seen is everything in the central city. The tram has rapidly become one of the icons of Christchurch, and there’s a tram on practically every piece of promotional material produced. Certainly the tram goes past or through some of my favourite bits of the central city (New Regent St especially).
There’s currently another 1.5km extension under construction with work completed along Cashel Street, as part of the City Mall revitalisation project. Next up is the High St section, although consultation on the plan didn’t begin until late last year.
The tramway means a lot more than simply laying tracks, as the CCC has been using the tram projects to upgrade the streets they run through as well, High St will have a narrower road, less parking, and wider footpaths and new bike racks. Once trams begin running down City Mall, I think that it will greatly improve the ambience of the mall; as it does in Worcester Boulevard and New Regent Street, the other two main pedestrian streets. The loop at the end of Stage I links in with the CCC’s Central City South Plan, which draws on the popularity of Sol Square/His Lordship’s Lane and Poplar St, both ‘back-alley’ style pedestrian developments. The Central City South design calls for a network of these lanes to be built though that area, incorporating residential and commercial buildings ‘behind’ the main roads. While that development is yet to progress beyond the design stages (although the CCC did buy $17million worth of inner city properties corresponding with the Central City South design’s areas of development), the trams extension should begin on the High Street-Manchester St section soon, with High-Tuam to be completed in 2011 in time for the Rugby World Cup. Stage II is due for completion in 2013.
I’d like to see the trams go further, a line up Victoria Street past the Convention Centre and the Casino (#11 and #12 above), and an Avon River loop along Cambridge terrace would be an outstanding addition as well.
For future expansion, the current tracks could be linked into the heavy rail network, tram-trains could run south to Lyttleton, west to Hornby and Rolleston, and north to Kaiapoi and Rangiora to the central city and the new Exchange. Though the gauges are different, much of the foundational work has already been done, meaning there’s much less work involved than building a completely new line… but that’s a story for another day.