University academic comments on light-rail

Posted on November 4, 2010 by


Here is an interesting opinion piece from Glen Koorey, which appeared in the Press recently:

OPINION: GLEN KOOREY takes a look at light rail and other public transport options for Christchurch.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker’s recent call for a city-wide light rail or tram-train network (Oct 16) is a bold statement in car-centric New Zealand and I applaud him for his vision.

It follows his 2009 visit to the major North American cities of the Pacific Northwest – namely Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, an area I’ve admired for its sustainable transport innovations.

Here are some comments, cautions and suggestions for taking this idea forward in Christchurch.

Some observers have pointed out that these urban areas, all with well over a million people in them, are not exactly comparable to greater Christchurch (population 400,000) and that significant rail- based networks are more viable in such larger conurbations.

While that may be pertinent, it hasn’t prevented smaller cities elsewhere from implementing light rail (or “trams” or “streetcars”) as part of their transport mix, including Freiburg, Germany (population 220,000), Saint-Etienne, France (population 320,000) and Graz, Austria (population 370,000).

We also shouldn’t forget that our own capital, Wellington, with a similar population to Christchurch, continues to successfully operate an extensive suburban rail network.

An important pre-requisite is in concentrating more development along our existing or future rail corridors.

This may include higher density (for example, three or four- storey) mixed residential and commercial developments, which are an attractive feature of many of the aforementioned locations around the world.

It will take time to develop the necessary activity intensity, although the earthquake rebuilding may offer some new opportunities.

A key to making suburban commuter light rail a success in Christchurch will be bringing people right into town.

The existing main trunk line tracks skirting the western and southern edge of the CBD won’t provide sufficient penetration into the downtown area. It would seem that a spur or a loop is required to bring travellers from further afield directly into town, although shuttle bus connections might be able to bridge the gap in the short- term.

Unfortunately the existing inner city tram (and its proposed extensions) can’t be connected to the main trunk line because it doesn’t have the same track gauge (width).

Therefore, planning needs to look at how the two networks could be developed independently while still complementing each other.

Certainly, the tram network could provide extension into areas currently not connected to the main trunk line, such as the airport, university, New Brighton and Sumner.

One challenge may be how to have useful commuter services while retaining the current tourist tram loop service.

Rather than jump straight into light rail, a better interim step for Christchurch may be to start by developing Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridors.

BRT is a means of providing high-quality fast public transport using buses.

It typically involves using separated busways (or rights-of- way along existing roads), vehicles with train-like characteristics, and fare collection outside the bus.

This provides many of the benefits of light rail without the same expense.

With the development of BRT corridors, it is also relatively easy to convert these to light rail corridors later on when sufficient demand exists.

While in the Pacific Northwest it may have been very instructive had the mayor’s delegation made a stopover in Eugene, Oregon (population 340,000). Eugene opened its first BRT line in 2007 and is currently building its second route.

The first 6km route, connecting the two main town centres with the University of Oregon, has been very ingeniously built along existing roadways, in some places only 12m wide.

The stylish articulated buses look very much like light rail vehicles (including sliding doors and onboard carriage of bicycles), and the stations along the route also have a light-rail feel to them.

In Christchurch for example, I could imagine a similar system providing a BRT link along Tuam St from the hospital, past the new transport interchange to High St and CPIT. In time that route could be extended west through Hagley Park to Riccarton and east to AMI Stadium.

Ultimately, the route could be converted to a light-rail route with connections to the main trunk line at Mona Vale and Waltham.

That would enable travellers from much further afield to seamlessly get into town via rail.

While visiting the Pacific Northwest, I hope that the mayor also observed the extensive investment put into cycling, particularly in Vancouver and Portland.

This ranges from cycle lanes to pathways, lower speed limits, car- free zones and “bicycle boulevards”, much more than our current token efforts here.

Such investment, together with pedestrian-friendly urban design, strongly complements good public transport investment.

Particularly in conjunction with allowing bikes on public transport, it provides for a wider range of journey distances and destinations and thus offers a viable alternative to many private motor vehicle journeys.

Over the next year the city and regional councils will be rolling out both the new Christchurch Transport Plan and the updated Passenger Transport Strategy.

This is therefore an ideal time to seriously incorporate future provision of sustainable transport in them.

* Dr Glen Koorey is a senior lecturer in transportation at the University of Canterbury’s College of Engineering, with research interests in sustainable transport. He is also a member of the Christchurch Passenger Transport Advisory Group.


I generally agree with what Dr Koorey is saying here. I particularly like how he quashed the nonsense argument that Christchurch is ‘too small’ for rail based transport solutions. It might also have been worth pointing out the growth that the greater Christchurch area is likely to undergo over the next 10-20 years, which I believe further dispells that argument. I also liked that he establishes a link between transport corridors and urban form.

Personally, I have always favoured an incremental approach to rail in Christchurch. That is, starting out basic and building up from there as we can afford it and demand increases. As such, I have tended to shy away from the whole ‘tram-train’ thing (at least for now) and instead have advocated the development of a basic heavy rail system on existing lines, and perhaps the extension of the inner-city tram network into a proper light rail network. Not everyone agrees with me on this, and fair enough as the tram-train concept is an attractive option for Christchurch, but I just see it as a more realistic approach.

Dr Koorey seems to agree with this stance, at least initially, stating that shuttle buses could be used to link rail services to the CBD in the short-term before a solution is found to allow rail services to penetrate the CBD. In the meantime, as the existing tram is not compatible with the mainline, extend the tram as a separate, but complimenting, light rail system. Later in the piece I am not quite sure if Dr Koorey is advocating a tram-train situation or transfers between trains and light-rail, as the wording is quite confusing.

He mentions BRT as a possible cheaper alternative to light-rail. I think we need to be careful about this. Many (but certainly not all) BRT advocates see it as an interim step to light-rail. However, it has to be asked if such an approach would give us the same ‘bang for our buck’? BRT may not be as expensive, but it will still cost a lot of money. It will cost even more to then subsequently convert to light-rail in future. And will BRT lead to the same intensive development benefits along transport corridors as light-rail offers? We also need to be careful about making clear the difference between BRT and glorified bus lanes.

Generally I like what Dr Koorey is saying here, certainly someone who knows what they are talking about. It’s good to see a focus on cycling and pedestrian measures too, which tend to get ignored all too often in these debates. Clearly, transport in Christchurch is becoming an important issue (about time!), and I think this was demonstrated well during the lead up to the elections. The momentum seems to be gathering towards something, I only hope it happens soon.