Given the recent decision by the Government to reject the business case for the proposed Auckland inner city railway link, it begs the question whether it bodes ill for the prospects of developing an improved, world class, public transport system for Christchurch.
As the Christchurch City Council develops a Central City master plan, as part of the post-earthquake rebuild, it is becoming clear that there is widespread support amongst the public to pursue the development of a transport system that is not geared solely around the car, but rather is geared more around active and public transport modes (thanks to the share an idea concept). The Council is likewise keen to pursue this avenue, and has been actively promoting an improved public transport system that might include modernisation and extension of the tram as a light rail system and the development of the existing railway corridors for public transport use. Last year, Transport Minister Steven Joyce made it clear that if Christchurch wanted to develop light rail it would have to fund such a project without central government assistance. This didn’t necessarily put a dampener on the idea of government funds for a Christchurch rail system entirely, but the governments attitude towards the business case for the Auckland inner city rail project does not improve the prospects much at all.
Of course, recent events in Christchurch have kind of changed everything. The need to rebuild the city and also provide economic opportunities to help the city recover and grow in the future is paramount, with the government obviously agreeing. This means that the government might be more open to innovative and alternative (well, for the government) ideas, particularly as the city’s urban form requires a considerable amount of rethinking and rebuilding. The issue of rebuilding Christchurch is also incredibly emotive and it would be a brave government to challenge the consensus that is developing between the public and the City Council on the future direction of the city. Nevertheless, the mechanisms to ignore and overrule the Council remain in place through CERA, and the fact that Auckland Mayor Len Brown was elected with a mandate to improve public transport and progress the inner city rail link again does not set a promising precedent.
There is considerable support for the inner city rail link in Auckland and the city’s rail system is fast approaching capacity due to the limitations of the downtown station at Britomart, where trains must exit back through the narrow two track entrance. The inner city rail link would allow trains to run through Britomart, therefore increasing its capacity, and would also allow a transformation of the Auckland CBD by bringing much of it within easy reach of a train station. With rail patronage substantially increasing, and electrification and brand new trains coming online from 2013, the reasons for the government effectively rejecting the Auckland Council’s business case are questionable (for more detail on this, see here). Looking at the experience of Perth, which electrified it’s rail system 20 years earlier, it illustrates the incredible effect electrification can have on rail patronage, and therefore the need for the inner city link in Auckland to be progressed as soon as possible.
It is a worry then that such a crucial project in New Zealand’s biggest city gets this sort of treatment from the government. What does that mean for Christchurch? Does it mean that we must prepare ourselves for disappointment when the Central City master plan is released later this year? Whatever plan eventuates will likely throw up a number of projects that would require independent business cases. We may not even get that far, but if we do, say for a light rail system, then there is no guarantee that a favourable business case would even garner support from the government. There is certainly cause for concern that not only may the Council’s ideas be rejected, but also the public’s. Auckland will be a good litmus test. If the government can survive the already gathering public and local government backlash then it will put some doubt on the direction Christchurch takes in the coming years. On the other hand… It will be crucial to keep an eye on this.