Although a vision was presented for a city-wide light rail network linking the city with Papanui (Northlands), New Brighton, the airport, Hornby, and Lyttelton, the actual proposal put forward in the draft Central City Plan is an initial link between the city and the university in Ilam via the Hospital and Riccarton. This would be a first stage of what could eventually be a line to the airport.
So why this route as a first stage? This is obviously intended to be the test case for rail in Christchurch and hangs around providing a solid link between the city’s university and the central city. I can see quite a few good reasons why they would choose this route. It is a relatively short route, although still long enough to be useful, and therefore brings with it a factor of relative affordability. Further aiding this is the number of activity centres it would link, such as the university itself, Riccarton, Hagley Park, the hospital, and the city centre and there is also potential for a logical extension on to the airport.
How this first stage will be achieved will be very interesting to see. I am picking we won’t see this until next year, after the Central City Plan has been finalised and adopted (hopefully with light rail plans still intact). Indications are that the line will head through Hagley Park along Riccarton Avenue. No problems there as there is plenty of room to play with but it will be interesting to see how they propose to get it down Riccarton Rd. There are ways to do it; you could remove all on street parking down Riccarton Rd to create a segregated light rail corridor down the centre of the road but you had better prepare for a battle with local business. It isn’t impossible though, particularly if increased side-street and off-street parking is made available to compensate, and it has to be said the prospect of a light rail line must surely be worth more than a few on-street car parks. An alternative would be to divide the road so that only some sections are segregated running and some are shared with priority given to light rail vehicles.
I have also been thinking about other benefits the initial proposal has. The route it takes through Hagley Park would create an almost perfect link between the railway at Riccarton Rd and the central city. Once it is up and operating it would make it easier to reintroduce passenger rail services on Christchurch’s railway corridors to places like Kaiapoi, Rangiora and Rolleston through the use of tram-train technology (light rail vehicles that can operate on mainline railways and on streets). If the light rail route runs through to the south-west of the city then it could also link with the railway line to Lyttelton. It is suddenly quite clear how the different phases of the proposal might roll out from this initial stage to the university.
The draft Central City Plan proposes light rail units that can run off of electric overhead for street running and an onboard diesel engine for running on rail lines (presumably to avoid the need to ask for the government to contribute further millions to electrify the railway lines!). This may sound complicated but it is technology that exists and is in use.
Having such light rail vehicles will make it relatively easy to link the railway lines into the street based light rail system, provided issues around track gauge are sorted (that is really another issue for another time though!). It is this feature of the university-city light rail proposal that really stood out to me and I see it as being the key reason why it makes sense as an initial stage to test the idea. Once developed, I believe it will be the best possible way to ensure the future expansion of the network.