Auckland gets new rail deal – will Christchurch?

Posted on September 4, 2011 by

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Last week the Government announced new details around the purchase of electric trains for Auckland. The deal involves:

  • the purchase of 57 three car electric multiple units (up from the original 38)
  • A $500 million Crown loan to purchase electric trains to be made to Auckland Council
  • Funding assistance from the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) to help Auckland Council group repay the loan (initially to be set at a 60 percent of the costs of the loan repayment (2011/12) and moving to 50 percent on an annual one percent glide path starting at 59 percent from 2012/13
  • Up to $90 million Crown grant to assist in funding the additional trains
“…this package will complete a massive $1.6 billion government-funded upgrade to the Auckland metro rail network.”
A pretty good deal for Auckland all-in-all that wraps up a $1.6 billion government-funded upgrade to the Auckland metro rail network. Money well spent? Almost certainly; in less than a decade patronage on the Auckland rail network has gone from barely 2 million per annum to 10 million. Parts of it are actually starting to look like a first world public transport system and the best is yet to come in the form of the aforementioned brand new electric trains. If other examples are to go by then electrification will lead to a further surge in patronage in coming years (the prime example being Perth). The first unit will arrive in 2013 with all units having arrived by the end of 2014.
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Okay, so Auckland is the biggest city in New Zealand, and its public transport infrastructure has been woefully under-invested in. But what about Wellington, a city of similar size to Christchurch? Over the last few years the spend up there has been quite significant too with about half a billion being put towards the 48 total Matangi electric multiple unit fleet, extension of the electric network to Waikanae and a much-needed upgrade to the entire network. Recently the Government announced further funds towards further network upgrades.
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In Christchurch we don’t have passenger rail services (but we do have perfectly good rail lines which are an incredibly underutilised asset!) but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have received any government funding towards public transport. Prior to the earthquake Christchurch was struggling to get bus lanes, suburban interchanges, and park and ride off the ground, all due to funding issues. We were also told that if we wanted to underground the planned central city transport interchange then we would have to cover the extra costs ourselves. The rationale made some sense, although I think the extra costs were justified on pedestrian safety issues, but when you considered the money that was being spent up north compared to Christchurch it was a bit of a rip-off. The Government has used the rail spend up in the North Island cities to illustrate that it has provided plenty of funding for public transport, yet from a Christchurch perspective we have not seen any spend up; in fact, we have only seen money taken away and put towards motorways!
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Now things have changed. We have a great draft Central City Plan which advocates a major overhaul of our public transport system, including the development of a light rail network. The initial stage is set to cost $400 million (or less) that will link the university campus at Ilam with the central city. The Government has indicated tentative support (mainly from the Prime Minister) but that is no guarantee that it will be easy to get the support and funding we need. Greater Christchurch is about a third of the size of Auckland so if they got $1.6 billion then surely asking for just a  chip-in of $400 million would not be all that bad?
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The Government’s official response will probably only be made once a much more detailed investigation is undertaken and a business case presented. With the money being spent in Auckland and Wellington in mind, I don’t see how the Government can refuse to make a contribution so long as the project stands up. So far, I think it is looking pretty good, especially given the location and activity centres it will link, possible future extension to the Airport, and that it creates a possible tram-train link between the railway lines and the CBD. However, if Auckland’s city rail link is anything to go by, it won’t necessarily be that straight forward! Government support will be the most crucial aspect of this project, but I feel they are setting a precedent here with Auckland and Wellington that they would be fools not to follow.
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