Outrageous! – lets get a clear message on rail plans

Posted on September 12, 2011 by

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Since the Christchurch City Council put forward its light rail proposal in the draft Central City Plan, there seems to have been rather strong overall support for the concept (with a few vocal protestors) but much discussion and disagreement about the proposed route and costs.

A case in point: Richard Worrall, who has apparently been studying light rail for 15 years (okay), is, according to this article on Stuff, to present an alternative plan to the Council that focuses on utilising the main rail lines as a priority rather than putting $400 million into CBD-university light rail. He is against the proposed light rail link on the basis that it fails to address any immediate problems, and on cost/value for money grounds. On the face of it, some validity there. The key feature of idea that Worrall is putting is that it largely follows the rail lines from Rolleston to Rangiora, via the CBD, except that it goes via St Albans heading north from the CBD before rejoining the rail lines (the article isn’t clear on where that would be though). He put the cost at $900 million, more than twice as expensive as the light rail proposal (and remember Bob Parker believes it could be less) but potentially connecting more people and areas.

I can understand Mr Worrall’s concerns. My main concern about the light rail proposal is that it largely ignores developing the rail corridor as a priority, which you think it would have given the growth at either end and along it (think Redwood, Casebrook, Northwood, Wigram, Rolleston, Kaiapoi and Rangiora). While the CBD-University (and in future Airport) link is a good route that links a number of key activity centres along one of the most dense corridors in the city, I do have to ask why this route has priority. To me, developing the existing rail corridors should be of high priority due to the immediate and future growth that is going to occur along it, plus the tracks already being there (a bit of work to do but the corridor is there to be utilised all the same). The north-south corridor is highly strategic and would be the spine that much of our future development hangs off. However, in the draft Plan it barely gets a mention, and I see that as a concern.

Nevertheless, I have speculated in the past that there could be more than meets the eye with the proposed $400 million light rail link. At the end of the day, it could provide exactly what Mr Worrall is proposing, minus the strange yet intriguing detour through St Albans – strange because why not use the rail line as much as possible (which to me would be the strength of such a proposal); intriguing, because I am curious about what he means exactly! Anyway, the point is that if tram-trains are what the council, and Mr Worrall, propose then the CBD university light rail link could potentially provide the piece of the puzzle that allows commuter rail to Rangiora and Rolleston (by providing a rail link from the rail line at Riccarton through Hagley park and into the city) as well as providing a very useful light-rail line between the University and CBD. Essentially, it could potentially give us the start of a light rail route and the beginnings of a commuter network to satellite centres. Well, that is one possibility. The truth of the matter is, we just don’t know enough details about the proposal

I guess what Mr Worrall’s concerns and proposal illustrate is that the Christchurch City Council need to be clear on what they are doing. The draft Plan had a lot of info but it was short on much of the crucial details (and they must have some idea of what type of system and operations they have in mind – at the moment it is just confusing). If the intention is to develop tram-trains, then why not say that the proposed link will achieve that? That would be a huge selling point and one which I think a lot of the community would understand and support.  We need to know, otherwise you get confusion and that could potentially lead to a loss of public support. Basically, we need things to be crystal clear and simple.

I do think it was a mistake not to talk about rail on the strategic north-south corridor more in the draft Plan, and not to give it priority. That corridor is pivotal to the future growth of greater Christchurch, and it is therefore surprising it didn’t rate more of a mention. Bob Parker called the idea of linking the central city to satellite centres via the rail lines a “no brainer”,and indicated funding has been set aside in the draft Plan to investigate “external routes”. But he does seem to indicate that it as an eventual direction rather than part of immediate plans, and that is a concern to me. I think commuter rail to places such as Rangiora, Rolleston and Lyttelton would be great “quick wins” for the CCC, particularly as it covers the north-south strategic growth corridor and would be relatively cheap to implement. It could also be upgraded in future into a tram-train type system in future if it is so wished and integrated into a light rail network. But I will focus on that aspect in another post. He also said: “Those routes might well be, in the years to come, the most economically viable, but there are a whole lot of other things that need to be considered. You have to match up where people live to where the jobs are going to be.” Hmmm… Funding has been set aside in the draft plan to investigate “external routes”.

In response to Mr Worrall’s plan, Parker said the proposed light rail plan was “fluid” and called criticism of the plan “misguided”.  He said the $410m was for more than just train tracks and that you needed “… a place to store and maintain vehicles. You’ve got to have a number of vehicles … There’s a lot of start-up figures in there.” True, he has a point there and we have to remember that the first stage will always be a little more difficult and expensive given it is the first.

Overall, I am not quite sure what to make of this. I think Richard Worrall makes some very interesting points but his concept sounds little different from the Council’s. The only real difference appears to be a greater emphasis and priority on utilising the rail lines  for connecting the city with satellite towns. So in my view that is what should be pushed for. If I had to take something from this article it is that there should be greater emphasis and priority given to establishing commuter rail services on existing rail lines linking key centres to the central city. How is that done? I have already outlined one possibility but am still working on that other post…

What I do take from this though is that the Council needs to come clean on why the CBD-university light rail route makes sense as a first stage, and this needs to be compared to other projects that might be alternatives as first stages (let alone other alternatives such as simply sticking with a bus only system). What will it achieve, not just in relation to the draft Plan and rebirth of Christchurch but what makes it such a good “first stage” for an eventual network. What strategic value does it have? I have already speculated on this, it would be nice to have it confirmed.

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