Some people have commented lately (including this architect institute) that rather than spending money on a light rail line from the CBD to the university, we should instead look to develop commuter rail services on the existing rail network to Kaiapoi and Rangiora in the north, Rolleston in the south, and to Lyttelton. Without a doubt, I would have thought that such a concept would have been first cab off the rank, and was mildly surprised when I saw the university light rail proposal as a first stage for what appeared to be a proposed light rail network extending to the Airport, Hornby, Papanui, Lyttelton, and New Brighton, utilising the rail corridor in places and street running in others. Rail on the existing lines seemed a first up “no brainer” and one that would serve many current and future growth zones along the strategic north-south corridor, result in a high quality service, while also potentially being relatively cheaper. The tracks are there, and they serve a key corridor through the city, so why not use them?
I have speculated previously that the proposed university light rail line might be a lead in to introducing tram-trains on rail routes to Rangiora, Rolleston, and Lyttelton as it could potentially create a link between the railway corridor and the CBD. However, the plan seems to be to develop this ‘light rail’ network first, and while Mayor Parker has assured us that commuter rail services further afield is on the cards, there was nothing much in the draft Central City Plan about what seems such an obvious idea and a “quick win” for reintroducing successful passenger rail services to Christchurch.
It is a simple idea really. Run commuter train services from Rangiora, Rolleston and Lyttelton into the city, possibly to a new station on Moorhouse Avenue, linking key satellite centres and suburbs in between. Such services operate in Wellington (electrified) and Auckland (soon to be electrified) and even previously operated in Christchurch (partially electrified) with the final service being discontinued in 1976. It would be a good start. From 2014, a fleet of 24 push-pull commuter train sets, barely a decade old, will start to become available as new electric trains begin to arrive for the Auckland rail network. This is undeniably a unique opportunity for Christchurch to get its hold of some relatively cheap, ready rolling stock, completely compatible to run on local railway lines. If the decision were made to secure these sets today, that would give us at least three to four years to fund and begin rolling out improvements to the network to allow commuter rail services to begin. This would include signalling, redouble-tracking Islington-Rolleston, installation of additional passing loops on the Main North line, building a (tight) new direct connection between the Main North line and Lyttelton line, a new central station at Moorhouse Ave and new suburban stations complete with appropriate facilities like cycle lock-up, park and ride etc.
Taking this outline, you could even future proof for conversion to tram-train operation or seek to extend it into the CBD ala Britomartor other some such way. The point is those rails are sitting there now, and we even might have compatible train sets thrown at us. Should we ignore that? It is clear to me that most Christchurch people simply have no idea what it is like to have a quality public transport system at their finger tips, especially rail. Sure, the rail lines don’t go everywhere but they do serve a much greater area than the proposed university light rail line and this area is about to explode in population over the next few years. It would be a fantastic way to reintroduce the Christchurch public to rail travel, and to pave the way for an easier roll out of the proposed light rail system, either as a single integrated network or two separate systems that work with each other.
I am not criticising the proposed light rail route too harshly. I think on its own it stacks up, as I have described in the past (unfortunately, many people have been quick to jump the gun and deride it as too expensive and useless only to then go and propose far more ridiculous solutions of their own! – I’m looking at you trolley buses!). My main concern is that surely utilising the existing lines and linking the obvious commuter generation centres like Rangiora, Kaiapoi, Belfast, and Rolleston to the city should have received more recognition in the draft plan. I hoped that the light rail proposal would provide a way forward for such services by providing a potential tram-train link between the rail corridors and the city centre. That this hasn’t been pointed out by the City Council and Mayor is a worry to me. If the case is ‘no’ then surely the implementation of commuter rail services is something we must run with while we have the chance. It is not my intention to cheer for one idea over the other, the end result myself and many of us desire for this city is the same in the end. There is more than one way to get there and I have enthusiastically explored these in detail. What I do want to see from the City Council is some clarity, as i have advocated for previously. Is the light rail system envisioned to eventually extend to Rangiora and Rolleston etc, or would services to those places be a separate ‘system’? Would they be tram-trains or not? What else could the university light rail line achieve that makes it good value for money? These are questions I await the answers to with much anticipation.