Tram-train concept on rail lines gets further backing

Posted on October 11, 2011 by


An interesting opinion piece from Richard Worrall (see previous post here) today on stuff, in which he advocates the tram-train option on existing railway lines with street links into the CBD over building the university-CBD light rail line or heavy-rail commuter services:

Confused about all the rail proposals getting a public airing at the moment? RICHARD WORRALL argues that rail needs a suitable combination of routes and technology to work in the greater Christchurch area.


One of the more resounding transport messages to come from the “share an idea” exercise back in May was the desire to have some form of rail-based transport re-introduced to the greater Christchurch area.

Clearly, there is a preference for rail transport – it is inherently smoother, more spacious, comfortable and with the right technology is faster than car commuting at peak times. Furthermore, thanks to the laws of physics, steel wheels rolling on steel rails are far more energy efficient than road transport and being a guided transport system makes it safer and more able to cope with adverse weather conditions. Crucially, in addition it has a very good public image – people like trains but have little or no affection for buses. People don’t go to Ferrymead to ride old buses.

The good news about the great rail debate of 2011 is that Bob Parker, Chris Gunn (Perspective, September 12) and the New Zealand Institute of Architects have been able to collectively identify the correct rail technology for the greater Christchurch area (light rail) and the right routes on which to deploy that technology as a priority (linking the Selwyn and Waimakariri Districts to the city). Unfortunately, neither camp has been able to successfully identify both.

Parker correctly points out light rail has all the inherent advantages of conventional rail transport with the added flexibility of being able to operate on tracks laid in city streets so its reach is far greater than standard commuter trains. However, the central city-university route is not busy enough to warrant the introduction of light rail – perhaps up to two million trips a year at an educated guess across all modes of transport.

Make no mistake – light rail is a big step up from buses in terms of potential carrying capacity – it is possible to move from 2000 to 10,000 people an hour in both directions. However, if the level of demand is not there then the inbuilt capacity and therefore investment is wasted.

In contrast, the total demand for travel between the Waimakariri District and Christchurch expressed in people movements, excluding through traffic and heavy vehicles, is about 28 million trips per annum and is growing at about 3 per cent per annum. Add in demand for trips of more than two kilometres between Belfast, Redwood, Casebrook and Bishopdale to the central, southern and western parts of the city and that figure balloons to about 48 million trips per annum. Travel demand between the Selwyn District and the far western suburbs of Christchurch and the city’s commercial centres further east is in excess of 30 million trips per annum and is also growing at about 3 per cent a year. Tapping just 20 per cent of these markets would equate to more than 42,000 passenger movements a day.

Gunn and the NZ Institute of Architects correctly identify these travel markets as the ones which should be given priority. With much of greater Christchurch’s future growth being channelled to these areas – a trend which is being accelerated by the aftermath of the February 22 earthquake, demand will grow even faster and to a greater level than previously expected. At present there is no effective higher-capacity alternative to car commuting available which is why public transport’s share of the Christchurch – Waimakariri travel market, for example, is less than 1 per cent. Even now this lack of good quality public transport alternatives is costing longer distance car commuters tens of millions of dollars in extra travel expenses each year. In addition, such high levels of car commuting are leading to growing traffic congestion on city and suburban streets – problems the present motorway building frenzy on the city’s fringes will do little if anything to alleviate.

However, tackling these problems by simply resurrecting the old commuter train services confined to the rail corridors will not work. Such services will necessitate a mode change from train to bus which is proven to discourage patronage.

Wellington is a classic example of this problem. Commuter trains run from Wellington’s outlying cities to the railway station on the edge of the city centre but 90 per cent of commuters want to go more than a comfortable short walk from the railway station to get to their final destinations. Consequently, most passengers have to make a cumbersome switch to buses which is also time consuming due to the massive capacity difference between trains and buses. As a result, despite its apparent advantages of beating motorway congestion, the majority of trips made into and out of Wellington are done by car. The NZ Institute of Architects clearly does not understand this.

Their proposal also calls for closely spaced stops along the railway corridors within the city’s suburbs. However, heavy commuter trains are not designed for stops as closely spaced as suggested in this proposal. To do so would condemn the service to slow speeds which would not be competitive with driving.

Also, strangely their proposal indicates trains are still capable of turning directly from the main north line at Riccarton east on to the main line through to Lyttelton. This rail link no longer exists. The land was sold off and has been built over so it is impossible to run trains directly between Rangiora to any station/transport hub at Moorhouse Ave.

What is needed to link Christchurch with its outlying satellite towns is the tram-train integrated with feeder bus services as well as park and ride interchanges.

This is a derivative of the modern articulated light-rail vehicle. These can run on railway lines on dedicated rail corridors at up to 100kmh where it is advantageous to do so under diesel power and then switch seamlessly to tracks built into city streets or even laid in grass reserves powered by electric traction motors drawing current from an overhead wire or an in-ground power supply.

Tram-trains are now in service in Kassel in Germany as well as Mulhouse in France, both of which are smaller than Christchurch, connecting those cities with surrounding towns.

This flexibility means commuters can get from say Rangiora to the city centre, hospital or even the Riccarton, Addington and Birmingham Dr commercial areas without having to change vehicles or at least modes. Acceleration is fast (0-100kmh in 15 seconds fully loaded) so stops can be more frequent without adversely affecting journey times. Low floors and multiple sliding doors combined with matching low platforms at stops make entry and exiting stepless and therefore quick, safe and easy for all people, including those in wheelchairs, with prams or even with bicycles which can be taken on board.

Linking Rolleston, Lincoln, Kaiapoi, Rangiora and Pegasus to Christchurch’s CBD and its main suburban business centres would not come cheap – about $900m. However, a sizeable portion of this cost would come via the NZ Transport Agency, not rates, while the balance could come from levying a small toll on the north motorway and the main routes west of the city. With good levels of patronage operating costs should be able to be covered as they are in Dublin where their light rail network runs at a profit.

The payback from the initial investment is far greater. Even if car running costs were to rise just at the annual rate of inflation for the next 35 years and light rail fares were comparable with existing bus fares and rose at a similar rate, those 20 per cent of people who switched to light rail would save themselves at least $2.7bn over the first 35 years of operation in personal transport costs.

The technology is readily available. It’s simply a matter of applying it to the right routes. If this is done the city and its surrounding communities will reap the benefits.

There is some interesting stuff here. The idea in general is not dissimilar from the concept I discussed on here not too long ago. Levying a small toll on the northern motorway is an interesting suggestion, and one that I would like to see explored further. Unfortunately, here in New Zealand it seems we only levy tolls to pay to build motorways rather than to manage congestion, and since we already have funds earmarked for the extensions of the motorway as part of the RoNS programme then I doubt it would be easy to get the idea off the ground. Still, the proposal has been suggested by the Mayor of Auckland so there may be hope yet.

I think Worrall is being a bit harsh on the proposed light rail line in terms of potential patronage and viability. I don’t think that is the issue (and I would love to know where this “educated guess” comes from) as it is undoubtedly one of the most densely populated and active corridors in the city (CBD, hospital, Riccarton high street and mall, university, and in future Burnside and the Airport). Rather, the issue is around priority and cost – is it the best way to get a rail network up and running in Christchurch? He is also a bit harsh on Wellington’s rail system. I do see the point he is trying to make but it kind of labels Wellington’s commuter rail system a failure, which it certainly is not. In fact, you could argue the other way and say that it is an example of such a set-up working, rather than being a complete hindrance. Furthermore, it is not “impossible” to rebuild a direct rail link from the main north line towards Lyttelton. It can still be done, although it would certainly cost a bit.

We should also get out of the mind-set of demanding rail recovers all its costs through the fare box. There are very few systems around the world that do this, and neither the Wellington or Auckland systems come close to achieving this (neither do roads). If we start talking about such a prospect, people are going to have unrealistic expectations and it could dent future projects.

Richard Worrall’s ideas have a lot of credit though. He made the point that Christchurch people are getting behind the rail idea, and that is something I agree with (apart from one or two very vocal critics). We now need to look at all these options and decide what one has the best ‘bang for buck’ and suits future growth and expansion. The tram-train idea is just one idea, but it is a very plausible one. The New Zealand Institute of Architects concept is similar to something I outlined the other day, and is probably not quite as bad as Worrall makes out. For less money up front, it could go some way towards establishing a much improved public transport network for Christchurch, and could even be a precursor to the type of system that Worrall favours, especially if it is future proofed in that way. Alternatively, perhaps he is right and we should spend the money now and get it ‘right first time’. I am hopeful that this is where the debate will now head, rather than continuing to debate whether we need rail at all.