The Christchurch Tram as public transport

Posted on March 19, 2012 by


The draft City Plan proposes investigating options for making the tram part of the public transport network. I think that is a fantastic idea, and have recently been wondering what would be required to achieve this. The tram, especially the more recently constructed and proposed extensions, has always had a much greater potential, and I have always thought it was slightly squandered as a heritage tourist trap.

Can the tram be useful as public transport, rather than just another tourist trap?

The CBD was due to reopen in April, but it is looking increasingly likely that this will not happen and the reopening will be delayed for a few months. The tramway has previously stated that it is hoping to reopen some time during 2012, although in exactly what capacity I am not sure. One rumour I have heard is that the first stage of the extension could be completed and opened first, although in each case it is going to depend on what individual buildings being demolished pose a risk to the route (not all demolitions will pose such a risk). The Clarendon Tower, for example, is right next to both the current loop, and extension (which leaves the loop at the corner of Worcester Blvd and Oxford Tce), and I am not sure what effect that might have. Nevertheless, there is a difference between dangerous buildings and other buildings earmarked for demolition, which confuses the situation slightly. In any case, the indications seem to be that the tram routes themselves suffered only minor and easily repairable damage, so it is probably only a matter of time before repairs can be made and, once no dangerous buildings pose an immediate risk, the tram line can reopen, either fully or in part.

I think the initial focus for integrating the tram with the public transport network should be the new extensions. Stage one of the extensions takes the tram along Cashel St and down High St to the lanes precinct, looping down Poplar St where demolitions have recently been taking place. This extension is largely complete, and the tram route could go some way to bringing some activity and focus to the area.

Below is an image showing the existing loop and the two stages of the extension (blue and light blue respectively). You can see that the first stage links Cathedral Square, Oxford Tce (The Strip), Cashel Mall, High St, and the Lanes precinct. The second stage extends the tracks to CPIT. Note the proposal has changed from this so that the tram would run through the grounds of CPIT rather than going onto Ferry Rd.

Cashel Mall building projects in the current Re:Start project area, which the new tram line runs through, are due to kick off this year, including a high-profile development of retail, offices and lanes on the old Whitcoulls building site. The Re: Start project will then move further to the west, next to High Street, and again next to the new tram line. The High Street precinct will hopefully see a lot of activity over the next year or two, with property and business owners keen to bring back the energetic, alternative vibe that it was well-known for. Popular areas such as SOL Square and the Lanes are keen to reopen and rebuild, and the area is a key focus for mixed residential, retail and commercial developments in the draft City Plan. Finishing the extension by building stage two to CPIT, would provide further opportunities that would aid the redevelopment and rebuilding of the area. One thing that would be quite useful and important would be that the tram line could provide a better link for students between CPIT and Central Station.

In order for this to work, I feel that the following needs to be done in order to bring the tram service up to such a standard that people will use it in a more general sense:

  • Make it affordable for everyday use – There are a number of possibilities here, but at the end of the day the tram needs to be affordable so people might use it everyday to get around the city. It really should be no more than $2-3, perhaps with unlimited use all day. What scope there might be to allow bus users to have a free transfer to the tram within two hours I am not sure, but it would be a wise move. There may also be scope to integrate it fully with metro fares, perhaps making it the same as a zone 1 bus route. I know there has also been talk of an inner-city free fare zone. Whatever, the fares have to change.
  • Allow the use of Metrocard – This would make it much easier and more attractive to use the tram, but needs to be done in conjunction with an overhaul of fares, especially if concepts such as integrating the fares fully or partially with Metro are to be looked at. If the CCC is serious about integrating the tram into the public transport network, this needs to happen. Even if the tram fare is different to the bus/Metro fare structure, the Metrocard should still be able to be used as has happened with the Darfield bus service.
  • Introduce modern LRVs – The old heritage trams are great, but if we want to get serious about the tram being part of the public transport network, and really get people using them and in turn get the trams encouraging businesses and residents to move into the CBD, then modern light-rail vehicles are the way to go. Nicer, smoother, more reliable, greater capacity, and they have that “wow” factor. We basically need vehicles that can do the job, and do it well. The heritage trams can still have a place, but getting modern light-rail vehicles into the mix would really lift the game. For the first stage of the extension, you would only need two or three to begin with.

The Portland Streetcar (Streetcar being American for Tram). Originally built to run replica heritage trams, it was switched to modern light rail vehicles before completion and now forms a crucial part of the public transport network. Note this is separate from Portland's Max Light Rail system.

  • High frequency services – The frequency of trams along the route should be at least every 10 minutes throughout the day, as you would want it to be a sort of hop-on/hop-off service. That would not be too hard to achieve given that the route is not overly long. It may be possible to operate a couple of heritage trams alongside two or three modern LRVs, which might initially keep costs down until further expenditure can be justified.

This would be a litmus test for the rest of the tramway, which could follow suit in due course. Please note that I consider this concept completely separate from the proposals for light/commuter rail and/or tram-trains. This seems to be made pretty clear in the draft City Plan, which considers the two concepts separately.

When the extensions to the tramway were announced a few years ago, I always felt that it had to go down the route of being a more modern type system rather than simply an extension to the heritage loop. The main reasons were the nature of the busy areas it ran through (retail, commercial, entertainment, high density residential, education) and the proposed mixed use development of the area. Now, with a larger, faster redevelopment of the area due to take shape, I think it makes sense to plan a more modern tram system that is part of the public transport network from the get-go.