Huge speculation currently hangs over the future of the big ticket transport items in the draft Central City Plan. As the newly set up Christchurch Central Development Unit develops its blueprint for the central city, we are left to wonder the fate of things like the plan for a light rail network. The prognosis is admittedly not good, but the door does remain slightly ajar in that plans to improve public transport, and implement a rapid transit network, have not been completely dumped – at least not officially anyway.
Should we be surprised at what has happened though? No, not really. For a start, we know what the current government is like, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they are pretty much going to call a $1.8 billion light rail proposal a ‘pipe dream’, or something to that effect. Also, with any government, what were the chances they were ever going to approve a scheme to establish a light rail network for a city that currently has no rail or rapid transit whatsoever, and has a level of car dominance even that even makes Auckland look good. Yes, we have to change that, the city’s very future depends on it, however, we have to work within the environment we find ourselves in, and that may mean looking at alternative options that are more “cost-effective”, at least in the short to medium-term, to get things off the ground. Putting together an alternate scheme that is more cost-effective may be the difference between getting the ball rolling and getting nothing at all – I am not saying that this is the way I see it entirely, but in facing this threat, it is something to seriously be considered. We have the aim; to increase the mode share of public transport. We also have the reason; because we are heading for a future of extreme road congestion with its associated environmental and economic problems, and we simply can’t ‘road build’ our way out of it. We just need a solution that everyone will buy into, if the initial plan is rejected outright.
The light rail scheme was always a bit confusing, if we are to be truly honest. It was a vision, but there was no information on how to get there, and that was the problem. It was not the draft Central City Plan’s job to tell us that, but it’s flaw, at least to me, seems to be that it was too specific. It should have been a “rapid transit” proposal, with various options spelt out and roughly costed with the final decision to be decided out of a business case. Essentially, that is exactly what was proposed, but the language and focus on “light rail” probably helped to fuel scepticism and criticism of the proposal, much of it based upon the confusion of what was actually being proposed (separate light rail and heavy rail? Tram-trains? Light rail separate from the heritage tram or integrated with it? etc). Perhaps that was the whole point though, go for gold to make the silver and bronze options look much better, should the gold option be rejected. Maybe. Maybe not.
The scheme for a light rail network, as vaguely outlined, does not necessarily need to be implemented directly. If we look at other examples in New Zealand we see that the ‘road’ toward a world-class rapid transit system is often incremental. For example, to get the Auckland rail network electrified, and associated new rolling stock, has taken years of hard work and solid patronage growth from a network that was all but shutdown by the early 1990’s. They had to start from somewhere, and even in Auckland, population 1.4 million vs Christchurch’s 400,000, the Government has not been very receptive to proposals for an underground rail link – at least not yet. This is despite significant growth in annual patronage, and constraints the current terminus in the city places on the whole network that the proposed link would solve. Increased use following electrification will undoubtedly occur, and maybe then the government will get onboard.
The lesson is that rather than getting exactly what we want, it may be that we have to take a few steps to get there. There are other options that exist for Christchurch that can go a long way to improving public transport and increasing patronage, while being comparatively cheaper and still being future proofed for the final vision of a light rail network, if the Government is not willing to approve and fund such a scheme now. Auckland has shown that busways can work very well where there is no existing rail corridor, with the Northern Busway continuing its extremely strong growth in a previously car dominated region. The cost, versus building an entirely new light rail line, is likely to be more affordable, and can be built in such a way so it can be converted to light rail in future when it is more cost-effective and/or politically acceptable. The proposed South Eastern busway from Auckland’s Panmure railway station to Botany Downs, shows what is possible within limited road space, which is more applicable to the situation in Christchurch, as the Northern Busway runs within a wide motorway corridor.
There is scope, I believe, to look at busways as a more cost-effective and medium-term solution to developing a rapid-transit network in Christchurch. In particular, I would propose looking at busways along the proposed New Brighton and Airport routes, while developing basic rail services along the existing railway corridors to Rangiora, Rolleston, and Lyttelton. The possibility of upgrading such busways to light rail could be future proofed for as well – in fact, I would say it would be essential.
Perhaps it is time to snap into reality on the issue of light rail in Christchurch. Lets face it, it is entirely possible that no amount of evidence provided by the CCC is ever going to convince the Government to help fund a $1.8 billion package to build a “light rail network”, even if it is to be implemented stage by stage over a spread out timeline to make it more affordable. “We want light rail” just isn’t going to cut it, that is the reality of the situation. A good example to look at is the inner-city rail link in Auckland, as mentioned above. The Auckland Council put together a business case, but the Government rejected it on a number of grounds, including a lack of analysis on bus alternatives. Yes, there were holes in the Governments reasoning, but the reality of the situation is that the Government are going to look at the cheapest and easiest way (at least in the short-term) of doing things when it comes to public transport, unless there is an absolutely compelling reason that they can’t ignore (probably votes based). Sad, but true. If we want light rail, we are going to have to show we looked at other options, and that means including those options from the outset, and being prepared to accept them if need be for the immediate future.
So when I looked at Christchurch and the light rail network that was vaguely outlined in the draft Central City Plan, I tended to look at the proposal as a rapid transit network rather than a rail specific one. My reasoning for this is that, insofar as a rail network is concerned, it was indicative only. However, what it did do was highlight the key public transport corridors that the CCC are keen to develop and integrate with the future development of the city. If we take a step back and look at the network purely as rapid transit rather than light rail, we can begin to see how we can develop a more cost-effective solution than the one proposed, that might involve developing the routes as busways first. As an indication only, I have outlined one possibility for the New Brighton and Airport routes:
New Brighton (Eastern Suburbs Busway) – This would be developed to a similar fashion to the proposed South Eastern busway in Auckland. It would begin at the intersection of Worcester St and Linwood Ave running within the corridor of Linwood Ave and turning left to run within the corridor of Buckleys Rd, and then Pages Rd to New Brighton. Worcester St into the city, unless you wanted to spend megabucks to widen it, could probably only handle more traditional bus lanes, especially because it is also primarily residential and people in the area probably cherish their on-street parking.
Airport (Western Suburbs Busway) – This route is largely dependent on what happens to Riccarton Rd. With plenty of off-street parking, and/or improved parking down side-streets, it might just be acceptable to local businesses to implement a substantial length of full-time bus lanes, or even something of higher quality down there (I have always thought Riccarton Rd should be a slow road with greater pedestrian and bus priority). Clyde Rd could be similarly upgraded. Riccarton Avenue through the park could handle a segregated busway, and the intersection with Deans Ave upgraded to a set of lights with bus priority signals. Similarly, Memorial Avenue from Clyde Rd to the Airport would contain within its corridor a segregated busway.
The advantages of going the busway route is that it would probably be a lot cheaper (short-term), and would greatly improve the quality and effectiveness of bus services, which we have already seen can lead to significant increases in public transport use. However, it is not just affordability and effectiveness, but these advantages coupled with the opportunity to prove that investment in high quality public transport works. So, in addition to being more possible/realistic, this option then provides a much more solid argument for future investment in public transport infrastructure, including the possible upgrade of these very busways to light rail in the future. Basically, we need to learn to walk before we can run – and even if that is ultimately wrong, it might just be facing the reality of the situation we are in.
Essentially what I am saying is that going to the government and asking for a $1.8 billion light rail project from scratch is probably not going to fly – at least not with this government. Going for the more cost-effective option (in the short to medium-term at least), or at least putting it on the table from the get-go, just might, and will eventually lead to bigger and better things if they it is successful. As I said, these busways could eventually be upgraded to light rail, and success could lead to future projects being more likely to go ahead, and as I also said, we have to start from somewhere.
In terms of the existing rail lines, there are a few more cost-effective options that could be explored (although given we really know nothing of the nature of what the CCC were proposing in the draft Plan, that may actually be moot). I think that given the railway lines are actually there, there is no point in developing similar solutions to above to save money, it is more about how the rail lines are utilised that will affect costs. Ideas on that have been explored on here before and I will touch on them again, with updated thoughts, in my next post.