Rail decision a failure of vision

05:37, Jul 23 2014
Wellington train
WELL PATRONISED: Commuters at Wellington Railway Station. Many Wellingtonians choose to park at their home station before catching the train into town.

The decision to nix the prospect of commuter rail for Canterbury is short-sighted and disappointing. Perhaps it can be revisited. If not, Christchurch's chances of developing as a forward-looking sustainable 21st century city are seriously compromised.

Last week the Waimakariri District and Christchurch City councils, NZ Transport Agency (NZTA), and Environment Canterbury ruled that, at $10 million, rail for North Canterbury would be too expensive.

The other reason, according to project leader Jim Harland, was that railway stations were "not well configured to be where people want to go from a working point of view."

Here's why rail would make a difference and why that decision does not stack up in the long term.

Accessibility matters. Two of the most vital aspects in the successful development of any city are affordable housing and a good transportation system. Christchurch fails on both counts.

Lack of affordable housing blights people's chances of a better future by burying them in debt, and forces them to struggle in sub-standard, unhealthy homes.


Lack of a good transportation system creates the congested roads with which Christchurch people have become only too familiar since the earthquakes. It hampers business and growth, raises stress levels, and makes the city a far less attractive place to live in or to visit. It also works out to be more expensive. Bureaucrats and politicians fail to differentiate between short-term costs and long- term investments.

Rail would not just be a cost. It would have huge benefits not just for today's society but for future generations, too. Rail would save money in the long term by reducing the need to spend as much money on building and maintaining roads, car parks, and parking buildings.

Rail would make it easier for people to live outside the city centre and commute. That would encourage growth in the regions, where housing can be more affordable.

Reduced congestion would make businesses more efficient and profitable. Oh, and it would also be good for the environment by reducing pollution and fossil fuel use.

Sure, rail would be expensive. What isn't? The Christchurch City Council faces a yawning chasm of debt of more than half a billion dollars - the amount it underestimated the costs of rebuilding infrastructure and new anchor projects. (No matter that you could blame the previous council for underinsuring buildings; it is the present council that cops the headaches.)

Ask yourself: Which is a better use of public money: $10 million for a rail network, or hundreds of millions of dollars each for a covered sports stadium and a convention centre?

It would not be solely up to the city council to cough up the funds; other territorial authorities, central Government, and possibly even private enterprise could chip in.

A rail link need not connect just the Waimakariri region with Christchurch; it could service points south and west as well.

The railway lines are already there. Why not use them?

Rail is just part of the mix. We also need a better bus system, better roads, and off-road cycle lanes. The same arguments to apply - expenditure on better transport is an investment in the future.

The argument that railway stations are in the wrong place is partially true. Christchurch's main railway station was located slap-bang in the middle of town. Moving the station out on a limb to Addington was ludicrous.

Why not put the main station back and build new stations? Canterbury is flat so it can't be too hard.

Other cities around the world operate successful rail systems. I have discussed some of them previously. Critics complain that Canterbury is too small and we don't have the population.

Yet, we used to have a passenger rail service, decades ago, when the city had a far smaller population.

Other cities kept their rail systems. I am just back from visiting family in Wellington. We decided to take the train from the city centre. Several lines connect the main terminal with suburbs and towns dotted through the hills, the Hutt Valley, and the Kapiti coast. It couldn't have been easier. Trains are popular, even at off- peak times. Many commuters choose to park at their home station before catching the train into town.

The new units are smooth and fast (what a shame, though, that Kiwi Rail chose to import them rather than support local workshops).

Auckland, too, now has a suburban rail network. Why not here?

Canterbury used to be able to build railway tracks and plan a bold future: to think in generations, not election cycles. Why have we lost that ability?

For voters it would be helpful if politicians and wannabe politicians could explain their views on rail, and outline their vision for transport in Christchurch and Canterbury.

The Press