Commuter rail needed for rebuilt city

Imagine this: You live in Rangiora and you have just finished work in Christchurch. You take the train. You're home in half an hour.

Or perhaps you live in Woodend, Kaiapoi, Darfield, Rolleston, Ashburton or Lyttelton. From Christchurch Central to each of these destinations, the journey takes just 20 to 50 minutes. Trains head north, south, east and west at regular intervals throughout the day, economically and efficiently.

There's no stress. You don't have to worry about traffic, feeling tired, or whether you have had a few drinks. You can sit back, relax, read, catch up on emails, or look at the scenery.

Now imagine this: You drive to the railway station and leave your car in a park-and-ride. Once in the city, you get about by electric bus. Or you could take your bike with you on the train.

All this is possible, in some cities, right now - including taking bikes on trains. Commuting by rail is a daily ritual for millions of people around the world, including in Wellington and Auckland.

When I lived in London, I took the mainline train from green and leafy Wimbledon to the heart of the city. When I lived in Cologne, I either biked or took the tram, which also ran through open fields to nearby Bonn. Even car-centric America has good rail networks.

In Canterbury, we drive everywhere. Not only do commuters have to contend with Christchurch's potholed, bumpy roads, detours, single lanes and orange cones, they must also battle their way through a forest of unsynchronised traffic lights and bumper-to-bumper cars and trucks.

The main route north is clogged, and so, too, are Riccarton Rd and the route west. Traffic in the city is often snarled up. Patience is at a premium.

And it is only going to get worse. As new subdivisions spring up on the urban fringes and the city sprawls outwards, we can expect more congestion, more frayed tempers, and longer commuting times.

Unless we take the alternative track, and we build a regional rail network.

This is no pie-in-the-sky fantasy. The mainline tracks exist now. It is a matter of making use of them, investing in some new infrastructure and purchasing the rolling stock.

Design experts have already given the scheme extensive thought, and come up with a detailed, practical plan.

In July 2011, less than five months after the devastating February 22 earthquake, the Canterbury branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA) released an in-depth report entitled Recommendations for a Design Led Reconstruction of the Christchurch City Centre.

The plan, by some of the city's most experienced and dedicated architects, includes many good ideas.

Among them is utilising existing mainline railway lines to link outlying Canterbury towns.

A Moorhouse Transport Hub would serve as "a common link and interchange between the commuter lines, suburban buses and the proposed electric bus loops which will feed the CDB . . . New state of the art, non-contact magnetic charging systems can power electric buses . . . Green technology could help generate a 21st century image for Christchurch."

The NZIA submitted the plan to the Christchurch City Council, but never heard back.

The council sold the city's innovative hybrid biodiesel-electric yellow buses. I understand they are now somewhere in China. We will get the tourist tram back instead.

Christchurch architect Jasper van der Lingen believes a commuter rail network still makes sense. A good public transportation system encourages urban regeneration and sustainable growth; it mitigates against sprawl. People don't have to use their cars. Growth occurs alongside the public transportation corridors. Van der Lingen says examples include Curatiba, Brazil, and Melbourne.

Press motoring editor Dave Moore also backs a commuter rail network and using the previous railway station site. He says one solution would be to buy surplus rail units from Auckland. Using rail would take hundreds of vehicles off the roads, easing congestion, says Moore.

Already the lack of car-parking is proving a disincentive for businesses, especially in the central city.Transport links to the inner city are fundamental to the success of the Christchurch rebuild. If people can't travel to your business easily, they will go elsewhere.

If Christchurch wants to become a truly sustainable, future-focused city, the time to act is now.

It does not matter what political party makes the decisions; the beneficiaries will be future generations. Will mayor-elect Lianne Dalziel seize the opportunity? Could ECan have a say? At a time when the Government, Cera, and the Christchurch Central Development Unit are still very much in the picture, to simply put the question of a rail network into the too-hard basket is a cop-out and a huge missed opportunity - and one we will all pay for, somewhere down the line.

For more information on the NZIA's draft plan see christchurcharchitects.co.nz.

The Press