Are there enough bums on seats to support rail?

MIKE YARDLEY
Last updated 05:00 29/04/2014

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OPINION: As a train-spotter from way back, I'm stoked that Environment Canterbury has commissioned an investigation into the viability of commuter rail circuit-breaking the Northern Motorway's commuter gridlock.

I'm one of those typical Kiwi tourists who always enjoys exploring overseas cities via urban rail, lamenting the lack of such mass transit infrastructure back home.

Commuter rail, linking Christchurch with the Waimakariri and Selwyn districts, surely holds more promise than the notion of a light rail system within Christchurch, which became the object of obsession for the city's former mayor.

But unlike the super slick people-movers of Shanghai, Seoul or Singapore, do we really have enough willing bums on seats to support commuter rail?

We've only got a third of Auckland's population, and the bigger question is active patronage. Build it and they will board?

A previous Waimakariri District Council study revealed scant commuter appetite for catching a train to work.

My sister recently relocated to the lifestyle blocks of Swannanoa. But the trade-off, that she willingly accepted with eyes wide open, is a slow, long commute to Christchurch, if she doesn't leave home early enough.

ECan's investigation will explore all congestion-busting options. Major upgrades to the Northern Motorway, touted as the long-term fix to congestion, are still five years away.

Should that be fast-tracked instead? Metro bus enhancements are likely to play a leading role, including a priority lane from the Ashley Bridge. On Thursday, ECan expedited the proposal to deploy free wi-fi on northern buses, which will go live later this year, costing ratepayers $200,000. Surely, the ability to deal to your emails, update your status and surf the net on a bus, while enroute to work or home, as opposed to the brain-busting stupor of commuting with brake lights, will hold immeasurable appeal to some commuters. It might also help shed the bus of its "loser cruiser" perception.

ECan's recent revamp to the metro bus system is proving to be a patronage winner. Switching from a radial to a hub and spoke network has driven up patronage 17 per cent, with nearly 2 million trips taken monthly. Currently, the average peak-hour bus from Rangiora to the city centre takes 70 minutes and costs $4.55.

Transport buffs estimate a commuter train to Addington would take 45 minutes, but what would the ticket price need to be? Infrastructure costs have been estimated by academics in the blogosphere from $60 million to north of $100m, not to mention the operational costs.

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Would the Northern Motorway have to be tolled, with vehicle congestion charges, to bankroll commuter rail? And how palatable would that be?

- The Press

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