Christchurch rail services long overdue

There were serious flaws in the assessment which led to the rejection of a northern rail transport option for Christchurch, writes CHRISTOPHER KISSLING.

The Greater Christchurch Northern Rail - Rapid Assessment (GCNRRA) was released recently and the rail option that would temporarily reinstate rail commuter passenger services to alleviate road traffic congestion on the city's northern access has been voted down.

There are serious flaws that flow from the assessment's restricted brief.

The most obvious is the cost of support infrastructure. Cost kills this temporary proposal. Perversely, $10 million is regarded as too expensive but $300m-$400m for two motorway bypasses is judged acceptable.

Motorways induce more demand. Congestion never disappears. Experience elsewhere shows that fixing one black spot simply moves it to another place.

Shifting peak-time travellers from their private cars to alternative modes remains a necessity. Commuter-oriented rail passenger services can be added to the mix. There is no need to acquire more land. Why wait?

The second flaw is limiting consideration to the Central City/Rangiora line. The RailCan group provided the study team with feasible rail passenger schedules not conflicting with existing rail traffic (freight and inter- regional passenger trains). Linking the central city not only with Rangiora but also with Rolleston and Lyttelton is possible with timings to suit many high school students and office and industrial workers.

Rail can help shape travel demand. Transport planning should consider the type, amount and cost of energy required. New Zealand remains highly dependent upon imported fuels for transport. Energy-efficient forms of transport like rail shouldn't be overlooked.

Travellers on the northern access prefer private motor vehicles with 84 per cent single occupancy. There is little choice. Public transport on offer is by bus that is caught in the same congestion faced by private motorists. Parallel to this route is an uncongested rail corridor.

The primary target for reducing traffic volumes is those people travelling to work - some 10,725 Waimakariri to Central City (2013 Census). These travellers cause the peak time congestion. Off-peak, there is ample road capacity.

How then to cater for peak demands? The GCNRRA prepared for Environment Canterbury (ECan), poses short term strategic response options. The aims are to: (a) reduce peak volumes (b) improve public transport travel times, and (c) improve travel time reliability.

Demand and supply management are the means proposed. A list of performance indicators, when measured, will indicate how those goals are met. Travel times and travel time reliability head the list followed by flexibility and coverage.

The official medium to long-term strategy response is to encourage more car-pooling and bus public transport. Rail passenger commuter services may be considered at some future unspecified date. Unlike roads of national importance, there are no railroads of national importance for moving people in this region.

People need to be able to trust those with whom they share rides. Co-ordination of travel both to and from work is needed. Raising the number of cars crossing the Waimakariri Bridge daily with occupancy rates at two or more from the current 16 per cent is no simple ask.

School buses (150) cross the bridge every school day. Few cyclists are willing to brave the risks or are prepared to cycle 25km into the central city.

Another strategy is to give priority to high occupancy vehicles (HOV) by providing them with a reserved lane which other traffic cannot use. Strangely it has not been accepted in this case.

A controlled reserved lane might encourage more people to use HOV but in no way would it match or exceed the people moving capacity of railway carriages. Buses are HOVs. Unless HOVs are numerous, it results in sub- optimal use of the reserved lane. It is time to use the controlled access reserved rail corridor and to integrate rail passenger and bus transport services regionally. That may require formation of a transit authority taking over control and regulation of all public transport in Greater Christchurch.

Stripping control from local councils and ECan, all influenced by the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA), would be a prerequisite. Road transport engineers dominate NZTA and they think road before rail. The central Government, if it has a mind, can create such a transit authority. It gave draconian powers under Cera to redevelop Christchurch after the earthquakes.

Private vehicles best connect home and work places door-to-door but there is still the need for paid all- day parking plus a walk unless workplaces provide parking. Public transport by bus usually involves one or more transfers in the hub system now favoured by Ecan.

Critics suggest rail transport, as a fixed route system, cannot serve the needs of travellers without recourse to intermodal transfers. Coverage is seen as inferior to bus services. It need not be so.

All transfers add time to transit. It is how transfers are managed that counts. It can be quick by simply crossing a platform to a waiting bus that is co-ordinated with reliable rail timetables.

Coverage that includes rail can score on travel time, travel time reliability, flexibility and coverage. Using all Greater Christchurch's rail network, and not just the northern line, point to point travel can be achieved reflecting emergent post-earthquake living and workplace patterns.

Every rail passenger is a possible transferee from private car travel. Some rail passengers may transfer from existing long-haul buses, but rerouted feeder bus services will benefit. Incremental expenditure for upgrading the rail option on an existing network saves expenditure on roads.

Rail infrastructure improvements yielding productivity benefits for freight and passengers will involve modern train control systems and more strategic passing loops as frequencies increase. Initially, station infrastructure can be basic.

Reintroducing rail passenger services into New Zealand's second-largest city is overdue. The GCNRRA had restricted terms of reference. KiwiRail's reluctance to commit is understandable. A failed short-term solution would diminish confidence for the future.

Meantime, northern commuters will suffer. Inspired leadership and a long-term commitment are needed. Both bus and rail have their place if Christchurch is to really become a world-class "accessible city". Please listen to the people.

Christopher Kissling is emeritus professor of transport studies at Lincoln University, and a member of the RailCan group.

The Press