Wellington Light Rail

The other day there was an article in the Dominion Post about the Wellington Light Rail proposal. Specifically it was concerned with explaining how light rail would work in the city, including an explanation of its route, the way it interacts with other traffic, the streetscape and more. Really, it is actually a general description of light rail and what it is, applied to what seems a hypothetical plan outlined by an interest group called FIT and their solution called “Scenario A+” (riffing on the scenario’s developed for Let’s Get Wellington Moving).

Light rail is proposed as part of the Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) project and it has been stated a lot in the media lately that it is pretty much a foregone conclusion that light rail from Wellington railway station to the airport, via Newtown, will be paid for by the government (notwithstanding current delays to the overall LGWM package).

Does Wellington need light rail?

That is an interesting question. Wellington currently has commuter rail along three corridors emanating from the railway station at the north end of the CBD to the northern suburbs, Kapti Coast, and Hutt Valley. However, over half of greater Wellington’s population is concentrated in Wellington City and is currently not served by any form of rapid transit. The corridor from the CBD to the airport is, generally speaking, the major transport artery of the city and suffers from congestion throughout most working days. Furthermore, most of greater Wellington’s growth is occurring in the inner suburbs along this corridor in the form of higher density developments, and more is planned. In short, this is a corridor ripe for development. High capacity, high frequency, and high quality public transport is not only desired, but is necessary.

Added to this are two important further considerations. The first is that bus routes into the CBD are congested and can run slowly during peak hours, particularly in the inner city along the corridor known as the “Golden Mile” where buses often back up. Second, space in central Wellington is limited, which means any attempt to introduce rapid transit is going to be difficult and comparatively expensive. I mention this not as an argument against rapid transit but as an indication that alternatives to light rail, such as bus rapid transit, are not going to necessarily be cheaper, at least if you want to build something that is cost-effective.

So, to summarise, we have (broadly speaking) the following points that lead to light rail being a preferred option:

  • An existing, congested transport and activity corridor
  • Higher density developments underway and planned
  • Bus congestion in the inner city
  • High costs for most rapid transit options

Okay, but where should light rail go?

This is the question that concerns me the most. The article referred to above outlines a route that follows the waterfront “quays” then heads south don Taranaki St, before tunneling under Mount Cook (the suburb, not the South Island mountain) and running down Adelaide Rd and Riddiford Street to Newtown. Beyond that, the route heads further south towards the Zoo, tunnels through to Kilburnie, then to the Airport and then on to Miramar.

So is that what will actually happen?

I honestly don’t know the answer to the question, but I can make an educated guess. My short answer would be “no” but it is more complicated than that. Here are some questions I would ask about the light rail route:

  • Waterfront “quays” or “Golden mile” CBD route?
  • Tunnels or follow Cambrige/Kent Tce?
  • Do we need to go to the Airport immediately?

I’ll explore each of these questions, but first I would remind readers that the rumours are that $1 billion is being pledged by the government towards light rail. Now, I’m no engineer, but my guess is that the hypothetical example given in that article would cost a heck of a lot more than that, particularly with tunneling.

Waterfront “quays” or “Golden mile” CBD route?

I don’t want to be someone who avoids making decisions, but this is one I don’t have a preferred solution to. The waterfront option would be quicker, less disruptive, more segregated, and could have the spin off of completely re-imagining the way the city is connected to the sea (i.e. remove the traffic sewer that is currently there). The down side is that it might be a little too far from some parts o the inner city to make it truly transformational, although I would point out that I would see light rail as part of an entire public transport rejig within the central city, so other areas could be better served by buses. Still, the point remains.

The Golden Mile route is more central, has a more intimate integration with the city, but will also be slow die to the numerous intersections and could place limitations in paces where the corridor is narrow or has tight corners.

Yet another option could be to tunnel under the city, but dollar signs are starting to appear in my vision at the mention of that, so best not go down that rabbit hole for now. Ultimately, both routes have positives and negatives and I think more work will need to be done to ascertain which is truly more effective. It may be that another route could be looked at too, perhaps Featherston Street? My only opinion at this stage is that great thought needs to be put into this. The most obvious solutions what always be the best (as with most things).

Tunnels or follow Cambrige/Kent Tce?

Look at the map below.

wellington lr
Red line = via Mount Victoria; Blue line = via Mount Cook; Black line = “Golden Mile” route; Grey line = “Waterfront” route. All lines extremely approximate!

The article in question outlined a different route (blue line) from the one often brought up when it comes to Wellington light rail discussions (red line).

Let’s talk about the red line first. It would allow (potentially) light rail to go the full length of the Golden Mile (if it goes down that route), serve Mt Victoria, and take advantage of the wide expanses of Cambridge/Kent Tce and the full length of Adelaide Road. The negatives? The Basin Reserve presents an obstacle, but seeing as LGWM is largely centred around solving the current issues at that location, surely a solution can be worked in as part of the overall one. Another problem is that this takes light rail away from some of the key destinations in Te Aro, particularly if the waterfront option is used.

The blue line better serves Te Aro by running along Taranaki St parallel to Cuba St and just one block over. It also serves the Massey University campus quite well. However, where the red line might take advantage of a Basin reserve Solution, thereby potentially reducing cost, it would require either an expensive tunnel through Mount Cook or be squeezed into the narrow and hilly road space through the suburb.

One potential solution is that one route could become the premier bus route and the other the light rail route. Budget considerations and further analysis should decide which option is better, but my mind tends to favour the red line option.

Do we need to go to the Airport immediately?

My short answer to this is “no” and I would be amazed if the intention is to fund light rail to the airport in one hit. I think it should be staged in two phases, the first to Newtown and the second to the “airport area”. Funding and design work should be focused on the first stage while the second stage could remain open to interpretation until stage one is bedded in. The CBD to Newtown route is far more necessary, in my opinion, and should therefore be prioritised accordingly. That’s where the higher density developments now and in the future are focused, and where the busiest bus routes are. The last thing I’d want to see is funding stretched for a sub-optimal solution.

Summary

So there you have it, my high level thoughts on the Wellington light rail plan. Hopefully it won’t be long before we see some more detail on this project, and I look forward to seeing what options are preferred and why (or even if light rail is even preferred). I’ll be sure to cover that on here when/if that happens.

Further reading

This is just a bit of a think piece I have done on the fly, but light rail has been proposed along this route in Wellington for a number of years and lots of people have done quite a bit of thinking about it over the years. There is Scenario A+ as outlined at the start and… well, just type in “Wellington light rail” into Google and you should find a few different plans, proposals and analysis, some going way back, all riffing roughly on the same thing. Enjoy!

 

 

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Funding transport projects outside of Auckland – there is a problem

I read this morning in the paper (Dominion Post) that the Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) package of transport projects, due to be announced late last year, is still stalled in the water over funding issues. This illustrates a problem that I think was pretty obvious before, but is increasingly becoming one that can’t be ignored. How to fund transport projects in cities outside Auckland, particularly Wellington and Christchurch.

Firstly, what is LGWM?

LGWM is intended to provide a package of transport projects including state highway upgrades and public transport improvements (including light rail from Wellington railway station to the airport) is expected to cost up to $4 billion. However, the sticking point seems to be funding, principally how much of the package will be picked up by central and local government respectively.

The issue…

This is a common sticking  point when it comes to large infrastructure projects in New Zealand, and was a major issue with the rebuild after the Christchurch earthquake. Where it isn’t so much of an issue is Auckland, where legislation passed last year allowed Auckland Council to introduce a regional fuel tax to help pay for its share of transport projects. However, this has been ruled out for other cities by the government.

This, of course, leaves a problem for the next two largest cities Wellington and Christchurch; how to pay the local share for much needed transport infrastructure. Without the option of a regional fuel tax… well, there really aren’t a lot of other options to raise additional funds. Check out my previous post on the recently approved public transport plan for greater Christchurch. Although approved, the implementation of this plan, which includes a massive expansion of high frequency bus services, bus priority, and two rapid transit lines, requires a bucket load more money be spent on public transport than current (which is, admittedly, abysmal).

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Christchurch’s proposed, much improved, public and rapid transit network. This will require a lot more money to fund.

More money is needed from both local and central government in Christchurch in particular, but the local contribution is the weak point because of limited options for local government to raise it. Wellington is proving this and Christchurch, with already huge commitments to other projects associated with the rebuild, will certainly be under pressure.

A little more detail about the pressures these cities are feeling

Wellington’s transport corridors in the inner south heading east-west and north-south have long been a problem and solutions have been planned for and debated for years. Cheap solutions and road-only solutions have been proposed, but finally a more multi-modal package looks likely to be delivered, with extra money being spent on developing a less intrusive road component (it is expected to be largely underground/trenched) and a commitment being made to rapid transit. Locals will tell you this has been needed for years, and plans to intensify Wellington’s inner suburbs from Newtown through to the CBD, which is arguably already occurring, is piling more pressure on these key routes which are maxed out in the mornings. Removing bottlenecks and traffic conflicts and improving public transport is what is needed, and is what is planned. What makes this situation different from Auckland? Scale? Maybe, but it is still along deferred project in a high growth area.

Christchurch has its plan together, as explained, and it will require a significant increase in spending, which could be the sticking point. The key problem for Christchurch, however, is its growth. With greater Christchurch currently growing at about 10,000 people per year, and with much of the city entrenched in auto-dependent sprawl, I fail to see how there is not a need  for funding mechanisms to enable local government to meet its transport infrastructure costs. Unlike Auckland and Wellington, Christchurch does not have a ready-to-go list of key transport projects lined up waiting for funding commitment from central government, which should be a source of embarrassment for local body politicians, although that is another story for another post. However, if a regional fuel tax, let’s say, were extended to other areas like Christchurch, this could help instigate the development of such a list. Further, the approved regional public transport plan and future public transport business case should throw up projects that are fund ready in short time.

There is a funding problem in our second tier cities

So it begs the question why these areas are being boxed in, with less tools to get much needed infrastructure funded and brought forward. I’m not necessarily advocating an extension of Auckland’s regional fuel tax, although perhaps that is the option that we already have experience with to some success in Auckland, but certainly what all this highlights is that we need solutions in this area so infrastructure can get funded. I certainly think it was a mistake for the government to rule out extending the regional fuel tax option to other areas, particularly Wellington and Christchurch where there are strong comparisons to Auckland in terms of the issues faced, although admittedly smaller in scale.

Whether fuel taxes, congestion charges, a car parking levy or whatever, more tools for local government to meet its costs would be welcome and would enable councils to make funding decisions by lessening risk and providing greater certainty. The risk is that nothing will get done, poor behaviours will become further entrenched, or, perhaps worse, poorer solutions will be implemented.

Hamilton to Auckland commuter rail – setting a template for other services?

On Friday it was widely reported that it seemed likely that a Hamilton to Auckland commuter rail service would be given the go ahead for funding by the NZTA board. The plan is for two trips a day each way, stopping at key places along the way (i.e. Huntly) and terminating in the southern Auckland suburb of Papakura. From there, commuters will have to transfer to one of Auckland’s local rail services for the trip into the city, although once rail infrastructure projects are completed, such as the City Rail Link and a third main on the North Island Main Trunk, it should be possible for trains to run right through to Britomart or perhaps another central terminus.

It’s interesting to see what the service will cost, and what that will by. The project is estimated to cost $76.2m over six years. This seems to cover both capital and operating costs for the service over this period. Capital costs include the purchase and modification of carriages and upgrade of existing, or construction of new, stations. The NZTA contribution is proposed to be $66.8m, of which $49.6m will go towards 100 per cent of the capital costs (the remaining share of the costs are covered by Hamilton City, Waikato District and Waikato Regional councils). WiFi, toilets, a cafe, space fr bikes, are all included in the service which will cost $12.20 for the one-way trip from Hamilton to Papakura (onward travel on the Auckland Metro network is exclusive) which will take less than 90 minutes.

If successful in receiving NZTA funding the service could be up and running by the end of the first quarter of 2020. It’s an interesting development and introduces long-distance commuter services to our largest city. From an economic standpoint it also seems to be a win-win for both cities. For Hamilton, it provides improved access to the larger city, expanding opportunities for people to settle there, cutting out the prospect of a long drive on a congested motorway. More people equals more business, even if they work in Auckland some or all of the time. Those people will always bring their money back and spend it in Hamilton. It also provides opportunities for Hamilton based businesses that may need to attend meetings, workshops etc in the larger city, although that might not come until later on when the service is fully developed. For Auckland, tying itself even further to Hamilton underscores its role as New Zealand’s premier metropolitan area, and will help the upper north island operate as more of a single economic entity (which it is arguably already starting to do). Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself here, it’s really only a small, start-up service, but this is where things could head if done correctly. Check out some of the “inter-city” or “regional” rail services in and out of Australian capital cities, particularly Melbourne and Sydney. It’s definitely early days, but that’s a good illustration of where Auckland could head. This might well be the start of it all.

There are some obvious drawbacks of the service. The first is that services are limited to two a day. This isn’t unusual for a start-up service and it seems it is the intention to grow this as the service develops. The second issue is that it terminates in Papakura. This isn’t an ideal situation but it is hardly an idea killer. Eventually, if the service is successful, the additional rail infrastructure projects needed to extend Hamilton services all the way into Auckland will come along and will, hopefully, seem like an organic, incremental development of the service as more and more people use it. Finally, the service proposes using the old SA/SD push pull train sets, using diesel locomotives to haul them. Many people would prefer newer, more efficient rolling stock, but getting the service off the ground is the overriding priority here, and this is a way to do it. They could do a lot, lot worse.

I think this service will ultimately be successful, but I also think already it provides a few lessons for when considering other rail projects:

  • Setting up a commuter rail service can be done relatively cheaply
  • Commuter rail can work despite infrastructure handicaps (i.e. not going to the centre of the city)
  • It’s possible to get funding to set up a basic rail service with the idea of incrementally improving in future
  • NZTA is willing to consider and fund these types of commuter rail services
  • Willingness and effort from local government is essential

I think this has significant relevance for the establishment of further rail services out of Wellington, as well as the development of commuter services in the Christchurch area, in particular the long talked about Rangiora-Christchurch route which I see as a sort of mini version of the Hamilton-Auckland one. Check out this post for information on a proposal for a Rangiora-Christchurch that didn’t go ahead, and note the similarities in the way the service would cost (although it is probably under cooked to a degree) and the limitations plus the way it would operate. This illustrates what a difference it can make when local government get behind an idea (as with Hamilton) and don’t (as with Christchurch, where they focused on a temporary solution that was never going to make sense). It also probably makes some difference when considering the government of the day! However, if you apply the  same logic to the Christchurch example outlined in the link, you would almost certainly conclude it would make sense.

I’m really fascinated with seeing how this Hamilton-Auckland service goes ahead, and I’m hoping that some lessons will be learned and other services can get up and running too. Rail has been underutilised in this country, so it is good to see an extension beyond the Auckland and Wellington metro areas.

Rethinking ‘road strategies’ as ‘transport strategies’ – The curse of “east west links”

A few years ago, something strange happened in Melbourne. A major inner-city motorway (or, freeway as Victorians prefer) was proposed at the eye watering tune of $15-17 billion, with a first stage of almost $6 billion contracted just before the state election of 2014. Following the election, the project was ditched by the incoming government, the first stage cancelled (costing $1.3 billion), and money was instead pumped into major public transport projects such as the Melbourne Metro Tunnel and freeway projects in outer-city areas (such as the North East Link).

In Auckland in 2017, the proposed $2 billion “East West Link” project was also cancelled by the incoming government (or, rather more accurately, was being “rethought”). This was a behemoth of a road – some say gold plated –  that was basically a motorway in all but name, linking Auckland’s southwestern and southern motorways. Government, local and central, now seem to prefer spending far less money on a smaller scale project to deal with road congestion and redirect surplus funds into public transport projects like the Auckland Light Rail project.

EW onehunga
Not a motorway? Auckland’s now defunct east west link.

In Wellington too there is an “east-west” project – the Basin Reserve Flyover would have carried eastbound state highway 1 (SH1) traffic along an elevated roadway next to the Basin Reserve cricket ground. It was cancelled after having its resource consent rejected by the courts.  Now, this project is a little different than the above examples in that some people, even public transport advocates, prefer an even more ambitious and expensive roading solution at the Basin Reserve to separate SH1 traffic from north-south traffic at the Basin Reserve roundabout, allowing for more road space to be utilised by buses and/or rapid transit (BRT and LRT have been long proposed on this route). Let’s Get Wellington Moving is the working group currently looking at a multi-modal solution, which is due in early 2019. The point I’d make about this project is that the initial proposal was overtly focused on a single mode of transport (i.e. roads).

unnamed
Wellington’s now canned flyover meant to carry eastbound (though not westbound) SH1 traffic.

If you think there is something weird going on with east-west roading links then you might be right. In Christchurch, NZTA and the Christchurch City Council have announced the early phases of developing a strategy along the SH76 and Moorhouse Ave corridors to the south of the city, which form the most important east-west links across the city. This comes as no surprise to me. Brougham St, a multilane arterial road/expressway, is one of the busiest roads in the city and is currently experiencing traffic growth of 3.8 per cent a year.

image002
The strategy area for Christchurch’s Moorhouse Ave (running along the top of the shaded area) and Brougham Street/SH76 (thick line at the bottom of the shaded area, southern motorway at left.

Here is the kicker, though. At the west end of Brougham St is the eastern end of the Christchurch Southern Motorway, which currently ends in the middle of the Hornby industrial area. In 2020, a major extension of this motorway will open all the way to Rolleston, which means it will take much of the traffic off the existing southern approach from Main South and Blenheim Rds, an dumping that extra traffic on the already congested Brougham St. I’m sure you can see the problems this will bring, especially with a fast growing Rolleston and Lincoln bringing ever more commuters onto the motorway. But wait, there is more. Brougham St bisects the southern suburbs from the rest of the city. Traffic, including buses and cyclists, must cross this traffic laden barrier. Increasing congestion means further delays for this traffic, and compounding it is that over the next 30 years Christchurch in general is expected to grow by around 32 per cent, bringing with it a general increase in traffic (well, public transport use is hardly increasing right now).

EW onehunga 2
Another image of Auckland’s now defunct ‘not a motorway’ just for fun.

Okay, at this point you may be wondering why I started this post off with talking about a multi-billion Melbourne roading project that never happened, and ended it by talking about the beginnings of a strategy for a roading corridor in Christchurch? If nothing else, it simply lends to telling a good story. Building bigger and ever more elaborate roads as a solution to population and traffic growth is fast being rejected by cities. Moving from Melbourne, to Auckland to Wellington tells this story quite well. The fact they happen to be east-west links is merely coincidence, what is not is that as cities consider strategic transport links, it is a multi-modal strategic approach that eventuates rather than an expensive mono-modal one. My key concern is that consideration of the following is made as this strategy is developed:

  • The role of public transport and active transport modes in reducing traffic congestion and their integration into the overall strategy from the outset
  • The roading solutions chosen are appropriately scaled on the basis that expensive gold-plated options might not be cost-effective long-term (i.e. induced demand is taken account of)
  • The effect of any strategy on the local community as well as the form and function of the city’s overall transport network is accounted for
  • The reality of future population growth and land use is considered. The current motorway developments in Christchurch, though I am not opposed outright to them, do seem to be based on a “here and now” setting (i.e. think about all the traffic the southern and northern motorways are likely to dump onto Brougham and Cranford Streets respectively  – where was the strategy in that?).

These points above reflect what I feel are the real lessons from the three earlier projects I talked about. I’m very excited by what is happening in Auckland, and am awaiting the 2019 announcement from the Lets Get Wellington Moving working group with anticipation. I hope to see that this strategy in Christchurch will reflect what is happening in other cities, but there is an awful truth that Christchurch can be a bit slow on the uptake with regards to transport trends (the attitude from local authorities towards public transport is a great illustration of this!). I hope this does not prove to be the case, and that this strategy adopts a multi-modal approach that is an asset and not a millstone.M y worst nightmare would be a “strategy” that turns out to be a billion dollar road and little else.

Information gathering for this project began back in 2015. Community drop-in sessions were held during 6-7 December, with work on possible solutions beginning in the new year. Ideas will be shared during mid-2019 and a final decision on a preferred option made by the end of the year.

Implementing public transport plans and in NZ cities

When you promise much, but deliver little

There are two interesting developments in train (no pun intended… sort of) at the moment in two New Zealand cities. In Wellington, the new bus network, based on the hub and spoke model, is being seriously called into question by MPs at Transport Select Committee. Regional councilors and staff are having to face some heavy criticism and very direct questions.

There are significant issues with the network, and there will be an extensive review next year to ascertain how it has gone. I would wager that it hasn’t gone well at all, although I certainly won’t win any prizes for saying that. One of the biggest criticisms has been the lack of readiness for the new network, particularly in relation to bus lanes and other priority measures as well as bus hubs at key suburban and inner city location. Despite the time it took to review, research, design, consult and implement the new network, the preparation prior to roll-out seemed woefully inadequate. This contrasts with the introduction of a new bus network in Auckland, in stages over the last few years. It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing, but it has compared to Wellington and has also been relatively effective, with an increase in bus use being observed.

Anecdotally, the difference between Auckland and Wellington is, I feel, down to Auckland having the right infrastructure in place (though it isn’t perfect), bus hubs and transfer points at places that make sense, increased high-frequency routes, and a staged roll-out. When things went wrong, Auckland Transport responded quickly, as they did when congestion hit the northern busway. Wellington, on the other hand, had no bus hubs ready, no further bus priority measures installed, changed routes in ways that few understood (i.e. removing the direct Karori to Newtown (no. 3) link), and enforced transfers over relatively short distances at non-existent bus hubs in winter (note: I’m not against transfers, I just understand the frustration people were feeling). Small things can quickly snowball out of control. It doesn’t matter how much things make sense in the planning stage, the real test is when the rubber hits the road (or doesn’t, as the case may be!).

A tale of two (or three) cities

This isn’t about what went wrong and how to fix it, I have written previously on this to a small degree as well as pointing out that one of the greatest flaws is the way buses are funneled through a complicated mixed traffic, single corridor in the central city. I talked initially of two New Zealand cities, and the second isn’t Auckland but, rather, Christchurch. This week the Greater Christchurch Public Transport Joint Committee approved the draft Regional Public Transport Plan 2018-28 at its Monday meeting with little change. This is great news, and the plan will be submitted to Environment Canterbury for consideration at its meeting next Thursday (13 December). I do, however, have some concerns about how this plan is implemented. Namely:

  • More money is needed to be spent on public transport in the greater Christchurch area in general, and also to put this plan into effect
  • Timing is crucial, and the city needs these changes made sooner rather than later.
  • Bus priority measures are crucial for the plan to be effective
  • Rapid transit is in the plan at a high level, but there is a danger it could be there as a token gesture

All my concerns come back to the same thing; money. Compared to Auckland and Wellington, even on a per capita basis, spending on public transport infrastructure in Christchurch is appallingly low (I previously pointed out how Wellington, despite having a similar population, received more than four times the amount of funding from central government through the National Land Transport Fund for public transport). It’s fine to put things in a plan, but money is needed to put it into effect properly. See what has happened in Wellington for an example of trying to achieve outcomes without putting in the proper groundwork.

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The planned new Christchurch bus network. When will we see this rolled out?

Reflecting on my concerns a little more, which largely remain after my initial look into the plan, I think that in terms of timing, I would like to see the bus changes implemented by the end of 2023 (new routes, increased frequencies etc). Infrastructure to give effect to this new network needs to be prioritised, and the most important should be in place by then, such as bus lanes at key pinch points or bus hubs, even temporary, in place or upgraded as required. The rest should be planned for and underway. As for Rapid Transit, I would expect to see a preferred approach, and maybe even a first stage or pilot service in place (Rangiora to Christchurch train anyone?). This should all be no more than a ten year plan. If we wait 30 years and all we’ve achieved is effectively some rejigged bus routes, increased frequencies and a report on rapid transit, then someone has failed massively. This plan is big on scope, but when you factor in the timing, its ambitions become a little muted. As I said, it all comes down to money. Christchurch needs more of it for public transport and without it, this plan won’t be going anywhere.

The people want better public transport!

Looking through the themes that emerged from the consultation period that were addressed, it is clear that people want a better public transport system, validating some of my concerns. These include:

  • Extended public transport hours, including at weekends
  • Better delivery of bus priority
  • Restoration of the central city shuttle
  • Faster implementation of zero-emissions vehicles
  • Keeping fares low
  • More funding (including from central government)

All of these were addressed to some degree by the Joint Committee. It’s worth noting that rail-based solutions for rapid transit were reflected quite strongly in submissions. This is what they had to say about that:

“The draft Plan includes providing for rapid transit in its future vision and no single mode of transport is preferred or ruled out. The NZ Transport Agency, Christchurch City Council, Environment Canterbury, Selwyn District Council and Waimakariri District Council are working together to investigate advanced rapid transit technologies which could include rail, through the Future Public Transport Business Case process.”

I still think this pays lip service to suggestions of rail services. I can’t help but think that with public transport use so low, so much money being spent on roads, with greater Christchurch’s population about only half a million, there is a feeling that rail based solutions might be seen as too expensive and that even if more funding was available it would be preferable to spend it on other things (on the basis of “more bang for your buck”). The problem with that is you might end up with something that isn’t really effective nor really rapid transit in the strictest sense (see this post). I look forward to the Future Public Transport Business Case, but remain skeptical that it will be a true and tangible step in the right direction. One thing I will note is that Christchurch has yet to see a champion for rapid transit emerge at the local body politician level. Will someone please stand up and do this? I won’t hold my breath.

Final thoughts – implementation is key

In all, I think that the news about the Canterbury regional public transport plan is good. However, there are so many more challenges to overcome to implement it in a way that will be truly effective. That will be the true test, and I hope it doesn’t go the way of Wellington’s new bus network, which really underestimated how well prepared you have to be when you change things and highlights the following through needed to fully effect improvements to public transport. In short, an ineffective, poorly implemented mess.

Auckland’s recent progress perhaps provides an insight into the advantages a joined up, single local transport authority can provide. In Wellington, one of the things that is starting to become obvious is the conflict between different councils, particularly the regional council and Wellington City Council. Put it this way, I am not surprised Wellington is ill prepared for bus network changes from an infrastructure standpoint. Christchurch has at least acknowledged it has a problem in this area, and the Joint Committee is an attempt to address that without undertaking wholesale, disruptive change to the way transport is administered in Canterbury. I certainly hope it succeeds with this plan.

My thoughts on better road utilisation in Wellington CBD

Recently, Auckland announced that it was planning to make Queen Street free of cars and, in general, make the CBD more pedestrian and public transport friendly (called “Access for Everyone”). Christchurch already has it’s “An Accessible City” plan, which has seen an increase in pedestrian friendly areas in the CBD, including the introduction of a 30km/h zone, cycle ways and more bus lanes.

So what’s the problem?

Wellington. In general, Wellington is a city where public transport use per capita is high, high density developments are abundant, people cycle and walk, and people are generally progressive in their attitudes overall. Population projections show the region’s population growing by 65,000 over the next 30 years., with 46,000 of those people living in the Wellington City area. So, as I waited at a bus stop on Lambton Quay, observing buses lined up end-to-end for almost two blocks, crammed with passengers before even reaching my stop, eventually deciding it was nice enough day for a one hour walk home, I began to wonder where Wellington was going wrong. Why wasn’t Wellington leading the way in creating a people and public transport centred CBD? This was an especially curious question to ask given that, in addition to the characteristics I’ve outlined above, the city also undoubtedly possesses the most vibrant and successful inner-city in New Zealand. With such a great base to work off, why are the city streets doing their absolute best to destroy this wonderful feature?

There are three particular features of the current inner city transport network that I want to discuss, which all form a part of a plan for discussion I have in mind (which will be outlined below). The first is public transport along the so called “Golden Mile”, the second the six-lane “wall of Wellington” that is the combined lengths of Waterloo and Jervois Quays along the waterfront, and the third is the north-south one way system aka the “Te Aro car park” that runs along Victoria/Willis/Featherston streets.

I’ll be honest and say that this post started as a general “they should do something about the buses in the CBD” kind of g ripe, but degenerated (or evolved) into a “what are some changes I would make to get Wellington away from its car focused CBD” sort of piece. So, it’s a little off the cuff, but enjoy.

Public Transport has some issues in the city

Unless you live under a rock, you have probably heard the tales of Wellington’s bus service since the new contracts were signed for the new network that was rolled out earlier this year (see my earlier post covering this issue at a high level). However, what I want to comment on here is more about a feature of both old and new networks which impacts negatively upon bus journey times. That is, the common route for most buses entering and running through the CBD along Lambton Quay, Willis Street, Manners Street and Courtenay Place. Most major bus routes use this corridor for their entirety or for a significant portion of it at least, and it is absolutely diabolical. My key observations to-date along this route include:

–          Buses bunching at bus stops causing delays

–          Too many bus stops close together

–          Buses held up by other traffic (including service vehicles and taxis/Ubers)

–          Multiple traffic lights causing delays and backing up of buses

–          Simply too many buses running along a single common route

These problems seem to impact not just on the provision of service on any given day but also have a deeper impact upon the overall ability of the city’s network to function in a way that would encourage more trips by public transport into the CBD. In effect, I think that the issues I have outlined provide a sort of cap on public transport effectiveness for the CBD.

The waterfront quays are a nightmare

Wellington’s vibrant inner city is cut off from its somewhat vibrant waterfront by a snarling six-lane beast of a road. There’s little space to cycle and cars scream down there at 60km/h. It’s used as an alternative bypass of the CBD, the other being State Highway 1 (SH1).

This road is utterly awful and crossing it or its side streets is like a 1980s video game where getting it wrong means serious injury or death. With most intersections prioritised to car traffic, it really does put a wall up between the city and the water, negating economic opportunities that might come about by better integrating these spaces.

Welly waterfront
ON the right, a lovely wafront public space. On the left, “the beast”. Wellington has a lovely waterfront but it could be so much better if six lanes of snarling traffic weren’t cutting it off from the city.

The city is bisected by a car park of a one way system

The CBD is separated by its suburban extension Te Aro by a one way system (Victoria/Willis/Featherston that clogs up at peak times and seems to have the sole purpose of providing a short cut for drivers from the north to the south of the CBD (although you are more likely to sit stuck at intersections for some time, so… have fun with that). Like the waterfront quays, these roads really impact negatively on the urban environment, and for what? It doesn’t really seem that effective, so why have it? It seems far better to use the space for other, better, things.

So what are people doing about it?  

Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) is a joint initiative between Wellington City Council, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and the NZ Transport Agency. Its focus is the area from Ngauranga Gorge to the airport, encompassing the Wellington Urban Motorway and connections to the central city, hospital, and the eastern and southern suburbs. It covers all transport modes. LGWM worked up four scenarios and put them to the people, as follows:

  1. Prioritise public transport, walking and cycling in the central city: Reduce speed limits in the central city, prioritise key streets for public transport, walking and cycling to make travelling by bus quicker and to create a safer and more attractive environment for people walking and cycling.
  2. Scenario A PLUS better connections to the east and south: An extra Mt Victoria tunnel and separating eastwest traffic from other movements at the Basin Reserve would deliver faster and more reliable public transport connections, including mass transit (which could include light rail), to Newtown and the airport.
  3. Scenario B PLUS less conflict with traffic and redevelopment opportunities in Te Aro: A new city tunnel under parts of Te Aro would reduce conflicts between people walking, cycling, and traffic, make bus travel more reliable, and provide urban redevelopment opportunities, including new buildings and public spaces above the tunnel.
  4. Scenario C PLUS better access from the north, and less waterfront traffic: An extra Terrace Tunnel would improve access to and from the north and reduce traffic on the waterfront quays and through the central city, making it easier to access the waterfront.

Subsequently, LGWM identified nine key themes from their public engagement on these scenarios:

  1. Support for better public transport: now and long-term
  2. Universal support for less congestion
  3. Widespread support for walking and cycling
  4. Opposition to new infrastructure increasing car use
  5. A regional, integrated approach is required
  6. It is time to act, while being mindful of cost
  7. Future-proofed solutions are needed
  8. Basin traffic flow issues need solving: no clear view
  9. Wellington-specific solutions are required

Essentially, central city roads are reprioritised for public transport, cycling and pedestrians (i.e. people) over cars, with additional scenarios basically building on this by investing in roads to untie various bottlenecks and get cars out of the way to enable more pro-people development. Interestingly, public feedback indicated that options A and D were preferred. The next steps of the LGWM project is to present a recommended programme of investment to the government, although this has been delayed until next year.

A plan! Well, my plan anyway…

With all this in mind, after my non-bus journey I decided to have a bit of a think about what I would do if Wellington was my city to do as I wished with on Cities Skylines.

My plan involves making the Golden Mile accessible to buses only (with other bus priority measures at intersections and removal of some bus stops), using the space along the waterfront route more effectively by slowing traffic down and removing a traffic lane for a second inner-city bus route and improving pedestrian access (as far as Taranaki Street). The Victoria/Featherston/Willis one way system would be removed north of Vivian Street.

Welly CBD
The Plan: existing state highway 1 in blue, existing bus corridor in red (to become bus only), waterfront quays in green (to become a second bus corridor and multi-modal space) existing one ways in purple (to be removed). Apologies for the awful, rushed map (thanks MS paint!)

SH1 would become the primary means of bypassing the CBD under my plan, as is envisaged by the LGWM Scenario D, although I don’t think the full works are necessary. If, however, it is to be segregated with tunnels and underpasses to increase its capacity and remove interactions with city streets and pedestrians, cyclists and public transport, then so be it. However, I would stress I’m more in support of the later reasons for the upgrade of the SH1 corridor, and I don’t think an increase in capacity should be a requirement to remove car dominance on other streets. The problem seems to be that planners are relying to a large extent on doing something about SH1 and the bottleneck at the Basin Reserve first, before widespread change can occur in in the rest of the city (particularly in removing horrible car focused aspects of the system like the waterfront quays and the one way system). There is some truth in this, but I don’t think this is truly necessary, particularly if the intent is to increase the effectiveness and capacity of the public transport and active transport systems.

So, how does it work?

Public transport routes – Having two CBD public transport corridors removes the pressure of overcrowding at bus stops and at key intersections. Less stops along both routes allows a faster transit time, and bus priority measures would add to this. The existing corridor would be bus-only along its entire length, while the waterfront quays would have a busway along its length as indicated, utilising two existing general traffic lanes to do this. When/if light rail (LRT) is introduced, one corridor would become LRT, the other BRT (according to LGWM this will require works at the Basin reserve to separate the north-south traffic from SH1).

Waterfront quays – As mentioned, a BRT style route would go along here, but the route would also be reconfigured for cycling and pedestrian priority and traffic slowed to 30km/h. This would enable a safer environment, particularly to access bus stops and to better integrate the CBD and waterfront areas.

One-way streets – Gone. Converted into two-way multi-modal 30km inner city streets.

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Victoria Street. Not the best side of Wellington and a road space that could be amazing if traffic was calmed down.

Summary

So, make the waterfront a multi-modal corridor with traffic restricted to 30km/h, make the existing inner city bus route bus-only and with less stops and with bus priority signals, create a second bus corridor along said waterfront route (incidentally preparing one corridor for future light rail) and remove the one way streets. At a minimum something like this should be possible without the need for investing heavily in the SH1 corridor, with huge benefits for Wellington CBD and the public transport network.  I await to see what LGWM recommends, although I feel it will be largely dependent on how much money the government is willing to risk throwing at it, even though I don’t think it is necessary to wait for upgrades to SH1 before removing traffic from the waterfront.

While on the subject of Wellington, things aren’t all bad. Generally the city is willing to go where others fear to tread, including removing free weekend parking. Read about the results here. In (the near) future I’ll try and do a more in-depth post on how I see public transport working in this scenario, and another, separate, post on rapid transit as proposed through the CBD and to the airport via Newtown.

Flashback – When Christchurch had commuter trains

New Zealand has two metropolitan areas served by commuter rail systems; Auckland and Wellington. Wellington’s system has a long history of incremental development, including electrification over much of the network from the late 1930s onwards. It currently consists of three electrified lines and a branch served by frequent, modern EMUs, and a diesel operated service to the Wairarapa.

Auckland’s system was incredibly run-down, infrequent and barely used by the late 1980s. In 1993 its old, diesel hauled trains were replaced by more modern second-hand DMUs (from Perth) and in 2003 a new, more central, city rail terminal was opened at Britomart. This, along with other projects such as double-tracking, rebuilding decrepit stations, and the electrification of the three lines plus Onehunga branch, including brand new EMUs, has led to a massive rail revival. Now, Auckland is building an underground rail link to better serve its city centre, reduce travel times on existing lines, and increase frequency of services and capacity of the entire network.

If you drive around Christchurch you might notice, occasionally, that you cross railway lines. For example, if you travel down Lincoln Rd through Addington to the City Centre, or Riccarton Rd by Hagley Park, or turn into Harewood Rd from Papanui Rd. You may know these tracks – which head north and south of the city and towards the port at Lyttelton – are used by freight trains, with perhaps several services per day, plus the occasional long-distance train (well, there are two, mostly aimed at tourists). What you might not know about these tracks is they were once used by commuter rail services too. What follows is a bit of a high level overview of what once was. I was working on something slightly related when I saw this fantastic article on The Spinoff about Dunedin’s rail services (which Id also love to explore in more detail another time).

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Suburban train timetable 1965

A bit of background – rail transport in Christchurch

Local rail services in Christchurch are as old as the railways themselves, dating back to the opening of New Zealand’s first steam railway to Ferrymead in 1863. However, after World War II local rail services declined rapidly. Christchurch was served by a mixture of ‘country’ and ‘suburban’ services that all converged at the main rail terminal on Moorhouse Ave (aka Christchurch Railway Station). The 1876 era gothic-style station was replaced by a giant, red-brick facility in 1960 (more on that below).

Country services weren’t commuter services but were instead aimed at giving people in country areas access to the city to conduct business, attend school, go shopping or visit friends or family etc. In 1950 trains operated to and from Waipara, Springfield, Little River, Southbridge, Methven and Ashburton. Christchurch was the only New Zealand city with an extensive country train system such as this. Most of these were discontinued between 1952 and 1958, with the final, a decrepit mixed service from Springfield, being discontinued in 1968.

20181120_191759
Map of the Christchurch suburban rail network

Suburban services were aimed at commuters and ran along three lines to Burnham, Rangiora and Lyttelton. Services to Burnham didn’t amount to much, owing to the lack of development to the southwest of Christchurch at the time, but an “inverse” service (out in the morning and back into the city in the evening) for industrial workers at Sockburn, Hornby and Islington, as well as personal at the air force base and army camp along the line, remained until 1967. The Rangiora line once had several daily services, along with limited weekend services, but these were cut to two daily trains in 1958 and then one daily train from 1967. Lyttelton rail services was a different beast and during the 1950s there were over twenty services each way per day, meaning about one per hour throughout the day with extra peak services. Perhaps the most defining feature of the Lyttelton services was that they were electrified. From 1929 six Ec class electric locomotives hauled all traffic between the city and the port, including suburban services.  This was New Zealand’s first electrified urban railway, fittingly installed along New Zealand’s very first railway line.

20181120_191641
Suburban train timetable 1965

Some recent history – the last days of local rail services in Christchurch

Even in the mid-1960s, Christchurch still had a reasonable commuter rail network. During weekdays there were two services per day in each direction to Rangiora, still around 19 in each direction to Lyttelton, and the single service to Burnham. The main station on Moorhouse Ave had opened in 1960 and was truly impressive. A huge, four story red-brick building with a distinctive clock-tower at one end, it had two entrances, two concourses, a large and spacious booking hall and waiting room, a book shop, cafeteria, and hairdresser, plus more. At the business end, it had five platforms for trains; three dock platforms (two at one end facing Addington and one at the other end facing Lyttelton) and two thru platforms (essentially one long platform broken by a crossover to allow trains to overtake each other). It’s look and feel reminds you of a reasonably sized rail terminal in a North American city.

IMG0041
Christchurch railway station

Impressive? It certainly was. In addition to the suburban services, in the mid-1960s the station also had the aforementioned Springfield service plus the daily South Island Limited to Dunedin and Invercargill, daily railcar services to Picton, the West Coast and Dunedin, and on Friday and Sunday nights the departure of a night express to Dunedin and Invercargill.

Station 1
Christchurch railway station showing the dock platform at the end facing Lyttelton

However, by the mid-1960s Christchurch was changing rapidly and it had a negative impact on the rail system. Auto-dependent suburbs were being built miles away from the railway lines, the Christchurch Master Transportation Plan proposed a network of motorways, expressways and arterial roads criss-crossing the city, and the Lyttelton road tunnel had just opened, ending the railways monopoly on passenger transport on that route. Rail services faced competition from road transport operators, including the Midland coach line and the Christchurch Transport Board. As documents like the Christchurch Master Transportation Plan and Traffic in a New Zealand City pointed out, rail played only a minor role in bringing commuters into the city, and with the land-use planning of the time, there was no prospect of this changing.

The result of these developments were swift. Services to Burnham ended in 1967, and services to Rangiora and Lyttelton were cut about the same time. In 1970, the ageing Ec class electric locomotives were withdrawn from service and not replaced, the electric infrastructure subsequently being removed, and haulage of suburban trains, now mostly at peak only, being undertaken by Dj class diesel locomotives.  The service lasted less than two years on from this decision, ending in February 1972 (the Christchurch Transport Board route 28 replaced it and is still in service today). The remaining single weekday suburban service between Christchurch and Rangiora ended in March 1976. This left only one last local rail service, the Boat Train that linked with the inter-island ferry in Lyttelton. This service linked with morning and evening departures and arrivals of the last inter-island ferry on the run (TEV Rangatira), although the ‘Southerner’ (the replacement for the South Island Limited) operated connections for evening departures. This connection ended, along with the inter-island ferry service, in September 1976.

So, what’s left today?

Much of Christchurch’s suburban rail infrastructure remained in place for some years afterwards, but much has now decayed or been obliterated. Most suburban stations were removed during the 1970s and 80s, with a few surviving into the 90s. Rolleston station remains in use for the Tranz Alpine (though no longer an island platform) and Rangiora station remains in use for the Coastal Pacific. Papanui station is still in place as perhaps the most compete example of a suburban station in the inner city, though part of the platform is covered in as part of the café that occupies the historic station building. Lyttelton station remains in place, though the track no longer runs alongside the platform. Until recently, island platforms remained in place (without station buildings) at Hornby and Woolston, but these were recently removed. One platform is still in place at Heathcote, the remains of Addington station’s platform are still in place, but that’s practically it. The large railway station on Moorhouse Ave remained in place, servicing an ever decreasing number of long-distance rail services, until 1993 when it was replaced by a much smaller tourist focused station in Addington. Crucially, at this time, the junction of the Main South and Main North lines in Addington was reversed, so that trains approaching from the north could no longer directly access the city. The station was converted for use as a science education centre, with a new annex containing a cinema. The former platform area and station yard was converted to car parking and small commercial buildings. Following the 2011 earthquake, the station building was, sadly, demolished and replaced by more ugly light-commercial buildings (arguably destroying what could be an amazing public pace linking the city to Sydenham – but that’s another story).

Conclusion

The summary of remaining rail infrastructure is important as it gives an indication of the challenges facing any reintroduction of local rail services to Greater Christchurch, and that is something this story is a prelude to in a future series of posts. This is a far from exhaustive history of passenger rail in Christchurch, and I’m keen to explore it further in more detail as well as the history of rail services in other cities. In the meantime, this is an interesting story, and a reminder of what could have been. Auckland’s rail system held on just long enough to survive into an age where a major rethink in land-use and transport planning meant the legacy network could be used as a basis for transforming the city. Sadly, Christchurch’s didn’t, probably because it lacked the population to truly justify keeping it around for another decade or two. The trends of the time simply made easy meat of it. This means, over time, decisions have been made that have chipped away at the rail networks fabric, which has made any rail revival more challenging and difficult (though not necessarily impossible nor undesirable). The lesson from this story, I feel, is to look at what remains as an asset and incorporate it into future transport thinking. However, in order to do that, this kind of thinking needs to be put into action now, and the railway infrastructure in and around the city protected. This includes the corridors and suitable areas of land for stations, park and rides, etc. Too much has been lost already.