02 September 2014

Commuter rail for Christchurch? Cheaper buying them each a Porsche

I'm being a little tongue in cheek here, but the proposal from the Labour Party to spend $100 million to give Christchurch a commuter rail service is so utterly ludicrous that it deserves ridicule.

Anytime a politician says he will "invest" your money, you know that you'd never see it again, and that's exactly what would happen to the $100 million David Cunliffe wants to waste on giving Christchurch a transport service that it neither needs nor is willing to pay for.  In the USA it would be called a boondoggle, a political driven project that has little basis on market demand or economic benefit.

The policy is described here, and then here and here, showing how much effort has gone into something that isn't even important.

I nearly wrote a lengthy post pulling it apart bit by bit, but it's much easier to list what's wrong in a few bullet points.

- Christchurch last had the remnant of a local rail service in 1976 when a once daily, yes once daily, service between Rangiora and Christchurch was scrapped because of lack of patronage.  The last regular service (as in all day service like in Wellington) was between Lyttelton and Christchurch, which ended when the road tunnel was opened in 1972 (the rail service only had an advantage over driving over the Port Hills).  Before that, other services were discontinued during the 1960s as bus services proved more cost effective and car ownership rose.  Christchurch's population grew by over 50% in the period between the end of these services and the earthquake, indicating it was hardly constrained by a lack of passenger rail services.

-  It wont unclog Christchurch's roads.  The Press report says Labour intends the system to accommodate 10% of commuters from the north to central Christchurch.  Phil Twyford says there are 5000 - yes 5000 commuters making this trip (10,000 trips), so it is $100 million for 500 commuters.  That comes to $200,000 per commuter, before any operating subsidies are considered.  In other words, the price of a Porsche 911 for each commuter.  Taking about 400 cars off of Christchurch's roads every morning isn't going to "unclog" them,  it hardly makes a difference, even if it did happen.

- However, what it might do is encourage more people to live further away from the surrounding suburbs closer to the city, because it subsidises living well outside Christchurch.  That's hardly conducive to reducing congestion, nor environmentally sustainable.  It would be far more preferable to focus on finishing renewing the local road network including marking out cycle lanes, than to incentivise living well out of the city.

- A commuter rail service to central Christchurch can't even go there, as the station is 4km from Cathedral Square, in Addington.

- The $100 million is to double track the line to Rangiora, and rebuild some railways stations, but not a new central station (which can't be anymore "central" than the old one on Moorhouse Avenue), nor new trains, although the ex. Auckland ones could be relocated, if a depot could be built, and sidings to put them on were rebuilt as well.

- The rail service would replace commercially viable and some subsidised bus services, but politicians don't find buses sexy.

- The service would lose money, a 1000 trip a day railway service is a joke.  Proper commuter trains in major cities carry that number on one train.  

- If there really is demand for more public transport from the northern suburbs, it could come from commercial bus services.  Clearways could be used for bus lanes and the hard shoulder of the existing and future extended Northern Motorway could be used for peak bus lanes too, if needed.  Trains only make sense if buses are incapable of handling the volumes of demand, and that clearly isn't the case.

- Christchurch was the first major city in NZ to scrap trams, because the grid pattern street network and low density of the city meant there were few major transport corridors to support high density public transport systems, like trams (and commuter rail).  It was also the first of the big four cities to scrap commuter rail altogether (even Dunedin had commuter rail services until 1982 to Mosgiel).   In short, the geography of Christchurch is as poorly suited to commuter rail as it is well suited to cycling.

So when David Cunliffe says "The long delayed recovery of Christchurch hinges on a modern commuter system for the city"  you have to wonder what he's been smoking.
Really David? Really?? Not entrepreneurs investing in businesses creating jobs, and so attracting people who want to live there?  

No, David Cunliffe wants a toy, something he can point to and say "I did that", with money taken from motorists (as he wants to divert money collected from motoring taxes from roads to this pet project).  He has no real interest in reviving Christchurch by letting business do business, but to spend up on shiny projects that polish his ego - at your expense.

UPDATE: and the Green Party idea of creating a new bureaucracy called Canterbury Transport is equally ludicrous, because there isn't a governance problem.  Christchurch City Council is responsible for all roads except the State Highways, in the city (and no central government would rightfully surrender national corridors to local politics). It isn't broken up into multiple districts or cities like Auckland was.  Environment Canterbury, like all regional councils, is responsible for contracting subsidised public transport across the region, and planning urban public transport services.  Again, there is no division here.  It's far from clear what such an entity would do that is different from this.

Unless,. of course, you hark back to the "good old days" of council owned bus companies having monopolies and getting endless ratepayer subsidies. A model that saw the near continuous decline in urban bus patronage across NZ for 30 years.  You see at the moment bus services in Christchurch are operated mostly by two companies, one owned by Christchurch City Council, another by a private firm.  They typically compete for contracts for subsidised services, helping keep costs down and providing a check on performance.  The Greens are awfully fond of state owned monopolies, because you can trust politicians and public servants to be incentivised to look after customers and taxpayers' money far better than the private sector competing for both, can't you?


paul scott said...

Incredible. We all researched this thing when Mayor Bob Parker proposed it in his first term.
Bob was well known for having his feet planted firmly in the air, but anyway he and Tony Marryat
and their wives went of to Seattle and other places on research.
The rest of us looked up Google .
You need geographical corridors, or coast lines, or circuits with massive populations and then these things still run at a loss.
The costs are astronomical, and we came to the same conclusion as you. Either a nice new car each or better still a free helicopter service.
Before Bob Parker, Gary Moore also tried it on, so we have about 15 years experience and wide eyed wonder,in the promotion of light rail.
The idea of widening the roads was refused because it was ‘car friendly’.
Bob Parker even managed to erect a traffic blockade behind stopped buses, on the north route Hills road, to teach us a lesson.

paul scott said...

It will take a generation for recovery of Christchurch. Many urban people never go into the central city at all. You might get is there if you paid us, but it is a bad journey emotionally.