Christchurch used to have commuter trains, as described here. At the moment there are a lot of people who think the smart thing to do is to get them going again, including Brendon Harre in this article, and James Dann in this article.
This has been looked at sporadically by various organisations in the past. Oddly, there is very little information on it in the public domain. I’ve found a few reports that are relevant, but they are all quite limited in their scope, looking from a purely engineering feasibility point of view. As a far as I can tell, there has never been any comprehensive assessment done to determine whether the benefits outweigh the costs (i.e. an economic analysis), and nothing that actually attempts to answer whether passenger rail is a good investment or not (i.e. a business case). This in itself seems odd to me.
The reports are all a bit of a mission to find and even more of a mission to read, so I thought I’d do a wee series just summarising each of them.
First up is the most recent report, a study that Ecan commissioned in 2014 to look at the viability of getting a short-term (6 month) commuter rail service going from Rangiora into Addington, using the existing railway tracks.
The option considered 4 quite similar variations, but the one it concluded was the most realistic went from Rangiora to Addington, stopping at Kaiapoi and Papanui along the way.
- Passenger trains using the existing rails between Addington and Rangiora (no Rolleston service). Kiwirail confirmed that the existing single track and basic signalling are adequate for a low frequency service.
- 6-month temporary service only (study did not consider a permanent service).
- Stations at Rangiora, Kaiapoi, Papanui and Addington. Only relatively minor improvements at these stations would be needed to make them usable again.
- In the morning there would be 2 inbound services and 1 outbound service. The trip between Rangiora and Addington would take 30 minutes (compared to buses which take 55 minutes, or cars which take anywhere from 32-60 minutes depending on traffic)
- In the evening there would be 2 outbound services and 1 inbound service.
- Rolling stock was assumed to be SX diesel trains (what Auckland had before electrification).
- Buses connecting the stations to Hornby, the CBD and Riccarton were assumed. This report was written before the new bus network was introduced, so these bus connections would need to be revisited.
It was estimated that the capital cost of implementing this would be a total of $8.2 million. The vast majority of this ($7.5 million) was the rolling stock (trains).
With big figures like this I think it’s sometimes hard to know if that’s high or low. To try and give it some context here is a graph showing how it compares to other transport projects we are currently doing in Christchurch.
It was estimated that the trains would cost $225-335 thousand per month to operate, or $2.7-4.0 million per year. Again I find these numbers hard to picture, so for context, here is the annual operating cost that Christchurch residents collectively fork out for our other vehicle types (bus costs from Ecan, car costs calculated by multiplying the average annual cost of owning a car ($11,900) by the number of cars in Christchurch (430,000)).
To achieve a 50% farebox recovery rate, and charging a return fare of $12.50, which is broadly similar to other cities, and similar to the bus price, the service would need to carry 472 returning passengers per day. This would be achieved if 20% of the total number of people who currently drive from Rangiora and Kaiapoi to those areas serviced by the railway (and connecting buses) switched to using the trains. In addition there would be many other trips taking place: for example reverse commuting, or people travelling between Addington and Papanui. For context, around 440 people catch the relatively slow, unreliable bus from Rangiora to Christchurch every morning. The report concludes that “a figure of around 500 return passengers per day is not unrealistic”.
So to sum up, the report concludes that starting up a minimalist commuter rail service is technically feasible, relatively low-cost, and will most likely attract the patronage it needs to be financially viable.
Its only reservation is that stopping the service after only 6 months is a strange idea:
“The implementation of a short-term passenger rail service is not common practice and no examples were identified during this study… a long-term service would provide greater benefit and could be better planned and integrated with strategic planning for land use and transport in Greater Christchurch.”
So it seems very strange that the Greater Christchurch Joint Public Transport Committee have now come out and said they don’t want to do commuter rail on the existing lines at all and have excluded it from their draft public transport plan, with no explanation why. I genuinely don’t understand what’s going on.
Do you know why the Committee aren’t keen on commuter rail using the existing tracks? Is this just political ideology muddying the waters of transportation policy? Or are there genuine reasons that I’ve missed?