Commuter Rail- Previous Report 1

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.

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It comprised:

  • 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.
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The SX diesel trains proposed

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.

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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)).

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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”.

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Rangiora Station

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?

4 thoughts on “Commuter Rail- Previous Report 1

  1. To establish the service requires capital expenditure. That money is not available to the regional council who do not own significant assets in any part of the PT network. It would have to be from the government. The government has not offered anything more than a feasibility study, and even the money for that (an election promise) has not been committed to in the transport budgets yet.
    The RPTP at its core is a nice set of ideas but inherent within it is political grandstanding by the territorial authorities who want all the political kudos without spending that much of their ratepayers money at all. If you looked at all the imperatives, Ecan ended up being handed all the responsibility for implementing everything, with no obligations falling on any other body. For example the Christchurch City free shuttle which was once fully funded by CCC, is now pushed onto the regional council to fund with a 50% subsidy.
    If you want something that may have been closer to a BCR analysis maybe the stuff people at Lincoln University did might come closer to that. They predicted a high frequency service for the North route would be more like $100-200 million to establish. There is no existing station at Kaiapoi to be reinstated and putting one there is in fact next to impossible. The only station at Addington is the current long distance passenger terminal and trains would have to work around the Tranz Alpine and Coastal pacific timetables as there is only one platform so it could be difficult.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, that sheds a little light on things. I have seen the 2005 report, I was thinking of doing a post on that one next. I still don’t completely understand the ecan versus ccc versus central government thing. If central government have promised money for a feasibility study, and early indications show that commuter rail likely is feasible, then why are we going ahead with the rptp without it in there?

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  2. This is quite fascinating. It simply blows my mind that this did not happen. Cheap, the numbers stacked up (broadly speaking anyway), and if it didn’t work in six months it could have been easily changed as required or stopped. If it did work, congratulations you have your first successful commuter rail line along your busiest and most built up corridor (and the many benefits that go with that).
    My money on why it wasn’t is that if it was successful it would have driven interest/demand in further investment and expansion (i.e. more services, stations, a better CBD connection, a service to Rolleston etc) and the powers that be prefer to spend that future money on buses and motorways (or simply not spend it) for ideological reasons. I mean, the fact the report was commissioned as “short-term rail service” (i.e. temporary) and not a “pilot” or “trial” suggests a lot about intentions from the start, and as you pointed out, the report even said this was odd. Strange indeed.

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    1. Yea I’m still not sure why it was assessed as a “short-term service”. I think it may have been intended as a stop-gap until the northern motorway got built, but even that had a 6-7 year programme so I don’t know where 6 months came from.

      You might be right about the future investment. This was an extremely minimal service because anything more requires significantly higher investment (double-tracking, signal upgrade etc). If the minimal service was a raging success it would definitely lead to calls for more investment.

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