Looking back: Light rail in Christchurch – “Bob’s folly” or missed opportunity?

This post first appeared at TraNZport blog and is republished with permission.

Light rail was proposed by the Christchurch City Council – and then mayor Bob Parker – in 2011 as part of the Draft City Plan, the centrepiece recovery plan for the city following the 2011 earthquake. The $406 million project between the central city and the University of Canterbury campus at Ilam was to be the first stage of an eventual network to the north, south and east, and would be essentially a proof of concept. This followed the well received “share an idea” exercise, which showed a high level of support from among the community for more sustainable transport options, including light rail. The Draft Plan formed the basis for the government backed Blueprint the following year. Needless to say, light rail was omitted from this altogether. In fact, there was little provision for anything in the plan that would result in widespread change to the form and function of the city, something that people saw as essential for the city’s recovery.

ChchLRmap
As light rail was first presented in the initial Draft City Plan of 2011

Christchurch is still highly car dependent in 2019, is overwhelmingly characterised by low-density development, and has a public transport system that is simply not fit for purpose. The central city’s recovery has been mixed. There are some great things happening, but some things aren’t happening at all. So called “anchor projects” have been painfully slow, high-density residential developments are failing to sell, and much of city still remains car park or ruins. Of these, perhaps the only bright spot is the recent rare black-billed gull colony that has taken root in the foundations of a former office building. So, was building a light rail line as proposed in 2011 ever a good idea? Was it a folly? Or was it a missed opportunity?

The case for it being a folly

When I talk to people about the light rail plan that was presented in 2011, I’m often greeted with a bit of a laugh. Mayor Bob Parker, looking to cosy up to the then National-led government, became its almost willing whipping boy, ridiculed as a “clown” by government ministers. The light rail proposal is seen as just another of his misguided attempts at helping the city recover; an expensive white elephant to many. I find that people generally fall into two categories here: first, those who outright opposed any spend on public transport infrastructure on the basis that it wouldn’t be used and/or spending on roads was seen as better value for money; second, those that saw it as the wrong project. This latter group were clearly quite divided. Some objected to the route, some preferred commuter rail on existing lines, others preferred money spent on the bus system, and others supported greater public transport use in general but when push came to shove didn’t want to pay for it.

Now, I’m less concerned with the people who outright opposed it. the truth is that investment in public transport infrastructure, including light rail, was well received by a large portion of the city. So why did public support not translate to support for this particular proposal?

Cost

The distance from the Ilam campus bus stops to the bus interchange, via Riccarton Rd, is around 6km. At $406 million, this would have worked out at roughly about $68 million per km. This is not too dissimilar to Canberra’s light rail project costings. That’s actually not too bad, but has to be taken in context against potential other spending on transport. The Christchurch motorways component of the Roads of National Significance amounted to about $1 billion in spending for around 40-50km of new motorway, expressway and arterial roads around the city. That’s a compelling argument against light rail if you don’t know much about the additional costs associated with car dependency and congestion, nor the wider economic benefits associated with the transformative effects of light rail (an example: transport nerds will read that sentence back and likely nod; non-transport nerds will read that back and think I’m full of myself).

Canberra-1-web-656x337
A $700m+ price-tag, but the Canberra light rail is already exceeding patronage expectations.

Form

The cost begs the question of “why light rail?” Why not bus rapid transit, or simply improved bus priority? What would the savings be? The work, the thinking that went into the choice of mode never seemed fully conveyed to the public. Should they have even been talking about mode? “Rapid transit” might have been the more appropriate term to use. Recent talk about light rail vs “trackless trams” in Wellington is a case in point. Choosing a preferred mode – as opposed to speculating mode –  without clear reason, without a clear investigation as part of a business case is not best practice.

It also wasn’t clear precisely what exact route the light rail would take, or to what degree it would have a dedicated right of way. This would also have an impact on costs, and would have cast doubt in some eyes that it could be built for the price quoted without compromising effectiveness.

Location

The route chosen, linking the university and the central city, came under a lot of scrutiny. At the time, there was severe congestion between Waimakariri and Christchurch due to the high rate of population growth in the former. This later led to consideration of a (temporary) commuter rail service, and resulted in minor bus amendments and some changes to the motorway (pending the 2020 completion of the northern motorway extension). The light rail was primarily sold as a great way to link the university back up to the city, and thus spur activity and development. That paled to other transport problems in the city, thus people couldn’t understand why this route took precedence over, say, investing in a commuter rail service between the city and Rangiora. This is where people often say “it was the wrong project” and it’s understandable why people might think that. It also – again – links back to cost; my high level assessment is that commuter rail to Rangiora and Rolleston, plus a small bus rapid transit line, could be done for around $300-400 million. Again, this could be seen as a compelling case against light rail when you have another project that is, to all intents and purposes (through a layperson lens) comparatively more cost effective.

The end result is that it wasn’t sold to the public, and it wasn’t sold to the government (admittedly a hard thing to do at the time). The will was there, but the application needed to be right. That isn’t to say that what the council proposed wasn’t the necessarily the right application, but rather that it was never sold as such. So let’s explore that a little more.

A missed opportunity

It strikes me as odd that Christchurch’s Central City area is still laden with mud ravaged car parks and the shattered remains of former office buildings. The East Frame residential development has gone ahead at a glacial pace, anchor projects have sputtered ahead like a car with engine problems (some still haven’t started) and the general complaint is that there aren’t enough people, aren’t enough developments, and isn’t enough activity relative to where things should be after more than eight years.

Surely, presented with  such a blank canvas, it would be expected that the city would be inundated with truly transformative, bold projects. It would be expected that there would be an element of risk taking, a long hard glance at the future, with an eye on sustainability and ensuring that investments interlink and help each other succeed. Not just public, but private investments too. But the developments thus far completed, after eight years, feel very hodgepodge. We haven’t changed the way car dependent Christchurchians get around or access the Central City. When developers talk of the need for more car parks or bang on about the negative economic development impacts of the 30km/h zone and/or cycleways, what they are really saying (and probably don’t realise it) is that there is a lack of accessibility. That is that developments are expected to stand on their own two feet without any well thought out way of how people are brought in and distributed. I mean that in a very deep-thinking and three dimensional way. The questions are: how many people do we want driving here? How many should cycle? How many should be on public transport? How do they get around once they are here? Then provide that. I see no element of that in the way Christchurch has developed post-2011, and that is a damn shame because the city had such an unprecedented opportunity to get it right and be an example to the world. Yet, the Draft City Plan was thinking about that. Buses wouldn’t just go to a single station, but would circulate around a “slow core” and distribute passengers at a series of stations, with each service passing through three of them to provide transfer opportunities. Light rail was, in the final draft plan, changed to a study that would identify the right route for a first stage, rather than the initially proposed light rail to the university. This was a promising development and you can see things starting to hit the right buttons:

“The staged study would include an investigation into options for using the existing freight rail network routes and identifying those section(s) of the existing network or a proposed new network which might be best able to support economic and business recovery, as well as a viable and cost-effective transport solution for projected growth in public transport patronage into the Central City and across the Greater Christchurch subregion.”

What’s quite sad is that we are once again at this point in 2019/20 (literally – the network study at the time was costed at $2 million, same as today’s study! Yay for progress!) Say what you want about the initial light rail proposal, but I do think that sorting out transport (i.e. making the decision on what kind of transport system Christchurch needs/wants and implementing it) is a grossly underestimated missing link in Christchurch’s economy. The initial concept might well have been debatable at a details level, but the overall intent was spot on. That detailed concept wasn’t sold, but the ramifications were that nothing else happened. Roads would do the trick (and how well did that turn out for Auckland!), and now the city is almost a decade behind and counting.

chch_commuter_rail
The final indicative map of a “commuter rail” network, showing where new lines could go in relation to existing lines that could be utilised

I actually think, at a high level, the original light rail proposal was a reasonably good one. I don’t think it deserved the ridicule it got at the time, nor now. It aimed to act as a first stage that would eventually connect the Central City to the wider region and major activity nodes, integrated with other transport links. It ran along the busiest public transport corridor, and could spur development around stations, particularly in the Central City.  It could have been the anchor of the public transport network, bringing people into the city in a way that was highly efficient and sustainable. It was bold and it didn’t just say to people “you have to stop driving” it was a living billboard, a statement that said “this is how we are going to do it”. Think about Canberra again, and see how that is changing the way that city thinks about how it gets around.

Why didn’t it happen?

In terms of what happened in 2011, effectively the case was never made. The initial proposal came to be seen as tied inextricably to the university and little else, and despite the change in focus this didn’t change. Intensification of the Riccarton Rd corridor, or its potential to change mode share into the CBD, foment development in the CBD, all largely ignored by the media. There was no “push” factor (i.e. the need to de-clutter buses along Riccarton Rd, bypass congestion etc) or, at least, the push factors were not identified or properly communicated.

RTcorridors
Map of indicative frequent bus network and rapid transit for Christchurch in the regional public transport plan

Contrast the attitude displayed by Auckland Mayor Len Brown, who publicly fought for the City Rail Link against the prevailing attitude of the government of the day. Auckland didn’t have to wait for a change of government to make it happen. The government of the day changed their mind. This is a lesson for Christchurch to take forward as it explores the case for rapid transit over the next few years. It is a lesson I believe may not be heeded, unfortunately, as the Canterbury Regional Public Transport Plan has tentatively proposed rapid transit along alignments away from railway lines, with a metropolitan focus rather than a regional one. I don’t believe they are mutually exclusive, and believe both outcomes can be sought effectively, and a diluted form of the old light rail proposal could play a part in that.

Maybe all is not lost

While light rail/rapid transit as proposed in 2011 didn’t go ahead and was dropped like something from 1984 (light rail? What light rail?) this route is still of significance in some way. For example, in my previous proposal (linking here again for your benefit) for commuter rail in Christchurch to the north and south, I identified that some form of rapid transit along part of this route is not just desirable but probably necessary for it to work.

MapChch1

I’ve poked a stick at it and the answer is that, at its most basic elements at least, what was proposed in 2011 pretty much made sense. Maybe not a whizz bang light rail line, but something that could form the basis of a city focused rapid transit network (of whatever mode) and integrate with a regional focused one. It’s cost-effectiveness balance also makes it highly desirable as a first step. I hope such considerations are taken into  account.

In summary

In the end, the supposed clown mayor “Sideshow” Bob Parker may yet be proved right after-all. This is not a defence of his time as mayor, just an observation. His problem at the time wasn’t that he was full of it or stupid, it was that he lacked political nous. The politicians he thought of as his friends didn’t share his vision nor his principles, and by cuddling up to them he got nothing but the sensation of being used and spat out as political collateral. Everything that went wrong in the post-2011 earthquake recovery was laid squarely at his feet. He was a perfect comic foil. And that also meant the ideas he backed, the forward thinking ideas of his council, like light rail, largely went into the rubbish bin of history.

I suggest if you find the time, do read Draft City Plan from 2011. Unlike the latter “blueprint”, it seemed to have soul and reason, a true sum of its parts. It’s quite depressing, actually.

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