Rapid Transit – What’s Happening?

There has been a flurry of activity about rapid transit in the last week that was quite confusing. I thought I’d write this post to remind everyone where Christchurch is at with rapid transit at the moment, and hopefully clarify things a little.

Here is a timeline of events over the last 5 years.

2017 – A Strategic Business Case is published, written by Ecan, NZTA, CCC, SDC and WDC. This set out how the problems with our current transport system, and explains why additional investment in public transport is needed.

2017 – Labour-Greens-NZF get voted into parliament promising $100 million for rapid transit in Christchurch. Phil Twyford later clarifies that this is conditional on local leadership getting a coherent plan together first.

2018 – The next level business case – a Programme Business Case was published. This specified that the additional investment referred to earlier should include Rapid Transit to the north and southwest, using the diagram below.

2018 – Ecan publish their Regional Public Transport Plan reconfirming this.

2020 – PT Futures Business Case (pg 689) is published detailing investment in public transport, which focusses solely on the bus network to start with. This is adopted by all partners and is now being rolled out.

2021 – With investment in the bus network locked in, the PT Futures work shifts to completing a business case looking specifically at rapid transit. As the first step of this, an interim report is published containing results of analysis on three scenarios: heavy rail and two street running ones, all running from Rangiora to Rolleston via the central city.

This paper concluded that the options would all carry roughly the sorts of patronage levels that you need for rapid transit to be viable; therefore it’s worth continuing with the business case process to pick the best option and further develop it. It makes no judgement on which is the best option – just presents a table showing pros and cons of each:

On timing, the report concluded:

“This Interim Report illustrates the importance of integrating land-use and rapid transit decisions, with utilisation of the scheme highly dependent on the land-use it services. It is recommended that the next phase of the business case aligns its development with the proposed development of a spatial plan for Greater Christchurch.”

I talked about this spatial plan here and reproduce the timeline below (although possibly out of date now).

Early last week – A cabinet paper (pg 12) is published saying that the Rapid Transit business case was likely to recommend a preferred option by the end of 2022.

Everything I’ve noted above is happening at the “Greater Christchurch” level- that is the geographic area covering the urban part of Christchurch City (i.e. excludes Banks Peninsula), and the parts of Selwyn and Waimakariri Districts that are closer and more connected with Christchurch (e.g. Rolleston, Lincoln, Kaiapoi, Rangiora).

There was one thing happened in 2020 that was outside of all this. Whilst the PT Futures Business Case was being done at a Greater Christchurch level, Ecan councillors decided to separately commission another business case looking at regional tourist rail. It was hoped that this might secure some of the money NZ First were throwing around as part of the Provincial Growth Fund, but it was unsuccessful. The article says that it was instead decided to fold this into the next phase of the PT Futures business case.

On Wednesday last week Ecan councillors voted to ask the Regional Transport Committee to form a working group to “investigate opportunities to progress passenger rail in Canterbury”. The Regional Transport Committee covers all of Canterbury so includes the likes of Ashburton, Timaru, Kaikoura, Mackenzie and Waimate. It has a much broader focus than just Greater Christchurch.

Later in the week this Regional Transport Committee agreed that instead of forming another working group, they would just jump straight into the work. They asked for “a report from staff ahead of their next meeting in May, which would outline the costs, funding mechanisms, capacity to deliver the project, and how it lined up with similar projects.”

The upshot of this is that we again have two processes going on in parallel for rapid transit:

  1. A business case which will tell us the preferred option by the end of the year, but focussing solely on Greater Christchurch.
  2. Some sort of report into passenger rail, due in 2 months, which potentially may have a broader scope for all of Canterbury.

So that’s the facts, make of them what you will.

I have a few opinions about all this, but need to be a little careful what I say. A few of the safer ones are below:

  1. It really irks me that Stuff included this line in their article:
    A 2021 consultant’s report on rapid transit linking central Christchurch city to Rangiora and Rolleston concluded that it would not be feasible until more people lived and worked near the system.”
    The report never said nor implied this. What it actually said was:
    “The analyses done show that forecast land-use by 2048 will generate enough demand to warrant further investigation into some form of high capacity transit system… Rapid transit will be a city-shaping investment for Christchurch that can help it achieve the urban form it aspires to.”
  2. I don’t think this was the point of it, but I have to admit I am somewhat intrigued by the prospect of having a two-pronged rapid transit system: regional rail servicing wider Canterbury, connecting to a more concentrated urban rapid transit scheme (for example light rail along Riccarton Road).

    I just watched this 12 minute video from Canadian transit youtuber Reece Martin. He warns of the dangers of upsizing one project to try and make it fulfil 2 distinct roles, when what you really should be doing is two smaller projects instead. (disclaimer – linking to this video doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with everything else he says in it)

    Maybe Christchurch needs to take this advice and plan for one system focussed on our denser inner suburbs (e.g. light rail), and a broader regional system servicing the surrounding towns (e.g. heavy rail). This approach is very common in other cities around the world and I think it probably makes sense here in the longer term. Perhaps we shouldn’t be scared of ambitiously making a start on both networks in the shorter term as well. It’s worth noting that setting up a low-frequency regional rail system and a short central city to Riccarton light rail line at the same time, would still be way cheaper than the rapid transit projects being looked at in Auckland and Wellington. Worth thinking about?

2 thoughts on “Rapid Transit – What’s Happening?

  1. Thanks for that Chris. Your suggestion of having a region-wide heavy rail system together with light rail system concentrated on the city is spot on and suggested by many public transport advocates. Unfortunately it’s not what consultants and government staff are suggesting.
    Just like the 2021 report being misrepresented, so was the 2014 report on a possible rail service from Rangiora. It concluded that based on the current availability of rolling stock and other factors the proposed peak commuter service between Rangiora and the city was not recommended. But it did not say that passenger rail around Christchurch was not feasible. In contrast, it expected passenger rail to be established at some point. Referring to that study to discount passenger rail near Christchurch generally is a misrepresentation of that study.

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