Plans for light rail are way off the rails in Auckland and on the ropes in Wellington, could Christchurch get it right and deliver New Zealand’s first modern light rail line?
Last week a committee of the Greater Christchurch Partnership, a voluntary coalition of local government, mana whenua and government agencies, were asked to endorse the Greater Christchurch Public Transport Futures Mass Rapid Transit Indicative Business Case. That’s quite a mouthful but essentially the first tangible stage in delivering a much needed rapid transit network and other PT enhancements for Christchurch and surrounding towns.
The proposal is for an on-street corridor ultimately running between Belfast in the North and Hornby in the west. The full route is around 22km in length with 21 stations and would use either light rail or high-capacity articulated buses. On top of this there would be enhancements to direct bus services from Rangiora, Rolleston and Lincoln.
Why are we suggesting this route?
- About a third of the Greater Christchurch population could live within these corridors in the future.
- It will help development happen in the right places, with growth focused around existing centres and key destinations.
- It will encourage investment in higher-density housing and mixed-use neighbourhoods.
- It will improve access to key employment hubs including in the central city.
The project is expected to cost $2.95 billion for the bus version or $4.05 billion for the light rail one. Both figures include significant contingency, covering around 43% of the total costs. Even for the light rail option that puts the cost at around $180 million per km, still higher than we see in most places overseas but considerably lower than the $290 million per km that was proposed for a surface solution in Auckland.
Light Rail does have slightly lower operational costs though at $64 million per annum vs $69 million for buses and in both these cases it would replace existing services which would save about $20 million per year.
One of the ways they’re able to get a cheaper design is because they’re using the road corridor and are actively talking about road space reallocation. This is great as far too often this is shied away from for fear of upsetting drivers and I wonder if this is because there appears to have been less involvement politicians at this stage compared to what Auckland has had?
In most areas, the turn-up-and-go public transport service and its stations will need a dedicated lane within the roads to run along. This means there will be less space for other types of transport and road uses.
As we want the turn-up-and-go service to be the best transport option for getting around, it will be given priority and other types of transport may need to wait, travel more slowly, have less space or go a slightly different way.
We know there are some areas along our suggested route where there is not enough space for all the types of transport and road uses we have now. Areas like Papanui, Merivale, Victoria Street and Riccarton. We don’t have solutions for these areas yet but here are some of the options we will be considering if this project moves forward:
- Purchasing more land – so we can fit in more types of transport and road uses
- Compromising – this could be a combination of slower narrower lanes for private cars, limited access or less/no on-street parking.
- Separation – putting some types of transport over or under, such as a bridge or tunnel
- Creating a section of road dedicated to public transport, people on foot and public space at key centres – these are called transit malls
Cashel Mall and some areas of Oxford Terrace are good examples of transit malls, where private cars are restricted or highly controlled to enable those walking to have priority and safe access to public transport and public spaces.
The remaining space can then be used for walking, cycling, street furniture and more relaxed access to shops and dining.
If this project goes ahead, we will develop a range of improvements to activate the streets around stations and better connect people to where they want to go. This will help make public transport a more attractive option and encourage people to consider public and active travel options.
The city centre streets need to support the highest density of residential and commercial activities at all hours of the day and night. There will also be opportunities to improve the look and feel of these areas so they are attractive and safe.
There are also some areas along the suggested turn-up-and-go route that are quite wide already, such as Main North Road. These areas provide the opportunity for greenspaces and more generous footpaths.
They have also worked out some likely staging too, with phase one likely to be an 11km section from Papanui to Church Corner with later phases extending out to Belfast and Hornby. Having this kind of thinking about stage ability upfront is really useful and will help both with getting the project over the line and managing expectations.
It will be some time till we see it with even in the best case, construction not likely to start till after 2028 and with it not operational till 2033 – though that may still be sooner than we see anything in Auckland if tunnelling remains the plan.
Tied to all this is the need to shape the urban environment around the rapid transit corridor with most of the housing and job growth to occur within it.
One thing I did note is they say light rail isn’t able to cross heavy rail tracks so would need bridges or underpasses. However, while not ideal, it is possible to have a light rail level crossing as Melbourne still has at least three of them.
Speaking of heavy rail, the route was chosen over making use of either the existing heavy rail network or making use of the motorway corridors. The reasoning for that is below.
There’s a lot more detail in the business case but overall, this plan looks good and would form the basis of a great rapid transit network for Christchurch, one that could be expanded upon with additional routes in the future.
Which NZ city will get modern light rail first?