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.

There’s a really good summary of what’s proposed, and why, here. As well as this useful “non-technical summary” document that was included in the committee agenda.

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.

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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?

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  1. Golly, a Light Rail plan that comes with a staging proposal from the get-go and the use of a central corridor based on future potential developments, instead of using the planned corridor to kick the can down the road to discuss increasing the density in the corridor itself like we’ve seen in Auckland.

    This kind of proposal just shows how monumentally flawed and woeful the Auckland process has been. There’s also now a real risk that two cities smaller than Auckland will have running light rail before we do – despite there being no regional fuel tax to help ‘catch-up’ on PT and transit improvements in those areas.

    1. Light rail in Auckland has ultimately been killed by a fear of making significant changes to Dominion Rd. Unfortunately knowing the Christchurch demographic, I’d expect similar issues on Riccarton and Papanui Rds.

      Hopefully I’m wrong as this is something that Christchurch desperately needs.

      1. Since moving to Christchurch, I have been continually surprised by how many surface transport changes just seem to happen.

        Ie this cycleway which creates a modal filter cutting two streets:
        Or a new cul-de-sac created :

        People had kittens when similar was trialed in Onehunga. There examples all over the Christchurch of similar stuff where access for cars has been restricted and parking reallocated.

        We have the same brand of loud anti-cycling / anti-public transport councillors. But surface space reallocations just keep getting done. I’ve been told that those councillors tend to get pretty well educated by the end of their term by council staff / advocates, and understand the tradeoffs better and mostly quit their outright objections.

        1. “People had kittens when similar was trialed in Onehunga.”

          People didn’t have kittens. People had *death threats* against AT and Local Board members, and used forklifts etc to push closures out of their way. I am still shocked that no repercussions came their way.

        2. I’m not optimistic though, reading the readers’ comments on The Press (Stuff) website whenever anything related to Christchurch transport comes up. There is a lot of cynicism from Cantabrians and I would say the Cantabrian comments are even more overwhelmingly for cars above all else than Auckland. (Speaking as someone who used to live in Auckland, and now Christchurch)

    2. There is no risk that anyone anywhere in NZ will have light rail running. It is an empty promise of jam tomorrow. Think of all the light rail projects touted in New Zealand over the last 40 years, 100% of them amounted to nothing.

      1. At some point in some city in NZ light rail will actually get built and everyone else will look at it, say how great it is and why don’t we get to have that here.

        Whether that is in my lifetime is hard to tell.

      2. For some mysterious reason there is a weirdly consistent alliance across all of NZ’s little community of traffic engineering, planning, and economics, both public and private, that if it knows one thing, that thing is that any attempt to add light rail as transport to any NZ city, that must be fought and killed with all available might. Oh and politicians of a certain age.

        Buses are fine (need roads too) though priority is to be discouraged, heavy rail bearable, as on own system, though must look out for it taking away funding, noddy ride heritage trams are great, however, as they show the form as ludicrous and useless. But actual modern light rail, much loved and used, hugely successful, in such totally distant cultures as Australia, is anathema.

        For reasons (?).

  2. Ideally this would be designed to ensure tram-train extensions to Rangiora and Rolleston are viable at some point.

  3. The bus version might be better than a bunch of overhead wires falling on people in the next earthquake.

      1. Yes but it doesn’t stop them running reticulated gas in every street. They must figure an earthquake isn’t going to be bad enough, they want major fires as well.

        1. Yeah, there are definitely no overhead wires in Countries that suffer earthwuake says guys who never leaves his house.

  4. Election time boffins inside Labour and their highly paid consultants are working overtime right now.

    Selling the dream for votes to secure Labour a 3rd term. Though Labour also promised “Commuter trains for Christchurch” in 2017 – so perhaps the voters there will be wiser this time?

  5. Christchurch is well suited to surface LR – similar to Melbourne in many ways.
    It’s flat, mostly grid layout, wide streets and street corridors.
    The only thing it doesn’t have in this regard is density. But if LR were built then you could target that corridor for higher density.

    In the meantime they should get on with commuter rail using the existing HR rail lines.

    1. I think it’s either or regarding commuter rail or LR, I doubt there is the money for both. LR would be ideal but if it is likely to be significantly delayed then they should probably just get on with HR.

      1. I disagree it should be both. It is fine if the proposal discussed here gets the priority. But a basic train service between Rangiora and Rolleston should be started ASAP and if/when housing and transport demand rises above what this proposal can cope with there will be another mult-modal urbanism system that can cater for it.

  6. I think it’s either or regarding commuter rail or LR, I doubt there is the money for both. LR would be ideal but if it is likely to be significantly delayed then they should probably just get on with HR.

  7. I agree that it should be built in the most densly populated areas first so that it proves its worth. That supports intensification too.

  8. Its good to see a rapid transit proposal for Chch. A lot of thinking has gone into it.

    Personally I prefer the heavy rail option. Its a lot more complicated and expensive but would provide an enduring solution for a forecast population of 1m in the longer term.
    a) it already has dedicated right of way
    b) it works better with congestion tolls & park n ride, & with connecting LRT/BRT/bus lanes to the stations
    c) it connects to the outlying commuter towns which aren’t supported by a LRT solution
    d) the industrial land use could be moved to under the airport noise
    zone given residential development cannot go there
    e) rail shunting yards could be relocated if needed
    f) Kianga Ora can use its powers in conjunction with councils to zone dense railway station nodes
    g) the rail could be supported by a full bus lane network on the core bus corridors without the issues of land take, grade separation etc. The bus lanes would support the existing land use distribution while passenger rail became established.
    h) full connection to the CBD could be staged.
    i) having urban rail services would make it easier to also subsequently establish regional passenger rail longer term as the urban infrastructure would have been upgraded.

      1. I think the exisiting RoW is a big thing. A few street changes here and there wont compare to LRT taking car lanes and spaces all the way through the city.

        Use the exisiting HR, get some cheap units from Auckland and refurbish, and have the fight for on-street capacity for buses and cycle lanes.

    1. I have previously advocated that Greater Christchurch get a rail based MRT system. So I have read through this proposal quite carefully, while trying to keep an open mind.
      My thoughts so far are that;
      1. It is a genuine MRT line with many merits. From a transport perspective it is well designed although I am not a fan of the Riccarton to Hornby section of the route. I think this segment should go to the University in stage one and the airport in stage two.
      2. It will take a firm hand to ensure the grade seperation transport features that make on-street MRT work are not degraded by the ‘car dependency’ lobby.
      3. To achieve the housing response the proposal discusses will require more up-zoning than even the NPS-UD allows – particularly the need to eliminate side setbacks and recession planes. Again this will require a firm hand to prevent the NIMBY lobby degrading the needed zoning reforms.
      4. The MRT report and the accompanying spatial plan have over-egged the argument that one 22km MRT is the only infrastructure corridor that needs to be planned in advanced to cater for the possibility Greater Christchurch grows to 1 million (over the next 60 years say). Based on the housing response figures detailed in their report, this proposal would only support Greater Christchurch growing to between 650,000 and 700,000 people.
      5. Given point 4 then planning consideration should be given to the need for additional MRT corridors. Utilizing the existing rail corridor would be an obvious opportunity.

    2. It seems to make sense why HR corridors were not chosen, they just don’t go in the right places anymore for the best ridership outcomes.
      HR could be developed later and for more of a regional rail focus.

  9. “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.”

    That is such a neat summary. Great job whoever was involved in preparing that.
    Auckland has always been so scared at stating simple facts like that. “go a slightly different way” … Love it!

  10. Same as in Auckland, it would be good to see how value capture for development opportunities could be used to share the cost of construction. Approaching an election, the legislation for that would be very easy for opposition parties to stifle, to keep windfall profits for the rich rather than enable great infrastructure and great development.

  11. This just makes me so angry because it would have been so easy to allocate land or cut up the road to do a cut and cover trench from the railway line into the CBD after the earthquakes. The entire city was basically leveled. Yet no one had the basic forsight to do anything about it. Even today, it would be relatively doable to do a cut and cover down columbo street. Or have a modern railway bus station interchange at Moorhouse and just take trains in there and turn up and go frequencies anywhere in town.

    People only hate transfers when its difficult and slow.

      1. Yes Mayor Parker was keen on a light rail connection between the city centre and the university. Christchurch City Council worked on plans. Gerry Brownlee unfortunately shot him down completely – calling him a clown etc.

        1. Linking major trip generators with modern, high-capacity public transport during a major opportunity to rebuild the city…it takes a real pig-headed anti-visionary to shoot down something as sensible as this.

          Take a bow, Gerry.

    1. No need to feel angry. As the liquefaction post EQ showed, the water table in Chch is very high. No one wants to build underground there – sub ground structures full of air (eg tunnels) will be pushing UP out of the ground in the next EQ. Surface lines make the most sense in Chch. But I agree – Brownlee was too short-sighted to think that far ahead.

      1. I have talked to engineers about this problem. There are known solutions – deep stone piling to strengthen the land beneath a trench tunnel, underground anchors etc.

        1. Yes, anything is possible with engineering. But all that equals more money – to build a series of precast tubes to drop into a trench, and then anchor them down, or to cut and cover in a trench, would all cost vastly more than surface running. If people are fighting over costs when it is planned for ground level, then expect those costs to quadruple if you try and put them underground.

    2. There was a lot of loud voices of opposition back then from what I remember, most in Christchurch were saying light rail was a nice to have/”people’s homes have been munted, why are we doing a gold-plated transport nice toy when people are still waiting to have the sewage pipe working and their homes fixed!?”

      1. They should have protected a route. There was a lot things like where repaired underground pipes were relaid that could have made LR much cheaper to construct at a later date.

      2. why are we doing a gold-plated transport nice toy

        And yet hundreds of millions for a couple unconnected motorway sections making urban residents lives worse. Only managing to cater to a couple paltry commuter towns a tiny fraction of the size of the actual city before grinding traffic to a halt.

        1. Christchurch’s new motorways are idiotic; two pipes to pour cars into the city, while doing relatively little work on the SH1 bypass which actually could have benefitted from a comprehensive upgrade.

          For all the talk about “NZ can’t afford X” there seems to have been a bottomless pit of money for resurrecting stupid 1960s roading relics as part of the Christchurch rebuild. What a waste.

        2. Yeah, this boggles the mind for me. We didn’t even manage a SH1 bypass of the second largest city in the country!

  12. I think this proposal for light rail is and will be a future proof for the growth of Christchurch. Living in Europe and the UK for many years the benefits of rail services can be seen everywhere. The ease of getting Round the cities without the need of a car was fantastic. It was fast and efficient and ran on time. Nz is sadly far behind the rest of the world when it comes to train usage. Christchurch would be the perfect city to build a light rail network and show nz just what is possible. The old saying build it and they will come is very apt for this cities life changing project. I hope this comes to fruition. Buses have never been the answer as they still need to share the roads and the issues of road congestion but trains will always be the answer for fast and efficient travel in and around cities. Go for it Christchurch.

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