Questions Over Recent Actions by Christchurch Eastern Ward Councillors [2]

This article has stretched to a second post because of additional governance issues raised in ongoing online conversations in respect of this matter. The main protagonist being a strong supporter of the 2 Councillors concerned, whereas our position is to oppose them. The suggestion being as articulated in the first article, some Councillors believe that council staff have their own agenda and are intent on pushing this through irrespective of the direction that Councillors give to them.

The key issue in this situation is that we have an organisation – the Christchurch City Council – that is an operational body that also has elected members in a governance role, and the problem is that the civil functions of the organisation must be carried out in a non-political way. This precludes Councillors from being involved in operational matters or giving operational oversight to the work of Council staff. This distinction is essential in order to avoid politicising the work of the organisation, which has to be focused on achieving outcomes that are focused on lawful intentions completely independently of political ones.

In our experience, dealing with a range of people from across the political spectrum, those that complain the most about staff having their own agenda are those who are most strongly focused on serving their own political agenda – they tend to be linked to national political movements, have strongly ideological viewpoints, or perhaps are connected with major business or activist interests in the City, for example. Giving an example – Mike Yardley has been a trenchant critic of the Council through many of his columns this year – he is essentially using his platform to push National Party ideology in relation to local governance – he has in relation to this issue backed the two Councillors and used quite strong language attacking Council staff in this instance. Yardley should be required to register as a political promoter and broadcast an authorisation statement with each such message, especially during the current election campaign. No doubt we are going to see another column from him shortly defending the two Councillors further.

What must be remembered is when Councillors are, firstly, overstepping the boundaries of elected office, and secondly, pushing their political barrow through the auspices of elected office, that there is strong potential for abuse of process. We have long been strongly of the view that local government democracy is quite weak with much lesser checks and balances than central government and it tends to favour those with political agendas who have the means to push them through. For example one of the things that was highlighted as a result of the Christchurch earthquake was that councils such as CCC had flouted requirements of the Building Act related to development of land with natural hazards, and that the same Act at the time did not mandate any policy relating to the hazards of unstrengthened heritage buildings. There is very clear obvious motivation for Councillors of a particular political ideology to oppose staff’s own personal affiliations and views insofar as these may influence their actions whilst holding managerial roles within the Council. Even if a council has a plan and tries to follow it, developers can threaten legal action to get what they want and in a lot of cases this results in a backdown. Or if a proposal receives significant opposition from a community, it can be moved into some other community where there is less resistance. This last issue is of particular concern where it relates to the conflict between the interests of property owners and occupiers, this distinction becoming ever more important as the proportion of people who are renting rather than owning property becoming ever greater. For example, if an area starts to gentrify, it will be welcomed by owners because of an upward impact on property values; but occupiers who are charged higher rentals and potentially displaced from the area will see a negative impact. As we may have said earlier in this article and certainly in other posts, territorial authorities overwhelmingly favour the interests of property owners over those of occupiers.

Given these factors and the potential for abuse of process, we choose to re-emphasise that we believe the Council has followed the correct course of action in censuring the two Councillors who were involved in this activity. We have little agreement with the various parties that are supporting the Councillors, because they are mostly from groups who fail to understand that Councils have been delegated functions by central government to perform, and that these do involve a level of enforcement. The Council cops a lot of political abuse from these people who are mostly very vocal right wingers who despise the regulatory requirements that they have to acknowledge and blame the Council when these regulations are in place to ensure there is a reasonably level handed response and that people are all treated the same way.

What is a Dangerous Level Crossing?

We may have referred somewhere (or maybe not) to Transport Accident Investigation Commission’s view on level crossing safety issues, which has made it into their Watchlist. TAIC has stated that there are hundreds of dangerous crossings in NZ. Whilst not referring to the total number of crossings with various issues, they have stated that 362 high risk crossings with short stacking distance issues have been identified, according to information supplied to them by Kiwirail. This suggests that Kiwirail is to some extent knowledgeable about some of the crossings in their network. We may have previously referred to our concerns that Kiwirail is whitewashing in the area of level crossing safety in that they will simply issue a standard denial without acknowledging that the crossing is something they are at least partly responsible for. There is no transparency because Kiwirail has ensured their safety information in the ALCAM database is not publicly accessible. So Kiwirail obviously has a motive to prevent the public at large from knowing about their dangerous crossings and is not prepared to make an acknowledgement publicly that a particular crossing is dangerous.

This is a list we made of issues that make a crossing dangerous:

  • Where there is a hump in the tracks that long vehicles can get stuck on (grounded).
  • Where the tracks cross on an angle which makes it very difficult for a driver to see a train coming from more than 90 degree angle to their vehicle.
  • Where there is a right angle turn just before the crossing that means a train could be coming from directly behind the driver that they could only see in their rear view mirror.
  • Where the crossing is too close to an intersection so that vehicles are unable to stop at the crossing and also be clear of the intersection at the same time.
  • Where an intersection is too close to the crossing so that vehicles which have crossed the tracks will not be able to stop at the intersection and be clear of the railway lines at the same time.
  • Where vegetation around the crossing is not kept trimmed so that a driver’s view is blocked.
  • Where there is a curve in the railway lines just before the crossing that means a train approaching from that direction cannot be seen until they are very close.
  • Where the angle of the sunlight at certain times of day causes sunstrike preventing drivers from being able to see an approaching train.
  • Where the crossing has more than two tracks, or enough width, that it can be difficult in conditions of heavy traffic, for a driver to judge whether there is enough stacking distance for them to cross over and stop on the other side of the crossing. There may also be a risk if a driver is unattentive that they do not take precautions and check if there is any clearance distance on the far side at all, and end up stopped in the middle of the crossing during heavy traffic times.
  • Similarly with a large crossing with multiple spaced out tracks, slow moving pedestrians such as elderly people may not have enough time to completely cross without getting caught with alarms starting when they are only partway across.

There is also a large question mark and has been for some time about Kiwirail’s awareness and followup even of maintenance of existing crossings, a recent example being flagged on Tracksafe’s page where a pedestrian barrier gate was not operable and even had a neatly printed sign put on it. Who put that sign in place, how long was the barrier gate inoperable and why it was not picked up by Kiwirail as they have built a ganger’s test switch into the design of every set of level crossing alarms, this implies they must have an expectation at least that alarms are being inspected and tested regularly. There have been other situations where Kiwirail has failed to maintain the trimming of vegetation on their land that is obscuring drivers’ views, or the infamous situation where a wheelchair bound person was almost run over on a crossing in Auckland because their wheels became stuck in tracks.

A key issue we need to keep the heat on Kiwirail about is that they are not open and accountable about the level crossing information they hold. Territorial councils at least are open organisations that have public accountability for discussing the issues with crossings they are responsible for.

Questions Over Recent Actions by Christchurch Eastern Ward Councillors [1]

Two of Christchurch City Council’s elected councillors in eastern wards have recently found themselves in trouble with the Council itself over unauthorised stormwater drainage work they allegedly carried out in the residential red zone. The key issues are that the councillors have overstepped their governance role and become involved in operational matters, and that the councillors did not follow the correct process for raising issues through the community boards they oversee. The view of this blog is that the councillors exhibited poor leadership in their high level roles with the council and may have encouraged other disgruntled parties to interfere with ratepayer funded assets without permission in future.

Although many people have attacked the Council over the actions taken, we are stating here in this blog that we are backing the Council 100% over the issue. Readers of this blog will know it is unusual for us to agree with CCC on anything much. However, we are not wedded to any political cause, and we can see that this is a very strong problem of endless buck passing by all manner of politicians that is never ending in Christchurch and in which council staff are left as the whipping boys whilst politicians hide behind every convenient lamp post when the heat comes on.

Key Contributing Issues Leading To Situation

  • Underfunding of earthquake damage repairs.
  • Divide between CBD, wealthy suburbs and poor suburbs.
  • Dirty political games between local and central government.

Underfunding of earthquake damage repairs

Christchurch was woefully ill prepared for the quakes and one of the biggest scandals was the degree to which local body assets in the city were underinsured. But added into that, CCC’s application of land hazard expectations in the Buildings Act occurred in a way that did not recognise that some land in the East was very liquefaction prone and that housing should not have been allowed without special foundations or area treatments. This led to speculation in the news media of the time (sorry we can’t find the link to the article now) that residential insurance companies considered suing CCC due to the large resulting financial liability they were exposed to. The net result of these issues was that central government stepped in and (a) funded the “Residential Red Zone” property buyout scheme, (b) funded the development of anchor projects in the CBD, and (c) underwrote part of the cost of the SCIRT infrastructure repair programme across the city. However, government funding has necessarily been capped at a certain level and ratepayers have been left to pick up a considerable amount of cost, this is still ongoing at the present time and it will continue to be an issue for many years into the future. Thus, people are becoming disgruntled over the slow progress in repairs to earthquake damaged infrastructure. As the Eastern part of the city was hardest hit, and as large chunks of that area have been red-zoned (cleared of housing), the continued impacts of this damage are much greater there than anywhere else in the City. This has led to growing frustration from residents in the area. We are very familiar with the Red Zone issues, having resided in the East of the city from 2003 until July 2011, and having revisited on numerous occasions since.

Divides between CBD / Suburbs and Wealthy Suburbs / Poor Suburbs

The second issue is the divide between the CBD and suburbs, and between wealthy and poorer suburbs. Christchurch almost from the beginning was developed as a series of local boroughs, each with, in effect, its own CBD or nucleus. The Christchurch City Council originally encompassed the central part of the city. Examples being Sydenham Borough Council headquartered in the suburb of that name, Riccarton Borough Council based in Riccarton Road and Waimairi District Council centred in Fendalton. The final amalgamation occurred as a result of Government reorganisation in 1989 when CCC became the sole territorial authority for all of Christchurch. As a result, the focus shifted to one central CBD within what is generally known as the “Four Avenues”. Most major retail and office developments historically were created in the CBD. However in the 1980s New Brighton Mall was allowed to become a special retail zone able to open on weekends, which was not possible in any other part of the City at that time. From that time, suburban malls were subsequently able to be developed and operated on a 7 day basis elsewhere in the city, offering free parking onsite and paying lower rentals than the old boys’ property cartel was charging in the CBD. Consequently there was a large exodus of commercial businesses and retail premises from the CBD into the suburbs and many less desirable older buildings became vacant or were adapted for residential use. A notable example of the issue is the significant number of central city high rise office blocks that were converted into hotels and apartments by the time of the 2011 earthquakes.

Since the quakes, CBD property owners have fought hard to convince both central and local government that the city should be reorganised on the basis that the central city is again dominant, and because the people championing this the most are wealthy property owners and developers, they have achieved considerable success, aided by the current Mayor of the city who has decided she can always get a few more votes out of supporting the pro CBD cause. This has however set these people against people from the suburbs who see that the CBD has been given endless financial largesse both at central and local level (note that all the government-funded anchor projects have been developed within the CBD and it has been left to ratepayers to pay for the suburban projects).

In addition to the CBD vs suburbs debate, there is also a divide between wealthy and poor suburbs within the City. Both of these divides have serious implications for the democratic character of the political process in the City. In summary, elected members tend to favour the viewpoints of wealthy suburbs and their residents with much greater predominance than for poorer areas of the City. This is largely due to the ability of wealthier residents to fund more effective politically focused campaigns specifically targeted at councillors and boards, as well as legal threats and challenges to specific council decisions. In brief, the residents of wealthier areas of the city are able to exert greater influence over the decisions and processes of elected members, primarily with the object of favouring development in their neighbourhoods that helps to make these areas more desirable to live in and in turn, driving property values continually higher. The economic system for the City Council perpetuates this by charging rates and levies to property owners rather than individual residents, thus insulating residents who are not property owners from direct economic connection with, and therefore influence over, the financial aspects of the City’s operations and processes that directly impact on rates charged and funds expended.

Dirty political games between local and central government

In New Zealand, public governance is divided between a single central government for the whole country, and two levels of local governance: territorial councils covering urban and rural areas such as cities and towns, and regional councils covering a number of territorial areas. Central government has much greater powers than local governance, but routinely delegates authority to local governance. There is much debate about the extent of this delegation and concerns about a perceived lack of will from central government to properly fund the impacts of these delegations. The biggest and most reasonable concern about the delegations of authority are that governments employ them as a political shield in order to divert the blame for unpopular decisions to the local level. There is considerable evidence of a concerted strategy in the case of certain political movements to pass central government laws that are intended to be able to be nullified by local government under the guise of “democracy”. Since as we have highlighted in the previous paragraph that local government democracy perpetuates considerable inequality in producing more favourable outcomes for wealthier suburbs, the aim of such policies is largely focused on supporting the capture of political power and influence from any and every quarter rather by the central party’s local representatives, rather than on ensuring the successful implementation of the central government party’s manifesto promises at local level. In order to illustrate this, here are some examples:

  1. In the year 2000, the Clark Labour Government passed legislation putting the administration of the public hospital system under the control of “democratically elected and governed” District Health Boards. In practice, some members of the boards are elected in local government elections, but a significant number are appointed by the central government, which also appoints the chairperson and deputy chairperson. Central government retains firm control over the board through choosing the senior leadership and through muzzling all members except for the chairperson from publicly commenting on Board processes and decisions. This has led (accurately we believe) to the perception that the primary achievement of District Health Boards has been to help Government shut down debate about the effectiveness of the public health system by deflecting blame from Government to the DHBs.
  2. During its term of office, the Clark Labour government passed new clean-air legislation, giving regional councils the power to implement clean air plans within their regions. Subsequent to this, the Canterbury Regional Council proposed a new plan for the City of Christchurch, which brought in a requirement for much lower emission solid fuel appliances within territorial limits to eliminate longstanding concerns over the level of smog produced in the city by solid fuel fireplaces. We were astounded to discover that the local Labour Party response in Canterbury from all of its city-based MPs was to lobby the Regional Council to defer the implementation of the plan on the basis that existing use rights could be used to establish precedence. There was also implicit Parliamentary party support for local Labour members calling for the responsibilities for the implementation of clean air plans to be transferred from the regional council to territorial councils; either proposition would have allowed any such plan to be sidelined or scrapped outright regardless of environmental considerations.
  3. In the lead up to the 2017 election campaign, Labour promised that $100 million would be made available for the development of commuter rail in the Greater Christchurch region. This appeared to be a clear cut response to numerous proposals and investigations into suburban rail services in Canterbury, the most recent of these being conducted three years previously and having concluded that sufficient passenger traffic would be carried to make a service viable. To enable the proposal to be implemented, it would be clear from the Auckland rail development carried out by the previous Labour government that control of public transport would need to be placed solely within the jurisdiction of a special purpose regional transport authority. Upon election, the Labour led government failed to make these changes and instead favoured alternative proposals by its own members occupying elected roles in the Christchurch City Council to favour the predominance of the City’s interests over all of Greater Christchurch. Legislation was passed several years ago to facilitate CCC’s longstanding desire to control the City’s bus system, and the $100 million offered for rail has been sidelined as the Ministry of Transport conducts additional unnecessary business case investigations into proposals that directly and deliberately sideline heavy rail from consideration because of CCC opposition to it.
  4. A growing concern around New Zealand, which has a major coastline and many significant areas of population located in close proximity to it, is the impacts of climate change upon the coastal environment, specifically in the area of sea level rise. So far a few territorial councils, Christchurch City among them, have attempted to implement programmes such as managed retreat to deal with the impacts of encroachment on coastal suburbs and infrastructure. This has led directly to a high degree of confrontation between elected representatives in Eastern wards and Council, with the former clearly demanding that CCC programmes be sidelined or downplayed due to the impact upon property values in the area. It appears to be a strong point of contention by New Brighton / Southshore residents and their supporters that difficulty in getting flood protection works constructed within Eastern coastal zones is due to the intention of CCC to press ahead with implementation of managed retreat or other coastal hazard processes and this controversy led to a confrontation with a previous Eastern Ward councillor and community board members and has contributed to the long standing tensions between the Eastern communities and the rest of the City. There is also, we believe, an accurate perception that Central government has effectively passed the buck for many years on coastal erosion, refusing to address or acknowledge it in substantive form.

Why We Support The City Council

As we stated at the beginning of this post, we fully support the stance taken by CCC staff in confronting the issue of elected members ignoring the due processes of the Council, which the general public are expected to follow, and taking what has been alleged to be “vigilante action” to resolve a local flooding problem in residential red zoned land. The reasons for our stance are as follows:

  • CCC has clear processes to be followed when dealing with public concerns over Council decisions and services. These processes are intended to ensure that matters of concern are dealt with fairly and openly.
  • CCC staff are expected to follow all of the laws of New Zealand in implementing these processes.
  • Staff who do not follow the legal requirements would leave themselves open to risk of legal or other action against either themselves or the Council and disciplinary action being taken against them by Council management. These are all reasonable norms for the actions of staff within a large public organisation like the Council
  • Council staff working on this case have cited numerous issues relating to property ownership, damage and public safety risks created by the work that was allegedly carried out. Laws passed by central government makes it incumbent upon them to ensure that these issues are properly handled in accordance with the legislative expectations, in the interests of respecting the legislative authority of Parliament and the general expectations of our legal and justice system.
  • Elected members are subject to the same laws and should not be inciting contempt for them.
  • Criticism of CCC processes in reprimanding the elected members concerned were criticised by the National Party MP for the Ilam electorate, who also happens to be the former Minister of Earthquake Recovery. However, the council does not have the option of abrogating these processes just because the land is in the residential red zone. The real problem is that it is simply and wholly inappropriate to incite a lawless approach to the utilisation of ratepayer funded assets, when proper accountability demands that these assets are managed for the benefit of all ratepayers and with clear expectations that property owners or occupiers will not usurp the Council’s ownership or authority to manage these assets in order to ensure that wider community interests, including private property ownership rights, are fairly protected.
  • Similarly a rebuke of CCC processes was issued by the local Labour Member of Parliament for the City East electorate, who also happens to be an Associate Minister for Greater Christchurch Regeneration. She stated that her office had been lobbying the Council for a considerable period of time over concerns about the poor maintenance and repair of infrastructure assets in the Eastern wards. However, as an Associate Minister of the portfolio that is most clearly related to earthquake recovery under the Labour government, she is expected to be well acquainted with the challenges facing CCC in the process of long term earthquake recovery and the implications of Government legislative requirements that are imposed upon the City Council that are material to this particular situation. It is very inappropriate for a Government minister to be advocating this type of alleged vigilante activity and criticising the Council for opposing it, when she should be well aware of the legal expectations and requirements placed upon the Council and its staff. This appears to be cynical buck passing when the Government has been quick on many occasions to shift responsibility to Council to make decisions about particular issues.
  • There is a commonly held desire by elected Council members of all shades across the political spectrum to deflect blame and attention from their own decisions and processes onto Council staff. Many local politicians claim that Council staff are out of control and that decision making and spending power has been usurped by the Council management. However, all decisions over Council programmes, funding and expenditure are confirmed each year in the Annual Plan process which is conducted with very detailed in depth consideration of every area of expenditure and the final decisions are made by elected members and consulted to the public with hearing and submission processes. There is therefore considerable ability for elected members to exert considerable influence over the direction of Council. In the case of this particular situation, it is almost inconceivable that the concerns being raised could not have been addressed either by the Community Board, a Council committee, or the full Council. Even if the decisions made were not favourable to the Eastern suburbs, it could not be denied that the correct process should have been undertaken and followed throughout the various layers of administration within the Council. It simply cannot be denied as a matter of reality that decisions may be made from time to time regarding the scheduling and financing of particular projects that not all members may agree with; but it is simply nonsensical to claim that elected members do not wield the very considerable influence that they do actually have over particular decisions and programmes undertaken by the Council.
  • If there are concerns over the particular directions and processes being followed by local government in general, then it may be necessary to have legislation passed by central government to address this. The only recent legislation we are aware of in reference to the current Labour government has been to expand the powers and responsibilities of local government to implement certain social wellbeings, thus enabling central government to shift some of its responsibility (including funding) to a local level, where ratepayers will be expected to pick up the tab. Hence, criticism of local government process by a Government minister is very hypocritical when it is the clear intent of Central government to shift responsibilities and political controversy from their implementation to a local level.

We await the outcome of the current process with considerable interest but do not expect to see the situation being condoned in any shape or form by the Council and nor should it be.

Incident at Otaihanga Road Level Crossing

There has been an incident at Otaihanga Road Level Crossing – ALCAM #332 at 51.61 km on the NIMT between Paraparaumu and Waikanae. A train was stopped close to, but not on, the crossing, due to a failure, and the barrier arms remained down for about a 15 minute period before the train was able to resume its journey. Due to the extended delay, a number of cars drivers drove around the barrier arms creating a serious safety hazard.

There is no doubt that it was extremely foolish for these drivers to go over the crossing when the barriers and alarms were in operation. Otaihanga Road Level Crossing is in a double line area. Even if a train could be observed to have stopped on one of the lines, trains could have continued operating at full speed on the other line, which would have put both them and the car drivers at significant risk of collision.

Otaihanga Road Level Crossing is quite busy, with 100 trains per day and 7000 vehicle crossings. There are significant areas of residential development that account for the large volume of vehicles crossing the line each day. However, because the area has been historically of lower population density, level crossings in this area are widely spaced. There is no crossing north of Otaihanga before reaching the Reikorangi Stream. South of the location, it is possible to cross via the overbridge at Rimutaka Street just before the 49 km peg, but the access from the north to this location involves a long detour that effectively makes the access equivalent to crossing the railway at Kapiti Road at 48.38 km in Paraparaumu. This means for northern traffic, a lengthy detour if the crossing is blocked (probably at least 6 km).

Kiwirail have shown no inclination to date (remembering the Tamahine level crossing wrangle at Waharoa some years ago) to acknowledge that having crossings so far apart in this area creates significant inconvenience for residents because it is such a distance to detour if the crossing is blocked. In this case, the fact the crossing was not blocked is all the more important because a mechanism is needed for alarms to be cancelled. In a more populous urban area, much greater pressure would be brought to bear on Kiwirail to address issues such as these, and it is likely more crossings would exist in such areas. Historically, in some areas, provision has been made for crossings alarms to be manually started and stopped by

Whilst we do not wish to encourage dangerous motorist behaviour of driving around barrier arms or disregarding operating alarms, we do want Kiwirail to acknowledge that having so few crossings in this area creates undesirable consequences if the crossing is blocked for any length of time.

NZ First tries to claim moral high ground in airport rail debate

Recently in transport news there has been a lot of debate over the shelving of the Auckland light rail to the airport proposals. Much of that has centred around the role played by NZ First which is implacably opposed to the development, to the extent that their representatives have waged an acromonious campaign throughout the news media and the rail community for the abandonment of the light rail development that has been a flagship Labour/Greens policy this term of government.

To understand the nature of this we have to dig deeply into NZ First itself and its political objectives and imperatives. New Zealand First is Winston Peters’ personal political vehicle which evolved out of his split from the National Party in the early 1990s. Although it is called a party and involves other people, it is and has always been unlike most other parties in NZ in the fact that it is best characterised as a populist personality cult revolving around the leader himself. This is best understood when we examine that NZF has only ever had one leader in the past 25 years and they do not have the open democratic process for leadership selection that prevails in other Parliamentary parties. Because NZ First is a split off National, their policy focus essentially follows the same social-conservative theme that is prevalent throughout the National Party, but at the more moderate end of the NP spectrum, causing NZF to be characterised as more into the centre of politics in NZ. The political centre has become much more important in NZ since the advent of MMP and nowadays all parties have to acknowledge it in order to gain and remain in power. However, the major parties in NZ are made up from dominant left and right ideological blocs and generally achieve electoral success by moderating their particular platforms by moderating their core ideology to capture more of the centre. Parties that focus more on the centre must necessarily be seen as combining policies from both the left and right wings of politics and have failed to capture more than a few percent of electoral support in NZ long term.

NZ First at its core, being a split from National, has a bedrock right wing policy approach and tends to cleave more to that side of the political spectrum. When they are inclined to come further left, it is usually by cherry picking key policy areas of from Labour or the Greens. One of those focuses for the past few terms has been in the NZ rail network largely driven by an ambitious Auckland-based member who won’t be named in this post. However NZ First is essentially having a buck both ways on transport development by playing both sides of the fence, campaigning on the same pro-roads platform as National whilst at the same time championing rail development. This leads to many contradictions, which are most visible in public transport in particular. It must be plainly obvious to the majority of public transport campaigners that PT is highly necessary in major urban environments as part of a wider platform of mitigating the adverse environmental impacts caused by unrestricted growth in private vehicle use and therefore, it is necessary at some point to put limits on vehicle usage. The NZ First approach to any form of rail based transport tries to pretend that it is possible to have unrestricted car growth and a viable public transport system, in order to capture votes from both camps. The problem with this is that the two camps are usually implacably opposed to each other (the old left/right political dynamic) and a party like NZF coming into the picture is generally seen to be focused mainly on short term political objectives and not on a long term viable approach to solving the bigger problems that need to be addressed in urban development in cities.

Auckland has been through a long series of processes over many years to attempt to determine future avenues of development of the public transport networks that will be needed over the longer term. There have been some monumental projects undertaken in the last couple of decades, among them are the DART project in West Auckland that doubled and upgraded the urban part of the North Auckland Line from Newmarket to Swanson, the Britomart underground rail terminal in the Auckland CBD, and the City Rail Loop that extends Britomart to allow through train running for greater capacity. Public transport is essential to the future of the city and it will continue to be handled by multiple modes, which at the moment include the Northern Busway and heavy rail. The biggest debate in the last five years has focused around creating several light rail corridors that will extend as far north as Kumeu and terminate at the airport in Mangere. NZ First has been implacably opposed to both Kumeu and the airport being served by light rail, as both areas are also close to existing heavy rail lines which they claim should be the focus of new PT services. This ignores that all the light rail corridors that have been proposed are completely new routes that open up rail access to additional areas of the city that are not currently so served and using the existing heavy rail corridors would not extend the reach of public transport to the same extent. The stage has been set therefore for a fractious and mostly unnecessary debate about the different merits of light vs heavy rail for public transport (the differences are comparitively minor in relation to passenger carriage) and is largely driven by NZ First’s representatives attempting to tap into the small and insular rail heritage community for votes.

The airport light rail development proposals can best be summed up as not actually being focussed particularly on the small number of passengers who would be likely to use it to meet flights. This market is so small that the services would not be able to pay their way if they were focused primarily on serving it. Hence the light rail proposal is for a line that serves urban population catchments around Mangere and for people that work at the airport, rather than flyers. The same impact could be achieved by extending existing heavy rail from Onehunga and is probably a better long term objective because it can serve the actual growth in airport traffic in the longer term when that eventually develops to become more viable, while in the shorter term it enables the servicing of the additional urban population catchments between Onehunga and the airport. However, NZ First is campaigning on a rail line from the airport via Puhinui that would not serve any additional urban population due to it running through the airport noise corridor, on the basis that it is claimed that passenger trains from Hamilton to the south and the greater Waikato could become viable. The problem with assuming Hamilton would be a significant catchment is that it is only about 120 km from there to the airport, which is quite driveable for a lot of people and well served by existing road shuttles that the rail would be hard pressed to compete against, especially on fares. The possibility of getting a lot of passengers from the south is really a very long term outcome that will be driven by massive population increase in that corridor over decades and again, in the short term, is simply a nonsense proposition.

The light rail debate for Auckland has become drawn out due to scope changes by the government that have obscured the important outcomes. The Government has failed to understand the background of the original light rail proposals and allowed itself to be sidetracked into supporting a proposed PPP for a very expensive airport focused metro line. This is as nonsensical as NZ First’s Puhinui heavy rail proposal. Neither of these achieves the development objectives that the original heavy rail (via Onehunga) and light rail plans were intended to achieve. If the Government proceeds with the airport metro line it will be an expensive white elephant around the necks of taxpayers and ratepayers for decades whilst funnelling fistfuls of their money into a Canadian pension fund that will profit handsomely. Incredibly, this has continued to be at the forefront of Labour’s blatant hijack of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project in its present term, and since Labour has now dropped the original ATAP light rail plans in favour of the metro white elephant, it will remain contentious should they win the election later this year. NZ First’s pitch for a heavy rail line from Puhinui to the airport is mostly about capturing votes from both sides of the political divide from being cheaper to construct than light rail and supposedly enabling fast train services to the airport from all around the Auckland and Waikato regions. Neither of these is relevant in the short tot medium term as the economics do not actually stack up. The best outcome really for Auckland is to build the extension of the Onehunga heavy rail to the airport and develop the light rail separately without reference to South Auckland – earlier proposals were to take a light rail line from the city to Mt Roskill without heading further south as ATAP proposes. NZ First taking their high road over stymying Labour’s airport metro project is ignoring the fact that their alternative is not better than various alternatives that have been on the table in recent times. The NZ First Party has employed a range of questionable tactics in its campaigns on the issue due to attempting to straddle both sides of the political fence and their attempts to divide and conquer the public transport landscape are not material to their lack of long term political viability because the key factors concerning this are deeply rooted in the Party’s history and culture and the important differences between it and other Parliamentary parties. Ultimately, whilst we believe there are serious and valid concerns that have been raised by NZ First over the government’s flagship light rail/metro policy platform, they are not in a position to claim any moral high ground in the debate because their alternative is not any more credible.

Submission on Christchurch Commuter Rail

This is our first post since we decided to close down our Facebook group “Greater Christchurch Public Transport” and syndicate these posts to the group “NZ Rail Maps and Christchurch Public Transport” instead.

The Greens have announced a policy proposal to get the government to fund the development of commuter trains for Christchurch. However, this is not new, as they had a similar policy at the previous election, and nothing resulted from it.

We are putting together a generic submission template because it has become fairly apparent that there is a lack of will from central government political parties to move the commuter rail proposals forward. Labour has effectively outsourced this to the Christchurch City Council, which to date has responded with another version of its longstanding opposition to commuter rail, and proposals for the money to instead be spent on projects focused around the Christchurch CBD and excluding the outer suburbs, let alone the satellite townships in Greater Christchurch outside the Christchurch City borders.

We know from history that the same issues have been prevalent in Wellington, where the Let’s Get Wellington Moving considerations resulted in a proposal for BRT to be implemented by Wellington City Council that was quietly dropped due to lack of political will for ratepayers to fund the proposals. This will always happen in a territorial council environment where their city limits are small enough that everyone can get around on a bus and rapid transport is only useful when going into satellite outposts, which for reasons of pork barrelling, the territorial politicians always frustrate.

Wellington would never have got its commuter train service if it had been left to Wellington City, Upper Hutt, Lower Hutt and Kapiti to agree on what service was to be provided. Neither would have Auckland back in the days of multiple territorial authorities. The governments in both eras (1938 Labour government in Wellington, and 1999 Labour government in Auckland) stepped in over the top of bickering local politicians and whipped them into line. In Auckland this resulted in legislation to bring inb the Auckland Regional Transport Authority that took over all public transport in the region. The result being the doubling of most of the suburban network and the electrification and new trains that they got subsequently). A few generations earlier in Wellington, they got their electrification out to Paekakariki and Upper Hutt and the EMUs which are now in their third generation.

And that is what this inept government needs to realise as they have given us very little to date in terms of public transport development. The main issue is that in this present pandemic environment, it is very difficult to campaign for new public transport services. So when we put the document together we will have to lobby for a staged development approach, for example to get infrastructure built before trains are eventually introduced as demand returns, which could take many years.

Anyway, this submission proposal will be progressed over the next week. Watch this space.

Level Crossing Safety In Otago

As we recall it may have been written back near the start of this blog that railway level crossing safety is one of our key concerns. We are concerned that Kiwirail has many dangerous level crossings under its control, that it is ignoring because fixing them can be expensive and it is only prepared to give improvements a low priority unless there is major public concern. We are generally concerned that the numerous roading authorities (territorial councils) lack the expertise to be able to assess level crossing safety and that as Kiwirail is the primary rail operator and it also owns the national railway network, it needs to be a lot more proactive in taking action on dangerous crossings.

Kiwirail operates a public web site as part of its internal GIS system. The site is called Kiwirail ALCAM and it gives information about every level crossing in New Zealand, marked on an interactive map. Only some information is released however. Kiwirail keeps some information about level crossings private. We believe more of the information about each level crossing, including Kiwirail’s own assessments of how dangerous it is, should be more publicly available. This is because of what we see as Kiwirail’s tendency to downplay the danger at crossings, or to try to shift the blame.

Kiwirail is a Crown entity and we believe as it is Government owned we need to see more public accountability from Kiwirail over level crossing safety in that we need to be assured that Kiwirail has the ability to safely assess level crossings. It is important to note that Kiwirail does not have the sole responsibility for a crossing. The actual responsibility is shared with a roading authority in the case of a public road. Around the country there are also many private level crossings, which are shared between Kiwirail and individual land owners. In each case Kiwirail must authorise the installation of the crossing. It can easily be inferred that there is some responsibility for Kiwirail to ensure a crossing is safe.

This responsibility is also enshrined to some extent in the Health and Safety laws of this country. Kiwirail is responsible for ensuring both the safety of its employees and the safety of the public when they enter onto a public site of Kiwirail. Level crossings are a public Kiwirail site when they have been authorised as such by Kiwirail. The Railways Act gives some specific guidelines relating to level crossings as there are particular rules in that Act that relate to railways.

The reason for posting this blog is that there has been a level crossing accident at a crossing at Mosgiel, which Kiwirail’s spokesperson in the media quickly blamed on the road user, although the statement made was a generic one and didn’t appear to address this particular one. Although it can be difficult to be sure of exactly which crossing is being referred to in a news report, the description appears to correspond to ALCAM Level Crossing 3344 at 394.24 km, which is a private level crossing off Gladstone Road and nearly opposite Cemetery Road. The crossing sees daily trains of 9 and daily vehicles of 100. It does not take much effort to look at the crossing and see that the stacking distance for heavy motor vehicles, which use the crossing, is manifestly insufficient.

We can see by the scale included at the bottom that a vehicle stopping at the crossing to enter the site would have around 5 metres of stacking distance to be able to stop clear of traffic on Gladstone Road. For a truck towing a trailer this is clearly inadequate. Such a consist turning left would have a reasonable chance of being able pull up without too much disruption to traffic provided they do not actually have to wait for a train. The situation for heavy vehicles turning right is quite different and much more dangerous. Because the consist will block the road, they have to be able to make a continuous movement from the right turn position to be able to cross all the way over the tracks without pulling up at the railway line. In order to do this they have to be able to see if a train is approaching from directly behind (if a southbound train is approaching this crossing) and judge its speed and assess whether they will have enough time to complete the movement. This has to be juggled with the gaps in traffic in the road as well, so we can readily understand that there is a lot of room for error.

The plot thickens a bit more when we look at the history of this location. This is part of the old rail yards, and there may have been a previous entrance to this site at the location of crossing 3344. On 1975 aerial photos there appears to be a gate there. It would seem that when Kiwirail had the yard subdivided for sale, they made this the principal entrance to the site. Here was the opportunity to assess the safety of the crossing and ensure it was suitable for purpose. It is particularly noteworthy that Kiwirail use an adjacent part of the site for loading ballast wagons, which are filled from large trucks, and that they have gone to a considerable effort to create a safe crossing and entrance to their site off a side road. This suggests they must be aware of the hazard of having an entrance off Gladstone Road in this area where the rail line and road are so close together.

There are other instances of dangerous level crossings that stand out and the question remains as to who is responsible for ensuring safety is achieved at sites and whether Kiwirail or the roading authorities are up to the task.

Greens Call For Commuter Rail Development

This week the Green Party has called for rail commuter development around the country as part of a post-Covid economic stimulus package for the country. As reported in this Stuff article, they suggest $9 billion should be invested over 10 years to build high speed commuter networks centered around Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. In our region, Christchurch-Rangiora is a particular focus, with the possibility of extending to Ashburton or Timaru to be considered as well.

A quick search on the Stuff website shows there have been many commuter rail proposals articulated over the past ten or more years. These have all been sidelined by Wellington until Labour put a proposal into their manifesto at the last election. There were similar campaigns from the Greens and NZ First as well, but no progress has been made on the issue for various reasons, the key one being that Labour has favoured one of its own local body politicians in Christchurch proposing a city-only solution instead of the Greater Christchurch regional option that heavy rail is most suited to. This flies in the face of the longstanding campaigns in the city for heavy rail as well as the views of the other two parties of Government.

We will be writing a submission over the next few days that will be copied to the Greens, Labour and NZ First as the parties that are supportive of commuter rail development in Greater Christchurch. It will be including material that we have previously published on this blog in support of Greater Christchurch commuter rail development, and will be asking some hard questions about the lack of progress on the 2018 proposals, as well as pushing for more action from the parties than we have got so far.

So watch this space as we will include the submission in another post on this site when it has been written and sent.

Examples of previous reporting on commuter rail:

Christchurch At The Transport Crossroads In 2020 [2]

Well this part 2 has taken a long time to appear, but these days we want to be more considered in blogging and spending the time to think things through properly rather than rushing out a lot of lower quality posts or ones that repeat stuff already made. Unfortunately the key problem that is affecting all transport projects around the country is a lack of commitment from the government, which is rapidly giving even its most ardent supporters the impression that they are largely a populist personality cult focused around the Prime Minister and have almost no ideological backbone. In the recent announcements all they have really done is fund projects that were either lobbied for by NZ First and included in the coalition agreement, or that were developed by the previous government.

That said, the main object of this part 2 is to continue discussing what are the key reasons we are not seeing progress in developing commuter rail in Christchurch, apart from the lack of government focus, which is a pretty big part of it. Simply put, territorial local authorities have a very weak corrupt political obeisance to the rich and powerful, whilst this is also seen at central government level it tends to be a lot more open there with more checks and balances. In fact we think it is probably a good rule of thumb that the smaller and more local a unit of government is, the more likely it is to be captured by personal interests of the people living in it and the less likely it is to care about being a part of a larger territory and the overall interests of that territory. This goes a long way to explaining why local government authorities frequently fails to take into consideration a big picture of the role they have to play in a larger urban region. They seek to maintain their own small scale political interests and ignore everything else.

In the case of Christchurch City, much of the current debate about the nature of the city focusing on the idea that the central city (the Four Avenues as it is called) is more important than anywhere else within the territorial limits of the whole city and that this area should get more of the resources especially ratepayer funding than the outer suburbs. At the time of writing this there has been much opinion commentary in “The Press” newspaper by a well known radio host and National Party member on a supposed revolt around the Council table by five councillors who are campaigning for rates spending to be reduced. The problem for the said commentator is that if we dig deeper into what is being said, it leads to a default assertion that there are in fact some projects that are not libraries or art galleries or swimming pools that should actually get lots of money from the council and these are straight commercial projects within the central city area, or large pieces of infrastructure that create business opportunities for hotel owners and the like. The key issue underlying this is that there are some wealthy developers and landowners in the central city who are sitting on expensive high value property and that the rest of the city is “morally” obliged to agree to fund, through their rates payments, what is a property owners’ cartel that keeps land prices much higher there than anywhere else in the city.

What flows out from this is that the current Mayor that we have, as with most of our mayors, being based in the central city, is captured by these interests and has focused on pushing the central-is-better viewpoint in a big way. When we see that in 2014 Ecan did this rail study which showed that rail should have been developed, and then the next year the Mayor demands the right to meddle in public transport for the entire region through forming the Joint Public Transport Committee. Then the next stage is to develop a new public transport plan that focuses mainly on Christchurch and from the Mayor’s perspective, on the Christchurch central city area with a whole lot of new routes that go through the CBD. The ideas that anyone can live in other parts of the region (Selwyn / Waimakariri) and travel to an outer suburb or that these areas can offer facilities to people living there or in outer suburbs that compete with what is in the central city, are obviously a great threat to the financial and political hegemony of the small group of super wealthy elite who control the centre of Christchurch.

At the moment the JPTC is said to have rejected rail as a possible solution for Christchurch – this has been stated by other commentators such as Talking Transport but we haven’t been able to find out as yet exactly where this was explicitly stated. However the JPTC has a funding study at work with NZTA to get some proposals investigated – as far as we know, these are for ideas like bus rapid transit or light rail, not for heavy rail. We are intending to get stuck into a lot of process behind the current direction being taken by the Joint Public Transport Committee and the plans and consultations and other processes they have been working with. However this depends a great deal on what can be achieved locally working with other transport activists in Greater Christchurch. As we signalled in the first post for this year the bigger direction we hope to achieve this year is to see greater collaboration with other groups or persons to get progress. Can’t give any guarantees of how that might play out during the year so that question will be left open for the present but we hope that saying “watch this space” will prove to be fruitful.