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 groups.io 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.

Christchurch At The Transport Crossroads In 2020 [1]

Whilst we may not be planning to blog as much this year, there are still things that need to be said from time to time. We have spent a few weeks thinking about this post, and just feel it is important to write it. It is partially a different way of writing about some of the issues we were going to put into a different planned article series in late December (which has been dropped due to our change in focus for this year).

Christchurch is a really badly planned city for public transport, and nothing much is going to change as long as the Government passes the buck on it. Whilst Labour did make an election promise for $100 million to establish a commuter service from Rolleston, like other Labour public transport initiatives around the country, this has fallen flat due to general political incompetence. Largely, this is due to the slavish political obeisance of the Minister of Transport to Christchurch City Council politicians. The way the power structures work in the City, these politicians have absolutely nothing to gain from any type of transport system that is not road-based. The Minister has spent far too much time listening to the lobbying of the Christchurch Mayor and not enough on actually understanding all of the issues at stake and the benefits that come from designing a public transport system that works across the whole Greater Christchurch area. It comes about because even though both central and local governance in Christchurch City is nominally Labour affiliated, the city council politicians only follow this in word and not in deed. The ideological focus of the “People’s Choice” political bandwagon in local Christchurch governance is, in practice, nearly indistinguishable from Independent Citizens or other National-affiliated right wing groupings.

So the only actual action on public transport reform we have seen from central government is to pass a law allowing the transfer of management of public transport systems between regional and territorial councils. This issue is largely irrelevant to the way these systems operate, and is unlikely to produce any real improvement in the way public transport systems are operated in Greater Christchurch at present. In fact, it is likely to work against improved systems of public transport being introduced in future, and we believe in fact this is a political calculation by the powers that be. We also note that the Mayor of Christchurch has been one of the chief cheerleaders for this legislative initiative, but we wouldn’t be prepared to put money on her being able to serve her full term at present due to questions being asked about her electoral finance returns at the last two elections. To put it another way, we have to ask what pressing issue the Mayor is trying to solve by campaigning to take over the operation of our bus services. We think it is becoming increasingly clear that it is essentially a political power game being played by Christchurch City against the regional council and territorial authorities further out, and is actually against the public interest.

So what are the political calculations involved? Firstly, let us conclude this first instalment of this two-part article by looking at how a local politician’s mind works when their territory is part of a larger urban area that is governed by multiple councils. This fact in places like Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch has been addressed to a large extent by the local government reforms of 1989, which created regional councils to govern public transport systems over multi-territory metropolitan areas. In Auckland, of course, there has since been the further amalgamation of local areas to form the Auckland Council. Prior to that, in the early 2000s the Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA) was created to separate public transport management from the other roles of Auckland Regional Council (ARC). Auckland Transport is the successor of ARTA but with increased powers and responsibilities, for example management of Auckland roads. In Wellington, some smaller councils were amalgamated into the larger territories of Kapiti, Lower Hutt, Upper Hutt, Porirua and Wellington City, but there is no present political impetus for a “Wellington Council” type of amalgamation. Wellington, however, did have bus services operated by Wellington City Transport (WCT) which was controlled by Wellington City Council. Christchurch, since the inception of public transport well over 100 years ago, has always had these services regionally managed; CCC has never been in control of them. This function was originally performed by the Christchurch Transport Board (CTB) (Christchurch Tramway Board in earlier years) and their function was handed over to Ecan (Canterbury Regional Council) in 1989.

Prior to the various local government reforms that have occurred, public transport was in some areas regionally managed from an early stage (Christchurch was the first area out of the three mentioned above to have this type of organisation) and in Auckland this system was introduced in the 1960s. In both Auckland and Wellington, the all important commuter passenger services were always managed in a regional fashion, firstly through the district offices of NZ Railways and latterly through the respective regional councils. This however has never been popular with the mayors of the largest territories. In such a politician’s small mind, they are seeking to maximise their political power by concentrating as much of the population of the larger metropolitan area as possible within their territory. They also want to make it more difficult for people to live outside their territory and commute to work within it. Therefore it is in a local politician’s interest to have control over all of the transport systems in their area. A regional transport system such as commuter trains that makes it easy for people to live north and south of Christchurch and commute quickly and rapidly into the city to work has long been despised by Christchurch mayors because these residents are not paying rates into the City coffers. These simple political facts go a long way to explaining part of the reason why Christchurch City Council does not have any interest in furthering the development of commuter rail services in the region. We will look into another key part of that reason in our second article.

Less Blogging For 2020

In 2020 this blog will be a lot less busy than in 2019. This is just an inevitable outcome of changing personal priorities. We plan to mainly focus on supporting the work that other people are doing to improve transport in Christchurch.

Heathcote Expressway Cycle Route Powers Ahead [1]

One of the best developments for transport in Christchurch in the last few years has been the new network of cycleways. The most relevant one to us is the Heathcote Expressway from the city centre to Heathcote, which we generally make use of around half a dozen times weekly nowadays. This is because we often cycle into town along Wilsons Road, which incorporates a section of the cycleway from its intersection with Charles Street, along Ferry Road to my regular destination at No. 150, and from there into the Four Avenues to join up with other cycleways such as St Asaph St / Colombo St et al.

This very same cycleway also heads in the opposite direction towards Ferrymead, which just happens to be where we currently cycle up to twice a week and return. We have been cycling alongside SH76 from Opawa to reach Port Hills Road, Martindales Road and Truscotts Road, but have found the section along SH76 (Opawa Road / Port Hills Road) to be very challenging due to the heavy trucks which are so close to the shoulder themselves requiring one to keep a very close watch out and nerves of steel. The Council did make it a little easier to go along this route some years back by converting the footpaths underneath the Tunnel Road / Scruttons Road interchange to shared paths, but this only affects a small part of the entire section and risk. There is a significant part of the section where there are no usable footpaths at all.

To get into the Woolston Loop area from our part of the city we have been following back streets and cutting across the Hillsborough loop in the Heathcote River by using the footbridges at both ends of Ford Road, emerging onto Aynesley Terrace and then going straight onto the westernmost section of Garlands Road to the signalised intersection with Opawa Road where Garlands becomes SH74A as part of the Ring Road. Previously here we would have made a right turn onto Opawa Road / SH76 but now we will carry on up the south side of SH74A on the footpath, crossing the Main South Line, to reach Maunsell St and then using that street and Cumnor Terrace alongside the river, eventually emerge onto Chapmans Road, cross the MSL again, and then reach SH76. Here there are some non-continuous sections of footpath that can be used to reach and cross over the Tunnel Road on-ramp and then we can use the existing shared path to get through the full interchange to Port Hills Road and so on as existing. This section has the issue that it is a long way around to reach Ferrymead because of the double back along Truscotts Road to reach the Park. Currently this is a total length of 7.0 km taking up to half an hour to cycle.

Obviously another question has been whether we can actually use the cycleway from Wilsons Road instead. This has been completed only as far as the Tannery in Woolston meaning our new section through the Woolston Loop is going to have to be tacked onto the end of the existing cycleway until the rest of it is completed. The first issue is that Cumnor Terrace between Garlands Road and Maunsell Street was absurdly changed into a one way road to fit in more car parking alongside the Tannery so the first requirement is to cross Garlands Road at the new signalised cycle crossing and double back to Tanner Street to Maunsell Street. From here we can go onto Cumnor Terrace again and then feed into Chapmans Road and SH76 as mentioned above. In total, this would make the entire journey 9.3 km long which is 2.3 km more than presently so there is no real advantage from what we currently use.

The other option we have looked at is therefore using our current route to join onto the new section of the Heathcote Expressway in Woolston and the total length that would give to our commute. Here we have detoured slightly from using Maunsell Street, to going from Garlands Road up Radley Street and along Marshall Street to get onto the Expressway at Cumnor Terrace on the north side of Garlands Road, avoiding use of the footpath along a short section on the south side of Garlands Road. This makes the total length increase, but this is compensated for the much more direct access into Ferrymead as the new cycleway section which runs right alongside the MSL making use of an existing water supply easement eliminates the doubling back along Trustcotts Road. At the moment it is a toss up whether to use Radley/Marshall or Maunsell either now or when the cycleway is opened and this will be evaluated from now until the cycleway extension is completed.

In part 2 we will take an actual look at the new off-road section of the cycleway from Cumnor Terrace to Ferrymead with maps from NZ Rail Maps to show how it fits into the Ferrymead landscape.