Questionable Commitment in Greater Christchurch to Bus Passenger Service

As of now there is a process underway with Metro Christchurch / Ecan concerning their procedure for dealing with passenger complaints about the Greater Christchurch public transport services administered by them. This issue alleges that one of the bus operators failed to respond to customer complaints over an extended period of time and that Metro Christchurch / Ecan has not taken meaningful steps to enforce their stated contractural obligation for bus operators to respond to customer complaints in a timely way.

We understand that with the concern expressed about lack of enforcement by Metro Christchurch, the matter is likely to be escalated to Ecan at a more senior level, or to the Councillors of the Regional Council, or one of their committees (JPTC or RTC as appropriate). We have some knowledge of the issues but it would be inappropriate to comment further whilst this matter is still going through the customer complaints process with Metro / Ecan.

Post-local-election thoughts [2]

So a look this time at some of the Ecan campaigns, the issues they ran into and so on. First one was Aaron Campbell’s campaign in Christchurch West for Ecan. It almost looked like he might have been worth voting for if I had lived there, however I since discovered that he was Dalziel’s campaign manager, something he certainly kept quiet during the elections. He missed out on being elected. Rik Tindall failed to fire in Christchurch South / Banks Peninsula ward, coming in last place, a long way down from his 2016 campaign where he came in at fifth place in what was then the four-seat constituency for the whole of Christchurch. My advice to Rik would be to quit politics altogether, given he seems to have large differences with the major political groupings in Christchurch. Axel Wilke made quite a good effort in Christchurch Central but came in 5th place and so was not elected. In my opinion this is attributable to the fact that his campaign crossed over from regional to local issues a number of times in advocating transport solutions for the city, as well as an intensive housing development proposal in Middleton. He reportedly earned ire and de-endorsement from Lianne Dalziel when he campaigned on opposing the takeover of public transport by the city, something that should perhaps have been kept under wraps during the campaign given how much support there is from Labour supporters for this course of action.  However it is quite good that Paul McMahon, James Dann and a number of other Peoples Choice Ecan candidates missed out, but as Phil Clearwater was the leading candidate he is very likely to be the next chairman and to be keen to continue greasing the wheels for a City takeover.

Tane Apanui is the key pro-rail campaigner to win election to Ecan, which he did on a populist platform by drawing support from a range of political groupings and campaigning on a typical NZ First/PTUA plank of adding rail to existing transport networks, rather than addressing the need for car use to be reduced. We find his stance difficult to reconcile with an admittance that road construction materials are environmentally unustainable. Likewise, campaigns for rail have to be credible. A passenger rail service from Waipara or Amberley into Christchurch is not credible because these areas are so distant – Waipara is 63 km from the city and Amberley is 52 km, compared to Rangiora at 30 km. The populations of Amberley and Waipara are pretty small, unlikely to be able to support a train service. Likewise, the idea that one day trains will run to Christchurch Airport or that the powers that be will go for a really cheap train service are irrelevant. They are interesting ideas, but given the scepticism in the professional rail community over any type of commuter rail service, they won’t gain much ground. Much better to gain a consensus on a starting point such as a Christchurch to Rangiora service, as even that will require central government assistance to establish. Ecan cannot get any services off the ground on its own because they do not receive the funding to do so, and the fact that campaigns so far have focused on blaming Ecan and other local authorities, have been quite misplaced. However these types of campaigns have been very popular with Peoples Choice who have used this as a lever against Ecan to argue they should be in control of public transport. For these various reasons plus the involvement of PTUA in Auckland with their small support base, lack of success in their own campaigning,  and being widely disliked outside the rail community, we do not expect to see any real progress with this campaign, especially if the City Council takes over public transport.

The impact of CCC taking over the public transport is likely to be very negative for rail as Council will have additional levers with which to oppose the establishment of rail services, which it would have no control over. These finer points have been completely lost on the politicians in Wellington with their obesiance to local government. However there is a proposal in place at the moment from Government to allow for urban intensification along major corridors such as transport and CCC has submitted in opposition, claiming there is no housing shortage and that other priorities are more important, specifically rebuilding the CBD. It is apparent that the attempts by CCC to have the CBD dominate, which is well known to be a chief cause of the Mayor and certain Councillors who represent big business interests and wealthy landowners in the City, are resented in other parts of Christchurch, and this position for a Labour mayor contrasts quite noticeably with her predecessor who seems to have been the one who let a lot of the CBD be devolved into the suburbs. The submission from CCC is really business as usual in that it represents property owners’ interests above those of the common people. If they claim there is no need for additional housing then it heads off the possibility of the government moving to build affordable housing in the city which would impact property values. Likewise intensification is opposed on the basis of “loss of amenity”. As we have stated elsewhere we supported controlled intensification along transport corridors which we believe will create affordable housing developments that are needed for people. But Middleton may not be a good starting point. The Main North Line remains the most important corridor to focus on as it is already heavily residential and there is room to develop further north between Rangiora and Kaiapoi. So these Government proposals could aid the development of a rail service but as they are busy kissing local government’s butt most of the time it is an open question whether anything will actually happen and as we have said elsewhere, the Government has focused on greasing the wheels for territorial councils that Labour controls to be able to take over public transport, rather than actually making an effort to fix problems with additional funding.

Christchurch Transport Blog will probably wind down a bit in the coming year. We have worked with Chat Club to contribute to some of the work they have been doing. Essentially we do not expect the government to make any serious effort to promote meaningful commuter rail development in Christchurch City unless they are prepared to push in and intensify along the rail corridors, but they have gone so slowly so far (and so ineptly in government overall) that they are not likely to get anything in place before they inevitably lose an election. We do not of course know if they will repeat their promise for the next election but they have a serious credibility problem in any case. As such there is little to be achieved by further campaigning and with the assumption CCC will take over the bus services these will be swallowed up in to the rest of the Council and there will be no real improvement in them as Council does not actually listen to most of the people who actually use the services even now, as has been amply proved over the past decades.

Post-local-election thoughts [1]

So here is the first part of our take on the local government elections, Christchurch being the main focus for this first part. It was pleasing to see Justin Lester tipped out in Wellington because he campaigned on taking control of public transport there. However that is only a small consolation because the Government has bent over backwards to make it much easier for public transport around the country to be seized off regional councils by territorial councils. This is actively being sought in both Christchurch and Dunedin. It is all smoke and mirrors because the main obstacle to improving public transport, which the mayors of both cities have been lobbying on for decades, is the amount of subsidies that either local or central government are able to put into the operation of routes. The current level of funding requires that fares make up at least 50% of the running costs of bus services and has not been changed in 10 years, meaning the Labour Government has not addressed this issue in almost 3 years in office.

The fact is that Lianne Dalziel the Mayor of Christchurch who is a master at political scheming and manipulation, a very formidable political campaigner who was seriously underestimated by the unsuccessful challenger Daryll Park, almost as soon as she was elected into the job the first time, lobbied Ecan for a Joint Public Transport Committee and has spent the past two terms wearing down the opposition from Ecan councillors by haranging them at great length about essentially how useless they are at running public transport and how it should be taken over by the city council. The next step was a joint approach last term with Steve Lowndes, Ecan chairman and a fellow Labour member, to the Government, claiming that a Bill amending the Local Government Act was intended to facilitate the transfer of services between councils. The Bill in question that National introduced was nothing of the kind; it envisaged transport being moved into multi-agency CCOs which may have been intended to have a similar scope as Auckland Transport has in Auckland. Since Labour took over the Bill they have pushed through major amendments including gutting all of the CCO provisions and adding the actual transfer functions with amendments into the Land Transport Management Act and related legislation that was never in the original Bill. The result is to make it much easier for these services to be transferred. This amounts to about all that the Labour government has done for public transport during its first term of office and apparently this is the most important priority for them – that their role is to be an enabler for their members who are local government politicians first and foremost. This would have to be a very corrupt policy from central government if that proves to be the case.

The latest claims from Dalziel claim a fully integrated public transport system across Christchurch, Waimakariri and Selwyn will result, and she went further during the election campaign by saying CCC should actually be running all of the services itself, that is, they should own all of the buses and employ all the drivers, cutting out the use of bus companies that are presently contracted to run the services. This has been the end goal for CCC ever since they bought Red Bus off the Christchurch Transport Board back in the 1990s, but CCC has never administered or operated public transport services in Christchurch at any previous time because we have always had regionalised services due to them crossing territorial boundaries. That will not change and makes regionalising important. Also it is very unclear what a “fully integrated public transport” system actually is. At the present time, regional and territorial council staff already work closely together to deliver public transport services in the city, making such claims essentially meaningless.

The problem is that for a political schemer like Dalziel, making it easy for people to live outside the City boundaries, by having public transport services go into Selwyn and Waimakariri and give people in those regions an easy way of getting into the CBD, is contrary to her political interests as the City’s mayor. There has been a similar negative reaction to the development of the Christchurch Northern Corridor in enabling people to drive easily to Christchurch from residential communities further north, and by implication in the south. There is already enough debate in the City about the merits of of the Mayor’s push for the central business district to be the most dominant part of Christchurch, without bringing in the possibility that people living outside the city entirely could have as easy a level of access to the CBD as its own residents, without paying any rates. This is one key reason why the Joint Public Transport Committee has been dominated by the Mayor’s campaign for control of public transport, and why it has failed to consider heavy rail as a possible option for public transport in the city. However, equally concerning has been the Government’s attitude to the development of rail commuter services in the City, in which despite an election campaign promise of up to $100 million in funding, it was handed over entirely to local bodies to make the case for the service to be developed. Apart from the fact that the chosen Rolleston rail corridor is very hard to intensify, CCC for the reasons outlined above is the not the slightest bit in favour of a rail passenger service going outside its boundaries.

The agenda for public transport development for the past three years since a Labour Government was elected has gone entirely into political ideology over enabling local government politicians with greater control over services that run in their areas and leaving them to it. Mike Williams, the former president of the Labour Party, has made it clear he supports the call by Phil Goff, a former Labour Party leader and current mayor of Auckland, for reform of the structure of the Auckland Transport CCO. Giving greater power over the CCO to the elected politicians of Auckland Council is almost certain to result in its public transport development programme being severely curtailed in years to come, as road transport is the dominant preference of ratepayers in practically every city in New Zealand. Wellington will then simply say they are facilitating more democratic control by local politicians, when in reality local governance is so weak and corrupt that it disenfranchises a significant chunk of its electors. Williams also claims that the Auckland structures are the reason for the low electoral turnout in the City despite this being a nationwide trend. The Government has further cemented the view that they are entirely out of touch with reality by saying that electronic voting will be the saviour.

Well having looked at where Christchurch City will go in relation to public transport, we’ll have a look at other considerations in the second part of this series.

Local Government Amendment Bill pushing another political agenda

A Bill called the Local Government Amendment Bill No.2 has just been reported back from a select committee to Parliament. This Bill is of significance because it proposes to make it easier for local authorities to reorganise themselves by attacking each other and taking over services that the other provides.

Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of local government structure as it now appears. We have territorial councils that run a city or town and we have regional councils that govern entire regions and have regional responsibilities assigned to them. Before 1989 the regional councils did not exist, but there were a range of regional governance arrangements in place; for example there was Auckland Regional Authority, and closer to home there was Canterbury United Council. When local government was majorly reorganised nationwide the regionalisation arrangements became the norm across all areas, so that ARA became Auckland Regional Council, whilst CUC was essentially superseded by the Canterbury Regional Council. Many territorial councils were amalgamated together into larger bodies. This was done in a very piecemeal way rather than following common sense in a lot of cases, and this resulted in some unitary councils in places like Gisborne and Nelson-Malrborough for no good reason, and in some areas very small territorial councils like South Wairarapa District Council (total population 10,000), Kaikoura District Council (total population 3830), and three councils for the West Coast with an average around 10,000 in each of their districts.

So other words what is the point of having such small territorial councils and the reason is purely political. And what is the point of having unitary authorities and again it is political. When we see that there are clear benefits in the way regional councils and territorial councils are organised with clear responsibilities then the fact there are unitary authorities in some areas means that the regional and territorial functions are combined which creates a clear conflict of interest. This results in the regional function being minimised in most cases in those areas. To be able to look at the issue in this way we have to be able to understand that territorial forms of government are relatively weak and therefore prone to corruption and self interest. This weakness both comes from and contributes to a low standard of candidates for territorial council offices. Local governance is weak and corrupt because the wards that elect councillors are small and are therefore dominated by very local issues. The most local interest that any voter can have revolves around the house they live in. From there things scale up into their neighbourhood and its character. For political blocs to take control of a council they have to campaign across all the wards regardless of their character and therefore in most cases have to campaign on populist parochial platforms that will make the areas they represent more desirable, which usually involves spending lots of ratepayers’ funds. These platforms are in turn captured by interest groups that have the most time and money to spend on lobbying, generally the more prosperous areas in a city or town.

Both major political blocs recognise there are objectives that they can achieve through local government. National generally favours keeping councils locally focused taking as many responsibilities from them as possible or placing them under heavy government regulation. Examples: changing the Resource Management Act multiple times to push through development without public consultation,; mandating interference from NZTA in public transport tendering; forcing councils to sell their shareholdings in electricity retailing and public transport operations; mandating council corporatisation of commercial holdings, etc. National also supports councils becoming unitary so that a layer of bureaucracy is eliminated. Labour on the other hand supports councils that are involved in more things with more deveolved powers from central government, less regulation, more public consultation powers, more assets owned by central government etc. The problem is that both of these differing objectives fail to make local government more equitable. The populist character of local government campaigning and representation is not being addressed. This means that less populist causes such as core council functions and better services in areas such as water and public transport are not well served by local government.

National brought this Bill together to provide for new CCOs that would be owned by multiple Councils and organise infrastructure and services such as water and transport services into such organisations. Reorganisations would have to be under the supervision of an increased Local Government Commission with more members and powers than before. Labour has gutted key sections of the Bill, most notably the additional powers and duties assigned to the Local Government Commission and the sections changing the functions of CCOs. probably because the National Party model of a CCO would look more like the ones in Auckland, which follow a more corporate model of organisation that has less direct accountability to elected governance. Since the effect of National’s proposals was to regionalise local government more and the Labour proposals are to territorialise it more, the outcomes of changing this will be more negative for functions that are currently regionalised in local governance. This has come about because the Labour mayors of large cities which do not control functions such as public transport have been lobbying for decades to take over control of these functions regardless of the merit of any such proposals, which in most cases is non existent.

The problem with this Bill that Labour is pushing through (to serve their own political interests) is that the local government weakness is going to become more empowered by this law. A territorial council can instigate a reorganisation proposal out of naked self interest, usually from a political bloc who will claim they can do something better than another group of politicians. An example in Christchurch is the campaign by CCC to take over running local bus services from Ecan. There is no substantive basis for this claim except for naked self interest and political greed from CCC politicians, namely the Labour-Peoples Choice bloc. The much wider agenda is making it easier for territorial councils to seize power from their regional counterparts in every area possible. This means that CCC could also campaign to take over the responsibility for air quality, another area where they have proven particularly ineffective in the past to regulate due to a well funded vocal lobby of heating appliance and car owners who believe they have a right to pollute. Another example could be water quality. CCC is currently one of the biggest freshwater polluters in the city due to overflows from the wastewater system that it steadfastly refuses to fund the upgrade of. The reasons for pushing these measures through are not to improve services to ratepayers, but to advantage political blocs like Labour.

Once the Bill is passed we can expect to see the political blocs in various cities exploiting the very weak reorganisational mechanisms to push through various takeovers and the Government will stand by and do nothing as it is a political advantage to them to have territorial authorities that have more fingers in pies than ever. In public transport, because the existing provision of PT functions by CCC is already very weak, an improvement is unlikely.

Car-centric carriageway clogging culture continues in Christchurch [5]: Political realities

Right now we have a Labour government in Wellington, and we have Ecan headed by a Labour member (Steve Lowndes) and we have the Christchurch City Council headed by a Labour member (Lianne Dalziel).  And this is like political heaven for the Labour party, and as long as it continues we will never actually see any progress in commuter rail in the city. That is because the main focus for Labour in local government is not serving you and me, and standing for anything like they do in central government. It is about getting elected and being in office and having as much power as possible. Local government and other local institutions are what Labour uses to support their national organisation, and train and groom people for national office. So the focus is on getting more political power.

In the transport sphere, we saw that when Ecan was ruled by commissioners and Sir Bob Parker was the Mayor, their focus was quite different in Christchurch PT. They were successful in getting the Riccarton Metro Suburban Interchange built. When the Council staff stalled and welshed and tried to get out of building it, Bazley called them liars and Bob Parker actually got up and apologised, and the interchange got built. What most people missed is that when Lianne was the MP for Christchurch East, she promised to lobby for a suburban interchange to be built in New Brighton. That’s gone very quiet since she became Mayor. We’ve heard no more about any suburban interchanges from her Council in two terms; they are now touting bigger bus stops and calling them “suburban interchanges” despite the earlier plans for proper interchanges that Council staff were putting into annual plans for years in the 2000s.

Instead Labour in the Council has focused on a time wasting exercise of seeking to take over the city’s public transport network. It’s always a goal when there is a Labour controlled council to achieve what they’ve wanted for decades. Once upon a time, Denis O’Rourke was an elected Labour member on the council. Unfortunately he is another politician well past their use by date, who is the chairman of Central Plains Water Trust, that great CCC Labour initiative (started by Garry Moore) to make money off an irrigation scheme that will intensify farming and increase freshwater pollution. O’Rouke was first appointed to CPWT way back in 2000. He lost his council set in 2004, and was unable to gain any office in 2007 Ecan elections, or 2010 elections for CCC and CDHB. He then stood for NZ First on the party list at rank 7 and was elected in 2011 and 2014, but with a drop in rank for 2017 he did not return to Parliament. O’Rourke as a Labour councillor made incessant attacks upon the regional council, claiming they should be abolished. It was obvious this included taking over public transport, but there was no progress towards this achieved during his time on the Council.

It is clear from around the country that Labour are empire builders at local government level and are looking for power and influence over everything else so we should be extremely wary of a situation where they are in control of both central and local government and are looking to feather their nest. For this reason we believe the best way we could see public transport advanced in Christchurch, including commuter rail, is if the Council swings to the right at the present elections. Another example of this is a Labour councillor who is currently being investigated (his name is all over the media at the moment) who has said he opposes Government moves to mandate intensified development in parts of our cities. It is only with that type of development and proper planning focused along transport corridors, such as rail lines, that we will see a development of the city of Christchurch that is properly designed for mass rapid public transit. Just the fact that the government being Labour giving a nod and a wink to its members who have power in the City Council and Regional Council is a recipe for stagnation, not for good policy action that will move the City forward.

Hence, we have to wait for the local elections to see which way things will go in the development of public transport in Christchurch.

Car-centric carriageway clogging culture continues in Christchurch [4]: MFM campaign highlights transport funding debacle

We welcome debate on the public transport system here and are interested in any proposals to improve the system. It’s abundantly clear in our other posts that we are concerned that the City Council has not given public transport a high enough priority to development of a public transport network in the city, by being prepared to fund its component of public transport adequately. The Minto For Mayor campaign has raised the question with its free buses campaign policy. The state of funding for public transport is in many ways similar to other key public service areas (like social housing) where the priorities the Council has are completely wrong. People ask about PT funding when large amounts have been spent on cycleways, and as the MFM campaign has highlighted, millions of dollars have been given in rebates to apartment owners that would have paid for the social housing upgrades, proving the Council has definitely got its priorities wrong.

In this light the campaign by the current Mayor to take over the running of public transport system in the City has to be seen for what it is – primarily about the gaining of political power and not about improving the system. A prime motivation for this campaign is for CCC politicians to remove a major source of criticism from public submissions to Council consultation over public transport infrastructure from Ecan. We have observed this over many years through multiple Council administrations. As long as the Mayor or Councillors can shut down public criticism of their failures to properly fund or support public transport they can pull the wool over people’s eyes better when it comes to election time. This applies to other policy areas as well, so it is important to have this understanding

The Mayor of Wellington who is also a Labour member (it is almost always Labour politicians who want more political control and power for themselves) is obviously very interested in the type of political vehicle that we have in the JPTC and is proposing a similar agency if re elected for Wellington, so that he can gain more power over the bus system they have there. Like the JPTC this political creation would have no actual decision making power over the actions of Wellington City Council or GWRC. When our JPTC did the recent Regional Public Transport Plan four things in particular stood out:

  • The plan was almost all about Christchurch passenger transport excluding other local authorities requirements.
  • The rapid transit corridors run only to the city limits.
  • The rapid transit corridors parallel the existing rail corridors.
  • All of the onus to do things under the plan was for Ecan to do stuff. There was never any onus under the plan for Christchurch City Council to do anything. CCC wants a network that gives them maximum advantage without putting anything into it themselves.

So ostensibly whilst this plan is supposedly about Greater Christchurch, in reality almost all of it is about Christchurch City.

The funding situation that specifically relates to the MFM campaign is they have said CCC should fund free buses. Now it is questionable if NZTA will give its usual 25% subsidy for a completely free service. So far we have been told the free bus services policy will not get an NZTA subsidy and possibly not an Ecan one either. In which case the amount CCC would have to put in would greatly increase. So at this time the financial basis of this campaign promise is a bit suspect. That part of the policy aside, the key issue that relates to the existing level of CCC public transport funding is that it is wholly inadequate, as are most aspects of CCC’s public transport policy in general. Community boards are delegated the decision making power over bus routes and stops in their areas. This means that these decisions are dictated by local residents rather than the needs of bus passengers. The result is there are many questionable decisions over routing, bus priority and stop placement that do not take into consideration what is the best way to run a public transport network for the greater good, instead it comes down to what is the least inconvenient for people who drive cars and who don’t want a bus stop outside their house. It also means bus priority lanes and other measures are considered less important than lanes and parking for cars.

So the conclusion of this post is that CCC overwhelmingly favours cars in its transport funding decisions and public transport is well down the list in priorities. The failure of the public transport system can be partly sheeted home to these priorities.

What is the best administrative structure for public transport?

In New Zealand, since 1989, public transport around the country is governed by regional councils, whilst territorial councils are responsible for funding road-based infrastructure for PT that uses roads, such as buses. Where rail is a form of PT, the local infrastructure, however, is generally under the ownership of the regional council, the rail line and corridor being owned by the Government. Unitary authorities work in a similar way to a territorial council that has taken over regional functions. Auckland is in a unique position of being a unitary authority with all of its transport and roading functions placed under the control of a CCO, a company owned by Auckland Council which it only has governance oversight of, not direct operational control. This essentially means the board of Auckland Transport is not elected directly by ratepayers and therefore not accountable to them.

There is no perfect system for administering public transport because the sticking point is the source of funding for local infrastructure. Ratepayers in local government areas are very reluctant to see their rates being spent on public transport infrastructure, or road space being prioritised for public transport ahead of cars. So in Christchurch, bus priority takes forever to implement, and bus shelters and interchanges tend to be scarce. Residents opposing the operation of a bus down their street is also an ongoing issue.

Rail has a relatively easy ride compared to road transport because the rail network is a central government asset, and they are not directly accountable to local ratepayers. The operation of trains has to be contracted out, but the regional council governs the service just as they do with bus services. The crucial difference is that local ratepayers cannot hobble the operation of the train services. Train services are also different in that local infrastructure such as stations is owned by the regional council rather than by a territorial council.

Public transport therefore works best when it is governed by a non-territorial authority. This is precisely the reason for the system we have now. The problem is that as a long as roads are under the control of a territorial council, which is guaranteed to kowtow to the owners of private motor vehicles, public transport will always remain second priority and second rate because the money will never be found from rates to fund the infrastructure that is needed to improve the services.

The solution for road based public transport is probably to keep the governance of the services themselves at regional council level as is the case now. The second step that is needed is for central Government to fund public transport infrastructure directly, through either the regional or territorial council, preferably the former. Therefore for example, giving the regional councils the powers necessary to designate and manage a public transport network and the necessary infrastructure, is probably the improvement necessary to ensure that road based PT systems operate much better than is possible now. This essentially would mean giving the regional councils the power to override local councils in the matter of bus routes and corridors, and the funding to build the supporting infrastructure themselves. At that point, the operation of a road-based public transport system is similar to that of a rail network.

There are those who argue that the answer is to give full governance control to the territorial authority. This will result in the services being subsumed to the all-dominant motor vehicle interests. In short it is not going to improve on the current system as funding will still be at the whim of ratepayers.