This is the second of two posts that look at the pros and cons of suburban passenger train development along the two main rail corridors in Greater Christchurch. Compared to the MSL corridor, the MNL corridor is less impacted by development constraints and has the advantage of existing residential development along much of it. It should therefore be given a higher priority than Christchurch-Rolleston along the MSL.
I covered some background of the suburban services on the Main North Line in my last post. These services were trains to Rangiora, which 100 years ago ran five times a day each way (three mixed trains carrying freight as well as passengers, plus two for passengers only. This increased by 1927 to five passenger and one mixed daily with a midday run by the Edison battery electric railcar, some of the services going further than Rangiora. In 1943 there were four services on weekdays from Rangiora to Christchurch and five from Christchurch to Rangiora. In 1949 this increased to five each way. However in 1956 this was cut back to three daily returns, one of which ran with a pair of Fiat railcars. In 1967 the railcars were taken off the run and the service became just one daily service, which ceased operations in 1976. Therefore in general, it can be said that the history of suburban passenger services north of Christchurch was relatively limited. One reason for this was there was a competing private bus service, although their fares were twice those of rail, but also within city limits the Christchurch tram network competed as well.
Going north from Christchurch the passenger stations were Addington, where the trains turned off the MSL onto the MNL, Riccarton, Bryndwr, Papanui, Styx, Belfast, Chaneys, Stewarts Gully, Kaiapoi, Flaxton, Southbrook and Rangiora. In 1958 the deviation between Chaneys and Kaiapoi saw the Stewarts Gully station replaced by a new one at Kainga. At the end of suburban services in 1976, many of the smaller stations disappeared, whilst Addington, Papanui, Belfast and Rangiora had a longer life. The long distance train to Picton continued to serve these locations, as did the Coastal Pacific in its earlier years, but nowadays Rangiora is the first stop for this service north of the Christchurch terminus.
In the glory days of NZR up until the 1980s there was a lot of suburban freight handled particularly at Papanui, Belfast, Kaiapoi, Rangiora and Ashley, but this gradually dried up as various industries along the route closed down or station services were rationalised. The result is there are considerably fewer station facilities of any sort left along the route. The old platform still exists at Addington although passenger trains of any kind have not used it since 1993. Papanui still has its platform with the station building leased out. Belfast platform is very overgrown but still exists, whilst at Rangiora the platform and veranda are still used but the building is also leased. There is practically no local freight operating these days (possibly none at all) and there are only four trains a day in fact running in the section at the current time. This means there is plenty of capacity in actuality meaning to establish a passenger service would be relatively straightforward.
The best thing in favour of a suburban passenger service on the Rangiora line is that there is already a lot of urban development along that corridor and room for more. From Christchurch through to Belfast is practically unbroken continuous housing except for pockets of industrial in Addington and Papanui. This has been amplified around Belfast since the quakes due to new subdivisions. However there does appear to be new industrial development being allowed now in Belfast near the old freezing works and questions should be asked about why we need more industrial sprawl north of Christchurch along the rail corridor which will not actually be connected to the rail line. Towards Chaneys is very low density for residential and I am unsure what the situation is for urban development there. North of the river in Waimakariri District, Kaiapoi is partly under the airport noise corridor but from the motorway overbridge right through to Rangiora has the ability to be developed.
The main obstacle from a railway operational viewpoint are the lack of stations and crossing facilities. The station at Addington is too small to be used for both the long distance trains and suburban services and the curve faces the wrong way to access a suburban terminal in the central city, although it is possible to reinstate a connection to reach the CBD. The only intermediate crossing point along the section is at Belfast, and a second platform would be needed there so that trains could stop in both directions. Kaiapoi would be difficult since there is no obvious place where to locate a station except by taking land near its former site. However on the other hand there is plenty of capacity and therefore not likely to be scheduling challenges. Since the earthquakes closed the line to freight for a couple of years, the number of through train services dropped off dramatically and now there are only two trains in each direction per day, so there is plenty of room to schedule suburban passenger services.