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: