Ecan’s latest commuter train proposal a political stunt

In 2017, the Labour Party entered the election campaign promising to fund commuter passenger rail in Christchurch to the tune of $100 million. Labour won enough support in the election to form a government with the pro-rail NZ First party, so there should have been no lack of desire to implement this proposal, although in the finer detail it was suggested that depending on what was decided at local level, it could be repurposed to other forms of transport infrastructure or services, such as bus networks. It soon became clear that the Government appeared unwilling to follow the logical precedent established by the Clark Labour government of 1999-2008, which had revitalised public transport, especially trains, in Auckland by creating a new local entity (Auckland Regional Transport Authority) to specifically take over the management of public transport, to ensure it was separated from having to compete for resources with other functions of the Auckland regional council. Instead, there was to be a process by which in some shape or form the various councils in Greater Christchurch would work out how to agree on which form the improvements to public transport could take. This was naturally seen as being a naive assumption at the time, one of many made by the then Minister of Transport Phil Twyford, who became bogged down in bureaucratic details of light rail proposals in Auckland, in that it appeared to be overly pandering to lobbying by local politicians intent on shoring up their political empires by gaining greater control than their neighbours or taking over public transport management from the regional council.

The government in response particularly to proposals advocated by the Mayor of Christchurch, a skillful and at times forceful proponent of local interests, dutifully passed legislation making it easier for public transport administration to be transferred from regional to territorial councils, which resulted in a handful of quickly-rebuffed proposals, and has never been heard of since. Basically the problem which remains to this day is that the different councils all have competing interests. Christchurch City is of course the biggest council in terms of population, and therefore political influence, and like many territorial councils has a long track record of championing its own case for greater control over activities occurring within its boundaries. This translates at a practical level into a strong desire to prevent other councils from being able to compete effectively with Christchurch City for residential population or business activity. Thus it has become almost a foregone conclusion that in the greater scheme of things (no pun intended) for the Greater Christchurch region, the Christchurch central business district (CBD) is more important than any other commercial centre in the whole region.

This has always been an article of faith for Christchurch City except for brief periods such as directly after the 2011 earthquake when the prolonged CBD red zone confinement exposed the unwise assumption of having all the major resources of the city confined within one suburb, and as long as Bob Parker remained in the mayoralty, until 2013, new commercial centres were permitted to be established in outer parts of the city, Addington and Papanui being notable examples. This was reversed quite quickly after the election of Lianne Dalziel to the mayoralty in 2013 and is seen as one of many examples of her political maneuvering to shore up a substantial power base with CBD landowners and developers, who stood to lose a great deal in the devaluation of the artificially protected high property values in the city centre. It is an undeniable fact that CCC dominates every part of the Greater Christchurch planning partnership and it may still be the case that the policies and outcomes produced by the Partnership overwhelmingly prioritise the City’s interests over its neighbours.

As far as regional public transport goes, the interests of the City would favour that most population growth takes place within CCC boundaries and correspondingly less outside them. This is an understandable reactionary response to the mass flight of many citizens from the city to neighbouring Waimakariri and Selwyn Districts after the quakes. The latter has so far proved to be more astute in grasping the opportunities at hand, particularly in Rolleston where both commercial and residential development have greatly expanded in the last decade; partly due to the town’s strategic location at major physical and virtual transport junctions. The big threat to Christchurch City is that as more people either relocate from the City or from elsewhere to live in Selwyn and Waimakariri, a stronger case can be made to cement this into place with better transport infrastructure, directly challenging Christchurch’s dominance. The National government addressed this in part by building the northern and southern motorways around the city in its pre-2017 term of government although neither was fully completed within their period of office. This led to a recent backlash from CCC rightly castigated by local political commentator Mike Yardley in which he stated the Council now sought to toll incoming motorists who lived outside the City and traveled in to work each day.

The same mentality overall works against the development of rapid transit (suburban trains or other means) as proposed in 2017 because this is only viable over longer distances than those found within the city limits; in other words, for people traveling between the city and the major residential settlements to the north and south, such as Rangiora and Rolleston. In essence therefore it is inherent that both Selwyn and Waimakariri have the most to gain from rapid transit going between their territories and Christchurch, whilst the latter has the most to lose. This then results in the basic premise being that the three councils are unlikely to be able to agree on the best way forward for regional public transport, and is the primary reason why it has always been under regionalised management, initially through the separately constituted and elected Christchurch Transport Board prior to 1900, and since 1989 the Canterbury Regional Council (Ecan). After a lot of argy bargy attempting to find a way forward in the rapid transit options, which included a Greater Christchurch Joint Public Transport Committee, a particular creature of the Mayor of Christchurch (who was the only regional mayor to hold membership) in which a lot of tired and unnecessarily heated political debate took place lobbying for the interests of the City to predominate, the Government eventually got its act together and brought about a “Greater Christchurch Public Transport Futures” process bringing together all the various parties including the councils, Waka Kotahi NZTA and the Ministry of Transport. This has proceeded through a series of stages to produce various cases for different types of developments.

However inherent in this process was the assumption that every party would subsume their interests within it, and that hasn’t been the case wholeheartedly for the Canterbury Regional Council (Ecan). This is largely because they have an independently minded councillor who represents the NZ First party which has attempted to corral a high level of support from the rail community in NZ. This goes somewhat outside the usual support from major political parties such as Labour which has traditionally been a friend of the rail industry in large part because of its affiliated union the RMTU which dominates the rail sector workforce. NZ First happens to be more to the right of Labour on many issues including in transport where their key point of difference has been that they can build a rail service in Canterbury for significantly less cost than that which has been computed in the numerous proposals that have been produced almost ever since the previous suburban services ended in 1976, and another key point followed by others in the right of politics is that increasing the number of people using public transport will reduce congestion on roads, benefiting car users.

So this councillor has been making many bids to bring in trains over the last decade and they have done two whilst at Ecan. In 2020 they proposed a separate business case outside of the GCPTF process for commuter trains Rangiora-Christchurch-Rolleston, for which funding was declined. This is just the same as previous proposals that have been rehashed. And for the second time in the current council term, another separate Ecan campaign was launched in February for commuter trains, again separately from the GCPTF. Now you do not have to be a rocket science to work out that they will not be able to get funding for this proposal because it is outside of the Government’s official process (GCPTF). That process has a lot of prerequisites to be fulfilled and will be a long time in the making. It is even possible it won’t be started during the term of the current government. Because no recommendation has yet been made on the direction to be taken from GCPTF, there is no point in jumping the gun and wasting Ecan ratepayers’ resources on something that is going to fail yet again. It is also notable that as in the past, an attempt was made to bring in Amberley as a possible northern destination for services. This has been already ruled out in GCPTF and is very unlikely to stack up because it is so far north of Christchurch and has only a modest population. If Amberley were viable for public transport there would already be a bus service linked under the Metro services, that is not the case which is a clear enough indication there is not enough present or potential demand for public transport services to Christchurch there.

To summarise, this activity at Ecan is just political grandstanding in election year. Not only has the GCPTF process not decided on which is the preferred mode for Greater Christchurch, it may not even be heavy rail. Because the GCPTF process is where decisions will be made, independent campaigning by Ecan councillors is irrelevant. They have to participate in the GCPFT process like everyone else and not waste time doing their own thing.

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