How PT fails in NZ due to geopolitical consequence

Last blog I wrote about how PT has struggled in Christchurch because of the bitter politics between CCC and Ecan (and its predecessor, CTB). Actually it goes a lot further than that if we go back in more depth. I frequent a number of pro-rail groups, and we often compare the fate of rail PT services around the country. Now it in fact so happens that once upon a time, Christchurch and Dunedin did in fact have their own suburban train services. The Christchurch ones disappeared because Christchurch Tramway Board ripped up all their tram lines and replaced them with diesel buses, then being unencumbered by the former limitations of their physical track, they decided to justify their existence by running publicly funded bus services in competition with the trains. This started in the mid 1960s when a road tunnel was opened to Lyttelton and gradually whittled away the passenger numbers on the Lyttelton trains (and one presumes the other routes as well) until these services finally ceased.

Dunedin also had suburban passenger trains untl 1981. I don’t know exactly how their demise was achieved. I believe Dunedin City Council ran the bus services in the area at the time. I hope someone down there can fill me in on the specifics.

In Auckland whilst they have had trains throughout, there have apparently been attempts by some politicians to close down their network. I am unsure of the details but apparently John Banks was implicated in one proposal (he was first elected mayor in 2000 which was around the time that the rail network in Auckland was being negotiated for buy-back by the Government). If correct, this would have been pretty standard form following the example of Christchurch and possibly Dunedin, which seems to be the nasty venal self-serving modus operandi of politicians of large territorial authorities around NZ, which is simple: if you don’t control it, try to take it over or shut it down. I don’t quite know all the details for Auckland or how it was stopped, but probably the fact Auckland was not then a “Super City” means that the other local territories would have been able to gang up on ACC to prevent them from implementing such a proposal, in which it was suggested rail tracks could be replaced by busways.

The same kind of politics where the PT system is shared between several large territorial authorities side by side is also seen in Wellington, where WCC or even GWRC would find it hard to shut down the train networks there, because Upper Hutt, Lower Hutt, Kapiti Coast and all benefit a great deal from the Wellington suburban rail network and would stop either of those bodies in their tracks. We are now seeing this same dynamic at work in Hamilton where the city council has succeeded in getting a trial together for a train service to Auckland. Likewise the interest in and commitment to the Capital Connection train service from Palmerston North to Wellington mostly comes from Palmerston North; Wellington has very little interest in promoting such an operation.

The situation in Christchurch is that we lost many elements of our previous PT systems because of indifference by Christchurch City Council, purely on heaping spite on a system they did not control, out of venal self interest. However Christchurch Transport / Tramway Board also have dirty linen to wash. The tram tracks were ripped up because the Tramway Board did not have the funds to maintain them, but since most PT services these days are subsidised by around 50%, it begs the question of whether the financial basis for PT operations in the tram days was the same as it is today. The fact that CTB decided it was justified in running in competition with the suburban passenger trains instead of cooperation is a black mark against them that led to the demise of these services. 45-50 years later the cost of re-establishing these services is much greater than it would have been if all the suburban stations and signalling still existed, and part of the northern rail corridor has been taken over by CCC for a cycleway. Every call for CCC to plan for future PT networks with infrastructure provisions (such as retaining the triangular link at Addington) have fallen on deaf ears, to say nothing of the woeful lack of funding in their ten year plans. I haven’t criticised Ecan as much because they had to comply with heavy regulation by National governments within the times they have been in office and seem to be stepping up to the new environment of increased funding by the Labour coalition government by producing a new and forward looking RLTP. However, there is a great deal of question associated with that plan’s rapid transit corridors that are proposed in more or less the same directions as the rail corridors and just happen to stop on at the city limits. How did these corridors get put into the plan and why is there no reference to rail services as being means of operating these corridors?

The fact is that if suburban rail is important to us in Christchurch then we need get Ecan taking up the charge of getting the money from the government for the feasibility study to take place because that is what will have to happen to get things moving that way. I’m personally mode neutral – I can see why there is the attraction of establishing these corridors on the basis that a BRT network could be established. However, I believe CCC has pushed for these corridors on the basis that it would give them a lever to claim the right to administer the services that operate on them. And as such this means CCC are not going to be very interested in supporting a train operations study because they can’t control the train services. So if rail supporters want to get this feasibility study moving I think they have to go back to Ecan and try to get the conversation resumed. My belief is that CCC will not create the rapid transport corridors unless they are central government funded. We will not see a cent of financial or political commitment from CCC to these corridors now they have realised the new government is not going to hand over control of the bus services to them, because bulldozing these corridors through existing neighbourhoods will be very unpopular.

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