First published on Christchurch Transport Blog
As is abundantly clear this site is a champion of local commuter rail services in Greater Christchurch. This issue came to the fore in the current generation when the Labour government offered $100 million to establish a commuter rail service between Christchurch and Rolleston prior to the 2017 election. The promise, however, has turned out not to be worth the paper it was printed on. A combination of public apathy and a clear lack of commitment from central government have seen no progress going forward and this lack of impetus now make it highly unlikely that we will see services come to fruition for another generation. (This article is written as the latest step in a long drawn out process of obfuscation and sidestepping has produced a new report from WSP Opus, which can be read here)
There are many components of this failure but the biggest one of course is from central government. Anyone who has studied the history of development of public transport in New Zealand will quickly become aware that many of the initiatives in public transport were instigated and funded by the national administration that was in power at a particular time. The national rail network is the best example of this as except for a short period of 10 years from 1993 to 2002, it has been in government ownership and the government has been able to use it to advance its own political agenda at various times. The Auckland and Wellington commuter train networks are key examples of this, Wellington in particular being developed with the North Island’s first electric commuter trains in the late 1930s under the First Labour Government, which has spread in all directions since then and through multiple generations of rolling stock. The biggest impetus in Auckland for decades came under Helen Clark’s Fifth Labour Government in the early 2000s when the Auckland suburban rail lines were doubled and electrified, again primarily for commuters. Outside those two centres, what commuter services operated historically were neglected, run down and eventually abandoned. This has certainly been the case for Christchurch.
The major component of central government failure in relation to public transport development from the current Labour government has been its nonsensical insistence that local government politicians must make the case for new services to be produced. The history in Auckland as recently as 2001, when the Clark administration created a new administrative body, Auckland Regional Transport Authority, to ensure their chosen agenda would be pushed through with the minimum fuss and delay, illustrates very clearly that that generation of Labour leaders understood very well that existing councils could not be relied upon to reach agreement due to their different constituencies and interests. Yet in the current term, there is this hugely misplaced blind trust from Labour that local government can do no wrong. It appears to be more of a smokescreen for a buck passing exercise by a government which is not really committed at all to improving local infrastructure. The same kind of paralysis and inaction also applies in Wellington, where the LGWM project has been stalled and bogged down for a decade, and to a lesser extent in Auckland over light rail. There is also at a lesser level the imposition of funding priorities that make little real sense. Auckland in particular is now expected to weather a substantial cut in public transport capital development funding in favour of a nonsensical cycling and pedestrian bridge across the harbour.
The second level of failure is naturally at local government level. The above paragraph and many previous posts on this group encapsulate these concerns. Certainly in Wellington the city council there has made it clear they want the road friendly components of LGWM to have the greatest priority. In Christchurch, the city council has made a great deal of effort going back more than a century to emasculate the regional administration of public transport, as a vehicle to divide and conquer the PT provision model in the region. This is completely reflected in the PT development process for commuter rail becoming bogged down in red tape. Report after report has been produced over the past two decades. The best report in recent times was a 2014 study from Ecan that found a commuter train service from Rangiora would be financially viable on the strength of existing bus service passenger numbers alone. This should have given the new government in 2017 the license to act, but nothing was done. Instead, CCC politicians were given enablement to subvert and hijack the process through an ongoing series of committees that has produced yet another study and report.
The third level of failure is with the public who would use the services. The level of advocacy around the country for rail development is very low. It is largely the preserve of a relatively small number of people who work in the industry and a diminishing number of rail enthusiasts. Even in areas like Auckland where two or three groups exist to advocate for different levels of public transport development, these groups are relatively small in number and have limited support. Another issue is that the government at all levels wants to shy away from unpopular decisions that are necessary to meet climate change commitments, which mean essentially people will be forced out of their cars. Without such processes the actual benefits of PT improvements will make only a tiny commitment to solving problems of congestion and pollution.
Essentially, high level political leadership is needed to drive change in the public transport system in Canterbury. The situation could change at the next election in what we believe is a likely scenario where Labour will have to return to a coalition with other parties, most notably the pro-PT Greens. This is due to the fact that Labour’s ineptitude in PT development is reflected across the board in many portfolio areas, making their historic majority control of Parliament in 2020 a likely one-off situation once the Covid situation stabilises. However we are looking at the situation where PT in Canterbury was not advanced in part because of lack of political support for minor parties in the region. The 2017 term in which major progress was achieved in rail development thanks to New Zealand First did not extend to public transport in a major way because of Labour’s hugely misplaced faith in local government processes and its failure to intervene as its predecessors in other administrations did. This was seen in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch as mentioned above. This is why we think that the opportunity has now been lost for another generation, because we will have to wait until the next Labour administration comes into being in another decade or more and proves to have a great deal more ideological backbone than the lacklustre Ardern government that is a lite version of its Lange-led predecessor.