Christchurch Transport Blog: National’s Attack On Public Transport Not A Gaffe?

First published on Christchurch Transport Blog

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On 12 April 2022, the leader of the National Party, Christopher Luxon, was quoted in a news article saying “public transport needs to stand on its own feet. It can’t be subsidised or underwritten … it has to be able to build on its own case“. The following day he walked back his comments, saying his party would continue to subsidise public transport as they had previously. However it is important to note that previous National administrations within the past 70 plus years have consistently attacked and downgraded public transport. PT is an easy target for politicians looking for spending cuts, as the higher capacity modes such as rail require large capital expenditure in construction and upgrades, in order to carry a relatively small percentage of the population (around 10% for the Auckland rail network according to 2018 Census results) However a PT system is essential for larger cities because it is the most financially and spacially effective way to address traffic congestion by reducing private car traffic on the roads, and increasing the density of passenger travel, since trains can move lots of people in a small space. Many commentators discussing the National leader’s comments also pointed out that car travel is heavily subsidised.

The seeds of public transport downgrades around NZ were sown in the 1940s/1950s when the street tramway networks in the main centres were all closed down and ripped up, being replaced by buses (including electric trolleys). At this time all four centres had suburban rail networks; these were closed down in Christchurch in the early-mid 1970s and in Dunedin in the early 1980s. In Auckland in particular, plans for an extensive network of motorways was developed on the assumption there would be no need for new public transport development. All the main centres have got the most extensive motorway construction done by National governments and the least extensive public transport development.

The last two National governments pushed through radical ideological government interventions in public transport, which crosses directly into the period of personal knowledge of TSBNZ. In the 1990s, public bus networks were required to be privatised. It was also a period in which the initial offerings from private operators were of low quality and often operated by very small companies or owner operators. The byword of that era was that competitive tendering of privatised services at the lowest possible cost. There was no money for service innovations. The Auckland commuter rail network was almost closed down under this focus, but Tranz Rail managed to increase patronage with second hand DMUs imported from Perth. When Labour took office in 1999, this is when significant investment started to be made into public transport around the country. It is the period when the whole Auckland rail network was double tracked and electrified, and the Northern Busway was constructed. But of course when their term ended in 2008, a new National government pushed through the Public Transport Operating Model, another cost cutting agenda that forced regional/unitary councils to cut services that couldn’t attract enough patronage, and imposed central government intervention to ensure councils would be forced to cut service standards to save money. Christchurch was the first city to implement the widespread restructuring of its bus network that was demanded under the new system, on the basis that the disruption caused by the February 2011 earthquake would severely affect service viability. However once the city was back into normal operation, patronage remained low and is still a problem due to the impact of these short sighted changes. Similar bus service restructurings in other main centres were equally as controversial, especially what is commonly called the “Bustastrophe” in Wellington, although more for organisational failures at Greater Wellington Regional Council than service cuts.

Mostly, it has taken effective lobbying from far sighted local government politicians in the main centres to get public transport put back onto Wellington’s agenda. Auckland benefited in this respect from early moves to regionalise PT provision across multiple territories and this continues under the SuperCity. In other Wellington and Christchurch this has been less effective because of disputes or lack of interest from urban councils over the provision of public transport services. The City Rail Loop in Auckland is an example of a project that Auckland Council managed to get past a stringent road focused National administration, but at the same time, the Auckland rail network as a whole was run down, and much of the current level of disruption with maintenance schedules has been due to catch up work, for example the recent project that has required replacement of a lot of rail due to wear. Unfortunately whilst Labour has put a lot of money into the rail network, they have completely ignored buses, where the negative impacts from Nationals’s PTOM cost cutting need to be addressed. Christchurch has only had funding for some new bus lanes to be installed in the city, and some election appetisers from Ecan such as cheaper fares for some groups.

All in all, it is entirely likely the next time National wins an election they will take an axe to as much of the public transport network as they can. National’s approach to urban transport seems to be based on American concepts with huge multi-lane motorways all over big cities.