Tuesday 2 September 2014

Train sets

There's one good thing we can say about Labour's $100m light rail plan for Christchurch: at least it isn't a $1b light rail plan. Otherwise, it's not so hot. 

I'm blogging from Hong Kong, where I'm attending the Mont Pelerin Society's meetings and greatly enjoying their fantastic rail service. Commuter rail and an extensive and efficient bus network are pretty critical to this place's working: there's no way this many people could move around without it. The city is dense and compact. Christchurch is, well, the opposite of that.

Liberty Scott provides a few bullet points on Labour's current plan:
  • Christchurch last had the remnant of a local rail service in 1976 when a once daily, yes once daily, service between Rangiora and Christchurch was scrapped because of lack of patronage.  The last regular service (as in all day service like in Wellington) was between Lyttelton and Christchurch, which ended when the road tunnel was opened in 1972 (the rail service only had an advantage over driving over the Port Hills).  Before that, other services were discontinued during the 1960s as bus services proved more cost effective and car ownership rose.  Christchurch's population grew by over 50% in the period between the end of these services and the earthquake.
  • It won't unclog Christchurch's roads.  The Press report says Labour intends the system to accommodate 10% of commuters from the north to central Christchurch.  Phil Twyford says there are 5000 - yes 5000 commuters making this trip (10,000 trips), so it is $100 million for 500 commuters.  That comes to $200,000 per commuter, before any operating subsidies are considered.  In other words, the price of a Porsche 911 for each commuter.  Taking about 400 cars off of Christchurch's roads every morning isn't going to "unclog" them,  it hardly makes a difference.
  • However, what it might do is encourage more people to live further away from the surrounding suburbs closer to the city, because it subsidises living well outside Christchurch.  That's hardly conducive to reducing congestion, nor environmentally sustainable.  It would be far more preferable to focus on finishing renewing the local road network including marking out cycle lanes, than to incentivise living well out of the city.
  • A commuter rail service to central Christchurch can't even go there, as the station is 4km from Cathedral Square, in Addington.
  • The $100 million is to double track the line to Rangiora, and rebuild some railways stations, but not a new central station (which can't be anymore "central" than the old one on Moorhouse Avenue), nor new trains, although the ex. Auckland ones could be relocated, if a depot could be built, and sidings to put them on.
  • The rail service would replace commercially viable and some subsidised bus services, but politicians don't find buses sexy.
  • The service would lose money, a 1000 trip a day railway service is a joke.  Proper commuter trains in major cities carry that number on one train.  
  • If there really is demand for more public transport from the northern suburbs, it could come from commercial bus service.  Clearways could be used for bus lanes and the hard shoulder of the existing and future extended Northern Motorway could be used for peak bus lanes too, if needed.  Trains only make sense if buses are incapable of handling the volumes of demand, and that clearly isn't the case.
  • Christchurch was the first major city in NZ to scrap trams, because the grid pattern street network and low density of the city meant there were few major transport corridors to support high density public transport systems, like trams (and commuter rail).  It was also the first of the big four cities to scrap commuter rail altogether (even Dunedin had commuter rail services until 1982 to Mosgiel).   In short, the geography of Christchurch is as poorly suited to commuter rail as it is well suited to cycling.
Liberty goes on further - read the whole post.

I disagree with him a bit though. He should have used a Tesla S as alternative, not a Porsche. The numbers work out about the same, and the Tesla is electric.

Back when Mayor Parker was proposing train sets, the cost was higher. I'd then written:
The draft city plan has a $400 million rail line connecting downtown to the University campus. It's unclear that there's sufficient demand to justify such investment, but there might be on the City's creation of a proposed new international precinct downtown where international students would be invited to live. Those students currently live within walking distance of campus in a vibrant international hub at Church Corner and Riccarton where I can find great Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean food; Korean butchers and grocers; a Japanese bakery; and, all kinds of other diverse amenities (Korean and Chinese churches, etc). To the extent that the city is successful in moving all the students downtown, from where they'd need public transport to get to University, and so would need the $400 million dollar (more than $3k per household) rail line (or a far far cheaper designated busway), it would be by destroying an existing international hub.

Let's work through some numbers on rail. Suppose that the $400 million is financed through a 25 year bond issue paying 8%. For an annuity paying 8% to have a present value of $400 million over 25 years (in other words, for folks to be willing to give the City $400 million today in exchange for bonds), the annual payment has to be $37.47 million. The building costs alone for the rail line are then $103k per day for the next 25 years. And, suppose further that we're willing to subsidize each rail rider by $10 per ride. We'd then need 10,000 people riding the train every day just to cover the capital cost where we're willing to pay $10 per person per ride. By way of comparison, RedBus, which services most of Christchurch, carries 5.8 million passengers per year - an average then of just under 16,000 passengers per day. If a single rail line from downtown to the University carried as much traffic as the entire RedBus network, the effective per-passenger capital cost subsidy would be $6.50. If the train were running on a cost recovery basis, it would need to charge $6.50 per trip plus running and maintenance costs. If it covered only running and maintenance costs, the government would be kicking in $6.50 per trip. If it carried as much traffic as the entire RedBus network.
I was pulling punches there a little as I had the distinct impression that the University really kinda wanted that rail line and wouldn't appreciate staff saying otherwise; I was likely just paranoid.

When February's quakes hit, the bus routes changed quickly: the main depot was knocked out, so they ran temporary bus exchanges on Bealey Street and elsewhere. Road closures for repairs meant frequent re-routings. You can't do that with trains.

I also note that Labour's plan suggests some cost-sharing with Christchurch Council. Christchurch Council has no money for cost-sharing arrangements.


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