Christchurch Commuter Train Proposals – Summary

Since the cessation of the last commuter trains in Greater Christchurch in the 1970s, there have been many proposals to create new services within the region. This page summarises present options. Each of the routes has its own subpage for more detail.
There are currently four routes available for consideration:

  • Christchurch – Lyttelton (10 km). Electric trains ran on this line from 1929-1970. Although the route is double tracked most of the way, the short length of this route makes it more difficult to compete with private transport than others. Has not been given any indepth investigation recently.
  • Hornby – Lincoln (13 km). Passenger services on this route ceased in 1951 and the track between Prebbleton and Lincoln was closed in 1967 with much of the route built over. A new route would therefore have to be found to reach Lincoln. The short length and added cost makes it more difficult to compete with private transport, and it has not been given any indepth investigation in recent proposals.
  • Christchurch – Rangiora (32 km). Suburban passenger trains operated on this line until 1976. Many proposals have been considered and investigated, with the cost for a full double tracked service estimated some years ago being around $200 million. Investigations by Ecan in 2014 found that there would be sufficient passengers carried on the present bus services to make the operation able to cover its running costs, but the government of that era declined to fund the creation of a service.
  • Christchurch – Rolleston (20 km). This is a truncation of various historical services, the last of which was the Burnham Army Camp train that ceased running in 1967. The business case for this line is more difficult than for the Rangiora line as much of the corridor is either unavailable for residential use or is surrounded by industrial development, and it therefore should be accorded lower priority.

The matter has received greater scrutiny within the last six years due to several proposals. One suggestion which was investigated in detail by Environment Canterbury, which is responsible for public transport in Canterbury, was proposed in 2014 as mentioned above, due to the plans announced by the National Party government of the period to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new motorways to the north and south of Christchurch. This in turn was a followon to changed population distribution patterns in the Greater Christchurch region after the 2011 Lyttelton earthquake. The second proposal was a campaign promise by the Labour Party at the 2017 general election to provide $100 million to establish a Rolleston commuter train service. This has morphed into in-depth investigations by NZTA / MOT which are ongoing as at November 2020.

One of the key problems which the Government has so far sidestepped is bickering between different local authorities over what types of services should operate and which suburbs should get the most benefit. In Auckland, when their train services received extensive government investment in 2003, the Clark Labour Government created a new Auckland Regional Transport Authority to ensure that there was no opportunity for political differences to slow progress or divide outcomes. In Greater Christchurch, the Ardern Labour Government has failed to make such a decisive step instead letting Christchurch City Council attempt to dominate discussions, as it has tried to achieve for well over a century. The Greater Christchurch Public Transport Futures investment proposal of 2018 epitomises this, with its keynote statement that “by the year 2041, Greater Christchurch has a vibrant inner city and suburban centres surrounded by thriving rural communities and towns…” – no prizes for guessing that the aim is to favour Christchurch City and keep the outlying areas outside its boundaries as thinly populated as possible. This archaic vision completely ignores the increasing population in Selwyn and Waimakariri Districts, which between them are expected to capture around 40% of the total growth of the GC region according to the Urban Development Strategy.

The problem is that as long as CCC is given headroom to keep fighting Ecan and other territorial authorities over public transport in the Greater Christchurch region, commuter train proposals will remain on the back burner, with even the suggestion that separate parallel rapid transit corridors could be established within the city limits more or less paralelling the existing rail lines. This is the key reason why no significant progress has been achieved on the commuter train development options in the past three years. The Public Transport Futures business case is still being investigated by the Government and should come to a conclusion within two years. However in recent weeks, Christchurch City Council has also fought back against the Government’s National Policy Statement on urban intensification, with all seventeen councillors and the Mayor declaring it “tone deaf” and inappropriate for Christchurch. Apparently these councillors have already made a judgement that Christchurch will continue to be a road and car centric city, since the NPS has clearly stated that one of the key aspects of intensification is to provide for residential growth along designated public transport corridors.

Historically, the problem Christchurch faced (along with Dunedin) amounts to a long term lack of interest and commitment in maintaining the services as viable commuter transport. The routes and stations originated from the earliest days of railways and never evolved to closer station spacings and greater service frequencies, as they did in Auckland and Wellington. This meant that stations were far from convenient for significant population catchments, and even on the Lyttelton Line, when there was almost no road competition until 1964, most daytime services ran on hourly frequencies except at peak times. On the other routes, there were just a handful of daily services, declining to a single train each way at the time the routes were closed. The trains on a number of routes were also forced to compete with bus services, and within Christchurch City, with publicly owned trams and buses. These days the services would be coordinated together, but the competition from other public transport was a bugbear for railway commuter services in their latter years as it affected the viability of the trains. As can be seen above, infighting between different local authorities has also been a factor, as commuter rail services often cross territorial boundaries and have in many cases been trenchantly opposed by some territorial authorities as contrary to their self interests.

This page only seeks to identify the public transport routes that are relevant to rail commuter services, and does not address other issues such as rolling stock or service frequency. For more details of the routes, click on the respective links in the bulleted list of routes above.
Page last updated 21 November 2020.