In 2017, the Labour Party campaigned for the general election on a platform of offering to spend $100 million on public transport in the city, which included the investigation of commuter rail. The lofty and noble ideas have since become bogged down in local government politics as Christchurch City Council has simply rehashed its long held objective of controlling the public transport network in the greater Christchurch area and shutting out any notions of improved public transport systems across the urban areas to the north and south of it. This has to be seen in the context of, in particular, local Labour objectives of making Christchurch City Council the most dominant urban authority in Canterbury as a whole, and perhaps in the South Island. The so-called Greater Christchurch Partnership reflects mainly on the attempts by the last Labour mayor of Christchurch, Lianne Dalziel, to achieve this under the guise of “co-operation” with the neighbouring territories of Waimakariri District (north of Christchurch) and Selwyn District (south of Christchurch). In practice, all three territories have spurned the spirit of the process as it suits them, as clearly the mayors of the outer districts are well acquainted with Christchurch’s grandiose objectives and wish to preserve their own interests. The bigger picture is that amidst what amounts to a political delaying and obfuscation scheme, public transport development in Greater Christchurch has been taken hostage by Dalziel’s endless attempts to upstage the dominance of Christchurch City in every possible way, and consequently the proposals have become bogged down in bureaucratic process and lengthy delays.
From the outset, the government’s treatment of the public transport initiative in Christchurch and the concurrent vacillation over the development of light rail proposals in Auckland and Let’s Get Wellington Moving in the capital showed it had little understanding of what was needed to progress these key policies. In 2004, Helen Clark’s government exhibited the required decisiveness in Auckland when ARTA was established to progress the development of the commuter rail system there; this helped facilitate subsequent investment of more than $600 million. Instead of bringing similar bureaucratic revolution to Christchurch, the Minister of Transport Phil Twyford handed the job over to the existing local authorities to solve themselves. Due to numerical superiority this would ensure that Christchurch City dominated the subsequent process, which became focused on CCC superiority and further intrigue in a 120-year old campaign to control the public transport networks of the wider urban sub-region of central Canterbury.
Early proposals for a new rapid transit network in Greater Christchurch were deliberately vague on the prospects for use of the existing railway tracks and even went so far as to imply the creation of parallel separate corridors despite the considerable capacity available in the region’s railway system. As has proven to be the case in Auckland, where a simple extension to the Onehunga Branch line which would have enabled a new rail service to communities near the airport was redirected into an expensive light rail proposal that has experienced massive cost blowouts, light rail is now being touted as the solution for the city and supposedly a vast improvement on the use of the existing rail tracks despite a conspicuous lack of justification for this stance. Thus it was announced yesterday that the answer for the city is a very expensive light rail or rapid transit network along the existing road corridors. The achievement of rapid transit along an existing corridor is not to be achievable without creating a dedicated component of that corridor for the vehicles employed and as in the case of light rail in Auckland, this will run into major political opposition and practical obstacles. In Auckland the response after six years of paper shuffling is to suggest the route become tunneled underground to get it through the most contentious sections, at a vast increase (billions of dollars) in cost. Since the route chosen for rapid transit in Christchurch passes through some of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the city, substantial opposition not unlike that surrounding Dominion Road, the proposed light rail route in Auckland, can be expected. By contrast the rail line whilst transiting upmarket Fendalton already has enough corridor width to be double tracked without difficulty. In other words what we now see in the proposals for light rail or rapid bus services via the existing Main North Road / Papanui Road corridor through Merivale requires a domination of the existing highly trafficked road by the new rapid transit system which is unlikely to be easily achieved without major controversy and expense. Furthermore the city-centric focus of the proposal is seen in its failure to be extended outside the boundaries of Christchurch City, clearly making “Greater Christchurch” completely irrelevant to it.
TSBNZ expects as with the case of Auckland’s light rail network and similarly feeble proposals that have stalled in Wellington under the so called “LGWM” that nothing will be started within this term of government by Labour as the extent of process capture by feuding local government authorities intent on establishing self serving dominance of public transport becomes more apparent. If the Government really does intend to advance public transport across New Zealand it needs to take a leaf out of its own book in the case of the numerous centralisation policies it has implemented to date already in areas such as education and health and at a local level, in the three waters proposals. It has become abundantly clear in the term of this Labour government that its knowledge of and ability in the sphere of transport policy has been conspicuously vacuous, with most inertia coming from other parties in coalition such as NZ First and the Greens in the government’s first term, despite having an ally in the Rail and Maritime Transport Union. In both Auckland and Christchurch the clear leaders for both outcomes have been in extension and reutilisation of the existing rail networks; in both cases strong government leadership would have seen these concepts pushed far further towards implementation in the past six years. The Greater Christchurch Partnership proposals will become another expensive white elephant and quietly disappear at the end of this government’s term, and the need for substantial improvements in public transport in the main centres will be sidelined over by the National Party as always.
This means that apart from existing improvements in Auckland, public transport will continue to stagnate nationwide for another generation, and the term of the sixth Labour government will be seen in history as marked by gross ineptitude in the development of public transport in New Zealand. What has transpired as improvements to date have mainly been in extensions to existing rail networks in Auckland and Wellington. The bus systems in all areas have stood still for the past decade as a result of cost cutting implemented by the previous National government, with no impetus to improve them in six years of Labour, the only major policy being the package of fare reductions and increases to bus drivers’ wages implemented in response to the cost of living crisis in 2022. This situation is a marked contrast to major leaps forward in service developments in the term of the 1999-2008 Clark Labour government and shows therefore full well the lack of leadership ability in transport within the present government’s term.