What Happened To Christchurch’s Commuter Trains (Part 1)

On 30 April 1976, the last remaining commuter train service in North Canterbury, the Christchurch to Rangiora workers’ train service, closed down. Since that time there have been no commuter train services operated in the Christchurch area. The commuter trains in Canterbury, which at one point included New Zealand’s first electric train passenger network, were the victim of a combination of Railways Department apathy and concerted local authority indifference and antagonism. Today, it is hard to believe that in 1953 there were seven commuter trains daily return on the Main North Line to Rangiora and electric hauled commuter trains to Lyttelton at least hourly seven days per week (service frequency peaked at 10 minutes during busier parts of weekdays on the route). There were no commuter trains south of Christchurch after Christmas 1967 when the last service, to Burnham Military Camp, was withdrawn, although a weekly train to Springfield on the Midland Line survived a little longer, being stopped the following December. Many issues combined with a natural desire to cut services in the face of increased road competition came together in the form of the long term decline of these services. The Lyttelton commuter trains ceased in February 1972 because the Lyttelton road tunnel opening in 1964 made it easier for people to travel by road to the port, and resulted in a competing bus service introduced by the Christchurch Transport Board eroding the passenger counts. The last 18 months of these services were dieselised because of the withdrawal of the electric traction system in mid-1970. There was after that only a boat train service provided for passengers joining or leaving the inter-island ferry service at Lyttelton until the Union Company withdrew the “Rangatira” in 1976.

A lot of commuter train services have been proposed or investigated in the 47 years since that time. Many people feel Christchurch got a raw deal compared to Auckland and Wellington which have enjoyed continuous if not consistent support for commuter trains since trains first operated in their respective regions. Dunedin’s commuter trains, however, went the same way as Christchurch’s in the early 1980s, and it is appropriate to note that the Auckland services were almost closed down in the mid 1990s. The railway system of New Zealand has always been a national network, but local authorities are frequently opposed to its existence and operation, the exceptions being Auckland and Wellington again. The key reason we do not have commuter trains in Greater Christchurch to the present day is largely due to antagonism from the biggest local authority in the region, Christchurch City Council. In order to dig deeper into this, it will be necessary to take an in depth look at local governance in Canterbury and this will take up the rest of this article. The article will have additional parts as needed to fill in the rest of this commentary.

Canterbury was originally established as a province in 1853. Provinces were essentially a form of state like found in countries such as Australia. However the provincial system did not last very long, being abolished in 1876. After that time, the main form of local governance was territorial councils. Apart from the creation, dissolution or amalgamation of local authorities from time to time, there was not a lot of change in the local government system for practically 100 years. Some of the extra entities established included roads board, catchment board, pest control boards, transport boards and drainage boards. There was at that time no tier of local governance between central government and local authorities. This changed with town planning legislation in the mid 1970s requiring regional planning authorities to be established. In Auckland, this took the form of a regional council. In most other areas of New Zealand, united councils were established. The regional councils had their own elected members and collected their own rates, but united councils were made up of members appointed by the local authorities whose territories the councils covered and levied their member councils for rates. According to the agreed preference of local authorities in the region between the Conway River, the Rakaia River and the Southern Alps, the Canterbury United Council came into existence in 1979. The CUC was a very fractious organisation with a lot of bickering and squabbling between itself and its member councils. This is a typical pattern of local politics within New Zealand and elsewhere. Territorial councils are parochial entities by their very nature, and when several authorities are placed side by side in an agency like a United Council, they are bound to bicker over lots of things mostly because of self serving focuses. There is plenty of reporting in online archives of “The Press” about these conflicts.

Public transport in Christchurch was historically vested in the Christchurch Transport Board and its predecessor the Christchurch Tramway Board. This was an independent local authority because the various territories that made up the City opposed the control of public transport by the Christchurch City Council as far back as the 1890s. This however did not stop CCC from making many attempts to take control of public transport and it was finally successful in achieving this in 1989 when the functions of the CTB were incorporated into the newly amalgamated Christchurch City under the central government’s reorganisation scheme. The same process formed the new Canterbury Regional Council which covered an expanded area (the boundary at present being well north of Kaikoura and nearly as far south as Oamaru, and west to the Southern Alps). Public transport should have been given to CRC by default as a regional function, but was instead handed over to CCC as a result of their incessant lobbying and the desire by the ruling Labour government to advantage the cause of its own local politicians in Christchurch. However, it was transferred a short time later, probably as a result of legislative action brought about by a change of government, and was therefore restored to a regional function, managed by the Canterbury Regional Council (or Environment Canterbury, shortened to Ecan, as it is generally known).

In 2010, however, the regional council’s elected members were dismissed and replaced by commissioners. The Local government minister of the day, Dr Nick Smith, was foolish enough to cite the negative views of territorial mayors about the regional council as a partial justification. The fact is however that the opposition expressed was hardly any different than the negative viewpoints that had been given over the United Council some thirty years previously. Local government politicians as a whole tend to have a high sense of their own importance and most feel there is no necessity for a regional council, which they think they can perform the roles of better. It is almost wholly the case throughout New Zealand, and indeed the world, that antagonism and turf fights are commonly expressed between regional and territorial councils. Regional authorities in NZ and elsewhere are generally a creation of central government which desires to devolve some of its local functions, as seen in the town planning legislation of the 1970s referred to above. Local authorities operating in a completely different community space from central governments see these matters very differently, and that difference is especially strongly expressed in the Labour Party and its local body elected membership. All of our regional governance entities have been established and strengthened by governments aligned to the political right. It is clear that Labour’s objectives for governance are essentially paired between central government and territorial authorities, with no room for regional governance. The regional councils of 1989 came into existence because the right-leaning central government of the day wanted to abolish a number of central government functions such as soil and water management and offload those onto another tier of local governance. Similar concepts were behind the establishment of the United Councils around the country a decade earlier. However these governance entities are generally under constant attack from councils in the main centres which are generally Labour dominated and constantly assert that they should be taking over or controlling the regional functions.

Following the election of a new Labour-aligned mayor to Christchurch City in 2013, work began to find new ways of reviving the longstanding takeover agenda of public transport in the city and this resulted in a requested review of governance arrangements (the Winder Report) in 2015. This was the first step in a concerted campaign that continues to the present day in the form of the Greater Christchurch Partnership. Further examination of this topic will continue in Part 2 of this article.