What Happened To Christchurch’s Commuter Trains (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this article we took a look at how the local government system in Canterbury and elsewhere has evolved to the present day, and how the management of public transport in the Greater Christchurch area, which was under regional control from the 1890s until 1989, appears to have been briefly held by the Christchurch City Council which had sought to control it for most of the century, until it was transferred to a regional entity, Environment Canterbury (the trading name of the Canterbury Regional Council). However, a Labour mayor took power in Christchurch City in 2013 and soon after entering office, instigated steps to revive the long running campaign for control of the city’s public transport system. Historically, Labour politicians have been the most strident and outspoken local councillors who have opposed the existence of the Canterbury Regional Council and its role in managing public transport in Greater Christchurch. The first step taken was to seek a report on proposals to improve governance arrangements for public transport in the city. There was nothing inherently wrong with the existing arrangements, except that it did not allow direct representation from the territorial authorities in Christchurch. This was obviously anathema to politicians in these councils who already felt they should have direct influence over the running of the services. That was the big difference between a regional council and a united council. The United Council’s members were directly appointed by each constituent council instead of being elected at large by the public as is the case for the regional council. Thus the ability of the territorial councils to influence the regional council’s management of the public transport system was necessarily limited. The aim of creating this new system of public transport governance was clearly to give Christchurch City Council politicians a more dominant role over the public transport system that they had previously lacked. This is in keeping with Christchurch City Council’s many machinations over decades intended to establish and cement its dominant position as the largest city in the South Island, even to the point that at times it may appear to be effectively the “capital city” of the South, or at least seeking that level of influence over South Island affairs. The latest CCC campaign was more successful than in the past because the Regional Council had been sacked in 2010 and the elected members replaced by commissioners, and CCC sought to exploit early suggestions that the Regional Council structure might be reformed or other proposals such as changing Christchurch City to a unitary council be entertained, or even the long-debated “Christchurch Super City” as it was about this time that the Auckland Super City was being established.

It is appropriate to ask at this point why the control of the public transport system is so important to CCC. Firstly, transport is a very important local activity in a city that has major ramifications for a whole lot of core assumptions and outcomes. This in turn has significance for where people live and how they travel from place to place. One of the biggest issues for local politicians is their tendency to vehemently object to people living in neighbouring territories and traveling across the borders to work or access facilities. The idea that people could live in Rolleston or Rangiora and travel to work or take their kids to school in Christchurch is clearly a direct threat to political hegemony in a city like Christchurch. The second issue is the entitlement mentality of local politicians that they should automatically be in control of every civil function that occurs in their city. We have absolutely no doubt that the CCC equally lobbied incessantly to take over the function of the Christchurch Drainage Board and the Lyttelton Harbour Board as contemporaneous examples. It got control of both of these entities in 1989 and the net result was a large increase in its own financial assets. But the drainage assets have been severely run down in the past 30 years by CCC because there is no transparency any more as there would be with the separate Drainage Board. The overall objective of CCC has always been to achieve greater dominance which it believes it has as of right from being the largest local government organisation in Canterbury

The first entity established as a result of the McGredy Winders report was the expansively named Greater Christchurch Joint Public Transport Committee set up in 2016. The fact the Mayor of Christchurch appointed herself as one of the representatives of CCC to the committee made it clear who was driving the agenda at that point. A so-called independent chair was also appointed; this person was actually a former Christchurch City councillor aligned to the Labour Party. The establishment of this Committee was just one of ten possible options that the report proposed as ways of achieving the desired result. One of the other options suggested was the formation of a regional public transport authority, an option that was clearly rejected. The agenda of the Canterbury Mayoral Forum, likely heavily influenced by the Christchurch Mayor, is seen throughout the process of commissioning the report and arriving at outcomes; there was even a trite claim made about the territorial councils working together like a virtual unitary authority at one point, which of course is complete nonsense. It should be noted that the Clark Labour Government in 2001 appointed a Regional Transport Authority as the best way forward to improve public transport in Auckland and made sure local territorial councils had no ability to interfere in its operations at that time. This was a highly necessary prerequisite to getting the Auckland DART commuter rail development project underway in 2006, a key aspect of that Government’s transport policies. Therefore, a Regional Transport Authority would have been the best option for dealing with public transport in Christchurch, and remains so today. The GCJPTC began to hold meetings, and newspaper reports soon emerged that the meetings were filled with vitriolic attacks on the regional council by the Christchurch mayor; a fresh reminder of the highly politicised nature of the process. Ecan had delegated its public transport policy oversight functions to the Committee, so that a process occurred by which over time the City Council politicians gained considerable dominance over the direction of public transport. The new regional council elected in 2016 saw a briefing paper which warned it would be extremely difficult to wrest control of public transport back from the joint committee. Thus the regional council had let themselves be outmaneuvered for control of the public transport system by much more experienced politicians from a party with a longstanding agenda behind them. This situation remains to the present day and has not been improved. The National Party put out a position paper in 2019 examining the case for a regional transport authority for Canterbury, probably based on the Auckland Transport model. This did not make it into policy in any subsequent election to date, likely on the basis that local authorities themselves (not necessarily the public) would be the most strident opposers of having any of their functions taken away into another body – much the same as we have seen with the Three Waters debate.

Since that time the GCJPTC has evolved into the Greater Christchurch Partnership Committee and over time the vision has evolved. The key aspect of this vision is to create MRT on the basis that Christchurch City should get the maximum benefit for itself whilst the other territorial authorities adjoining (Selwyn and Waimakariri) should get practically nothing. There have been two specific streams in the Greater Christchurch Public Transport Futures programme to date. The first one is focused on public transport bus services in Christchurch. A programme is currently underway to improve the present bus services in the city with improved routes and service frequencies. The second stream is the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) programme. This one has evaluated a range of options, narrowing these down to light and heavy rail. The comparison report between these two main options was produced in 2021, and was highly flawed in its case for heavy rail, suggesting that stations should be as much as 3.2 km apart. By comparison, stations on the commuter train networks in Auckland and Wellington have spacings of 1 to 1.5 km in the more populous areas. The second issue with the rail report is that it advocates terminating at a Riccarton station with bus transfer to the city. This is further from the city centre than Moorhouse Ave where the traditional locations of passenger stations have been in Christchurch.

Although the GCPTF MRT programme looks to be proceeding down a track of favouring light rail, the recent changes of regime both at central and local government level give an opportunity to refocus the direction and look more at heavy rail with further advocacy work and this will be the focus of the third and subsequent articles in this series.