LIGHT RAIL FOR CHRISTCHURCH COULD BE IGNORING A TRACK RECORD OF EARTHQUAKES
I grew up in the small town of March, in the UK. A town that at one point had one of the largest railway marshalling yards in western Europe. I lived within a stones throw of the tracks, so grew up with trains, I love them. To me the motion of a train journey is sublime compared with the jostling stop start nature of a bus.
However, I find myself outraged at the idea of creating a light rail network in Christchurch. Did we learn nothing from the Napier Earthquake, the tram tracks resembled spaghetti afterwards, see linked image, and were never rebuilt.http://www.geonet.org.nz/var/storage/images/media/images/earthquake/historic-quakes-image-gallery/edgecumbe-earthquake-19878/43883-1-eng-GB/Edgecumbe-Earthquake-1987_gallery_lge.jpg
In addition, cars and trains really don't mix well in the same transport corridor, the Christchurch tram is an example of this. And if a separate corridor is created solely for trains then it sits idle for what must surely be 99% of the time, and utilises valuable space that could be better used for cars and buses.
At the moment Christchurch is in a crisis, money is tight and taxpayers across New Zealand are footing the earthquake bill. This seem like a time to be prudent with spending and putting taxpayer dollars into restoring or replacing public buildings. This does not seem the time to be building an expensive transport folly. And maybe there is never a time to build such a folly.
Why is it a folly?
1. Rail in an earthquake zone is a recipe for disaster, it is potentially dangerous, and vulnerable to serious and costly damage if we have another earthquake. And it may even be impossible to insure.
2. The link below shows the proposed rail map. It will cost $406 million to build the short section from the university to the city centre, and $4 billion for the whole network.
3. I would expect a maths analysis to show that the finished system will move less people than the current road space it replaces.
4. Most commuters are not in the situation where their home and work will both be within walking distance of a station. The system would only works well for a very small group of people. If a commuter lives 500 metres from a station and is fortunate enough to also work with 500 metres of a station they would still be faced with a 2km daily hike (500m home to station + 500m station to work + 500m work to station + 500m station to home. If you live and work 1km from a station then you would face a 4km walk. This may get you fit, but it would take a lot of time when you are in a hurry to get to work, and would be dependent on the ability to walk well. If you have a walking disability such distances may be impractical.
5. If I am correct and light rail suits such a low number of users then surely it would go belly up within a few years.
Rail networks like the London Underground work well for three key reasons.
1. They are underground, so they add a transport corridor. Surface rail in a city would replace an existing transport corridor, namely a road, unless positioned above the street. But the images released so far do not suggest that this is the intention, and I don't think that residents would want this, and I doubt if passengers would want to travel on stilts in an earthquake zone.
2. There are a plethora of stations and they are close together. This means that there is a high probability that there is a station near the start and the end of a travellers journey. This enables the London Underground to offer an almost, though not quite, door to door service.
3. There is a high population density living cheek by jowl in high rise accommodation, to share the cost. Christchurch has low density living with its 1/4 acre plots.
What are the solutions?
I think the short term solution is do what we have always done, catch a regular bus. But regular buses suffer several issues that make them impracticable.
1. They are infrequent.
2. They often don't go where you want them to.
3. You have to learn the timetable, the location of the bus stop, the arrival point, the bus number.
4. They are nearly always late, and often very late
5. They take a long while to get where you are going because of all the loading and unloading of passengers.
6. They run (guessing from experience) at an average capacity of 20% full, which means lots of big empty buses on the road (count the passengers on the next one you see).
The medium term solution I think is frequent micro buses. India has massive transport issues, but part of the solution is tiny vehicles that whizz around the streets picking people up. You don't have to worry about learning timetables or the bus being late because there is always one coming along, you simply flag one down wherever you are and jump on. The current metrocard would make payment on micro buses practical. Doing away with timetables, and long time intervals between buses would make them attractive to commuters, thereby increasing public transport users and reducing solo drivers. Micro buses could easily be trialled in a sector of Christchurch to test their viability and user uptake.
The long term solution is quite exquisite. Google, like many other companies I expect, have for some time been testing computer driven vehicles. Computer driven transport take away the cost of a driver, which is expensive for a small vehicle like a micro bus. This method may work as a driver-less micro buses, or as a more personal taxi or shared taxi service, by picking up multiple commuters at an affordable price. And of course these vehicles would run on electric, and drive themselves to a recharge depot at times of low demand.