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The Press-News column July 22

Short-term Commuter Rail gets the Red Light

Thomas, Percy and Edward won’t be tootling down the train tracks with commuter rail passengers anytime soon. At first blush, Friday’s rejection of commuter rail on the Main North Line could be damned as a short-sighted defeat for sustainable Greater Christchurch. But the ECan-commissioned investigation of commuter rail was specifically framed to assess the viability of rolling out a short-term rail service, to ease commuter gridlock on the Northern Motorway. Unsurprisingly, the comprehensive and well-reasoned Aurecon report, compellingly outlines the conclusion that implementing such a limited and short-term rail service won’t deliver the desired quick fix to congestion. Build it and they will board?  Aurecon’s best-case estimate of 500 daily commuters using an interim rail service of three morning and evening trips between Addington and Rangiora, renders it a pretty profligate spend-up, per person. Too many bucks for too little bang. Moreover, such a  service would be constrained by stringently limited track availability due to freight having priority on the single line, rolling stock availability and current station conditions. But the biggest liability is the fact that the destination for most northern corridor commuters doesn’t happen to be Belfast, Papanui or Tower Junction. Faced with having to alight from the train to board a feeder bus service closer to their final destination, whether it be the city centre or Birmingham Drive, soon lays to waste the touted time-saving benefits of travelling by train.   Major upgrades to the Northern Motorway and the completion of the Western Bypass over the next five years, can’t come soon enough. According to Aurecon, 50,000 vehicles cross the Waimakariri daily with  84% of those vehicles sole-occupied. In contrast, and rather pitifully, only 440 commuters cross the Waimakariri, by bus. But it will soon be better by bus. Enhancements  include a priority lane from the Ashley Bridge and the deployment of  free wi-fi on northern buses, which will go-live later this year. Surely, the ability to deal to your emails, update your status and surf the net on a bus, while en-route to work or home, as opposed to the brain-busting stupor of staring at brake lights, will hold immeasurable appeal to some commuters.  Ecan has also signalled it will increase the frequency of Northern bus routes and establish new express services to the airport and Hornby, which Aurecon highlights as two key commuter destinations.  I love travelling by urban rail – but it has to be fast, efficient and reliable. ECan and all strategic parties are far better to plan for a  permanent commuter rail service, to serve Greater Christchurch in the long-term, rather than wasting money on a slap-dash  short-term lemon.

Mike Yardley’s weekly current affairs column, as published in The Press. July 22.

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