Light Rail - Back to the Future

04 FEB 2021
In the last blog post I mentioned the need for there to be a national deployment of light rail throughout New Zealand. A coordinated approach would build capacity, skills, reduce costs through scale, and get the systems required up and running faster. This seems so obvious that it is strange to me that it needs to be proposed at all.

Light Rail is often derided as more expensive trams - and well yes that's what they are. Trams. Melbourne's light rail network is called a tram network and it has been in continuous operation since the glory days of trams elsewhere in Australasia. I suppose that the brickbats thrown at these fancy trams is that it is a return to a past our forebears ripped up and threw away. Who are we to build back what they believed to be redundant and worthless?

At the time it was decided that buses would replace the trams, and these more 'modern' vehicles were more flexible and it would be easier to respond to changing needs. Now this is true - but the unforeseen change was a reduction in the use of public transport and the rise of car use. The flexibility meant that the installed infrastructure increased the likelihood of change and so there was an increased risk in developing along the tram lines. When there is a fixed investment in transport infrastructure there is a corresponding increase in investment in other infrastructure like housing, retail, and offices.

In Christchurch we have witnessed the hollowing out of the city centre. In times past all trams ran to the city - and for a time so too did buses. The replacement has been the rise of sprawling car centric shopping malls, and the diffusion of transport away from key corridors. Even Colombo Street - the city's erstwhile Main Street - has areas of depressed retail along the former tram routes.

The inflexibility of fixed rail is a key stabilising factor in city development. And we should return to those days of tram lines.

When urbanists consider routes for a putative revival of trams / light rail, they run their highlighters along fanciful routes that connect the dots generated in the post-tram days. But there is a hidden cost involved in such routes - the need to move underground infrastructure, and in some cases to purchase land for alignments. There is a better way - and that is back to the future.

By this I mean running many of the major routes along the old tram routes. Not only will this pick up many of the former local centres such as Colombo, Riccarton and Papanui/Northlands, but the services are already located away from the tram alignment. This was the case in the 1950s and remains the case 50 years later. With a reduction in the need to dig up and relay services in many instances the running of the tram lines could be as complicated as digging up the asphalt, and the installation of a bearing structure and the new tracks. It would be little more costly or time-intensive than present bus lane upgrades.

Certainly there will be instances where the opportunity to update services could be taken - but a wholesale rebuild of services along the old tram routes would have to be justified on other bases.

The other benefit is that the old tram routes integrated well with the heavy rail networks - and will do so again should the more obvious way to integrate the exurbs of Rangiora and Rolleston into a Greater Christchurch come to fruition.

But recall that any light rail development should be done in concert with other centres around New Zealand. We need a national plan - but part of that plan should be an analysis of the usefulness of the old tram lines in reducing infrastructure development costs.
By Hab3