Christchurch used to be very well served by trains and trams. The first public railway was at Ferrymead serving freight and passengers landing at the Estuary into the city. Then the Lyttleton Tunnel was constructed from 1862 at a cost of £190,000 - that's $26m in 2022 dollars. A remarkable commitment in a country where the GDP was 8 times lower than it is now, and the population of Christchurch was just 38,000 people compared to 400,000 now.
By the 1930s trains ran from Little River to the City and others out to Rangiora and Oxford. Trams threaded through the suburbs and Cathedral Square was a hub of interchange. When people weren't taking public transport they cycled. So much so that Mark Twain when he visited remarked upon it. What happened?
Roads, cars, and buses happened. This allowed for increased personal mobility but at cost to the environment and the urban form of the city. The CBD is a shadow of its former self, filled with car parks not people. It is cheaper to drive around the greater Christchurch region than it is to travel on public transport - which some would say is the point of cars. But we have clogged and dangerous roads. NZTA / Waka Kotahi estimate that 40,000 people have died on New Zealand roads over the past 100 years or so, and children are driven to school because it is safer than letting them walk or cycle. This increases the risk of obesity and diabetes.
A return to public modes would be welcome, not just within the city - but between cities. It is cheaper to hire a car, and drive to Picton, for a family of 3. Why are there not regular railcars running along the coast as they did up until the 1970s? The last railcar to the West Coast ended in 1978.
Now the Kiwi Rail proposes to cut back on train services even more - the remaining trains will only be for tourist travel - inconvenient and pricey. When Europe is moving from short haul flights to trains New Zealand is going the opposite way - the Huia running from Hamilton to Auckland being the exception.
A petition - Save Our National Passenger Rail Network
is gathering signatures asking for a re-examination of the priorities set by Kiwi Rail. There is no dispute that tourists like travelling by trains. After all they are used to such services in their home countries. More the pity that New Zealanders can't enjoy the same in New Zealand.