Is the South Island Aotearoa's forgotten island?
All I want for Christmas and 2024 is for a fair deal for Aotearoa's South Island public transport networks, including rail in and south of Ōtautahi/ Christchurch.
In Aotearoa, it seems to be a case of a Tale of Two Islands, at least when it comes to public transport investment. And even roading barely gets a look in. It’s time for the South Island to get some public transport love.
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While the North Island may dominate population and economic activity, that economic activity would quickly grind to a halt if not for electricity from the lower South Island. The South Island also has many of the crown jewels in Aotearoa’s tourism crown. For Aotearoa to function sustainably, all parts of Aotearoa need sustainable transport choices, not just the cores of a few of the largest North Island cities.
Straitened times on Cook Strait
There has been a recent decision by the new coalition government - sometimes disparagingly referred to as the “coalition of clowns” have pulled the plug on new, larger, more sustainable interisland ferries, connecting the north and south islands. If you dive just beneath the surface, it seems plausible that a motivation for casting the South Island adrift is hostility by the new government to rail-enabled ferries. If we want rail to be the backbone of sustainable mobility in Aotearoa, then cutting it off mid-spine would not appear to be a good way to go about that.
According to former Minister of Railways, Richard Prebble, “the world-famous consultants”, Booz, Allan and Hamilton modelled New Zealand railways. The modelling revealed the key to a sustainable railway is the rail ferries. The ferries extend the main trunk railway line making sending freight by rail economic. [Finance Minister] Nicola Willis says, “We want a Toyota, not a Ferrari”. A Toyota is not going to be able to carry rail freight between the islands1.”
If we want rail to be the backbone of sustainable mobility in Aotearoa, then cutting it off
mid-spine would not appear to be a good way to go about that.
This is a clear and present danger for Aotearoa. Without rail-enabled inter-island ferries as a crucial middle link in the national freight network, the case for a nationally integrated public transport network for Aotearoa with rail as its backbone is cut in two.
Poor old Christchurch
While the interisland ferry non-decision is bad enough, the Coalition government refuses to clarify if they will honour the commitment of the previous government to accelerate investment in Christchurch’s Public Transport Futures2. The $78 million investment was to provide more frequent bus service, deliver 100 more buses, more than 470 extra bus shelters, almost 200 real-time display units and 22 kilometres of dedicated bus lanes. It was intended to increase the speed of the programme’s roll-out to 5-6 years, down from the originally planned 10-12 years3.
Christchurch already receives significantly less public transport funding per capita than Wellington and Auckland. The city’s bus system is only now recovering its pre-pandemic patronage of around 14 million trips per year, which itself was far below the patronage levels (19 million trips per year) achieved before the devastating 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. It is also the largest city in Australasia not to have any form of rail-based transit, whereas the slightly smaller capital city of Wellington has one of the most mature urban rail networks for a city its size in Australasia.
While Christchurch’s bus network has strong bones and there are strong patronage responses to service improvements such as the route 8 “Port to Port” bus between Lyttelton and Christchurch Airport, implemented on 4 September 2023, there is much scope for service improvements, especially to outlying parts of the city such as Rolleston and Rangiora which only have hourly bus service evenings and weekends. The $78 million in promised funding would significantly accelerate these service improvements.
And Christchurch doesn’t even feature strongly in the likely next generation of the so-called Roads of National Significance (RONS), which I prefer to think of as the Roads of National Party Significance (RONPS). Woodend gets a bypass to save the good residents of Pegasus and Ravenswood a couple of minutes on their journeys south. There is no mention of Mass Rapid Transit for Christchurch in any new government programme. And that’s about it. Of the big cities in Aotearoa, the one that needs the most public transport investment looks like being left in the lurch just when it needs help the most.
Go Southerner, Get there fresher (back in the day)
The biggest missing gap in Aotearoa’s limited network of (largely tourist-oriented) long-distance passenger trains is the Main South Line south of Christchurch. The demise of the Southerner train in 2002 left the South Island south of Christchurch without any long-distance train services. This train used to run daily in both directions between Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill. Before the demise of the Southerner, Invercargill was the southernmost in-service railway station in the world.
Across the Canterbury Plains between Christchurch and Timaru, the Southerner timetable was time-competitive with road travel at any time and significantly faster at peak times. And that competitive advantage is only going to get better with time.
The Future is Rail’s public meetings in the Lower South Island show fond memories and a strong desire to bring back the Southerner train but sadly, in the current national political context, this looks like a very long shot. But its return would complete the backbone of a national passenger rail network.
Meanwhile, down in the Lower South
Further south, both Dunedin and Queenstown have ambitious programmes to improve their public transport networks, both of which are just about through the business case process and moving into funding approvals. Both centres are well ahead of their pre-pandemic patronage levels and have both implemented smart, tactically-focused, incremental service improvements while planning for bigger longer-term changes. Low flat fares have also been a key driver of patronage.
Queenstown also has significant funding committed to public transport infrastructure improvements funded through the NZ Upgrade Programme of the previous government. According to Waka Kotahi, The $115 million Queenstown Package will provide dedicated public transport infrastructure. This includes
bus priority measures on State Highway 6/State Highway 6A
bus lanes on SH6 south towards Jacks Point and east towards Lake Hayes Estate
improvements to the existing Frankton bus hub
improvements to the SH6A/SH6 intersection (locally known as the BP Roundabout)
pedestrian access improvements across SH6 and SH6A
and a new roundabout at Howards Drive4.
But bus infrastructure improvements are only useful if they are accompanied by bus services that provide simple, frequent, connective and prioritised service. So it’s essential that service improvements take place as soon as possible.
In Dunedin, the Fares and Frequency Single Stage Business Case proposes the following key elements5:
Primary services – 15-minute daytime frequency to be extended to weekends.
Secondary services – 15-minute peak frequency on weekdays and 30 minutes at all other times.
A 50-cent standard adult BeeCard fare.
Both Queenstown and Dunedin have great plans for significantly improved public transport. All it needs now is for the government to come to the party with funding and then get on with implementing these great networks.
Better News in the Top of the South
Nelson Tasman had the good fortune to get its new public transport network funded and implemented in advance of the general election in October.
This network features:
A new fleet of largely battery-electric buses
Significant frequency improvements every day of the week
New service to Nelson Airport
New regional service to towns such as Motueka and Wakefield
This network has been extremely successful at attracting patronage to public transport. In its first month of operation in August 2023, patronage increased by 68 per cent over the previous network with close to 3,000 journeys on the Motueka route alone across the month6. Prior to the new network, Motueka had no conventional public transport service.
Built it and they will come
The key message from the Nelson Tasman new network is “build it and they will come.” People will use public transport when it is simple, frequent, connective and affordable. The South Island has been under-served and under-invested in public transport. It’s high time for the South Island to get the public transport investment it deserves.
Interisland rail ferries: Regulation is the problem behind the high cost, Richard Prebble, NZ Herald, 20 December 2023
Uncertainty surrounds $78 million for Christchurch Bus Improvements, Oliver Lewis, Business Desk, 22 December 2023
Funding boost for Greater Christchurch Public Transport Futures, Greater Christchurch Partnership, undated.