Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ding dong went the trolley - faintly

Mayor Bob Parker and two executives have gone to San Francisco, Portland Oregon, Seattle and Vancouver to "study" (it is hard to take this word seriously!) amongst other things light rail. 

One has to be immediately suspicious of anyone examining a specific mode of transport before they have assessed the over-all needs of a situation, as each mode is going to suit different situations. It reeks faintly of the Mayor of Wesport going to "study" container cranes.

Second point, so obvious I am almost embarassed to raise it, public transport is so clearly linked to city size and density and rises exponentially as cities get bigger. London at 8 million people is only twice the population of New Zealand in total but its public transport systems carries over 3 billion people a year. If public transport stats related directly to population pro-rata, one would expect New Zealand transit systems to carry 1.5 billion a year, rather than the 115 million passengers per year (approx) they currently carry in total. 
Or Timaru district to carry 1.7 million passengers a year, 10% of Christchurch. Yes, size does count,to supply the passengers and - probably just as important - to spread the local cost, in rates or local taxes of major infrastructure and operating cost subsidies. It also goes without saying that if you cram tens of thousands or office workers into high rise buildings, there is also only going to be so much road space and parking available.

None of these US and Canadian study  (cough, splutter) tour cities have metropolitan area populations of less than 2 million. Whatever inspiration and ideas Mayor Parker & Co may glean it is hard to imagine their report - I am presuming ratepayers get one  - matching costs and ridership back to Christchurch. And hard to imagine that any of the party on this tour have the specialised background in public transport planning to adequately evaluate what they see (let alone number crunch the multiple different stats involved).


If these astute travellers had pointed their telescopes to some cities a little more comparable in size to Christchurch - surveyed CANZUS (the small cities of Canada, Australia, NZ, USA) they would have had to look bloody hard to find a light rail project in any city under a million!

In fact, checking out all 117 cities in these four countries, in the 300,000 - million metropolitan population band, a few tourist orientated heritage trams aside, I could only find a single small city which currently operates a modern light rail system,Tacoma in the State of Washington, USA. The Christchurch team may even visit there - it is only 51 kilometres south of Seattle, the major southern point of Seattle's elongated metropolitan sprawl. 

One of the many rabbit holes amateurs such as Parker and co. can fall down is city size - Tacoma city itself is only 203,000 residents - but it is also the county seat of Pierce County which has substantial urban areas. The land area is about 10% that of Canterbury with 805,000 residents, three-quarters of the local population outside the city boundary, mainly sprawling out to the east of Tacoma. (In similar vein,Seattle, the city itself, is only 602,000 population -the metropolitan area (within easy commuting distance) is 3.4 million - a tad larger than greater Christchurch).


As I said in a previous posting public transport usage in the USA is pretty abysmal, but there are some very progressive systems and Seattle-Tacoma etc are making huge attempts to lift transit usage in the State of Washington. Part of this has been has been the building of a light rail between the commuter rail station (services to and from Seattle) and parking building, and the downtown core area of Tacoma - all 2.6 kilometres. 

The line opened in 2003 and is free to use. The (excellent) Quarterly Report to the CEO, calculates the current cost per passenger boarding at $4.90 (spread costs excluding depreciation) and average daily boardings at slightly above 3000 (first quarter 2009) - equivalent to around $15,000 a day operating costs. The cost of building this short line - $US80.4 million - reflects both the high cost of installing rail suitable for the considerable weight of multiple unit light rail vehicles (as opposed to smaller "street car" level light rail) through built-up inner city areas and the fact that heavier rail has been built with the idea that this short line will one day carry vehicles of commuters from further afield. Each of the three Czech-built Skoda trams cost $9 million and carries 56 passengers (30 seated and 26 standing).


The Tacoma Light rail service is fulfilling much the same "central business area circulator" role as Christchurch City Council's "The Shuttle". It operates at around the same frequency, but covers (by my loose calculation) a shorter distance. Whatever the long term plans and ambitions for the Tacoma area, after 6 years of operation this system currently carries around a similar number of passengers per year to Christchurch's central city circulator "The Shuttle" -  that is slightly over a million passengers a year. 

I don't know what the Christchurch City Council paid for the then state of the art Shuttle buses, also three in number, but even if it was a million dollars each, and infrastructure another half million, it comes in a long way below $80 million! It is rather easy to see why so many small cities in Canada, Australia and USA aren't catching the tram.

The operating cost in Christchurch is around a million dollars a year and patronage is also around a million. At the equivalent of a dollar a passenger carried, it is not only about one fifth the cost of the same passenger carried on Tacoma's light rail, it is one of the most successful (cost per patron) bus systems operating anywhere outside of a major centre. It is in of the few real successes of Christchurch City Council transport planning, which typically lags far behind Auckland and Wellington and many other CANZUS cities in key areas such as adequately addressing congestion.

The argument for greater capacity offered by trams enthusiasts often put forward is barely relevant in most smaller cities. Use of trams for carrying high loading patronage in central city areas is usually closely linked to a commuter rail system, where large numbers of rail passengers, have to be accommodated all at once, and conveyed through central city areas, over short to medium distances mainly within narrow windows of time (i.e rush hours).  Melbourne with itrs 16 commuter railway lines and central area tram system is a good example, although this said Sydney has higher public transport use. This rail-tram connection is also typical in France, Germany etc where cities as small as quarter of a million may have light rail - because a much larger population - typically over a million - is spread across a relatively small region (say less than 80 km from city with large numbers commuting to work in that city). The central government and regional population also foot most of the bill of building light rail.

In most other cases, without commuter rail,  this capacity can be met - and better met - by inserting additional bus services, which gives added frequency or other options (through routes to different points). 

As a full-time by choice public transport user for the last eight years I'd rather see a bus going my way every five minutes than the waiting for the momentary glamour of a 15 minute light rail service. At $4-10 million a light rail vehicle this is probably the maximum operational level possible in any small city, offering more than  a 2.6km route.

To date I have found only three cities in CANZUS under a million metropop, that have made the decision to actually build light rail - Gold Coast Australia; Honolulu, Hawaii and Kitchener (Waterloo region) in Canada. When he next gets a break he might just hop along and take a peek at their plans.

Ding ding ding went the trolley - or is that the just the sound of public money clunking down the drain?




Tacoma Light Rail vehicle, courtesy of Flick-r commons

This article was viewed almost 4,000 times and was updated slightly in December 2017, because the arithmetic is still relevant!

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