New Zealand, the “better things aren’t possible” country

Just got back from the public transport policy briefing. Amazing turnout. Thousands of planners holding documents and chanting “better things aren’t possible”.

I jest—but only in the sense that I’m working from home today rather than attending any briefings, and I’m not witty enough to have come up with the “better things aren’t possible” gag myself.

The original “better things aren’t possible” viral tweet

It can be exhausting to have an interest in public transport, active transport, or urbanism in New Zealand. The current government approved light rail for Auckland in the first half of 2018. Where do you think we are now? Maybe construction might have begun at some point in the past 3.5 years? As if. We’ve been sidetracked with a light rail vs light metro debate (and the usual charlatans trying to sell us “trackless tram” bendy-bus nonsense) that has morphed into three rival options. Worse, as this analysis on Greater Auckland shows, these options contain assumptions that could politely be described as unclear and misleading, but which I preferred to dismiss on Twitter as “daft”, “poor”, and “unjustifiably bad”.

You can tell I am not in a good mood today about the state of public transport “planning” in New Zealand. The public organisations and political bodies (and too many private consultants) tasked with designing, approving, funding, constructing, and operating our transport networks have thoroughly institutionalised attitudes that privilege roads and sprawling suburbia. They are stuck in path dependence: planning for roads begets more roads and an inability to even recognise much need for anything else. Public and active transport proposals are the subject of regular talk that goes nowhere—a proliferation of options, with naysayers belittling the lot, rather than action. And no matter how modest an idea is, proposals end up being so gold-plated that the nominal cost is eye-watering and projects are killed stone dead. Let the costs spiral skywards and then say that better things aren’t possible, so here’s another road.

The exhaustion turns to outright frustration when you consider how urgently we need change. Earth’s climate is changing and New Zealand has to adapt to it. We cannot keep doing what we’ve done for the past century: we need not just a vision for a better country but action. And even if there were not a climate crisis, the social, economic, and environmental benefits of having proper modal choice and efficient, accessible, mobile, vibrant, interconnected cities and regions should hardly need to be explained.

A train bound for Onehunga arrives at Newmarket, 2 December 2017 (credit for all pics: André Brett).

It’s almost a miracle that the City Rail Link is currently being bored underneath Auckland. The thing is, that proposal has been around in one form or another since the 1920s! Back then it was the Morningside Deviation and meant to be one half of the transformative works associated with the “new” Auckland railway station (today’s “old” one on Beach Road) and the Westfield Deviation (the Eastern Line). Little wonder people in the 1980s spoke as if Aucklanders hated trains and wouldn’t ride them: the failure to build the Morningside Deviation meant the grand Beach Road terminus was remote and impractical rather than a hub connecting long-distance services with an underground city railway. If light rail follows the CRL pattern, the first tram to Auckland airport will arrive in roughly 2115, just in time to watch the airport be swallowed by rising seas.

The reason I put virtual pen to blogging paper, though, was not to complain without purpose. Rather, I want to point out that better things are possible and that our own history proves they can be done rather more quickly than the Morningside Deviation/CRL. My last blog post suggested a whole national passenger rail network could exist as soon as 2031, complemented with commuter rail and tram networks in our urban centres. This might seem a laughably unrealistic vision. It’s not.

A southbound Kāpiti Line train departs Paekākāriki, 8 December 2018

I notice that even many bold advocates for our cities, regions, and public transport set much longer timeframes to achieve, well, anything. I often see proposals for a single light rail line to be built somewhere by 2030, with a modest network of 2–3 routes not emerging until after 2040. The government’s NZ Rail Plan merely observes “increasing desire for inter-regional services and passenger rail in other fast-growing cities” (p.34) and pushes all the way to the 2030s any notion of actually doing much to address this desire outside Auckland or Wellington. Gwynn Compton, a voice of reason on the Kāpiti Coast District Council, has a commendable multi-stage proposal for electrified passenger trains between Wellington and Palmerston North, but does not forecast the final stage to be completed until 2050. I’m from the Kāpiti Coast myself, I know some of the people there still think Paraparaumu and Raumati are small country villages rather than part of an urban area now big enough to meet the formal criteria for city designation, so Gwynn has to trend a bit softly around these stick-in-the-muds. But I don’t.

So, I am writing this to give heart to my fellow advocates and encourage New Zealanders to demand more, sooner. I might not be an engineer, so I can’t design and cost detailed proposals for the future, but I am a historian and I can show what our baseline is, point out what we have achieved, and demonstrate how our past can inform bigger, bolder, more ambitious visions for the future.

Here are just some of the projects we built promptly when more vigorous ambition animated New Zealand public works policy:

A bitterly cold morning, 9 July 2010, at Pomare station, which opened in 1954 during the transformation of the Hutt Valley.
  • Lyttelton tunnel: in 1861, the Canterbury provincial government began constructing a railway from Christchurch to its port at Lyttelton. The population of the province was a mere 16,000 at the time, and this was no ordinary railway: it required a 2.6km tunnel, the first in the world to be driven through the side of an extinct volcano. It opened just six years later in December 1867.
  • Main South Line, Christchurch–Dunedin–Invercargill: in 1870, the only portion of this line that existed was 35km from Christchurch to Selwyn. Less than a decade later, the entire ~600km line opened on 22 January 1879, linking the two biggest cities and many of the most important regional towns on what was then the more populous island. Current policy and planning treat the modest upgrades required to revive passenger trains between Christchurch and Dunedin as something that can’t even be considered for years: there is a good chance that in the time it took 1870s NZ to build the entire line, the only “progress” we might make will be a business case immediately chucked out for ludicrous gold-plated cost estimates.
  • Urban tramways: in the first two decades of the 20th century, New Zealand cities built extensive tram networks—some lines were converted from modest horse/steam tram services but most were new construction. Christchurch, for instance, established a municipal tramways board in 1902. The first electric tram ran in 1905, and just a decade after its formation the board operated electrified routes to Cashmere, Dallington, Fendalton, Hillmorton, New Brighton, Ōpawa, Papanui, Riccarton, St Albans, Spreydon, and Sumner. Wellington City Council bought a horse tram service (Newtown to Thorndon) in 1900, and a decade later possessed an electrified network to Aro Valley, Brooklyn, Island Bay, Karori, Miramar, Oriental Bay, and Seatoun, not to mention multiple new routes in the CBD and Te Aro. Similar stories can be told elsewhere, including regional cities. Electric trams linked central Whanganui with Aramoho, Castlecliff, and Whanganui East between 1908 and 1914; Invercargill opened its network in 1912; Napier followed with a line to Ahuriri in 1913; little New Plymouth, with a population of approximately just 9,000, introduced electric trams from the port to Fitzroy in 1916. Electric trams provided mobility for big and small municipalities alike and they built large networks quickly.
  • Hutt Valley Railway: in 1945, the main line to the Wairarapa was a single track steam railway along the western bank of the Hutt River, with a short branch to Waterloo and the railway workshops in Gracefield. To cross the Remutaka Range meant a slow journey on the Remutaka Incline, the steepest mainline railway ever built in New Zealand. A decade later, the Hutt was utterly transformed. A double-tracked electrified railway ran through new suburbs east of the river. The duplication extended all the way to Trentham; the electrification two stations further to Upper Hutt, and the remnant of the old main line was also sparked to Melling. The almost 9km-long Remutaka Tunnel, meanwhile, sliced under the range and made it possible to commute from the Wairarapa to Wellington.
The last great innovation of the first generation of trams in New Zealand: Wellington’s Fiducia class, seen here at the Wellington Tramway Museum, 13 June 2010. Trams should not be museum pieces: modern light rail is essential for our cities.

You may well say those were done at a different time. They were—but the time between now and the completion of the Hutt Valley Railway is less than the time between its completion and the opening of the Lyttelton Tunnel. They themselves were different times to each other. You may say we have a better awareness of workplace health and safety, and we do, or that we don’t exploit our workers as terribly any more, though I’d note there remains room for improvement. You may say we take more care to consult the community, and I contend we spend too long appeasing a few loud people who possess that inestimable luxury, time, to show up at public meetings and make a nuisance resisting any change at all, as if we should put New Zealand in aspic. You may say we build differently and better now, and I say that surely between the 1870s and 2020s we’ve figured out how to deliver better quality railways more efficiently rather than losing the ability to build hundreds of kilometres a decade.

If we cannot match the 1870s or the 1900s for public works construction despite all the improved approaches, materials, techniques, and workplace cultures, what exactly are we doing with all that new knowledge? We have lost the capacity to build big, so no wonder our vision is limited and reviving one regional express train or delivering light rail is seen as a decades-long endeavour and large networks seem like pie-in-the-sky stuff rather than eminently feasible. There is much to like in Max Harris and Jacqueline Paul’s comprehensive Ministry of Green Works proposal (disclaimer: I was interviewed for this and I am quoted favourably on p.55).

I had a great time riding the Coastal Pacific on 30 November 2015, pictured here at Kaikōura, but it is unacceptable that the only passenger rail serving Christchurch at the moment are two pricey tourist trains.

Don’t make plans where one passenger train or two light rail lines take two or three decades to be implemented. Stop accepting the status quo of talking projects to death. Demand the networks that we need and expect them to be delivered within the next few years rather than the next few decades.

After all, we don’t have decades to wait for Waka Kotahi NZTA to figure out that an institutionalised preference for roads is misplaced and that in hindsight they should have sidelined all the people with 20th-century Car Brain in favour of people who can plan affordable, integrated multimodal systems. Car dependence is one of the 20th century’s worst legacies. Railways and tramways are the spines of 21st century transport. Let’s build them.

One thought on “New Zealand, the “better things aren’t possible” country

  1. What an excellent and well balanced critique or better defined as an action plan for NZ transport. Such an inspiring read, Thank you for putting this together and publishing


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