Infrastructure week and the government’s odd allergy to trains for Christchurch

This week’s big infrastructure announcement included a grand total of zero dollars for rail for New Zealand’s second largest city, writes James Dann.

The government opened the campaign season in earnest this week when they opened up a big sack of money and threw it at a series of infrastructure projects around the country. While there was plenty to go around, some have noted that not very much of it was making it to the South Island. Canterbury seems to have been bypassed by the government, which just over 2% of the total being spent in the region. One city councillor described the amount as “a slap in the face”, another councillor also called it “a slap in the face”, yet another said that calling it a slap in the face was “unfair”. Whether is a slap in the face or not, it isn’t just the amount that has come in for criticism, but where the money is being directed.

You might think that Christchurch has had tonnes of money for infrastructure in the last decade, and you’d be right. Most of that eleventy billion dollars has been spent repairing things, rather than improving them. Many of our roads were rooted, so for years we were the city of orange road cones, with asphalt not only being ripped up and repaired, but major work being done to the below-ground infrastructure as well. While this soaked up a huge amount of money, time, and patience, it didn’t actually result in a whole lot of new roads – just slightly smoother versions of the routes we had in 2010. In the subsequent decade, the population of the city has continued to grow, and the footprint of the city has expanded across the city to the west and north, as people moved away from the worse-hit areas in the east.

The two major new roading projects in the city are designed to service this shift in population, building larger motorways that connect the city to the commuter towns that have grown at phenomenal rates since the quakes. The flat, stable land at Rolleston and Lincoln to the west, and Rangiora and Kaiapoi to the north, saw a boom in new housing developments in the years immediately following the quakes. This growth has led to increased pressure on the roads in and out of the city, and that has led to a programme of concerted road-building. The extension of the Southern Motorway connects to SH1 at Rolleston, and skirts around the south of the city to the port at Lyttelton. It has also cut in half the time it takes for me to get from my house to the city’s best cluster of op shops out in Hornby, so it was probably $1.4 billion well spent.

James Dann’s proposed plan for public transport in Christchurch

As has been pointed out in many places since the announcement, building more roads isn’t a very progressive thing for a progressive government to be doing. However, at least the roads in Auckland and Wellington are part of a suite of transport projects, with cycling and rail also getting a boost. The question many in Christchurch are asking is why there was no money for rail down here as well. A number of proposals for passenger rail in the region – light, or heavy, or a mix of both – have attracted support in recent few years. The city once had an extensive tram network, and I’m just one of the people who have put forward the case to bring them back. The existing main trunk line runs though both Rolleston in the west and Rangiora to the north, and could be used to carry daily commuters in from these satellite towns to the city – as it did as recently as the 1970s. Of course, bringing choo-choos back to chur-chur will require a bit of vision and big injection of cash. If only we had a government that was promising both of those things.

Investing in passenger rail for Canterbury has been one of Labour’s campaign promises, in both 2014* and 2017. Before the most recent election, then-leader Andrew Little said “a 21st century city simply has to have integrated, multi-modal public transport at its heart.” Labour and the Greens have championed a series of projects that look to shift our transport dependency from private cars to rail, bikes, and other alternatives. So how come the biggest infrastructure investment in a generation doesn’t include a single dollar for rail in the country’s second biggest city? It could be that they are holding back so they can make a big bold promise during the election campaign (as they have done the last two times). It might be that the pledges that have been made were driven by Phil Twyford, who has had a tendency to perhaps promise things in opposition that he hasn’t always been able to deliver on in government. Or it could just be that this happy to talk in broad strokes about climate change and affordable housing and better public transport, but when they’re presented with an opportunity to deliver, they can’t put their vision into action.

* Probably worth noting at this point that I was a Labour candidate in Christchurch at the 2014 election. I lost. I also ran for ECan, the local government authority responsible for public transport, at the most recent elections. I also lost. On both occasions public transport was a big part of my campaign, and so if you can set aside me being bad at politics for one moment (a big if, I’ll admit), I suspect there may be less appetite for bold public transport pitches in the general electorate than the echo chamber of the internet might suggest.


The Spinoff politics section is made possible by Flick, the electricity retailer giving New Zealanders power over their power. With both spot price and fixed price plans available, you can be sure you’re getting true cost and real choice when you join Flick. Support us by making the switch today.


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.