What Could Mass Rapid Transit in Christchurch Look Like?

Copenhagen S-Bahn Source

Why Christchurch Needs MRT

Greater Christchurch being New Zealand’s second largest urban area should seek to avoid Auckland’s growth mistakes.

Auckland’s travel speed increased rapidly between 1950 and 1970 due to investment in replacing urban gravel roads with sealed bitumen roads. Growth slowed to a peak in 1990 before congestion caused a decline in speed.
If Auckland had not downzoned and had made timely investments (and interventions like congestion charging) to avoid declining travel speeds then house prices could have been 69% lower

Prices now rise more rapidly because housing supply is slower to respond to demand. We estimate that when demand for housing increases, we now build one-quarter to one-third fewer homes than our grandparents did (Te Waihanga).

The research found that New Zealand’s planning legislation over the last century became less about the planned integration of infrastructure with land-use to meet future residents needs and more about protecting ‘effects’ for existing residents.

Why Use the Existing Rail Corridors?

A key question for transit provision is what mode — passenger rail on its own right-of-way track, versus on-street light rail, or bus rapid transit (BRT). The main focus of this paper is outlining what upgrading the existing rail corridor option could be like, although it will also look at a variation that includes building on-street light rail at an early stage.

From page 294 of the book “Can’t Get There From Here” by History lecturer Dr André Brett

Theoretical Framework

Good urbanism should do two things. 1. Increase natural land rents — which can be taxed or ‘captured’ in some manner to create a virtuous cycle and 2. Reduce extractive land rents — the increase in land values resulting from restrictive planning rules and a lack infrastructure.
“Britain’s sprawling suburbs of low-density housing, often poorly connected to city centres by weak transport links (where a large proportion of population is over 30 minutes from the city centre), were a key reason why British cities are less productive and pleasant places to live than their European equivalents.” — Source
In terms of carbon emissions, Canterbury is one of New Zealand’s most polluting regions. Car ownership and vehicle kilometres per capita are high. Source MoT 2019 data.
Chicago at night. Cities are typically more built-up in the centre and their built environments follow transport provision. In Chicago’s case a strong road grid layout.

What is the MRT Vision for Christchurch?

Canterbury is New Zealand’s second largest housing construction market after Auckland. It is in these two regions where New Zealand’s land-use is changing the fastest, with up to 7,500 houses being consented per year in Canterbury and over 20,000 in Auckland.
Canterbury and Auckland have the highest rates of building per capita. Both responded strongly to the building stimulus of low interest rates in 2020/21. These facts indicate Canterbury should have a strong land-use response to transit provision.
Source — New Zealand’s bipartisan housing reforms offer a model to other countries.

The overall vision for MRT in Christchurch is to create a high capacity, fast, frequent, and reliable (not affected by traffic congestion) spine for the public transport network that links upzoned, walkable and active mode “15 minute” centres which are also fed by a grid of bus routes and cycleways covering the rest of the city.

A world-class MRT network will provide Greater Christchurch with a vital missing piece in its infrastructure framework. It will help transform Christchurch into a modern, successful, growing yet sustainable, mid-sized city that provides affordable livable opportunities across the income-spectrum, allowing it to compete on its own merits against other Australasian cities.


Network Considerations and Public Expectations

An important consideration of the proposed Christchurch rail network is stations would be located as often as possible on arterial roads that have high frequency bus routes. The rail corridors predominantly run north/south and east/west. These rapid transit rail spines can connect with high frequency bus routes to make a city-wide public transport grid.

What is Happening with MRT Planning for Christchurch?

There is Cabinet endorsement that Christchurch should get mass transit and that a plan should come to Cabinet in 2022 (Auckland light-rail decision to progress Cabinet Paper — paragraphs 31 and 89).

Quote from Infrastructure Quarterly — January 2022, New Zealand Infrastructure Commission — “Figure 2 shows a breakdown of expected project spending by year for Canterbury. These projections will always show a drop towards the end of the time frame. However, Christchurch has a particularly steep decline in project activity. This decrease is driven by several large projects finishing up and suggests some capacity in the Canterbury vertical construction market from around 2024/2025.”

Four Proposed Stages of MRT Development for Greater Christchurch

MRT should be built in digestible stages over a long timeframe. Each stage should be a natural project in its own right. Each stage should provide a significant upgrade to the transit network. And each stage should induce demand for the next stage.

Proposed integrated Central Bus and Train Interchange. Colombo St runs north/south on the left. Manchester St runs north/south on the right. Tuam St runs east/west on the bottom
Map (H/T @svdweerden) showing MRT integrated with the requested $108 million upgrade of Greater Christchurch’s five core bus routes to achieve 7.5 min frequencies between 7am and 7pm weekdays. The Yellow bus route from New Brighton to Rolleston has been rerouted to Prebbleton and Lincoln while the Blue bus route from Cashmere to Rangiora has been rerouted to Woodend and Pegasus.

Adding in a Light Rail Variation at Stage One

Map (H/T @svdweerden) with a Light Rail line from the Airport to Christchurch Central
City centre section of proposed on-street light rail route with an extension north to Cathedral Square and the north-west corner of Victoria Square.

Why not Tram-Trains?

Tram-trains that travel on existing heavy rail corridors and on-street are a possibility for providing a city-centre link. They would be a better transit option than doing nothing. But there is an element of silver bullet thinking in the proposal. That somehow a tram-train can provide a better service than a purpose-built on-street light rail service and specialised grade-separated passenger rail lines.

  1. On-street tram-train stations would need to located before or after road crossings. This means some connecting passengers would have to walk across major arterial roads — which can be difficult and time consuming.
  2. Tram-trains like on-street light rail have low height floors and low height platforms (you can’t have 80cm standard rail platform in an active street environment). This low height means the entire carriage floor cannot be above the wheel bogies. This affects loading capacity and the number of doors — so network capacity and the speed of loading/unloading.
  3. On-street transit vehicles will be very difficult if not impossible to automate in the future.

What about a longer western tunnel that can service Christchurch Hospital or even a rail loop?

Interim MRT Report heavy rail map

Rolleston Line — 9 to 10 stations

1. Christchurch Train and Bus Interchange

Rangiora Line — 10 to 14 stations

Share Addington Station onwards to the city centre train station

Lyttelton Line (Stage-three) — 6 stations

Share from Moorhouse Ave station — (Switchback track?)

Lincoln Line (Stage-four) — 5 stations

8. Prebbleton North Station



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Brendon Harre

Brendon Harre


When cities erect barriers that make it harder to build houses, I think this is landowners lobbying lawmakers so they can earn without toil.