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Light rail and the electrification of transport

By Anne O'Brien - 14 October 2016 19

CBR-Lightrail

If we want to address climate change with the seriousness it deserves, we should electrify transport. The ACT Light rail project shows leadership in this direction: it will be Australia’s first zero-pollution public transport system.

In a recent article in Vox, “The Key to Tackling Climate Change: Electrify Everything,” David Roberts cites a growing expert consensus on what is called “environmentally beneficial electrification.” He says that there is a two-pronged strategy for deep decarbonization:

1. Clean up electricity
2. Electrify everything.

The ACT is well on the way to doing (1). It is leading Australia in the effort to decarbonise the electricity supply, with a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2020. We know how to do this. What we don’t know how to do is how to decarbonise engine fuel. You can buy offsets, which have problems in themselves, but you can’t make the fuel itself greenhouse-friendly. Even if you make biodiesel from the waste oil from takeaway fish and chip shops, you are still emitting CO2 and other nasties.

If you electrify transport, the job of reducing greenhouse gas emissions for transport is much easier: you can plug into the 100% renewable energy of the ACT grid by 2020, and you immediately decarbonise a considerable part of Canberra’s carbon footprint, in one of the most car-dependent cities in Australia, making the new ACT light rail line Australia’s first zero pollution, zero carbon emissions public transport system.

The Paris Declaration on Electro-Mobility and Climate Change states that “Limiting the global temperature increase to below 2 degrees Celsius requires changing this transport emissions trajectory, which involves the development of an integrated electro- mobility ecosystem encompassing various transport modes, coupled with the low-carbon production of electricity and hydrogen, implemented in conjunction with broader sustainable transport principles.”

Currently Australia’s transport emissions trajectory is not reducing at the pace needed for a safe climate. Transport in Australia emits 16 per cent of Australia’s polluting greenhouse gases per year, over 90 Megatons. Diesel vehicles- such as conventional buses, trucks and 4WDs – are the fastest growing fuel type for all vehicles in Australia. Yet diesel fumes emit CO2 and CO, and have the added problem of being a Group 1 carcinogen according to the World Health Organisation.

There have been many promising developments in electric bus technology that are prompting rapid adoption of this mode of transit due to vast fuel savings over the lifetime of the bus. The Greens policy to transition ACT’s bus fleet to 100% electric is a good step in the right direction. Internal combustion engines are less than 30% efficient. Add to that the energy cost of transporting fuel from the other side of the world.

Yet buses do not have the transformative network effects that light rail has. Light rail has become the “backbone” of systems such as on the Gold Coast and Glenelg extension (SA), where in both cases there was much scepticism before their construction. Light rail attracts more people out of their cars than buses: there is a section of the population that simply will not use buses whereas they will happily use rail modes of transit. Energy is also lost from friction between rubber tyres and the road. It’s smoother and more efficient to have tracks connecting steel and steel. This is why many people find rail-based journeys more comfortable and preferable to road-based transport, especially if they spend their commutes reading or working on handheld devices or a computer.

While some such as Kim Huynh have argued that to address environmental concerns, Canberra should focus on cycling infrastructure rather than building light rail, my experience riding my bike each day to work during the winter in Canberra gives a strong hunch that for most people cycling does not have the “lifestyle and convenience benefits” that he claims: it is not an all-weather mode of transport: less than half my colleagues who cycled did so during the winter. Furthermore, cycling is less inclusive than light rail for elders, disabled people and young children.

I am very proud to have been part of community campaigns in Canberra for the ambitious climate change targets that it has today. The ACT has shown what a pathway to renewable energy looks like that doesn’t break the bank, being the only jurisdiction in Australia where electricity prices decreased by an average of $80 per household in 2015. These targets dovetail very well with an ambitious public transport policy of light rail that both Labor and the Greens have adopted, which several environmental groups advocated for.

In 2008, the Conservation Council of the ACT advocated for light rail for the ACT election, commissioning an animation of what a light rail journey down Northbourne Avenue would look like. I helped build a 3 metre-long light rail model, which members of Climate Action Canberra would carry above our heads and take to climate change protests in 2008-10. We would get many appreciative honks from passing motorists as we walked down the median strip towards Parliament House, prefiguring a future in which light rail formed a backbone of Canberra as Walter Burley Griffin intended.

We are now much closer to that future than we have ever been for a very long time, and I hope people register the significance of what the ACT government is doing. Canberra will be the first in Australia to have 100% renewable-powered public transport, showing other cities a pathway out of their smog: it is clear that electrification holds a similar kind of promise of a brighter future as it did for my grandparents’ generation.

What’s Your opinion?


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19 Responses to
Light rail and the electrification of transport
1
OpenYourMind 5:32 pm
14 Oct 16
#

What a load of bollocks. Even if trams get a head of steam (the electric kind), it will still only be a fraction of the total number of people moving around Canberra. Of course a good chunk of those tram passengers will have an uncomfortable trip standing for the whole journey.

We are heading into an electrified future. Action is getting electric buses on trial, germany has passed agreeement to ban new petrol/diesel cars by 2030. The Paris motor show was all about electric cars. Tesla got 400,000 people sign up to an electric car that hasn’t even been released. These activities will make for a much larger chunk of renewable transport than some really expensive imported tramcars ever will.

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2
Leon Arundell 6:35 pm
14 Oct 16
#

The Environmental Impact Statement estimates that building Stage 1 of this so-called “zero pollution” project will cause 60,000 tonnes CO2-e of greenhouse emissions.

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3
Robz 9:26 pm
14 Oct 16
#

Leon Arundell said :

The Environmental Impact Statement estimates that building Stage 1 of this so-called “zero pollution” project will cause 60,000 tonnes CO2-e of greenhouse emissions.

A light rail car can hold up to 200 passengers. That’s up to 150 cars off the road .. have you factored that into your equation.
Have you factored in the construction of an additional two car lanes to relieve the pressure on traffic (as proposed by the Libs) to accommodate, yup you guessed it fossil fuel burning buses.

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4
Robz 9:35 pm
14 Oct 16
#

OpenYourMind said :

What a load of bollocks. Even if trams get a head of steam (the electric kind), it will still only be a fraction of the total number of people moving around Canberra. Of course a good chunk of those tram passengers will have an uncomfortable trip standing for the whole journey.

We are heading into an electrified future. Action is getting electric buses on trial, germany has passed agreeement to ban new petrol/diesel cars by 2030. The Paris motor show was all about electric cars. Tesla got 400,000 people sign up to an electric car that hasn’t even been released. These activities will make for a much larger chunk of renewable transport than some really expensive imported tramcars ever will.

I gather you will be ditching your petrol engine and purchasing an electric car tomorrow yea, next year maybe ?, how about in 5 years time?, this decade?
You and many others out there won’t be hoping into an electric car till the price comes right down and till you can get to Sydney without refueling whereas light rail will be commencing operations in 2018 as part of an integrated public transport system. Get your head out of the sand for a change.

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5
Robz 9:40 pm
14 Oct 16
#

Great article. It’s about time people start embracing what the ACT Government is attempting to achieve in our fine city, making it one of the most liveable cities in the world. Canberra will be seen as a model for other cities within 5 years, of that I’m sure.

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6
RichardB43 10:20 pm
14 Oct 16
#

I seriously doubt light rail is the right solution for a city with such low population density, the way it is designed.
We could make a start by converting/changing over all our business and govt fleets to electric, as London is doing with it’s buses.
http://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/london-will-have-largest-electric-bus-fleet-europe-end-year.html

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7
dungfungus 10:28 pm
14 Oct 16
#

Wind turbines cannot function unless they are drawing power from the grid.
Sometimes, that power won’t be from renewables.
Up to 30% of the electricity generated by a wind turbine is “retained” to operate all the functions in the turbine.
And let’s not get off the narrative by talking about the carbon footprint of manufacturing and siting a wind turbine.

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8
dungfungus 6:28 am
15 Oct 16
#

Robz said :

Great article. It’s about time people start embracing what the ACT Government is attempting to achieve in our fine city, making it one of the most liveable cities in the world. Canberra will be seen as a model for other cities within 5 years, of that I’m sure.

What the government is trying to achieve isn’t necessarily what the people want.

Please define what “liveable” means.

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9
wildturkeycanoe 7:16 am
15 Oct 16
#

“being the only jurisdiction in Australia where electricity prices decreased by an average of $80 per household in 2015”. Is this offset by the 10% increase in rates which cost me over $120 more for the same period and continues to increase by as much every year?

Now, the big question is how much will it cost? At $1,000,000 each to replace the current fleet of 594 buses it will cost $594,000,000 just for the fleet. Then you need to upgrade the charging stations and maintenance depot and retrain the engineers who maintain the fleet. Affordable? Who knows with this government’s cost estimates and budgetary incompetence. We don’t even know how much this green energy will cost, so yet another totally unknown element.

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10
Leon Arundell 11:59 am
15 Oct 16
#

Robz said :

A light rail car can hold up to 200 passengers. That’s up to 150 cars off the road .. have you factored that into your equation.
Have you factored in the construction of an additional two car lanes….

Two buses can hold up to 200 passengers. 200 people on public transport ONLY takes 150 cars off the road IF the bus is chock full AND less than a quarter of the passengers would otherwise have driven cars rather than travelled by public transport, walked, cycled or travelled as car passengers.

Building light rail typically causes more than twice the emissions of building equivalent bus lanes.

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11
wildturkeycanoe 1:15 pm
15 Oct 16
#

dungfungus said :

Robz said :

Great article. It’s about time people start embracing what the ACT Government is attempting to achieve in our fine city, making it one of the most liveable cities in the world. Canberra will be seen as a model for other cities within 5 years, of that I’m sure.

What the government is trying to achieve isn’t necessarily what the people want.

Please define what “liveable” means.

I agree. What exactly does liveable mean? Are we not living in Canberra right now? Can we live more, or live better or live longer because of the tram?
The definition of liveable is – “(of an environment or climate) fit to live in.” I’m pretty sure our current climate and environment are perfectly satisfactory for human habitation.
Could they come up with a catchphrase that isn’t stating the obvious?
In fact, building a tram and then increasing the population along the route to make it viable financially, is making the area more crowded and less sustainable, so I’d say the tram does actually makes Canberra less liveable than presently.

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12
OpenYourMind 2:31 pm
15 Oct 16
#

Robz said :

OpenYourMind said :

What a load of bollocks. Even if trams get a head of steam (the electric kind), it will still only be a fraction of the total number of people moving around Canberra. Of course a good chunk of those tram passengers will have an uncomfortable trip standing for the whole journey.

We are heading into an electrified future. Action is getting electric buses on trial, germany has passed agreeement to ban new petrol/diesel cars by 2030. The Paris motor show was all about electric cars. Tesla got 400,000 people sign up to an electric car that hasn’t even been released. These activities will make for a much larger chunk of renewable transport than some really expensive imported tramcars ever will.

I gather you will be ditching your petrol engine and purchasing an electric car tomorrow yea, next year maybe ?, how about in 5 years time?, this decade?
You and many others out there won’t be hoping into an electric car till the price comes right down and till you can get to Sydney without refueling whereas light rail will be commencing operations in 2018 as part of an integrated public transport system. Get your head out of the sand for a change.

The tram isn’t a two year plan. We are stitched up for 20+years. And just to answer your question, I have a petrol car with lease ending 2020. I seriously considered the Leaf, and fully expect that my next car will be electric…perhaps the Tesla 3 as the timing will be right.

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13
Arthur Davies 4:53 pm
21 Oct 16
#

There is no single solution to Canberra’s transport problem. There are a number of problems & a number of solutions & our job is to pick the best combination of solutions & implement them. Quite a few will always be road based such as emergency vehicles, delivery vehicles, plumbers vehicles, autonomous cars for short trips, private cars for out of town trips etc

Regardless light rail, there will still be a large demand for road transport. Metro’s EIS stated that only 2% of Canberrans will be able use the Stage 1 trams rising to 10% if the whole network were to be constructed. As stated at Metro’s launch “if you want good transport you will have to sell up & move to an apartment on Northbourne or you will be stuck with what you have now”.

I am totally in agreement that we must electrify all our transport, After all the Chief Scientist warned us that we have only 4 DAYS petroleum in Australia at any time (ships sink, storms happen, warfare exists). This must be the case for long distance transport as well as local transport within the ACT. Our long distance trains must be electrified & electric trucks used (a Melbourne bus currently has the world distance record of over 1000km so there should not be a problem doing it)

Trams are very efficient at peak hours when they are full of (70% standing) passengers. However they are less efficient than a car per passenger when they have low occupancy rates off peak. Look up the Gold coast tram timetable, they close down the tramlines & use buses in the evenings.

Australia has the lowest proportion of electric cars in the developed world. Neither commonwealth, nor the states & territories push evs, in the ACT we have stamp duty exemption I think. That exemption only applies to new commercial evs, not second hand ones nor conversions from existing petrol cars to electric. Looking at the poor outcome, you have to assume that Govt’s have an unspoken policy to discourage them. Look at the outcome not the rhetoric. One has to wider if this is due to favouring fossil fuels as is the case in so many other areas.

Autonomous cars will be here quite soon, these will be electric & able to serve people in all the suburbs, unlike the tram’s very limited catchment. These alone will turn the trams into stranded assets long before the end of the 22 year contract.

Good modern electric public transport must be built, but it must be equitable & not just serve a “favoured” very small minority. Such systems exist, they are far faster, much cheaper, more efficient, & quieter than trams, but such alternatives were not (by their own admission) investigated, I have dug out all their technical reports.

Sorry but neither trams nor buses will make people go “WOW I want to go in that!” Govt talk endlessly about innovation but it is always about someone else innovating, never them. I for one am fed up to the back teeth with endless rhetoric & no imaginative inspiring solutions that the community could be proud of. Both branches of the Laboral party & the Greens are all equally guilty.

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14
creative_canberran 1:37 am
22 Oct 16
#

Robz said :

I gather you will be ditching your petrol engine and purchasing an electric car tomorrow yea, next year maybe ?, how about in 5 years time?, this decade?
You and many others out there won’t be hoping into an electric car till the price comes right down and till you can get to Sydney without refueling whereas light rail will be commencing operations in 2018 as part of an integrated public transport system. Get your head out of the sand for a change.

I think you’re right in that electric cars won’t dominate for a while yet, but also need to look at where the US is at with electric cars more, we’re so behind in Australia.

There you have dozens more models of partial or zero emissions vehicles for a start, with tax credits at federal and state level that make them price competitive.

You also have the major auto-makers moving into new business models that involve multi-model transport that works with their own electric vehicles. Some of this is still in the early stages, I know BMW sees their new i cars mixing with public transport and bike share schemes eventually. But some of it is here now. BMW, Chrysler-Fiat and at least a couple of others for example include a couple of weeks a year of petrol car rental for longer trips. Their stats tell them an electric car is fine for the daily commute but they recognise range anxiety, and frankly range reality, isn’t there yet for the family holiday.

Also a lot of families have two cars, so having on electric and one petrol or hybrid that is there for longer trips as well as daily commuting is an option.

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15
ChrisinTurner 4:49 am
31 Oct 16
#

Steel on steel has less running resistance than rubber on bitumen but this is negated by the trams being twice as heavy per passenger. This makes running lightly loaded rather energy inefficient. The good news is that 100%battery electric buses are coming. I have seen them already operating in Paris and London and the ACT has three on order for a trial.

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