29 June 2020

Another light rail election on track after Libs slam contract delays

| Ian Bushnell
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The extension of light rail next year could hinge on the ACT election outcome. Photo: File.

The Canberra Liberals have thrown the future of Light Rail Stage 2 into doubt by refusing to commit fully to the project ahead of the October election and questioning the government’s approach.

The Opposition responded to news that the Stage 2A contract had been delayed by uncertainties associated with the coronavirus pandemic by claiming the government had mismanaged the entire process, and calling for the complete business case to be released so taxpayers could see the costs and benefits of the project for themselves.

Asked where he stood on Stage 2, Opposition Leader Alistair Coe said the Liberals supported the extension of light rail in principle but would not back the project as it is without knowing all the pros and cons.

”It’s very hard to make any commitment when the government refuses to reveal this information,” Mr Coe said.

The stance means Canberrans look like going into yet another election in which light rail will be a flashpoint, with Transport Minister Chris Steel hitting back by saying Liberals’ entrenched opposition to light rail should be a concern to Canberrans who want to see more investment in public transport.

He said the government had been advised not to show its hand during its negotiations with Canberra Metro, the consortium which delivered Stage 1 and was chosen to construct Stage 2.

”Letting them know how much we’re prepared to spend on light rail is not the best approach from a commercial contract negotiation point of view,” he said.

Mr Coe refuses to accept this explanation, saying the government has only itself to blame for picking a winner and not being able to get contracts signed and clinch a good deal.

He said the government should have put the project out to open tender instead of sticking with the same consortium.

”They didn’t open it up to transparency and scrutiny, and now they’re saying that despite them picking a winner, after offering a multi-billion contract to one consortium, despite them picking a winner, there are still stumbling blocks.”

Mr Coe would not answer questions about whether a Liberal Government would review the project, revert to an open tender process or not proceed at all.

All he would say is that the Liberals were committed to honouring any contracts signed before the election.

Transport Minister Chris Steel says he can’t reveal the full cost of Stage 2A while in negotiations with the Canberra Metro consortium.

But the prospect of the government doing any deals before the poll is looking dimmer after Mr Steel said the government would not be rushing to sign a contract before the election for political purposes.

The government was committed to getting the best value for money and it still hoped that construction would start in the first half of 2021.

”We are working with Canberra Metro and are well progressed in developing the project with environmental approvals underway, however we are being transparent with the community that there have been delays in signing the contracts due to the pandemic,” Mr Steel said.

Mr Steel said the pandemic had disrupted supply chains, including that for Austrian rails, and closed the light rail vehicle factory in Spain.

The closure of the Queensland border also created quarantine issues for workers having to travel back and forth between the two jurisdictions.

Mr Steel said a rail boom, both heavy and light, in Australia had led to a hot, competitive market for construction firms.

As a result, the government did not believe it to be the best time in this environment to be signing contracts.

But Mr Steel said the government was committed to taking light rail to the south side and only Labor could be trusted to do so.

”We’re happy for light rail to be front and centre of the election,” he said.

”The Canberra Liberals are not committed to this project despite the government continuing our unprecedented level of transparency by releasing the business case for 2A, and in 2018 releasing the cost guidance for Stage 2.

”What’s clear is they don’t support light rail, they never have.”

Asked whether the delay will push back Stage 2B to Woden, Mr Steel said it was subject to an extensive approvals process through the Commonwealth EPBC process, the NCA and approval by both houses of Parliament.

”Final control over time frames is with the Commonwealth,” he said.

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michael quirk6:26 pm 30 Jun 20

The light rail fiasco continues with the Barr government unwilling to undertake an assessment of light rail extension and possible alternatives so the community can make an informed decision as to its merits.

The popularity of light rail is not surprising as it is gold plated infrastructure. Unfortunately funds are limited and should be used to provide the greatest benefit to the community. Funds devoted to light rail are not available for other purposes including health, education, the road and bus system, housing, city maintenance

LR 1 provided a poor return. The ACT Auditor General found the benefit – cost ratio was 0.49, i.e it returned 49 cents for every dollar spent. LR2 will likely provide a poorer return given the cost of crossing the lake, fewer opportunities for value capture along the route and a possible increase in working from home, reducing overall travel demand.

Should the light rail extension proceed given
(a) the chronic under-investment in health as discussed by Jon Stanhope and Khalid Ahmed.
(b) The financial debt generated in response to the pandemic requires the limited infrastructure funds are used to maximise benefits to the community.
(c) Electric technology is rapidly improving. The Brisbane Metro, to commence operation in 2023, will utilise electric buses each with a capacity of 150 people. Significant advances in trackless tram technology may be more suitable for the city’s future needs. with Professor Peter Newman suggesting it can replicate the light rail experience for a fraction of the cost.
(f) The BCA of the extension should be compared with alternatives including improving the frequency and coverage of the bus network, social housing and the health system.
There is time to undertake a review. Why is the government reluctant to provide evidence to justify the project?

I see you are up to your usual selective quoting, quoting figures in isolation and conflating the issue.

Fact is you don’t like light rail, you have a letter in the Canberra times every other week about it, yet the proof of success can be seen every day by the numbers riding it and the time saved by peak hour commuters from Gungahlin who now don’t have to endure a 45 minute peak hour bus journey from Gungahlin to the city instead they enjoy a 24 minute trip. And never mind all the new commuter who fill carparks around Southwell park and increasingly (Before COVID). EPIC.

Can we please stop hearing the argument that its popularity shows it’s successful.

Everyone agrees it’s popular. Gold plated infrastructure usually is.

And any travel time savings on the route are irrelevant. Once again, almost no one is saying that a public transport upgrade on this route wasn’t needed. Just that the same transport benefit could have been delivered for a fraction of the cost.

Which is exactly what the government’s own figures showed.

The entire argument being presented is that the same benefits could have been delivered with alternative options for less money with planning and corridor allowances made to upgrade to different transport modes when and if they became necessary into the future.

Address the opportunity costs.

And explain why the decision was reasonable despite the government’s own figures in the economic analysis showing it barely made it past a cost benefit ratio of 1. And that was even allowing for inclusions that typically wouldn’t be used to justify such an infrastructure project.

michael quirk9:04 am 02 Jul 20

I would support light rail if there was evidence it was a good use of funds. Government needs to demonstrate the extension is warranted.
Its is called evidence based policy. The government needs to be transparent and accountable, particularly given the social conservatism of the opposition.

Stephen Saunders5:48 am 30 Jun 20

Like, what part of the 2016 election result is Coe not following?

All of it. Remember, ACT Libs commissioned an “independent” post mortem that never once mentioned the r-for-rail word.

What part of the election result are you not following?

The pork barreling worked in that the areas to benefit from light rail voted heavily for the ALP/Greens, whereas the other areas of Canberra were actually fairly neutral or supported the Libs.

The election swung on one Green getting elected in Murrumbidgee and the ALP getting 3 seats in Yerrabi.

It was much closer than you’re making out.

Although If you’re happy for government’s to buy elections, then maybe you don’t care.

No Chewy14 the Liberals lost the election for themselves, treating Canberrans as mugs. The Liberals are a conservative, fogey party and out of step with Canberra voters. Labor had clear policies including infrastructure, public transport and light rail and the Liberals just sniped from the sidelines without offering any policy alternatives.

I’m unsure how your comment relates to mine at all.

Also, If you think I’m a Liberal ssupporter, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

The facts are the election was close. And as you’ve nicely pointed out, the Liberals are woeful, so the fact that it was even as close as it was is telling as to the merits of the ALP and Greens offerings.

It is clear from the election results that the areas to significantly benefit from light rail voted heavily ALP/Greens.

As the project is objectively unjustified from an infrastructure and transport planning perspective (which is why it didn’t receive federal funding), it looks and smells exactly like Pork Barreling.

And you can already see the signs of similar, with the policy announcements being made in the lead up to the election in October.

But don’t worry, the Liberals still look woeful so the ALP will probably win regardless.

ACT Light Rail has been the only rail project so far to receive Federal funding in the recent infrastructure package.

That is a blatant falsehood.

The federal government is providing $6million to enable another stop to be created in Mitchell.

This is a miniscule amount and actually has almost nothing to do with the trasport mode. In reality it highlights more of the incompetence around the planning that the stop wasn’t built in the first place.

A stop in this location was required whether the solution was light rail, buses or another option.

The facts are that light rail hasn’t received any federal funding and almost certainly won’t due to the woeful returns coming out of the economic cost benefit analyses, which are well below the level where anyone, even governments should be investing.

Apparently though, you’re fine with the government wasting tax dollars and not being able to provide other critical services and infrastructure because it’s all tied up in a gold plated pork barrel.

You’re confusing your opinion with the facts stated in the post: The Federal Government is providing funding to the light rail, that is a fact. You may not think it is enough funding (opinion) and many would agree with that opinion. It’s not possible to put forward an argument that funding of a light rail stop is not funding for light rail.

The federal government is giving money to construct a public transport stop. It has nothing to do with light rail as the transport mode and the stop was required regardless of which public transport option had been chosen.

The money is not “for” light rail.

Although it’s clearly obvious why you’d try to clutch at such straws when you’ve failed in providing a rational argument that the light rail project represented any form of evidence based planning in the past.

Oh, and while you’re commenting, I’m still waiting for you to answer the questions from a few weeks ago on these future stages. I’ll paraphrase them:

Will you support future stages of light rail without detailed options analyses and robust business cases?

According to the Government that is putting forward the funding it is for light rail. There have been robust business cases for all government funding (including roads, rail, medical services, education etc. That ‘s how the process works. Not sure what point you are trying to make here other than you want to see a business case that supports your minority view against light rail. But, as the Canberra Times editorial of 1 July stated: the debate about whether or not to have a light rail system in Canberra is over now. Best to move on.

No there hasn’t been robust business cases for the decisions, which is why the Auditor General was so critical of the project and why the first stage of light rail received no federal funding. Light rail was clearly not up to scratch from an investment point of view and was rather chosen for political reasons.

Also, once again you’ve dodged the actual question.

I’ll repeat:

“Will you support future stages of light rail without detailed options analyses and robust business cases?”

Its obvious why you won’t answer directly by the way.


a) no options analyses for stage 2 was completed or is going to be completed and

b) no robust business case can be fashioned even with the “creative” assessment methods the government has tried to put together to justify a predetermined decision.

The cost benefit ratio for stage 2A is 0.4 or 0.6 including additional benefits which typically are excluded.

The cost benefit ratio for the City to Woden leg is 0.6 or 1.0 including the additional benefits which are typically excluded.

Perhaps you like the government throwing money away but I don’t.

The above options studies and robust business cases are prerequisites for an evidence based planning system.

But they don’t exist here.

So which is it?

Either you can’t support future stages of light rail or you don’t actually support evidence based planning.

At least they’re now openly saying this is purely a political decision rather than a transport or infrastructure decision.

The government is literally bragging that they are going to waste billions of dollars and people are still supportive of the process.

For anyone interested in good governance, the heavily redacted “business case” for future stages of light rail reads like a horror show. It’s simply not feasible based on their own figures and there are other, far cheaper options available, including the existing express buses. Express buses that actually already provide a better intertown service than the light rail will.

It is extremely strange that so many Canberrans are happy for the government to make decisions of this magnitude without any needs identification or detailed options analysis.

It is a solution looking for a problem.

Although I’ll make a prediction that if Stage 2 and beyond go ahead, the same people supporting light rail now will be the same people complaining when the government can’t afford to provide other essential city services in the future because of the massive debt that is racked up here.

Chewy14 I wish you Can the trammers would just accept defeat. Despite the best efforts by Alistair and the Liberals in 2016 to undermine Labor, taxes and the tram, Canberrans voted overwhelmingly for Labor. The election wasn’t even close and it was clear to see Labor would be the winning side 10 minutes into counting. I am anal enough to have looked at the figures very closely. I don’t care if you are a Liberal supporter. I admit I am proudly Labor.

What on earth is a can the trammer?

And if you think the election wasn’t even close, you either don’t understand politics and numbers or you only see out of one eye.

What you don’t get is that no matter who is in government, some of us want the government to use taxpayers funds in the most efficient manner possible to deliver essential services to residents.

To not do so means that either taxes have to be increased creating more inefficiencies or service delivery is curtailed.

The light rail is a massive waste of that money that should have been utilised elsewhere and out budget is under serious pressure because of it.

There is no justification for it. It was a political decision that has resulted in a huge piece of gold plated infrastructure.

And the future stages are even less feasible from an economic and transport perspective.

A mass transit system might have been needed in 20 years but it isn’t close to being needed now. To lock in one option now is mind bendingly stupid.

Sensible planning would have gone for a solution that preserved corridors and allowed for upgrades and transport mode changes if/and when required in the future.

If you aren’t interested in good governance, that’s fine. But it will only exacerbate problems into the future.

My goodness Chewy14 just loosen up. Your posts indicate a person who has a problem with anyone who disagrees. We have the tram, Canberrans voted for it and it seems to be working. Get over it


So presented with facts and evidence, your position is “hey loosen up, what does it matter anyway, we voted for it”.

Here’s a hypothetical for you, what is your position on the recent “sports rorts” scandal at the federal level?

You are perfectly fine with the government targeting additional spending at marginal electorates to buy votes yes?

I mean, look at the way people voted, they clearly supported it by your logic right?


I’ve got no problems with people disagreeing but I do have a strong aversion to the extraordinary level of cognitive dissonance being displayed by light rail proponents for either political reasons or personal gain.

consumeradvocatecanberra8:36 pm 29 Jun 20

If I were Alistair Coe, I would want to prove we could afford it, that LR justifies the monies spent and the return on investment and whether a better return would be had by investing in houses for those without and other community needs. Whilst the last election showed Canberrans they wanted Light rail, there is a distinct disinclination to patronage on our existing Public Transport offerings. So what is the point on spending so much? Covid10 has put a huge spanner in the works and ability to spend will not happen. But I want to see the Liberals stop hashing the same old lines or they will be in Opposition for a long time t come.

Gawd I love Alistair, he just keeps on givin. He’s Labor’s biggest asset. Went to the last election in 2016 as Shadow Transport Minister opposing the light rail and threatening to rip up the contracts. Lost the election and his party rewarded him with the leadership. Keep up the good work Alistair.

HiddenDragon6:52 pm 29 Jun 20

“…..the Stage 2A contract had been delayed by uncertainties associated with the coronavirus pandemic…..”

That’s all a bit vague and mysterious – negotiations (with people who live on the other side of the world) to buy an Australian airline have been taken to a conclusion during the virus, National Cabinet rolls on via video link, world leaders go on discussing very sensitive matters, but contract processes for an extension to an existing bit of infrastructure in a small city goes into an indefinite and unexplained limbo…..

If the truth is that the uncertainties are financial, the ACT Government should say so, and stop pretending that a Canberra-wide network (along with a new hospital and a big commitment to social housing etc.) is absolutely guaranteed if they are returned in October.

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