23 February 2020

Federal Government should help pay for the wire-free light rail it is demanding

| Ian Bushnell
Join the conversation
Light rail

A light rail vehicle heads out wire-free from the Alinga Street Station. Images: ACT Government.

It should not have come as a surprise that the ACT Government would opt for a wire-free run to Commonwealth Park from the city for the next stage of light rail.

Both the business case and the EPBC documents lodged with the Federal environment department canvassed wire-free sections of the Stage 2 route in response to demands from the National Capital Authority that heritage vistas and the areas of national significance in the Parliamentary Triangle not be adversely impacted by unsightly poles and wires.

The EPBC documents in particular present the 1.7 km City to Commonwealth Park leg as a self-contained wire-free proposal, with light rail vehicles charging at the three new stops of City West, West Basin and Commonwealth Park.

The confirmation that Stage 2A will be wire-free means a higher price-tag as new and existing light rail vehicles will need to be fitted with onboard energy storage with regenerative braking capability, as well as a traction power substation connected to the system at Commonwealth Avenue having to be built in Commonwealth Park.

While tracks will be laid in the middle of London Circuit once the light rail turns into Commonwealth Avenue, they will be on the grassed median down to Commonwealth Park.

How much extra going wire-free will cost cannot be revealed as the ACT Government is still negotiating the deal with Stage 1 operator Canberra Metro to construct and run Stage 2A, although one expert put the premium at 20 per cent extra per vehicle.

Transport Minister Chris Steel insists it is not prohibitive, but Chief Minister Andrew Barr had expressed some caution at the cost, preferring that wire-free running be limited to sections where it was essential.

But in order to keep the NCA onside and secure approvals for the longer and more complex Stage 2B to Woden, the Government has decided it’s a price worth paying. It also makes sense to make the whole 1.7 km wire-free rather than switch at the Commonwealth Avenue turn.

Associate Professor Matthew Burke from the Cities Research Institute at Griffith University told the ABC the ACT Government had been wedged.

“The NCA’s made it pretty clear they don’t want an operation with catenary (the wires) and they’ve really forced their hand to run with a battery tram,” he said.

At this rate, we could see wire-free running all the way to the Lodge on Adelaide Avenue.

It is understandable therefore that the ACT Government should be looking to the Commonwealth, if it is making demands that will mean extra costs, to contribute to the bill.

Commonwealth Avenue from a raised London Circuit

The turn into Commonwealth Avenue from a raised London Circuit on to the grassed tracks for the run down to the lake.

This is besides the fact that a major public transport project in the nation’s capital that will serve the Commonwealth’s own workforce should attract some co-funding, particularly if the Morrison Government needs to stimulate a flagging national economy come Budget time.

The Canberra Liberals, while acknowledging the popularity of Stage 1, remain loath to back Stage 2, saying they want to see the numbers before making any commitment.

This has drawn the ire of the Public Transport Association of Canberra which called on the Opposition to outline their plans for bringing light rail to Woden ahead of the Territory election in October.

But the wire-free decision could see the Liberals flirt even more with the evolving trackless trams technology, touted to be a much cheaper option than rail after their transport spokesperson Candice Burch talked it up in the Assembly last year.

Promoted by Curtin University sustainability expert Professor Peter Newman, the Chinese autonomous rail transit, or ART, is an electric articulated vehicle on rubber wheels that runs in dedicated lanes.

PTACBR chair Ryan Hemsley has derided the technology as a novelty electric bus.

“Once you factor in the costs of constructing an exclusive right of way, inclusive of utilities relocation, concrete trackbed, accessible stops and recharging points, what you will be left with is an unproven piece of technology, locked into a single supplier with no discernable cost advantage over light rail. These ‘trackless scams’ offer the worst of all possible worlds and should not be given serious consideration by the ACT Government,” he says.

There are also concerns about how the lack of route permanence impacts on the residential and commercial development potential that light rail is designed to unlock.

But there is no chance now that the Government will change tack and it will want to have contracts in the bag before its October date with the electorate so it can go into the campaign with Stage 2A locked down and maybe even underway.

For ACT taxpayers, it would be a good thing if the Feds cough up part of the bill.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments
rationalobserver7:01 pm 28 Feb 20

Struggling to follow the logic here.
NCA has requirements it needs people to meet if they want to develop something on land NCA control, and everyone things NCA should pay.
ACT Government has requirements it needs me to meet when I want to develop a house on land I lease from the ACT Government. Who should pay for that?

I think the point is that the “requirements” do not relate to health or safety and that they are actually being rather precious little snowflakes objecting to a few wires and poles, considering all the infrastructure for their motor vehicles to tootle around the Hill. To witness the visual horror of a tram wire next to a real heritage building try googling the image of “tram going past Melbourne Parliament House” and see what comes up. (Or try melbourne-australia-is-home-to-the-worlds-largest-tram-network). Perhaps they could just put up signs advising all people with delicate aesthetic sensibilities to avert their eyes near a light rail so as not to have people swooning in terror at a (gasp) wire.

The requirements are basically plucked out of the NCA’s backside. I’m willing to bet there is no book of rules that states there is to be no tram wires on NCA controlled land. Good case in point is Northborne Ave which is under NCA control and there are wires. .

Instead when a development application like this comes in it is up to negotiation between parties to get the required result.

And in this case the NCA has changed direction. Originally staging wire free was only required south of the lake (and constitution Ave for earlier “plans” but is now also including London cct in wire free.

So guess the real issue is how an unelected body has so much control to be able to flip and flop to meet their arbitrarily rules even if that costs a lot more.

Capital Retro9:32 am 26 Feb 20

“……….why are we investing so much money in an old fashioned light rail system? …..”

Those Euro-tram salesmen are very good, that’s why.

It is a pity that the ACT government and Canberra people generally do not look elsewhere for successful models in anything. I would give the design of busways, big and little, and the running of the buses to Brisbane City Council. Have a look at how successful they are and they don’t waste money on big capital projects that will never pay for themselves. It’s not too late to build a much cheaper more effective busway and bus system than expanding the ego project of the tram.

The whole thing should have been wire free in the first place really. It is one of the most disappointing things about the line. They could put solar panels on the roof of each stop to help support the energy costs. Newcastle has a line like this, and it is clean looking and seems to work like a dream.

Capital Retro1:50 pm 25 Feb 20

“The RBA should issue the money ….”

Code for printing money and this will destroy what’s left of the economy.

Why would the Feds pay anything? They wouldn’t care if it was built or not. And its not like their requirements were unknown right from the outset and should have been factored into the business case for the whole project.

Capital Retro9:58 pm 24 Feb 20

Check out Helsinki Metro.

Check out Helsinki debt while your at it.

Rob Chalmers9:49 pm 24 Feb 20

Stage two should have sorted before stage 1 was begun. The ACT Liberal party is not responsible for the lack of preparation by the local government. The Public Transport Association of Canberra is what exactly ? a pro light rail marketing tool disguised as a pseudo public interest forum. It should not have come as a surprise to the ACT government that the NCA would not allow poles and wires in the Parliamentary Triangle. The original planning and budgeting should have been done on that premise. Local Labor put all their eggs in the one basket. That basket being the expectation of a Federal Labor win last year. Should have been doing more to win support from the Federal Government. It is politics remember.

I don’t understand why the federal government should pay extra for non-essential aesthetics. The irony is that the poles and overhead wires have a greater retro and heritage aesthetic than the modern hidden wires and components that the wire-free proponents don’t want.

HiddenDragon8:34 pm 24 Feb 20

Of course they won’t provide extra money for this, with the federal budget under increasing pressure, and having recently told NSW and Victoria to buzz off –


– but that will ultimately be quite handy for an ACT Government wanting to blame others for the state of its own budget.

michael quirk3:23 pm 24 Feb 20

The Public Transport Association would do the community a favour by supporting the preparation of a business case evaluating the costs and benefits of alternative technologies. Otherwise it is little more than a lobby group for light rail, which diminishes its credibility .What is it and the government afraid of? Perhaps the evaluation would show light rail stage 2 is an extravagant waste of money.

While I wouldn’t object to the Feds helping out with the cost of the light rail, it would have been obvious to the planners that wire-free was a requirement in that area.

Trying to lay the blame on the Feds for the extra cost really just demonstrates that the ACT government is either really incompetent at planning, or dishonest.

Or perhaps a large chunk of both.

They knew it would be required south of the lake in the actual triangle. Not around London cct.

And if you read the article it is not the ACT government saying the Feds should pay.

The Feds should only have to pay if they were the ones demanding light rail, as well as requiring battery operation. As it is, Infrastructure Australia declined to fund phase 1 because of the poor RoI. What’s the RoI on phase 2 again?

Stephen Saunders9:25 am 24 Feb 20

Headline says it all, Ian, and thanks so much for timely update.

The only two certainties are that the Libs will get light rail wrong again for the election and that NCA will be as effete and useless as ever.

Capital Retro8:43 am 24 Feb 20

“For ACT taxpayers, it would be a good thing if the Feds cough up part of the bill.”

It would be even better for us ACT taxpayers if the ACT Government decided to call it a day and abandon anymore expansion of the trolley folly.

Why would the federal government pay for a hard requirement that has been known since day 1 of planning and optioneering? The overhead wires are clearly an eyesore that NCA have said they don’t want in the parliamentary triangle (and perhaps further south) since day dot.

If you truly want to know who should be paying more, seeing as the majority of the project benefit is due to land development rather than public transport, land holders along the route should be paying value capture taxes on their land to capture some of the massive windfall gain they are receiving from public funds.

“This is besides the fact that a major public transport project in the nation’s capital that will serve the Commonwealth’s own workforce should attract some co-funding,”

So you’re saying the federal government should fund projects that are assessed as non viable because it might benefit some of its own employees?

When people in the rest of Australia talk about Canberra in disparaging terms, claims like that are part of the reason.

Why should taxes from the whole of Australia pay for a project in Canberra that clearly doesn’t have a business case that stacks up?

How exactly do you think the recent “sports rorts” fiasco happened? By allowing politicians to curcumvent processes to benefit themselves. Federal funding for this project would be no better than that and probably worse.

As I said above the original plans has wire free from the bridge onwards With London CCT to be wired. This is the NCA interfering again in an area they really shouldn’t have any authority over. Just like their interference in the GDE.

You’ll note that the NCA hasn’t made a requirement for wire free running on London Circuit, the ACT government have made that choice because they believe it will be easier rather than changing the power source at the Commonwealth Ave intersection.

So yes, it’s exactly like the GDE where the ACT government tried to override the long stated requirements of the appropriate planning approvals agency and then whinged that they weren’t allowed to get their own way, coming at additional cost to ACT taxpayers.

In both cases, the ACT government was clearly at fault.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.