28 August 2022

Light rail a slow train coming without some sort of timetable

| Ian Bushnell
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Light rail stop

Light rail will be stuck at Alinga Street for who knows how long, and Woden seems far away. Photo: Region.

It was only early last year that Transport Minister Chris Steel was insisting that the first track for the light rail extension to Commonwealth Park would be laid before the ACT went back to the polls in October 2024.

Well, that’s just not going to happen.

A lot has happened in the past year and a half, so Mr Steel could be forgiven for being a touch optimistic.

Even then he was vague about a starting time and he has since steadfastly refused to be pinned down, although it became clearer as time went on that the project was having trouble leaving the station.

Mr Steel’s performance at Estimates last week confirmed that the light rail to Woden, and subsequent stages, will be a slow train coming.

Slower than many expected.

His refusal to provide any sort of indicative timetable, or repeat previous comments about one stage a decade, only confirmed in Liberal minds that the whole project is dodgy, and upset the Greens, who want light rail rolled out across Canberra as quickly as possible.

Mr Steel cited contractual negotiations and the need to develop a business case for Stage 2B across the lake to Woden for not being able to provide any sort of time frame.

It is of course also a tricky time for any infrastructure project, with the supply chain hold-ups and competition for materials and labour.

Mr Steel doesn’t want to provide rubbery numbers or raise expectations that can’t be met, but leaving an information vacuum allows all sorts of speculation to rush in.

He should have provided an honest indicative, even aspirational, timeline. If the project hits its milestones or even moves faster than expected, the Government is a winner.

If it doesn’t, there will probably be good reasons, but saying nothing now will not protect or absolve the Government, just convince people they are being kept in the dark.

As it is, they are doing their own calculations based on what is available.

The required raising of London Circuit is due to start soon and will take two years, and no track can be laid until that is complete.

The Works Approval for Stage 2A is expected to be lodged with the NCA before the end of the year and no contract can be signed before it gets the green light.

READ ALSO Commonwealth backs light rail Stage 2B with funding for new vehicles

Meanwhile, the multi-level approvals process for the much more complex Stage 2B, which will have to go through the Parliamentary Zone, grinds on.

If Stage 2A gets underway by the end of 2024 or early 2025, will the Government also be able to make a start getting across the lake?

If it is going to take till 2026/7 to finish the 4.7 km to Commonwealth Park, can we realistically expect to get to Woden by the end of the decade?

Without some sort of timetable to guide the project, it will inevitably invite barbs that it is a ghost train that will never arrive.

Mr Steel’s obduracy, and the implication that the project faces delays, will disappoint those who have bought into Woden apartment developments with an eye to light rail.

Canberra’s public transport lobby is also concerned, first at Woden being shunted off into the distant future, and then at the ramifications for the bus network, for which light rail should free up capacity to service other parts of the Territory.

No doubt Mr Steel and the Government would like to get light rail moving as quickly as possible, but the slow rate of progress so far on just the first leg does not augur well for the rest of the stage.

It raises questions about whether the Territory has enough planning resources for these big infrastructure projects, and whether raising London Circuit was the best approach, given the two-year lag with that project.

It is hoped that a Federal Labor Government will deliver for Canberra the way Chief Minister Andrew Barr hopes, and that Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government Minister Catherine King was serious when she said “we’re partnering with the ACT Government on Stage 2A, and obviously the ACT Government will come to us when it’s ready to talk about Stage 2B of the project”.

Streamlining the approvals would be a good place to start for the feds.

In the meantime, Mr Steel needs to stop sounding like he has something to hide to maintain confidence in the project.

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Leon Arundell8:15 am 04 Sep 22

Canberra’s light rail doesn’t run to a timetable. Even the automated displays at the light rail stations don’t know when the next tram will arrive. I recently checked this. The display changed to show that the tram would arrive in one minute. The tram didn’t arrive for another four minutes.
The government has estimated that bus rapid transit would provide $2 worth of benefits for each dollar invested, that stage 1 of light rail will provide $1.20 worth of benefits for each dollar invested, and stage 2 will provide only 60 cents worth of benefits for each dollar invested (see the Stage 2A business case).

HiddenDragon9:36 pm 29 Aug 22

Forget about a federal government bail-out of this farce.

Even if, as some are suggesting after today’s Press Club performance, Albanese allows himself to be (seen to be) dragged kicking and screaming to delay/reduce/cancel the higher income tax cuts all of the funds thus freed up will already be spoken for – NDIS, health, defence, education, child care etc. – everywhere you look the pressures on the federal budget are large and growing, even before we start trying to reduce the “trillion dollar debt” about which so much was said in the election campaign.

That’s the (relatively) good news.

The bad news for the light rail dreamers is that there will, eventually, be another federal LNP government which will – however long it takes for that to happen – come to power with a strong sense that the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison years were (believe it or not) a wasted chance to implement a truly conservative agenda (there were similar views in the Howard government about the Fraser government) and as part of that, they will be taking no prisoners when it comes to fiscal matters. A dubious public transport project in a city which many of them hold in contempt will be the least of their priorities.

With a timeline to get the rail to Woden now looking like 2030, surely there’s an opportunity ‘right now’ for a full and independent infrastructure needs analysis.

Four of the key drivers that the ACT government listed in support for the light rail to Woden have unexpectedly changed thanks to Covid since the project was announced (1. Commute to work, 2. Property value growth, 3. Reduced emissions, 4. ACT Government can borrow at close to zero interest rates).

The quicker than anticipated switch to more ‘work from home’ will affect commute numbers possibly for eternity. Canberra has just been through a massive property and land value uplift that will likely stagnate for sometime and may change housing patterns. The emergence of EV’s powered by Canberra’s renewable offset electricity reduces light rail’s environmental benefits. Thanks to Covid and externally driven inflation factors it will be very difficult for the heavily indebted ACT government to borrow at the same kind of low interest rates for the paper life of the asset.

A wise minister and government would stop and take account of a vastly changed situation caused by external factors (not by anything they’ve done). It’s a no brainer to be honest.

Completely agree with you and chewy14. The assumptions underlying the extremely flimsy business case are in tatters.

Hmmm, Its almost like the project is not viable and is a massive white elephant.

I can’t possibly work out why they aren’t committing a timeline to a multi billion dollar project that has no robust business case and no defined need that has been identified.

Even the out of date business case that the Auditor General savaged showed that it wasn’t viable and the apparent benefits are now further reduced and costs hugely increased due to supply and pipeline issues.

Average usage on the first stage is sitting just over a third of where the government’s business case said it would be and is unlikely to return due to the hugely increased amounts of working from home.

Why then would you replace the current buses on the City to Woden leg that are already faster and far more flexible?

“In the meantime, Mr Steel needs to stop sounding like he has something to hide to maintain confidence in the project.”

So you think he should lie?

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