3 March 2024

Light rail 'should not proceed': new report pushes for cheaper, faster, greener ways to Woden

| James Coleman
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light rail render

A render of light rail en route to Woden along Adelaide Avenue. Image: ACT Government.

Public transport advocates have hit back at a proposal to scrap future stages of light rail in favour of trackless trams, calling it a “mish-mash of mistruths and half-baked proposals”.

The 21st-Century Public Transport Solutions For Canberra report expresses “grave concerns” about the “excessive and disproportionate amount of money that has been and still is being spent” on light rail.

Penned by the Deakin Residents Association, it argues Stage 2A from Northbourne Avenue to Commonwealth Avenue is already the “most expensive section of light rail ever built” and that Stage 2B from Commonwealth Park to Woden “should not proceed”.

READ ALSO Fewer APS consultants means less revenue for ACT Government

“The billions of dollars spent on Light Rail Stage 2B could be better spent on faster and more modern transport technology … at a fraction of the cost, with far less disruption, and with more short and long-term benefits to Canberrans.”

Stage 2B will take light rail from its stop near Commonwealth Park across the lake, around State Circle (through the intersections at Kings Avenue, Canberra Avenue, Sydney Avenue and Melbourne Avenue), and onto Adelaide Avenue and Yarra Glen. This will involve the construction of a third span through the middle of the Commonwealth Avenue bridge and another seven bridges along Adelaide Avenue.

If the costs are deemed too great or the turn-off from Commonwealth Avenue onto State Circle too narrow, the government has also flagged a reroute through Barton, with proposed stops on King George Terrace, Bligh Street and Sydney Avenue.

light rail render

A render showing a proposed stop along Sydney Avenue if light rail has to take the ‘dog-leg’ route through Barton. Image: ACT Government.

The government has allocated $50 million “to progress the planning and design phases”, but estimates beyond that are hazy. A 2019 Ernst & Young economic appraisal report puts the total as $1.09 billion when adjusted for inflation, while the Canberra Liberals suggest the cost could be as high as $3 billion.

The paper’s authors say the government should instead invest in a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or trackless tram system along the Stage 2B route, including dedicated lanes and platforms.

“[It] can be built more quickly, is twice as cost-effective, and will be at least 10 minutes faster.”

The savings, they say, could be directed towards accelerating the acquisition of electric buses for the Transport Canberra fleet so “the transition to zero-emissions public transport is completed by 2030”.

man on bus step

The report says the savings by scrapping light rail could be used to speed up the acquisition of electric buses. Photo: Ian Bushnell.

“In comparison with alternative options, Light Rail Stage 2B will be slower, less flexible in its routing, have greater environmental impacts, be far more expensive and will impose a substantial financial burden on Canberrans for many decades to come,” the paper concludes.

The arguments won the support of the Canberra Liberals, who vowed again to scrap all future light-rail stages if elected in November.

“It paints a very bleak picture about the future of public transport in the ACT if we proceed with the tram that will significantly increase travel times for Canberrans from the south,” Shadow Transport Minister Mark Parton said.

“The Canberra Liberals will put forward a transport policy that will focus on getting Canberrans where they want to go when they want to get there, which will be faster, greener, better connected, and cheaper.”

READ ALSO Stage one of Barton Highway completed – speed limit back up to 100 km/h

But the Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) said, “the report released … by the Deakin Residents Association and other light rail critics is a mish-mash of mistruths and half-baked proposals” and based on “a fundamentally flawed assumption”.

“The report falsely attributes statements to the ACT Auditor-General about the cost of a bus-based alternative to Light Rail Stage 2B and hides the true cost of ‘trackless trams’,” chair Ryan Hemsley said.

“The report … fails to mention the experience of the recent ‘trackless tram’ trial in Perth, which damaged the pavement after only four days of passenger testing. The trial vehicle has now been shipped back to the manufacturer in China, and the state government has refused to support the project.”

He said if the Canberra Liberals base their 2024 transport policy on “this kind of research … it is already dead on arrival”.

The ACT Government affirmed there are no plans to alter Stage 2B.

“The ACT Government is focused on future-proofing our growing city by building an integrated transport network that includes a light rail network and electric bus fleet,” a spokesperson said.

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“Ernst & Young economic appraisal report puts the total cost of Stage 2b at $1.09 billion when adjusted for inflation”.

Considering Stage2a at just 1.7km cost about that much, I don’t put much faith in their costing.

Having done a bit of work with EY, I know they’re very good at giving government the kind of advice and costings that government would like to hear.

EY were also heavily involved in Chris Steel’s $78 million dollar HR System stuff up.

To be fair, that cost was developed in 2019, so predates the massive increases in project material and construction costs that have since happened.

Also prior to a lot of the route investigation that has found major technical challenges that will similarly increase cost.

In light of that, you’d think a sensible government would revisit alternative options wouldn’t you?

I made an account on this website just to built on a point made in the report: Autonomous electric cars offer 24×7, on-demand door-to-door ride sharing. These are
being tested in the USA and China. The future use of a shared fleet of autonomous cars
promises shorter commute times for their users. Shared use of autonomous cars offers
lower emissions, and reduced demand for car parking space in the CBD.”
Maybe we could hitch all the cars together, making a sort of ‘train’, then, build tracks along the road so they don’t veer off course, and while we’re at it, power the rails so that the ‘cars’ don’t need batteries. I think we’re onto something here.

Leon Arundell9:03 pm 06 Mar 24

What is the PTCBR’s position on bus rapid transit versus light rail? The ACT Government’s most recent comparison found that 12 km of bus rapid transit would cost $249 million, compared with $524 million for light rail. Bus rapid transit would provide net benefits worth $248 million, compared with $11 million for light rail.

It’s not a “versus” thing Leon. We can have both and most capital cities and regional centres do. They serve different, but complementary, purposes.

Leon Arundell2:46 pm 07 Mar 24

More capital cities have suburban railways than have light rail. BRT costs half as much as light rail and can carry 25,000 people per hour per direction. A T3 transit lane can carry more than 4,000 people per hour per direction. Stage 1 of Canberra’s light rail can carry 2,400 passengers per hour per direction and was expected to carry 15,120 passengers per day in 2021. Stage 2 is expected to carry 23,000 passengers per day in 2046, taking ten minutes longer than a T3 lane. By 2046 it will need a capacity of about 4,000 passengers per hour per direction.

Plenty of capital cities have both light and heavy rail. The point is, it is not a “bus versus rail” debate. It’s quite obvious that we can have both, as do most capital cities and regional centres. Regarding costs, all transport infrastructure incurs high costs in the initial build (particularly our road system upon which buses operate.). Ongoing operating costs are another matter. Light rail carrying capacity is greater than a bus. Buses and light rail together will have the carrying capacity Canberra will need into the future which is why we’re implementing an electric bus/rail network.

Leon Arundell8:40 pm 06 Mar 24

It was I who estimated the cost of Stage that using bus rapid transit for Stage 2B route (Commonwealth Park to Woden) at about $450 million. That estimate was based on the costings in the ACT Government’s 2012 submission to Infrastructure Australia and its Business Case for Stage 2A. The paper incorrectly attributed that estimate to the Auditor General. I am trying to persuade the other authors to agree to some corrections to the paper.

Despite all of the hype, the one-month trackless tram trial undertaken in Perth last November to win public support turned out to be a promotional dud! The one month trial, with a tram on loan from China, was undertaken by the City of Stirling. The Council has remained tight-lipped on the failed trial!

The trackless tram technology has raised legitimate questions. It has been panned by the WA government because of the ongoing and significant long term and infrastructure costs associated with its facilitation.

It is a technology not used outside of China and does not integrate with existing transport networks in Australia or anywhere else in the world!

When oh when is the Canberra Liberals going to release their transport policy, or any other policy, that the party and its transport spokesperson Mark Parton promised two years ago?

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