9 May 2024

It's too late to change track on light rail, so you might as well jump on the bandwagon

| Zoya Patel
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We are now so far down the light rail path that there is nothing to be gained by opposing its extension now. Photo: Jack McCracken.

Light rail has been a frustrating and conflicting issue for Canberrans like me who support environmentally friendly public transport but don’t think it is a solution that will provide effective transport options for the majority of Canberrans.

From the very early days of construction on stage 1 of the light rail, I found myself in the politically confusing situation of agreeing with the Canberra Liberals on a policy position, something that has pretty much never happened to me before.

Their focus on improving Canberra’s bus services and developing an electric bus fleet over the costly and inaccessible light rail aligns with my view that Canberra’s design is better suited to buses and that the rollout of the light rail has increased inequality across our city.

But almost a decade later, with the Federal Government announcing a $50 million injection of funds to the stage 2 development of the light rail, it’s time that we all just get on board (pardon the pun).

READ MORE Commonwealth commits $50 million to designing light rail stage 2B, with more to come

It’s true that to extend the light rail network to Woden, and eventually beyond, is going to be a costly, time-consuming process, and is unlikely to yield true benefits to Canberrans for some years yet. It’s also true that the government’s approach to the bus network has left many of us without accessible, fast and frequent services, and failed to provide a true incentive for more Canberrans to choose public transport over their cars.

But it is equally true that we are now so far down the light rail path that there is nothing to be gained by opposing its extension now.

I agree with almost all of the Canberra Liberals’ transport policy until I reach the pledge to cease all work on stage 2 of the light rail. It would be an immense waste of existing investment to stall further progress on the light rail now. It’s here, it’s functioning, and the best outcome at this point is for the network to be extended to reach more Canberrans.

Do I want to also see increased investment in our bus network? Of course.

The reality is that most Canberrans using public transport use buses far more than the light rail. It is functionally impossible for most of us to access the light rail without first having to drive or catch a bus to a stop. And the stage 2 construction process is still in the early stages. Buses are fundamentally important to our public transport system, and we need more of them, with better timetables and routes, to really support Canberrans’ use of public transport over cars.

READ ALSO Fyshwick’s dedicated EV workshop is officially the envy of Australia

But, as much as I don’t think it should have been constructed in the first place, I now feel that the only way forward is to focus on extending the light rail network to truly service our city to the fullest extent possible.

It’s officially time to call time on the light rail debate and pull together to make the best of what has already been developed.

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Crazed_Loner12:37 am 17 May 24

Throwing good money after bad. For an inferior service. Is that the best use of ratepayer money you, and they, can think of?

So Zoya Patel is advocating throwing good money after bad. Wouldn’t make a good Economist.

devils_advocate12:26 pm 11 May 24

“But it is equally true that we are now so far down the light rail path that there is nothing to be gained by opposing its extension now.”


You would struggle to find a better articulation of the sunk cost fallacy

Better stay away from the casinos and TAB, OP

Interesting. I note the article is from 2018. But as the author noted, and the ACT government is aware (though it’s contentious on this comment site), part of the attraction of light rail is that its fixed and permanent trackway encourages high density development along its corridor, which helps reduce suburban sprawl. But a trackless tram’s route would probably be fiddled with every few years by successive governments conducting “reviews”. So there’d inherently be no certainty for developers, and from a densification point of view they’d be no better than conventional buses. Also, at that “cheap” price quoted, that’s presumably running the trackless tram in amongst existing traffic, using the same roadway (leading — arguably perhaps — to more congestion), rather than a new dedicated carriageway. So TT might work with the same impacts on traffic and development as LR if a dedicated carriageway is built, but since there’s no rails on that carriageway, it might be a bit cheaper than LR.

Good comment. I agree particularly with your point on investment certainty. On your last sentence, light (not high speed) rail has a lower maintenance cost than road and appears to be cheaper up to the same cost to build. A lane assigned to busses is subtracted from vehicles unless you build new road, and that new lane will have a lower carrying capacity, be more polluting (including where the vehicle is electric) than light rail.
Detractors of light rail based on new construction cost prefer to forget about the cost sunk in less efficient roads.

All good points too, BL. Certainly extends the discussion beyond the tedious “buses vs light rail” footy-team level debate endlessly rehearsed here at RiotAct.

Have you got some references for that? Light rail is usually both more expensive from a capital and operational perspective compared to similar BRT systems.

Light Rail definitely has advantages as you’ve outlined that can justify the additional expenditure where demands or other conditions justify it but it isn’t universal.

It would be much easier to assess this for the ACT system if the government had actually investigated and published options studies and economic evaluations for the project, including all planned future stages. Rather than their current approach of making a decision and then trying to justify it afterwards.

On investment certainty, how much should taxpayers who mostly won’t benefit from the land development opportunities be subsidising that benefit? A benefit which mostly accrues to already wealthy private landholders?

This is where alternative funding arrangements, such as land value capture taxes would be far more equitable if the government wanted to press on with the project. Particularly when by their own analysis, the actual transport benefit created by Light rail is so small in Canberra.

Suggest people Google “trackless trams” in city of Stirling” WA.

I did and the trackless tram seemed very slow.

Zoya, you seem to be looking at the government’s light rail policy vs the Liberals bus policy as an apples vs apples proposition, but it’s actually apples vs oranges. To get a reasonable comparison you need to compare light rail stage 2 that will increase public transport times for everyone south of the lake vs a better bus service with faster public transport for all Canberrans, plus a new hospital bought and paid for, plus a city stadium making us more attractive for high profile games, plus a new convention centre that we’ve needed for many years, plus a lower long term debt position that saves each and every household in the ACT $300+ every year in servicing interest on government debt. Government money doesn’t grow on trees, but comes out of our pockets. When government decides to build something as expensive as light rail stage 2, the opportunity cost in terms of other things we could have instead needs to be understood and factored into voting decision making.

Thomas Cameron10:00 pm 09 May 24

It’s one of the worst things to happen to Canberra.

So much nonsense and fantasizing in this debate.
Light Rail is ‘outdated’? Then so are buses. Both date from about 1830.
Electric buses are the saviour? In respect of environment and global warming, fair enough; but as public transport, the only obvious difference from a customer aspect is the replacement of a diesel engine with a quieter electric motor, otherwise it is still just a bus.
Rapid bus transport, busways, bus lanes terminology is being used without clarity as to exactly what is actually meant.
Driverless buses/trackless trams are the wonderful future? (Trackless trams have been around for a century. They were trolley buses.) The cool heads indicate to mature the driverless versions of these technologies will take decades. How many systems are actually successfully(!) in service. Very few indeed. And
Is it wise to use Canberra Public Transport as a technological experiment? This is not addressed. By the way, driverless trains and urban transport are way ahead of road transport. In Australia driverless massive iron ore trains in West Australia, and metro in Sydney are already in routine use. If driverless mass public transport in Canberra becomes the go, then light rail is obviously best placed to be first.
Cargo cult. If only we didn’t spend on the tram vast ‘savings’ would be available to spend on other things? First up Commonwealth Grants come from Commonwealth budgets for particular functions. No, canning the tram does not equal more in lieu for something else. The granting department will simply redirect it elsewhere from Canberra for the same purpose. Secondly the cost of the alternatives seems to be so under-rated as to be approaching fantasy.
There are other examples but comment space ……

Your comment on the Federal funding is incorrect.

If the funding was coming through the normal Infrastructure Australia assessment frameworks, the priority funding would be delivered based on an identified infrastructure need that would then receive funding based on the chosen solution. Which would be justified by a consideration of options and a robust business case.

So if a defined need had been identified along the stage 2 route (which it hasn’t yet), funding would be available based on the merits of the business case, which isnt reliant on light rail.

Of course there are other ways these types of things get Federal funding but we often hear other types of names for that funding based on political rather than objective reasons.

As for financials, the costs for the second stage of light rail are going to be significant, the idea that the spend can be justified on economic grounds is extremely unlikely. You might say it’s approaching fantasy.

The electric bus is the basis upon which intelligent applications can be developed, e.g. driver-less operation, automatic self-charging, automatic security monitoring and reporting, accident prevention, and above all, on-demand despatching.

The cool heads indicate decades to mature. You raise visions of fleets of buses just waiting for the call (or did you mean ‘pods’ that could link up to make ‘buses’? Or…). Road congestion from masses of ‘demand despatching’ won’t be a problem? Tomorrow is a little bit like computer purchasing that never happens because the better model is always just about ready for the market.
As I said there seems to be an element of fantasy.

It’s about using standard buses and getting control algorithms right for a particular situation and overall network conditions. The buses will be parked at a multitude of distributed parking/charging locations or where the last passenger has disembarked – not if the system has a prediction of immediate demand for it elsewhere. It will be a flexible solution, working on top of a base timetable.

Obviously this will be a sophisticated job for professionals, but it can start with a simple use case and grow from there. With the assistance of AI, the system will also learn the network and patronage patterns by itself and data collected will help predict demand. We can start small and the initial outlay will be comparatively minimal.

We need both light rail and electric buses. My adult son travels for work from the northern suburbs to and from The Canberra Hospital every day. He uses both forms of public transport and is looking forward to the light rail extension to Woden as he definitely prefers the light rail transport experience.
I have noticed when driving along Northbourne Ave how much safer, less distracting and pleasant it is now with the introduction of light rail and the reduction of buses along that busy thoroughfare.

GrumpyGrandpa7:52 pm 09 May 24

Major infrastructure investments should be based on sound economics and value for money; afterall, it’s our money they are spending.

Suggesting that we should ignore these issues and just jump on board LR, is ridiculous.

Debt issues aside, the travel time from Woden/Tuggeranong is expected to be longer on LR than on a bus. If I’m going to be crammed in like a sardine (noses in armpits), I want the trip to be as quick as possible.

Jenny Graves4:32 pm 10 May 24

I agree! One of the reasons they want to build the LR to Woden is so that they can build blocks of apartments all the way along that will be serviced by it. But that means that there will need to be heaps of stops on the way. And there will also have to be footbridges all the way along to cater for people who need to cross the road. More cost and definitely longer journey times.

It’s a completely crazy proposition. People are not going to thank this government in the long run.

I have to say that I fully supported the LR from Gungahlin to Civic. I still think it was a really good move because the peak hour journey in from/to Gungahlin before the LR was a nightmare. But you can’t say the same about Woden to Civic.

Jenny Graves: If they get away with this, it is just a matter of time that they will reduce the speed limit on Yarra Glen Rd and Adelaide Avenue.

GrumpyGrandpa2:15 pm 11 May 24

Thank you Jenny.
I’m not sure where the Woden to City LR support is coming from? Is it purely political?

As for me, I’m not being political, I’m just looking at it from a the perspective of a public transport user wanting to get from Tuggeranong into the City.

I agree that Gunners to the City works. Traffic light sequencing and slower on-road speed limits give LR the edge. None of those advantages apply to Woden to the City.

The difficulty in stopping this LR madness, is that we are a left-leaning town, with a single “parliament” with no upper house of review. To stop LR to Woden, voters will need to go against their traditions and vote the Canberra Libs into a majority position; ie 13 out of 25 seats.

HiddenDragon7:50 pm 09 May 24

It’s now as clear as it can be that Stage 2B and any further extensions of light rail will be too costly for an increasingly over-extended ACT budget and will only occur if there is a very substantial injection of federal funds – which means that Canberra light rail would need to become and continue as a sufficiently high priority for federal decision makers over several electoral cycles.

Canberrans – whether light rail true believers or resigned fatalists – can make their own judgements about the odds of that happening.

In the meantime, all the words about “future-proofing”, “building a world class city”, “stopping the sprawl”, “getting people out of their cars” etc. are just noise.

thoughtsonthesubject6:47 pm 09 May 24

Like ‘Canberran’, I agree with the article, but not with the conclusion. What are we permitting to happen will greatly impact on generations to come. Firstly, the financial aspect. A Financial Review article discussing the Fed. budget by the Economics Editor John Kehoe features the warning “that heavily indebted Victoria and the Australia Capital Territory were on an unsustainable path and could ultimately require a federal “bailout”. “

But on a more every-day note, the extension to Woden will lead to the cancellation of the R4 between Woden and Civic and the closure of a large number of bus stops, like the 700 closed in Canberra’s north. Much impacted will be, for instance, Belconnen students and staff commuting to the CIT Woden, and even more so Tuggeranong residents commuting to Canberra University. In the ‘good old days’ there was the 333-bus linking Woden and Belconnen, now the vanity tram impacts on those wishing to obtain an education with a home in a different part of Canberra. And, of course, by time the Woden tram is operational, rapid technological advances will make the tram even more outdated. Elsewhere in the world, driverless shuttle buses are already in operation, which will solve the government’s constant excuse that they can’t find enough drivers for frequent services and will reduce the cost of operation.
NO, it’s not too late to stop the tram crossing the bridge to Woden. Every government contract must have a cancellation clause. When today’s kindergarten kids are in their 20th and 30th, they will question how their parents could accept putting an enormous financial burden on their shoulders for last century’s slow and outdated transport. What will be your answer?

Hi ‘thoughts…’, you’ve made some questionable claims here without any references. With the light rail sitting at less than 1% of the ACT Budget it’s unlikely that this would impact on the Canberra bottom line. Perhaps you should look at spending on roads to make savings. You refer to a closure of R4 Woden to Civic, however this doesn’t impact on Belconnen students and staff commuting to CIT Woden as they’ll just catch the R4 from Belconnen (until Stage 3 light rail is completed) and then LR to CIT. Also can you source your figure of 700 bus stops on the northside closing? You don’t acknowledge the additional LR stops that currently don’t exist on the R4 bus route, being Hughes, Curtin, Deakin, Kings Ave, Sydney Ave, Melbourne Ave. Tuggeranong residents will, likewise commute via R4 or R5 to Woden then light rail to Uni Canberra (Stage 2/3). Certainly our kids, like those living in cities with a good transport network comprised of both electric light rail and electric buses, will appreciate the forethought of our government and not the negativity of a minority who want to stick to an outmoded car-dependent city.

We should be tallowing trackless trams, not light rail which is time consuming, very expensive, and has no flexibility to deal with accidents and breakdowns.

Really? How many cities around the world have developed systems actually in service? There are apparently just 3 in China. The grass in the next field is always seems greener.

How many places had light rail before others took it up? One has to start somewhere.

I agree with most of your observations and thoughts, but not the conclusion. We have a goal of providing fast, efficient, cost-effective and convenient transport service that is accessible and equitable to all, and we need a solution now. That requires pragmatic thinking beyond any political ideology.

Stage 2B does not meet that need.

The much touted argument based on “growth of population” is itself subject to debate: How big a population should Canberra have, and why; and what sort of population it’s going to be and where should it be housed. This debate is perhaps for another time, another place, and perhaps for another territory election (won’t object to having it on in this election though).

As you said “Canberra’s design is better suited to buses”, so we should keep buses as the mainstay of our transport network.

We are living in an age of great technological advancement, in the midst of a new industrial revolution. We should seek available new technologies to solve our problems instead of spending billions of our hard-earned money on outdated technologies.

Autonomous (driver-less) buses are already a reality elsewhere in the world. What we need to do is to pick Canberra’s brains, not bricks, in order to get a project going for a simple use case, such as the Woden-Civic BRT, to start with. We have CSIRO, the ANU and bunches of retired white heads in Canberra; and Tom Worthington mentioned in another thread that Defense already tested a similar case last year. It is possible to pool all these local resources for collaboration.

Meanwhile, we need to get our roads back consistently in good condition, something we need to do any way.

And we need to get people with solid technological background into government.

Why don’t the ‘naysayers’ grow up and understand that Canberra is NOW a vibrant city and a mass transport system is essential.
In the early 1900’s Sydney built a network of heavy gauge rail lines (with stops) WHEN Sydney was still in its infancy of urban sprawl! Guess what, the planners of the day foresore the expansion of urban living AND the network didn’t HAVE to run at a profit because it served the community.
In late 1960’s the then government RIPPED out the tram network in Sydney (ie. lite rail) and replaced it with buses. Guess what? Sydney has recently re-installed a lite rail network SO AS TO REMOVE BUSES!

It works for Sydney, but we don’t have a population as big as Sydney’s. And there are not as many pockets to pick as in Sydney.

Trams were first installed in Sydney in 1861 with a population of 95,600.

Agreed just keep putting rail out there, the more you do the more experience you get, like China with proper track laying equipment or NZ with experimental over head suspended to avoid all crossing points and land conflicts called SHWEEB, could indeed be almost as fast as hyper loop without the impractical vacuum

We don’t have China’s population nor a coffer comparable in size to theirs. Every dollar spent here will come out of our own pockets in the form of increased rates and rents and reduced services in other areas (Commonwealth may chip in a bit).

SHWEEB sounds so exciting – asked Mr Google – wow, what a disappointment. It is a human powered monorail.

Zoya please remind of your ‘expertise’ in transport or economics? …. We’ll wait….

I disagree no way is the expense justified. Spend a lot less on transport corridors for buses that can be used in the future for electric driverless vehicles. Bus lanes are the best investment and prepare us for future modern solutions. The savings can be invested in building the new hospitals and schools we need for our expanding population. Finish the planned roads instead of infilling the spaces with apartments. Time for a change of govt. Wake up Canberra break off the rust and vote for change.

Hi Tony P, won’t “finishing the planned roads” mean less money spent on hospitals and schools? Can’t have it both ways.

You have fallen into the sunk cost fallacy trap. The decision to proceed with the Woden route as the next stage is almost purely political as the business case is weak to non-existent.

The Belconnen-City-Russell-Airport route would provide greater benefits, more quickly, in reducing car usage and leveraging the existing investment in the City-Gungahlin route.

It is possible to support the construction of a city-wide light rail network and also understand that this government is making a total mess of that project.

thoughtsonthesubject6:53 pm 09 May 24

Could you outline how the tram that cannot climb hills will get from Civic to Belconnen? By way of a tunnel, this time?

“But it is equally true that we are now so far down the light rail path that there is nothing to be gained by opposing its extension now.”

No, no we are not. We’re right at the beginning and in the perfect position to call an end to this gold plated waste of time when it’s blatantly obvious to yourself and others that rapid transit bus lanes and a whole load more electric busses are the appropriate solution for this city.

Just because they have wasted a comparatively small amount of money thus far, it’s no justification to then go on to waste a huge sum of money in future.

I assume you are not familiar of the sunk cost fallacy? Because you absolutely nailed it:

“The sunk cost fallacy is the tendency for people to continue an endeavor or course of action even when abandoning it would be more beneficial. Because we have invested our time, energy, or other resources, we feel that it would all have been for nothing if we quit.”

Canberra’s topography, demography and geographical spread make a light rail network less suitable than a bus rapid network. This isn’t just my opinion, that’s been found over and over again by Infrastructure Australia, ACT Government bureaucrats and transport experts.

Canberra has one of the world’s best road networks for autonomous public transport and Light Rail will miss this opportunity.

The cost is too high, that’s true. But buses, at least as they are now, are awful. They’re terribly noisy when you’re in the cabin, bump and sway around like you’re on a dirt track, and routinely come to jolting stops and sudden g-force take-offs. If those problems could be taken care of, so that the ride is quiet and smooth, then they’d compete on what LR has going for it — which is a far better ride experience.

Canberra has higher priorities for its limited resources than a tram, like fixing the health and education sectors.

Many people are even putting off going to the doctor now.

I agree.The health system in particular, needs the resources far more than a tram route that will only service unit dwellers in Woden and on Adelaide Avenue and will take longer to travel than the existing bus service, let alone a much faster busway. No benefit at all for ordinary people living in suburbs.

As John McEnroe said, “you can’t be serious”. Just because the extension to Woden has started, doesn’t mean it can’t be stopped.

The Govt needs to be held to account and should not proceed until it can fully disclose the costs, benefits and disbenefits to us who are paying for the extension.

The fallacy of sunk costs.

Yes, quite. End thread.

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