BEST OF 2022: Taking a global view of Canberra's light rail angst

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Sandford Street light rail stop

Despite multiple elections covering the issue, light rail remains a hot-button political issue. Photo: John Mikita.

Year in Review: Region Media is revisiting some of the best Opinion articles of 2022. Here’s what got you talking, got you angry and got you thinking in 2022. Today, Ross Solly asks why there is such a fuss about light rail in Canberra.

In the past month, I have had cause to visit three small European cities not usually found on your standard tourist route (although all are well worth a visit, this is not a travel blog).

Augsburg is about 50 kilometres from Munich and is one of Germany’s oldest cities. Szeged is about two hours from Budapest and is Hungary’s third largest city. Poznan is one of Poland’s oldest cities and the fifth largest city in the country.

All these cities have a thriving light rail network. Szeged, with a population of less than 200,000, has a network operating more than 20 kilometres. The first trams started rattling through the streets in 1884, and now there are four full tramlines.

Augsburg tram

Augsburg – population 300,000 – has been running a tram for over a century. Photo: Mauritsvink.

The Augsburg tram system stretches almost 50 kilometres across five lines and is the second largest in Bavaria. The first line opened in 1881.

Poznan is the most impressive, with 20 lines winding about 66 kilometres around the city. The first electric tram replaced horse trams in 1898.

READ MORE Greens and Liberals press government on timetable for light rail to Woden

The reason for this short history lesson on the tram system in three cities you probably don’t really care about? Because Augsburg, Szeged and Poznan are cities smaller than, or of similar size, to Canberra.

I mention all this because light rail in Canberra is still such a hot-button issue, and I’m sure is going to remain that way. This week we had confirmation that the Barr Government is unlikely to proceed with a new sports stadium. A lot of the comments I read about this decision referred to light rail, and not in a positive way.

I asked some of the locals in my three European cities what they thought of their light rail network. To a person, the response was positive. I’m sure if I kept looking, I could find people who didn’t like the trams, thought they were a waste of money, made too much noise or just got in the way.

But these tram systems have been operating for over a century, so the locals know no different. What they do know is that they are convenient, eradicate the need for car parks, and keep their thriving historical city centres free from cars.

In fact, many of my interlocutors expressed a desire for even more tram lines.

READ ALSO A city stadium is dead and buried, so where to next? And what about Civic Olympic Pool?

I told them I came from Canberra. Most had heard of our city, but none had visited. I told them we had one tramline, and its construction had caused much angst. I said we were looking at extending our tram system, and this, too, was causing considerable angst.

So how does everyone get around, they asked? I told them everyone drove cars and paid exorbitant parking fees. They looked at me like I was mad, and I must admit, as the words came tumbling out of my mouth, I questioned if I sounded like a madman.

The other point these hapless locals trapped by my constant questioning made was that tourists love the trams. It is a cheap and easy way to get around their city and to all the important sites.

By the way, neither Augsburg, Szeged nor Poznan have big sports stadiums in the middle of their city. But they do have thriving cultural quarters, and beautiful old city centres free of cars and ugly multi-storey car parks.

Obviously, comparing modern Canberra with three centuries-old European cities is not a perfect science. But all through Europe, you will find similar stories and similar sentiments.

Some of us might not see the point of light rail in Canberra at the moment. But if the experience of these European cities tells us anything, it’s that a well-run light rail system can transform a city.

And once it becomes a regular and essential part of your daily life, you’ll be left wondering what all the fuss was about.

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How come you didn’t visit cities with trackless trams for a comparison. A very biassed account you have provided.

Yep was a weird one. May as well tell Detroit residents how they can make their city just like Geneva by putting a fountain in Lake St Clair.

Leon Arundell3:50 pm 01 Jan 23

Canberra’s public servants found (in the ACT Government’s August 2012 submission to Infrastructure Australia) that bus rapid transit is twice as cost-effective as light rail. The Government estimates that Stage 2 will provide only $0.60 worth of benefits for each $1.00 that it will cost. That means that Stage 2 will be a huge waste of money.

Agreed. I’ve recently visited a number of European and Baltic cities and trams exist in most. One small Baltic city even had electric buses which surprised me. I don’t know why, I guess I’m so used to the squabbling back here. The other fascination was that the trams often interacted closely with cars, bikes, and people. Not protected in the special corridors we are creating. Perhaps we need longer to adjust…

As a broader question, I’d like to know what problem this multi-billion dollar, disruptive “solution” addresses. Especially in the context of stage 2A and the years of work raising London Circle.

It’s not an environmental imperative. As others have said, there are/were options for green public transport that don’t require this level of construction and cost.

The pessimist in me says the whole exercise is driven by politicians’ need to be seen as having left a legacy. The realist in me says that they surely will be.

Leon Arundell4:36 pm 13 Sep 22

The real issue is when Canberra should build transit lanes, when Canberra should build bus rapid transit, and when Canberra should build light rail.
For the cost of designing a slow light rail route from Civic to Woden, we could have rapid buses, on transit lanes, connecting Civic with Belconnen, Woden, Tuggeranong and the airport.
For the cost of a slow light rail link from Civic to Woden we could have a bus rapid transit network connecting Civic with Belconnen, Woden, Tuggeranong and the airport. Any of those routes could be upgraded to light rail when the extra cost is warranted.

And that’s exactly what the detailed analysis from Infrastructure Australia said when they investigated Canberra and it’s also exactly what you learn in first year studies in transport planning.

People will switch to public transport when it’s faster not when it’s slower. Canberra’s Y plan of satellite cities weren’t designed for light rail they were designed to suit flexible travel solutions.

If we magically extended the light rail from Tuggeranong town centre to Civic tomorrow, it would still take an hour travel.

Spot on Leon. And that’s exactly what the detailed analysis from Infrastructure Australia said when they investigated public transport options for Canberra and it’s also exactly what you learn in first year studies in transport planning.

People will switch to public transport when it’s faster not when it’s slower. Canberra’s Y plan of satellite cities weren’t designed for light rail they were designed to suit flexible travel solutions.

If we magically extended the light rail from Tuggeranong town centre to Civic tomorrow, it would still take an hour of travel journey time from the Hyperdome in central Tuggeranong.

swaggieswaggie9:21 am 27 Dec 22

If the Liberals had even half a clue about marketing they’d have announced all the above at the same time as the decision to can the line to Woden. A system of trackless trams c/w electric buses on dedicated lanes would revolutionize public transport in this city but the liberal being liberals just decided to concentrate on the negative.

In 1884 there were no cars. Buses are more flexible and cheaper. Why not separate busways along the same tram routes?

No point putting buses on the same routes, but it would be good to provide bus services direct to all the places people need to go, something that currently doesn’t exist. The tram is very limited, doesn’t provide access to many locations and never will. Trips that used to be on one bus now require a bus, the tram and then another bus. It takes ages!

Some trips are no longer possible because of the time they take, with people having to move to different workplaces or residences to stay employed. Some parents can no longer get their kids to schools or childcare whilst also keeping their jobs.

Our trams don’t go to all the most important places, nor were the tramlines built when it was cheap to do so, as in last century or the one before. They’re not paying exorbitant rates to cover the cost of their trams, nor are they going without social housing and increasing the homeless because their taxes are all spent on their trams.

Canberra was built for cars and is now realising the mistake, but building expensive last century (or before) transport at exorbitant prices is not the smartest solution. We actually have very cheap parking if you compare to other cities with similar housing costs, such as Sydney. We have massive carparks everywhere and don’t restrict or tax cars coming into the city as many overseas cities do. Would be wiser to deter cars from the city and look ahead to cheaper, more environmentally friendly and more flexible electric bus systems that can go to all locations instead of just a narrow route. This city claims to be innovative, but relies upon old answers that don’t solve the new problems, whilst costing a bomb.

Surely this ranks amongst the most uninformed articles ever written on this site. You have to understand the spatial geography for any transport system not just use a basic population comparison. Ross Solly now needs to go to Bangladesh and tell us how it compares with Tasmania.

Augsburg and Pozna? are something like 5 times the population density of Canberra in a tightly contained space built to suit hundreds of years of growth and perfect for light rail systems.

Szeged is only about the size of Kambah, Wanniassa and Greeway.

Pozna? Urban footprint is about the size of the entire Tuggeranong region and structured like a hub and spoke city.

Canberra should build light rail in the 2020s because other dissimilar cities in European countries built rail projects in the 1800’s.

Um, OK.

Frederick Burman8:57 am 12 Sep 22

Electric buses are just as green and don’t require massive infrastructure changes as does light rail. Where they even considered?

…………….light rail was never about public transport.

It’s purely about property development to get people to move to Canberra that don’t already live here.

Canberra had the option to go rail or bus when Gungahlin was founded, they rightly chose bus as the cheaper for flexible option.

Most of the people using light rail don’t ride it but use it to increase their property value.

Notice that these thriving trams were built before 1900. Time has marched on, technology has marched on. There are *so* many better options than trams. Options which provide flexibility. Trams are fixed in place, cannot be moved to meet surge requirements elsewhere on the network. Are disruptive to other traffic. And they only serve a fraction of our population. Small wonder that only those on the tramlines, without children to drop off/pick up are their sole proponents.

HiddenDragon8:40 pm 11 Sep 22

“But if the experience of these European cities tells us anything, it’s that a well-run light rail system can transform a city.”

Cities with a continuous history of a millennium or more (or even “only” dating to the late middle ages or renaissance) had their thriving cultural quarters and beautiful old centres long before trams (with or without horses) or cars were invented.

The most that might be speculated is that without trams, some of that heritage would have been lost to make way for cars – which ignores the experience of cities which have combined the two, and cities which have destroyed heritage to make way for soulless commercial and residential developments serviced primarily by public transport.

By the logic of this opinion piece, Gungahlin is now set to be transformed from a collection of dormitory suburbs with a cookie-cutter town centre into a vibrant Utopia – but, of course, we can see already that won’t be happening.

All that we can be sure of is that the pleading for more public servants to be frog-marched northwards to prop up struggling eateries and retailers will grow louder and that there will be more people living in high-rise dog-boxes consuming globalised culture via screens of various sizes. Forget about “thriving cultural quarters” – near a tramline, or anywhere else.

Absolutely agree- we recently attended a world sporting convention in Grenoble (also smaller than Canberra)- the city made all public transport free for attendees and the regular trams were fantastic. Sadly, we can’t consider hosting the same event in Canberra because international visitors would find it too difficult to get to events ?.

Clever Interrobang4:03 pm 11 Sep 22

Canberra is much less densely populated these cities, and people are largely going one way in the morning, and one way back in the evening (without much stopping in between), and the fact that the construction costs of building this now are much higher than if we had a pre-existing route built a long time ago.

These criticisms were said about Canberra’s light rail from the planners of Gold Coast’s light rail, who said given Canberra would be better placed to look at what Brisbane did with their bus system rather than what Gold Coast did with their light rail system.

Northbourne avenue (with it’s density and start/stop traffic) makes much more sense for light rail in Canberra than any further extensions to the route, which will only be more expensive and less efficient/sustainable.

Macquariephil3:06 pm 11 Sep 22

Where to start? Not In My Backyard, Not Anywhere Near Me, & Not Anywhere At All’s dominate Aussie cultural cringe politics. I’m sure myopia has been in our entry conditions since the First Fleet.

In Manchester, UK, several years ago, sitting in a crowded mid-morning tram on the new line from Ashton-Under-Lyne to the City, I was told of the same arguments then being trotted out here: too expensive, no one will use it, better things to spend on, it won’t fly, etc etc etc.

Stephen Saunders2:10 pm 11 Sep 22

Let’s extend the global lesson. 400 world cities have light rail. Many of them small cities. Canberrans like it too – they voted for it.

But the haters know better the voters. They will never stop hassling Canberrans, to use their preferred bus or car solutions.

They should relax. At the usual Australian pace of infrastructure development, it will take 40 years to complete the rail network.

100%, keep building it! The RIOTAct has the same old fossil commenters who are are weirdly obsessed with dooming the city to gridlock via cars and buses. It’s basically the same three people posting the same circular arguments on every article. I’m starting to wonder if they are all former ACT Liberal leaders without a job or better things to do 😛

Capital Retro3:44 pm 11 Sep 22

Canberrans voted for “urban renewal”, not light rail.

It’s hilarious because the same arguments get repeated because they are 100% correct and legitimate criticisms of a project that doesn’t stack up to any critical assessment.

It’s also ironic that those in support of the project can’t refute those criticisms so fall back on ad hominems, bring out the cliched platitudes around the “vision” of the project or assume that there are no alternatives to light rail other than gridlocked cars.

ChrisinTurner2:03 pm 11 Sep 22

Augsburg and Poznan have four times the population density of Canberra. Szeged has a similar population density to Canberra. Szeged has 38 bus lines, four tram and six trolley bus lines.

Your right, Canberra is way to sprawled out!! Let’s promote more density via infrastructure induced demand, maybe we can use LR to improve density. Well done ?

So Robbie,
You agree here that the density does not yet support the project and below admit it costs more than alternatives

And let’s not forget also admitting you are one of the few Canberrans who regularly use it.

The picture of an objective opinion on the value of the project.

Using cities from decades back is not a representation of a city looking to the future. Rapid Bus Transit is now the preferred option compared to Light Rail/Trams. It is just as quick, more reliable, cheaper to run, increased capacity, more affordable and quicker to build, and more versatile than light rail. It works by creating tram-like tracks for buses (usually hydrogen-powered) in high-density traffic, but, unlike trams, the bus can leave and join the road network at the end of the tracks. If a Bus is involved in an incident, it can move to the side for other buses to pass on by. Why is the ACT government so fixated on a tram when a better value solution is available?

As someone who regularly used the bus and now LR, the ONLY thing the buses were better at was cost. In all other metrics LR is better as a user. I wonder if all the people ragging on the LR have ever actually used the thing.

Capital Retro12:12 pm 11 Sep 22

As you state Ross, those cities are centuries old and they have a lot of narrow streets lines by high-density apartments where there is nowhere to park a car. Trams use these narrow streets exclusively because they are not wide enough to allow cars as well and they become the only method of transport.

Canberra was a designed city and the method of transport for its residents was chosen to be motor vehicles. What great forward planning that was. People in those old, unplanned European cities do not have cars and I know a few of them who have come to Canberra expressing envy that we can not only use a car but we have somewhere to park it.

Funny how all the tram salesmen come from Europe, isn’t it?

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