1 December 2022

The little red engines that couldn't: EPIC light rail fail needs to be fixed

| Ian Bushnell
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The light rail stop at EPIC. The Spilt Milk crowds overwhelmed the service. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Whatever happened last weekend after the Spilt Milk music festival ended, it wasn’t a good advertisement for Canberra’s public transport system and the vaunted people-moving capabilities of light rail.

Transport Minister Chris Steel, under attack in the Legislative Assembly from Liberal counterpart Mark Parton, may publicly play down the scenes of festival-goers spilling onto the tracks causing services to be suspended and resulting in people already on board being kicked off to walk into the city or home.

But privately he should be asking some serious questions of Transport Canberra and how it managed to underestimate the resources needed to marshal the crowd and get them away from EPIC in as orderly a fashion as possible.

As Mr Steel said, the festival was a success with 45,000 young people packing into EPIC for the Saturday event.

They were still around the next day in the city, filling the Canberra Centre and descending on cafes like locusts to eat some of them out of the stores by lunchtime.

Whatever your music tastes, Split Milk is a big event that brings big dollars to town, and like any other event involving thousands of people, deserves to be managed properly to ensure the health and safety of everyone.

Mr Steel called it a learning experience but the ACT Government has been managing big events for years, most notably the buses laid on for Brumbies and Raiders games at Canberra Stadium, where marshals keep a firm grip on waiting lines.

Sure, these crowds may be well drilled and better behaved than the mob at EPIC but that should be anticipated and planned for with enough staff to herd them and enough buses and light rail vehicles to move them.

The festival would have had a transport plan, and organisers and Transport Canberra would have worked on it together.

Did they not expect that many people, or just believe the resources allocated would do the job? Did officials and drivers panic on the night? Was the frequency of services insufficient?

As it is, the fiasco gave Mr Parton the opportunity to call into question the capability of light rail. After all, one of the justifications for light rail is its ability to move lots of people quickly and for it to provide an efficient link between the city and the major events centre.

The area outside EPIC on Flemington Road was even specifically designed to cater to crowds arriving and leaving the venue.

EPIC will only expand as a festival site and entertainment venue and it does no good for the credibility of what has been so far a very well-received public transport option if it is perceived as failing in its primary duty.

Leaving many “tired and emotional” festival-goers to make their own way home at such a late hour and at the mercy of gouging Uber drivers if walking was out of the question also abdicates a duty of care that festival organisers and the government should uphold.

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Canberra can do better than Sydney or Melbourne, and if we are prepared to attract them here and take their money we should ensure as good hosts that they are looked after.

Aside from Mr Parton’s current anti-light rail sentiment – and we are still waiting for him to make an announcement on the subject first mentioned back in September – he was perfectly justified in asking Mr Steel what went wrong.

And Mr Steel should have been less dismissive.

But it is hoped Mr Parton’s performance in the Assembly isn’t a precursor to another Can the Tram campaign and light rail election.

Much better if the Liberals continue to hold the Government to account and argue how they could manage the project better.

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Actually the buses for the Raiders games are Deanes from Queanbeyan. Transport CANBERRA could not organise enough buses to keep the contract.

A city stadium would be a disaster, you’d need a huge carpark for those addicted to their cars. Nothing happens in the city for the length of the game, then it’s full or drunken/violent sports fans wanting to hit the bars and hit opposition fans. The city NEEDS a convention center. The exhibit floor space of the ncc is a joke. 5000. That’s not even a large event by most measures. Wagga city council considers large events as 5000+. Consider that. The NATIONAL Convention Centre in Canberra couldn’t host a large event by Wagga standards. Indoor large events have two choices in this ‘city’ EPIC (a chicken shed in the middle of nowhere) or the NCC which is too small. A convention has people travel interstate, it runs for days not hours, people walk in an out of it regularly for coffee, food, supplies, they’re not drunk and raged up. Currently if you’re a major industry looking to engage government, you host an event in Sydney or Melbourne, where real proper events are supported and welcomed.

The LR will never be able to handle events of this size, including the proposed Civic stadium and convention centre. Nor can it be fixed by putting on extra trams (as you can with buses). Roads and private vehicles will always carry the vast majority of people in Canberra.

Do the arithmetic. At a maximum the current LR system can carry 207 people in two directions at once (414 passengers) every ten (?) minutes. It would take over 18 hours to clear 45,000 people, provided no other regular patrons are using the system during that time and the number traveling in each direction is roughly equal (both conditions unlikely).

If you set some reasonable expectation, like clearing the event within one hour, then it can accommodate just 2484 max, or 5.5% of the event patrons. Again, provided there are zero regular patrons travelling. The remainder need to come and go using alternative transport. If the number of LR vehicles and their frequency was doubled to 5 minute intervals then they start to severely disrupt traffic at intersections all along the corridor, causing chaos.

The linear design of the system can’t avoid choking itself.

russell tibballs11:51 am 07 Dec 22

All cities need mass transport to provide an effective transport system. No public transport system is profit-making. Often the cost of collecting fares is very close to the fares collected.

If the objective of public transport is to supplement private transport and provide a service to those that need it, mass transport from Gungahlin, and Belconnen, through the CBD to the Airport, Fyschwich, Queanbeyan, the train station, Tuggeranong, Western Creek, Molonglo etc. It should be cheap enough that those that need it can use it and flexible enough to allow your elderly and teenagers to get home safely after losing their money and phone.

PS Everyone I know who is against the light rail has a reliable car.

“PS Everyone I know who is against the light rail has a reliable car.”

Yes, and before light rail, were likely to criticise buses too. Basically, they don’t use it, so why should there be light rail, and before they thought that buses could be used as an argument against light rail, buses too.

I have asked a couple of anti-light rail people here when was the last time they used public transport in Canberra, and if they have used it, how often do they use it. Wasn’t at all surprised not to get an answer to that.

Many are likely like a past neighbour of mine. When I found out where she worked, I commented how convenient that was, with almost door to door bus ride of 15 minutes. She looked shocked I had said that and (key in the snootiest voice you can) stated, “I don’t catch buses!”. Well, she went down in my estimation after that.

“All cities need mass transport to provide an effective transport system.”

Well this isn’t remotely true. There are plenty of cities that don’t have the scale or need for a mass transport system.

“It should be cheap enough that those that need it can use it and flexible enough to allow your elderly and teenagers to get home safely after losing their money and phone.”

None of that exclusively applies to light rail, and due to the fact that light rail costs many times more than the alternative public transport options, other services, including public transport options must suffer.

“PS Everyone I know who is against the light rail has a reliable car.”

Meaningless anecdote, I could easily say that everyone I know who is supportive of light rail either owns property along the route or pays no tax.

“I have asked a couple of anti-light rail people here when was the last time they used public transport in Canberra, and if they have used it, how often do they use it. Wasn’t at all surprised not to get an answer to that.”

Firstly, that isn’t an argument, it’s quite legitimate for people to oppose a specific public transport project despite not going to use it.

And you can make the exact same argument in reverse about those who support the project.

I used to regularly use public transport in Canberra. You know why I don’t any more?

Because the government made the options so unpalatable and poorly available that it would have taken me 3 hrs travel time for what takes 45mins driving.

Strange that the loss of service came so close after they locked in a massive amount of their budget on one, inflexible public transport option that services a tiny fraction of the city isn’t it?

Because buses are more flexible (a weakness) my close by bus was moved several hundred metres away, making it more (to borrow the word) “unpalatable”. However, I still use it. I also have a car. ‘Horses for courses.’ Bus to go to malls, cycle or walk to local shops. Car for longer distances where there is no public transport, nights and weekends. Bike for communing to work before retirement.
Getting older, I really look forward to more trams, as I can wheel my bike inside to increase the distance and not, with not full use of both arms at present, have to pick it up to place on the front of a bike. And when I get my electric bike, it will be too heavy to pick up for little old me.

Whilst I agree with your last paragraph, the rest of your comments are based on limited research and thus come to the wrong conclusions. I am opposed to the light rail for cost and effectiveness reasons. I don’t own a car. I rely on public transport and my feet.

It was quicker for me to get to Gungahlin before the light rail, with one bus taking me the whole way from South Canberra. Now I have to get off the bus and onto the tram, taking an extra half hour or so.

There were more frequent and better bus services 20 years ago especially on weekends and in the evenings although we had a much smaller population then. Bus stops were also more closely spaced so it was easier to get places whilst carrying children or bags.

It’s clear the ACT government did not consult widely enough either, so you’re not the only one to reach incorrect conclusions based on narrow research.

My dyslexia got me there.
That should be ‘commuting’. (I remember the old days here, and things like that would be corrected.)
Also, on front of a bus, not bike.

Maya, The question is should the government spend billions of dollars to make it easier for you and other older people to carry bikes on public transport? Do you really think that’s a core component of what they should deliver?

russell tibballs5:29 pm 07 Dec 22

I am looking forward to never owning a car again. The next service is nearly $2000, and that ignores the fact the air conditioning does not work and urgently needs fixing.

According to https://www.datocms-assets.com/49357/1626740597-2020-vehicle-running-costs-v2.pdf my vehicle costs are well over the average $15000 (people mover) as I do a lot more kms than average (around 35000) when looking at the total cost of ownership.

In a few years, I will move into an apartment within walking distance of a Tramline and not own a car, ride my bicycle, and walk whenever possible. When necessary, I will hire a car.

russell tibballs5:30 pm 07 Dec 22

And how is the scale or need measured by your standards?

russell tibballs5:33 pm 07 Dec 22

Yes – That is what government is for. To provide those things that are necessary to service the whole population. Ie Infrastructure, Health, Education, ensure affordable Housing for those that can afford and public housing for those that can’t, and Security.

Never said it was. That’s just a side effect of it. I also catch public transport without a bike and have done at all ages. My order is walk, cycle, public transport and then car. You should try that.
Should the government spent millions on roads just so you can drive when there are alternatives?

If you didn’t think it was a big component of the light rail, why did you mention it as a key benefit you’re looking forward too?

Although if you think it isn’t a big component, perhaps you can explain why spending billions does make sense when there are far cheaper options for the same transport benefits?

“Should the government spent millions on roads just so you can drive when there are alternatives?”

What exact roads are you talking about?

Also have no idea who Russell is replying too but a key component of government services is that they should be delivered as efficiently as possible.

The light rail clearly fails as there are far cheaper alternatives and the beneficiaries are not mainly related to transport but rather land development. Land development that significantly enriches private and wealthy land holders, paid for by public funds. It’s the antithesis of a progressive infrastructure project.

There weren’t “more frequent and better bus services 20 years ago”. The Bus Rapid service is more frequent than previous services. The local area services are less frequent however driver shortages are a problem that is being addressed through more recruitment and training. As a light rail service carries approximately three times more passengers than a bus, and driver wages are the biggest ongoing cost of public transport, then you can see why we can’t just keep adding more buses as Canberra grows. As you pointed out, Canberra had a much smaller population back then and it’s only going to keep growing. There needs to be a change in attitude from people over time towards usage of public transport as a normal part of everyday life instead of something marginalised to the poor, elderly and infirm.

Where were these people calling out for adequate government services and infrastructure when the current ACT government was stripping hundreds of bus stops, closing schools, cancelling projects and reducing services in Tuggeranong.

Some of the very same posters were defending the ACT government for making wise financial decisions. Now they support a project where even the Auditor General questions the historically low 40 cent in the dollar cost/benefit.

Light Rail doesn’t carry 3 times the passengers of a bus.

You can’t compare our current bus fleet with a comparable articulated bus designed for mass transport and fitted out the same way as a light rail vehicle with minimal seating.

I agree with you there needs to be a change in thinking about public transport but that doesn’t mean we should spend billions on one single PT route that could be serviced far cheaper, leaving plenty of funding available to improve overall PT connectivity.

Light rail actually hurts overall public transport by taking up all of the available budget that could be used far more efficiently.

You have to wonder why some people are so wedded to one option that they are willing to support the overall degradation of government services, to the benefit of wealthy private land holders and developers.

Clearly, you are a spokesperson for the ACT government so very biased rather than objective.

In your second sentence you admit that local services are less frequent now than previously, thus contradicting your first sentence that disputed my comment that there were more frequent and better bus services 20 years ago. Obviously, my statement was correct. Yes we have some new bus services that are great for some people, but there are much worse services for other people which was my point.

If you want to boost PR for this government, instead of trying to shape the discussion to suit your agenda, try looking after the local people whose access to frequent, safe public transport has diminished. Try being inclusive by looking after the interests of those who are being neglected and discriminated against ie the elderly, disabled and children (as well as those wanting to go out at night and without the funds for taxis home) who now have to travel further between stops, use more forms of transport and wait for hours on weekends and evenings.

On Christmas Day for the past few years public transport users who’ve wanted to go to visit family for lunch, cannot get home by public transport because it’s stopped for the rest of the day. They either stay home for Christmas alone, stay overnight, or rely on someone else to take them home. So much for preventing depression by facilitating active travel, social interaction and independence of the elderly or other pensioners without cars.

hi, there are different carrying capacities in the network depending on which type of bus is being used; however it averages out to around a third carrying capacity of a light rail service – so approximately three times the wages bill, which is, as we know, the biggest ongoing cost of public transport. This fact needs to be remembered when some people make outlandish claims about infrastructure costs etc; particularly when light rail is being rolled out in so many cities across Australia. Of course Canberra is unique in its own way, as is every other city. However with population growth and increasing urban density there comes a time when you have to face up to the reality of a system that works to transport people around. Buses are fine for the right purpose and will still be included in the network. And perhaps bear in mind that Sydney rolled out the Red Rattlers across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932, (the worst year of the Depression) so I think Canberra is up to getting a light rail carriage across Lake Burley Griffen in 2026 (or thereabouts).

Yes there wasn’t more frequent bus services 20 years ago BUT there was better express bus services from the outer suburbs that took you straight from near your home 3 times in each peak period without all the stops.

The current Rapid service may be regular, but many of the Rapids have many stops as they meander around the suburbs and continue to pick up passengers left right and centre. R5 has 33 stops to the city, old express buses used have stops in a couple of suburbs and then straight through to the interchange.


That’s the sound of the point going over your head.


Here’s some examples.of buses with capacities the same as our current light rail.

Obviously light rail can deliver higher capacity if needed but the actual facts need to be remembered when people make outlandish statements around our light rail.

Hey “whoosh” cool lingo there dude…you missed what I was referring to in the post though, which was current stock of buses and current stock of light rail. Yes, obviously light rail can deliver higher capacity if needed. Operating costs in terms of drivers’ wages are, overall, lower for light rail. However as previously mentioned we are talking here about a combined model of bus (of any type) and light rail, with light rail taking the fixed and frequent routes where higher capacity is required. Light rail does have superior efficiency in operating costs.

Hi there, I find it quicker by light rail and am a bit puzzled as to your reference to the previous bus service from south canberra to Gungahlin. Are you referring to the route 200? If so, that has been replaced by R2 which certainly doesn’t take “an extra half hour or so” as the R2 goes to where the light rail departs so it’s only about 5-10 mins to wait for a light rail service.

a) Not a spokesperson for the Government. b) Even though local services became less frequent (not permanently though) there are more rapid services which brings the numbers up of services overall. c) As mentioned in a) I’m not involved with PR for the government so your second last paragraph doesn’t apply. d) sorry that you lost out in the changed timetables. Some areas did very well but others (including Tuggeranong) not so well. e) With Stage 2 completed there’ll be a lot less bus drivers required for that very busy route so hopefully they can send some bus improvements your way. Best of luck.

No Champ, I didn’t miss your deliberate attempt to mislead by comparing apples with oranges.

The facts are that if we bought larger buses exactly like we bought light rail vehicles, we could have the same capacity as now with the same number of buses.

So no, it doesn’t remotely equal higher operating costs as you are attempting to lie about.

HiddenDragon8:00 pm 02 Dec 22

It would be nice to think that this cluster will have served as an object lesson for the participants in “be careful what you vote for” (it you’re old enough and can be bothered), but the more likely outcome will be confirmation of the very well entrenched Canberra view (public transport and pushbike fundamentalists aside) that public transport is a great idea for other people, but travel by private vehicle is what you do whenever possible.

thoughtsonthesubject5:39 pm 02 Dec 22

Manage the project better? Surely the question must be how to have an efficient public transport system without siphoning off funds from essential public services to turn our proud capital into a place visitor have come to describe as run down. And most likely they haven’t even experienced the under-staffed health system, schools, police force, drug rehabilitation and prison with its drug parties.

ChrisinTurner5:31 pm 02 Dec 22

Weren’t we told that Light Rail released many buses to do things like support big events? The tram does not have the capacity to move these numbers, neither do the footpaths to Civic.

Tom Worthington5:03 pm 02 Dec 22

As I suggested in 2019, the light rail track, should be fenced, beginning with stations. This would be to prevent pedestrians straying onto it, as the track is standard gray concrete, and hard to notice. https://blog.tomw.net.au/2019/03/technology-to-improve-safety-of.html

Comparisons with Melbourne or Sydney don’t make a lot of sense. After an AFL match, Melbourne might move 90,000 people, however, their transport systems are mature. We have one LR track; everyone needing to go in the same direction. Even with contracted buses from Qbn, it wasn’t enough.

TC now has limited bus capacity, they couldn’t help. (They can’t even do Raiders & Brumbies games anymore).

The Minister fobbed it off by saying it was a relatively short walk into the City. These young people have been at a music festival. There was an expectation that some of the 45,000 would have been using some form of drugs (pill testing was available) and or had consumed alcohol. Groups of young people, probably don’t make the best decisions under these circumstances. They aren’t going to wait patiently for who knows how long.

Going somewhere after a music festival isn’t he same thing as going home after an AFL match.

It might just be that Canberra is too small to run music festivals with 45,000 people attending?

Not surprised really. Steel has learnt his poor dismissive behaviour from Barr. A clone if you like for a future Chief Minister.

Oh no! Let’s not follow one disastrous Chief Minister with another!! Don’t wish it on us please.

The organisers short-circuited any tram plans. They clearly said over the speakers to just walk into town. The crowd took it to heart and filled the road. Trams halted due to blocked roads and collision safety.

I think that voice telling people to walk to Civic was from Canberra Metro not the organisers.

I would catch the bus, as I normally do, (which involves a decent walk at my end), or cycle. Solved. Rarely take a car to Civic weekdays.

Does Ian Bushnell ever write anything positive? Its clear he does not like the ACT Labour govt.

Is this a joke?

The author almost exclusively writes left leaning articles in support of the ALP/Greens government.

Well this is what happens in such a poorly designed tram, like many other light rail stops, the location of the EPIC stop is in the wrong location and doesn’t actually serve EPIC. Add in the utterly terrible road arrangements at and around the Federal Hwy and Flemington Road intersection (we’re still waiting for full duplication…) that causes unnecessary gridlock in normal peak hour and absolute chaos at any other large event, it’s little surprise the outcome for spilt milk.

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