1 December 2023

Whatever happened to light rail to Russell? FOIs reveal what might have been

| Ian Bushnell
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A route overview showing the proposed line and terminus in pink. Images: WSP.

Plans for a light rail link to Russell along London Circuit and Constitution Avenue as part of the Stage 1 project from Gungahlin were well advanced, according to a trove of documents that the Public Transport Association of Canberra has obtained under Freedom of Information.

The documents from 2014 to 2016 include email correspondence between the ACT Government, the Capital Metro Agency and the National Capital Authority, and even a letter from Chief Minister Andrew Barr to the then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

According to the documents, the 2015 Request for Proposal for light rail Stage 1 required the two short-listed proponents to provide an option for an extension from the city to Russell.

Before this, the ACT had canvassed three potential routes with the NCA – south along Northbourne Avenue to Vernon Circle and then south-east to Constitution Avenue, London Circuit east to Constitution Avenue and east along Alinga Street and through City Walk and Allara Street to Constitution Avenue.

Another route overview showing the turn into Constitution Avenue from London Circuit.

The NCA, then under Chief Executive Malcolm Snow, now CEO of the City Renewal Authority, made it clear that the London Circuit East route was the pick of these and was particularly dismissive of putting a line down City Walk.

“A City Walk route may compromise future public realm improvements, including the possible re-introduction of vehicles in shared use zones to address place activation issues in Civic,” he said.

“Overhead wires and their support poles in such an enclosed space would also contribute to visual ‘clutter’ and could result in the removal of mature Plane trees which are integral to the City Centre’s landscape structure.”

The Vernon Circle route would compromise City Hill, he said.

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Interestingly, given his current role, Mr Snow supported taking out right-hand turns at the intersection of London Circuit and Northbourne Avenue and believed there was an opportunity between the heritage-listed Sydney and Melbourne buildings to “revitalise the degraded streetscape and create a high-quality urban realm, appropriate to the role as the major approach route to the Central National Area”.

Mr Snow told the ACT that light rail would also need to be wire-free along Constitution Avenue.

Draft plans for the proposed Russell Terminus in Russell Drive.

The London Circuit East route settled, and concept drawings were developed showing six stops at the Legislative Assembly, Convention Centre, CIT Reid, Cresswell Street, Campbell (outside the C5 development), Russell West and Russell Terminus in Russell Drive.

Many documents relate to discussions between the ACT Government and Commonwealth agencies to access the Commonwealth land along Constitution Avenue and the Defence precinct at Russell, not just for the line but for construction compounds.

It appears these discussions became a sticking point. Mr Barr even directly asked Mr Turnbull to intervene in late 2015, citing the benefits to the Commonwealth of light rail servicing its agencies in Russell.

“Should the extension to Russell be included as part of Stage 1 construction work (Gungahlin to the City), the extension would provide a more than 30 per cent increase in patronage numbers,” Mr Barr said.

“In addition, the extension creates a real range of possibilities for Commonwealth agencies to reduce their costs and environmental footprint by creating an alternative to using private or workplace vehicles.

“I seek your support in ensuring a timely coordination of decisions regarding land access so as not to place the option for the Russell extension at risk.”

There is no document detailing a final decision on the extension, but Mr Barr told Region this week that in the end, Defence wouldn’t provide the land for a stop and the government couldn’t secure the necessary land and approvals to make it happen in the timeframe.

“So that meant we would have a rail [line] to nowhere effectively, so it wasn’t viable to pursue at that time,” he said.

An overview of Russell showing impacts on Commonwealth land from light rail construction. Image: NCA.

The Association believes it was a lost opportunity, given the current traffic and parking issues in Russell and Defence organisations being pushed out to locations such as Brindabella and Fairbairn business parks.

“Imagine how different things could be if light rail to Russell had proceeded. Let’s remember that the planning decisions taken today will shape the future for better or worse,” it says.

Chair Ryan Hemsley said it also had left the proposed UNSW Canberra campus on Constitution Avenue dependent on the bus network.

A Russell leg would also have been the forerunner of light rail out to Canberra Airport.

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Mr Hemsley said the latest city plan update suggested that the preference was still to pursue a London Circuit East alignment for a future light rail Stage 3 route from Belconnen through the city to the Airport via Russell.

“We would like to see some work done on the light rail Stage 3 and figuring out how we’re going to get to Russell eventually,” he said.

“Based on these discussions, it very nearly got done but not quite in the end.

“Looking at the broader network across the ACT, it made more sense to integrate the Russell extension and the further extension to the airport as part of a broader east-west connection that runs from Kippax out in the west through to the airport.

“It is interesting to look back with the benefit of hindsight and see what those issues were that were being canvassed at the time.”

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Tom Worthington7:43 am 03 Dec 23

Assuming the Brisbane acquisition, & West Australian trail, of trackless trams (big battery bi-bendy buses) goes okay, these could be used to Russell. That might be done in time for the opening of the new NSW Canberra campus.

Just tell us how these vehicle will operate locally when the GVM exceeds the capacity of our existing roads and infrastructure?

ChrisinTurner5:26 pm 02 Dec 23

It is hard to see where apartments could be built on this route and remember the purpose of light rail is to build apartments along the route and not to provide rapid and frequent public transport.

Ah, no – that’s not the purpose, although the route does affect city-shaping (as the ACT Government like to describe it). Sure, property values along the route may indeed increase, but only the most cynical of us would honestly believe that’s the prime intent.

At a high level, the objective of light rail is to “give people more transport options, help reduce traffic congestion and support Canberra’s transition to a zero emissions future”. Addressing your last point “Light rail provides a high capacity, frequent and accessible mode of transport that offers a consistent and reliable journey”.
Both quotes are from their project site.

Capital Retro11:00 am 03 Dec 23

The government have regularly stated that the light rail is about urban renewal, not public transport.

It’s also a vanity project for the CM and an idealistic realisation for the Greens leader.

And neither is urban renewal just about building new apartments – it’s about redeveloping areas including creating new infrastructure. I was responding to the op, and you should focus on that also if you’re replying to this post.

This route (which could also be extended to the airport which has become an office and shopping precinct in its own right), or alternatively a route past the Kingston Foreshore to the existing railway station, makes more sense than the City-Woden route. I have to assume that the die-hard plan to Woden is purely so as to not alienate Southsiders, but speaking as a Southsider I’d rather a route which is a better use of taxpayer money – such as this one.

Total agreement here from another Southsider.

Andrew McLaughlin3:33 pm 01 Dec 23

Or perhaps they should’ve taken State 2 through Russell and then over Kings Ave bridge – kill two birds with one stone!

Martin Silsby6:50 pm 01 Dec 23

It flies in the face of the ACT government policy to ‘never do it right, so it can be done again’.

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