Introducing a new mode of transport to the city takes time, planning, and requires a skilled delivery team. But even with all these in place, how the general public will react and learn to live with the transport mode remains an unknown until the day of opening.
This was the case in Canberra, as the city prepared for the introduction of the new light rail line. While the city is served by a train service to Sydney, for many Canberrans, having a rail corridor through the northern spine of the city was a new experience, and one that would take some time to adjust to.
Paralympian Vanessa Low, who moved to Canberra after growing up in Germany, could see what this would mean for the city.
“When I saw that the light rail is getting introduced I realised pretty quickly that this is something new to Canberrans and that there’s probably going to be some problems around people understanding that this is a change that they have to be aware of.”
Low’s concern was safety. With light rail interfacing with drivers along Northbourne Avenue and pedestrians at crossings and stations, Canberrans needed to be alert to the risks and hazards associated with such a transport system. Low got in contact with staff from the Canberra Metro operations team and began working on a plan to keep Canberrans safe.
“We talked about, instead of waiting for something to happen, how we can put in some measures for raising awareness around the safety issues and raising awareness about what the consequences may be if you don’t pay attention.”
Like any rail transport mode, the Canberra light rail came with warning signs about crossing the tracks, and lines on the platform which passengers should not cross while waiting for their service. However, beyond the physical infrastructure, Low saw the need to connect with future passengers.
“It’s not just about the rules on a piece of paper or officials saying, ‘You shouldn’t do this.’ or ‘You should do that.’ It is connecting the everyday situation to feeling because, in a way, people easily forget what you said but they never forget how you make them feel,” said Low.
More than most, Low knows what it rail safety feels like. When she was 15 years old, Low fell from a train station platform in her hometown of Ratzeburg and was struck by an oncoming train. Following the accident, doctors had to amputate both of Low’s legs.
“I really realised that it’s not just about the loss of the legs, it was the impact on my family and friends and their families and how a lot of people suffered through the situation and a lot of people never really realised that this was ever going to happen to themselves or to someone they knew,” said Low. “That’s when I realised that a lot of people aren’t quite aware of the issues that arise in all sorts of traffic and that it’s really up to us to make the conscious decision to change that and not let it become a problem. I really wanted to get involved in helping people understand these things before something happens to them or someone they knew.”
In 2019, Low was the ACT Rail Safety Week ambassador and conducted workshops and seminars with school students and the commuting public about staying safe around the new light rail. Low’s experience enabled her to share with Canberrans the importance of staying safe around rail.
“It’s about raising awareness and then naturally people understand what they need to do. Crucial to that is to encourage others to be rail safe, pay attention and have an awareness of not just yourself but understanding what impact this action or non-action may have on everyone around you.”
This year, Low will take on the role of the inaugural national rail safety ambassador, with a particular focus during Rail Safety Week. Just as rail might be novel to Canberra, Low also notes that around Australia, more people are coming into contact with rail environment.
“I grew up in Europe where being around trains is very normal, everyone takes the public transport to go to work and it’s ingrained from being young, but in Australia because cars are the main transport and everything is quite far away it’s quite unusual to be crossing train tracks, a lot of people don’t do that on a daily basis.”
Low sees a role for awareness in encouraging those who may come into contact with rail less frequently to still understand the risks involved.
“All of a sudden they’re exposed to a situation that they aren’t familiar with and they aren’t aware of the dangers. That’s why these safety programs are needed because people aren’t quite that used to being around trains as much.”
While being safe around trains is an individual responsibility, it is also important for people to be aware of others. Being alert to one’s surroundings is therefore key.
“My biggest slogan is just pay attention if you participate in traffic, whether you’re a pedestrian or on a bike, or in a car, there are other participants in traffic and unfortunately trains do not have the option to merge out of the way. They take a very long time to stop because they are so heavy.”
Giving a face to the rail safety message will be a new and important initiative for Rail Safety Week 2020, said Low.
“I really hope that we can make this a very personal message so that people can feel like it’s up to each one of us to take action and be aware.”