COMMENT: Light rail expansion in Sydney, and the success of the Gold Coast network, are in stark contrast to the dark mutterings coming out of Western Australia, where the state government is scrambling to back up its decision to dump MAX light rail, Mark Carter writes.
As I mentioned briefly in my previous column, I am temporarily domiciled in the UK and so the other weekend I took the opportunity to sample the delights of some of the mass transit networks that have sprung up around London over the last couple decades.
Our tour mainly focussed on the ever expanding Overground network, the rather cute Docklands Light Railway and Croydon’s Tramlink system. Needless to say most of it is far superior to anything we have in the Australia; although I’m sure some limitations notwithstanding, Sydney’s North West Rail Link will give them a run for their money in a few years’ time.
The adventure was not without its problems, although relatively minor and largely revolving around my travelling companion’s use of his touch and go Oyster card for the day. What cost me around $18 using a one-day travel card, cost him three times as much due to failings of the Oyster Card ‘touch and go’ system.
It left me wondering how much extra subsidy is going into Mayor Boris’ coffers from unsuspecting tourists who have fallen foul to Oysters idiosyncrasies. As the transport network has grown more complex, especially with the expansion of the Overground, so too has Oyster, once a very simple and effective ticketing system.
Anyway I digress.
As mentioned, part of the frolics was an hour or two spent on the Croydon Tramlink, which got me thinking about Australia’s attitude to light rail networks.
Opened in 2000, Croydon was the second of several systems that have been built in the UK; others being Newcastle, Manchester, West Midlands, Sheffield, Nottingham and Edinburgh; a mix of new stand-alone systems and others that are converted suburban rail lines.
The Croydon network is 28km in length and carries around 32 million passengers annually with a target patronage of 50 million per annum by 2030.
In Australia we have seen the highly successful opening of G:link on the Gold Coast tempered by the dropping off the proposed MAX light rail in Perth and ideological opposition to the planned Canberra network.
It is the debacle surrounding the dropping of the MAX project in Perth that has really got my gander up, especially regarding some of the ridiculous excuses emanating from the offices of state transport minister Dean Nalder, and WA premier Colin Barnett.
Let’s not forget, MAX was the Liberals’ public transport poster child at the last WA election, and had been prioritised well ahead of the planned Airport Link heavy rail extension in the state’s draft transport plan.
In fact both sides of politics were backing both schemes, despite the combined price tag being rather high, even with the coffers still bulging at the time courtesy of the mining boom.
Since then of course the WA economy has gone slightly downhill. Revenue is down and the anti PT rumblings from the nation’s capital meant that in all likelihood it would come down to backing one or the other.
Despite the higher priority for MAX, I can only imagine sensible transport policy has been replaced by focus group results and the airport link has no doubt been shown to have the potential to win more votes at the next election.
Rather than just fessing up and telling it how it is – ‘Sorry people, we’re broke and the airport link will deliver more votes…’ (and yes I know I’m dreaming) – Nalder and Barnett have come out with some rather quaint excuses for not proceeding with MAX.
There were some interesting published quotes from the pair in July this year.
Barnett told Seven West Media that light rail, “Hasn’t been an overwhelming success in Australia at all”.
“The project for example recently completed on the Gold Coast in Queensland really has not been successful,” he said, “so there’s a bit of rethink about light rail.”
Really? Do the Sandgropers really live such sheltered lives?
That will indeed be news to the New South Wales government who are currently doubling the size of their light rail network. And as for the Gold Coast’s G:link, the premier’s comments are laughable.
G:link carried a whopping 6.2 million passengers in its first year of operation, well ahead of expectations and re-enforcing calls for expansion of the network in time for the Commonwealth Games in 2018.
In researching this column I came across a several positive stories quoting real estate sources that link the G:link to property development in the area; even the generally conservative Gold Coast Bulletin said it believes the first stage of the light rail between Broadbeach and Southport is driving a $6 billion local development boom.
Despite the WA draft transport strategy stating that buses could not provide the same level of service and capacity as light rail, Nalder is now seeing a cut price bus solution as a replacement for MAX.
A recent report complete with images of space age looking ‘bullet buses’ touts an alternative $1.25 billion bus lane solution, with articulated buses carrying up to 200 people!
Good luck with that one minister, unless you have roads as smooth as billiard tables.
It’s only two years ago that after a European study trip, former WA transport minister Troy Buswell was emphatic that, “Light rail has been assessed as the most suitable option in these areas as it can move many more people in one lane than any number of buses and cars.”
So it seems while the Gold Coast developers are directly linking Mermaid Beach with future light rail expansion, Western Australia is going all Porpoise Spit on us.
Isn’t that right Muriel… err, sorry, I mean Dean.