ACT government calls for federal support for rail service between Canberra and Sydney

Infrastructure Australia has put investment in rail infrastructure between Canberra and Sydney on the national priority list this year.

On Thursday, February 26 Infrastructure Australia announced the 2020 Infrastructure Priority List.

Chris Steel, Minister for Transport said the ACT Government has been advocating for an improved rail service between Canberra and Sydney for a number of years.

The ACT and NSW governments will invest $5 million each in the joint priority to improve the Sydney to Canberra rail link.

“Investment in this link will not only make train travel a faster and more appealing option for Canberrans travelling to and from Sydney, but it will also provide better connections with regional towns,” Steel said.

“It’s time for the Federal Government to get on board with faster rail, and take this infrastructure investment proposal seriously.”

Improvements to Canberra’s public transport network is listed as a priority initiative this year, specifically the development of transit corridors connecting Belconnen and Queanbeyan to central Canberra.

Rob Busch, Infrastructure Australia’s senior economist told the Canberra Times that the IA’s assessment found the issue was “nationally significant” due to the congestion, lost productivity, and lost opportunity it caused.

Infrastructure Australia said the travel time could be made quicker by straightening and duplicating the track, electrifying and upgrading signals and investing in new rolling stock.

“The number of people living between Canberra and Sydney is forecast to grow by 1.5 per cent each year to 2036, increasing pressure on the road network and airports,” IA told the Canberra Times.

“Improving rail services in this corridor would provide more transport options for travellers, improve travel-time reliability for rail passengers and reduce pressure on the air corridor.”

Steel noted that such investment would align with other rail projects being carried out in the ACT.

“The continued inclusion of this initiative on the IPL reaffirms the national significance of the ACT Government’s investments in public transport infrastructure,” Steel said. 

“We welcome the 2020 IPL and as a Territory I am confident we are actively prioritising infrastructure initiatives to support Canberrans in the ACT and as they move around our region.

“We look forward to continuing to work with the NSW and Federal Governments to progress these projects.” 

Andrew Barr criticises Coalition’s “disregard” for Canberra in Budget speech

The ACT Government has criticised the federal Coalition Government’s re-election as it announced its 2019-20 Budget plans for Canberra.

The ACT’s Budget incorporates the territory’s biggest ever infrastructure program, including the development of the stage two light rail to Woden. Stage two of the rail was somewhat stymied in May by the Coalition’s election, which meant that the ACT missed out on a promised boost of $200,000 for the project.

The ACT Treasury said in a statement that it couldn’t allow for local services and infrastructure to fall behind as Canberra’s population grows by around 8,000 people a year.

“The federal Coalition Government has not invested in Canberra over the past six years,” the statement read. “The ACT has received just 0.8 per cent of national infrastructure funding during the Coalition’s last two terms, despite our strong and consistent population growth.”

ACT Chief Minister and Treasurer Andrew Barr echoed these comments in his Budget speech yesterday, criticising the Coalition Government’s approach to Canberra.

“Under the federal Coalition Government, we have had to do the heavy lifting of delivering infrastructure and services for Canberrans for the past six years,” he said.

“Despite the ACT’s steady and ongoing growth, we have received far less than our fair share of national infrastructure investment.

“Public service job cuts, decentralisation and unequal funding deals in key areas like health and education have underlined the Coalition’s disregard for Canberra.”

The ACT Government said it plans to bring the light rail to Woden as soon as possible by progressing design, planning and enabling works from the city centre to Woden.

Works will commence on a new bus interchange at Woden that will integrate with the future light rail network on Callam Street. The ACT Government also announced plans to replace the MyWay ticketing system with a new method that can be used across bus and light rail services.

In addition, a park and ride facility will be built at Gungahlin to accommodate “the record numbers of people using light rail in Canberra’s north since it launched in April”, the Government says.

Barr added that with around 270,000 people expected to be living, working and studying within 800 metres of the City to Woden corridor by 2036, it was important that the light rail investment be delivered promptly.

“With stage one of light rail to Gungahlin successfully up and running, we are turning our focus to delivering stage two to Woden,” he said.

“Canberra needs a clean, fast and accessible public transport network to help keep our city moving as we grow, and stage two will provide the southern spine for our integrated network.”

Canberra light rail could utilise new bridge route

National Capital Authority (NCA) chief executive Sally Barnes has stated that Canberra’s Commonwealth Avenue Bridge could be replaced to accommodate plans for the Canberra Light Rail Stage 2 project.

Barnes told ABC Radio Canberra on May 22 the bridge was part of an ageing asset portfolio and that the NCA was considering building a replacement bridge as an option.

Barnes has previously expressed her disagreement with territory government proposals to build a light rail route in the gap between Commonwealth Avenue’s twin bridges while reducing the bridges’ traffic lanes to accommodate the stage two route.

“[The Commonwealth Avenue Bridge] was designed in the 50s, built in the 60s, standards have changed for traffic,” Barnes said. “We’ve got a lot more traffic going over there than anyone ever envisaged — we need to keep it functional and operating.”

The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government and collaborator Canberra Metro completed the first of the project’s two planned stages — a northerly link from Canberra’s city centre (Alinga Street) to Gungahlin — in April at a cost of $675 million. Stage two of the project is expected to cost much more however, with initial estimates pegged at $1.3-1.6 billion.

The stage two route will extend the line from the city centre to Woden in the south, requiring that trams pass over Lake Burley Griffin.

Engineers Australia civil structural committee chair, Greg Taylor concurred with Barnes, telling the Canberra Times that a new bridge would be a good decision and that elements of the existing Commonwealth Avenue bridge were now outdated.

“From an engineering perspective, you would be able to use better materials and extend the life of the bridge and reduce maintenance costs by building a new one,” he said.

Canberran commuters have enjoyed a month of fare-free travel in the city following revisions to Canberra’s public transport network. Normal paid services will resume from May 27.

“We hope people will continue to use public transport after the free period concludes, and we will keep monitoring the system as people settle into travel patterns and get used to our new integrated public transport network,” said Transport Minister Meeghan Fitzharris.

Surprise election result dampens ACT light rail ambitions

The Coalition Government’s poll-defying victory in last Saturday’s federal election has left the future of Canberra’s light rail expansion project up in the air.

Labor had planned to contribute $200 million for stage two funding of the project in the event of a federal election victory, an investment that no longer applies.

Stage two of Canberra’s light rail project is planned to incorporate an extension running from the city centre (Civic) to Woden by 2025.

But ACT chief minister Andrew Barr on Monday told ABC Canberra the election result would “set back the timeframe, there’s no doubting that”.

“Had the election result gone differently on Saturday I was hoping to sit down this week with an incoming Labor infrastructure minister and an incoming Labor territories minister to get on with fast-tracking that project,” he said. “It will now take a lot longer.”

Stage one of the Canberra light rail opened to the public in April. It is operated by Canberra Metro and links the city centre to the northerly town of Gungahlin via a 12km line.

The ACT Government announced last week that the project was delivered $32 million under budget for a final cost of $675 million.

Stage two is expected to cost anywhere between $1.3–1.6 billion, however, according to figures from Australia & New Zealand Infrastructure Pipeline (ANZIP).

The project would also cross through federal land, requiring the full approval of the Federal Government.

“Depending … on the final outcome of the Australian Parliament in terms of the Senate and the House of Reps, it may not be possible to get parliamentary approval for the second stage in this parliamentary term,” Barr told ABC.

“If we are unsuccessful in that regard, just simply on the parliamentary approval, then we will have to rethink our approach and the timeframe.”

Canberra light rail arrives late but under budget

Stage one of the Canberra Light Rail project has come in $32 million under its contracted budget for a final cost of around $675 million.

The project was built as a collaboration between the Australian Capital Territory Government and Canberra Metro and launched to the public last month.

The saving is even larger when compared with the original business case proposed for the 12km line — also referred to as the Capital Metro project —  released in 2014.

The full business case for the project estimated that it would cost $783 million and open in 2019, and referred to analysis from Ernst and Young to suggest the project would return $1.20 for every dollar spent. Since the project came in under budget however, this has been revised to a return of $1.30 for every dollar spent.

The initial business case budget was later revised downwards by 9.7 per cent in the project’s final stage one contract released in 2016 to $707 million. This contract also moved the start date forward to 2018, a deadline the project would eventually not meet.

The final breakdown of the $675 million spend was split between $589 million for base design and construction costs and $85 million in contingency costs.

The project links Canberra’s city centre to a terminus at Gungahlin in the city’s northern suburbs. Stage two of the project is planned to extend the line to Woden in the south.

ACT Government Minister for Transport Meegan Fitzharris said that patronage on the rail line was greater than the predictions set out in the business case.

“Light rail is proving to be hugely popular already, with more people using it every day, and as a result we’ve added more frequent services during peak times to manage this demand,” she said.

“Along the light rail corridor the benefits are plain to see: with light rail getting people to work, opening up new customers to local businesses and seeing hundreds of Canberrans employed on building and construction projects along the alignment that are already using their proximity to light rail to attract buyers.”