Rail safety a community responsibility

The experience around Australia when a new rail line is opened is that the community it serves flock to the service. On the Gold Coast, by the service’s fifth year of operations, over 10 million passenger trips were being taken a year. In the first year of operations of Newcastle’s light rail line, over a million passenger trips were taken. In both cities, the introduction of a light rail service grew overall public transport usage.

These figures were similarly replicated in Canberra, where the new light rail line well-exceeded patronage expectations. Prior to COVID-19, the system handled over 15,000 boardings a day, levels that the system was not expected to reach until 2021.

While these numbers would make transport planners happy and indicate the system’s success in getting people to where they need to go, for operators, the ongoing success of a light rail system is also down to its safety. Tilo Franz, general manager of Canberra Metro Operations, describes how the operator has channelled the community’s excitement with the new light rail line into ensuring safe day to day operations, particularly during Rail Safety Week.

“We try to include all community members, in particular schools, universities, and educational institutions of all kinds into our activities around Rail Safety Week.”

Safety initiatives to come from these collaborations have included wrapping the light rail vehicles with artwork from year 11 and 12 students to promote safety, to informing the community of the safety risks associated with light rail vehicles at depot visits. A strong focus has been on connecting with some of the younger riders in Canberra.

“Kids will certainly be frequent users of light rail in future,” said Franz. “The sooner they understand how to stay safe when using the light rail, that it’s no playground but a useful way to provide urban mobility, the better it is, and they will behave properly soon.”

In all three cities, Canberra, Newcastle and the Gold Coast, the newly instituted light rail systems were the first in their cities, apart from Newcastle’s tram network that was closed in the 1950s. Getting the community used to the system in this case is an extra consideration and requires their involvement.

“It is always difficult to introduce a brand-new railway system into an environment where you don’t have a history nor experience,” said Franz. “The community saw a construction site for almost three years and then suddenly, light rail vehicles (LRVs) are moving up and down the corridor at quite a significant speed. What is most important for all of us is to include the public into the evolution of the project, the message and to make them aware, to look out for fast approaching LRVs, because no technology will prevent them from injuries or worse if they step out in front of it.”

Another focus has been and will always be train driver training. With fewer physical barriers separating the rail corridor than on a heavy rail line, Canberra has conducted extra driver training.

“We have a basic driver training that we put every driver through, however we have enhanced and increased this training effort by having a defensive driver training. A fully packed LRV can be up to 60 tonnes travelling on a steel rail with a steel wheel, so you can imagine the braking distance is rather long. As a train driver, you have to have foresight while driving, you learn to read others using the road and adjacent to it in order to drive safely along the alignment.”

In Canberra in particular, where light rail vehicles travel at speeds of up to 70km/h and go through the intersections at 50km/h , there is a considerable risk if people do not take care in the corridor and ignore traffic lights or travel on the alignment where they shouldn’t be.

To address these risks, Canberra Metro has partnered with the Australian Federal Police and the ACT government to keep motorists, passengers, and pedestrians safe.

“We have identified hotspots, of course, of people running red lights on a frequent basis and we try to address that with the road authorities and to improve signage, or to make it clear that there’s no U-turn here because this is a light rail corridor,” said Franz.

For Rail Safety Week this year, Canberra Metro will be running a simulation exercise to highlight what can happen, and how the operator is prepared. The scenario will involve ACT police, emergency services, and local students will act as injured passengers during the event.

“This year, we will simulate a passenger having had an accident with our light rail vehicle inside as well as outside, being rescued, and afterwards the LRV being towed away simulating a technical breakdown,” said Franz. “This is to demonstrate that we are prepared for the worst. We do everything to prevent those accidents from happening, but we also want to use this opportunity during Rail Safety Week to train our own team and to interact jointly with the emergency services during incidents of which we might not be in control of but to limit the extent of damage or injury.”

Involving the community in safety is helping to ensure that Canberrans can continue to enjoy their safe and efficient light rail service.

ACT government to fund studies on light rail extensions

Prefeasibility studies will be carried out on stages three and four of the Canberra Light Rail project, announced ACT Minister for Transport Chris Steel at the Australasian Railway Association’s Light Rail Conference in Canberra.

“We will examine the future light rail corridor including land use, the route alignment, and the stop options, to inform future government decision making,” said Steel.

The routes that the ACT government will be studying will be stage three, from Belconnen to the airport, and stage four from Woden to Tuggeranong. Stage three would provide an east-west link through Canberra, and stage four is an extension of the current line, which will terminate in Woden once stage 2b is complete.

“This funding commitment demonstrates our continued commitment to progress of our mission for a city-wide light rail network connecting Canberra with better public transport,” said Steel.

The announcement of prefeasibility studies follows the process which the ACT government followed for the first two stages of the Canberra Light Rail. Steel noted that alternative proposals for trackless trams or guided buses are an “unproven technology” and that total cost savings of such a system would be minimal or non-existent.

The announcement by Steel follows the wider transport network’s continued success, with the highest number of boardings since the introduction of the MyWay ticketing system recorded in the week commencing February 17.

“It’s been a huge start to the year for public transport with more Canberrans using buses and light rail to get around the city to work, school and to travel to major events,” said Steel in a statement.

The ACT government attributed growth to the introduction of the light rail route, as well as rapid bus services.

At the ARA Light Rail conference, Steel highlighted that it was time for the federal government to increase support for faster rail between Canberra and Sydney.

“We believe it’s time for the federal government to get on board with faster rail,” he said.

ACT transport minister Fitzharris steps down

ACT minister for health and transport Meegan Fitzharris has announced that she will resign from her role on July 1.

Minister Fitzharris announced that her decision was spurred by a desire to better balance her family life and spend more time with her children. She will leave the ACT Legislative Assembly and ministry in the coming weeks. Fitzharris has held the role since 2015, and was re-elected in 2016. The ACT’s next election will take place late next year.

“I hope to continue to make a contribution to our amazing city in life after politics. I will continue to be a working mum, something my husband and I have balanced since each of our children were born,” Fitzharris said. “Now is the time for a new balance and new opportunities.

Fitzharris added that she hoped other “working mums and dads” of all ages and backgrounds would consider running for public office. Some of the major projects she has worked on under her tenure as Transport Minister include the Canberra Metro light rail project and a new bus network in Canberra, both of which launched in April this year. 

She thanked Chief Minister Andrew Barr for his support, as well as members of the community for sharing their “views, ideas and encouragement”.

Fitzharris will be succeeded by Chris Steel as Minister for Transport and Rachel Stephen-Smith as Minister for Health.

Stephen-Smith referred to Fitzharris on Twitter as “an outstanding Minister, representative and colleague [who] will be greatly missed by Cabinet and Caucus”.