The federal government has announced $137 million for the strengthening of the Commonwealth Avenue bridge in Canberra. Read more
Construction of the Mitchell Light Rail stop in Canberra’s inner north has begun, with utility service relocations, underboring, and geotechnical works the first to get underway. Read more
Election results over the weekend have reconfirmed the pipeline of rail projects on both sides of the Tasman.
In the ACT, where the Labor-Greens coalition government was returned with a likely increased number of representatives in the legislative assembly, future progress on the Canberra light rail is confirmed.
Prior to the election the opposition Liberals had cast doubt over the second stage of the project, suggesting that a connection to Belconnen should be built instead of the currently planned extension to Woden. ACT Labor has said that once the extension to Woden is complete, work will begin on a line from Belconnen to the Airport.
Public Transport Association of Canberra chair Ryan Hemsley said that light rail was a key election issue in the capital.
“Saturday’s election results have re-confirmed the trends we saw four years ago, with strong swings towards the government in Murrumbidgee and Brindabella cementing light rail as a vote-winner,” said Hemsley.
“In contrast to the pro-light rail policies offered by Labor and the Greens, the Canberra Liberals offered half-hearted and at times inconsistent support for the extension of light rail to Woden.”
Light rail also made an appearance in the New Zealand election which saw the Labour Party returned with a parliamentary majority. The party, which had previously governed in a coalition with the Green Party and NZ First, has committed to progressing the Auckland light rail project from the city centre to Māngere and the Auckland Airport.
The party has committed to continue investing in KiwiRail, which has received large cash injections in recent budgets to improve New Zealand’s rail infrastructure and freight services. Upgrades to Wellington’s commuter rail network are also part of the party’s platform.
Under investment in Auckland’s rail network was revealed earlier this year and led to a city-wide restriction on services. The most recent works have seen a 10-minute frequency returned to the Eastern Line and improvements between Otahuhu and Newmarket on the Southern line. Further work on the Southern Line between Homai and Pukekohe will continue for the next three weeks.
KiwiRail chief operating officer Todd Moyle said works have been completed efficiently and on schedule.
“During the first closure on the Eastern Line the teams met their target of replacing 20 km of rail and more than 3500 sleepers on the 10km between Panmure and the city centre,” he said.
“We are continuing to work with Auckland Transport to review our progress and plan the way ahead. We have agreed a programme of rolling line closures across the network is the best and most efficient way to progress this work over the coming months. For the next month our focus will remain on the Southern Line.”
Further network closures are planned for the Christmas period when patronage decreases.
The ACT government has released its strategy to move Canberra as the city grows to 580,000 people by 2040.
The ACT Transport Strategy 2020 updated the city’s transport vision and further outlines a shift towards public transport, walking, and cycling as the future of mobility in Canberra.
ACT Transport Minister Chris Steel said that investment would follow this vision.
“To ensure Canberra remains one of the world’s most liveable cities we will continue to heavily invest in transport with light rail, high frequency rapid bus services, and improvements to key active travel links as well as maintaining our quality road network,” he said.
The Strategy also responds to changing transport patterns that have been seen since the arrival of COVID-19. With an uptake of walking and cycling, the strategy proposes using these changes as a way to drive more permanent behaviour changes.
“We want to harness the opportunity of the pandemic to permanently grow the number of people walking and riding in the community beyond COVID-19,” said Steel.
“An ACT Transport Recovery Plan will help facilitate a return to public transport, when the time is right, so that we can efficiently and sustainably move people around our growing city.”
In setting out the vision for Canberra’s transport network in 2045, the strategy proposes a number of key central links, along the city’s north-south and east-west spines. These would be complimented by orbital links. While the strategy does not explicitly state that these will be light rail lines, the central links largely follow the proposed light rail corridors, including future stages.
The Strategy also indicates a potential high-speed rail alignment, coming from the north of the ACT to the city centre or the Canberra airport. The Strategy states that the ACT government has begun corridor preservation for a future high-speed rail service.
“The ACT government continues to work closely with the NSW government to explore these opportunities with initial investigations into possible improvements to the Canberra Sydney service already underway,” the Strategy notes.
In one of the most disruptive events to occur since World War Two, transport leaders around Australia highlight the role that rail has played in getting Australia through COVID-19.
On Friday, March 13, thousands of spectators were queueing outside the gates to the Formula One Grand Prix in Albert Park, Melbourne. The late summer sun was beat down on the spectators as they waited for two hours to find out whether they would be let in. Finally, organisers confirmed that the event could not go ahead because of the fear of an outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19). Extra trams were rapidly mobilised, and the crowds were herded onto public transport to take them back home, via the Melbourne CBD.
At the Major Transport Infrastructure Authority (MTIA) offices on Exhibition Street, director-general Corey Hannett was assessing the options for the state’s $70 billion of under- construction transport infrastructure spread across 119 major road and rail projects.
“I must admit, when the pandemic turned up in March, I think there were doubts that industry could work,” Hannett told Rail Express.
“At that time, we were looking right around the world at what was going on, and it was very clear that lots of countries were actually closing down.”
Indeed, other countries had entirely ceased all construction activity, except for projects specifically related to the COVID-19 response. In Ireland, almost €20bn ($32.57bn) worth of construction activity creased by March 28.
Unlike countries in Europe and Asia, at the time, the impact in Australia was relatively limited, with only 156 cases when Albert Park closed its gates. In Italy, deaths were already in the thousands.
“At the time, we really hadn’t had that massive impact from the COVID-19 infections that the rest of the world was experiencing, but it was fair to say we were very concerned that we had to make sure that we did things in a way that protected the workforce and the community,” said Hannett.
Across all of its sites, the MTIA and its delivery contractors put in place procedures to reduce the change of an outbreak at a construction site. Workers had to be spaced more the 1.5m apart, personal protective equipment was required, and extra hygiene measures were put in place. MTIA’s own staff moved to working from home and staggered shifts were enforced on work sites.
“Staggering when people start and finish toolbox meetings in the crib shed, getting extra crib sheds, getting extra cleaning in those crib sheds, getting an extra cleaning program of work across the whole sites,” lists Hannett.
All in all, roughly 18,000 people are employed to build road and rail projects under the MTIA umbrella across Melbourne and in regional Victoria. As of the end of June, there have been no significant disruptions to any of the construction programmes.
“I’m quite pleased to say so far so good, but we can only be as good as we are today and we need to keep that vigilance up and keep a heightened focus on making sure that we comply with the relevant rules to keep the community the workforce and ourselves safe.”
Hannett notes that while there has been a small loss in efficiency, the building program is continuing apace.
“In general, the program is in pretty good shape considering the pandemic which was forced upon us in March this year,” he said.
“I can’t imagine what the situation would be today if we had not had our 18,000 plus people not working.”
KEEPING THE COUNTRY MOVING
Canberrans had barely gotten the smell of bushfires out of their hair, clothing, and homes by the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit. After a torrid summer, Canberrans were using the newly commissioned light rail more than ever, which, according to ACT Transport Minister Chris Steel, led to an unexpected windfall.
“Thankfully in February this year, just prior to the pandemic starting, we actually increased the frequency of light rail to help manage the crowding that we had seen because we had so many people wanting to use light rail in Canberra.”
Frequency in the peaks was increased, and the peak period was stretched to 9.30am in the morning and 6.30pm in the evening. This extra capacity meant that the light rail could keep running and ensure that those workers who did need to travel were able to get to their jobs and people were able to access essential services during the lockdown.
To ensure the service was safe, a rapid program of adaptation was rolled out.
“We stepped up hygiene measures across public transport, including light rail, and one of the measures on light rail was to have automatic opening of the doors which wasn’t always the case on light rail,” said Steel.
Across the network, an extra 1,300 hours of cleaning was being conducted per week, and regular cleaners were assisted by over 30 workers hired by Transport Canberra who were stood down from their roles in the wider transport industry.
In Canberra and across Australia, most transport authorities are still encouraging passengers to travel outside of peak periods to avoid crowding. At the same time, Steel and others are concerned that road congestion is rising faster than public transport levels with the ACT at 85 per cent of pre-COVID traffic levels but public transport at less than half.
“We don’t want to see congestion reach even higher levels than it was before the pandemic because people are not using public transport, so we do need to encourage people back at an appropriate time,” said Steel.
“We’ve had for now several months the national cabinet and state premiers and chief ministers very clearly indicate to the community that they should avoid public transport during peak times and that is still the message.
“We also need to have an equally strong message at the appropriate time to welcome people back onto public transport – come and use it, it’s good for our community, it’s good for your health, it reduces congestion and all of the benefits that it provides.”
In Sydney, Howard Collins, chief operations officer for Transport for NSW and former chief executive of Sydney Trains cannot see a future where a return to public transport does not occur in some form.
“I just look at the maths and say we’re currently carrying 600,000 journeys across the transport network, about 350,000 people every day at the moment, compared with 1.3 million on rail before COVID. Where are those people – even if half of them come back – where are they going to go? I can’t imagine them all cycling down George Street. I can’t imagine we’ll get the cars moving more than about 5km/h if they all jumped in their cars. So, rail will have to take on that capacity, but it may be in a different context in terms of how we operate our train service.”
Prior to COVID-19, capacity on Sydney Trains was almost reaching breaking point, particularly in the peaks. With a 73 per cent drop in patronage, Collins is looking at the recovery from COVID-19 as a potential for change in the way the network operates.
“I think patronage will change, permanently. COVID-19, at the end of the day is an issue that has come along that has been really tragic and has been challenging, but it may well be a warning for things happening in the future. So, things have to change but I do believe that public transport and particularly rail is going to still have a major role.”
Collins is sceptical that there will be a wholescale shift to alternative working arrangements, such as working from home.
“Many people have said ‘Oh I’ll never going to be going to office anymore. I’m going to be working from home and I’ll be doing it in a café or bar or whatever it is.’ I do think there’s this human nature of getting together and while we all say we’re coping with Teams and remote working there will be a resurgence of people wanting to cluster and get together, whether that’s socially or for work reasons no matter how good our Zoom or Teams structure is. People will be back, but it will be different.”
During the lockdown, Sydney Trains has increased services during the peak to cope with demand, as well as run extra light rail services. With an unclear future still ahead, to many, what this has demonstrated is the need for flexibility in time-tabling and capacity.
“We certainly need greater flexibility and if you look at Sydney Metro, boy they can switch on and off a flattening peak or an increased fleet just by the press of a button, and the trains pop out of their depot without any care or concern,” said Collins.
“But we know that people still need to travel within certain times. If tradies still sign on as they do every day in Sydney at 7 o’clock then we’re still going to get that massive tradie peak. If schools still operate in the time scale that tends to suit both their parents and teachers, you’re not going to see the flattening of the peak. We will certainly see others spreading the load – particularly office workers – but I think it’s going to be more resistant to change than perhaps some of the theorists believe when it comes to peak services.”
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Many have noted that COVID-19 is two crises. First, the health pandemic, and second, the economic crisis caused by the shutdown of businesses and the restrictions on movement and gathering. While testing, contact tracing, and medical care can limit the first crisis, there is more debate over how to grapple with the second.
Infrastructure spending has emerged as one way that governments are dealing with the economic crisis. Rail is one area of infrastructure that has been targeted with spending. Already, in Sydney, Metro Greater West, now known as Sydney Metro – Western Sydney Airport has had funding committed by both state and federal governments, to begin construction before the end of 2020. Approvals for Inland Rail have been fast- tracked. In Victoria, the Level Crossings Removal Project is ramping up and extra money is being spent on regional track and repairs to stations.
While some have argued that smaller infrastructure projects provide more benefits, according to Hannett, all projects should be seen as helping the wider economy.
“A project creates jobs, it boosts the economy, and it also has a significant economic benefit. The fact is. big or small. they do create jobs they do create economic benefit.”
Shadow Infrastructure Minister Catherine King highlighted that now is the time to invest in nation-building infrastructure.
“I think that one of the things that coronavirus crisis has shown us is that while we’ve had infrastructure projects and rail projects, we’ve sort of lacked any large scale, iconic infrastructure transport project,” she told Rail Express.
In May, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese reaffirmed the Labor Party’s commitment to high speed rail from Melbourne to Brisbane, via Sydney and Canberra. According to King, such a project goes well beyond reducing congestion on the air route between Melbourne and Sydney.
“One is the investment potential that it has, but also the nation building potential that it has, in terms of developing a much stronger sense of regional and decentralised regional towns from Melbourne from Sydney, all the way up to Brisbane, and the capacity and possibility of that as we grow as a nation.”
While COVID-19 has been a tragic event, the rail industry is beginning to emerge with a renewed focus on flexibility in operations and the nation-shaping role that rail infrastructure can have.
Public transport fares have remained frozen in Canberra, to help reduce the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fares have not increased since January 2019, and ACT Minister for Transport Chris Steel said that keeping fares the same would reduce the financial burden of COVID-19.
“The ACT Government knows that COVID-19 has put increased pressure on families, and every little bit counts,” he said.
“Many people rely on public transport to get around, and freezing bus and light rail fares will help to ease financial stress during this challenging time.”
Although Steel is not encouraging Canberrans to fully return to public transport just yet, he is advising that those who do need to travel do so outside of peak hours, where there is an additional saving.
“I encourage Canberrans to travel at off-peak times when it is cheaper, and to help reduce crowding on buses and light rail.”
Cash is also not being accepted around the network. MyWay cards or pre-paid tickets are permitted.
“Having a MyWay card is still the cheapest way to use public transport, as the card calculates the cheapest possible fare per passenger, based on any eligible concession and daily or monthly fare caps,” said Steel.
While the ACT has decided to keep fares the same, NSW instituted changes to its fares on July 1. Transport for NSW lowered fares outside of the peaks, and off-peak pricing was instituted on light rail. A scheduled CPI increase was also not applied. Fares for journeys on buses and light rail under three kilometres were increased, to encourage walking and cycling.
In the ACT, from July 18, upgrades to the transport network will see trams frequency lifted to every five minutes during weekday mornings. A new bus network will provide an extra 692 buses each weekday, with changes to routes and increases in frequency.
In a flurry of infrastructure funding announcements, the federal government has only allocated funding for one new rail project, a new stop on the Canberra light rail line in Mitchell.
The stop, at the intersection of Flemington Road and Sandford Street, will be the 14th for the network. The federal government and ACT governments will each contribute $6 million.
The funding comes from the $1.5 billion of infrastructure funding announced by the Prime Minister Scott Morrison on June 15. As of June 22, roughly a third of the funding had been announced, with the light rail stop in Canberra the only rail project receiving funding.
In his address on June 15, Morrison noted that $500m of the funding would go towards road safety upgrades, and $1bn would be for non-mode specific “shovel-ready” projects that were identified by the states and territories.
So far, funding allocated under the ‘shovel-ready” project stream has been distributed to Queensland with $204.3m, Western Australia has received $96m, $13.6m to the NT, and $16m in the ACT.
Out of the hundreds of millions allocated to “shovel-ready” projects, $11m will go towards non-road projects, with $6m for the Canberra light rail stop and $5m for pavement rehabilitation along Northbourne Avenue, also in Canberra.
A federal government spokesperson said that further road and rail commitments to be funded under the $1.5bn infrastructure package will be announced in due course.
ACT Minister for Transport Chris Steel said that work would soon get underway on the new tram stop.
“Design is being undertaken on a 14th stop on the light rail line and we will work with Canberra Metro to build the station at Sandford St over the next year,” he said.
“The new light rail stop on Flemington Road at Sandford Street will provide better access to the Mitchell business district in addition to the existing stop at Well Station Drive.”
At the ARA’s Light Rail 2020 conference, chief projects officer of Major Projects Canberra Duncan Edghill outlined how the Canberra Light Rail has become part of the fabric of the city.
For successful rail transport projects, looking back on a project once it is complete can reveal insights into a project that were not apparent in the busy construction phase.
For the Canberra Light Rail project this was no different, as chief projects officer of Major Projects Canberra, Duncan Edghill, highlighted in a recent speech to delegates at the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) Light Rail 2020 conference.
With stage one being the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken by the ACT government, the light rail generated an intense community discussion throughout planning and construction phases, however now in operation, the city has taken to the service with gusto. With a year now under its belt, the initial case for the project has not only been met, but exceeded.
“As an example, in the first three weeks of 2020 versus the same period in 2019 there was an increase of over 10 per cent of public transport journeys taken across the ACT,” said Edghill.
“It’s quite a step change.”
Prior to the project, Canberra was only served by a bus network, even though trams were included in Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin’s plan for Canberra. Such a change in transport infrastructure meant that the project was focused upon by the local community and businesses, meaning that every decision of the project team was on full display. In addition, the project ran along a major road artery, leading it to intersect with many residents’ lives before operations began.
“When you’re building light rail and it’s spread out over many kilometres, everyone can see what you’re doing,” said Edghill. “As we move into future stages, we will need to give consideration to issues like, ‘How will this shade cloth that we’re putting up now look in two years?’ and how do we pay attention to things like controlling weeds?”
On a commercial side, with further stages planned for the future, being delivered as a public-private partnership meant that the eyes of the infrastructure business community were also on the strip of Northborne Avenue which the light rail would run down.
“The overall commercial focus was really a genuine desire to treat the project as a partnership and to be seen as a commercial and pragmatic partner,” said Edghill. “We want Canberra to be the sort of place where you can come and do business with confidence and with a reasonable partner.
“Of course, in pretty much all big projects claims arise, but a real positive for both sides here was when we get to operations we cleared the deck of any outstanding commercial matters. Given the complexities of starting a light rail system for the first time it was really important that we focus on the important thing, which is getting the operations right rather than dealing with commercial issues [after the project opened].”
Another decision made at the beginning of the project came from the political side, but was instrumental in ensuring the project’s future success, said Edghill.
“The ACT government had resolved signal priorities for the light rail vehicles (LRVs) on an intersection basis. That was a decision that was taken in cabinet because it was a policy decision at the outset to provide LRVs with high levels of priority at intersections.”
Combined, these decisions led to a system that, now into its second year of operating, has surpassed initial hopes.
“Business case expectations have been exceeded across the public transport network system as a whole,” said Edghill. “It’s proof that, when it’s well thought through and well- integrated into the broader public transport network, light rail works.”
PROJECT INTEGRATION KEY TO LIGHT RAIL SUCCESS
When designing and building the light rail Stage 1, the delivery partners were also able to consider the wider impact that the project would have, and how to integrate these for the best outcome for the city as a whole.
“In Canberra’s case, the introduction of light rail actually led us to revisit the fundamental principles underpinning the entirety of the rest of the transport network,” said Edghill. “Before light rail we had a bus network where mode share is less than what we’ve targeted – long circuitous bus routes, sub optimal network frequency, a few very high capacities frequent routes and then a school bus system.”
In line with the opening of the light rail line from Gungahlin in the city’s north to the city centre, Transport Canberra redesigned the bus network to have higher frequency services on key corridors. Edghill noted however that the process will never be without its critics.
“There are some key lessons to draw from this process; you can’t begin consultation early enough, you’re not going to please everyone, and you will have to make some tough decisions. There will be those who in time benefit from the system, but they’re not the ones who are going to be writing letters to the editor now.”
With an entirely redesigned bus network, comparing a before and after is not like for like, but Edghill is confident that the changes have had a positive impact.
“What we have seen, on an aggregate level, is public transport has risen across the network. We introduced six new high frequency bus routes at the same time light rail was introduced and the high-speed bus network has proven to be really popular.”
Outside of the transport network, the impact of a light rail project on the businesses along the route has been a key concern for other projects. In Canberra this was no different, and the light rail work coincided with a number
of developments along Northbourne Avenue, causing disruption to nearby business owners.
“When you’re living in project world, it’s really easy to focus on your own project, but from the perspective of a business owner or a shop owner they don’t’ distinguish between your project and another project,” said Edghill. “At Gungahlin the light rail project coincided with a number of other construction projects.”
DESIGN DRIVING OUTCOMES
Having weathered the impact of construction, businesses are now embracing the light rail, said Edghill. Although not a scientific study of impacts, Edghill recounted examples of tea towels, paintings, and coasters now with the light rail imprinted upon them. For those that worked on the project, these are examples of where the project has gone beyond what could be quantified in the business case.
“People ask what makes me most proud to be involved in Light Rail stage one project? Is it the patronage, which is going gangbusters, the corridor development we’re seeing, is it delivering it on time and under budget? What is it that gives me the greatest satisfaction? All of these things are important of course but I think what actually struck me most is the fact that light rail has already become a shorthand for Canberra.”
Edghill puts this down to the nature of the project and its commitment to good design.
“The canopies are distinct to Canberra, the artwork is bespoke at each stop, the colour palette subtly speaks to Canberra institutions, the LRV seat livery was designed by a local Indigenous artist, the dynamic lighting allows us to change the lighting to different colours in response to local events, and there’s a high quality of workmanship.”
While these features could be seen as optional extras, Edghill counselled that the design elements are what defines a light rail project well after construction has ended.
“We all avoided the temptation to engineer out the project’s design qualities and I think that’s a very important lesson,” he said. “These projects obviously represent a very significant investment, and long after people stop thinking about the cost we’ll be thinking about the system and ultimately smart architectural design is a small part of the overall investment.”
In the end, Edghill says, the light rail project is not just about mobility.
“One of the most important things that we tried to keep in mind when embarking on the light rail project was recognising that it’s not only a transport project. Yes, light rail moves people from A to B and that’s undoubtedly of great importance, but just as importantly it shapes how our city looks and shapes the development of the light rail corridor.
“No matter how successful patronage will be, there will always be more people looking at the system than using it. For that reason, the final design of the system is something that is particularly relevant.”
These design elements will be continued as the ACT government looks to the next stages of the light rail project. As Stage 2A progresses to the waterfront, stage 2B then continues to Woden, and with plans for further extensions on the East-West spine of the city, ensuring that the light rail project remains integrated, and well-designed will be key.
“Light rail is really about servicing the future development of the Acton waterfront and convention centre and other things that will come to the centre of Canberra in time,” said Edghill.
“The project is as much about urban regeneration as it is around transport.”
Light rail has delivered a significant uplift in land values along the corridor, a new report for the ACT government shows.
The Benefits Realisation Report, produced by Major Projects Canberra, showed that blocks alongside the light rail line had an average increase of unimproved value of 35.2 per cent. The average figure for the ACT during that period was 21.7 per cent.
ACT Minister for Transport Chris Steel said that the light rail line was bringing growth to the capital.
“Canberrans can already see the broader economic and social benefits that light rail has brought to our city,” said Steel.
“This is a long-term infrastructure investment, and more benefits will continue to be realised and measured over the years and decades to come.”
Part of the review process also involved getting feedback from businesses that are located close to the line. According to a statement from the ACT government, these businesses saw an increase in revenue, footfall, or access for customers and staff as a result of the light rail.
Steel said that the learnings from the report will inform future delivery of the project as Stage 2A from the City to Commonwealth Part progresses, and Stage 2B connects the light rail to the southern suburb of Woden.
“There are lessons to be learnt from every project, and the lessons from stage one will help better support our local businesses for stage two,” said Steel.
“Construction on major projects can be disruptive but we will be enhancing our communication with those affected by future projects and will better advising them about construction schedules and plans.”
The data from the report highlights how increases in land value can be used to justify, and potentially fund, rail infrastructure projects. In the business case for the Canberra Light Rail, the ACT government found that other light rail lines resulted in an increase in property value of up to 20 per cent, a figure not found with new bus routes.
Research conducted at the University of Queensland found that along stage one of the Gold Coast light rail line, land values increased by 7.1 per cent higher than otherwise. Research and findings such as these have been used to justify value capture mechanisms for the funding of transport infrastructure, and in the case of the Gold Coast, the Gold Coast Council instituted a levy on property owners to partly fund the light rail line.
The Benefits Realisation Report also found that light rail construction drove employment figures.
“Stage 1 of light rail created 4750 jobs, with 75 per cent being local sustainable jobs. Stage 2 of light rail will also have an important role to play in supporting more construction jobs and supporting the ACT’s economic recovery,” said Steel.
So far, the Canberra light rail has increased public transport usage in the city, with 4.2 million trips by public transport in the 12 months since the project was finished.
“From the very beginning of operations light rail has proved itself as a huge success, with the project coming in under budget and seeing an immediate jump in public transport patronage,” said Steel.