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.