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.


Roads swallow federal infrastructure funding as ACT bags new light rail stop

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.”

Light rail

Canberra Light Rail passes one year milestone

Over four million journeys have been made in the first year of operations of Canberra Light Rail.

Celebrating the first 12 month of service, ACT Minister for Transport Chris Steel said that the network has changed the way people move around Canberra.

“Light rail has changed the way people view and use public transport with very high satisfaction levels and more people than ever using public transport in Canberra.”

Recent customer satisfaction surveys reported that 94 per cent of customers were satisfied with the ease of use of light rail and 20 per cent of all public transport journeys are made on the light rail.

Peak months so far were May, when 460,000 passengers travelled and the free travel period continued for the network’s first month of operations, and October which had over 411,000 boardings. The most popular stop was Alinga Street in the Canberra CBD. 40 per cent of trips began at this station.

Prior to the coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions, extra services were in place during February to cater for increased demand. Lockdown measures in the ACT however, have led to a drop in trips.

“Obviously COVID-19 has had a temporary impact on passenger numbers in the last few weeks, however, before the pandemic we were seeing, on average, 15,047 passenger boardings each day, numbers that we didn’t expect until 2021,” said Steel.

A further increase in services has been delayed due to COVID-19 measures, as has an update to the wider public transport network’s schedule in Canberra.

Work to extend the light rail line to Woden via the Parliamentary circle is still scheduled to continue. General manager of Canberra Metro Operations Tilo Franz said that he expects the light rail to continue to be popular.

“From day one we exceeded passenger and ridership expectations. We’re excited to celebrate one year of operation and look forward to many more years of success.”

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”.

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.

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.”