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.
The ACT’s government’s plan for the extension of the current light rail line to Woden, in the city’s south, has taken the next step forward, with the ACT government releasing for public comment the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) preliminary documentation.
The documentation covers the stage from the city, where the current line ends, to Commonwealth Park, otherwise known as Stage 2A and supports federal approval of the line.
ACT Minister for Transport Chris Steel said this step meant that construction could soon begin.
“With the planning approvals set in motion for the extension of light rail to Commonwealth Park, work will continue to refine the project’s planning and design development with a view to construction starting as early as next year.”
The EPBC documentation covers measures the government will take to mitigate the light rail line’s impact on the critically endangered Golden Sun Moth. To address this, the preliminary documentation notes that there will be no need to install a traction power substation or connection power supply, while intersection and road layouts were refined.
The 1.7-kilometre Stage 2A will run without overhead wires to protect the cultural value of the centre of Canberra and improve visual amenity. Future light rail vehicles will travel on green tracks along Commonwealth Avenue, with landscaping besides and between the rail tracks.
Stage 2A will include three stops, one at Edinburgh Avenue on London Circuit, City South, and Commonwealth Park, where the line will terminate.
Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra Ryan Hemsley said the project would improve outcomes now and into the future.
“By extending Canberra’s light rail network, we can deliver a much-needed shot in the arm for Canberra’s construction industry, with the double benefit of providing improved public transport options in the longer term.”
Stage 2B, which will continue the light rail line to Woden via the Parliamentary Triangle, will require a more rigorous planning assessment process, and is expected to take up to 18 months.
At a press conference announcing the release of the EPBC preliminary documentation, ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said that environmental approvals should be streamlined, with too many federal agencies involved in the project.
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.
Introducing a new mode of transport to the city takes time, planning, and requires a skilled delivery team. But even with all these in place, how the general public will react and learn to live with the transport mode remains an unknown until the day of opening.
This was the case in Canberra, as the city prepared for the introduction of the new light rail line. While the city is served by a train service to Sydney, for many Canberrans, having a rail corridor through the northern spine of the city was a new experience, and one that would take some time to adjust to.
Paralympian Vanessa Low, who moved to Canberra after growing up in Germany, could see what this would mean for the city.
“When I saw that the light rail is getting introduced I realised pretty quickly that this is something new to Canberrans and that there’s probably going to be some problems around people understanding that this is a change that they have to be aware of.”
Low’s concern was safety. With light rail interfacing with drivers along Northbourne Avenue and pedestrians at crossings and stations, Canberrans needed to be alert to the risks and hazards associated with such a transport system. Low got in contact with staff from the Canberra Metro operations team and began working on a plan to keep Canberrans safe.
“We talked about, instead of waiting for something to happen, how we can put in some measures for raising awareness around the safety issues and raising awareness about what the consequences may be if you don’t pay attention.”
Like any rail transport mode, the Canberra light rail came with warning signs about crossing the tracks, and lines on the platform which passengers should not cross while waiting for their service. However, beyond the physical infrastructure, Low saw the need to connect with future passengers.
“It’s not just about the rules on a piece of paper or officials saying, ‘You shouldn’t do this.’ or ‘You should do that.’ It is connecting the everyday situation to feeling because, in a way, people easily forget what you said but they never forget how you make them feel,” said Low.
More than most, Low knows what it rail safety feels like. When she was 15 years old, Low fell from a train station platform in her hometown of Ratzeburg and was struck by an oncoming train. Following the accident, doctors had to amputate both of Low’s legs.
“I really realised that it’s not just about the loss of the legs, it was the impact on my family and friends and their families and how a lot of people suffered through the situation and a lot of people never really realised that this was ever going to happen to themselves or to someone they knew,” said Low. “That’s when I realised that a lot of people aren’t quite aware of the issues that arise in all sorts of traffic and that it’s really up to us to make the conscious decision to change that and not let it become a problem. I really wanted to get involved in helping people understand these things before something happens to them or someone they knew.”
In 2019, Low was the ACT Rail Safety Week ambassador and conducted workshops and seminars with school students and the commuting public about staying safe around the new light rail. Low’s experience enabled her to share with Canberrans the importance of staying safe around rail.
“It’s about raising awareness and then naturally people understand what they need to do. Crucial to that is to encourage others to be rail safe, pay attention and have an awareness of not just yourself but understanding what impact this action or non-action may have on everyone around you.”
This year, Low will take on the role of the inaugural national rail safety ambassador, with a particular focus during Rail Safety Week. Just as rail might be novel to Canberra, Low also notes that around Australia, more people are coming into contact with rail environment.
“I grew up in Europe where being around trains is very normal, everyone takes the public transport to go to work and it’s ingrained from being young, but in Australia because cars are the main transport and everything is quite far away it’s quite unusual to be crossing train tracks, a lot of people don’t do that on a daily basis.”
Low sees a role for awareness in encouraging those who may come into contact with rail less frequently to still understand the risks involved.
“All of a sudden they’re exposed to a situation that they aren’t familiar with and they aren’t aware of the dangers. That’s why these safety programs are needed because people aren’t quite that used to being around trains as much.”
While being safe around trains is an individual responsibility, it is also important for people to be aware of others. Being alert to one’s surroundings is therefore key.
“My biggest slogan is just pay attention if you participate in traffic, whether you’re a pedestrian or on a bike, or in a car, there are other participants in traffic and unfortunately trains do not have the option to merge out of the way. They take a very long time to stop because they are so heavy.”
Giving a face to the rail safety message will be a new and important initiative for Rail Safety Week 2020, said Low.
“I really hope that we can make this a very personal message so that people can feel like it’s up to each one of us to take action and be aware.”
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.
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.”
As the ACT starts to ease restrictions put in place to limit the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), Minister for Chris Steel is calling on Canberrans to thank rail staff and other public transport workers.
“This is group of people who have been quietly and proudly delivering the important services that our community has relied on during the pandemic, and they deserve our thanks,” said Steel.
“While there’s been less people using public transport, each journey has been important to keep our society functioning and Canberrans moving.”
During the pandemic and associated lockdowns, Transport Canberra ran a full timetable across light rail services as well as bus services in the ACT. With work from home directives and restrictions on the use of public transport only for essential travel, patronage figures have decreased by 85 per cent. In the first week of term two 2020, April 28 to May 1, Transport Canberra recorded a daily average of 8,873 journeys. In the comparable period in 2019, 66,766 journeys were recorded. The busiest day since the end of March was Monday, April 28, with 9,793 journeys.
In April, Transport Canberra hired extra cleaners to sanitise buses, light rail vehicles, and public transport stops. Steel said the government has been working with unions to ensure workplaces are safe.
“The ACT Government has been working closely with union representatives from the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU) during this time to ensure the wellbeing of workers is at the forefront of Transport Canberra’s response to COVID-19,” said Steel.
“We’re looking at how social distancing and other measures can be promoted on public transport as more people start travelling, but we are still asking Canberrans to reconsider the need to travel at this time.”
Union delegates at the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union said the government had been listening to workers’ concerns.
“Transport Canberra has been receptive to the union’s concerns, establishing weekly meetings and making changes in accordance with workers’ feedback. This has been integral to ensuring both worker and commuter safety.”
While some authorities have been concerned that following the lifting of restrictions public transport patronage would drop as people commute via car, Steel said that maintaining a full timetable throughout the crisis will help ensure people return to public transport.
“Canberrans have been able to rely on public transport during the crisis, because we’ve been delivering the same services week in week out on buses and light rail,” said Steel.
“We are in a much better position than many other cities having delivered constant reliable services throughout the pandemic to support more people back on to public transport once restrictions are eased at an appropriate time.”