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
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.
A new light rail stop will be built as part of the construction of the Canberra Institute of Technology’s (CIT) Woden campus.
The light rail stop will be part of the replacement of the current Woden Interchange. More bus stops and bus layovers will be built as part of the new interchange on Callam Street to provide a safe and connected environment.
Construction on the public transport interchange will begin before the construction of the new campus, with works beginning in mid 2021. The new campus will be completed by 2025.
ACT Minister for Tertiary Education and Minister for Transport Chris Steel said that public transport is an essential part of the project.
“Better public transport is a key part of the project, with the construction of a new, safer interchange on Callam Street for buses and we’ll build Woden Station now ready for light rail to arrive,” Steel said.
“This project will create a new front door to Woden, with a well-lit pedestrian boulevard connecting the interchange, CIT campus, the square and Westfield for a more vibrant and welcoming Town Centre.”
The project now has to receive planning approvals before construction can begin.
The extension the current light rail line in Canberra from the city to Woden is in the approval stage. Both stage 2A from the city to Commonwealth Park and Stage 2B from Commonwealth Park to Woden are awaiting federal environmental approvals.
The announcement of the stop on Callam Street as part of CIT firms up the location of one of the stops on the Stage 2B route, with the rest at the indicative stage.
Services from the City to Woden are expected to commence in 2025.
The construction of the CIT campus and associated infrastructure is expected to cost between $250 million to $300m and support 520 jobs during construction.
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.
Rail Safety Week will this year involve the work of a National Rail Safety Ambassador.
In a first for the yearly awareness-raising week which in 2020 runs from August 10 to 16, Paralympian Vanessa Low will be the face of rail safety around Australia.
In her role as the National Rail Safety Ambassador Low, who was injured in a rail incident, will lead rail safety programs and is highlighting the rail safety pledge that TrackSAFE is encouraging rail staff and organisations as well as members of the general public to take. In 2019, Low was the ACT Rail Safety Week ambassador.
Heather Neil, executive director of TrackSAFE said that being rail safe is not only individually significant.
“Being rail SAFE means Staying off the tracks, Avoiding distractions, Following safety instructions and Encouraging others to be SAFE,” Neil said.
“If each one of us is RailSAFE we will also ensure train drivers and rail staff don’t have to face traumatic events involving fatalities, injuries and near misses.”
Now in its 15th year, Rail Safety Week is being marked by events around Australia and in New Zealand. Caroline Wilkie, CEO of the ARA, said that there was an added dimension this year.
“Rail safety is no longer just about staying off the tracks and keeping free of distractions – it is also about wearing masks in states where it is recommended and supporting the rail workers that support us by keeping COVIDsafe,” she said.
Sue McCarrey, ONRSR chief executive and national rail safety regulator, said that as routines may have changed, which necessitated a greater focus on being railSAFE.
“Rail Safety Week falls at a really important time, we have some people returning to work or starting to travel a bit more, and others who will be getting out of routine as their time in lockdown continues. What we are hoping to do is to just remind people of their safety responsibilities,” she said.
“If you work in the rail industry, are interacting with a rail network when traveling or just using a crossing when you are out and about exercising remember the processes, procedures or those daily habits that have kept you safe.”
NZ Transport Minister Phil Twyford said that his government has been installing additional safety infrastructure.
“Since the start of 2018, in Auckland 23 high-risk pedestrian crossings have had barrier gates installed, with 15 more planned. Wellington is seeing upgrades to 12 pedestrian crossings, with improvements planned for at least 27 road crossings in the Wairarapa,” said Twyford.
“On top of that, KiwiRail and Waka Kotahi have also completed upgrades to 17 level crossings around the country, with another 20 to be completed before the middle of next year. They are also looking ahead to what could be in the next phase of upgrades.”
ACT Minister for Transport Chris Steel said that individuals needed to be alert when around the rail corridor.
“Remember, stay behind the yellow line at our light rail stops, wait for the green light and look both ways before you cross tracks or the road, and limit your distractions from devices such as mobile phones when near the light rail tracks.”
NSW Minister for Transport Andrew Constance said that trespassing was a particular issue.
“It’s really concerning to see people getting hurt and risking their lives to chase social media likes. We’ve seen 2,689 incidents of trespassing in the last 12 months, many of them reckless acts for selfie stunts.”
As part of Rail Safety Week activities, Wilkie will be leading a discussion with safety leaders from organisations including Sydney Trains and the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) on Wednesday, August 12.
Low said that she hoped working as an ambassador throughout this week would lead into ongoing programs.
“While Rail Safety Week is celebrated in August each year, rail safety is a year-round, unquestioned commitment.”
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.”
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.