The fight for passenger rail in Hobart

A community-based action group is advocating for a passenger rail solution in Hobart, where the only public transport option is the bus.

A decommissioned heavy rail corridor in Hobart’s northern suburbs has been the focus of a community-based campaign lobbying for the instalment of a passenger rail service since 2010.

Formerly a freight rail line, the corridor was decommissioned in 2014 after the last freight train passed through Hobart.

“Since then the heavy rail track has remained idle,” founder and former president of the Hobart Northern Suburbs Rail Action Group Inc (HNSRAG), Ben Johnston, told Rail Express.

The HNSRAG wants the decommissioned railway tracks to be utilised for passenger rail services rather than being converted into a bus way.

“It would be a tragedy to remove the rails from the railway, it would be a very backward step in my opinion,” Johnston said.

“Keeping rails on the corridor has strategic advantages for future freight if becomes necessary again, and you keep a lot more options open than if you convert it into a busway.

“We’ve got the corridor, and polling shows 80 per cent community support, with Hobart now the third or fourth most congested capital city.”

The Australian Automobile Association’s Road Congestion in Australia report found, in 2018, the Glenorchy to Hobart CBD route, specifically, was increasing in travel time by 0.5 minutes.

When the Hobart City Deal, signed in February 2019, allocated $25 million to delivering a transport solution on the Northern Suburbs Transit Corridor, the state government undertook a study to determine the best mode for the corridor, be it a train, a bus or a trackless tram. The study will be published later in 2020 the year.

While support has been voiced for a passenger rail corridor by all three of Tasmania’s state political parties at numerous elections since 2010, some in HNSRAG are not optimistic that the City Deal will result in a passenger rail service but rather that converting the corridor to a busway is now a likely option.

Ian Addison, a committee member of HNSRAG, suspects that there is support in influential circles for a “trackless tram” solution, which he says is essentially a guided bus.

“I’m very supportive of investment in buses but not of converting a rare and valuable rail corridor to a busway,” Addison said.

“Unfortunately, as it currently stands, it seems very unlikely that rail will be the mode of choice for activating Hobart’s rail corridor as a passenger transit route. Up till about a year ago there appeared to be good momentum building for a passenger rail service with quite a high public support as well as the main councils within Greater Hobart.

“However, the trackless tram is being promoted by its advocates as a replacement for light rail in future. I have concerns that a rail-based option, well-tailored to the particular circumstances on this corridor, will not be given appropriate consideration.”

Hobart’s public transport network is currently served by bus services travelling lengthy routes to the widely spread-out suburbs. Alongside the low service frequency, Hobart has some of the lowest public transport patronage in Australia.

Hobart seeks to drive higher transport uptake

A vision to drive higher transportation uptake, as part of the 10-year, $1.6 billion Hobart City Deal, is being progressed with the release of an implementation strategy in early October.

The Hobart City Deal Implementation Plan commits to capacity building in transport services and the providers of those services, as well as in the infrastructure to encourage and enable public transport.

The Australian and Tasmanian governments and the Glenorchy and Hobart councils will determine which projects to fund as part of this, a statement from the federal government indicated.

One of the targets is to increase development along transit priority corridors, including activating the northern suburbs rail corridor and a light rail corridor.

Tasmanian Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Michael Ferguson said that in order to activate the Northern Suburbs transit Corridor, the Tasmanian government is currently advertising for a transport consultant to undertake a study into the most effective transport solution along the disused northern suburbs rail corridor.

“The study will take into consideration the infrastructure needs within the corridor, the ideal surface the particular vehicle type would travel upon, station requirements, signalling considerations and integration with other transport options,” said Ferguson.

The city will also establish a common ticketing platform, supported by a $7.5 million investment over four years by the Tasmanian government for Metro Tasmania to lead the work.

Investments will be made towards improving the reliability and speed of real-time information, as well as to provide for new technology.

Road usage will be supported by Smart Traffic Management solutions, such as implementing a new On-Road Traveller Information System, which will provide road users with real-time data on incidents, alternative routes and travel times. A new incident management system will determine tow truck deployments and clearway management.

Another target of the Hobart City plan is to reduce congestion bottlenecks through targeted capital investment and smart technology solutions.

A commitment of $25 million in funding has been made through the Australian government’s Urban Congestion Fund for infrastructure projects to reduce congestion with a focus on the northern corridor.

The Tasmanian government is committing $105.5 million in total to reduce congestion. $20.8 million has been set aside for the Kingston congestion package, which will support the redevelopment of a bus transit centre and provide clearways to improve the flow of traffic.

Federal Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure Alan Tudge said, “Planning, design and construction of congestion-busting roads across Greater Hobart can start thanks to a combined investment of over $890 million.”