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Unpacking Canberra’s Light Rail

Canberra’s Light Rail project has been an exciting addition to the city. Rail Express looked into the project, its history and the upcoming Stage 2B.

Canberra’s light rail project is beginning to take shape and with Stage 1 complete and up and running in 2019, Stage 2 is set to get underway soon. 

The idea for Canberra’s Light Rail has been in the works since 1911, when Walter Burley Griffin, who designed the city originally, intended for the nation’s capital to be serviced by trams.

The plan did not eventuate, and the city was serviced by buses from 1926 until 2019 when the first light rail began running.

This new light rail is designed to future proof the city and take more vehicles off the road. Light rail provides an opportunity to link Canberra’s buses, park-and-ride facilities, cycling networks and pedestrian paths to the activity centres that feed the network.

Background

The network is a 12-kilometre line that links the northern town centre of Gungahlin to the city centre and has 14 stops. Services commenced on 20 April 2019. The 14th stop at Sandford Street in Mitchell commenced operation in September 2021.

In July 2019, the ACT Transport minister, Chris Steel, announced that Stage 2 would be divided into two parts, 2A to stop before Lake Burley Griffin at Commonwealth Park and 2B to continue across the lake to Woden. The line will be 11 kilometres long, with 12 new stops along the route.

The Federal Government, through the National Capital Authority (NCA), granted works approval in 2023 to extend the network.

The National Capital Authority has a key role in planning the future of the city. It has three core responsibilities, which are planning the capital, promoting the capital, and maintaining and enhancing the capital. The NCA considered a variety of different criteria, such as the quality of the public realm, community amenity, environment, heritage, and landscape values when approving Stage 2A of the project.

Work on Stage 2A is planned to commence in late 2024.

The existing trams will be retrofitted with batteries. IMAGE: Canberra Metro

Construction and testing is expected to take approximately three years, with services commencing from January 2028.

The 2A project is funded by the Australian Government and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government. 

Canberra Metro was awarded the $577 million contract following a single select procurement process, generating revenue of approximately $227.5m for CPB Contractors and UGL.

The project will see three new stops built at Edinburgh Avenue, City South and Commonwealth Avenue, extending the network by 1.7 kilometres – providing a greater connection between the city and the lake.

The Stage 2A “catenary-free”, or wireless extension, will be delivered under Canberra Metro’s existing public private partnership (PPP) with the ACT Government.

Stage 2 also includes:

construction of five new light rail vehicles;

retrofitting 14 vehicles with onboard batteries; and

building an expanded depot at Mitchell (expected completion early 2024).

Enabling road works for Stage 2 also include the $60 million Raising London Circuit project, which involves a series of works to raise the southern portion of London Circuit by six metres to form an at-grade intersection with Commonwealth Avenue (expected completion late 2024).

It was estimated in 2020 that Stage 2 of the project will cost $1.9 billion. The network is projected to move 39,000 passengers a day as Canberra’s population grows to over half a million people.

Stage 2B

Light Rail Stage 2B Commonwealth Park to Woden will extend the network to complete a north-south public transport link from Gungahlin, through the City Centre and on to Woden. Stage 2B will deliver at least nine new stops between Commonwealth Park and Woden.

Light rail vehicles will cross Lake Burley Griffin via a new bridge constructed between the existing Commonwealth Avenue bridges, travel through the National Triangle, and along Adelaide Avenue and Yarra Glen.

The ACT Government’s preferred alignment is to take light rail past Parliament House via State Circle. However, alternative stop options in the National Triangle and Barton are also being studied to ensure the project can be flexible and responsive as planning work progresses.

Different alignment and stop options deliver different opportunities in accessing employment and cultural institutions, place enhancement and urban renewal. Similarly, they each present different challenges in approvals processes, technical considerations, design, and construction.

Consultation with the community and stakeholders on Stage 2B has been ongoing since 2017, with more community consultation planned in 2024 as environmental approvals progress.

Views captured through community engagement will be used to inform the Environmental Impact Statement and draft Concept Design.

ARA

The Australasian Railway Association (ARA) has thrown its support behind stage 2B of the project. It said the project will be a catalyst for continued urban renewal, delivering economic, social and environmental benefits to the local community.

The ARA CEO Caroline Wilkie said claims that the Light Rail Stage 2B is not cost effective simply do not take into consideration the long-term economic benefits light rail delivers beyond providing an efficient public transport solution.

“Light rail projects in Australia and across the globe have consistently shown to dramatically transform communities, driving urban renewal and growth along its corridor, supporting better housing and job opportunities,” she said.

“As with heavy and metro rail, investment in light rail infrastructure provides certainty to the community and local businesses, encouraging land development and increasing property values.

“For example, the first stage of the Canberra light rail project facilitated hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment and completely transformed the gateway corridor into the nation’s capital. This level of revitalisation simply does not happen without the investment certainty that light rail infrastructure provides.”