Submission on the Canberra Light Rail Network Plan

The Weston Creek Community Council has lodged a Submission on the Canberra Light Rail network Plan.  The WCCC does not support the Civic to Gungahlin light rail route as an appropriate Stage 1 Route for Canberra. This corridor is simply too biased in favour of one side of Canberra, and doesn’t service enough people and key destinations to be viable.

The Gungahlin line is essentially a commuter line that stands to run empty for most of the day. The only advantages of the Gungahlin route, even according to the Light Rail Network Plan documentation, appear to have to do with real estate development, urban densification and land sales potential, rather than evidence based public transport reasons.

Our main issue with the design of the proposed Civic – Molonglo – Weston Creek – Woden route is that it is essentially too slow, indirect and next to useless for Weston Creek residents in particular.  It has been WCCC’s position for many years that to incentivise the people of Weston Creek and Molonglo to take up public transport in greater numbers what’s required is a transport corridor which uses the most direct route to the city bye-passing Woden.

Mr Simon Corbell
Deputy Chief Minister and Minister for Capital Metro,
ACT Legislative Assembly
CANBERRA CITY   ACT   2601                                       11 December 2015
TransportPlanning@act.gov.au

Submission on the Canberra Light Rail Network Plan

The Weston Creek Community Council (WCCC) welcomes the opportunity to input into the Canberra Light Rail Network Plan.

However, we, like the rest of the community, would also have liked to have a say on where Stage 1 of the light rail was to run before it was decided unilaterally and without any consultation. It’s great that this consultation is occurring now, but we think it really should have happened before the City to Gungahlin route was selected for stage 1.

 Stage 1 route

The WCCC does not support the Civic to Gungahlin light rail route as an appropriate Stage 1 Route for Canberra. This corridor is simply too biased in favour of one side of Canberra, and doesn’t service enough people and key destinations to be viable. Successful light rail routes around the world service a number of key nodes along their routes [pearls as someone recently said] – universities, hospitals, trains stations, airports, tourism destinations, etc. – which ensure sufficient patronage throughout the day, in both directions. The Gungahlin line by contrast has none of these along its route and is essentially a commuter line that stands to run empty for most of the day. The only advantages of the Gungahlin route, even according to the Light Rail Network Plan documentation, appear to have to do with real estate development, urban densification and land sales potential, rather than evidence based public transport reasons.

The Canberra Light Rail Network Plan contains a lot of “fluffy” words with regard to the Gungahlin route, but no actual evidence (vague references to a marginal Business Case, which many economists have pointed out has overstated the benefits and underestimated the costs and which is clearly not evidence). In many ways a rapid bus system would be more suitable for the Gungahlin corridor, delivering arguably superior transport outcomes (due to the flexibility of buses, and maximum higher speeds compared to light rail) for much lower cost.

Certainly several cost benefit analyses which had been undertaken (including by the ACT Government) to compare light rail to bus rapid transit in the Gungahlin corridor demonstrated that bus rapid transit delivered much more “bang for the buck” than light rail. It therefore has to be asked: why is the government rejecting its own evidence and analysis and proceeding with the most expensive infrastructure project in ACT history, yet one which also benefits a tiny minority of people – some estimate as few as 5% of the ACT Population.

WCCC is of the view that if light rail is to proceed in Canberra it has to be based on evidence and consultation – not the unilateral preference of a group of politicians and developer interests. It should also be designed to be of benefit the city as a whole, not one corner of it only.

 Potential future routes

Putting aside our concerns with the Gungahlin route, the Light Rail Network Plan does a reasonable job of identifying a number of potential future light rail routes for Canberra and identifying the pros (but not so much the cons) of each. The one exception is the route most relevant to WCCC – the Weston Creek to Molonglo route. WCCC completely disagrees with the proposed design. WCCC has made this argument to the ACT Government before in a number of submissions, including when the Transport for Canberra policy was being developed (see http://www.westoncreek.org.au/weston-creek-community-council-submission/), but our concerns were completely ignored at the time. This future proposed transport corridor is a poor choice for rapid buses, and an even worse option for light rail.

 Disappointment over poorly conceived City – Molonglo – Weston Creek – Woden route

Our main issue with the design of the proposed Civic – Molonglo – Weston Creek – Woden route is that it is essentially too slow, indirect and next to useless for Weston Creek residents in particular. As such, considering the gargantuan costs involved, it is either never going to get built, or if it gets built hardly anyone is going to use it and a lot of money will have been wasted. All because the people with local knowledge – i.e. local residents and the groups that represent them, like the WCCC – had not been listened to from the outset.

The proposed route leaves Civic to travel westwards parallel to Parkes Way for many kilometres, along a narrow strip sandwiched between Lake Burley Griffin and Black Mountain, then passing through Glenloch Interchange and down William Hovell Drive. This stretch of the route has a permanent human population of approximately zero, with absolutely no development potential.

For light rail to be viable, it requires regular, popular stops and high population densities lining the route, or at least potential to develop such densities. This clearly isn’t the case in this precinct. Furthermore, light rail speeds are capped at 70kmh, so light rail would not have a speed advantage over a bus travelling this route.

Later on the route enters Molonglo – but it enters the district from the north, and that part of it which will not be developed for decades. As light rail will not be built through empty farm fields, this suggests that the Government is not serious about building this line for a very long time indeed.

By the time the circuitous, leisurely tram plying this route rolls into the Molongo suburbs of Wright and Coombs perhaps 30 to 40 mins would have passed since Civic. In that time it would have been possible to drive there from the City two or even three times. By the time the tram rolls into Weston – well, forget about it. No one except the most dedicated trainspotter would opt to travel from Weston Creek to the City via Molonglo; it would simply take too long.

It would be faster to catch a tram or bus to Woden, and change for another tram, but the hassle of changing trams would push many people away from this option and they’d opt to drive instead. Bus use in Weston Creek is already notoriously low for that very reason – people don’t like interchanging at Woden when they can jump in their cars and drive directly to the city in a fraction of the time, or at peak times board a direct Xpresso service down Cotter Road. We see Government adds for Land Sales in Molonglo stating that ‘you are only 10 minutes from Woden and 15 minutes from the City, of course this is by car.

It has been WCCC’s position for many years that to incentivise the people of Weston Creek and Molonglo to take up public transport in greater numbers what’s required is a transport corridor which runs not down to Woden on Hindmarsh Dr, or via Parkes Way in the other direction, but down the most direct route to the city – Cotter Rd.

This route should be used by all-day frequent buses now, and light rail when it is built, if that ever happens. And if the Cotter Road route is chosen, light rail is much more likely to be built to Weston Creek / Molonglo as it’d be a much faster, more direct, more popular route. It would also be much cheaper, as there’d be less water crossings, and the number of kilometres of track would be a lot less (it could link up with the Adelaide Ave line from Woden at Curtin/Deakin/Yarralumla, so it wouldn’t even have to go all the way to the city).

The line could also be designed to service key employment nodes in the Deakin precinct. There is also much more development potential in this corridor than along Parkes Way. Even considering branching the line at the junction of the Cotter Road and Streeton Drive to separately service Weston Creek to/from Cooleman Court and Molonglo to/from the Group Centre. Probably no need then for the line to come along Hindmarsh Drive.

It’s important to note here that the Xpresso buses that use the Cotter Rd corridor from Weston Creek/Molonglo to and from the city are extremely popular and their popularity is growing – in contrast to the unloved, slow buses that backtrack to Woden and rely on interchanging to get anywhere.

If the ACT is truly serious about delivering high quality, efficient public transport that the people of Weston Creek and Molonglo actually want to use, it should shift the proposed public transport corridor to the Cotter Rd, with frequent or rapid buses plying this route in the first instance followed by light rail when the numbers justify it. The Parkes Way – Molonglo – Weston Creek – Molonglo light rail route on offer at the moment makes little sense and would not deliver sufficient transport benefits considering the expense involved.   However, a Cotter Rd alignment may well make economic sense down the track.

 Rollout of routes

Below is our assessment of the routes identified in the Light Rail Network Plan, roughly in order of rollout priority as we see it:

 

  1. Woden to Civic. If Civic to Gungahlin light rail is to proceed, this line should be the highest priority for Stage 2. Given that Stages 1 and 2 (i.e. the Russell extension) of light rail are skewed in favour of the Northside (a huge failure of planning and politics which is in part responsible for the unpopularity of the Capital Metro project). It is important to take light rail south of the lake as soon as possible. Woden is the most obvious route as it’s one of the most well-utilised bus routes in the ACT. Through the Woden interchange it also has a significant catchment and would be of benefit to Weston Creek, Woden as well as some Tuggeranong residents. Another benefit of this route is the ease of build, as the line would likely follow the generous Adelaide Ave road reservation.

On the downside, crossing the lake is a problem and likely to be very expensive and result in the loss of lanes on the bridge for cars. As overhead wires won’t be allowed on the bridges, this will add to costs. The Adelaide Ave median is also difficult to access for local residents and stations there will require pedestrian overpasses or underpasses though we have seen the “Adelaide Avenue Bus Stops Feasibility Study in 2014” that evaluated three potential stops along Yarra Glen at Yarra Glen and Carruthers Street, Adelaide Avenue and Kent/Novar Street and Adelaide Avenue and Hopetoun Circuit as part of an express bus proposal. Given buses already travel this route very quickly and efficiently and with bus lanes nowhere near capacity, it’s also not clear what transport benefits light rail along this route would bring. Certainly, given light rail has lower maximum speeds than a bus it’s bound to take longer to travel from Woden to Civic than a bus.

  1. Belconnen to Civic. Many think this should have been the Stage 1 route instead of Gungahlin. Belconnen has the biggest population in Canberra, far bigger than Gungahlin. The Belconnen to Civic bus route is already the most popular in the ACT, and one of the most popular in Australia. Because the proposed route passes two universities, a hospital, a stadium and the AIS it ticks all the boxes and certainly is likely to have been more viable (and be more popular among commuters as well as the public at large) than the harder to justify Gungahlin commuter route. Several reports have previously identified this route as the most suitable and viable Stage 1 route for Canberra, so it’s strange that the Government did not opt to build this line first.

Unlike the quick Woden to Civic bus trip, the Belconnen to Civic bus route is slowed down by a number of traffic lights and right hand turns. There is potential for light rail to be faster than the bus in this case. On the downside, the route involves steep gradients in parts, which may not be ideal for light rail, with design (and cost) implications. The reason we ranked the Belconnen line below Woden in this case is because of Gungahlin – if the Gungahlin line is built it’s important to build another line south of the lake as a matter of priority, otherwise light rail looks like a Northside only luxury. Having several stages servicing the Northside would not only be a very bad look but also potentially politically unsustainable. However, if Gungahlin-Civic wasn’t built first, Belconnen would be the best Stage 1 option. It’s not clear why the Belconnen to City corridor is not listed as a priority corridor in the Light Rail Network Plan when it has more going for it than any other.

  1. The Parliamentary Triangle to Kingston. A Parliamentary Triangle line also should have been considered as a prime candidate for Stage 1. This is a relatively short line yet it would service very significant employment and tourism centres and link them to Civic. The line would be the closest in Canberra to the kinds of light rail lines in place in many European cities – servicing closely spaced, popular destinations in inner city precincts at relatively slow speed. This line would also be more likely to receive Federal funding than other lines. Constraints include crossing the lake – it’s not clear how this would be done and at what cost. Another issue is impact on the visual amenity of the Parliamentary Triangle if trams are to include overhead wires, which would destroy views in the area. However, wireless systems add to tram weight and cost.
  1. Eastern Connections – Fyshwick and Airport. WCCC agrees that a connection to the Airport and Brindabella Business Park would be quite important early on and a legitimate priority, but only after at least two of the above lines are built. It’s not clear from the Light Rail Network Plan why the Fyshwick line is considered a priority, other than a generous median strip on Canberra Avenue and real estate. On the available evidence we do not believe it deserves its priority status, should not be lumped with the Airport line under the same heading, and should be moved closer to the bottom of the list
  1. Weston Creek and Molonglo to Civic. As argued earlier above, if the route was amended to go down Cotter Road to Civic instead of the circuitous routes proposed at present, such a line would be relatively inexpensive and could be built quite early on. It might actually be popular, especially with sufficient park and rides on Cotter Rd and other locations bringing district residents to the corridor. Given the massive amounts of medium and high density development planned for Molonglo over coming years and decades, frequent mass transit (whether light rail or rapid buses) would make sense– but not along the alignment proposed in the Light Rail Network Plan. As we have said before, this would not be very direct and useful for Weston Creek and Molonglo residents, most of whom would still opt to drive. Because of poor route design at present, this line has unfortunately less chance of being built than any other line in Canberra. However, if the route was changed as we recommend, it would have a much bigger chance of success.

 Tuggeranong to Woden. If light rail is rolled out everywhere else, it will be important to extend it to Tuggeranong as well. However it’s not at all clear what advantage light rail would have in this corridor over buses. Given the distances involved and the suburban, low density layout of Tuggeranong, it has to be asked whether slow, frequently stopping light rail is at all suitable. Buses currently cover this district much faster and more efficiently than light rail could hope to. All this could change if there is significant densification planned for Tuggeranong’s transport corridors – a key consideration which could dramatically turn the viability of this corridor around.

 Cost

The big omission from the Canberra Light Rail Network Plan is cost. There is simply no discussion of it. The document admits costs of the routes outlined in the Plan have not been estimated. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to have an informed discussion on future light rail routes and which lines should be rolled out next without cost estimates as, in the end, that’s what will determine whether a line is built or not and this includes the tax burden on the community.

The fact is, the likely cost of the light rail network proposed in the plan is mind-bogglingly huge. All the lines add up to almost 100km of light rail. Using the cost of the 12km Civic to Gungahlin route as a benchmark, the infrastructure cost is likely to be close to $10 billion in today’s dollars. It may be even higher because some of the other proposed routes are more complicated builds than the Gungahlin route, involving bridge crossings, no overhead wiring, etc.

On top of that you have ongoing running costs, public-private partnership interest payments, etc. How will all this be funded? Who will pay for it? How much more will rates have to increase to pay for it? Or will services be cut? All for a transport system that on most routes delivers little advantage over rapid buses – and in fact over longer suburban distances will be slower than a bus service. Good arguments could be made for implementing light rail over inner urban areas with closely spaced employment nodes, educational institutions and tourism destinations, but extending it all through Canberra’s spread-out suburbs just doesn’t seem to add up. It just seems to blow the cost out for what we consider to be negligible benefit.

Perhaps if cost estimates were provided in the plan, along with a strategy articulating how future lines would be funded, it could be shown that a Canberra-wide light rail network would make sense. At the moment though, in the absence of such evidence, it all just appears too pie-in-the-sky and unlikely to happen.

 What if there are no future light rail routes and we’re stuck with Stage 1 only?

From WCCC’s perspective, the big risk is that the ACT Government proceeds with its poorly conceived Stage 1 route from Gungahlin to Civic and this build ends up being more complicated, expensive and unpopular than imagined. The experience could end up so bad and the budget so depleted that no future Government would dare to go near any future light rail routes in the short to medium term. The outcome being that Canberra is stuck with a one sided light rail line servicing one part of the city only, while everyone else is left out.

This would not have happened if a more sensible, evidence based route was chosen for Stage 1, or if the people were taken on board from the beginning through community consultation rather than the decision being made by Government alone. A popular, viable Stage 1 would have maximised the chances of future stages being built. An unpopular, political one lessens the chances of future routes, and exacerbates the divide between Northside and Southside, between public transport winners and losers (who’ll just have to foot the bill).

Canberra’s troubled light rail experience highlights the importance of community consultation and basing key decisions on robust and transparent evidence rather than political whims. All the problems the Government is experiencing could have been avoided, and we could have had a much better and more smoothly implemented public transport system, if the Government used evidence-based decision making processes, and consulted with the people right from the beginning, rather than making the biggest infrastructure spending decision in ACT history behind closed doors, for reasons which remain mysterious, and telling people about it only after the fact.

Council and the community look forward to WCCC’s feedback being taken on board. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Kind regards

Tom Anderson
Chair
Weston Creek Community Council

CC
Mr Andrew Barr, Chief Minister
Mr Shane Rattenbury, Minister assisting the Chief Minister on Transport Reform
Mr Mick Gentleman, Minister for Planning
Mr Jeremy Hanson, Leader of the Opposition
Mr Alistair Coe, Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Transport
Ms Guilia Jones MLA, Member for Molonglo

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