Spinning wheels on light rail

17/08/2015 - 10:31

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SPECIAL REPORT: The Committee for Perth has suggested an alternative route might be the best way forward for Perth's promised light rail network; part of our ten page feature on infrastructure.

Spinning wheels on light rail
CREATIVE: Marion Fulker says the government could consider another route for the light rail project. Photo: Attila Csaszar

The future of the MAX light rail system is one of several unanswered questions as Perth seeks to build infrastructure for its transportation and cultural needs.

Perth's population has grown by more than 500,000 during the past decade, and that demographic change is driving discussion (and challenging governments) about how best to cater to the city’s future infrastructure demands.

Over four years allocated in the recent budget, the state government plans to spend at least $5.5 billion on investment in public transport and roads in the metropolitan area, including the Forrestfield Airport Rail Link and Perth Freight Link, in a bid to prepare for the next period of growth.

However, doubts remain regarding the effectiveness of the Roe 8 extension, with suggestions it may create a bottleneck at Fremantle Port and won’t cater to any expanded cargo facilities in Kwinana.

Meanwhile, on the Burswood Peninsula and surrounds, the new stadium could ignite a revitalisation similar to that of the Perth Arena.

Power infrastructure also plays a vital role in any future plans, and Horizon Power’s Frank Tudor talks to Business News about privatisation, electricity tariffs and responding to technological change.

From an industry perspective, the Australian Marine Complex at Henderson will create some opportunities, with excess capacity from the mining slowdown potentially being used for naval contracts.

See also: Contractors Update

Transport

The flagship public transport debate, however, is about the option of light rail.

Despite earlier touting a start date of 2018, the state’s deteriorating financial position has prompted the government to delay the MAX light rail project, which had been planned to head from the city to Mirrabooka.

With some extra time up its sleeve, the government is rethinking the efficacy of light rail compared with alternatives such as rapid bus transport.

Committee for Perth chief executive Marion Fulker backed light rail, but said the government might be better to target a different route for its first such project to maximise its potential.

“My research shows you’ve got to connect two big user groups together,” Ms Fulker told Business News.

“That means that your light rail carriages are full both ways.”

A route such as that planned for MAX, heading into Perth’s inner north, might experience good patronage but asset utilisation would be lower because most journeys would be in one direction.

In morning peak hour, for example, it might be packed travelling from Mirrabooka to the city, while carriages making the return journey would be fairly empty until the evening peak.

Considering that, Ms Fulker said, it might be better to use express buses providing fast, point-to-point service along that northern corridor in the short term.

She said light rail would be a superior alternative to Transport Minister Dean Nalder’s proposal of rapid bus transit, which would work as a quasi light-rail system and require costly infrastructure of its own.

“If you do a stage one (of light rail) that doesn’t prove the benefits you’ll never get a stage two,” Ms Fulker said. “You’ve really got to think about where that stage one goes.”

An alternative would be an east-west link through the city, from Victoria Park bus interchange to the University of Western Australia.

There would then be potential to extending south-east from Victoria Park to Curtin University.

The westward line would likely head down Kings Park Road or Hay Street then on to Thomas Street past the QEII hospital, according to the government’s original ‘wishbone’ blueprint.

That would have the additional benefit of potentially covering West Perth, where the very popular red cat bus route operates.

A route from the city to UWA would be about six kilometres, while the journey in the other direction, to Curtin University, would be around 9km.

State government estimates for the 21km light rail line to Mirrabooka come in at $2 billion.

Light rail flow-on

Light rail proponents also point to the flow-through effect the infrastructure has on urban development along its route.

“Renewal of downtown cities is a global phenomenon at the moment, but it is facilitated by a good public transport offering,” Ms Fulker said.

Buses don’t engender the same degree of enthusiasm among the development community.

“What we’re trying to do is create those urban environments, we don’t have enough of them,” Ms Fulker said. “This is a suburban city.”

She said evidence suggested people would be willing to make trade-offs and move closer to the city if they could cut commute times.

“The more that you try and emulate light rail the smaller (the cost difference) gets,” Ms Fulker said.

The state government, however, is reviewing its options.

At a recent Committee for Economic Development of Australia lunch, Mr Nalder indicated the government was committed to a MAX-type project, despite contrary reports in the media.

Nonetheless, what form the project took needed more consideration, he said.

“If we gave a bus dedicated space, if we got the bi-articulated bus that looked like a light rail and did everything that a light rail could do … could it deliver exactly the same customer experience could it deliver the same economic uplift?” he said.

“There’s suggestions that we could do that and deliver it at less than 50 per cent of the cost.”

Doing so would free up around $1 billion for other projects, including extending the Butler rail line to Yanchep or building a rapid bus service to Ellenbrook.

Other alternatives include the Mandurah-Thornlie rail line or a rail line to Bellevue.

An additional complication would be the need for subsidies during the operation of the service, with the state government currently allocating $800 million a year to reduce ticket prices.

A service with higher operating cost would need higher subsidies for a given ticket price.

The existing express bus operation on Beaufort Street has been very successful, Mr Nalder said, with a 39 per cent increase in patronage since the 950 route came into service.

Otherwise, Mr Nalder said there were a number of smart technological solutions that could improve Perth’s transport system.

Main Roads, for example is working on 48 projects to improve utilisation of roadways, while the Public Transport Authority is using GPS tracking on buses to deliver real-time information, through the Transperth app, to users.


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