Moore / Now, let’s get light rail right

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capital metro feature cropTHE light rail has been approved by the community. Now, let’s get it right and not make the mistakes of the Gungahlin Drive Extension (GDE).

Michael Moore
Michael Moore.

Remember the political decision on Gungahlin Drive? Deliver the cheaper version was the conclusion. Gungahlin Drive started as a single lane in each direction and, even by the time it was built, it was obvious that it was hopelessly inadequate. Gungahlin Drive simply did not meet the design needs or the aspirations of the community.

It should be a salutary lesson for the fifth consecutive Labor government in the ACT. The Gungahlin Drive mistake was made by the first of the Labor governments. As mentioned years ago in this column: “The failure to duplicate the GDE was an attempt to find a compromise with the very vocal and politically savvy Save the Ridge group, which was largely based around O’Connor”.

There will be details around the light rail that are bound to cause some ire amongst some in the community. We should remember the damage of the Save the Ridge group.

As also pointed out in the past: “They were simply trying to stop any road for fear of adverse impact on their homes and the land around the ridge”. And the single-lane Gungahlin Drive met short-term budget needs of the government. In the end, the GDE and the Glenloch Interchange had to be done… but short-term savings and political expediency resulted in a far, far greater expenditure in the long run.

This time the vocal groups over light rail will be those who want to spend the least possible money on light rail instead of getting it right.

Hopefully, there has been some important lessons learnt in the meantime. Our expenditure on capital infrastructure must be seen differently from the day-to-day living expenses in the recurrent part of the Budget. It is sensible for homeowners to take out a mortgage on their homes so that they can enjoy living in their home while they paying it off. Similarly, it is sensible for governments to borrow on infrastructure so that it can be useful now and for generations to come.

Getting the light rail right means not being caught up in nostalgia. We should not be looking at the slow, rattler trams of the past with their ugly overhead wires. Canberra should expect a comfortable, swift and modern light-rail system with modern inclusions. The modern light rail should be able to handle wheelchair access, to have Wi-Fi available, to be air-conditioned in summer and heated in winter.

Canberra is a city of great beauty. It must not be blighted by overhead wires. They are not necessary and inconsistent with Canberra’s planning. Even the older suburbs have wires hidden at the back of our blocks and more recent suburbs avoid the blight by burying them. Overhead light-rail wires, no matter how they are arranged, are ugly. They are inappropriate for Canberra.

The route of the light rail will be a measure of its success. The Gungahlin to Civic route is known. The next phases to Woden and the one to Russell offices and the airport should be on the drawing board as should Belconnen and Tuggeranong. Crossing the lake should not mean losing traffic lanes. One option is to reinforce Commonwealth Avenue Bridge and run along the centre. On the one hand, the route must be useful to as many as possible. On the other hand, the balance has to be made to ensure that it can operate as swiftly as possible.

Trees are another factor. The easiest way to build is to remove all the trees in a site and then plant new ones. This has been suggested for Northbourne Avenue. Even home builders in Canberra are not permitted to randomly remove long-term trees. Without having overhead wires it should be possible to preserve the tree line that marks a major entrance to the city. Replanting mature roadscape trees means losing the best part of half a century of growth and beauty.

We are going to have light rail. Let’s make it the best possible.


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Michael Moore
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with "CityNews" since 2006.


  1. Mr. Moore, can you offer up any alternatives that are as reliable and cost-effective as overhead wires? There doesn’t seem to be much of an alternative at this point in time. Conduit collection systems are unreliable and expensive to implement, electrification of rails is unsafe in a light rail configuration, induction is only offered by a single company (Bombadier) and capacitor technology isn’t there at the moment.

    I understand you have an aesthetic objection to overhead wires but I’m yet to see a reasonable alternative that’s available now.

  2. The main justification for spending money on light rail is that it will help Labor to meet its other 2012 election commitment “to increasing the public transport share of all work trips to 10.5% by 2016 and 16% by 2026.”

    The awkwardly named ACT Transport Demand Elasticities Study identified that the most effective ways to get more people onto public transport are:
    1. Increase parking charges (will the ACT follow the lead set in the Parliamentary Triangle by the Feds?)
    2. Reduce in-vehicle travel time
    3. Reduce walking time (the Government plans to increase walking time, by removing 8 of the 21 stops along the route)
    4. Reduce fares
    5. Reduce wait time (Allowing buses along Northbourne Avenue will avoid wait times due to unnecessary bus-tram transfers.)

  3. Another good article, as usual. The use of overhead wires is interesting. CMA were asked in several forums about the NCA’s banning of overhead wires in their areas of responsibility. The answer was that every tram will be fitted with sufficient battery capacity to travel to Russell and across the lake under battery. Fast recharging may be needed at several stops e.g. the trip between Civic and Russell would need one fast recharge stop.

    Questions were then asked about why Northbourne Ave couldn’t also be free of overhead wires. The answers were a bit evasive but “not planned” and “unnecessary” crept in.

    You hope our trams will be “swift”. I am afraid we have already missed that boat. The trams on order have a manufacturer’s design speed limit of 70km/hr. This means the trip to Woden will be substantially slower than the buses which currently travel express at 80 to 90 km/hr and are perfectly capable of 100 km/hr. Then again, the fastest Light Rail in Australia is on the Gold Coast with an average end-to-end speed of 23km/hr. Trams are never “swift”.

    “Comfortable” will be OK if you are among the 30% who will have a seat, compared with the 60% who get a seat on a bus. The rest are standing.

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