Opinion / Why light rail’s not worth the ride

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LIGHT rail is a billion dollar public transport promotion for the Barr government’s vision for land use in Canberra.

John L Smith, chairman of CanTheTram.
John L Smith, chairman of CanTheTram.

The government intends to “invest in corridors” and “use light rail as demand driving infrastructure to help shape the way the city grows with higher density”.

Instead of each town being a major hub with substantial employment and services to the benefit of the majority of citizens, land use in Canberra is to be dominated by corridors lined with multi-storey buildings radiating from Civic.

Gungahlin is being treated as a dormitory for workers in Civic. A more sustainable plan would be to build the economy of the towns, thus reducing the number of out-of-town work trips, and leading to more manageable public and private transport demands.

If the government’s current plans prevail and the street-level tram line between Gungahlin and Civic is built, most of Gungahlin will be beyond the catchment area of the tram and commuters will still have to be served by bus to an interchange. This will be a worse service for many commuters than the current rapid bus service.

The government claims that the 2016 equivalent cost of the project is $939 million. This is based on an extreme discounting of future payments to the contractor. A 2016 cost of $1.3 billion is a more realistic estimate of the $1.78 billion, 20-year cost identified by the auditor-general.

The estimated net present value of revenue over the 20 years of operation of the tram line is $130 million. The patronage is estimated at 6.3 million passengers per annum, meaning that each trip will receive a $9.30 subsidy. The equivalent figures for ACTION in 2014-15 were 18 million trips, revenue of $26.7 million and expenditure of $144.5 million, resulting in a subsidy of $6.50 per trip.

Some people talk about the comfort of a tram, but twice as many people are seated on buses. Trams will have capacity for 207 passengers of whom only 66 will be seated. Bicycles will be carried inside the tram, reducing the capacity and comfort accordingly.

The peak-hour tram services will run at six-minute intervals, giving a service capacity of about 2000 passengers an hour with just 30 per cent seated.

The capacity of the peak-hour bus services operating between all Gungahlin suburbs and the city already exceeds 2000 passengers per hour. Much more seating (over 60 per cent of capacity) is provided on buses and many of the services are direct express.

Gungahlin’s population is predicted to increase by 35,000 (over 2011 statistics) by 2031 and continue to increase. Similarly, the population in North Canberra is predicted to increase so that there would be a doubling of commuters to Civic sometime in the 2030’s decade. The government’s business case for light rail expects that the commencement service will be operating at full capacity of 2000 passengers per hour in 2021. Tram services cannot be increased sufficiently to carry the increase in commuters likely before the Canberra Metro contract expires in 2040 because it would ultimately require the operation of trams at two-minute intervals. Increasing the size or frequency of street-level trams is fraught with many problems, especially because priority to trams causes delays and congestion to road traffic in the wider network. Moreover, street-level tram services inevitably get slower as population increases.

The tram route will contribute very little, if anything, to meeting journey to school requirements. The one kilometre walking distance to a tram stop that defines the catchment area would not be feasible for many aged, young or infirm people. People don’t want their exercise when they are in a hurry to get to work!

The government’s submission to Infrastructure Australia acknowledged that busways can be built at half the cost of light rail. If busways follow the parkways, then express services could avoid the delays due to road intersections and provide true rapid transit with high capacity. Busways are suited to the introduction of the automated fleets of the future.

The government wants to expand the Gungahlin-Civic light rail link into a network nearly seven times in length in order to reach the other towns. Scaling the present cost for the Gungahlin-Civic link of $1.3 billion yields a present cost of $9 billion, a waste of money that we cannot afford on a network that will be too slow and lack the capacity to serve Canberra in decades to come.

John L Smith is chairman, CanTheTram Inc. canthetram.org.au

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  1. Another problem for the tram system is that it will very likely become a “white elephant” well before the end of the contract period. Technologies like autonomous vehicles & overhead rapid transit will turn the trams into “stranded assets”, but the tram contract will certainly contain a clause guaranteeing payment regardless of falling patronage. , So we will keep paying long after the expensive rails become rusting relics.

  2. No mention of the reduction in emissions from a light rail network in this article. And being able to take your bicycle on the light rail is a good thing, possibly with a dedicated area for their storage.

    • Construction of the light rail network will be a big emissions contributor not compensated by decades of operation.
      Have a think about wheeling your bicycle into a crowded tram – no external bike racks on trams.

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