Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Perth grapples with growth and funding challenges

Written by  Mark Carter, Regional editor

The Western Australian capital city of Perth is experiencing rapid population growth which is placing ever greater demand on its public transport infrastructure. Regional editor Mark Carter considers the current state of play for the city's rapid transit ambitions.

PERTH's population is expected to grow by 40% to an estimated 2.65 million people by 2031, and the Western Australian government is now advancing a number of rail-based public transport initiatives to cater for this increase while developing plans for other major projects to handle future growth.

Indeed these plans follow a number of infrastructure projects and improvements to expand and enhance the TransPerth suburban rail network in the past decade and have resulted in patronage more than doubling from 31.1 million passengers in 2003-04 to 65.7 million in 2012-13.

A significant proportion of this growth comes from the 21.2m annual trips made on the 70km Perth to Mandurah rail line which has become the flagship for further urban rail improvements in Perth since it opened in 2007.

Other projects that have enhanced the network include the recently-completed sinking of the Fremantle rail line, which involved boring a new tunnel beneath the city centre as part of the Perth City Link project that commenced in August 2011. The first trains to use the link ran in August this year, well ahead of the original mid-2014 completion date.

The $A 360m ($US 335m) project was funded jointly by the state and federal governments and the City of Perth, and forms part of a broader set of works to regenerate and improve access to the city centre by linking it to the adjacent inner-city suburb of Northbridge.

The 600m-long tunnel is the first in Australia to use an overhead conductor rail, which eliminates the need for masts, bracing arms and other catenary infrastructure. By adopting this system, it was possible to construct the Fremantle line tunnel just 1.2m above the existing Joondalup rail line tunnel.

Work is continuing on the 7.5km northern extension of the Clarkson line to Butler, which will serve Perth's rapidly growing northwestern suburbs. The $A 240m project includes expanding the existing Clarkson station, a new park-and-ride train and bus interchange at Butler with approximately 930 parking spaces, and 11 new buses to provide feeder services into Butler and Clarkson stations.

Passenger services are expected to start by the end of 2014 and, as is the case with many of Perth's urban rail projects, transit-oriented development opportunities are being pursued to positively influence land use around stations.Perth 8629-Hoyle

The continuing growth in patronage on the TransPerth network is highlighted by the planned station at Aubin Grove on the Mandurah line with $A 56m earmarked for the project in this year's Western Australia state budget.

The new station, with an accompanying 2000-bay car park and bus interchange, will be built close to the local freeway exits, between the existing stations at Cockburn Central and Kwinana.

Increased land development in the surrounding areas has accelerated the need for a new station and government analysis shows that around 30% of parking demand at Cockburn Central already originates from areas within the catchment of the planned Aubin Grove station.

To cope with the increased patronage, 22 new three-car trains, including two additional three-car trains to accommodate patronage generated by the Aubin Grove development, are on order from a Bombardier/Downer joint venture. The initial order, placed in July 2011, was for 15 three-car sets but this was ramped up to 17 in August 2012 and then 22 in November 2012 to cope with rising demand. The deal is now worth a total of $A 243m.

The trains are being built at Downer's plant in Maryborough, Queensland, and the first set arrived in Perth in August. The remaining trains will be delivered over the next three years.

Major projects

The cornerstone of the state government's draft plan "Public Transport for Perth in 2031" is the $A 1.9bn Metro Area Express (Max) light rail project, which is arguably the most ambitious of several light rail plans for major Australian cities, especially considering that it is well over 50 years since Perth's last tram routes closed.

The government says Max will provide a prioritised high-capacity public transport link between major activity centres and the city centre, which will improve commuter travel times and reduce congestion. It is also set to act as a catalyst for urban consolidation.

Located between the Joondalup and Midland heavy rail lines, the Central Northern Corridor was identified in the draft plan as a priority for rapid transit services because it is a key public transport corridor not currently served by any high-capacity public transport.

Alexander Drive, which forms the backbone of the corridor, is currently one of Perth's busiest bus corridors. However, it has reached capacity and is unable to meet current and future demand.

The proposed 22km light rail route will run between Mirrabooka in the north and through the city centre before splitting into two branches - to Queen Elizabeth II Medical Centre (QEII) in the west and to Victoria Park transfer station via the Causeway in the east.

Max runs on a dedicated alignment along most of its route and trams will have priority at signalled intersections. Raised platforms will be standard, while ticketing will be fully integrated with TransPerth's existing SmartRider system, including the Free Transit Zone through the city centre.

Project costs of $A 432m were incorporated in the current forward budget estimates and construction is due to commence in 2016 with completion scheduled for 2019.

As demand increases, possible future extensions may include links from QEII to Glendalough and Stirling stations; the Causeway to the new Perth Stadium in Burswood; and the Causeway to Curtin University. However, feasibility studies are yet to take place and funding is still to be secured for these projects.

In addition to the light rail scheme, plans have also been resurrected to extend the TransPerth network through to Perth Airport, which is located in the east of the city, in anticipation of future growth in airport patronage and to support sustainable population growth in the newer eastern suburbs.

Originally proposed back in 2008, the airport link was subsequently dropped from planning briefs, only to re-emerge during the 2012 state election campaign.

The airport line comprises construction of a spur from the existing Midland commuter rail line to the future consolidated Perth Airport terminal, and continuing to the expanding eastern suburbs around Forrestfield. It is estimated to cost $A 2bn and will include the addition of three new stations, while an extra six three-car trains will be required.

Funding issues

Construction work on this project and the light rail line was initially set to commence in 2016. Project costs of $A 174m for the airport link were included in the current budget estimates, but there may yet be some revision to these schedules.

The Western Australian government sought funding for both projects from the federal government and was successful in securing $A 500m earlier this year towards one, but not both, of the schemes.

However, following September's federal election win for the Liberal Party this funding is no longer available after the new prime minister, Mr Tony Abbott, stayed true to his pre-election promise to oppose the provision of any federal funding for urban rail projects.

While the state government has put on a brave face, things were further complicated in September when the state's credit rating was downgraded, prompting suggestions from the state government that both major projects will be delayed by between two and three years and not completed until 2022.

Raising funds from the private sector to support the projects has been mooted. However, the track record for PPP rail projects in Australia is not good and to date no potential suitors have emerged. Perth then might have the desire and the need to improve public transit, but with political uncertainty breeding delays and clouding the immediate future of the proposed schemes, it remains far from certain when these projects will actually move ahead.

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