FACED with increasing inner city congestion, and predicted rapid growth in urban populations, a number of Australian cities are turning to light rail to solve their public transport problems. However the transition to a light rail culture continues to be a shaky one with Australia arguably lagging behind the rest of the world in its use of this technology.
Despite boasting the world's most extensive light rail network in Melbourne, most other Australian cities, with the exception of Sydney, appear unsure about how to proceed with new projects. Even with the outstanding success of Gold Coast's first line, which opened last year, proposals for new schemes continue to generate some pretty heated debate.
Yet with the Australian Infrastructure Audit released by Infrastructure Australia (IA) in April offering some sobering statistics about population growth in urban areas, the need for more public transport options is striking.
Australia's population is expected to grow from 22.3 million in 2011 to 30.5 million by 2031 with its four largest cities - Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth - experiencing growth of around 45% to 18.6 million in 2031.
IA says that without investment in new transport capacity and/or a means of managing demand, car journey times will increase by at least 20% in the most congested corridors while in some places travel times could more than double between 2011 and 2031. As a result, demand for public transport in the state capital cities measured in passenger-km is set to rise by 55% in Sydney, 121% in Melbourne and an average of 89%.
The importance of managing urban transport is underlined by the fact that in 2011, the cost of road congestion in the six state capitals was $A 13.7bn ($US 9.9bn) with this projected to grow to $A 53.3bn in 2031.
Sydney has often been criticised for its lack of commitment to sound public transport policy, but the current New South Wales state government is pushing ahead with a number of heavy and light rail initiatives to cope with future population growth.
The current focus is the 12km South East Light Rail which will run from Circular Quay, through Sydney city centre, to major event venues at Moore Park, and the southeast's major residential areas.
In parallel with the light rail expansion, existing bus routes will be cut and streamlined to reduce road congestion through the city centre and achieve what the government describes as "an integrated transport solution for our global city."
A contract was signed at the end of 2014 with the Altrac Light Rail consortium to design, construct, operate and maintain the $A 2.1bn line. It will include a catenary-free section using Alstom's APS ground power supply system between Bathurst Street and Circular Quay and will interchange at Central Station with the existing 12.8km light rail route from Dulwich Hill. Major construction work commenced in October and completion is expected in 2018, a year earlier than originally planned.
Altrac, which comprises Transdev Sydney, Alstom Transport Australia, Acciona Infrastructure Australia and Capella Capital, will finance the project and from mid-2015 began operating the existing Inner West Light Rail line.
The government is also looking to light rail as an alternative to the heavy rail route to Newcastle's city centre which was controversially axed at the end of 2014. The government allocated $A 100m for the project in its 2015-16 budget, but has been thin on detail as to how this money will actually be spent in this financial year.
In August, Transport for New South Wales (TfNSW) launched a tender seeking a technical advisor for the planned 2.6km light rail line that will eventually link a new transport interchange at Wickham with Newcastle city centre. While the government says detailed planning for the project is almost complete after geotechnical investigations were carried out, neither a final cost estimate nor future funding commitment have been announced. Feasibility studies will also be undertaken for light rail, or possibly bus rapid transit, to serve additional corridors in Sydney, including Victoria Road, Parramatta Road, Anzac Parade - Maroubra, and potentially Western Sydney.
In October 2014 the government announced four route options as the first step in the creation of a new light rail network for Sydney's western suburbs centred on Parramatta. These corridors will now be subject to engineering, transport planning and customer analysis, to establish what represents the best option for light rail in the region.
Australia's newest light rail line, the 13km G:link in Queensland's Gold Coast south of Brisbane, opened in July 2014 and carried an impressive 6.2 million passengers in its first year of operation. This is well ahead of expectations and reinforces calls to expand the network in time for the Commonwealth Games which the Gold Coast will host in 2018.
The line was built by the GoldlinQ consortium comprising Bombardier Transportation, Downer EDI, Keolis, McConnell Dowell and Plenary Group, which was awarded the contract to build and operate the line for 18 years under a public-private partnership.
Local media, quoting property sources, say that G:link has been a boon to property development in the area; the Gold Coast Bulletin reports that the first stage between Broadbeach and Southport has already driven $A 6bn in local development.
The Queensland government recently commenced negotiations with GoldLinQ for the second stage of the project, which comprises a 7.3km line from the QR Citytrain network at Helensvale running adjacent to the Smith Street Motorway and connecting with the existing line at Gold Coast University Hospital.
Following a shift in federal funding policy for transit projects following the ousting of Mr Tony Abbott as prime minister in September, the government announced on October 11 that it will provide $A 95m for Gold Coast Stage 2, supplementing the $A 55m provided by the city council, and appropriations in the Queensland state government's budget. Six bidders are in the frame for the contract and tenders must be submitted by December 23 with the Queensland government expected to select a preferred bidder in early 2016.
Expansion in Sydney and the success of the Gold Coast project are in stark contrast with the dark mutterings coming out of Western Australia as the state government there tries to back up its controversial decision to dump Perth's proposed Max light rail project. Max was the public transport poster child for both major political parties at the last state election, and was a priority in the state's draft transport plan well ahead of a proposed heavy rail extension to the airport.
Max's proposed 22km route, which is estimated to cost just over $A 2bn, would run from Mirrabooka in the north through Perth city centre before splitting into two branches: one to the QEII Medical Centre, and the other to the Causeway.
The projected start and completion dates for the project have regularly been put back, with 2022 the current date for completion according to the official website.
Yet with the local economy deteriorating, the planned Airport Link has now been given priority with subsequent pronouncements indicating that the light rail project is postponed indefinitely. The state government has also suggested a preference for a cheaper rapid transit bus system despite the state's draft transport plan and previous government statements suggesting a bus solution would fail to deal with anticipated congestion and passenger numbers.
Canberra is also not without its problems. While the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government continues to develop the 12km Capital Metro project from Canberra city centre to Gungahlin, there remains strong resistance to the scheme from the main opposition party in the ACT parliament.
The ACT Liberal Party has written to the two shortlisted consortia informing them that they are calling for a delay in signing the contracts and that they will drop the project if they win the next state election.
In response the Business Council of Australia, Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, and the Australian Industry Group have written to the ACT Liberals warning that cancelling the $A 783m contract would damage Australia's international reputation as a stable market for investment.
Despite the political uncertainty, the Canberra Metro consortium consisting of Pacific Partnerships, Mitsubishi, John Holland, CAF, and DB International, and the ACTivate consortium of Downer EDI Works, Plenary Origination, Bombardier Transportation, Keolis Downer, and Keolis were selected to proceed through to the request for proposals stage. The successful bidder will be announced in early 2016 and construction is due to start later that year.
In addition, the ACT government has announced that the option to extend light rail from the city centre to the suburb of Russell is included in the upcoming request for proposal for the first stage of the project. A decision on the viability of the 3.2km extension will then be made based on the detailed commercial costings provided.
A Light Rail Master Plan is also under development to look at future stages of the light rail network which aims for light rail and buses to work seamlessly and provide future transport solutions for Canberra.
Patronage on the world's largest tram and light rail network centred on Melbourne continues to grow with 176.9 million passengers using the network in 2013-14.
Ridership in the first quarter grew by 10.2% year-on-year to 47.1 million, which was largely due to the introduction of the Free Tram Zone, which boosted city centre monthly trips by 22.6% while ridership outside the city centre grew by 2.8%.
Currently there are no firm plans to extend the 250km network, but press reports have suggested that the $A 11bn Melbourne Metro heavy rail project, which is currently in the planning phase, will include tram network upgrades.
The indications are that the creation of several new tram routes on the city's west side is a fundamental element of the tunnel scheme with new tracks potentially running through South Melbourne, up King's Way and William Street to Docklands as well as West Melbourne and the inner north.
The 2015 state budget included $A 2bn to kick-start orders for 100 new trams and 100 new trains for Melbourne's public transport network.
Bombardier is currently delivering 50 Flexity Swift low-floor E class trams under a $A 303m contract, which includes an option for a further 100 vehicles. Funding for 20 of these has already been allocated with further orders expected soon.
Despite the success of the Gold Coast scheme and the New South Wales government's enthusiastic expansion of its existing rail line, there is still a good deal of entrenched opposition to light rail projects largely stemming from Australia's dominant car culture and generally unfavourable community attitudes to public transport.
With the local economy sluggish, the South Australian government is looking at construction of several possible extensions for its existing 15km line in Adelaide as a way of stimulating job growth and economic activity, but all options are currently unfunded.
The Tasmanian capital of Hobart has long dreamed of developing its own network, but a detailed proposal is yet to emerge. Unfortunately outside of these plans and the networks listed above, there is still reluctance to embrace light rail.
This was made harder in 2013 with the election of the Abbott federal government, with the prime minister's well stated personal mantra of "no funding for public transport" translating into official policy.
Fortunately this may be short-lived following the recent change of leadership at prime ministerial level. With regular public transport user Mr Malcolm Turnbull taking over Australia's top political position, the federal government may once again play a more prominent role in project financing and provide many of the unfunded schemes with the hope that they may finally get off the drawing board.