Canberra to double down on rail pork?

ScreenHunter_06 Jun. 06 09.33

By Leith van Onselen

The Canberra Times is running an article today suggesting that the $600 million-plus 12-kilometre light rail project connecting Gungahlin in the north and Civic, which is expected to commence construction in 2016, could be extended to the whole of Canberra:

…the government has appointed a consortium to investigate extending [the Capital Rail Line] to the rest of the city.

The consultants will look at the feasibility of extending the $600 million-plus rail line to the airport, the Parliamentary Triangle and Kingston, Woden, Erindale, Tuggeranong, Lanyon, Weston Creek, Molonglo, Belconnen and Kippax…

An early draft of the master plan is to be ready mid-year, a final draft by November, with public consultation, and a completed master plan by early next year...

[Development Minister Simon Corbell] did not say how much the successful consortium was being paid.

Infrastructure pork seems to know no bounds in the ACT.

Anyone who has spent a large amount of time in Canberra (I lived there for three years) would recognise that it is totally unsuitable for a dedicated (and costly) light rail service. Canberra is the most decentralised city in Australia, with its small (circa 360,000) population spread-out around five primary employment centres: Civic (the tiny CBD), the Parliamentary Triangle, Belconnen, Woden, and Tuggeranong. Gungahlin in the far north is also emerging as the city’s sixth node.

Canberra’s housing and employment lacks density. It is also serviced by the nation’s best road system. Accordingly, the overwhelming majority of Canberrans drive their cars to/from work. Yet, for those that require it, Canberra’s bus system (Action) operates well given the capital’s geography and demography.

In short, Canberra lacks the population base or density to make such a light rail project viable from either an economic or social perspective.

It was bad enough that Labor used the the 12 kilometre rail link from Gungahlin to Civic to get the Greens – whose sole MLA Shane Rattenbury, holds the balance of power – to keep them in government. But even entertaining the idea of extending the rail line across the entire ACT, at a cost of many billions of dollars, is madness.

If policy makers in Canberra are truly interested in improving public transport access to Canberrans, they should look to expand existing bus services across the entire city, rather than engaging in expensive politically motivated projects like this.

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Unconventional Economist


  1. This has a similar smell to the Myki deal. I wonder if there are any ministers who are mates with the bidding companies…

  2. It may just be election spin designed to appeal to the “big vision” crowd who fancy themselves as big thinkers – “its just like the Snowy Scheme. yadda yadda..”

    It is also very odd considering that the master zoning document shows how little space has been zoned for high or even medium density throughout the city.

    Notice how little medium density there is along Northbourne Avenue – and what there is is literally only on Northbourne Avenue.

    The reasonable approach would be to

    1. Get a big red pen and mark a 10 minutes walking distance (say 1.5 – 2 km) back from each of the major arterial roads where the line rail is proposed to go.

    2. Immediately rezone ALL of that land as suitable for multi-level – say up to 15 storeys – and permitted for just about anything except perhaps heavy industry. Commercial, offices, residential and retail – whatever a developer reckons they can sell.

    3. identify and rule out any land that is needed for heritage, parks, public facilities etc.

    4. Paint a red bus only lane down the road.

    5. Run some bus services down the red lane.

    6. Impose land tax to catch the increase in values along the route.

    By doing the above they would be creating a public transport corridor, setting up the mechanism to finance improvements in public transport and thus be in a position to convert the red bus lane into a light rail if a compelling case can be made at some future point.

    And a compelling case may well arise as Canberra under the above proposal would be a low land cost city and extremely attractive to business and people.

    The problem for light rail is that the point where buses, using the bus only lanes, cannot handle the demand it is probably time to be considering heavy rail anyway and that can be build underground along the route of the bus lanes.

    But we are talking a long long time before that happens. Articulated buses in bus only lanes can shift a lot of people very quickly and they can go around break downs or “all stop services”

    But let’s face facts here – the land development agency in the ACT is a huge money spinner and propping up land prices by dribbling out supply and gouging buyers is what pays the bills of the government.

    So don’t expect action on the housing supply that would actually make mass forms of public transport viable.

    Needless to say – nothing in the above should be construed as an argument for urban consolidation or UGB forcing people to live in medium density just so the anti-car crowd are happy.

    People should be allowed to choose where to live – the above is on the assumption that the preference, when the choice is available, proves to be to live in medium density suburbs with reliable public transport within easy walking distance.

    Oh in case you are wondering what all those colourful zones actually mean have a look at this

    Any wonder why flexible and efficient use of land is so difficult and expensive and riddled with paper work (and lawyers) when there are no less than 5 residential zones and 5 commercial zones to navigate.

  3. I was in Canberra on Monday, afternoon peak hour seems a 1000 times better than Sydney weekend traffic, I can’t see how having light rail everywhere will achieve anything. Seems more like a white elephant in the making. Even Hobart seems more lively in it’s CBD than Canberra.

  4. I agree that the Gunghalin to Civic line likely isn’t viable at the moment. On the other hand Belconnen to Civic and then on to Kingston and Woden seems to be a decent bet and will only get better with time. Two or three large towers have recently been completed in Belconnen and more are currently being built. Civic is getting denser. Between the two end points you have two universities, a technical college, the AIS and the hospital. The 300 bus line is currently running every 3 to 7 minutes on the route and they are often standing room only at peak periods. Additionally there is a fair amount of overlap of routes at the end points so frequency at peak time may be passing 1 per minute at spots. As the city grows, it is only going to grow more costly to put the line in, why not do it now before it costs several billion more due to eminent domain costs to do it later.

    For the Gunghalin to Civic route, start reserving/planning the route, but don’t build it yet. The corridor is reasonably high density, on the other hand the 200 line has lots of room to grow in capacity/demand. However, note that Flemington Rd. corridor is lined with high density housing currently being built and the ACT government seems to be planning to redevelop the Northbourne Avenue corridor for higher density housing. There will be the density to support rail there, it’s just 10 to 20 years away.

    • arescarti42MEMBER

      A couple of points on why i suspect they’ve gone Civic-Gungahlin first.

      -Belconnen doesn’t have a complimentary urban structure – the bulk of the population lives in 70s era automobile suburbs away from the civic-Belconnen corridor, which is actually pretty isolated. The Civic-Gungahlin corridor already has a lot of dense commercial and residential along it, and is likely to see a lot of growth.

      -The transport corridor for Civic-Gungahlin is already reserved, the one to Belconnen is less clear, and involves crossing freeways and nature reserves.

      -Belconnen is mostly built out and already has a good road system. Gungahlin still has a lot of growing to do, and IIRC will end up bigger than any of the other town centres. The light rail to civic has the potential to eliminate a lot of expensive and politically controversial road spending (e.g. Monash drive).

  5. LOL.

    This will die a natural death after the next election – if the Greens lose their influence.

    If, OTOH, the Greens increase their vote, then the democratic process has said that this is what the people want. Under those circumstances, it is justified by the right of people to have what they decide they want rather than have some Central Committee tell them what they can have.

    Perhaps a more fundamental question might be to ask, why are such tram projects in Australia so expensive compared to, say, similar ones in Europe?

    Maybe such projects would be viable, were they to be priced more reasonably. As a quick example. Several years ago, Adelaide bought some cheap tech Citadis trams for $6m apiece (Sort of a Yaris equivalent). This was TWICE the price of a top-of-the-line Skoda 15T. Huh?

    Desal plants. Not a wonderful deal at the prices we paid, but had we retained enough expertise in the public sector that we were still informed buyers, maybe the prices would have been halved.

    Has anyone done a benefit/cost on the savings made by getting rid of government expertise vs the extra costs we now pay as dumb sucker uninformed buyers?

    We now have thirty years of transfer of control of infrastructure expertise from the public sector to the private. Has anyone even thought to examine whether or not it has led to cheaper electricity, desal plants, tramways, airports etc? Or would that mean that there might be a challenge to the ideology of some, and to the now well lined pockets of some.

    Ah well, I suppose that someone will discover it as an issue, a few more wasted billions down the track.