ACT light rail faces more cost blowouts

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 face significant cost blowouts due to the exorbitant costs of relocating underground pipes and wires, as well as trees:

In a Senate Estimates hearing on Tuesday, Liberal senators suggested the cost of relocating underground wires and pipes along Northbourne Avenue would make the project financially prohibitive.

National Capital Authority chief planner Andrew Smith could not comment on this but said the costs of doing this “are very very significant”…

Mr Snow, who said trees added complexity to putting a light rail line down Northbourne Avenue, also said “trams and trees are not completely incompatible”.

Regular readers will know that I view the ACT light rail project as an egregious waste of taxpayer’s money and a textbook case of infrastructure pork.

The project only came to fruition because Labor lacked the numbers to form government and needed to gain support from the Greens sole MLA, Shane Rattenbury, who held the balance of power. And the 12 kilometre rail link from Gungahlin to Civic was the bargaining chip used.

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, therefore, 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.

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

A far better alternative to improve public transport access to Canberrans would 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. $600M for 12km is very cheap when it comes to these types of Ozzie Boondoggles so expect plenty of announcements that the public purse has a large piece of tram track jamming it open.

    That 11km section of new rail in South Western Sydney came in at $2B and it was mostly over cow paddocks – except for a tunnel under the freeway and a flyover at Glenfield.

    There was lots of hand clapping and back slapping at the fact they brought in $100M less than last estimates.

    As I have noted on previously threads on this subject a better start is:

    1. Create a bus only lane with preferential lights at intersections.

    2. Greatly reduce land use restrictions for the entire route for approx a 10 minute walk either side (say 1.5 – 2 km) to allow mixed use up to say 7 storeys – more if there is demand for it.

    And see how it goes – they can always convert the bus lane into a light rail or a heavy rail subway if required.

    • Oh – and make all new apartments and townhouses along the route and likely to benefit from the project subject to a LVT to ensure the rise in property values due to the speedy bus service generates revenue that can be salted away for the eventual upgrade to a heavy rail subway.

    • Would it not be better to expose the rorts first, THEN decide on the correct type of infrastructure based on real costs?

      Otherwise, the ticket clippers will just take their graft from what ever solution is used.

      At the moment, tram construction costs and operational practice are so out of line with world’s best practice that one could not credibly undertake a cost benefit analysis.

      It is so bad that any pronouncement on whether this is a bad or good idea cannot be founded in fact.

      Let’s get the data first, then make a decision.

    • Use of public transport drops off from about 400m and drops off severely after 800m in suburban Sydney based on transport plans I have reviewed.

      If you look at the capacity that our parents generation left us in roads and rail around Sydney you will see one of tow things:
      1. a massive waste of money by our parents
      2. a huge generousity by our parents in providing the infrastructure for our population to double but with our roads and rail having the capacity to accommodate that growth. Unfortunately our city has grwon 250% and our tranport infrastructure is stuffed full to massive congestion and disruption.

      ACT putting in infrastructure to connect the city in advance of the population growth is a huge benefit to current and future citizens.

      • “ACT putting in infrastructure to connect the city in advance of the population growth is a huge benefit to current and future citizens.”

        At what cost? And comparing the ACT, where peak hour is equivalent to Sydney at 3am, is hardly and apple-to-apples comparison. I have lived there. Have you?

      • At what cost UE?

        At $600m, for 12km. that is $500k per ten metres!

        Yep, apparently we are to accept that ten metres of production line construction in reinforced concrete will cost the same as a house? Just imagine all the materials, concrete, bricks, electrical cable, steelwork, tiles etc etc going into a house, and compare it to ten metres of reinforced concrete with a couple of rolled steel tramlines embedded. Then add the much more finicky work required to build and equip a house.

        Someone is having a lend.

        With that sort of gross overpricing, any discussion of cost is ludicrous. Someone has stuck their finger in the air and guessed. Of course, contractors are not going to argue. Nor are the financiers. There has got to be at least, at least 100% padding there. Someone is walking away with $300M for nothing.

        Of course, we could always get someone who actually knows what they are doing to advise government. Hahahahaha.

        Well, we are now paying for the elimination of public sector expertise. We don’t even know how ignorant we are.

        Add desal plants, road projects, tunnels, tollways and other trams and what does that add up to as a price for our outsourcing of government expertise from the 80s onwards? All being creamed off by funny financial deals and padded contracts.

  2. I always find it interesting when the Melbourne trams can’t run (for whatever reason) and they put on replacement buses. I consider it illustrates that the actual value of the tram network is the real estate it occupies. As in, it creates a viable transport corridor separate from cars along much of its length along which you don’t have to run a tram.

    So the rails become redundant. You could tear them up, or concrete them over, run a trolley bus (using the existing electricity network), or a diesel bus and save some considerable money. I would have thought.

    It would also have the benefit of making some elements of car use more efficient, reduce accidents (a tram can’t deviate at all), amongst a few other things I can’t think of right now.

    And avoid the need for ongoing trackwork. Anyone living north of the city during the Easter/Anzac week will remember the entire week was difficult due to trackwork on the Victoria/ Nicholson corner.

    But when I mention this to the average Melburnian I’m told I need to wash my mouth out with soap. Its not Melbourne without trams, apparently. And bugger the cost.

    • The biggest problem with Melbourne Public Transport is the lack of Google Maps integration.