Why ACT light rail should be abandoned

ScreenHunter_06 Jun. 06 09.33

By Leith van Onselen

I usually treat anything that comes out of a politician’s mouth with great skepticism. But the below article published in the Canberra Times deriding the $600 million-plus 12-kilometre ACT light rail project, connecting Gungahlin in the north and Civic, written by Deputy Leader of the Opposition Alistair Coe, is about as logical as it gets:

While everyone likes the idea of getting a tram, how many people in Canberra will be able to travel from point A to point B on the proposed light rail route?

The ACT government’s light rail project… is a poor example of how to build a transport system, which has cost the ACT taxpayer greatly.

The only economic analysis the government has released shows investment in buses would deliver more than double the economic return of light rail… A dedicated bus lane, or relatively simple bus priority measures, would go a long way to achieving the benefits proposed of light rail.

Before committing to such a program, the government should have done a genuine assessment of the viability of an ACT-wide light rail network and then, if it was shown to be viable and affordable, determined the most economic way to roll out the network in stages.

Instead, the government is operating in reverse by deciding, as a political measure, the first leg, and then trying to mould a network around it. Through this approach, it will render the first stage of light rail a white elephant and ruin for decades any prospect of light rail expansion to other parts of Canberra…

As such, light rail should be delayed until the economics of the project are viable.

Coe’s views of course echo my own concerns with the ACT light rail project, which have been expressed multiple times on this site (see here).

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 price paid.

As is often the case with such ill-conceived projects, it is already facing significant cost blowouts due to the exorbitant costs of relocating underground pipes and wires, as well as trees.

Moreover, in a desperate bid to make the project more viable, the Government has flagged route changes and directing development along the rail line. So instead of being a way of complementing the existing urban structure, the Government plans to forcefully change the urban structure via regulation in order to ‘force’ citizens to use the project and improve its viability.

As argued previously, Canberra is totally unsuited to light rail, as it lacks the population base or density to make such a project viable from either an economic or social perspective. According to Coe, the Government’s own figures forecast that only 4,500 commuters will use the service each day. So while light rail will operate near peak capacity during the hour-long morning and afternoon peaks, it will be severely underutilised for the other 22 hours of the day and on weekends.

Surely, if the Government was truly concerned about improving public transport options across the capital, rather than only along this narrow 12 kilometre strip, then it would expand the existing bus service across the entire city, and save significant taxpayer expense in the process. Such an option would also be far more equitable than forcing taxpayers everywhere, other than along the Gungahlin to Civic corridor, to subsidise a dubious project to which they gain little benefit (either directly or indirectly).

No amount of spin can polish this infrastructure turd, and the ACT Government should immediately cut its losses and abandon the project before more taxpayer funds are wasted.

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  1. Alex Heyworth

    I predict that if the ALP persist with this folly it will lose them the next election. The Bruce Stadium fiasco proved that the ACT electorate is not very tolerant of their money being wasted, and this light rail nonsense is a heck of a lot more money than the Bruce Stadium redevelopment was.

  2. An 8hr a day bus driver is say… 60k including overheads, yeah?

    A bus is say 1.5mil?

    About 25L/100k?
    About 40kph average
    So… 10L/hour
    ~90cpl = $9/hour
    10 hours/day 5 days a week usage = $450/w in fuel
    1.32 drivers = $1524 in wages

    = $1974/w to run each bus

    600m budget
    50 busses = 75m
    525m= 5319 weeks per bus

    102 years?! per bus?!
    Surely I’ve screwed the maths up there?! What did I miss?

    * I did the sums again, and it’s looking like 200 busses could be more or less operated for 15 years for the price of this one piece of track. Call it 10 with all the other overheads I ignored.

    It’s madness.

    • Trams have a life of forty years, buses ten years in public transport service.

      There is also the cost of road pavement usage which is substantial.

      Also, if best prices in Europe were to be achieved, those tram prices might be halved.

      Point is, economic analysis is pretty stuffed if we allow padded prices, instead of insisting on realistic ones based on not getting ripped off.

      • “There is also the cost of road pavement usage which is substantial.”

        Sure. But cars also get to use the road, which offers many additional benefits over a dedicated rail line.

        Buses are also way more flexible. Routes can be changed to meet demand. They can serve multiple (and many) different routes, etc.

    • sbinderMEMBER

      Route buses are <$500,000. You can buy three for $1.5m. Assembled in Melbourne (the platform is imported, with the body fabricated). The new Melbourne E-Class trams are a multiple of this – the contract was worth $300m for 50 of them, but it includes maintenance for a period.

      Buses cost more to run for the actual vehicle and carry less people, but there is no track maintence etc that isn't sole use. Track work is disruptive, and expensive. As is the cabling to power them.

      It is true that buses are generally retired after 8 to 10 years, but they go on to other duties (charter, school runs etc). Trams do last 40 years, but the ones that do last this long, don't comply with the current standards for accessibility etc. Or comfort.

      • All that.

        The point of my reply was that without proper design and construction, and taking many other factors into account, it just is not possible to assess the viability of the project.

        Nobody seems to have done any of this.

      • I think I can say it better.

        Approving a project without full analysis = BAD
        Dismissing a project without a full analysis = BAD
        Supporting or dismissing a project on the basis of a full analysis = GOOD

        In this particular case, the range of costs, based on similar length projects here and overseas in similar jurisdictions is between $240m and $1.5bn. Making a call based on that spread of costs is in the BAD zone above. Either way.

  3. Depends on how it is done and by whom.

    Based on the experience of best European practice in Prague $240m. Based on worst European (Edinburgh) and typical Australian costs (Gold Coast) $1.5 Billion.

    Perhaps those advocating a tramway might tell us how we can get the $240m outcome, and avoid the $1.5bn ripoff.

    At least the Scots realise they have been ripped off, and are having an inquiry. Maybe we could wait for that, and avoid making the same rookie mistakes?

    If the ACT Government is serious, it will get some hard nosed, flinty eyed Czech or German, engineers in to do the design and specification. One case where 457 visas would save the country a motza.

    Time for my meds again.

  4. Go Leith.

    I live on the proposed route, but at the destination end. Clearly no reason for me ever to use the thing to travel out of the city. Nevertheless I will get stung with some levy (on top of rates on a land “value” of >$600,000) because of my “increased amenity”.

  5. What about throwing your weight behind
    electric buses Leith. The left are clearly for trams due to the reduction of city pollution, potential future carbon emission reduction (with renewables) and less noise ( think how awful George street is). Electric buses would meet them halfway without the terrible infrastructure costs.

    • Wellington NZ have had trolleybuses for 60 years, and are now talking about phasing them out. Go figure…