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Transport & Logistics

Cross River Rail: Looking into the past for Brisbane’s transport future

16 Oct 2013, by Informa Insights

Picture Sarah Keayes, Source Quest Newspapers
Picture Sarah Keayes, Source Quest Newspapers

Robert Dow* from the Rail Back on Track joins us to review the long history of Cross River Rail (CRR) and proposes solutions for dealing with Brisbane’s congestion from investments in railway signalling and the need to consider value-add for financing transport projects.

We saw Kevin Rudd campaigning on the Cross River Rail in the federal election and Queensland’s transport minister has recently said that the state will now have more money to spend on major projects like Cross River Rail with Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. What’s the current state of the CRR?

There’s been a bit of movement with Cross River Rail (CRR), but the project as is it was originally proposed in 2010/11 is really finished.

When the State Government was elected one of the first things that they did was review CRR and the project should up pretty well in their assessment but they decided to put up what they called ‘Core Cross River Rail’ for federal funding. This was a cut-down version of the CRR and lately, because of politics, that hasn’t really gone anywhere with funding commitments.

There is no real cooperation between the State and Federal governments and Mr Abbott and his team have made it quite clear that they don’t want to fund urban rail or public transport, which is a bit of a disappointing outcome when you think about it. We’re at bit of a stalemate now.

Since the federal election, Premier Newman has directed Transport & Main Roads go back and reassess a possible combined rail and bus integrated bus solution that will probably involve both a bus and rail tunnel which is essentially looking at Core CRR, perhaps further truncated , shortened a little and made more rudimentary but incorporating a bus tunnel that Brisbane City Council is quiet keen on. The bus tunnel will possibly go under Adelaide St through to the Valley which is several billion dollars’ worth and by itself probably too expensive.

Another option is a combined underground bus and rail tunnel with a bus tunnel that connects to the underground Brisbane bus network around George St and a rail tunnel that continues along Roma St and up onto the loop as originally proposed.

Premier Newman has said that the broad concept and plans for the integrated bus rail option will be out by the end of the year, so we’re in a bit of a limbo as to CRR.

What do you think of Premier Newman’s Brisbane Undergroud Plan?

To answer that you have to look back to the 1965-70 Brisbane Transportation Plan Transportation Plan prepared by Wilbur Smith and Associates. A lot of people aren’t aware of it but it’s particularly interesting.

There are two phrases to the study.

In 1950-1965, they were tasked by the Brisbane City Council to look at the future road plan and in 1970 they also looked at rail. What the plan suggested in 1970 was in essence, Cross River Rail and looks to be what Premier Newman is calling the new Brisbane Underground Plan.

Wilbur Smith 1965 & 1970 - courtesy of Rober DowWhat’s fascinating is that had both bus and rail been developed as originally proposed, Brisbane would be a completely different city these days. Brisbane would have a much better public transport system. At the moment it’s struggling and this is where Cross River Rail comes in.

There was the Inner City Capacity Study in 2008, which was really a prefeasibility study for Cross River Rail, the feasibility study for Cross River Rail and then rigorous assessment by Infrastructure Australia which all stood up pretty well and had it declared as Number One Priority Project. But now, it’s not going to proceed as originally conceived. Wilbur Smith 1965 & 1970 - courtesy of Rober Dow

If you look at Wilbur Smith’s plan, it proposed that the rail line that at the time went to Woolloongabba would go underground, head towards Brisbane and come up at Kangaroo Point, roughly where the Storey Bridge is today, punch across the cliffs and over the bridge and then go back underground and run under George St, do a right up Queen St and then join the rest of the rail line at the Valley and up Roma St. Basically, that’s what Cross River Rail is about.

We’re got a long history of public transport in action.

The original road plan has been done in bits and pieces. The Clem 7 tunnel is actually part of the Inner City Ring Tunnel that Wilbur Smith proposed, as is the Inner City Bypass. Both are elements of the Wilbur Smith plan, but there are parts missing which is why we’re got a pretty dysfunctional road and public transport system.  

We’re got an overloaded bus network, a rail network approaching capacity and we’ve had a deliberate attempt to stall public transport patronage by a high price fare regime.

Looking at graphs, you can see a significant increase in public transport patronage until 2010, when they introduced the new ‘5 year Fare Plan’, which consisted of 20% fare increases for the first year and 15% each year thereafter. This seems to have stunted patronage growth.

Are there any other solutions to dealing with Brisbane’s capacity?

The Brisbane Inner City Rail Solution is really only token stuff. In reality, it’s only going to achieve limited increase in capacity. What needs to be looked at is a significant investment in railway signalling. The Brisbane network does not have an Automatic Train Protection (ATP) signalling system. If they improved the signalling, they could probably get a 20% increase in capacity. ATP allows trains to run closer together so that you can increase the linear density of trains at peak times – that is you can run more trains per unit of track. Exploring this option would give you more time before you had to look at a river crossing to create additional core capacity through the CBD – which is what Cross River Rail was all about. It allows you to almost double the core capacity across Brisbane city and it also improves reliability and redundancy.

One of the problems we have in Brisbane at the moment is that all lines converge on the quad track section between Bowen Hills and Roma St. If something goes wrong here, like a power or track failure, the whole network stops. Cross River Rail was good in that it gave the network an additional bypass to this bottleneck so if there was a problem on top, trains could be diverted to the Cross River Rail line.

Robert Dow CRRWe’re still to see what the government is going to throw up with the integrated rail bus solution, but Cross River Rail as originally proposed is dead forever.

Any good news?

It’s worth noting that one of the advantages that the Brisbane Underground plan has is that the work that’s been done for the Core Cross River Rail project is not work that’s wasted. The geotechnical surveys and engineering studies will be very useful for the Brisbane Underground’s bus and rail tunnel. So there is a little bit of work that’s already been done and it won’t be as complex as starting from scratch.

The alignment that they’re looking for the rail tunnel is going under George St rather than Albert St which was settled for Cross River Rail. The advantage of George St is that it’s a little bit cheaper to do engineering-wise and it also links up with the new development taking place near Parliament, which will make it very functional for Brisbane as the parliamentary precinct is public transport poor.

There are a lot of pluses and so it’s a matter of waiting to see what they decide to do and how they’ll fund it.

Will funding be a problem for the Brisbane Underground?

Value capture is gaining traction as a concept.

However, Queensland is very naïve when it comes to public transport infrastructure generally. One only has to look at King George Bus Station as an example. It’s full of empty spaces. TMR has not used the space for commercial opportunity which is value capture.  Can you imagine other parts of the world letting this commercial opportunity go?

But what Brisbane is learning from the Gold Coast Light Rail is that there is money to earn from value capture. The commercial opportunities around that project are going to be gold – absolute gold.

Some of the funding for the Brisbane Underground tunnels and associated works will be from value capture.

Given the concentration of commuters, station precincts are valuable spaces. Looking at overseas experiences such as MTR in Hong Kong only highlights the commercial opportunities associated with rail.

The penny will drop that there are commercial opportunities with more transit-orientated development and there’s expertise building in the bureaucracy about the opportunities to value capture.

I’m confident that funding for the Brisbane Underground will not be the problem it was for Cross River Rail.

The Feds are doing a little more heavy lifting for roads which are a priority in Queensland. The Bruce Highway will need a bit of money and with the Feds putting up 80%, this does give the State Government more space to fun urban rail and public transport in general.

I don’t think it’s all bad.

QLD Transport Infrastructure SummitI think government is learning lessons and the Premier and his team do realise they have to do something.

The road congestion in South East Queensland is getting terrible. Like Sydney, we’re starting to see seven day traffic problems which unbelievable a few years back.

There’s a real need to get a proper balanced integrated transport system working.

*Robert Dow will be joined by Jackie Trad MP, State Member for South Brisbane & Transport Spokesperson, ALP Queensland and Owen Doogan, Queensland State Secretary, Rail Tram & Bus Union to discuss solutions for Brisbane’s congestion at the Queensland Transport Infrastructure Summit in Brisbane on 22 October 2013.

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