In Sydney, seven out of every ten trips are made in a private vehicle, but with an 11.8 million population increase forecast by 2030, the city’s already congested highways will need to see a reduction in this percentage.
Providing an efficient, reliable and integrated public transport network may be one of the best ways to deter the use of single occupancy vehicles. But with buses, trains and ferries already catering to significant demand, Australia’s transport system must continue to adapt and grow if it is to withstand these demographic pressures.
What is the role of light rail in an integrated future transport network? Ahead of the ARA Light Rail Conference, Infrastructure Australia’s Acting Chief Executive, Anna Chau, said, “I believe light rail has a clear role to play in our future and may be a viable way for us to accommodate high – and growing – levels of demand”.
“Light rail counteracts many of the limitations implicit in bus and heavy rail transit. Bus routes have the breadth of coverage, but not the speed or ridership capacity for longer commutes. Conversely, heavy rail has the capacity and speed, but lacks finesse in terms of its route coverage. Light rail acts as a nice intermediary between the two – both literally and in terms of its benefits”.
However, Anna does not believe that light rail is a panacea and advises procurers to consider the “right mode, for the right area, for the right problem”.
“This may seem like an obvious piece of advice, but converting a bus route into a light rail route is not always as easy – or viable – as it sounds”, she said. “Tram routes and stops have very different infrastructure requirements than buses, and procurers must take into account the specific features of the landscape with which they are working.
“There are also limitations with light rail to bear in mind, for example, light rail vehicles can be costly and tend to operate at slower speeds. They may not be appropriate for commutes in excess of fifteen kilometers.
“We also have to consider light rail’s ability to interact with bus and heavy rail services. Good transport integration includes signage, passenger amenities, places for people to park their bikes, sheltered pathways, tram stations etcetera. I have seen overseas case studies in which the intersection between a light rail and heavy rail stop has been inadequate, undermining the integrated customer experience”.
When assessing business cases for light rail projects, Anna tells us that Infrastructure Australia’s approach is to determine the merit of a particular procurement option against three assessment criteria.
The Strategic case –
“As part of the strategic case we explore what problems and opportunities the procurer is seeking to realise; and consider whether these are nationally significant. Usually this means that the infrastructure project will promote national productivity”.
The Economic case –
“Secondly, we need to determine whether the benefit outweighs the cost, that is, whether the project delivers value for money. We are fairly technical in this process, using quantitative data to ensure business cases meet national standards and, if they depart from these standards, if there is a legitimate reason for doing so”.
“Finally, we assess whether the project is capable of being delivered; and being delivered well. This means trying to figure out if there will be any ‘show stoppers’ that will stand in its way. For this, we look at individual costs, challenge the robustness and stress-test each project”.
Anna Chau will be available at the ARA Light Rail Conference to share further details of Infrastructure Australia’s views on the role of light rail in a future-proof, integrated transport network.