Next stop: Belconnen – why the alignment of the Belconnen to City light rail line deserves scrutiny

The recent announcement of $132.5 million in Commonwealth Government funding for Stage 2A of Canberra’s light rail network by ACT Liberal Senator Zed Seselja and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack will stand as the definitive moment when the decade-long partisan bickering over the existence of Canberra’s light rail network finally came to a close.

The “light rail wars”, as they have been termed, are over. In their place, hopefully, will be a greater focus on how we roll out Canberra’s network of inter-town light rail corridors, rather than the now-redundant argument of whether they should be built at all.

This brings us to the purpose of this blog post, which is the flagged extension of light rail to Canberra’s north-west district of Belconnen. While it forms part of a more substantial east-west line connecting Kippax to the Airport (Light Rail Stage 3), this post will concentrate on the section between the Belconnen Town Centre and Canberra City.

Belco Bound

Compared to the handful of viable alignments for the City to Woden extension, there are many more ways to connect Belconnen to the City via the activity generators strung along the route, which include:

  • University of Canberra
  • Radford College
  • Australian Institute of Sport (including Canberra Stadium)
  • CIT Bruce
  • Calvary Hospital
  • CSIRO, and
  • Australian National University.

Indeed, the study of initial options considered for the aborted 2005 proposal for a Belconnen to City busway reveals the sheer number of different alignments that could be considered for a future light rail line.

Initial route options considered for the 2005 Belconnen to City busway

Of these options, the 2005 study whittled the list down to 13 shortlisted routes.

Shortlisted options for the 2005 Belconnen to City busway

Which were then narrowed down further to four viable options.

Final four options considered for the 2005 Belconnen to City busway

Finally, two routes were selected for further detailed analysis – one that largely followed the existing inter-town bus route along College Street, Haydon Drive, Belconnen Way and Barry Drive (Option 2C) and the other which took a detour via the saddle between Bruce and O’Connor Ridges to provide a stop at CIT Bruce and the Australian Institute of Sport (Option 1C). Both routes were designed with gradients and curve radii that would permit future conversation to light rail.

“Option 2C” route via Haydon Drive considered for the 2005 Belconnen to City busway
“Option 1C” route via Bruce and O’Connor Ridges considered for the 2005 Belconnen to City busway

While interim bus priority measures were eventually installed along sections of the Option 2C alignment as part of the 2012 “Belconnen Transitway” project, the 2005 busway proposal with its elaborate tunnels, flyovers and station-style stops was scrapped by Jon Stanhope’s Labor Government prior to the final route being selected.

The busway legacy

While the proposal for a city-wide network of busways may have been abandoned in part due to a perceived lack of support, its planning work continues to influence proposed light rail alignments across Canberra.

The below graphics are taken from official ACT Government reports on Canberra’s future light rail network. Each shows the Option 2C route via Haydon Drive as the indicative alignment for the Belconnen to City light rail route.

Indicative light rail route between Belconnen and the City (clockwise from top-left: ACT Planning Strategy 2018, ACT Light Rail Network Plan 2015, ACT Government submission to JSCNET Inquiry into Light Rail Stage 2, ACT Transport Strategy 2020)

Alternative alignments have been floated, most notably by former ACT Opposition Leader and vocal light rail stage one critic Alistair Coe, who in 2013 suggested a route from Belconnen to the City that closely resembles Option 3E from the 2005 busway options analysis.

Alistair Coe’s alternative light rail route (red) compared to the ACT Government’s indicative light rail route (blue) as illustrated by PTCBR

On paper, the attractiveness of this proposal is obvious. Unlike the ACT Government’s indicative alignment, this route runs to the east of Calvary Hospital and CIT Bruce to provide stops that are within easy walking distance of all the key activity generators between Belconnen and the City. By avoiding the saddle between the O’Connor and Bruce Ridges, it also avoids a potential repeat of the “Save the Ridge” campaign.

Despite being ranked above Option 2C in the 2005 busway options analysis, Option 3E was discounted due to its longer length, higher cost and greater environmental impact. However, many of the assumptions used during the assessment are outdated or suspect.

For example, the “perceived directness” of the route options was given undue emphasis, despite the fact that most options were estimated to take around seven minutes.

Source: Belconnen to City Busway: Final Report on Route Selection (Brown Consulting, 2005)

The low patronage of the existing bus stops at Calvary Hospital also meant that some routes were rated equally, regardless of whether they provided a stop at the hospital.

Source: Belconnen to City Busway: Final Report on Route Selection (Brown Consulting, 2005)

It is worth noting that these studies were conducted prior to the current proposal being considered by the Australian Sports Commission to consolidate the footprint of the Australian Institute of Sport by selling off major assets, including Canberra Stadium, the AIS Arena and the surrounding land, to the ACT Government for future residential and commercial development.

This proposal dovetails neatly with the ACT Government’s plan to construct a new Canberra Stadium on the site of the Civic Pool on Constitution Avenue, which just so happens to be further up the line of the proposed east-west light rail corridor.

It is hard to avoid coming to the conclusion that not including a stop at the current Australian Institute of Sport precinct would be a significant missed opportunity.

Next steps

These are just some of the reasons to question the ACT Government’s current indicative alignment for the Belconnen to City light rail route. There are, or course, many more options that are worthy of further analysis, including:

  • the use of Macarthur Avenue instead of Barry Drive
  • proposals from both UC and ANU to run sections of the route through their respective campuses
  • the location of the bus and light rail interchange in the Belconnen Town Centre, and
  • opportunities for interoperability between the north-south and east-west light rail lines.

Rather than leaving it to the last minute, PTCBR will be lobbying the ACT Government to conduct an honest and transparent consultation process for the Belconnen to City light rail line, with the comparative costs, patronage estimates, journey times, development opportunities and environmental impacts of the various alignments being made publicly available.

After a decade of rancorous debate, Canberrans deserve an informed and civilised discussion about the future form of our light rail network.

New Woden Interchange – the good, the bad and the interesting

The Development Application for the new Woden Interchange is now up. It’s a big project, with 18 bus stops, two bus layovers and a big reconfiguration of Callam Street.

Overall, it’s a big improvement on the current interchange, but as always, the devil is in the detail in the planning documents. 

Is there anything you think we’ve missed? What’s important to you? Let us know on the PTCBR Facebook group or email chair@ptcbr.org

Layout

The design is pretty much what was proposed in Transport Canberra’s earlier consultation. That is, four big bus platforms either side of Callam Street, with two additional platforms for light rail (and initially the R4 and R5 bus routes) running down the middle. This is the same style as all the other interchanges in recent years (Belconnen, Gungahlin, Dickson), with big platforms facing directly onto the street, rather than off-street platforms. Reportedly, this more open design makes passengers feel safer, which was one of the bigger complaints about the old Belconnen and Woden interchanges.

Good interchanges should make it easy for passengers to move between services, and avoid crossing traffic. The Woden Interchange doesn’t adopt PTCBR’s suggestion of cross-platform transfers, but in most cases, passengers will only need to cross a single lane of bus traffic, at raised, signalised crossings. This is an improvement on Northbourne (6 lanes!), Dickson (3) and Gungahlin (bus stops are around the corner from light rail).

It’s also unclear if the interchange is big enough to accommodate better timed transfers, which would provide local buses with have the time and room to wait until a connecting rapid or light rail services arrives. 

Shelters

The shelters are similar to the light rail and Gungahlin shelters: long, deep roofs should give shade and keep the rain away, but they’re still relatively exposed to wintery winds at the front and sides.

While it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a return to the enclosed COVID-pits at the current Woden Interchange, it would be good if Transport Canberra thought more about how Canberrans might need shelter from the cold and wind, as it’s one of the most common complaints we see. Hopefully there will be a decent waiting area in the adjacent CIT Woden building. 

Interestingly, there are also plans to put solar panels on the shelter roofs, and we’ll see a big net increase in the number of trees in the area. Trees planted in the Callam Street median will be planted in bags to enable their relocation once light rail construction commences.

Proposed network changes

Supporting documents also show Transport Canberra’s plans for the transport network once the interchange and light rail is ready. They’re not set in stone, but are a good indication of what they’re thinking.

A new route for Weston Creek services

Currently Weston Creek services go straight down Hindmarsh Drive, and then turn into Callam Street from the south. But the documentation reveals that planners are concerned about the number of services utilising the eastern platforms of the new Woden Interchange.

Instead, they propose to run Weston Creek services along Melrose Drive, Launceston Street and down Callam Street from the north. This is a mixed bag. On the one hand, some passengers could get off at Launceston Street, much closer to the offices at that end of Woden. On the other, it’s now a lot longer walk for those who want to access the Phillip Trades Area to the south. And this could lead to longer journey times for some Weston Creek passengers, or they would at least *feel* like they’re taking a roundabout way. 

But more concerning is Transport Canberra’s reasoning. Rather than designing the interchange to best accommodate the best services for passengers, they are redesigning services to accommodate the interchange! PTCBR will be pressing Transport Canberra for more details about this, including what it means for travel times for Weston Creek passengers.

Tuggeranong services will go straight to Woden

Under Network 19, the 72 (Oxley and Wanniassa), 76 (Richardson, Chisholm, Macarthur and Gowrie) and 77 (Isabella Plains and Gowrie) all go to Woden via Yamba Drive. Once the new Woden Interchange is built, these services will instead go up the upgraded Athlon Drive, past Mawson shops. This should be a quicker trip, but again, it would be good to know Transport Canberra’s estimates on this. 

Once light rail reaches Woden, the 74, 75 and 78 will be given the same treatment (and the 79 rolled into 76 and 78), so most Tuggeranong passengers wanting to get to the city will only need to change once at Woden. It’s unclear what this means for South Tuggeranong passengers in Gordon, Conder and Banks, who might either need to take a peak express to the city, or change buses twice.

A shorter R4 and R5

Following the completion of Light Rail Stage 2B, the plan is for the R4 and R5 to terminate at Woden. This will free up a lot of buses for local services, but it does mean Tuggeranong passengers will need to change at Woden to get to the City (and possibly twice to get to Belconnen prior to the extension of light rail to the Belconnen Town Centre). Transferring buses isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as you don’t have to wait too long between services. On that front, there appears to be good news!

More services everywhere else!

The planning documents assume there will be 3 buses per hour on local routes by the time the interchange is open, and 4 buses per hour once light rail opens. There are also plans for new local services from Woden to Molonglo, Fyshwick and South Canberra.

This is not a firm commitment from the ACT Government, and requires Transport Canberra to acquire more buses and drivers. But with the Woden depot being built and lots of buses being freed up by light rail and the truncation of the R4 and R5, it bodes well for more frequent local services. 15 minute frequencies would be a game changer for public transport in Canberra.

Conclusion 

This is a big investment in southside public transport services, and should result in an improved experience compared to the current tired interchange. But, as always, there are some little things which could make it even better, and a lot will depend on what happens with the bus network once light rail is extended from Commonwealth Park to the new Woden Interchange.

PTCBR will be making a submission to this development application. If you’ve got any views, we’d love to hear from you!

MEDIA RELEASE – PTCBR welcomes Federal Government funding for Light Rail Stage 2A

The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) has welcomed the Federal Government’s decision to invest $132.5 million in Stage 2A of Canberra’s light rail network from Alinga Street to Commonwealth Park.

“This is significant support from the Federal Government for a project which will transform our nation’s capital. It is more than double the Commonwealth’s contribution towards Light Rail Stage 1, and a very welcome sign the Commonwealth has realised that public transport investment keeps our cities vibrant and moving,” said PTCBR Chair Ryan Hemsley.

“We hope this signals an ongoing partnership between the ACT and Federal Governments as light rail rolls out through the parliamentary zone and towards Woden.”

Ryan Hemsley is the Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra region’s peak public transport lobby group.

MEDIA RELEASE – ACT Election results another vindication for the ACT Government’s light rail vision

The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) has welcomed the re-election of the ACT Government led by Chief Minister Andrew Barr as a further vindication of the pro-light rail policies of ACT Labor and the ACT Greens.

“Saturday’s election results have re-confirmed the trends we saw four years ago, with strong swings towards the government in Murrumbidgee and Brindabella cementing light rail as a vote-winner,” said PTCBR Chair Ryan Hemsley.

“In contrast to the pro-light rail policies offered by Labor and the Greens, the Canberra Liberals offered half-hearted and at times inconsistent support for the extension of light rail to Woden.

“Despite the outstanding success of Stage One and high levels of public support for expanding the network to southern Canberra, the Canberra Liberals could not conceal their long-standing opposition to light rail.”

Mr Hemsley said that Alistair Coe’s call for a post-election review of light rail only served to reinforce the view that his party had yet to learn the lessons from its election losses, with light rail now featuring in the 2012, 2016 and the 2020 elections.

Mr Hemsley instead urged the Canberra Liberals to conduct a post-election review of their own public transport policies and make a definitive, public commitment to the extension of Canberra’s light rail network before the next election.

“We sincerely hope that the ACT Opposition provides Canberrans with a significantly better light rail policy offering in 2024.”

Ryan Hemsley is the Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra region’s peak public transport lobby group.

PTCBR’s ACT Election 2020 Survey

Early in the campaign, PTCBR provided political parties and independent candidates standing at the 2020 ACT Election with the following questions relating to their public transport policies:

  1. How would you improve Canberra’s public transport network?
  2. What is your position on extending Canberra’s light rail network?
  3. Do you intend to end or reduce any existing public transport services?

All responses have been published here in the order they were received.

As of COB Friday 16 October, PTCBR had received responses from the following political parties and independent candidates:

✅ Bruce Paine (Independent, Electorate of Kurrajong)
✅ Community Action Party
✅ Brendan Whyte (Independent, Electorate of Murrumbidgee)
✅ Mignonne Cullen (Independent, Electorate of Ginninderra)
✅ Australian Federation Party
✅ Sustainable Australia Party
✅ Canberra Liberals
✅ David Pollard (Independent, Electorate of Yerrabi)
✅ Fiona Carrick (Independent, Electorate of Murrumbidgee)
✅ Canberra Progressives
✅ Belco Party
✅ ACT Greens

In instances where no response was provided by the deadline, PTCBR has added commitments outlined in policy documents and commentary released by the parties over the course of the campaign.

If you have not yet voted, this is your opportunity to learn more about the public transport policies of these political parties and independent candidates before you cast your ballot.

PTCBR expects all parties to deliver on the public transport commitments they have made throughout the campaign.

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra calls for explicit targets in forthcoming ACT Transport Recovery Plan

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) has called for explicit mode share targets to be included in the ACT Transport Recovery Plan, which has been foreshadowed in the newly released ACT Transport Strategy 2020.

“There is a lot to like in the new Transport Strategy, in particular the commitment to the development of a light rail spine along the high-demand routes between Canberra’s town centres,” said PTCBR Chair Ryan Hemsley.

“However, we are concerned that the Strategy is silent on the issue of measurable targets and accurate data to evaluate the success of the proposed approach.”

“Now might be a good time for the ACT Government to consider the establishment of an advisory group, comprising community representatives and experts in the transport industry, to assist in the ongoing delivery of key transport projects consistent with the Strategy.”

The Transport Strategy forms part of a suite of city-shaping documents released by the ACT Government in recent years. Other key documents include the ACT Planning Strategy 2018, the ACT Climate Change Strategy 2019-45, the ACT Housing Strategy and the draft Urban Forest Strategy 2020-45.

“The ACT Government’s Climate Change Strategy gives us a pretty good indication of where we need to be in terms of public transport usage by 2045.” added Mr Hemsley.

“With the added risk of a post-COVID congestion nightmare, we sincerely hope that the Transport Recovery Plan provides us with a clear path towards a more sustainable transport future.”

The ACT Transport Strategy 2020 can be viewed here.

Ryan Hemsley is the Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra region’s peak public transport lobby group.

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra slams Canberra Liberals light rail policy cop-out

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) has slammed comments made on Thursday morning by ACT Opposition Leader Alistair Coe, who confirmed in an ABC Radio interview that the Canberra Liberals will not be making any commitments on light rail between now and the ACT election.

“The Canberra Liberals have had four years to develop a clear and consistent policy position on light rail,” said PTCBR Chair Ryan Hemsley.

“Now, eight weeks out from election day, they have conceded that they aren’t even willing to take a stance on the second stage to Woden.

“This is an undeniable cop-out from a party which decisively lost the last election on a platform against light rail.”

While Mr Coe maintained that his concern was about getting value for money, at no stage did he outline a scenario in which the Canberra Liberals would extend the network beyond the Gungahlin to Civic line.

“Rather than being upfront about their plans for light rail, the Canberra Liberals are seeking a blank-cheque mandate,” added Mr Hemsley.

“Canberrans deserve a debate grounded on clearly expressed policy positions concerning the future of the network, rather than this evasive spin driven singularly by the Canberra Liberals’ well-known aversion to light rail.”

Mr Hemsley said that Mr Coe’s call for a post-election review of light rail was the clearest indication yet that the Canberra Liberals intended to kill off any future expansion of light rail.

“The last time the Canberra Liberals paid a consultant to review light rail, they overstated the construction cost by $240 million and declared that no private equity partner would invest in the project.”

“These demonstrably false claims give a clear indication of the sort of review Canberrans can expect under a Coe Liberal Government.”

A transcript of Mr Coe’s comments can be viewed here.

Ryan Hemsley is the Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra region’s peak public transport lobby group.

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra welcomes release of EPBC Preliminary Documentation for Light Rail Stage 2A

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) today welcomed the release of the preliminary EPBC documentation for the City to Commonwealth Park light rail extension, heralding it as an important milestone in the journey towards bringing the network south to Woden, then onwards to Tuggeranong.

“We commend the ACT Government for their careful consideration of the broader environmental and heritage impacts of bringing light rail through Canberra’s city centre,” said PTCBR Chair Ryan Hemsley.

“This is evident in the adoption of wire-free technology and grassed tracks along Commonwealth Avenue, which significantly reduces the route’s visual impact and preserves the important Parliament House heritage vista.”

Mr Hemsley said he looked forward to the awarding of contracts and commencement of works between the City and Commonwealth Park.

“By extending Canberra’s light rail network, we can deliver a much-needed shot in the arm for Canberra’s construction industry, with the double benefit of providing improved public transport options in the longer term.”

The preliminary assessment documentation can be accessed here.

Ryan Hemsley is the Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra region’s peak public transport lobby group.

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra calls on National Capital Authority to fund infrastructure for new diplomatic estate

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As part of its submission on the National Capital Authority’s draft amendment to rezone the Curtin Horse Paddocks, the Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) has called on the Federal Government agency to work with the ACT Government to deliver the infrastructure needed to service the new diplomatic estate.

“While the process leading up to this rezoning has been far from ideal, the NCA now needs to accept responsibility for limiting the impact of this new 45-hectare estate on the amenity of Canberra residents, said PTCBR Chair Ryan Hemsley

“This is not something that can be fixed with a bucket of white paint and a new set of traffic lights. The development of the Curtin Horse Paddocks will require a complete rethink of public transport and private vehicle movements around and throughout the estate.”

Mr Hemsley said that residents of Curtin and Deakin are at risk of bearing the brunt of new southbound traffic flows from the estate.

“Residents of Weston Creek and Molonglo also face substantial new delays along the Cotter Road if the infrastructure status quo remains.” Mr Hemsley said.

Mr Hemsley noted that the ACT Government was already set to invest heavily along the adjacent corridor as part of the extension of Canberra’s light rail network to Woden.

“While light rail stage two is a critical piece of the puzzle, we don’t believe it’s acceptable for the ACT ratepayer to foot the entire infrastructure bill for this rezoning, especially when 60 per cent of the site will deliver minimal financial returns to the Territory.” Mr Hemsley said.

Mr Hemsley identified the King’s Avenue overpass as a good example of new, city-shaping infrastructure that was delivered by the NCA with funding from the Federal Government.

“We urge the NCA to work with the ACT Government to deliver equally good infrastructure to support the development of this sizable diplomatic estate.”

A copy of PTCBR’s submission can be viewed here.

Ryan Hemsley is the Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra region’s peak public transport lobby group.

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra celebrates one year of light rail

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) today celebrated the first anniversary of Canberra’s light rail network and called on the ACT Government and National Capital Authority to accelerate the planned construction of the network’s expansion to Woden, in order to provide the economy with a much-needed boost during this difficult economic period.

Mr Ryan Hemsley, PTCBR Chair said “Patronage estimates from early March showed Canberrans flocking to the first stage of Canberra’s light rail network, with an average of ~16,000 daily boardings. This is ahead of the ~15,000 daily boardings that the business case projected would not be reached until 2021.”

“This project has proven that there is an untapped demand for high-quality public transport services in the ACT. We believe that similar patronage increases can be expected as future stages of the network are rolled out in the years ahead, providing benefits to both current and future generations of Canberrans.”

Looking ahead to Stage 2 and beyond, Mr Hemsley said “With the projected economic slowdown, the task of starting on light rail to Woden has become all the more urgent. This project will have the double benefit of stimulating the economy in the short term, while providing improved public transport options in the medium to long term. It will also help the ACT meet its planned reductions in carbon emissions, by being powered solely by electricity from renewable sources.”

“Social distancing measures also present an opportunity for both the ACT Government and National Capital Authority to conduct important works during a rare period of reduced traffic, such as upgrades to London Circuit as part of Stage 2A and the modifications to Commonwealth Avenue Bridge that will future-proof it for Stage 2B.”

“We call on both the ACT Government and National Capital Authority to work collaboratively, so that that these projects can be fast-tracked in a manner that provides the greatest long-term benefit, while minimising disruption to road users in the short term.”

On the issue of social distancing, Mr Hemsley said “We support Transport Canberra’s approach of retaining current public transport service levels during the crisis. This approach minimises the risk of overcrowding and enables people to successfully practice social distancing while in transit.”

“As restrictions are lifted in the months ahead, we urge the ACT Government to consider increases to select services to ensure that social distancing can continue for as long as is required.”

Ryan Hemsley is the Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra region’s peak public transport lobby group.