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.

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.

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 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.

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra welcomes Federal Government support for Light Rail

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) welcomes progress on the approvals processes for the second stage of Canberra’s light rail network, as well as Federal Government support for the development of advanced battery technologies for light rail vehicles.

PTCBR Chair Ryan Hemsley said, “The Federal Department of the Environment and Energy has mapped a clear path forward for Light Rail Stage 2 by identifying the assessment processes for this city-shaping project.”

“We welcome the Federal and Territory Governments working together to ensure that Canberra’s fast, frequent, reliable and attractive light rail network is able to starts its journey to Woden. This will bring the benefits of light rail across the lake and improve public transport connectivity between north and south Canberra.”

“Following the success of Stage 1, we call on the ACT Opposition to outline their plans for bringing light rail to Woden ahead of the Territory Election later this year.”

Mr Hemsley added that “We are also pleased about a recent Commonwealth grant to a consortium developing fast charging batteries for light rail vehicles.” The Federal Department of Industry, Innovation and Science recently announced a grant of $1.6 million to a consortium proposing to develop an ‘Advanced Nano-engineered Battery for Fast Charging Catenary-free Trams’. Total project expenditure is expected to be $5 million and consortium members include the CSIRO.

Mr Hemsley further observed “This project has the potential to benefit light rail systems across Australia as well as in the ACT by reducing charging times at stops and lowering the lifetime costs of wire-free running.”

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 the fast-tracking of light rail to Commonwealth Park

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) welcomes the ACT Government’s decision to progress with the first section of the City to Woden light rail route. The decision announced today by Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Transport Minister Chris Steel ensures that work on the second stage of Canberra’s light rail network will get underway as soon as possible.

PTCBR Interim Chair Ryan Hemsley said that “Commencing construction on the leg between Alinga Street and Commonwealth Park is the first important step towards bringing fast, frequent, reliable and attractive public transport to Canberra’s south, and will help retain the skilled workforce acquired during the construction of stage one.”

On the design elements of Stage 2A, Mr Hemsley said that “The details of the route design, operation and approval are the responsibility of the relevant Federal and Territory government entities. On the issue of light rail stage two, PTCBR’s main goal as an outcomes-focused organisation is to see the successful completion of light rail between the City and Woden.”

“We trust that the Federal and Territory Governments will work together to ensure this is achieved in a manner that realises the greatest benefit to the citizens of Canberra.”

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

PTCBR welcomes Labors 200 million dollar commitment to light rail stage two

MEDIA RELEASE from the PUBLIC TRANSPORT ASSOCIATION OF CANBERRA – AUTHORISED FOR PUBLICATION by D.C. Haas

The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) welcomes Labors 200 million dollar commitment to light rail

The Federal Labor party today committed 200 million dollars to the Woden to Civic light rail project, if it is elected in the May federal election. Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten MP made the funding committment at a media function at the Alinga St light rail terminal on March 12 with the Chief Minister Andrew Barr, Transport Minister Meegan Fitzharris and ALP Candidate Alicia Payne in attendance.

The PTCBR are pleased at this announcement, and welcome the support by the federal Labor party for a territory public transport project, especially as the light rail will serve the building that the federal Parliament sits in, and the 12 thousand workers in the Parliamentary zone.

 

(Transcript of the media event is here)

“Considering the minimal support to date from the Australian Government to a public transport project that would benefit them, it is incredibly pleasing to see a different attitude towards Canberra and its public transport needs, from a party vying for government”. Damien Haas, Chair of the PTCBR said today. “It’s also great to see a funding announcement for public transport, instead of another road project”.

 

“Just as important as the funding announcement, is the political support for the light rail project, that may require parliamentary approval if the Barton deviation is chosen instead of the State Circle option. The Barton deviation would require endorsement by the NCA and both houses of parliament.”

“A change of government may also make the National Capital Authority (NCA) easier to negotiate with if it knew the federal parliament was amenable to either route.”

Mr Haas went on to say that “When the Woden to Civic light rail project is completed, the road congestion and parking conflict that the area experiences whenever a major event such as Enlighten is held, will be radically improved. Light rail will provide fast, safe and comfortable access to not just the workplaces in Parkes and Barton, but the national attractions that locals and all Australians visit that area for.

Mr Haas said that the PTCBR look forward to other candidates for the federal election announcing their policies on public transport as soon as possible, so that voters could make an informed decision.

 

Damien Haas is the Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra regions peak public transport users lobby group.