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Light Rail a mover in urban areas

22/06/2010

With the enormous pressure on Australia’s transport infrastructure to be upgraded and extended, especially in rail, there is an opportunity to investigate seriously the option of ‘light rail.’

In the March 2010 report by the Tourism & Transport Forum (TTF), it advocated greater consideration of light rail in Australia on the grounds that it is “a reliable, high-capacity, sustainable mode of transport well-suited to urban and inner-suburban areas.”

A typical light rail vehicle carries between 200-300 passengers compared to 90 by an articulated bus (Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Infrastructure, 2007), and the infrastructure and operating costs are much lower than for traditional rail.

Light rail is a term coined in the US in 1972 to describe the then new generation of streetcars that were hitting that country and Europe.

By definition here, I refer to light rail as a tramway system with high-speed rolling stock, capable of travelling at up to 110 kilometres per hour, with dedicated corridors, even if those dedicated corridors are only part of a route.

At the moment, Australia has only a minimal established operating ‘light rail’ system – including Melbourne, and the new system approaching the early stages of construction, the Gold Coast Light Rail whose Stage One works will connect Griffith University and the new Gold Coast University Hospital to Broadbeach across a distance of 13 kilometres.

It is predicted it will carry many thousands of people an hour with stations around 800 metres apart.

In the Melbourne system, on Route 96, rolling stock which includes the French Transdev-leased ‘Bumble Bees’ operates on the city’s busiest transport tram route, ferrying people quickly from north of the city through the CBD and to St Kilda Beach.

As with the Gold Coast, this light rail services a destination with a high tourist presence and significantly reduces traffic congestion (which could include buses) without requiring the investment and operating and service costs of heavy rail.

The latest 2010 Victorian budget has also allocated $800 million to be injected into Melbourne’s overall tram (not just light rail) network, with the purchase of 50 new trams.

Light rail is appropriate where there is a need to carry many passengers quickly and efficiently over reasonably short distances, say up to 30 kilometres.

It has a high capacity and good speed range of up to 110 kmph for a relatively low financial and logistical investment. Light rail implies ‘light’ infrastructure. From a whole of life perspective from initial infrastructure costs, right through to ongoing maintenance and running costs, it is a relatively low life cycle cost as compared to bus infrastructure, and urban heavy rail life cycle costs.

It can also be introduced into a new location relatively easily, especially where there is a clear corridor (eg. a former heavy railway line), due to the relative ease of conversion associated with the previous heavy rail infrastructure, not to mention in most cases the power requirements being able to dovetail with the previously utilized heavy rail systems.

Where there is no existing infrastructure, there is the ability of either overhead wiring electrification or the more aesthetically pleasing electrified rail option as used in many European countries.

According to the TTF report, there are also two other notable advantages of light rail: electricity-powered light rail is also one of the most sustainable transport modes, and it has been found to be particularly effective “in achieving mode shift away from private vehicle travel.” This will obviously ease the burden of vehicle traffic in constricted areas, and greater movement of people in peak hour conditions.


Dave Howe is General Manager of O’Donnell Griffin Rail. O’Donnell Griffin is part of the Norfolk Group (ASX:NFK) of companies and is a leading engineering company nationally with involvement also in major infrastructure projects.



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