Tram line to nowhere? Canberra Metro boss makes the case

By Stephen Easton

November 13, 2014

The initial stage of an ambitious scheme to link Canberra’s town centres with light rail has attracted a lot of criticism. But Capital Metro Agency director-general Emma Thomas is confident the trams will do more than just get people from A to B.

The controversial 12km line between the city and the northern town centre of Gungahlin also fits into a series of major infrastructure projects proposed by the ACT government as part of a bold vision to transform the capital. Proponents have faith the trams will bring wider benefits to the city.

“If you look, there’s just cities everywhere that are doing this and it’s not just about the transport,” Thomas told The Mandarin, echoing the government’s arguments about future-proofing the city, which is projected to have 600,000 residents by 2050.

Emma Thomas
Emma Thomas

In the government’s narrative, the Capital Metro will work in concert with other “transformational” projects, particularly the massive city to the Lake plan, which aims to radically renovate Lake Burley Griffin’s northern edges and create a waterfront precinct featuring a new stadium, artificial beach and convention centre.

Even if many of the city’s residents continue to view the tramline in isolation, staff at the agency are very conscious of being part of that wider transformation narrative, according to Thomas. “I think it’s what drives most of the team to be here,” she said. “They can see this being part of the building blocks of Canberra for the next century.”

Detractors see Capital Metro as a costly white elephant. The scepticism stems from a narrower focus on transport between the city and Gungahlin, as well as a common complaint about the way infrastructure projects are planned: light rail was chosen by politicians first, with detailed analysis undertaken to justify it only after the fact.

But those arguments go back to long before Thomas moved to Canberra last October, becoming the city’s second-highest paid public servant, and she appears unfazed by the constant attacks in local media. Introducing something unprecedented like trams in a tramless city is never easy, and she fully expects a lot of residents to suddenly change their minds once they see the shiny carriages gliding down Northbourne Avenue. The experiences of other cities suggest later stages of the network will enjoy much stronger public support.

“There’s a town in Norway called Bergen, which is a very similar-sized town to Canberra, and when they went to build the light rail, I think they had something like I think an 80% disapproval rating,” Thomas explained. “People were so unhappy — they were all just wanting to stay in their cars, they wanted more toll roads — and [now] people love it so much. They’re now just building their second stage out to the airport now.”

“… once they open and start operating, people really do enjoy the experience, and then they want more.”

She says the same basic story has played out in Australia as well, both in South Australia, where she spent 16 months as rail commissioner and deputy chief executive of public transport in the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure, and in Queensland, where she held three senior roles in the Department of Transport and Main Roads over a two-year period.

“Well this is the thing: we’ve seen in Adelaide, when they did the light rail extension, it had massive media attacks for ages and it was very controversial. The day it opened, it changed. People got very excited. The same with the Gold Coast; if you look at the Gold Coast media over the last five years, it was a very controversial project. People were saying: ‘Why can’t we just have buses? Can’t we do something else? You’re going to ruin the traffic!’ and all these sorts of things. It’s now operating and people love it, and it’s got higher patronage than they ever expected,” she said.

So I think the trend in Australia has been to have that controversy, for some reason, but once they open and start operating, people really do enjoy the experience, and then they want more.”

Why not more buses and roads?

Light rail lines along Canberra’s main transport routes were first imagined by the city’s designers — the idea of building them has cropped up semi-regularly over the past few decades — but trams have consistently given way to the standard formula of more buses and roads. Most recently, the ACT government was criticised by the Productivity Commission for ignoring its own economic appraisal, which found a far better cost-to-benefit ratio for building “bus rapid transit” lanes instead.

The May report of the PC’s public infrastructure inquiry dealt a powerful blow to the project’s credibility, saying the decision to go ahead with light rail “appears to be an example of where the results of cost-benefit analysis have been ignored without a valid explanation”.

To justify announcing in mid-2013 that it saw light rail as the “best choice for Canberra’s future”, the government relied instead on an older report it commissioned from consulting firm URS Australia. The PC inquiry dismissed its methodology as “a much less reliable form of analysis than cost-benefit analysis” and, pointing out it was also based on older data, concluded the URS report “would not appear to provide a sound basis for overlooking [the more recent cost-benefit analysis] and deciding to proceed with light rail”.

An artist's impression of Gungahlin with a tram stop.
An artist’s impression of Gungahlin with a tram stop.

Again, it comes down to rigorous analysis of the tramline as just one of many potential ways to ferry people between Gungahlin and Civic, versus attempts to quantify its potential to catalyse social change and play a wider transformative role that, according to Thomas, buses cannot.

“When we look at transport needs, there’s a couple of things that buses and trams do that are the same — carry people down a route,” she said. “But the reason why cities choose light rail, in some instances, is that they want a combination of a good public transport outcome [and] the urban transformation that goes on around them. So, if you look at any city that’s built light rail, there’s been a real uplift of energy and economics that happens around them.”

New bus routes don’t have the same stimulating effect on property prices and economic activity in the area immediately around them, according to Thomas, because they aren’t fixed in place like rails.

Buses also carry fewer passengers; by 2021, the agency estimates peak-hour usage equal to a packed tram of 200 people every five minutes. “If you put them onto a bus, then the number of buses would just be nose-to-tail all the way into the city and cause more of the congestion problem we’ve already got,” said Thomas, adding that even with dedicated rapid transit lanes “it really would be wall-to-wall buses”.

No going back now

The latest and final cost-benefit analysis is contained within the agency’s recently released business case which, according to Thomas, was informed by “better, up-to-date costings” and more detailed designs. Regardless of past confusion as to whether the project was definitely going ahead, or simply in the final stages of feasibility studies, there is now no going back.

“We’re now in the expressions of interest phase and our primary task is to procure something for the territory that’s really going to last for decades,” said Thomas.

“Our focus is on making sure that the customer experience is ultimately … a positive one, so we’re spending a lot of time putting ourselves in the customers’ shoes. Where are they going to park? Where are they going to catch their bus to and get off? How frequently does it run? What hours does it run? And a lot of that was discussed during our community consultation and that now feeds into our expression of interest [process] and our request for proposals that will go out next year.”

Under Capital Metro’s public-private partnership model, the government aims to share the risks and rewards with private sector companies, relying on the winning bidders to manage the interface between different parts of the project and provide expertise the public service lacks. Private investors are also expected to put their money on the line.

“What that means is that the financier comes in, takes primary financing risk for the project, and if it’s not built on time or it’s not finished, or when it operates it actually doesn’t operate to the way we specify, then that’s their risk, not the government’s risk,” explained Thomas. “We don’t pay until it’s operating as we expected.”

Based on her experience, she says such projects are more likely to be delivered on time and to the right specifications by having private investors with skin in the game.

“That’s what governments have found. There’s a lot of debate as to whether it’s more effective financially, but ultimately the management of those risks is so important and where you’ve seen things go horribly wrong in the past, where they’ve blown out and people have been very critical of governments; the PPPs were brought in to try to deal with some of those problems,” Thomas said.

The PPP for Capital Metro lasts for 20 years after construction, which will foster “consistency” in service quality and allow the operator to build local experience, according to Thomas.

“From what we’ve seen, operators around the country in Australia are very passionate about the customer experience, so we look forward to that as well in Canberra.”

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