Maritime & Transport / Rail

An international perspective on light rail

Gogar tram depot in Edinburgh in 2012. Image source: wikipedia.org

Gogar tram depot in Edinburgh in 2012.
Image source: wikipedia.org

The inaugural Light Rail 2014 conference brought up many universal issues. With a plethora of light rail projects currently being undertaken by nearly every state government in Australia, it is reassuring to know that countries such as Canada, the UK and Norway have faced the same issues that we are currently discussing.

The main projects that were discussed at Light Rail 2014 were the Sydney Light Rail Extension, GoldLinQ, Perth MAX Light Rail, and the latest South Australian strategy to enhance the use of public transport including light rail.  These projects provided a backdrop of discussion for some of the key issues in developing light rail project including the lack of PPP’s, Federal funding, and the lack of stakeholder and public engagement in the procurement phases of construction.

Nick Campion, a Project Coordinator who recently transferred from London to work for Network Rail Consulting, discussed why the Edinburgh Tram project has still not opened.

“There was insufficient scoping of work detailing what needed to be done. There was risk ownership not built into the contract and there was a lack of program control due to a lack of stakeholder engagement.”

“Edinburgh trams is owned and operated by Edinburgh Trams Ltd. It was originally meant to be opened in 2011 and is still not opened.”

Scott Ney, Technical Executive at Parsons Brinckerhoff, further reiterated some of the issues for why the Edinburgh Tram Line has been such a challenge to opening.

“Traffic operations is a real problem in Edinburgh; there are very little roads and too many cars as well as lots of buses. This was one of the things the tram network was trying to eliminate; the amount of buses.”

Scott continued; “there are also of lot of heritage sites in Edinburgh, which is something that is quite unique to the Scottish capital.”

The talk about some of the more challenging international projects was also balanced with some of the success stories in Light Rail Transit (LRT).

Bergen tram at the Byparken terminal. Image source: wikipedia.org

Bergen tram at the Byparken terminal.
Image source: wikipedia.org

Thomas Potter, Senior Transportation Engineer at a Norwegian consulting company Norconsult AS, delivered a presentation about the Bybanen (Bergen Light Rail) project and how the long road to development ended up in successful LRT.

“I’ve been in Norway since 1987 and we’ve been fighting for light rail since, and it was even before this the discussion started. Vivienne King was complaining about the nine years it took to get GoldLinQ going. That’s nothing. Normally you need a generation to get these things through.”

LRT is a huge cost to take on, and this has been some of the main reasons that the Federal Government has failed to commit to funding many of the public transport projects that are in the loom. Thomas argued for the benefits of investing in LRT:

“In 2010, we didn’t have enough money to build it so we decided to build half of it. We took responsibility for removing some of the utilities and this removed some of the barriers but increased some of the costs.

We’re a very hilly and mountainous area and we’ve had to build tunnels. We just blew a whole in the rock, covered it in textiles to keep the water off the tracks and we’re not afraid of tunnels.

This was a 20 year long struggle but it changed over night on opening day. Our light rail cost recovery is 120% so we’re actually generating money through our light rail system for the bus system.”

Colin Steiner and Luke Stephen, project engineers and directors for Mott MacDonald, discussed a similar success story with the light rail line in Edmonton, Canada.

Edmonton was one of the first light rail networks in North America.

Edmonton was one of the first light rail networks in North America.

Canada’s harsh and long winter was a big obstacle for construction and the end result for commuters, but the line turned out to be successful.

“Edmonton was one of the first light rail networks in North America. It’s a fully segregated and signalized system and operates more like a European heavy rail line. But it is nonetheless a very successful line”, Colin said.

“We wanted to take the existing high floor network and create an urban, low floor system that integrates with the city landscape.”

The line was designed for quick access and departure to help commuters get out of the cold quickly.

“Edmonton is very much a winter city and winter lasts for generally 6 months in the year. This is an operational risk throughout the network and we were designing for a -40 to 40 temperature range.

Side running platforms and integration with existing systems, including underground networks, have helped to make light rail in Edmonton successful event amid North America’s keen car users.”

Given the array of discussion on the various light rail projects across the globe, it is important for Australia to learn from some of these projects. There are some funding and political concerns moving forward with light rail, but if the transport industry can come together we can show that all our light rail projects can be as successful as the Bybanen and Edmonton lines.

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