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At AECOM, we believe infrastructure creates opportunity for everyone.

Innovation & Digital

Our technical experts and visionaries harness the power of technology to deliver transformative outcomes.


Transformers? More than public transport – the potential of light rail

Keith Povah Technical Director — Rail, Australia New Zealand Roger Jeffries Technical Director — Transport Advisory, Australia New Zealand

What does the future hold for light rail in Australia and New Zealand? Around the world, a ‘light rail renaissance’, centred on increasing public transport usage and improving social equity, is driving down carbon emissions, activating urban regeneration, and connecting economically disadvantaged areas.

The 2020 Light Rail and Tram: The European Outlook from Union Internationale des Transports Publics shows that in Europe, light rail now carries as many passengers as metros and regional/commuter rail, and ten times more passengers than air travel.

According to AECOM’s Technical Directors and light rail specialists, Keith Povah and Roger Jeffries, light rail projects offer Australia and New Zealand cities enormous opportunity to connect communities, improve access to jobs, education, healthcare and leisure facilities, regenerate urban precincts, and stimulate economic growth. All while reducing carbon emissions through convenient public transport.

But the delivery of such transformational transport solutions also brings complex challenges. In this article, Keith and Roger address how to balance budget and urban regeneration objectives and look at the role light rail projects can play in helping to achieve a net zero society.

Serving the community and supporting growth

“Light rail is a great urban public transport solution for cities at a variety of scales and can play different roles in the urban transport context,” says Roger.

Light rail can operate as a primary public transport corridor, especially in small-medium sized cities or linking urban suburbs with centres, such as in Canberra or the Gold Coast. It can also serve as a secondary, or connecting, public transport corridor, still providing high-capacity, accessible urban public transport for short trips between centres or amenities, as well as linking to metros and rail in cities like Sydney, London and Toronto.

The benefit of light rail is most tangible in its urban outcomes. Compared to cheaper or more flexible public transport alternatives, such as conventional buses or other ‘rubber-tyred’ alternatives, light rail creates the incentive to stimulate investment in the built environment along the corridor. Despite the significant investment required to undertake civil works, light rail’s social and urban knock-on benefits are often key to project approval.

Keith Povah says light rail projects that are effectively planned and designed can act as magnets for investment, capable of bringing both private and government bodies to invest in urban revitalisation along the corridor. “The permanence of the rail infrastructure offers important assurance to developers – once steel rails are in the ground, it’s unlikely they will be removed, so a light rail project is often a catalyst for developments that can regenerate an area,” says Keith.

The Major Projects Canberra’s Benefits Realisation Report explores the impact of the Canberra Light Rail project over the first 12 months of operations.

Canberra has seen higher than expected population growth in the suburbs along the corridor, as well as an increase in property value. From 2014 to 2018, average house prices increased by 17% across the Australian Capital Territory but were higher in the regions incorporating the light rail corridor – 39% in the Inner North and 27% in Gungahlin over the same period. The report also shows that business growth has increased by 4% along the Gungahlin section of the corridor 2014 to 2018.

Light rail also has the potential to deliver long-lasting improvements in equity by increasing accessibility, allowing otherwise disconnected populations to access essential amenities like healthcare, retail, education, and employment hubs.

There has been significant public housing renewal along the Canberra Light Rail corridor, with the replacement of 1288 aged public houses, which has improved social outcomes and moved tenants to newer, higher-quality housing.

On New Zealand’s Auckland Light Rail, it is expected in the next 30 years, that 17% of Auckland’s population growth and 33% of job growth will happen along the City Centre to Māngere corridor.

The Canberra Light Rail has also been a catalyst for sustainable development along the Northbourne Avenue corridor. Environmentally, it is 100 percent powered by renewable energy and is the first light rail system in Australia to include dedicated bicycle spaces on each vehicle. The 12km long route includes 13 stops linking current and future development along the corridor, including the inner north commercial centre of Dickson and the integrated bus interchange.

Balancing budget and best practice

“I’ve heard light rail described as an urban design project that happens to have a railway going through it. Much of the genesis of light rail projects tends to be the urban regeneration offering,” says Keith.

Light rail projects are both transport and urban design projects, and managing the cost and scope of works related to the project is a significant and common challenge. While urban regeneration is frequently a deciding factor in project approvals, it is often where a light rail project can become unstuck, trying to solve too many problems with one transport project.

“Across all the light rail projects I have worked on in the last 25 years, many suffered financially under the aspirational urban design approach,” says Keith. “We must strike a balance between regenerating an urban precinct and delivering a transport project for the community.”

So how do we deliver aspirational urban design while keeping projects on budget?

As always, it comes down to a clearly defined scope. Aspirational design elements often point to ambiguous phrases like world-class precincts that leave too much room for error, or prescriptive requirements that can be derailed when investigated in detail. There needs to be definition and agreement on the core outcome from the beginning.

This is even more critical when applying the urban design overlay and seeking approvals for changes in important jurisdictions in major cities. After all, urban precincts can change the fabric and form of our city spaces.

New technology can also play a role in staying on budget during project delivery and in operation. Light rail projects are often delivered through a phased approach with complex systems integration challenges.

“New technology does come with risks; however, to drive efficiency in the future, we need to shift perceptions that tried and tested systems are more effective than new technology. With technology evolving rapidly, it is common to see systems selected during the planning phase that are nearing the end of their useful lifecycle by project completion. To increase longevity and value for money, we need to boldly predict future needs and embrace new rail systems technology early.” says Keith.

Light rail’s future in a net zero society

According to the Climate Council, transport is Australia’s third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, with cars accounting for around half of Australia’s transport emissions.

High-quality, energy-efficient transport systems can work hand-in-glove with public policy to help reduce dependency on cars and achieve climate targets.

The simple concept of increasing public transport usage supports the move to net zero, moving more people with fewer emissions. However, to attract more customers, Roger says, “We must continue to assess the value offering of our transport networks and invest in better infrastructure and services to align with societal demand.”

“Fifty years ago, our cities were designed for car users. While we are still investing in major road infrastructure, I sense that we will reach the end of this peak over the next five years and will see greater investment in urban public transport and a mixture of metros and on-street public transport,” says Roger.

Schemes like road user charging, which require a payment to access public assets, are helping achieve carbon targets by disincentivising car travel. The UK’s ambitious ‘Ultra Low Emission Zone’ (ULEZ) charges road users daily to drive within a central London zone. Any money from the scheme is reinvested into improving the transport network, and users are incentivised to use public transport with discounted off-peak travel fares. However, the success of disincentivisation strategies like ULEZ relies on the accessibility of an appealing multi-modal transport system.

Modern, high-quality light rail will attract more passengers. As integrated transit options become more appealing, car travel should fall, helping us achieve net zero more quickly.

“We live very complicated lives, with many undertaking multiple trips daily. Our systems need to be a viable ‘carrot’ to entice people from their cars and onto our urban transport systems,” says Roger.

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