Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Gold Coasting - Australia's smallest city to build light rail may be on to a winner.

Light Rail seems well suited to booming tourist town Gold Coast City
Photograph Wikimedia Commons

Rail or light rail can rarely hope to be relevant or even remotely cost effective in the smaller cities (less than 1 million metropop) of CANZUS* with their wide residential spread footprint and their low density populations.

The huge cost per kilometre; the lack of a single dense corridor that might provide sufficient patronage, and that lack of sufficient distance from CBD that might make switching car to rail more attractive usually makes buses a more cost-effective alternative. Wellington NZ with its unique combination of factors  is a rare exception in the commuter rail field. It is the only city under a million of the 120 smaller or so cities in CANZUS with its own complete, multi-route, seven day and night a week, commuter rail network.

Australia's Gold Coast City, home to Surfers Paradise and iconic sweeping white beaches lined by high rise towers, may now become the exception that proves the rule in the case of light rail.  

After almost a decade of  research debate and planning, Gold Coast and Queensland state leaders have turned the traditional sod for a light rail line  the first spade bite of a project expected to ultimately cost $A1.67 billion  in total. About a billion dollars, $949 million of this amount , will be used to create a 13km core light rail route, mainly segregated from other traffic, from Griffiths University centre in the north down through coastal busness and tourist areas to terminate, at least for now, Broadbeach about 5km south of Surfers Paradise. The remainder is to eventually extend the same line south to Coolangatta and north to Helensvale, and to create an added line at right angles heading inland to Nerang and Robina. The core first line will include 17 stations and two bus interchanges and links to Griffiths University and to several hospitals and other major passenger generators. Over 100 properties are being purchased (a curious-to-our-NZ-ears Australian expression " being resumed") to allow for widening of roads or creation of segregated rail alignment.

There are a number of factors that would appear to make light rail particularly well suited to the Gold Coast area of Australia. These include an elongated urban footprint; very dense high rise residential and tourist accommodation zones that are mostly linear in "footprint"; rapid growth; a large state and national taxpayer base. Whether the limited geographic spead of easy access (within walking distance) light rail corridors are the most effective system to get traffic off the roads or create a more sophisticated public transport system for local people themselves is another question.

NZ in Tranzit takes a peek some the factors that decided for a light rail corridor in this area and leaves it to common sense of local readers to ask whether these are matched in anyway here in Christchurch, where the incumbent Mayor Bob Parker is making light rail a high risk plank of his election platform.


Gold Coast City covers an area around 40 kilometres long of beach frontage, an area so elongated that unlike most cities there is not one clearly predominant CBD area -  Southport, Surfers Paradise, Bundall and Robina-Varsity Lakes are each considerable hub areas. (Perhaps reflecting this, somewhat bizarrely Google maps doesn't even have "Gold Coast City" as an entity tagged on its satellite map of the area!).

Gold Coast City is also an almost contiguous part of another greater, distinctive geographic area and economic zone, South-East Queensland. This is the area stretching northwards from Coolangatta through Gold Coast, through Brisbane and up the Sunshine Coast to Noosa. This area is almost identical in land size (around 22,000 square kilometres) to the central Canterbury areas, the combined District Council and City Council territorial areas between Timaru and Rangiora.  But in contrast to our 532,000 residents in the Canterbury NZ land area South East Queensland home is already home to 2.9 million people and population in this area is expected to reach 4.4 million by 2031.

Gold Coast City itself has some 515,000 residents but  expected to reach 730,000 by 2026. The coastal strip with its many tower blocks is one of Australia's most densely populated areas. Apart from residential apartments - including the world's tallest residential building - there are timeshare and tourist rental apartments and hotels and motels, tourism being the prime industry of this city. Surprisingly at just under a million overseas tourists (a quarter of them kiwis)  the Gold Coast gets less than half the amount of international tourists that Christchurch receives. However being so close to Brisbane and immediately north of New South Wales the city is also visited by over 5 million mainly Aussie day-trippers each year. Another 3.5 other Aussie's driving or flying in from outerstate to stay a few nights, these homegrown visitors making up the bulk of its tourism. Unlike Christchurch which tends to be a more of gateway to scenic attractions further south (as much as it woos visitors to stay longer) Gold Coast is more of a destination in itself and stats show visitors tend to stay for much longer periods, significantly boosting the local population in any given moment, including the potential public transport user base.

The large role the shape of Gold Coast and the added density and population tourism brings was acknowledged by the Queensland Minister of Transport Rachel Nolan describing the basis of the State's decision to fund  the city's light rail   "..the project was only possible because of the linear nature of Gold Coast city and the fact that transport demand was sustained during the day by tourism. (The Courier Mail 7 July 2009)

Rail systems need dense population areas.  Choose side A or side B?
Photo: Wikimedia Commons


The Federal Government in Australia appears to play a much smaller part in public transport or its funding than central Government in New Zealand. On the other hand many rail and public transport systems are still owned by public authorities, usually the State Government and even sometimes operated, as once was the case in New Zealand, directly by the State government itself.   In response to the Gold Coast City's request for funding the Federal Government would only agree to invest in Gold Coast's light rail on the basis it was an "investment" - not an outright grant - and they expected some [direct?] return to the Federal Government from  "advertising and the establishment of shops and buildings" along the route. How this is supposed to work is not clear. Queensland Premier Anna Bligh responded to this (unusal) tack from central Government saying "There is no public transport service in Australia that delivers a profit. It's subsidised by the public and this one will be as well. Gold Coasters are entitled to that." 

Indeed Gold Coast City itself gets off relatively lightly (so to speak) "only" having to find $200 million from its own local taxes (in NZ, local rates) with the Queensland Government contributing $464  and the Federal Government $356 million, towards the first $949 million project .

Said Queensland State Premier Anna Bligh The 13km line will link Griffith University at Broadbeach to Surfers Paradise, servicing around 40,000 workers, students and tourists.
"This will be the only light rail system in the state and it will literally change the face of the Gold Coast," Ms Bligh said. "... We would expect some 20 per cent of the Gold Coast's population to be using this transport over a 12-month period."  (AAP newswire 6 July 2009 per ProQuest ANZ)

The costs of the light rail passes casually across the need to improve bus services upon which the city will still largely rely. On a visit to the Gold Coast, where she grew up, Premier Bligh  told the Gold Coast Bulletin (18 December 2009)  that public transport in the area hadn't improved in thirty years. Certainly a ridership of 17 million passengers per year is nothing impressive in a city of this size and tourist base - less than Christchurch two thirds its size. Translink, the Queensland public transport authority studies already show light rail will only address of a sector of local transit needs.  "TransLink said it aimed to increase public transport usage from 4 per cent to 10 per cent by 2026 - that would equate to almost 87 million journeys by public transport. Only 36 million of those will be catered for by the RTS [light rail] , TransLink's own figures show, leaving the Coast's bus fleet to cope with an estimated 52 million passenger trips a year - more than three times the 2008 number". (Gold Coast Bulletin 27 June 2009).  Traditionally, many cities which have invested heavily in light rail, including Melbourne and Portland, Oregan (beloved by our local mayor) have not done bus services well,  even where the majority of residents depend on buses. This said Translink itself is a very high energy committed transit body - watch this space!

New Queensland Rail station for Brisbane-Gold Coast commuter trains being built at Varsity Lakes in southwest suburban area of the Gold Coast (Wikimedia Dec 2009).  A region the size of Canterbury's coastal land area but with a population/taxpayer base already 70% as large as the whole population of NZ, South East Queensland  - Brisbane and its lengthy extended arms  -  has become Australia's third major urban connurbation, with the resources reflecting this.

The Queensland Government has also recently spent $324 million upgrading and extending the commuter rail link from Brisbane between Robina and Varsity Lakes, and expects to spend a further $184 million upgrading the line between Gold and Brisbane. Queensland in general  and Brisbane in particular have invested heavily in both rail and busways, with massive 40% patronage increases in both train and bus patronage over the last three years. Gold Coast is only the second city (of about 120) in CANZUS to build light rail (three others are still in planning)***   The cost is equal to or greater than the complete upgrade and double tracking and electrification of the Auckland heavy rail system. It does not come cheap! Despite the recession we are talking a very affluent economic base here, one that can spend around $73 million per kilometre to build light rail that will not directly benefit 80% of the population.  To say that the Gold Coast can not lose building light rail would be overly optimistic - not every project of this nature turns up trumps. With so many factors stacked in its favour, it might be better to say the Gold Coast can afford to "lose", almost irrespective of the cost, light rail seems well suited for this intensified tourist corridor. It can only foster the local economy directly and indirectly, including the tourist image. Whether the service will do to much to bring quality public transport to the larger portion of the local population is debatable.

Christchurch is a fairly vital little city with its own healthy tourist industry but ill-suited to light rail other than what it has already - the elegant old trams of yesteryear.

You might say we are light rail years away from the Gold Coast situation. 

*CANZUS = Canada, Australia, New Zealand, USA - by smaller is meant 300,000-1 million metropolitan area population

Tacoma metropo c600,000 in Washington state has a short, central city, light rail system ($US80m) 
Winnipeg, 642,000 metropop Canada may get light rail (if the current erratic Mayor is re-elected in October)
Honolulu 990,000 metropo is planning a $US 5.6 billon 32 km light rail (including sections above city streets)Kitchener 450,000 metropop Canada, smallest city to plan light rail in North America - approx $750 million,15?km

1 comment:

  1. As a Gold Coast resident, business owner and investor I am very excited about the light rail project and the positive impacts it will have on our city. Right now is a great time to buy Gold Coast property and get set for the boom times to come visit for more info.