Friday, December 24, 2010

Light Rail Live Issue in Hobart

Open topped tram (in Hobart!) circa 1940 Wikipedia Photo. Light rail of a little faster and more comfortable style is back on the agenda for some Tasmanian advocates

Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, is struggling to emerge as the next Australasian city to develop light rail. A major stimulant has been greatly reduced freight traffic on a rail line heading through suburbs north of the city, freeing up the line for potential commuter use. Hobart, with a metropop of 215,000 is the smallest of 24 CANZ cities between 200,000-800,000 monitored by NZ in Tranzit as a "best match" sister city to Christchurch.

Hobart, Australia's second oldest city - a bit like Wellington NZ, has developed around a central port area. With modern slab wharves needed for bulk products and container yards, this port has become far to cramped, a largely obsolete technology. As a result much of the export/import rail freight currently channelled through Hobart is to be redirected through a major new transport hub being built at Brighton, upriver and well north of the city. With the remaining rail line tofro the city from the north to be used only for container traffic direct to the city itself, this leaves a lot of unused corridor space/time that could be used to implement passenger rail.

Also as with Wellington, NZ, in Hobart the greater metropolitan area spreads a considerable distance northwards, including a 19 kilometre corridor of mostly residential area up the western side of the Derwent River to a crossing point at Granton near Bridgewater. The elongated nature of this corridor suggests a rapid transit system, the idea most promoted being a light rail system.

Hobart and Greater Hobart from Wikimedia Commons

The general consensus amongst those promoting the idea would seem to be that this mostly use the existing rail line and land corridor, with a bit of added on-street deviation through appropriate residential areas. In addition some advocates believe the line should continue past the CBD to the University of Tasmania at Sandy Bay. As the the rail traffic freight traffic will be much smaller, it is proposed that freight and passenger traffic be time separated, presumably no freight during daylight hours. Another consideration is that Tasmania, like New Zealand is also a mountainous terrain, and consequently operates heavy rail on a narrow guage track. To ensure standard guage light-rail trams obtain a smooth passage, a combination system with a third rail system would need to be created , though all tracks apparently need to be replaced anyway.

One factor in favour of light rail is that Hobart is a State capital and typically capital cities everywhere in the world, with their greater administrative sector and many company head offices, engender greater public transport use. This said Tasmania's population is very small, the state parliament has only 25 sitting members; the island's entire population is only about 500,000 with half of that population living in the greater Hobart area.

In October 2008 the Sate's Labour Government announced an extensive and intensive study of Tasmania's urban public transport needs. The Government employed international engineering and infrastructure consultants Parsons-Brickerhoff to investigate and making a preliminary costing of a light rail system to Hobart and also to look at ways of improving the city's bus services. The state also employed Australia based consultants Sherry and Pitt to investigate and broadly cost conversion of the corridor to a bus rapid transit system in the event that rail was removed completely.

The light rail plan with all basic infrastructure needed detailed (estimated) came in at $665 million for a 26km route Granton to University ($410 million if only to CBD) with costing in different sections (according to whether on rail alignment or on city streets) ranging from $14 million per kilometre through to about $36 million per kilometre. While this was admitted to be a high-end solution with best catchment options, it also seems to be fairly consistent (if indeed not cheaper) than light rail projects being built in two other smaller CANZ cities - Gold Coast City (Stage one 13km = Aus$989 million) and in Kitchener-Waterloo in Canada (14km LRT plus a BRT to third area Cambridge = Can$790). In contrast Tasmanian advocates, including one advocating a battery powered railcar system, have claimed light rail could be built for as little as $40 million, a figure that would be hard to match for a rail upgrade anywhere in the world.

The consultant's studies
[you can read all reports here] compared public transport in Hobart with case studies of other cities seen as relevant - Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch in New Zealand; and in Canada, Saskatoon, Victoria and Halifax [how very odd - why not San Francisco, Portland and Vancouver ?!! YR] Interestingly - though the Parker-Brickerhoff study does not appear** to refer to this, both Halifax and Victoria have had similar scenarios to to Hobart - disused or under-used rail lines put forward as potential commuter rail lines - and each has researched these and ultimately found rail not viable for such small catchment populations (previously reported in NZ in Tranzit, Halifax here and Victoria here) The separate Pitt and Sherry BRT report, estimated a 15 km busway with a single lane with passing loops (and at stations) on machine-paved concrete base would cost about $115 km plus vehicles

Following the release of the consultant's study early this year the Tasmanian newspaper "The Mercury" reported

Buses not trains or ferries are the future in Hobart, according to the State Government's review of public transport options. Premier David Bartlett announced a $16 million funding boost for Metro yesterday as he released the Urban Passenger Transport Framework, which found Tasmania lacks the population to sustain light rail or ferries. "This is about getting people to swap their car for the bus, by making public transport a more appealing option," he said.

The city bus system in Hobart and other Tasmian urban centres is run by
Metro Tasmania, a State owned system and carries a patronage of around 10 million passengers per year, with farebox recovery of only 30%. The case studies from New Zealand and Canada provide many ways of improving bus services and attracting grearter patronage. Certainly Christchurch people will appreciate the simplicity of their own system when looking at some of the timetables used in Hobart - in some cases [sample] it seems there are many more route numbers and route variations than routes!! [This said I argue Metro Chrisrtchurch has gone too far the opposite way and is failing to operate much needed additional, business day only, hour industrial conections]

Needless to say proponents of the rail option are not satisfied with the rejection of the rail option and with the Green Party winning 21% of the vote and five of the 25 seats in the Tasmanian Parliament (Labour and the Liberals (Tory Party) have 10 each) it is not an issue that looks like it will go away in a hurry.

Perhaps it is the general popular desire to give Hobart a classy act commensurate with the other (much larger) state capitals if at all possible. Or perhaps it is an attempt to show once and for all that light rail would be too heavy for Hobart. Whatever the reason, despite Premier Bartlett's claim that Tasmania lack sufficient population to sustain light rail, the Tasmanian Department of Infrastructure and Energy Resources (DIER) is now calling for tenders from suppliers "to undertake a Business Case which evaluates, in detail, the introduction of a light rail service utilising the existing corridor which runs from Hobart to the northern suburbs".

What is not clear is where Tasmania would get the funding. Gold Coast and Kitchener-Waterloo are both cities in very wealthy, high density regions - South-East Queensland and Ontario - with large regional funding input as well as funds from national Government. The city of Kitchener-Waterloo indeed only has to find 10% of its light rail costs. While Federal Government mght contribute to light rail in Tasmania, the contradiction remains that the State of Tasmania and city of Hobart are 50% the same thing!
** These reports cover hundreds of pages- focussing more on the summaries I may have missed this

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