OPINION: Cost-effective light rail a dividend for city

IT’S not easy to come up with a viable and achievable plan when you’re talking about light rail.

But it is too easy to write it off with simplistic density or unrepresentative cost arguments.

I believe all possible leverage options should be carefully looked into with a ‘‘can do’’ approach,  considering all benefits as well as costs.

Many parties say light rail systems have a high cost, when comparing other developments worldwide. 

In most of these cases, however, substantial parts of the costs were associated with acquiring land right of way, and entire infrastructure construction. 

Our situation in Newcastle has the potential to deliver a system for substantially less cost, and from this, a lower population density hurdle can and should be applied. 

There is a mooted concept of ‘‘tram train’’, where light rail vehicles ‘‘share’’ track with existing heavy rail traffic.

This operates successfully in a number of overseas locations. 

If one sets aside the issue of regulation and approvals required, and analyses the existing operation of heavy freight and passenger operations in Newcastle, the challenges become apparent.

The area of rail line between Hamilton and Warabrook would necessarily be an integral part of ‘‘tram train’’ operations and is already close to saturation. 

That is,  there is no available ‘‘bandwidth’’ to accommodate the train paths required for a suitable frequency of light rail vehicles.

There is continual  discussion about the need for a Fassifern to Hexham rail bypass as the long-term solution to heavy rail operational problems, including freight in the suburbs and the Adamstown crossing. Unfortunately scant actual planning action has taken place. 

The looming increase in coal traffic from the Cobbora Coal mine through Newcastle’s suburbs will put the blowtorch on this issue in the next couple of years.

One shining light appears in the recent Infrastructure NSW “First Things First” document, which describes this link as of strategic merit.

It points out the merit of ‘‘engineering’’ the northern section of such a link with the proposed “F3 Extension” through Hexham. 

This approach has the dual positive  of reducing the likely rail cost, as well as potentially bringing forward the timetable for delivery.

The Hunter Business Chamber, in its recent publication Newcastle Central,   outlines the importance of designing any relocated heavy rail terminus to incorporate future light rail capability. This would include using the existing inner-city corridor for such a light rail right of way. 

The only problem is the call to remove the current rail infrastructure, whereas the track in its present form should be retained as it is perfectly suitable for light rail vehicles.

Removal and subsequent reinstatement is an unnecessary cost  when compared with landscaping and covering options available.

The completion of the mooted Fassifern to Hexham rail bypass relieves the constraint on heavy rail operations between Hamilton and Warabrook.

As well as removing coal and freight trains from much of the Newcastle suburban areas, it also opens the door to light rail traffic using tracks to the west of Hamilton, either as ‘‘tram trains’’ or consolidating heavy rail operations on to two tracks and permitting exclusive light rail operation on the remaining two tracks.

In combination with the construction of a light rail track into the heart of the Newcastle University Callaghan campus, it is possible to envisage a Newcastle CBD to University campus light rail spine, with a cost of about $100million. 

One has to stress that the majority of the ‘‘real’’ cost is  already borne by the new heavy rail terminus and Newcastle rail bypass projects, which live or die on their own merit. A cost-effective light rail system can be seen as a dividend from the correct planning and delivery of these projects.

If a new light rail system indeed reaches into the Newcastle University campus, one tantalising future expansion possibility is to ‘‘co-engineer’’ light rail tracks from the university into the mooted SR23 extension from Jesmond to New Lambton Heights. 

This would deliver a light rail station into the heart of the John Hunter campus, and everyone  would see the enormous benefits to improving hospital access.

Tim Bohlsen writes on behalf of the Hunter Independent Public Transport Inquiry. 

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