We need an innovative solution to our intractable rail problem – and we have one under our very noses - but our decision makers cannot see through the maze.
The promised Newcastle light rail should evolve into a ‘tram train’ like they have in Europe.
As described by Associate Professor Garry Glazebrook of the UTS, a tram train is a light rail vehicle which can operate at high speed on the heavy rail network and also operate on the street like a normal tram. They were first introduced in Karlsruhe in Germany in the early 1990s and now operate in the Netherlands, France and elsewhere.
Tram trains are particularly suited to medium-sized cities like Newcastle. The tram allows good access and urban amenity benefits in the city centre while the train aspect provides high speed, comfort and capacity for commuters. In 1992 rail vehicles ran on the world’s first dual-mode tram train line between Karlsruhe and Bretten. Before 1992 commuters had to transfer from tram to regional rail and in Bretten a transfer from rail to bus was required. These forced transfers were awkward and time consuming and deterred many potential users. Since then, commuters can travel between the two centres without having to transfer, saving 15 minutes each time. In Bretten, new development and businesses opened near the new rail stops. These stops were not a detriment to travel time as the new vehicles were capable of higher speeds. Patronage in the line increased by 400 per cent and currently patronage is six times what it was before the introduction of the tram trains.
The greater Newcastle area is well-suited to tram trains as they would allow the Newcastle CBD to benefit from the introduction of light rail while allowing commuters from the Upper Hunter and Maitland direct access to Newcastle Beach without the need for transfer. Commuters to and from Sydney would transfer to the tram train at the new Wickham terminal. In the future, new tram trains could operate direct to Newcastle Beach, from the Central Coast and West Lakes as well. Ideally the tram train would operate along the existing rail corridor from Wickham to Newcastle allowing direct pedestrian access across the line, like any tram line in the world. It could provide a direct connection between the UoN Callaghan campus and the new City campus without having to build new track.
There are no unresolved technical issues with tram trains. They are usually electrically powered sometimes dual voltage (750V DC for town centres and 25 KV AC for main electrified lines) and diesel-electric powered hybrid tram trains are also available which allows operation on non-electrified lines such as the Maitland and Dungog lines. Clearly track sharing issues have to be resolved but they have managed this in Europe, so I am sure, with political will, they can do this here as well.
There are several builders of tram trains and the latest models include high energy efficiency through regenerative braking and on-board energy storage.
Tram trains provide an exciting opportunity for the Hunter as a whole, to build a truly viable public transport system with benefits for both the CBD and the region.
Our Prime Minister wants us to be innovative (as do we all) and we have the opportunity to do just that, to resolve our debilitating transport debate once and for all, but the state government does not seem interested – why?