IAN KIRKWOOD: Newcastle light rail and Cabinet deliberations

Apologies for another light rail column, but I can’t escape the feeling we may be sleepwalking into a planning disaster, and I don’t want to have to say “I did nothing” if someone comes up to me in 20 years time and asks me how all of this happened.

CORRIDOR RUNNING: Light rail in Angers, France.

CORRIDOR RUNNING: Light rail in Angers, France.

One of the problems with our consultation system is that it’s not until the public gets the detailed information – a Review of Environmental Factors, rather than a more comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement, in this case – does the concept of “consultation” make a lot of sense.

Before then, it’s just a general mish-mash of concepts and artist’s impressions and maybes. It’s not until the fine print is available does the public get the chance to assess the full ramifications of a project that, in this case, has been extremely controversial from the start. As I wrote on Saturday, I would advise anyone whose life intersects in any way with the Newcastle city centre to look very closely at the REF and its accompanying technical papers, because when the government says this is more than a transport project, it is absolutely right.

It is set to result in major and probably permanent changes to the way people move around the city, and while I’d love to say they are good changes, I am far from convinced that this is the case.

For starters, it’s worth looking at the proposed hybrid route in light of the December 2013 Cabinet minute that caused so much controversy early last year for Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp. It is attached to the online version of this column and still makes for fascinating reading, especially when it comes to the reasons its anonymous author(s) give for keeping light rail on the corridor. Putting light rail on the street would lead to “space constraints” that would “impact on . . . key urban renewal initiatives”.

Travel times for cars and light rail alike would be longer than if the light rail went on the corridor. The removal of car-parking spaces, loading zones and taxi ranks would “impact businesses on an ongoing basis”.

And to top it off, the combined or hybrid option had “higher costs, greater delivery risks and greater impacts on businesses during construction” than using the available corridor.

Yet this is the very option the government has decided to take. Yes, I know there is no absolute “right” or “wrong” in situations like this, and reports can be skewed to suit the desires of those commissioning them.

But for the sake of good government, I would hope that Cabinet-level documents were robustly rooted in fact and reason.

Certainly, I can’t accuse the Cabinet minute of gilding the the lily when it comes to patronage.

Based on a “bespoke demand model” that included ticket price, the removal of the city’s “fare free” bus zone and the likelihood that urban renewal would bring more jobs and residents to the city, the government’s planners predicted a light rail “patronage forecast” of 1800 trips a day. Yep. A day. Not an hour. A day. And given that a trip in one direction usually entails a return trip in the other, that means the government was expecting about 900 actual passengers.

On the information provided, the hybrid light rail could easily cost $250 million, not counting the cost of the interchange. That works out at about $275,000 a passenger, and that’s just to build the thing, not to operate it. No wonder they wouldn’t release the business case. Not even Clive Palmer, when he showered his Queensland Nickel workforce with Mercedes cars and Fijian holidays, was that generous. And we know what happened there, don’t we.