TIMED to coincide with the Tuesday’s state budget, the Baird government has unveiled a series of key announcements about the Newcastle light rail project.
As well as confirming the allocation of $142 million towards construction of the light rail, the government has opened a “request for proposals” from transport consortia interested in running the city’s new amalgamated public transport service.
A number of groups, including Keolis-Downer and UGL/Transit Systems, have indicated they will bid for this contract, which is known as the “integrated service offering”.
Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian says the government will set minimum service standards and continue to set bus, ferry and light rail fares. But the selected operator will be given what Ms Berejiklian describes as “a level of autonomy to plan and run services”.
Also importantly, the government has announced that the Newcastle light rail cars will be supplied by Spain’s Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF), which has already provided light rail for part of the Sydney light rail system. These “Urbos” vehicles have a smaller capacity than the “Citadis” cars that French manufacturer Alstom is supplying for the George Street extension of the Sydney light rail.
Given that patronage in Newcastle will be substantially smaller than in the Sydney CBD, it makes sense to order smaller vehicles. And given that both Alstom and CAF have reputations for supplying high-tech, reliable rolling stock, quality and performance should not be a problem.
Obviously aware of the controversy the project has generated, Transport Minister Andrew Constance has been at pains to say that the government “will not step away from its commitment” to help reinvigorate the Newcastle CBD.
While the government’s attention to the Hunter is welcome, the reality of this statement – and a determination to “press go” on the privatisation of the bus and ferry services – means that the various calls for major alterations to the project as proposed have fallen on deaf ears.
The one exception appears to be the raised track, which the government now says is no longer part of the design.
More will be unveiled at the budget, but the inescapable conclusion is that the biggest government project in a generation is steadily taking shape.