Newcastle light rail nearly twice the price of Canberra's new tram system

Newcastle’s light rail system will cost almost twice as much per kilometre to build as Canberra’s.

The 2.7km Newcastle tram line from the Wickham transport interchange to the east end is costing $290 million, or more than $107 million a kilometre, compared with $59 million a kilometre for Canberra’s new 12km light rail route.

The ACT’s Labor government has entered into a public-private partnership (PPP) with Canberra Metro, a business consortium, to build stage one of its light rail network from the northern suburb of Gungahlin to the CBD at a cost of $707 million.

The capital’s light rail is being built largely on wide median strips reserved for trains in Walter Burley Griffin’s 1911 plans for the city. 

The Newcastle trams start their journey on the former heavy rail corridor before veering onto 1.7km of Hunter and Scott streets and ending at Pacific Park. The government says the trams will help reinvigorate the streets along their route.   

“Obviously, taking it down Hunter Street is causing a lot of cost,” Hunter traffic engineer Ron Brown, of Northern Transport Planning and Engineering, said.

“Not only are they building a light rail, they’re re-establishing a lot of the utility facilities in that area.

“They are doing the right thing … but, at the end of the day, we are only getting 2.7km of light rail.”

Downer EDI is building the light rail system on behalf of Transport for NSW, and Keolis Downer will operate it as part of its Newcastle Transport network. 

The Newcastle Herald reported on Monday that the state government had attributed a $35 million jump in the project’s cost, from $255 million to $290 million, in part to a decision in April to remove the trams’ overhead wires in favour of on-board energy storage.

Canberra’s light rail will have overhead wires along its full 12km length, and its 13 stops represent fewer per kilometre than in Newcastle (six over 2.7km).

“Canberra light rail is not free of overhead wires and cannot be compared to the Newcastle project,” a Transport for NSW spokesperson said. 

“The Newcastle Light Rail project is more than a transport project, it is a project to revitalise the city centre and as such includes urban amenity and road and intersection upgrades as part of the overall budget.

“As the NSW Government made clear in August, the light rail forms only one part of more than $650 million invested in infrastructure upgrades to make Newcastle a truly global city.”

The ACT Government says the Canberra project cost also includes “additional enhancements”, such as a revamped Civic Plaza and “dynamic lighting” at light rail stops.

Newcastle state MP Tim Crakanthorp questioned whether the NSW government could have spent the money better. 

“The Newcastle light rail project on a metre-by-metre basis is nearly double that of Canberra’s light rail,” he said.

“These additional funds could have been spent on looking into securing future light rail corridors or investigating an expansion of the network.”

Sydney’s 12km light rail line from the CBD to the eastern suburbs is costing $2.1 billion under a PPP with the ALTRAC Light Rail consortium.

At $175 million per kilometre, it is more expensive than the Newcastle and Canberra projects combined.     

Newcastle’s air-conditioned trams, made by Spanish firm Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF), will run every 7½ minutes in peak times and have a capacity of 1200 passengers an hour. A Transport for NSW spokesman said they would have 60 seats.

CAF delivered the first of 14 similar Urbos light rail vehicles to Canberra last week.

The five-section vehicles are 33 metres long, carry 207 passengers either sitting or standing and cost about $4.6 million each, which includes 20 years of maintenance.

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