Newcastle's first light rail vehicle rolled onto Hunter Street, which had not seen a tram in more than 68 years

THE first light-rail vehicle rolled onto Hunter Street late on Tuesday night, putting Revitalising Newcastle on the home straight as it races to have the service running and the street works finished well before the March 2019 state election.

With Transport Minister Andrew Constance due in Newcastle on Monday to inspect the partly built Wickham control centre, and with operator Keolis Downer about to start training its first batch of 24 tram drivers, teams of workers are on the job around the clock to keep the project on time, and to help the CBD emerge from the past year’s disruption.

Although the shiny red-and-white two car set was only towed along the tracks by a small electric shunter, it was the first tram to run on Newcastle streets since the historic 20th century service ended 68 years ago in 1950.

The operation started at about 11pm when the Spanish-built Urbis 100 was winched off a flat-bed semi-trailer down a yellow steel ramp onto the tracks just east of Worth Place, where the track shifts between the old rail corridor and Hunter Street.

From there it was led west at walking pace, stopping at regular intervals as fluro-jacketed attendants checked its progress, until it arrived at its Wickham stables about an hour after midnight.

Watching the two-hour operation on Tuesday night, Revitalising Newcastle head Michael Cassel said most of the work had been done by locals and Newcastle “should be proud of how well the team has performed in delivering this infrastructure for the city”.

“I’m pleased we’re here just 12 months from when we first started construction on a 350-metre section of Hunter Street, with the track almost completely built, all six stops taking shape, and our first light rail vehicle safely in the depot,” Mr Cassel said.

“In the past year we’ve upgraded essential services along Hunter Street including the city’s 100-year old sewer network, laid new footpaths, opened up the city to the harbour with crossings at Steel Street and Worth Place, and completed all but a few small sections of the track.”

With more trams arriving every month, Newcastle Transport operator Keolis Downer is in the final stages of choosing its first light-rail drivers.

The initial plan is for 14 drivers on the tracks, with another 10 staff, who will work in the Wickham control centre, also fully qualified as drivers, to maximise operational flexibility. The “multimodal” centre will also co-ordinate aspects of Newcastle’s bus operations.

Keolis Downer corporate affairs director Andrew Fletcher says a lot of women applied for the jobs.

When the Newcastle Herald visited Keolis light rail systems in France in early 2016, company executives made it clear they favoured women as drivers.

SYSTEM ON SCREEN: Keolis Downer's Andrew Fletcher touring a French Keolis light rail control centre in France in 2016. Picture: Ian Kirkwood

SYSTEM ON SCREEN: Keolis Downer's Andrew Fletcher touring a French Keolis light rail control centre in France in 2016. Picture: Ian Kirkwood

They were said to drive the vehicles with a lighter touch, making for a smoother ride for passengers. Careful driving also saved on maintenance costs because of less wear-and-tear on the vehicles. Mr Fletcher, who was also on the visit for his previous employer, the Property Council of Australia, said that message had been taken on board.

“There’s no quotas as such but one of our clear goals has been to get better diversity into our workforce,” Mr Fletcher said on Wednesday.

“We want to tackle the shortage of women in non-traditional roles such as tram drivers and operational control staff to show the public transport industry is not just welcoming to women, but needs their skills.” 

One of the applicants still in the mix is Keolis Downer’s Tracy Hawkins, a qualified bus driver and former bus marshal who’s been a customer service officer at the “transport hub” shopfront the operator opened in the mall in July.

"I think it will be fantastic to have the light rail running on Hunter Street, and that's why I put my name forward," Ms Hawkins said. “Everywhere you look the city is changing and I think light rail is only going to transform the city even further”

Mr Fletcher said that about 1000 applications were received from around Australia for the drivers’ jobs. This number was short-listed down to 70.

Over three days last week, those candidates went through a series of interviews at McDonald Jones Stadium, before being taken by bus to Newcastle TAFE, where they underwent a series of tests, including online examinations.

“The successful candidates will go through an intensive six-week training course combining class-based lessons and on-the-job training,” Mr Fletcher said. 

“So you will see our people out on the network in the coming weeks, familiarising themselves with the track.”

Although the first vehicle is parked at the Wickham depot for the time being, it won’t be too long before it – and, progressively, its siblings – are out on the tracks, as the process of familiarising the public with the new and silent people-mover in their midst begins. Once operational, the trams will run every 7.5 minutes in peak hour, with the initial far set by regulators at $2.10.

“The arrival of our first tram is a big moment, and with testing starting from next month it’s time to raise awareness of how to be safe around light rail in Newcastle,” Mr Cassel said.

“While testing will start gradually, with trams travelling slowly along the track at night, later this year trams will be travelling frequently through the city simulating timetabled running.

“Light rail is by design quiet and less obtrusive than other forms of public transport, and with our trams weighing 45 tonnes and moving at 40 kilometres an hour, it’s especially important to be aware in the city centre.

“The community will see more information from Revitalising Newcastle about living safely with trams, and work has already started on a schools program to ensure local students are conscious of the changes in the city.

“The most important thing we’ll be encouraging is that people follow signs and signals in the city centre. We’ve added six new pedestrian crossings along the light rail route which will operate in tandem with trams to ensure people can cross the road safely.”

As well as the light rail, the CBD overhaul includes a new lease of life for the old Newcastle railway station, which has been rebadged as “The Station”, with the Renew Newcastle group having signed on to operate the 3000 square metre space while decisions are taken about its eventual permanent use.

With Canberra developer Doma having released the concept drawings of its plans for the first stage of the former Store site, the bus interchange that is a major part of the decision to terminate the heavy rail at Wickham will become the next big chapter of the city’s transport overhaul.

Many hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into the CBD renewal. The original 2016 light rail contract was $460 million, and the government tipped in another $150 million later on. The 2014 Wickham interchange contract was $73 million, but costs were later confirmed at $200 million.

The overall funding came from the $1.75-billion privatisation of the Port of Newcastle in 2014.

Despite the controversy along the way, from the original opposition to cutting the line through to the business anger over construction disruption,  attention is increasingly turning to the “what’s next?” question.

When the push to cut the heavy rail emerged in earnest more than 15 years ago, the two main candidates were Woodville Junction – where the main line from Sydney branches west to Maitland and east to Newcastle – or a bit further south at Broadmeadow, where large areas of former goods yards now stand largely redundant.

With the state government looking to fund the redevelopment of the Broadmeadow sports precinct by selling off much of the Newcastle Showground for higher-density housing, the prospect of a new population centre a few kilometres outside of the CBD has again focused interest on this area.

 Would the most logical light rail extension be to Broadmeadow, or to somewhere else in suburban Newcastle or Lake Macquarie, presently serviced by buses?

The government is working on the issue, as Mr Constance told a budget estimates hearing earlier this month: “In all seriousness, one of the key elements of this is that this is the first stage of what will need to be an extension to the west.

“The question we have been asking internally is: What is the best way to do that? 

“There has been some commissioning of consulting work in relation to the number of routes and the best way to build it before we inform the strategic business case.

“I am hopeful that the department will be able to get you that strategic business case development work by the end of the year.”

As Mr Constance concluded:  “That is what is happening at the moment.”

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TRAVEL IN STYLE: The strange mixture of modern transport and historic buildings that characterises light rail in old city centres.

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