Trackless trams financed by property developers could be the future of Newcastle’s light rail network, according to Australian academic Professor Peter Newman AO.
Professor Newman is heading a research project at Perth’s Curtin University into autonomous rail transit (ART), a transport system gaining traction in a handful of Australian cities.
A consortium of five local governments is working on a business case for trackless trams to serve a planned $7 billion urban centre based around the Curtin campus.
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Professor Newman said Townsville, Liverpool and Fishermans Bend in Melbourne were “very serious” about installing trackless trams, and Hobart had completed detailed planning work.
Trackless trams are similar to light-rail vehicles but have rubber wheels and automated optical guidance systems. Like Newcastle’s wire-free light rail, they are recharged at stations along the route.
But the big difference is the price tag, about $6 million to $8 million a kilometre, compared with more than 10 times that much for Newcastle’s 2.7km inner-city tram. The state government has not published detailed costings for the Newcastle project.
Chinese company CRRC unveiled the first trackless tram in June last year. It can travel at 70km/h, does not sway like a bus and can carry between 300 and 500 passengers, depending on the number of carriages.
Professor Newman, who has been to China to see the ART system in action, said the arrival of trackless tram technology did not mean Newcastle’s soon-to-open light rail line was a “folly”, but he did questions its cost.
He wrote an article for The Conversation last week in which he said light rail had been “highly successful in attracting patronage and land development”.
“It was a good idea at the time. I certainly pushed for it very hard,” he said.
“I think engineering has become incredibly gold-plated, because these light rails in Australia, particularly in NSW, seem to be about four times what everyone else can do.
“But all it’s done is put it off the agenda for any future extensions.
“The reality is the trackless tram can run on those same routes, and it will be a tenth of the cost.”
The state government is preparing a business case for extending the Newcastle light rail line into the suburbs, possibly from Wickham to John Hunter Hospital via Broadmeadow.
Such a route could cost about $650 million using traditional light rail, or about $65 million using trackless technology.
ART systems can be installed on two lanes of existing roadway without causing the kind of disruption which has plagued light rail construction projects in Sydney and Newcastle.
Professor Newman, a former sustainability commissioner for the NSW government and Infrastructure Australia board member, said trams should be seen as a means of unlocking potential development land such as the proposed sport, entertainment and residential precinct at Broadmeadow.
“It’s not just about transport; it’s about restructuring the city. It’s enabling development, and that was always the case in Newcastle.”
He said the benefit of ART was that it was largely permanent but much cheaper than traditional light rail.
“Developers won’t invest around buses because routes can change. The whole value in it is because it is fixed.”
He said government could stipulate that developers contribute funds to a trackless tram project.
“This is how it would work: you get your expressions-of-interest phase, and you write in that a major contribution to a trackless tram would be required.
“It’s getting your head around that you can now ask for that.
“We put it forward as a project that can pay for itself. You can do that because it’s not that expensive and developers have huge land value unlocked if you put it in.”
He said this way of thinking meant ART should go “where the best development sites are”.
“It’s not a question of transport engineering running the show; they have to take a back seat.
“And that’s now the case in Perth. They’re very, very careful in not determining where the best route is before you go and talk to developers and planners.
“It’s ideal for this connector role that has been filled by buses or cars in the past, but both of them are failing because they’re not attracting development around them and they’re not actually getting people out of their cars.
“A trackless tram will do both.”
The Parramatta Road Public Transport Opportunities Study, commissioned early last year by Inner West and Canada Bay councils, came down in favour of trackless trams after also investigating light rail and dedicated diesel bus lanes.
But in November Transport for NSW walked away from a commitment to jointly fund a feasibility study into whether a trackless system could run along Parramatta Road.
The Housing Industry Association’s Hunter executive director, Craig Jennion, said it made sense to build infrastructure such as trackless trams to stimulate development.
“There has been an evolution in technology, and not everything needs to be fixed rail with lots of heavy infrastructure,” he said.
“These community infrastructure can be put into levies and contributions by new dwellings, and anything that can reduce the cost is a good thing.
“I think increasingly developers are looking and HIA is always suggesting that we need to look at innovative ways to bring on infrastructure sooner.”