The past few months have delivered a series of disappointments for Novocastrians awaiting light rail. First, in December the auditor-general’s report lashed the government over its lack of a business case when the decision to proceed with the project was unveiled, casting a pall over the process that led to red trams patrolling Hunter Street.
Weeks later, and days before his ousting, Shooters Fishers and Farmers senator Robert Brown struck out at the government’s apparent inaction on whether light rail expansion was feasible in the Hunter. That it came a year after he similarly accused the government of dragging the chain, and that there had been no public update during that time, was all the more damning.
Compared to the ongoing cost and schedule blowouts of the Sydney light rail, the government could argue that Newcastle can count itself fairly lucky. But lesser shortcomings are shortcomings nonetheless.
Damage to the Hunter trams sustained during testing, including a cracked windscreen, is unlikely to reassure those already dubious about the city’s latest mode of transport and roughly half the frequency of services promised running at launch is a situation the government would have been eager to avoid.
Perhaps these are teething pains that will fade as the light rail’s success emerges in the years to come. Indeed, Keolis Downer says the frequency was “expected” for launch despite falling short of the rate announced nearly three years ago, and perhaps the slower rate will help as motorists and pedestrians adjust to the route running in earnest.
There is little arguing with the fact that a significant sum has been spent on Newcastle’s city centre in recent years, and in a world of competing fiscal demands that is worth remembering. But it is also no reason to ignore shortcomings in how that money was spent, and whether it delivers what was promised. Pre-judging the light rail before it begins is a fool’s errand. Until services and patronage are active and measured, it is a theoretical and useless exercise. But what is not theoretical is the trend that has emerged in recent weeks around the project from government circles: a key component of the deal to cut the heavy rail languishes unfulfilled, questions remain over the process of selecting light rail for Newcastle in the first place and the frequency promised in 2016 will not be delivered with the first services.