Transport and urban planning expert Garry Glazebrook says Novocastrians sceptical about the start of light rail services should not underestimate the tram’s long-term benefits.
The red Spanish-made vehicles will start carrying passengers at a community day on Sunday before the first morning of regular services on Monday.
Five years of bruising debate over truncating the heavy rail line, followed by a backlash from inner-city business people affected by construction work in Hunter Street and cuts to car parking, have led many people to write off the trams before they start running.
A NSW Audit Office report last year poured petrol on the fire when it concluded the cost of the $368 million project could not be justified by its potential benefit to Newcastle’s urban renewal.
But Dr Glazebrook, a University of Technology Sydney lecturer and a former manager of transport policy for the City of Sydney, said in an interview with the Newcastle Herald that it was too soon to dismiss the tram as an expensive mistake and argued it would prove a useful vehicle for selling the city as a place to live and work.
“You’ve got to show there’s something new going on in a city, and, to be honest, I don’t think buses really cut the mustard. Every city in the world has buses,” he said.
"Newcastle has fantastic potential as a place to live, which you’ve long wanted to keep a secret because you don’t want all the Sydney people to know about it.
“The reality is, even though prices are falling in Sydney, an awful lot of people would love to get out.
"Medium-sized cities, if they’ve got the right sort of higher education and health facilities, for some of these start-up firms they can be attractive places to go for younger people."
State Cabinet documents from 2013 forecast tram patronage of 1800 passengers a day, or 657,000 a year, substantially fewer than the city's old bus and train services.
Dr Glazebrook said he did not expect the “very short” 2.7-kilometre tram to attract “massive” patronage initially, but its value lay in its potential to be extended.
“All I can say is that it’s a start, and I think Newcastle may well, hopefully, have a similar experience to lots of other cities around the world that put a light rail system in initially and found they’re doing extensions.
“The experience in Sydney was interesting. If you look at the Ultimo-Pyrmont line, when it first opened it was carrying about 3 million passengers a year, about 10,000 a day, and it’s now sort of trebled that.
“The number of people using it is well above government forecasts of a couple of years ago. What that’s saying is that it’s a form of transport that people do like.
The ability to actually run into the city and connect people at a ground level is something – it’s hard to put your finger on it – but I think it’s important.
“The other thing that’s happened in Sydney, and I suspect the same might start to happen in Newcastle, is you start to get a lot more weekend and off-peak travel, not just commuters.
"You start to get people who are going shopping or out for the night or recreation.
“Provided there are no technical glitches with the electrical supply and those kinds of things, I think it’ll be a success and people will start calling for extensions.”
The main rationale for ripping up the heavy rail tracks was to link the harbour with the commercial precinct and stimulate investment.
The City of Newcastle says construction approvals have averaged more than $1 billion across the city in each of the three years since the line was cut, compared with $525 million in 2015.
Little evidence has emerged yet to suggest the changes have attracted retail businesses to Hunter Street, where dozens of shopfronts remain empty and some traders are still working on a class action to gain compensation for lost revenue.
Dr Glazebrook said the inner-city’s commercial revival would take time, but he was confident it would happen.
“You can see that whole CBD end of Newcastle becoming a very, very attractive place, not only to live but for lots of small businesses to set up, the boutique consulting firms.
"All sorts of different companies will want to move into that part of town.
“There’s some fantastic old buildings. If you look ahead 20 years, you think Newcastle’s got a fantastic CBD, and the potential is fantastic.
“I’m a great believer in Newcastle. I don’t think there are many cities in the world that have the beaches and all those other things that Newcastle has.
"Obviously, there’s been a beginning to the apartment-style living in Newcastle, but that has a fair way to go yet. There’s a lot of further potential there."
Dr Glazebrook believes the tram also feeds into a narrative about post-industrial Newcastle needing to diversify away from coal, possibly by becoming a centre for technical innovation.
“The Hunter, having survived the closure of BHP, it’s now looking over the next 20 or 30 years at a bit of a shock. It will take a while, but there’s got to be something else for the city to do."
He acknowledged the renewal project's controversial past but urged Novocastrians to accept the changes and make the most of them.
"There’s a lot of bruised egos about this. There’s been that battle going on for years. People seem to love fighting each other in Newcastle over different things," he said.
“But I think they’ve got to embrace this and say, ‘OK, we’ve got this; let’s see where we can take it.’ It’s a fantastic place, so go for it on the smart city thing, try to attract some of these start-ups."
He said the government had erred in not better promoting the tram as the start of a larger urban transport network, possibly including light rail feeding into an east coast high-speed train interchange at Hexham.
The Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party secured a commitment from the government in 2015 to complete a study into light rail extensions before the heavy rail line was removed, but, four years later, that report remains behind closed doors.
“I think you’ve got to look 10, 20, 30, 40 years into the future and think about how is the whole Lower Hunter area going to change," Dr Glazebrook said.
“The ability to actually run into the city and connect people at a ground level is something, it’s hard to put your finger on it, but I think it’s important."
He is an advocate of electric-powered tram trains, which can run on both light rail and heavy rail lines but cost less than trams to install.
“I think the government should look at these tram trains that are now in quite a lot of cities overseas in France and Germany and the Netherlands and the UK.
"Maybe they could run electrically powered vehicles that come all the way from Maitland, for example, and run all the way down to the end of the light rail line."
He said the technology would offer a far cheaper way of connecting the light rail to Broadmeadow, John Hunter Hospital and the university.
“There’s lots of things that could be looked at over time. I think it’s a good start, and I just hope that the government goes on with it and takes an imaginative approach to it rather than, ‘That’s the end of that.'"