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Walter Burley Griffin’s Canberra and his Tramway. The Ideal City of the Future? (Part Two of Three)

Dr Beatrice M. Bodart-Bailey

Honorary Professor, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific

Professor emerita, Otsuma Women’s University, Tokyo

5. The Light Rail plan of 2012.

While the ACT was administered directly by the Federal Government, a large public infrastructure expenditure of this kind would have been subject to national scrutiny and unlikely to have received approval. However, once the ACT was given self-government in 1989, proposals for tramlines appeared.

In the meantime, batteries capable of powering large electric buses were developed in China. When in September 2010 the Chinese automobile company BYD rolled out its BYD K9, one of the most popular electric buses, it must have been obvious for all in the field that the days of the tram with its expensive and inflexible infrastructure were numbered. Akin to the process where European manufacturers of incinerators began to target Australia once the harmful effects were recognized in Europe,[1] now Europe’s manufacturers of tramways were intensifying their sales efforts down-under. In 2001 and 2003 heritage trams were displayed outside the War Memorial and shown operating on short tracks presumably to remind Canberrans that something was missing in their city.[2]

At the same time, the suburbs and town centre of Gungahlin were growing rapidly. In 2011 the population was close to 47.000. In that year, a Red Rapid bus service from Gungahlin to Civic was successfully trialled and became one of the most profitable bus routes.[3] Nevertheless, the government commissioned a report on the feasibility of running a light rail on this route and in April 2012 the company URS submitted their City to Gungahlin Transit Corridor: Concept Design Report. This compared a light rail transit (LRT) system with a bus rapid transit (BRT) system and the option of keeping the status quo. The report stated that the BRT had roughly twice the benefit-cost ratio of light rail.[4] However, at the Assembly election two months later, Liberal and Labor gained equal numbers of seats. The kingmaker was the sole Greens MLA, Shane Rattenbury. The price for his support of Labor was the light rail line to Gungahlin, even though the benefit-cost ratio indicated that this would land the ACT with a large debt. Moreover, rapid technological developments regarding battery-powered buses left no doubt that soon these would provide CO2 free and more flexible and cost-effective transport. Ignoring the greenhouse gases produced by the construction of the light rail’s infrastructure and the import of vehicles fully assembled from Spain, the construction of a light rail line between Civic and Gungahlin was put forward as a green initiative.

Even the Development Application (DA) for the light rail to Gungahlin had to admit “that buses provided a higher overall level of service than the proposed light rail.” This could only be counterweighed with “expectations” that the light rail would be able to better cope with peak time travel.[5] How could a project where light rail imposing a heavy financial burden on the local government replacing buses providing a higher level of service, find the support of the electorate?

The answer is provided by the new breed of multi-national consulting companies offering their comprehensive services from designing proposals and obtaining all necessary permissions for execution to composing commercial-in confidence evaluations of their plans of which redacted extracts could be passed on to the public. The service also includes handling public relations, or rather public persuasion. Such contracts leave politicians off the hook. All they need to do is learn the promotional speak, expressing the benefits in vague, professionally sounding language which the average person can’t be bothered or does not dare to question for fear of showing ignorance. When the project offers solid profit to a host of commercial companies with their own sophisticated public relations and advertising machinery – in this case property developers, engineering companies and the suppliers and operators of the equipment – there is little room for failure.

An example of how government and profiting enterprises combined to assure the public with vague expressions and obscure statements that they are working in their interest, is an article titled “Light rail best choice for Canberra’s future” in the publication My Gungahlin, of 30 July 2013. The internet site of the publication bears the name of NUE Gungahlin, belonging to the company Core Developments, a property developer which by now can pride itself on building a total of 243 apartments, 87 townhouses and commercial spaces on merely two blocks, within walking distance of a light rail stop, of course.[6]

The article reports the then Minister for the Environment and Sustainable Development, Simon Corbell, stating that the government had decided that Light Rail Transit (LRT) was the best option and that “A revised submission will strengthen the business case on land development uplift benefits of light rail, as well as why the project is of national significance.” In other words, the government would recalculate the cost benefit ratio by adding further hypothetical benefits and search out reasons why the project was of national significance.

Corbell did reveal that the cost benefit ratio of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) would bring more than twice the profit of the LRT system, but quickly added that light rail systems in Queensland and NSW were even less cost effective. Naturally, he did not mention that the lesser cost/benefit could well have resulted from the two states including fewer hypothetical benefits in their calculation.

As to the reason why the Light rail is best for Gungahlin, the article cites the above-mentioned URS City to Gungahlin Transit Corridor: Concept Design Report of April 2012 concluding that:

“a triple bottom line evaluation undertaken of these options comparing their social, economic and environmental impacts to the ‘do nothing scenario’ has shown LRT [light rail transit] to provide higher benefits due to its higher social benefits.” [7]

The statement only compares the LRT system with the ‘do nothing scenario’ without giving any indication whether LRT also provides higher benefits than the BRT system.[8] In fact the next and last page of the originally commercial-in-confidence report states “Overall the study shows that there are significant opportunities to improve the corridor with the implementation of either BRT or LRT …”, while the final sentence of the report declares “BRT is a cost-effective option, whilst LRT generates the best overall outcome for Canberra.”[9] In light of the previous statements, this raises the question which advantages are referred to as ‘the best overall outcome for Canberra”. Since both BRT and LRT provide opportunities to improve the corridor, for many the most cost-effective option would be the choice.

Not only the statement but also the vocabulary used might well have been unintelligible for many readers. As the article is addressing the population at large, one may assume that not everybody is familiar with the 3 Ps (People, Profit, Planet) of a triple bottom line evaluation. Those who are, might ask what the project does for the People other than those living near a stop. Once the line was completed, many found that their bus stop close to home was eliminated, and long walks and changing buses exponentially increased their commuting time. Living in Ngunnawal, one woman testified that she no longer could use public transport as it increased her commuting time by 90 minutes.[10]

The second P for Profit, the project certainly produced, but not for the People. Nor was much consideration given to the third P, the Planet, since less greenhouse gases would have been produced without the large amount of concrete, steel etc. necessary for the infrastructure and importing the vehicles fully assembled from Spain, especially with battery operated buses assembled in Australia becoming available.

Further, the meaning of the ‘higher social benefits’ of Corbell’s statement requires clarification. Unlike other town centres, Gungahlin was allotted insufficient government offices for local employment. The fact that with the completion of the line, direct rapid buses were being cancelled, and people were now forced to find their way to a tram stop to commute to Civic, could hardly be considered a social benefit. Nor that a large amount of government housing along Northbourne Avenue was demolished to provide land for developers to construct flats sold at high prices.

The lengthy Concept Design Report by URS Australia, now available on the internet, was initially submitted on the condition that it remains commercial-in-confidence. That is perhaps not surprising, for quite different from the summary statements cited above, the document suggests that the greater part of the existing Red Rapid bus service stopping at the kerb could be maintained as BRT, having its own lane in the centre of the road only from the Barton Highway onwards.[11] The buses would also be able to service the suburbs beyond the end of the line. Further, the report pointed out that

“The current Easy Access buses in the ACTION fleet are considered suitable for BRT operation along the Red Rapid route. The Easy Access fleet are buses designed to meet the needs of all passengers, including those with reduced mobility. They have low floors and therefore no stairs; extendable ramps, a wide entrance and floor space within the buses are provided for wheelchairs or prams.”[12]

It is interesting to note that on the government’s internet site promoting the light rail, these same features of Easy Access are described as if they were a special feature restricted to the light rail.[13] Further, the report made it known that “BRT systems around the world often use bespoke higher capacity vehicles that are designed to look and feel more like trams, and this could be considered in the future.” [14] This statement defeats the argument in the Development Application cited above, that the light rail would be better suited to high volume rush hour traffic.

URS, the company that authored the report, describes their main business as engineering and environmental services. However, in October 2014, URS was acquired by the multi-national AECOM and the Business News informs us that “Together AECOM and URS are one of the world’s premier, fully integrated infrastructure and support services firms and now operate under the AECOM umbrella.”[15] With regard to Canberra’s light rail project, this means that design, evaluation and execution is the monopoly of one multi-national with a large financial interest in the approval and completion of the project. Thus, when the National Capital Authority sought public comment on the approval of the line’s extension from Civic to Commonwealth Park, the material on which the public was asked to base their judgement included AECOM’s evaluations which, for instance, maintained that the environmental impact of raising London Circuit with 60.000 cubic meters of soil as necessary for the extension of the line from Civic, was ‘negligible’.[16]

6. City building is about more than simply economic logarithms.

Politicians need to be flexible. Earlier Labor’s Simon Corbell had called the light rail proposal “a load of rubbish”, but by 2014 he had advanced to Capital Metro Minister and responded to criticism of the expense of the light rail with the remarkable statement:

"City building is about more than simply economic logarithms, it's also about making sure we deliver the best design outcome for the Nation's Capital,"

and added

"Northbourne Avenue is a key approach route, building more roads for more buses is not befitting for a national avenue like Northbourne." [17]

The statement is remarkable in as much as it implies that the light rail with its ugly overhead wires and tracks permanently scarring the road is the best choice “for a national avenue like Northbourne Avenue.” The Minister appears not to be aware that cities all over the world, including Sydney, have ripped out their tram tracks to widen the available space on the road, but most importantly to free iconic vistas from being spoilt by overhead wires. The view that trams are a prestigious addition to any city is still touted by the ACT government today when with the proposed extension of the line to Woden, the rails if not the wires will mar iconic views.

In May 2016, Chief Minister Barr in his “Statement of Ambition” went even further than his Capital Metro Minister in touting the importance of the light rail. For him a light rail network is “a key urban renewal task” and essential “to developing the compact urban centres Canberra needs to attract the best people.”[18] This is based on his belief that the “quality of life and place, the amenities, ambience and facilities of cities become a critical competitive tool in attracting knowledge workers, who are themselves the magnets for external corporate investment and local expansion.” Chief Minister Barr was convinced that theworld’s population is flocking to cities, as the global era is an urban era.”

Four years later, in 2020, the world fell under the spell of Covid 19. Melbourne made the world’s headlines as the city with the longest lockdown of 262 days between March 2020 and October 2021.[19] The population was no longer “flocking to cities”; quite the opposite. In February 2021 research by the Regional Australia Institute documented that one in five city dwellers wanted to move to the country.[20] In even the best of city apartments, the lockdown confining people to small spaces was not just psychologically painful, but also increased infections as lifts and corridors had to be shared when emergency food shopping and short walks were permitted.

Lockdowns all over Australia resulted in what has been termed the work-from home-revolution. This has led to a rapid development of easy digital communication by Zoom and similar systems. It has become apparent that for many office workers, there is no need to commute to an office daily. Moreover, companies have realized that there is a potential for large financial savings on office space rental if their employees work four days a week at home and departments rotate using the company’s offices only one day a week. There is general consensus that so-called ‘hybrid working arrangements’ are here to stay, as they are not only requested by companies to save office rental, but also by many employees who prefer to work partially at home.[21]

7. The World has Changed

When Liberal MLA James Milligan asked the Chief Minister in the year’s last Legislative Assembly question time in early December 2021 when government staff would have to return to their offices to boost small business in town centres, the answer was: never. “The world has changed, Mr Milligan, and we are changing with it," the Chief Minister responded. The government would acquire offices all over the ACT to permit staff working where it suited them rather than in a set location. “We will never go back to 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, everyone in the same office all together. That world is over. It is over, it is done," the Chief Minister informed the Assembly. [22]

“How wise!” I thought when I heard this. Time saved on commuting and no more rush hour. Less pollution with greenhouse gases. And the light rail extension to Woden will no longer be necessary. After all, the DA for the Gungahlin line had stated that buses provided better service, but the light rail was better suited to cope with large numbers of commuters during rush hour. With commercial companies also turning to hybrid working arrangements, rush-hour would largely disappear. Transport Canberra specified on the internet that “each light rail vehicle can transport as many passengers as four buses.” Fortunately, the need for such mass transport during rush hour will now be over (if it ever existed in our city) and we will be able to do without the light rail. It will mean billions of dollars saved. Moreover, earlier in the year, Transport Canberra announced that electric buses had proven viable and were set to replace the polluting variety. Even the problem of greenhouse gases from diesel buses was now solved.

The light rail system leaves the government no choice but to procure additional vehicles from a sole source in Spain. Major Projects Canberra has warned that this results in “a heightened risk that value for money through the procurement process cannot be achieved and/or demonstrated.”[23] On the other hand, competition was fierce when the government called for expressions of interest for the supply of electric buses, with over 100 companies submitting tenders. They included the local manufacture of light-weight e-buses from kits, more efficient and better suited to battery technology than the traditional steel and aluminium vehicles. A variety of sizes adjusted to the demand of routes and time of day would further enhance cost efficiency.[24] Since, different from the tram, buses can operate without being tied to a particular infrastructure, with every new procurement of vehicles, the government will be able to choose the most technologically advanced and cost-effective offer.

Occasionally the “trackless tram” is suggested as a less costly alternative. But “trackless” is a misnomer. The tram does have tracks, except not made of steel, but painted on the road, with electricity supplied not by overhead wires, but by automatic charging at each stop. Except for a less costly infrastructure, the so-called trackless tram has all the disadvantages of the light rail: it runs in the middle of the road making passenger access a problem, the tracks, painted on the road wear off if other vehicles drive over them and hence narrow the space for all others, the large carriages are only useful for trunk lines, requiring another mode of transport to bring passengers to the stops, and should there be an electricity outage, the whole system is down until electricity is restored. Buses can charge their batteries in other areas and even store excessive electricity and bus lanes can be used by emergency vehicles. Again, as is the case with the light rail, the specific infrastructure ties the purchase of vehicles to one supplier, here located in China, rather than choosing from competitive quotes of buses made in Australia. They have no advantage over e-buses and those trying to sell them have come up with the desperate argument that trams are more high-class than buses and people therefore prefer them. Companies producing e-buses have responded in making their vehicles look more or less identical to trams like those of the Swiss vehicle manufacturer Hess chosen by Brisbane.

As the Chief Minister announced, the world has indeed changed. And surely, under these changed conditions, plans for the massive investment of the light rail across the bridge and around parliament house with a decade of traffic chaos would be changing too. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case. There is a new reason why we must have the tram extension to Woden: the tram is necessary to make Canberra “a more connected, sustainable, and vibrant city.” Really?

8. A more connected, sustainable, and vibrant city.

As a good citizen, I keep up with the news. For this purpose, I permit the ACT government’s monthly “Light Rail to Woden Construction Update” fill my already crowded inbox. It usually starts with the homily:

“The ACT Government is building light rail to Woden to help make Canberra a more connected, sustainable, and vibrant city.”

I take it that these words were written by someone not familiar with Canberra’s bus routes. Otherwise the person would have been aware that it is Canberra’s excellent Rapid Bus System that connects the city (that is, before the most profitable section was dismantled with the operation of the tram on the Gungahlin route). For instance, in Tuggeranong one can sit down on the Red Rapid (R4) bus and via Woden, Civic and Canberra University reach Belconnen without getting up from one’s seat. According to Major Projects Canberra, the R4 will be turned into a local between Lanyon and Woden once the light rail extension has been completed.[25] That same person from Tuggeranong will have to change twice to commute to Belconnen. Moreover, the tram between Woden and Civic is estimated to take nearly twice as long as the rapid bus, for a tram system cannot operate rapids. To do so, it would need an extra set of rails either way, close to doubling the cost of the infrastructure and taking up an inordinate amount of space on the road. As a result, if the light rail system were to be extended one day to Tuggeranong and Belconnen, the trip would take so long that nobody is likely to use it.

Hence the claim that the light rail to Woden would produce a more connected city is obviously untrue. What about the suggestion that the tram is a more sustainable form of transport than alternatives? Here, again, the author of these words seems to be unfamiliar with conditions in Canberra, for the new battery-operated buses are more sustainable, since they do not produce the massive amount of green-house gases for the construction of the required infrastructure and the import of fully assembled vehicles from overseas.

Will the tram make Canberra a more vibrant city? At the slow speed it will be operating between Civic and Woden, this is doubtful. Besides, in this brave new world heralded by the Chief Minister, everybody will be working where it suits them, most probably creating the vibrancy the Minister seeks during a Zoom meeting conducted from an Airbnb at the South Coast.

Examining the constantly repeated homily in my inbox is, unfortunately, not the only time I have noticed the government’s somewhat casual attitude towards the choice of appropriate words. Thus Network planning - Transport Canberra ( tells us in bold letters that “Everyone will benefit as we progressively build the light rail network.” Replacing the word ‘benefit’ with ‘pay’ would be closer to the truth. Further, we are told at this site that we “can travel knowing a trip to the City is less than 30 minutes away.” No doubt, with the short 12km line to Gungahlin and the 11.2 km for the proposed extension to Woden, those who live next to a light rail stop, will be able to reach the City in half an hour. But that is likely to be less than 10 per cent of Canberra’s population. What about the people in Tuggeranong or Ngunnawal, or those in Oaks Estate, the latter having no public transport at all?

Other statements at this site are equally misleading. Listing the amenities provided by the tram, the heading ‘Attractive’ specifies: “Read a book, stream a show, find a comfortable seat with free Wi-Fi on board and at stops.” The heading of ‘Accessible’ on the other hand promises “Take the guesswork out of boarding with doors that meet the platform, priority seating for wheelchairs, prams and room for bikes.” What the site does not reveal is that similar amenities will be provided by the new battery-powered buses. Further, under the heading of ‘Sustainable’ it is claimed that “Travel confidently knowing its (sic) renewable energy taking you where you need to go.” As mentioned above, battery-operated buses use the same renewable energy, and they are far more efficient than the tram in taking people to “where they need to go.”

Commercial companies are prosecuted for misleading advertising. Should a government be permitted to claim it has the support of its constituents and hence the authority to burden a population with a massive debt for a project that it advertises in misleading terms?

9. The light rail is more than a transport network.

In 2016 the Chief Minister set out his vision for Australia’s capital in the document Canberra: A Statement of Ambition. Here, the Chief Minister maintains:

”The light rail is more than a transport network. … It supports the densification of our urban centres … Building a light rail network is a key urban renewal task. We have seen from cities around the world that public transport is critical to developing the compact urban centres Canberra needs to attract the best people while at the same time connecting our suburbs to enhance residents’ lifestyle.”[26]

That was in 2016 – now we have the year 2022 and fundamental changes have occurred in the meantime. In 2019, Mr. Barr’s government declared a state of Climate Change Emergency, acknowledging “the need for urgent action across all levels of government.” The declaration spells out the necessity for clean transport and the development of e-mobility. Yet the network of light rail lines his government intends to construct will produce substantial amounts of CO2 building the complex infrastructure including the bridge across the lake and overpasses to bring passengers to the stops in the middle of the road. The traffic chaos during construction will add to the pollution. If the money spent on the tram’s infrastructure were invested in battery-operated buses, then Canberra could have a fully electric bus fleet much earlier than the projected year 2040 and the ACT’s emission of C02 would be reduced considerably.

As mentioned above: the tram does not connect “our suburbs to enhance residents’ lifestyle.” Buses do. They are faster and go where people live. New residents will move into the re-developed areas of Red Hill and the Brickworks. They will not have tram stations at their doorstep. Instead, there will be local buses taking them to tram stops, an inconvenient and time-consuming process. So inconvenient and time consuming that many will rely on using their car.

The light rail is indeed more than a transport network. The plots within walking distance of the stops along the line attract property developers happy to build the 70% urban infill the government seeks with high-rise, high-density housing. There is just one problem: the Urban Heat Island effect these centres will create will not “attract the best people” as the Chief Minister suggested in his Statement of Ambition of 2016. Quite the opposite. Canberra’s significant rise in population is due to many trying to escape from city living with the already very noticeable rise in summer temperatures.




Footnotes: [1] The #ageofdecommissioning (incinerators) - Zero Waste Europe. Consulted June 2022. [2] Light rail in Canberra - Wikipedia. Consulted July 2022. [3] "City to Gungahlin Transit Corridor: Concept Design Report (April 2012)" , p.1. Consulted July 2022. Proposed light rail from Gungahlin to Civic is being both lauded and criticised | The Canberra Times | Canberra, ACT, Updated April 23 2018 at 10:02pm, first published March 29 2014 at 3:00am. Consulted July 2021. [4] "City to Gungahlin Transit Corridor: Concept Design Report (April 2012)" , p.85. Consulted July 2022. [5] Notice of Decision - Impact track Development Application No. 201528511, (2015-735 PDF) Consulted October 2021. [6] Canberra developer Core Developments lodges application for 323 units and townhouses in Gungahlin | The Canberra Times | Canberra, ACT. Consulted June 2022. [7] Light rail best choice for Canberra's future | My Gungahlin. [8] "City to Gungahlin Transit Corridor: Concept Design Report (April 2012)" , p.54. Consulted July 2022. [9] "City to Gungahlin Transit Corridor: Concept Design Report (April 2012)" , p.55. Consulted July 2022. [10] Canberra's new public transport timetables cause commuter confusion on first day of route rollout - ABC News; Consulted April 2019. Coronavirus sees Canberra commuters desert light rail after its first year of operation - ABC News. Consulted April 2022. [11] "City to Gungahlin Transit Corridor: Concept Design Report (April 2012)" , p.37. Consulted July 2022. [12] "City to Gungahlin Transit Corridor: Concept Design Report (April 2012)" , p.45. Consulted July 2022. [13] Network planning - Transport Canberra ( Consulted July 2022. [14] "City to Gungahlin Transit Corridor: Concept Design Report (April 2012)" , p.45. Consulted July 2022. [15] URS Australia ( Consulted July 2022. [16] The material has been removed from the internet. [17] "Canberra light rail business case criticised in Grattan Institute report". ABC News. 5 April 2016. [18] Canberra: A Statement of Ambition (, p. 9. Consulted June 2022. [19] Australia: Melbourne to bring an end to world’s longest lockdowns | Coronavirus pandemic News | Al Jazeera. Consulted June 2022. [20] One in five want to move to country, a new survey says | Farm Online | Australia. Consulted July 2022. [21] Working from home set to outlast lockdowns, ACT employers and researchers say | The Canberra Times | Canberra, ACT. Consulted October 2021. [22] 'The world has changed': Barr looks to hybrid work to attract, retain quality staff to ACT public service | The Canberra Times | Canberra, ACT. Consulted June 2022. [23] Stage-2A-Light-Rail-Business-Case-redacted.pdf, p. 22. Consulted January 2022. [24] Fierce competition has been generated by the ACT's electric bus contract | The Canberra Times | Canberra, ACT; The ACT's multimillion-dollar electric bus tender has attracted 100 expressions of interest | The Canberra Times | Canberra, ACT. Consulted July 2022. [25] Stage-2A-Light-Rail-Business-Case-redacted.pdf, p. 129. (Consulted May, 2022.) [26] Canberra: A Statement of Ambition (, p. 9. Consulted June 2022.


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