Weighing up Canberra's rapid transit options

Although the ACT elections are nine months away, these months represent the gestation of the decisions we will make in October. There will be more than the usual electoral fuss during the coming year, and themes will start to stand out. One of them will certainly be the wisdom of the Labor government's having taken up so enthusiastically and forcefully the provision of light rail as a new form of mass transit for our city.

Jeremy Hanson and the Liberal Opposition are certain that this is and was the wrong decision, and they will campaign on that theme. Andrew Barr and his government, having committed themselves, will tell us, confidently and repeatedly, that light rail is our future.

An artist's impression of the Gungahlin interchange of Canberra's proposed light rail network.
An artist's impression of the Gungahlin interchange of Canberra's proposed light rail network.  Photo: Supplied

I have been asked several times what my own opinion is. I don't really have one, but I do have the somewhat simple-minded view that the government is there to govern. I do not know whether or not the ACT government is correct in planning for light rail within the city. But it is unquestionably its job to make that kind of decision. If it gets it badly wrong, and the issue is important to enough people, then it may lose office. 

If a reasonable elector looks at the arguments, she would probably accept that we are unlikely to be able to rely on private cars in a 2050 Canberra of half a million and more people. The reason is not that petrol is going to be too expensive. The current evidence is that there will be oil in abundance for a long time. Nor is it that cars themselves will become too expensive. They are getting cheaper and cheaper. It won't be long before we see the first new car for sale under $10,000. Perhaps I've already missed the announcement.

The principal reason is that while we can add cars almost indefinitely, we cannot do the same to our roads and parking spaces. Parking is going to grow steadily more expensive, and that will push drivers to consider whether or not they might as well go by public transport. An additional reason will be the decreasing average speed on our roads. Sydney is at gridlock now in some parts of that large city and any crash on the urban motorways means long delays for the drivers there. We will experience our own tamer version of that crisis before long.

A focus on the provision of more public transport seems sensible enough. Why light rail and not more buses? One obvious reason is that the buses will have some of the same problems as cars unless they have completely dedicated lanes. Why not widen more roads to provide them, as is happening slowly? That is very expensive, and it simply changes the place where the bottlenecks occur.


In fact, anything to do with the problem of getting people to and from work in a large city is expensive. Light rail is in no way the cheapest solution, but it is probably faster and able to move more people. It all depends on which experts you listen to. We have to assume that the ACT government has listened to them all, at least in the early stages. It must have considered the O-bahn bus system in Adelaide, where the buses have their own permanent way, and rejected that in favour of light rail. We need to remember that the O-bahn way (12km only) is a small part of the Adelaide bus system, which relies on public roads for the buses, as in Canberra.

If she also accepts all that, the next question the reasonable elector might ask is why the first light-rail corridor is from Gungahlin to the City. Capital Metro says that Gungahlin is growing five times faster than the rest of Canberra and that light rail is part of a larger plan to improve the Northbourne Avenue precinct. I guess that another reason is that the land acquisition there is relatively cheap.

When I was at the University of Canberra we had discussions with a much earlier ACT government about our losing some campus land in the interest of improved rapid transit to the city from Belconnen. A later notion was a Belconnen-UC-ANU- Civic-CIT-Russell- Airport corridor, which had the advantage of a lot of tertiary staff and student customers throughout the day, rather than just at peak times. The obvious disadvantage is expense, especially in the vicinity of the CBD.

I'll pass on the cost of crossing the lake and servicing the Parliamentary Triangle. There will be solutions, all of them expensive. But the reasonable elector can see that this is a major planning matter, and she will hope that the ACT government has got it right. I am with her. We won't know the answer for years, so it's not a matter that might cause the reasonable elector to cast her vote one way or the other.

But if light rail's a success, then there will be cries that it should have been done years before. That's the great advantage of hindsight.

 Professor Don Aitkin, novelist, historian and political scientist, was vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra, and chairman of the National Capital Authority. He blogs at