One day very soon, Canberra's first tram is going to roll out its Mitchell warehouse and on to the line. But don't expect to catch a ride.
The light rail will be up and running on schedule by the end of the year, the government says, but the first trams will be on the line much sooner.
Gungahlin residents can expect to see actual trams — albeit empty — running up and down the lines in the near future, as Transport Canberra begins a rigorous testing program of its brand new light rail vehicles ahead of the system’s proposed launch.
The trams will be running in the day and at night, and will initially start their run in Gungahlin, progressively moving further south as more tracks are laid.
Deputy director-general of Transport Canberra Duncan Edghill said the project’s progress above ground was finally becoming obvious to Canberra residents, especially in Gungahlin.
“We're still on track for end of this year,” he said.
"Particularly once you get up to the northern part of the project, we're at the point where you can see the canopies being raised above the stops, we've got five light rail vehicles in the depot already, we'll have 14 before too long, and then we've got some really big milestones coming up in the project in the next little while around testing and conditioning."
He said while the project would be completed on schedule, workers "could live without a lot of rain in the next six months”.
Project director Meghan Oldfield said the testing and commissioning phase, which will begin in the next few weeks, would last for at least six months.
“That's the phase where everything's built but you need to run the vehicles for quite a period of time just to test everything inside the vehicle,” she said.
“The typical minimum is six months, as a period for testing and commissioning, so that's something that we'll be communicating to the public, why you're seeing vehicles run up and down and you're not on them. It's an important feature, and that's a typical standard.”
The US-born-and-trained engineer began her light rail career in Portland, Oregon, where she lived for 12 years and oversaw three separate stages of the city’s long-running light rail system.
“The difference here of course is that you're introducing the system for the first time, which is different than if you add an extension to an existing network,” she said.
“But the support from the community's been fantastic. With all the construction works that are happening, we're going through intersections and changing how people get to work and get around, the public's been very lovely and very patient.”
She said before Portland introduced light rail in the late 1980s, the community attitude towards the project was negative.
“It was money that was supposed to go to a highway, and went to light rail instead, so there were a lot of negative feelings about it, concerns, worries, and from the first day it opened, it was and has been incredibly popular. It's part of Portland's identity.”
Indeed, Mr Edghill said Transport Canberra was anticipating that once the network opened to the public later this year, it would almost be too popular.
“One of the operational challenges that we will face when the system's up and running is how do we cater for more people wanting to ride the system than is available,” he said.
“We've got some capacity in the system to deal with that in the number of light rail vehicles that we've got here. I think technically the system will only need 12 but we've got 14 vehicles.
“The other element is the electricity system and the number of sub-stations that we've got. With peak six-minute headways to begin with, we've got the opportunity to turn up the frequency to move more people if it's more popular than expected.”
He said there would also be many more people using Canberra’s buses once the light rail began running, as the two networks would be designed to run side-by-side.
This would mean a whole new area of potential traffic accidents and contingency planning for when either system dropped out temporarily.
“We need to make sure that we can rearrange the rest of the bus network so that we can still move people up and down the corridor, so a lot of our thinking at the moment is probably one or two steps ahead of what the rest of the public is seeing,” he said.
Ms Oldfield, who moved to Canberra with her young family less than a year ago, said she had every intention of staying on after Stage 1 was complete, and hopefully working on Stage 2 of the project.
“I do what I do because — it sounds a bit cheesy, I guess — I want to leave the world a better place than I found it, I want my kids to have a world that's going to function well,” she said.
“It's very exciting — I've got the best job in town. How often do you get to deliver light rail to the nation's capital? Just once, right?”