With the beginning of light rail, Canberra is forever changed

Eternity bronze pearl satin. That's the colour of the overhead wire poles that line Canberra's light rail track and project director Meghan Oldfield can't tell you how many hours she has spent thinking about them.

"We spent a lot of time on some of the poles making sure they all matched essentially," Ms Oldfield said.

Media and community members wait to ride the light rail at Thursday's community preview. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Media and community members wait to ride the light rail at Thursday's community preview. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

That desire to get even the smallest details right reveals how intense the pressure was for those working on light rail.

When passengers flood the light rail platform in Civic on Saturday morning, it will be a scene 108 years in the making, having been fought over and fraught over for decades.

"That it's taken a century to get there tells you something about the pace of change in Canberra," Chief Minister Andrew Barr quipped.

The project has been delivered four months later than Canberra Metro hoped but is likely to come under the $707 million construction budget, a figure that had already been revised down from the $783 million estimated in the business case.

The saving has not come from the delay in availability payments, Transport Minister Meegan Fitzharris said, although it has likely helped.

"We had a really good team who selected a really good bid," she said.

As to whether the project ran late, Transport Canberra deputy director-general Duncan Edghill said that depends on what your measuring stick is.

"So for my mind, a key measuring stick is the business case," Mr Edgill said.

"So even at that time in 2016, we'd said, 'we kind of expect this to open in early 2019'. So in that respect, where we are is pretty spot on to where we thought we were going to be originally."

Also relative is whether the cost of the project stacks up.

Over the life of the project, the total cost is expected to be $939 million in 2016 dollars although former Auditor-General Maxine Cooper said the nominal cost (not discounted to today's dollars) was $1.78 billion.

In her 2016 audit report, she was critical of the fast and loose calculations of the economic benefits of the project, saying the $198 million in wider economic benefits should be interpreted with caution.

With the territory's net debt levels spiking more than $100 million in six months and the government's attention turning to the second stage of the project, questions naturally arise about whether the territory can afford it.

Transport minister Meegan Fitzharris boards the light rail on the community preview day. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Transport minister Meegan Fitzharris boards the light rail on the community preview day. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

However Ms Fitzharris said for her, it was more a question of whether they could afford not to do it.

"We've got congestion challenges, we've got population challenges, we've got growth challenges and we've got climate change challenges, how do we address all of those things?" she said.

Ms Fitzharris said the long political feud over light rail had "skewed that proportionality" over the true cost of the project.

"In terms of the proportion of the budget each year, health and education take up over 50 per cent and transport is nowhere near that."

Labor has fought and won two elections on light rail although it still bears the battle scars.

"The 2016 election campaign ... was a defining moment, it was going to go one way or the other," Mr Barr said.

"We were written off, various commentators were saying the Labor party was going to emerge from that election with six seats."

Greens leader Shane Rattenbury said that election in particular drew into sharp relief the two choices Canberra had.

"People knew if we didn't get it up in 2016 it would disappear for a couple of decades, because the political wisdom would because that you can't win an election on light rail," he said.

That victory "ceased the political debate that Canberra will only ever be dominated by car travel", Ms Fitzharris said.

Canberra Liberals leader Alistair Coe agreed that 2016 was a decision point about whether or not Canberra had light rail.

He even said the Liberals were open to the expansion of the light rail network although were yet to be convinced about the route to Woden.

"Unlike the case for stage one, decisions about the future of light rail should be made based on evidence: patronage, engineering, cost and the planning potential," Mr Coe said.

Chief Minister Katy Gallagher and Capital Metro Minister Simon Corbell at the light rail business case launch in 2014.

Chief Minister Katy Gallagher and Capital Metro Minister Simon Corbell at the light rail business case launch in 2014.

However development potential was at the front of ex-Chief Minister Katy Gallagher's mind when the government began to look closely at the Gungahlin corridor in 2011.

"We were interested in looking at what the Northbourne corridor could do from a planning and development point of view," Ms Gallagher said.

"I was very supportive of the regeneration and redevelopment of the Northbourne corridor and I remember that being part of the discussion, could we have a very prominent entry into the city as people travel into the city and over the bridge and would fixed public transport support better outcomes there?"

When she took over as chief minister, she and long-serving minister Simon Corbell began to look at light rail as a way of solving the congestion problems on the northern corridor.

"I think in the early work that was done in the lead up to the 2012 election it gave me enough comfort to think that it wasn't a far out dream," Ms Gallagher said.

While light rail was more expensive than rapid buses, the development potential of the corridor made the costs "more equal".

I think people were ready. The corridor was ripe for redevelopment

Katy Gallagher

The 2014 business case predicted the land use benefits would be $381 million - not too far behind the $406 million in transport benefits the project was expected to generate.

However the speed of the redevelopment has surprised everyone.

"When you think about other big developments sites such as Kingston Foreshore or even Braddon to some degree you know they've taken years to change their look whereas this has all happened pretty much in the last four years or so," Ms Gallagher said.

"I think people were ready. The corridor was ripe for redevelopment."

Mr Barr said the rate at which the private sector had responded had "exceeded our expectations".

"I think the initial evidence is very strong in terms of the investment it has facilitated," he said.

"We thought it would happen eventually but it's happened a bit quicker than we thought."

Ms Fitzharris said the sale of government buildings like the Dickson motor registry and the high density public housing sites poured fuel on the fire.

"Population growth and the demands of the business sector and housing market I think [helped as well]," Ms Fitzharris said.

Greens leader Shane Rattenbury said it was a relief to see the city reshape around light rail in the way the academics and the theory predicted it would.

"There's always this nervousness that when you follow that advice that well, will it or won't it end up happening? And it is happening," Mr Rattenbury said.

An element of regret though is how little public housing remained in the corridor.

While some tenants were moved into replacement housing in the inner Canberra suburbs of Dickson, O'Connor and Lyneham, others were flung to the far reaches of the suburbs.

Owen Flats resident, Laurel Dakin, feeds the magpies outside her public housing flat in 2015. The flat was expected to be bulldozed as part of the Northbourne corridor and light rail plan. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Owen Flats resident, Laurel Dakin, feeds the magpies outside her public housing flat in 2015. The flat was expected to be bulldozed as part of the Northbourne corridor and light rail plan. Photo: Rohan Thomson

"I think some people in Canberra have a bit of a unduly nostalgic view of some of that public housing. That was dreadful housing. Dreadful. They were cold, dark units that frankly most people in Canberra wouldn't want to live in. So I think we need to not be too nostalgic about what was actually there. One way or another that housing needed to be fixed up," Mr Rattenbury said

"I think, with the benefit of hindsight we should have set a stronger requirement for a percentage of public and affordable housing in those sites, and we didn't do it well enough at the time and that's one of those things that if we could go back and change it, I probably would."

Hindsight has also shown the decision to drop two stops at Mitchell included in the original plans after lukewarm community support was not the right one. After immense public pressure, the government agreed to build a stop on Sandford Street in Mitchell, but not until 2019-20.

"I understand why it surprised people, and again we're always learning from consultation, better ways to connect with people that we need their views on rather than expecting them to necessarily pay attention," Ms Fitzharris said.

"We will build the Mitchell stop, it's obviously not going to be there on day one but we need to do some work on when it will be built and when we can integrate it into the network."

Regrets though, appear to be few.

Along with a transformed corridor, the rail system Canberra has ended up with is far sleeker than the early artists impressions would have suggested.

"I reckon ours would be the best looking light rail system in Australia, if not the world," Mr Edghill said.

Transport Canberra Light Rail project director Meghan Oldfield in Gungahlin. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Transport Canberra Light Rail project director Meghan Oldfield in Gungahlin. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Ms Oldfield said there was a heightened focus on the look of the system in Canberra because of the National Capital Authority and the design review panel.

"[In Portland] my boss always told me - and this is going to be in American terminology - we're building a Buick, we're building a middle of the road car like we're not building something super fancy, we're building something utilitarian. It looks nice and it's fine, but we can just get on and use it," Ms Oldfield said.

"Here we're building something with that rider experience but the aesthetics, we've really upped it."

Transport Canberra director-general Emma Thomas said there were intense discussions about the colour of the handrails inside the trams, which were pink in the early designs.

"Some of those conversations were had quite late at night, looking at pictures and just going, 'oh, how do we make all of this work?'," Ms Thomas said.

Ms Oldfield said the amount of time and thought that went into the user experience at the stops was staggering.

"At each stage of construction, we'd have a pause and go out and give it a really good look with everyone we thought needed to be involved [and say] is everybody happy with how that looks feels and behaves? Good, you can do that with the rest of them," she said.

Not everything worked that well the first time around.

Canberra Metro had to rip up stretches of the track on Flemington Road only last week as the drainage design they used on the northern end did not work as well as the one they developed for the southern end.

There was also some "fine-tuning" required with the track slab, after they moved from laying it by hand to a machine.

There were challenges with resourcing on the project as well, Mr Edghill said.

"One of the challenges that we face is we've never built light rail before here in Canberra ... and at the same time, you've got these mammoth projects happening elsewhere in the country which means it's really difficult to get people here to Canberra with the right skillset to help us build it," he said.

Another challenge has been teaching Canberrans to interact with light rail.

Transport Canberra and City Services director-general Emma Thomas. 
Photo: Rohan Thomson

Transport Canberra and City Services director-general Emma Thomas. Photo: Rohan Thomson

"I stopped a man when I was standing down at Alinga Street Station two days ago, who had walked across the tracks, with his head in the phone, and it was against the red light, and he just walked straight across it without even looking," Ms Thomas said.

"I stopped him and had a conversation, but I just worry that people are still not paying attention to the fact that these big red things are going up and down."

The real test will be whether people ride the system.

Mr Edghill said he was not concerned about what the patronage looked like at the end of the first month, or even the second month.

"It'll be really a year, two years in that you will begin to see a true picture," he said.

Regardless, rail has already re-forged Canberra's northern corridor and is poised to do the same as it moves south to Woden.

"A network like this can't be built overnight, it's got to be built beyond electoral cycles. This is the hardest part of the route we're looking at now ... but we've got some expertise here and we've got an industry here now we've invested in, we're in a better position now to tackle stage two," Ms Fitzharris said.

Read more about light rail: