SOUTH AUSTRALIA SERIES No 3: The recent election of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese could become a catalyst for reviving a visionary infrastructure project called AdeLINK that would transform Adelaide into a modern, sustainable transit-oriented metropolis.

Public transport sits at the heart of South Australia’s planning strategy. The 30-year plan for Adelaide calls for medium density development within walking distance of train and tram corridors.

But a big roadblock to achieving the economic and sustainability gains envisioned by the plan is the limited size of the city’s public transport network.

As architectural firm Baukultur director David Homburg tells The Fifth Estate, in many parts of Adelaide, “you have to own a car, because it’s too far away from public transport”.

In its 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit, Infrastructure Australia found the poor performance of Adelaide’s urban transport networks caused traffic delays that cost $1.4 billion in 2016, growing to $2.6 billion in 2031.

In 2013, the then-premier, Jay Weatherill, unveiled a visionary plan to solve these problems, called AdeLINK. It would have seen Adelaide’s tram network massively expand, with five new lines linking the suburbs to the city, along with a loop line around the CBD.

However, in his first act in office, former Liberal premier Steven Marshall dumped the proposal, despite it being identified as a priority project by IA. (He also privatised the operation of the state’s train and tram network to Keolis Downer in a 12-year contract worth $2.1 billion.)


Now here’s where things get a bit interesting.

Because it turns out a prominent federal MP was a big supporter of AdeLINK. In fact, back in 2017 this politician wrote: “Malcolm Turnbull must use this month’s federal budget to match his rhetoric on public transport with actual investment in the AdeLINK upgrade of Adelaide’s tram system.”

Who was the Labor MP who wrote that? None other than the then federal shadow transport spokesperson: Anthony Albanese.

So now that Labor is back in power, both at state and federal level, is it time to take another look at AdeLINK? The Fifth Estate spoke to three top Adelaide transport and planning experts to find out.

Plans derailed by limited public transport

The 30-year Plan for Greater Adelaide envisions a medium density, walkable tree-covered city close to public transport.

But the quality and size of the city’s train and tram networks means that this vision hasn’t been fully embraced by the community.

There are two main train lines of the Adelaide network: the southern line to Seaford (with a branch line to Flinders and Tonsley), and the northern line to Gawler, which reopened in June after being electrified. 

There are also two smaller train lines running north west through Port Adelaide to the Outer Harbour (with a branch line to Grange), and southeast to Belair, in the foothills of the Adelaide Ranges.

Beyond the trains, Adelaide’s tram network consists of a single line from the city to the seaside suburb of Glenelg, which in recent years has been extended to the Entertainment Centre. Although very limited, Hart says this line is very successful.

There’s also a very unique 12 kilometre guided busway (where buses travel on concrete rails that guide their wheels) called the O-Bahn, which runs to Tea Tree Plaza in the city’s Northwest.

Where the problems lie

The big issue is that these rail networks don’t effectively cover the metropolitan area. 

Adelaide is a city constrained by its geography, Planning Institute of Australia SA division president Cate Hart tells The Fifth Estate. It has the coast on the west, and the Adelaide Ranges in the east.

This has led to it becoming a “linear city” that now sprawls from Gauler in the north to Aldinga in the south.

“Because it’s a linear city that’s 120 kilometres long now, and we don’t have a good radial network system, it takes a long time for users of public transport to actually get to their destination,” Hart says.

“So that’s a disincentive to then utilise it and potentially then to recognise the opportunity to live close to a transport node isn’t at the forefront.”

Another issue is that, unlike its European or eastern seaboard counterparts, the train network is “seen as being a bit of an older network” because, until recently, it didn’t have electric trains.

Even though the city’s two main train lines have now been electrified, Hart says the government still uses a combination of electric and diesel trains, because of a shortage of rolling stock. 

“Hopefully, the electrification will get more modern rolling stock and see people embracing the opportunity to travel on electric trains,” she says.

In turn, the relatively small number of people using public transport (compared to Sydney, Brisbane or Melbourne) contributes to one of the biggest criticisms of the higher density in the 30 year plan for Adelaide: that there’s too many cars parked in the street.

“We’re still a very car dependent city and the thought process of living within 20 minutes of your destination, whilst unrealistic, is still at the forefront of many people’s minds,” Hart says.

The previous Jay Weatherill/Mike Rann, Labor state government which introduced the 30 year plan for Adelaide, had intentions to overcome these transport issues. 

It proposed a major expansion of the city’s tram network, as part of a policy known as AdeLINK. 

Dr Andrew Allan, senior lecturer in transport, urban and regional planning at the University of South Australia tells The Fifth Estate: “AdeLINK was the tram project to extend tram lines into all of the inner suburbs of Adelaide. So south, north, east, west. 

“Revisiting that is not a bad idea, because the plans could do a good job serving inner city or inner suburban areas. It’s probably not so good for the more spread out suburbs.”

AdeLINK included new tram lines to Prospect in the north, Norwood in the east, Unley in the south, and the airport in the west. It also included a new line looping around the CBD, and a conversion of the Outer Harbour rail line from diesel trains to electric light rail.

“When Marshall came in as premier, the first thing he did was cancel AdeLINK, which was the new tram project that was advocated by Weatherill and the federal government,” Allan says.

But while Marshall dropped plans for more trams, he kept the parts of the planning code that encouraged more infill development in the inner suburbs. The end result is the issue of on-street parking that many residents are now complaining about.

Big sustainability dividends

While there is a high upfront cost to building a major light rail project, such as AdeLINK, there are also big benefits to be had both economically (from higher density development), and in terms of sustainability (by making the city less dependent on petrol-based cars).

“Whether it’s tram or train, new mass transit drives a more intensive urban form … If you’ve got tram corridors, for example, you allow more dense development around those tram corridors, where people can walk to those public transport corridors,” Baukultur’s David Homburg says. 

“What you’re effectively trying to do is get people out of cars and get them on to public transport, so you’re offering choice and the ability to not necessarily have to own a car.”

In particular, a tram loop around Adelaide’s CBD could be a catalyst for more residential development. 

This could take pressure off the inner suburbs, and help to alleviate the heritage concerns that some people have with South Australia’s planning code. 

“In the city, I think there’s the ability to run a broader tram network, which would facilitate more residential development, because ‘the square mile’ is quite a large footprint, and some areas are at least a 20 minute walk. A tram could reduce some of those travel times in the city,” Homburg says.

“If we focus [development] on the city, that helps alleviate some of those concerns in urban areas from a heritage and character perspective. If you want to live in more dense areas, that’s where you can do it.”

Suburban sprawl

Another issue for Adelaide’s public transport network is the suburban sprawl taking place on the city’s northern and southern fringes.

While the 30-year plan favours medium density in existing suburbs, it still allows for new suburbs to be built – and many of these new suburbs don’t have good access to rail.

Because these suburbs follow a fairly typical pattern of single-zoned detached family homes, combined with a lack of rail access, these new estates end up being very car dependent.

READ MORE: SA election: Six ways Peter Malinauskas will reshape planning and sustainability

It’s a problem that could become worse if Premier Peter Malinauskas chooses to favour heritage over densification in existing suburbs in his review of the state’s planning code.

“For example, Buckland Park has been developed for something like 10,000 households on the northern fringe of Adelaide. And how are they going to get there? Well, there’s an express way,” University of South Australia’s Andrew Allan says.

“I think we need to think about how we’re going to move those people, because there isn’t a train line. So perhaps, an extension of the train line to that part of that part of Adelaide, which isn’t very well served by public transport, should be a priority.”

Transport projects should look at… 

So what should the priorities be for Premier Malinauskas and Prime Minister Albanese, when it comes to transport in Adelaide? 

And where do trams fit in the mix?

“You need to look at the total picture. You need to look at micromobility options. You need to look at middle distance travelling options, which trams do quite well,” University of South Australia’s Andrew Allan says.

“And then over longer distances, I think, probably trains. Buses have the advantage of flexibility, but I think we want to make sure that they’re electrified and not diesel or natural gas. So I would go for something that is zero emissions across the board. 

Particularly around the inner city, PIA’s Cate Hart says trams would be more readily accepted if they don’t have the overhead wires seen in Melbourne. 

This could potentially be achieved through trackless trams, the third-rail system used in the Sydney CBD, or the battery-powered trams used in Newcastle.

“I think installing a pole and wire network into the city doesn’t demonstrate what actually is happening over in Europe and with modern technology,” she says.

“That’s the approach we should be taking, which leads to a potentially more flexible tram network and addresses the opportunity for a more regular public transport system from a passenger perspective, and can actually lead to less congestion than a whole lot of buses jostling with cars on the road network.

Meanwhile, along with more inner city trams, Baukultur director David Homburg points out there needs to be better quality cycling infrastructure to support more residential development in the CBD. 

“The way that I view it is to provide some genuine choice, where if you want to live in the suburbs, you can, and if you want to live in a more concentrated inner urban area, you can choose to live in the city because you’ve got the ability to walk, ride, and not have to own a car.

“And then you’ve got a genuine choice, whereas Adelaide tends not to have that at the moment.”

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  1. Trams are the best!
    I believe Adelaide would benefit in a huge way with more trams.It would bring so much more vibrancy to the city. I would especially like to see trams running along our beautiful coastline. Glenelg to city tram is definitely not enough.