TRANSPORT SERIES: Like most Australian cities, Perth has a car problem. With one of the highest car use rates in Australia and a rapidly expanding population – expected to hit 3.5 million people by 2050 – the average commuter’s drive time is now 10 kilometres an hour slower than five years ago. It’s time for the Western Australian capital to rethink its approach to public transport, and according to Curtin University Professor Peter Newman, trackless trams could be part of the solution.
Western Australia’s McGowan government seems to favour conventional solutions to the problem. Despite the generally accepted wisdom that extending freeways creates induced demand, creating more congestion, they keep adding lanes, investing $2.7 billion into roadworks this year.
Of the $2.3 billion road and rail infrastructure package for WA announced in the 2017-18 federal budget; $237 million was allocated to building a bridge over the Kwinana Freeway, $50 million for a new traffic interchange on Wanneroo Road, $49 million to widen the Kwinana Freeway northbound and $40 million to widen the Mitchell Freeway southbound.
While these projects are expected to create 500 jobs, they’re temporary solutions for both employment and transport concerns. Nobody but the most dogmatic public servants think more roads will solve Perth’s long-term problems.
Perth’s public transport is underperforming
Meanwhile, a recent report from public transport body Transperth recognises that public transport use has fallen for the fifth consecutive year. Taxpayer subsidies to keep the trains, buses and ferries running are around $1 billion a year.
Commuters are blaming high ticket prices, with one Perth resident complaining that public transport fares are more than double the amount he would otherwise spend on fuel to drive.
Trains still appear to be popular, with the Joondalup line carrying 17 million passengers a year and the Mandurah line 20 million. But they’re overcrowded. As far back as 2014 an ABC journalist reported that commuter trains were packed 24/7 going in and out of the city.
An Auditor General’s report in November 2017 found that rising costs and a dearth of commuters were making Perth’s public buses run at a loss.
The centrepiece of the McGowan government’s public transport solution is its light-rail circular network project, Metronet. The first stage of the project is laying 72 kilometres of new rail at a cost of $4.75 billion. It’s intended to transform train stations into hubs for commercial and residential development.
But the project has suffered from chronic skills shortages. Metronet is competing with other rail projects across Australia, as well as the mining sector, to achieve its peak employment of 3000 skilled rail construction workers.
While the rail infrastructure issue is still being resolved, the pressing issue of moving crosstown traffic remains. Transport expert Professor Michael Buxton pointed out in a previous story on Melbourne’s transport woes that moving traffic between central urban nodes and heavy rail networks is another important piece in the urban transport puzzle. Buses add to congestion, trams are slow and their infrastructure further restricts the flow of traffic. Light rail requires elevated lines, platforms and running gear that impedes cars and is costly. Light rail projects can also take years to complete.
Professor Peter Newman of the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute (CUSP), who is also WA’s 2018 Scientist of the year and a recognised transport authority, has a radical solution that he travelled to China to investigate.
The advantages of trackless trams are boundless
The CRRC Corporation – once lead by current premier Xi Jenping – has developed a trackless tram that runs on sensors. It has all the best features of heavy rail with the flexibility of a bus, but is less than half the weight. It costs $6-8 million per kilometre to build, as compared to $127 million per kilometre for the Newcastle Light Rail, or $120 million for Sydney’s new light rail systems.
“It’s a totally new mode of transport, not a bus or tram but better than both,” Newman enthuses. “It’s an innovation that I think will transform our cities. Across the world we’re looking for connector roles between heavy rail and urban centres – this is it.”
Newman has long been a champion of railways. He started out campaigning to save a tramline in Perth in 1979.
“I learned that the fixed nature of a train was significantly more important than putting in flexible buses,” he told The Fifth Estate. “So for the last 40 years I’ve been campaigning for more trains and less requirement for car dependence and the buses associated with that.”
He’s the author of several books on urban transport dilemmas, his most recent being The end of automobile dependence.
“These are about the continuing need to consider the fixed nature of rail as a major force in making cities work better. It’s rail versus road, density versus sprawl. The kind of data we get shows Perth is very car-dependant, unlike European cities, which generally have fixed transport systems,“ Newman said.
“Asian cities have hardly any car use, the main users of public transport are in those Asian and emerging cities around the world. Ecologically those cities do much better than US and Australian cities.
“Unlike Perth, most cities in recent data show that public transport is growing faster and car use is in decline. Global growth is in rail. There are 82 Chinese cities building metros, 51 Indian [cities], all the Middle Eastern cities are doing it.”
Trackless trams are not designed around existing developments
Probably the most radical factor involved in trackless trams is that they’re not designed around existing developments. This system depends upon an integrated concept of value capture, with developers investing concurrently in the transit infrastructure and surrounding urban landscape as well as the trams themselves.
“Every city wants better public transport, but traditionally it’s all been about government having to pay for it. This approach is about the private sector funding to build around the transport nodes, which raises the value of the land. That’s the basis of value capture,” he said.
“It’s a dramatic opportunity to create a far less car-dependant city. It should be possible to build without requiring government funding. Rail is coming back in a big way – it’s the second rail revolution.”
Historically, real estate developers have been the progenitors of rail and tram infrastructure. The Perth Electric Tramways company covered 19th and 20th century Perth with tram tracks, unlocked development across the city. Newman points to Nedlands Park, a 1900s development that ran through an entire suburb and included extending a tramway to the foreshore, donating land as a foreshore park reserve, building hotels and shopping precincts and selling off suburban lots.
“More recently, land use and transport have not been integrated. Private sector development in fields such as telecommunications has meant much innovation, but with transport in most cities the government is the monopoly owner and operator. The best way to approach integrated land use and financing is for the private sector to start manageable projects connected to the community, with the support of local governments.”
Newman observes that Perth’s Canning City Centre is already undergoing that transformation, with 10,000 new dwellings and commercial hubs being built around a train line.
“The Metronet project in Perth is a classic example of an outer suburban fast heavy rail system. It’s a brilliant $6 billion project, but the inner and middle suburbs are missing out and that’s where the urban regeneration potential is, so why not link the two?”
Trackless trams suitable for Perth
Newman says the Chinese CRRC model is a great fit for Perth.
“Their new generation is electric, with the batteries on the roof. It does up to 70 kilometres per hour , can take 300-500 people, so very cheap. There are other versions of the trackless tram in Europe, but they’re not as good as this one.
“The advantages are; it’s electric, so very quiet and with no emissions. It’s a tenth of the cost of light rail and causes no disruption; you can put them in over a weekend, rather than the four to five years it often takes to build tracks. There’s the potential to assemble them locally. Bulk orders could be developed and put together here.”
The trackless trams run on precisely programmed sensors built into the road surface. They’re autonomous, essentially driverless, but Newman points out that all high speed rail and metro services are autonomous.
“The drivers are really just checking that it’s working. It’s not as though it’s a bus pretending to be a train, it’s actually better than a bus because it’s lighter, has GPS and uses autonomous rail technology (ART), that holds it to the road better than a driver would, especially when coming into or leaving a station.”
Newman travelled to the Chinese city of Zhuzov in the Hunon province to see how the trackless trams perform.
“The ride quality is good – there’s no sway. They have special tyres, the stabilisers and hydraulics from high speed rail, double axles like in a train. Altogether it feels like light rail – you can read on it. You see parents at ease with their kids running around.
“It’s affordable, you can buy a three car set for $3-4 million and put it in very quickly. It’s a fixed system in the sense that it recharges at a station, but flexible in the sense that if there’s an accident you can come off the track and go back onto it further down the road.”
Trackless trams could revolutionise transport across all Australian cities
Newman says Australian cities are ready for the trackless tram.
“It’s okay on road width and gradient, can go up a 13 per cent gradient. Light rail can only go up five per cent. It has a 15 metre radius turning circle, can use bus depots for overnighting, can use the control centres that road agencies have already built.”
The CRRC company has a long history in rail, with 18,000 employees and the good will of its former chief executive officer, premier Xi Jenping. It’s a state-based industry but according to Newman has the qualities of a profitable corporation, with 40 subsidiaries in related technologies.
“The trams are already into their third generation – the fourth will have more autonomous systems. Auckland and Miami are lining up for it. Production is at eight to ten a month, in two years there’ll be 30 a month and CRRC are building more factories.”
He says that CUSP and the Sustainable Environment National Research Centre have published a definitive guide and manual to the trackless trams.
“We’ve developed an entrepreneur rail model to integrate transit land development and finance together. The conventional transit planning is that you predict transit patronage based on buses, get funding from government, and add on land development later.
“We’ve turned that on its head to say ‘lets see how much money you can get from the land development potential, get funding from that, then design the transit around it’. That’s how it used to work.
“We’ve got a plan for a trackless tram along a corridor through major centres of Perth already. We’ve found certain sites to build the trackless tram system that links them up and unlocks the development. Once a developer has committed to it, why would they want to move the trackless tram away?”
They’ve produced a guide and 50 step manual, a business case and a city deal submission.
“The city deal is how you get three levels of government involved, how you get private investment, a community vision, create structural reform and how you bring innovation into the city.
“It’s happening all over already in Perth, the Fremantle to Murdoch line is looking at trackless trams, in Townsville, City to JCU Health Complex. Hobart has announced a city deal. There are more opportunities. In Victoria Fisherman’s Bend has to be linked to the city, so that’s a perfect opportunity. Liverpool in Sydney is planning a new link out to the new airport.”
Professor Newman says the CRRC trackless tram is a dramatic opportunity to create a far less car-dependant city.
“It should be possible to build without requiring government funding. It does require a lot of cities to demonstrate how it would work, but it can become a transformative force in our cities.”