INTRO: With several Australian cities planning to invest in expansion, modernisation or revival of their tram and light rail networks, there will be much to discuss at this month’s UITP light rail conference in Melbourne

BYLINE: Hans Rat and Peter Moore *

LIGHT RAIL is increasingly recognised as a superb transport mode, and a key weapon in the urban planner’s transport armoury. Its growing importance has been recognised by the success of the biennial UITP Light Rail Conference, which is now a well-established event.

October 11-13 sees the 5th Light Rail Conference, entitled Light Rail for Liveable Cities, take place in Melbourne. It is being held in conjunction with the 2nd UITP Asia Pacific Congress. In parallel with the two conferences, the City Transport & Mobility 2000 Exhibition will showcase the industry’s latest products, services and technology. In addition, for the first time at a major UITP event, there will be an Operators’ Village. This reflects the increasing globalisation of the industry, with more and more operators running services under contract in different countries.

The conference has been organised with the support of UITP’s Light Rail Committee, chaired by Raymond Hue, President Director-General of TCAR in Rouen. Top level speakers from all over the world will cover subjects of particular relevance to light rail operators, system designers, town and urban planners, consultants and suppliers. The conference will also cover the marketing and passenger information aspects of light rail as well as the technical side, making it an event not to be missed.

Melbourne is an ideal venue to host such a major transport event for Australia, voted as one of the world’s most liveable cities. Attractive suburbs, clean air, vast expanses of parkland and diversity of lifestyle choices make Melbourne the envy of the world. But it is only the city’s extensive public transport network that brings the city together. Its integrated network of train, tram and bus routes provide safe, reliable and environmentally-friendly transport. Public transport is used by nearly 60% of people working in the city centre, and caters for over 320 million passenger trips per year.

Australian renaissance

The venue and timing are no coincidence. As in many parts of the world, light rail in Australia is undergoing a renaissance, as the major cities wake up to a vision of integrated land-use and transport planning that will encourage urban renewal and support the trend towards inner city living.

Transport planners are increasingly recognising that light rail has the potential to stimulate redevelopment of commercial, retail and entertainment centres, bringing major benefits to the tourism and business sectors. Light rail brings customers back to the retail core of cities, generates major employment opportunities during development, and provides an ongoing boost to the economy as networks become operational.

Light rail is seen as a key part of integrated multi-modal public transport, offering seamless travel. New light rail vehicles being introduced on existing routes incorporate features including air-conditioning and access for people with disabilities, increasingly recognised as essential elements in a modern transport service.

World class network

Operating the fourth largest network in the world, Melbourne’s famous trams are intrinsic to the cultural identity of the city. With 476 vehicles in service on 27 main routes covering 240 km of double track, it is the largest light rail system outside Europe. As part of the privatisation of Victoria’s public transport operations, Melbourne’s tram services were split into two companies on July 1 1998. The following year saw them transferred to the private sector with the award of two 12-year franchises.

The Metrolink consortium, led by Transfield and with UITP member Transdev as a partner, was awarded the concession to run the Yarra Trams network, with 201 cars operating 129 route-km. Yarra Trams carries more than 51 million passengers a year, including 2 million passengers to special events, operating over 9·5 million vehicle-km per annum.

The company is focused upon patronage and revenue growth, and has set itself ambitious targets for franchise period, including a 60% increase in passenger numbers. An A$150m investment package includes 31 new vehicles and a 2 km extension from Mont Albert to Box Hill which is due to open by June 2002.

The Swanston Trams franchise was awarded to Britain’s National Express Group, now one of the world’s leading passenger transport groups. Swanston’s 17 routes link the north-western and southeastern suburbs and the central business district of Melbourne. The business carries an average of 172000 passengers a day on a fleet of 275 trams. NEG is buying 59 low-floor trams worth A$175m, and investing A$7m to refurbish the current fleet (p657).

Small acorns start to grow

Almost 40 years after Sydney’s extensive tram network was abandoned, plans are being floated which could see light rail return to the city centre. August 31 1997 saw the opening of the initial 3·5 km Sydney Light Rail line from Central station to Wentworth Park. On August 13 this year its length was doubled with the opening of the A$3·7m extension to Lilyfield in the western suburbs. Opened a year ahead of schedule and in time for the Olympics, this extension follows a disused freight railway corridor which also formed the basis for the initial route.

A further extension from Central through the city centre to Circular Quay is to be considered by the state after the A$400m cross-Sydney City tunnel is completed in 2004, diverting car traffic from the city’s streets.

The light rail line is operated by Connex Group Australia, a subsidiary of the French Vivendi group established in early 1997. Connex also runs the Sydney Monorail, which links the central business districts to the Darling Harbour area and conference centre. This 3·6 km automated loop with seven stations offers a 4 min frequency and is popular with users.

TransAdelaide’s remaining tram route is the last remnant of a once extensive network which served the city from 1908 to 1958. Linking the city centre to the seaside suburb of Glenelg, the historic line today attracts many tourists. The 70-year old trams are the oldest public transport vehicles operating in Australia.

The South Australian Transport Minister is considering proposals for extensions to serve other parts of Adelaide, and for the purchase of modern rolling stock which would share the track with the heritage cars.

Exciting times ahead

Governments around Australia are starting to recognise that public transport is vital to a prosperous economy, a cleaner environment and quality lifestyle in modern, fast growing communities. Encouraging more people to use public transport through the introduction of choice of modes is also critical in reducing congestion on urban roads.

Professor Jeff Kenworthy of Murdoch University, who has been working on the UITP Millenium Cities Database, will be speaking at the conference. From his examination of comparable cities around the world, he suggests that those cities which develop a light rail backbone for their transport networks gain considerable advantages over those that attempt to rely entirely on buses.

This is an exciting time for Australia, with light rail projects under investigation in all the States and Territories, as cities can no longer cope with an exponential growth in unrestricted urban car use.

1999-2000 was an exceptional year for Australia’s light rail industry, and we are looking forward to building upon the recognition that light rail offers a new choice for travel in the cities of the region.

* Hans Rat (left) is Secretary General of UITP, the Inter-national Union of Public Transport, and Peter Moore is Executive Director of UITP’s Australia & New Zealand region

CAPTION: Melbourne

operates the fourth largest light rail network in the world

Visit Railway Gazette on Stand A016

CAPTION: Sydney’s embryonic light rail line was extended to Lilyfield in August, and plans for further extensions are being developed