Report confirms light rail delivers real community benefits

Light rail is experiencing a resurgence as governments recognise its value in managing population growth.

The Light Rail Conference in June united industry and government stakeholders over a two-day event focused on new research and ground-breaking projects.

Australia and New Zealand are experiencing a resurgence in light rail as governments recognise its invaluable contribution to managing population growth in our cities. Light rail connects communities, regenerates CBDs and invites investment in a way that is quite unique when compared with other transport modes.

The Renaissance of Light Rail – a new report released by the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) and authored by the RPS Group – detailed the transformational impact light rail has on our communities. 

Light rail serves populations in 400 cities around the world, safely connecting communities to the public transport network. It has a long and successful track record in Australia where it has proven to be particularly effective at revitalising regions, creating opportunities for urban renewal and land value uplift. 

In Canberra, house prices along the light rail corridor achieved record growth, increasing in value by up to 39 per cent, more than twice the state average during the same period (17 per cent). On the Gold Coast, underlying property values around proposed station locations rose by 30 per cent. In Melbourne, where the network operated by Yarra Trams is an iconic part of the city, the network contributes between $730 and $870 million annually to the city’s social fabric. 

These tangible benefits cannot be underestimated as they support the sustainable development of our cities and help create inclusive places to live, work and play. As the Melbourne experience has shown us, the mode’s ability to enhance a city’s reputation by adding colour to city streets and deepening the connection between urban areas, tourists and residents is a clear benefit of light rail.

It is also an environmentally-friendly way to travel. Light rail can move 95 per cent more people per hour than cars, resulting in a substantial reduction in traffic congestion and fuel emissions. 

It is a key reason why light rail was found to be well suited to areas that required the movement of large numbers of people, while facilitating frequent stops. Though it is clear light rail isn’t the solution to every transport issue, it can be a flexible option as part of the wider transport network.

With more than two thirds of Australians living in capital cities and the population looking to double by 2075, there is an urgent need to ramp up our public transport networks. Light rail offers a good solution in areas where communities need sustainable, long-term transport connections, particularly in areas where urban renewal is desired.

A great example of this is Newcastle, which opened its light rail operations in 2019 as part of an integrated public transport network supporting the region. Here, light rail activated the CBD, removing previous divides in the city centre and encouraging healthier lifestyles through more active transport options.

Just as Newcastle saw strong support for light rail, passengers generally rate the mode of transport highly, with the report finding customer satisfaction rates were substantially higher for light rail than other forms of transport like the bus.

Passengers typically report rides are smoother and routes are easier to navigate. Light rail is accessible and flexible, allowing passengers to turn-up-and-go without having to consult maps and timetables. 

Trackless tram concerns

The report warned, however against a move to untested and unproven trackless trams technologies. Several trackless tram networks in Europe and the U.S. are being decommissioned or retired early following reliability and comfort issues, along with damage to road surfaces. 

While the technology may offer lower costs in the beginning, the experience so far suggests it is not yet a viable option for Australia.

As more light rail projects get underway in the year ahead, the report confirms the importance of making the most of this new wave of light rail investment. 

The report called for a coordinated approach that included engagement with local government stakeholders when planning light rail projects and recommended improved risk sharing approaches be established during planning and procurement.

This recognised the importance of strong engagement between government and industry to achieve the best outcomes for passengers and the community and is consistent with the ARA’s best practice principles for rail construction procurement.

With new stages of light rail projects planned in Canberra, the Gold Coast and Parramatta, the renaissance of this popular mode of transport looks set to continue.

That is good news for local people as these key projects provide new opportunities for sustainable development and improved community amenity.

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