Modal matching: to light rail, or not to light rail?

Last week, the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) launched a new research paper developed in partnership with RPSThe Renaissance of Light Rail. 

If you live in Sydney like I do, you’ve probably seen the renaissance first-hand. On George Street, light rail cars quietly hum back and forth to the Quay, while the entire street is open for pedestrians to walk in any direction they please.

Ten years ago, a trip down George Street was a completely different experience—pedestrians dodging bumper-to-bumper cars, and maybe the last few lonely monorail cars gliding by above your head...

Wind the clock back 100 years, and the scene was in some ways more familiar to 2021. A journey down George Street would have seen you stepping onto an electric tram. In fact, the city’s inner suburbs were once connected by one of the largest tram networks in the world.

Light rail came and went, and is now back in Sydney. But why?

Cities are always looking for the best way to connect their citizens. While in war times trams were a perfect solution for cities where fuel was in short supply and the average family didn’t own a car, by the 1970s these systems were being retired to make way for private vehicles.

Many would argue that ripping light rail out was a mistake. But finding the right mode (or combination of modes) is a complex question. Our continued investment in transport shows that urban needs are always changing, and the search never really stops.

Yes, no, maybe: an evidence-based approach to modal assessment

In developing The Renaissance of Light Rail our aim was to examine the benefits of different modes, evaluate where light rail is proving most successful, and develop a decision-making framework to help cities determine the transport option/s that can deliver the most benefits for a community.

The framework allows project owners to compare modal options across nine criteria. It’s a yes, no, maybe approach designed to help decision-makers ask the right questions, and to consider how the known benefits of each mode could add value in their region.

Questions like:

  • Will this mode attract investment, and be a catalyst for renewal?
  • Does this mode provide a good experience for users, both during the journey and at stops?
  • To what degree would this mode improve access to public transport for the community?
  • Has this mode been successfully implemented before? What level of assurance does it provide for on-time service?
  • How many people can this option move and how? Is volume delivered through asset size or service frequency?
  • Would this mode allow for easy increases or decreases to service frequency based on demand?
  • Does it deliver travel time benefits for community members?
  • How complex is the asset to deliver and how expensive is it to operate long-term?

If we ask these kinds of questions in the context of the Australian cities that have embraced light rail—places like Sydney, Canberra, the Gold Coast—the drivers behind the renaissance become easy to see. And while each of these cities has a different community context and existing transport networks in place, they’re all reaping the benefits that light rail can bring.  

Birdeye view of Canberra Light Rail trains parked up at transport hub

Transport Canberra

Transport success is horses for courses

At the heart of The Renaissance of Light Rail is a pretty simple philosophy. When it comes to transport planning, the focus should always be on selecting the best modal match for a community’s own context. This context includes things like congestion, density, tourism, the need for urban renewal.

Light rail isn't the answer to every question. 

But it does have a lot of benefits. It’s proven. It attracts broader investment. It increases land value. And while the initial investment may be significant, it can deliver significant savings from a whole-of-life perspective.

It’s my hope that our work on the Renaissance of Light Rail Report will support cities to confidently assess whether light rail (or other transport options like bus rapid transit) represent the best modal match for their places and people.

Looking at the evidence will not only lead to better infrastructure decision-making. It will provide a better basis for talking to communities about their collective objectives for places, and bringing people along for the journey.

Nick Johnson

Regional General Manager

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