MAY 2002 LIGHT RAIL - A NEAR MISS FOR BRISBANE
For about the last 50 years Brisbane (Queensland) has seen some dramatic changes to its once very efficient urban transit system, changes that many would have considered as without understandable transport logic. For example, that low concession fare and certainly convenient tram journey across the city centre (North Quay to Valley) is now a distant memory. The tram stops of the day were easy to locate and the trams even easier to access, in other words a modern passenger-friendly tram system and certainly the envy of the other state capitals. Brisbane's major mistake was not taking heed of that well known American slogan: "If it ain't broke don't fix it".
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Despite a very modern fleet of trams, with vehicles with technical developments constantly under construction in the workshops, plans were being quietly developed to replace them. Although this would be no easy task because of the many recent high quality extensions and continual track upgrades in solid concrete, the "writing on the wall" attitude was beginning to seep through to the public. Fuel was also added to this policy from most of the other state capitals by their strong pro-bus activities. This was summed up very aptly by one of Australia's leading transport publishers: "The political climate now tends to discourage tramway development, and advantage was taken of the destruction by fire of Paddington Depot to curtail tramway services, despite the fact that financial results heavily favoured the trams" (1).
THE LOSS OF PADDINGTON DEPOT
Before the disastrous fire in 1962, little had happened to alert the public that moves to eliminate the trams may already have started. The conversion of the Cavendish Road tram route for instance to trolley bus operation was a somewhat innocuous move which seemed to stir only local residents. Three important results came out of it though: it put an end to the plans of that period to extend the route, gave the former tram passengers a new route into the city that avoided a major shopping complex, and proved that redundant electrical equipment following tramway abandonment could be readapted to suit trolley buses.
This fire and resultant loss of 65 trams polarised City Council members who after much debate reached a compromise agreement: 8 new trams would be built and 4 tram routes would be abandoned. So few trams were saved from the fire because of the old depot's timber construction, its base of very high wooden supports and the speed that the flames spread. A book dealing with the historical record of Australia's tramway systems saw this fire not only as a loss of a depot and many trams but the start of a real run-down of the tramway system: "The Paddington disaster was a heaven-sent opportunity for the anti-tram lobby" (2).
THE FINAL "WHISTLE"
With all the changes to the normal and well-established pattern of tram services enjoyed over many years, the inevitable happened and passenger numbers started to "flag". This provided a justifiable reason for bringing in consultants and it came as no surprise that their recommendations had an air of finality about them. A "terminal" diagnosis permitted a new bridge across the Brisbane River to be completed without tram tracks, surely, a short-term saving with long-term implications. Brisbane's tram system finally closed during April 1969 and although this marked the end of an era it could well be thought of as the start of today's traffic chaos.
This was the title given to a 1997 initiative which in its early stages appeared to have some political force behind it (3). A feasibility study by independent consultants concluded that trams were best for Brisbane. This scheme involved a 15km standard gauge network needing 30 low-floor trams. Detailed planning then followed with expressions of interest being invited for financing, construction, operation and maintenance. From the State Government was a commitment of AUD 25m with AUD 65m promised from the Commonwealth Government, which regarded it as part of the Australian Centenary Project. Being proposed as a standard-gauge scheme, it would have been possible to operate a shuttle service with modern replica 4-motor trams, the type so popular right up to the end. This tourist inspired idea was expected to tempt visitors back to run-down areas, but it was abandoned because of its lack of a "futuristic" approach (4).
BRISBANE LIGHT RAIL - A SECOND ATTEMPT
Public consultation started late in 1998 on a replacement scheme for the aborted Briztram project. This new proposal was intended as a 1067-mm gauge system so as to permit through running with Queensland's railway system (5), but precluded heritage tram operation.
Despite calling tenders for this latest light rail project contracts were not awarded when expected, and an announcement during July 2000 revealed that for the second time the project was being dropped. It was thought to be too costly and too disruptive. Having had their bids rejected, the four consortia on the short list indicated that some legal action could follow because of the costs incurred in producing documents in the bidding process.
ARE BUSWAYS THE ANSWER?
The media did not mince words in their comment on transport matters: "The State Government and the Brisbane City Council have been criticised for short-sighted transport planning and for refusing to concede that what has been done to fix traffic problems has actually made them worse" (6).
A strong method of persuasion has been employed to create an incentive for motorists to make better use of the bus services. Two of the four lanes across Victoria Bridge into the CBD have been converted into bus lanes with catastrophic results because of the resulting delays, delays that are now disrupting business (7). The press have suggested that to attract patronage to bus services a passenger should always be sure of safety as well as comfort. At present this is far from being guaranteed because a quarter of the current bus fleet suffers structural defects which cause windows to fall out and bus frames to crack. This will encourage those with cars to continue driving ( 8 ). With current bus patronage down by at least 450 000 fares compared to last year (9) it is fairly obvious that a 100% bus fleet as against a balanced bus and tram network is not the answer.
As this fact sheet was being prepared, a well-illustrated letter appeared in Tramways & Urban Transit (10) which covered much of the same ground. Just why Brisbane has taken such an extraordinary transit direction, almost a complete reversal to many towns and cities worldwide, is difficult to understand but it has certainly not gone unnoticed. This became apparent when the UITP held a seminar in Brisbane early in 2002. This seminar gave John Kirk the opportunity to address the meeting and deliver a strong rebuke: "The question is whether or not Governments have the political will to resist the push to build more motorways and bus lanes and invest in a sustainable transport mode : that is, to replace a 1960's road-based network with a 21st century transport solution" (11).
1. DESTINATION VALLEY - edited by J Richardson, and published by Traction Publications, 1964 - page 5.
2. THE TRAMWAYS OF AUSTRALIA - Samuel Brimson, published by P R Books, 1988 - page 78.
3. Michael Taplin - TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - July 1998 - page 260.
4. RAILWAY GAZETTE INTERNATIONAL - August 2000.
5. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - February 1999 - page 68.
6. COURIER MAIL (Brisbane) - 11 March 2002.
7. COURIER MAIL (Brisbane) - 14 December 2000.
8. Lachlan Heywood (City Hall Reporter) - COURIER MAIL (Brisbane) 12 March 2002.
9. COURIER MAIL (Brisbane) - 24 February 2001.
10. John Elsol - TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - April 2002 - page 140.
11. UITP Seminar - Brisbane - 22 February 2002.