The ACT Government has released details of a "City to Gungahlin Transit Corridor Study" with two options for public transport between Canberra's city center and its northern satellite town. There is a project update, a concept report and view a fact sheet. There is an online survey and a Feedback Form. Also consultations will be held in the Civic Canberra Centre (ground floor near Supa Barn), 11am to 2pm 4 and 5 May 2012 and The Market Place Shopping Centre, Gungahlin (near Woolworths), 11am to 2pm 11 and 12 May 2012.
The two options being considered are Light Rail Transit and Bus Rapid Transit. LRT and BRT are fancy terms for trams and buses running in their own dedicated lanes, not mixed with other traffic. Both options would use the same route down Northborne Avenue (Canberra's main street). My preference would be for BRT, due to the lower cost and greater flexibility over LRT. As the BRT vehicles are buses, they can run on ordinary roads, as well as on the bus-way. Also as the bus-way is just a road reserved for buses it can be used by ordinary buses, as well as special high capacity ones. In contrast the trams used for a LRT can only run where tracks have been installed. Brisbane has an extensive BRT system, with the South-East, Inner Northern, Northern, Eastern and Boggo Road Busways. Adelaide has the O-Bahn Busway.
The ACT Government give a good overview of the options. One choice to be made is if vehicles should run along the outside lanes of Northborne avenue, or though the median strip in the center. The median strip in the center of Northborne avenue was made very wide so trams could be added later, so I suggest it be used for the busway. This will require the removal of an extensive grassed area and many mature trees, but this area is of no use to the community, as access is cut off by three lanes of traffic on either side. New trees can be planted along side the busway and the footpaths increased in size providing a better look and more useful space for pedestrians and cyclists.
The more difficult choice to be made is between trams and buses. As the ACT Government points out, trams are more popular, but buses are cheaper and can be designed to be as comfortable as trams. Also trams are more efficient in use of energy, but buses can be made almost as fuel efficient with the use of hybrid engines (diesel/electric) and renewable fuel (such as compressed methane). In addition, if trams are run from coal fired electricity, they will be just as polluting (perhaps more so) than a bus. Running trams from green electricity would be more expensive than using renewable fuel in a bus. In particular, solar power for trams would be prohibitively expensive.
My suggestion is to run a BRT with mild-hybrid buses. Mild hybrids have electric motors powered from small, low cost battery, to supplement the internal combustion engine. This is efficient and gives smooth, rapid acceleration, comparable to a tram. There is no need for the vehicles to run on battery power alone, as they will be on dedicated roads most of the time, not in stop-start traffic. BRT vehicles could be Australian made, by the existing vehicle industry, whereas LRT vehicles would need to be imported. The engines can be powered from the same diesel or Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) as the rest of the Canberra bus fleet. When bio-diesel or synthetic methane become available (made from crop and domestic waste) this can be used, with no changes to the vehicles needed.
The ACT Government states that "Passenger capacity per BRT vehicle is half that of LRT vehicles". However, this is not correct. BRT buses can be made with two trailers. Such a double articulated "bendy bus" is as long as three standard buses, is a similar size and has a similar passenger capacity to an articulated LRT vehicle. Buses require extra space for an internal combustion engine and fuel, but this can be accommodated beneath the floor and on the roof, without compromising passenger space. LRT allows for multiple units to be coupled and run by one driver, but it is unlikely Canberra will require this capacity in the foreseeable future (and it could be matched by advances in BRT).
One area where the ACT Government plans are deficient is in ticketing and passenger information systems. One of the major ways to encourage use of transit systems is with integrated ticketing and good real-time information for passengers. The ACT Government appears to be underestimating the importance an difficulty of ICT systems for transport. Several Australian governments have failed to implement ICT for transport on time and on budget, resulting in billions of dollars extra cost, years of delay and resulting inadequate transport systems. There may be value in a strategy which concentrates on the ICT systems for Canberra transport and leaving the vehicles and roadways as a secondary issue.
Much of the benefit of the BRT can be achieved before new vehicles and extensive roadwork are implemented. I suggest the ACT Government commence work now on an advanced ICT system and some simple changes to the existing road system with the existing bus fleet. This could see improvements to the system from the beginning of 2013, with the full BRT progressively introduced in later years.
This would take advantage of one of the features of BRT: that it can be progressively introduced. Unlike LRT, which requires all new vehicles, newly trained drivers and a completed track, BRT can use a mix of old and new vehicles with the current drivers on mixed sections old and new roadway.