For a Better Brisbane

Perth’s Rail Revolution: Peter Newman on why Perth chose rail

In 1979, the WA state government closed down the Fremantle railway line as a first step to closing down Perth’s rail system. A report by The Bureau of Transport Economics investigated electrification or replacing the rail line with a busway, and it was the busway which had the higher benefit-cost ratio.

This report presents the evaluations of alternative public transport improvements in the urban corridor between Perth and Fremantle, The alternatives considered are a continuation of existing services, electrification of the existing rail service, and replacement of the railway with a busway.

Perth-Fremantle corridor study, Bureau of Transport Economics, January 1973

Community outrage at the line’s closure and replacement with a bus service led to the formation of Perth’s Friends of the Railways, which included then Fremantle councillor, Peter Newman, who is now a world-renowned expert and professor of sustainability at Curtin University.

In 1983, the incumbent government was voted out of office and rail services were re-instated on the Fremantle line. In 1985 the line was electrified (many of the diesel trains would ultimately end up being sold to Auckland, NZ). The electrification of the Fremantle line led to a patronage increase of 20% (compared to when the line was closed). Rail extensions to the north, and later to the south, were built.

Interestingly, in 1992 patronage on the Perth rail system was 7 million, which is about where rail patronage in Auckland is today. By 1997 this had grown to 30 million, and in 2009/2010 this stands at 56 million and growing.

Brisbane’s patronage is 65.1 million passengers for its rail system, which is only just in front, despite Brisbane having almost double the number of stations, rapid population growth, and buying new trains that are identical to the ones being run on the Perth system. Comparison with Adelaide, which didn’t do any major upgrades and still runs diesel trains, over the same time period, showed more or less stagnant patronage. The basic service frequencies in both Adelaide and Brisbane are 30 minutes off-peak, all day, which is locally regarded as horrible, and bus connections leave much to be desired.

A crisis can be transforming, and cause a sudden change in both public policy and on-the-ground outcomes. The crisis facilitated dramatic changes to Perth’s rail system, and now it has come full circle, with high rail patronage for a city and network of its size and probably the nation’s best train service frequency, with trains every 15 minutes in the off-peak, all day and weekend to all stations. Linked to a feeder bus system, passengers are collected from bus stops in their street and then transfer to trains for the trip to the CBD. It doesn’t seem credible to say that a rail system cannot serve ‘dispersed trips’.

In each case there was a political process. You’d have to say the transport planners really didn’t want this. They always said, “anything a train can do, a bus can do better and cheaper.

And they are wrong.

And the reality is, we have shown that over and over again. But many of the transport planners still say it. They have a fetish about flexibility.
In reality what you need is speed and capacity.

– Peter Newman

While Brisbane looks to copy London, Paris, Tokyo and Berlin, where we really should be looking at is in our own backyard! Places like Perth where buses feed rail and Melbourne where orbital bus rapid transit (BRT) has been a success show that even with cities spread out like ours, good public transport is possible.

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