For a Better Brisbane

Perth’s Rail Revolution: Peter Newman on why Perth chose rail (Part 2)

In 1979, the WA state government closed down the Fremantle railway line as a first step to closing down Perth’s rail system. In this second part, Professor Peter Newman talks about the urban development impacts the presence of the railway is having on land use around its stations.

Professor Newman explains how Transit Oriented Development (TOD) is a market-oriented process, and points out the number of TODs at Subiaco, The Esplanade and Wellard. The Property Council of Australia has some documentation on the Subiaco Central development.

Getting the rail project on its feet was difficult- the local newspaper capitialised on the perception that ‘rail is expensive’, which is of course is what this blog terms ‘cost-only analysis’, a type of pseudo-analysis where the benefits that arise from the expenditure on higher quality are completely ignored (see newspaper excerpt below, cf. cost-benefit analysis).

This Blog has sourced a slide presentation by the Public Transport Authority of WA. Titled New Metro Rail Project- Lessons Learnt [sic].*

The Public Transport Authority of WA’s challenge? (slide 19):

  • Pre existing,very low density urbanisation
  • Among highest per capita world car ownership
  • Entrenched culture of car usage for most trips
  • Disregard for Public Transport
  • A long, urban corridor
  • Maximise access along the route to major centres including Kwinana and Thomsons Lake

Of course that was only the engineering challenges! There were political ones too, with the leading newspaper publishing unfavorable articles. The high total cost (never mind the low per-km unit cost) and the exceedingly small population of Mandurah formed focal points around which a storm of criticism swirled:

Mandurah is home to 45,000 people, of whom roughly 350 commute to Perth by bus each weekday.
The government hopes that by reducing the 68 minute bus journey to a 48 minute train ride, 1,350 more Mandurah residents will choose to spend $75 each week travelling to Perth.

How many people want to spend 10% of their weekly salary and 96 minutes travelling to work in Perth each day?

Source: “ The West Australian” Friday 23/1/2004;
Special Advertisement – open letter to all West Australians

– slide 42, ibid.

It seems that the increased comfort, the performance of park and ride and bus feeders and the faster journey time as well as induced demand and the improved access to these suburbs for those thinking about living there didn’t factor in the criticism. This blog intends to argue, in the future, that the widening of the catchment area by using buses also appears to be a key reason behind the patronage on Brisbane’s South East Busway, rather than the technological choice of mode.

The success of the Perth-Mandurah line itself raises questions about “theoretical” best fit of transport to land use planning. Theories are there to help predict outcomes in the real world- when the theory no longer properly describes what is going on in the real world, the theory must be modified. Perhaps it is time to do just that.

Traditional mass transit railway achieves its “mass” through penetration of high urban densities.
In low urban densities the “masses” must be brought, or come to the railway in their own way – the stations become the concentration points of population density

– slide 20, New Metro Rail Project- Lessons Learnt

Dr Paul Mees has argued in Transport for Suburbia that integration, particularly with frequent buses running to rail stations, can get patronage up to levels that will support rail, despite low densities, and illustrates this by using many examples, the most prominent being Toronto. Of course it previously has been easy to argue and explain away that idea using classical “it won’t work here” arguments: Canada is a country overseas, Toronto is much higher density, Australians don’t do interchange, and it snows there.

The Perth-Mandurah line shows that it does work, and there is now a nice model right here in Australia to demonstrate that. By extension, one would expect the feeder model in low density areas to also work for light rail as as well, after all, to put it crudely, LRT is a rail vehicle with just lower capacity, and with the added flexibility of being able to run on streets.

The Transport Textbook places the unit cost for the Perth-Mandurah rail project at just $14.5 million/km (2009) which is amazing value for money. For comparison, the Gold Coast Light rail project is somewhere in the range of 20-35 million/km.


* Proper grammar would have this as ‘lessons learned‘.

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