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Perth's perfect future

Western Australia's capital Perth is aiming for a fully integrated transport system as Lawrie Tootell discovers

In January, Australia celebrated its 100th year of Federation. Forget all those songs and stories about jolly swagmen, cattle drovers now use helicopters for the annual roundup. The eastern cities, especially Sydney and Melbourne now suffer from daily traffic jams.

Western Australia, which accounts for 33% of the 7.7 million square kilometre land mass but just 9% of the population, is researching fully integrated transport systems that will offer long term solutions as Perth's population increases.

Sometimes referred to as the world's most isolated capital city, Perth is also one of the most beautiful. The confluence of the Swan and Canning Rivers provides a stunning backdrop and a yachting paradise across the road from the central business district, before flowing 20km westward to join the Indian Ocean at Fremantle harbour.

Within the Western Australian Ministry of Planning, a small group of planners and engineers headed by John Chortis, is investigating the potential for a more integrated public transport system that will satisfy financial constraints, yet cater for the expected doubling of the population over the next 20 years.

Perth expects its population to reach 2M plus within the next 20 to 25 years, but even now, the Australian love of the car is lengthening journey times on the main feeder roads around the city.

The city has other reasons to want to reduce the number of private commuter vehicles. While it has little heavy industry within its boundaries, air quality is an issue.

The Darling Ranges encircling Perth's eastern flank are a major cause of atmospheric inversion.

The static cold layer above the city traps rising warm air which quickly becomes a dirty brown and on bad days drops almost to street level.

Camel trains serviced the early pioneers as they pushed inland, replaced as townships were established in the late 1800s and early 1900s, by the steam train. One unforeseen result of the transition is that Australia is now allaged to have an ever greater population of wild camels than the Middle East.

As Perth grew, a network of trams, trolley buses and buses spread through the suburbs. But, during the early 1950s, when at least one car in the garage became the goal of every Australian family, trams came to be regarded by planners as slow and noisy.

What the planners overlooked was that the trams moved more people, more quickly and more efficiently than the buses that replaced them. The result was that more people chose to drive to work. From that chain of events arise the suburban transport problems of the 21st century.

Solving it is not an easy task.

A lack of political will is exacerbated by projected low patronage levels due to a the urban sprawl versus route distances and cost when compared to the high density European and US norms.

Currently, Perth's 1.4 million inhabitants are reasonably well served by public transport. A mix of buses and trains meets the needs of out of town commuters and free central area transport (CAT) buses circle the central business districts of Perth and Freemantle continuously.

But the problems of moving people into, within and out of the city each day will not improve if planning for low density suburban development is allowed to continue. 'In the inner city we must work within the existing confines, ' says Chortis. 'It is a different story in the new and developing suburbs where we are able to start with a virtually clean sheet of paper.'

The team's vision for the future is to complement the existing heavy rail trains that radiate from central Perth to the outer suburbs with light rail, bus and water transport systems. 'Light rail, or super trams are less expensive than heavy rail and can operate on existing roadways and verges or, incorporating the latest technology, even use heavy rail lines.

They can easily service high density population areas and are both user and environmentally friendly, ' asserts Chortis.

On the face of it then, light rail has an overwhelming appeal, but as Chortis points out, there are an equal number of pitfalls. Careful route alignment is needed through residential and commercial areas. And there is the question of whether the population density will create enough demand to to make it economically viable.

However studies of existing light rail schemes show that simple population figures are no real indicator, since Grenoble in France has a population of around 400,000 and a light rail system that has a high farebox return.

The latest development to emerge in light rail technology is in Caen in France, where dual purpose rail-road vehicles operate. Designed by BombardierEurorail, each unit can operate as a conventional light rail carriage with an overhead power collector, then switch to rubber tyred, diesel powered bus mode, running on streets. These hybrids have been operating for less than two years and no figures are yet available as to their efficiency, operating costs and passenger acceptance.

In Australia, it is estimated that with good planning, minimal land acquisition and rail lines mostly at grade, cost per kilometre should be between $A12M$A15M ($24M-$30M) for distances over 20km.

At Karlsruhe and Saarbrucken in Germany, light rail costs have been contained, if not reduced, by using the existing heavy rail lines. The problem of power requirements has been overcome by installing dual voltage systems. Urban areas are now served by lines barred to heavy rail because of cost, community acceptance and environmental factors.

For Perth, says Chortis, 'studies show that with only minimum disruption to existing infrastructure, lines and stations could be routed into high density areas so that the majority of passengers need not walk more than 400m to board the train. Projections and costings indicate that light rail operating in certain metropolitan areas is a viable alternative that meets all the criteria. All that is needed to implement it is a green light from the government.'

How long before the first light rail is built in Perth and where will it run to? 'It depends largely on government. My most optimistic estimate is five years but realistically 10 years is more likely, ' says Chortis.

'The first line could be routed between the central business district and Perth airport.

Another possible route would replace the two dedicated bus lanes on the Kwinana Freeway with light rail to serve the southern suburbs.

'Studies show that once a light rail is up and running, it draws in more commercial activities which attract more passengers. For that reason alone, it is vital that all the implications of land use - how much and what type of commercial or industrial uses will be allowed, compared to residential - must be taken into account, ' he says.

'Introducing light rail is only part of the overall vision. We are still developing dedicated bus facilities on major arterial roads and freeways into the city. And the proposed new heavy rail commuter rail service to link the city to the coastal towns of Rockingham and Mandurah is at a critical stage of planning, with the government committed to a 2005 time frame for its construction.

'One of our best and most under-utilised resources is the Swan River, ' says Chortis. 'Benefits from a well planned passenger ferry service include the potential to reduce car dependence, petrol consumption, congestion, pollution inner city parking and road space requirements.'

There are long established cross river ferry services operating between central Perth and the suburbs. Chortis envisages a fleet of 80 to 100 seater craft capable of running at 37km/h from Perth downriver to Fremantle Harbour with up to 20 landings at major residential and other activity centres.

Western Australia has one of the most advanced high speed ferry ship building facilities in the world and the money generated from building such a fleet would contribute towards the state economy and job security, 'concludes Chortis.

How much of the vision will see the light of day remains to be seen. One thing is certain, if the new Labour government does not honour its commitment to improving public transport, Perth will continue to suffer the ad hoc un-co-ordinated transport system that does little to ease movement into, around and out of the city.

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