Enough is Enough. Brisbane Crying Out for Urban Rail Investment

17 Min Read
Siemens new Inspiro Driverless Metro train for Warsaw metro. Source: Siemens Mobility Systems.

We write this story not because of a preordained phobia towards buses, or because of those frustrating days back in the 1990’s where you hopped on a non-airconditioned bus packed with smelly people, school students and sudden jerky stops, but because we genuinely love Brisbane and see a need to elevate this issue and highlight the serious requirement of a proper modern mass transit system for inner city Brisbane, whether it is in the form of a metro, underground rail, LRT or the like.

After years of huge road infrastructure spending (will get to this later) and inaction on urban rail funding, our politicians on both sides need to understand why this is so important.

In the next 15 years an estimated one million more people will call this city home, and we need to ensure we stay ahead of the game. We are now trailing most major asian cities when it comes to mass transit infrastructure. Brisbane needs a strong, common sense bipartisan urban rail plan.

Buses are all we need – WRONG.

There is one thing we want to declare right now before anything. The addiction to buses must end. While buses serve a short-term purpose they are never a sustainable or future proof transport mode for a rapidly densifying city and should never be solely relied on as a form of mass public transit, unless you’re Bogota, South America.

In fact ultimately, the real reason we are in our current transport predicament is because bus transit is almost always the cheaper more affordable option which has been written into city plan after city plan ever since the pro-motorway Wilber Smith Plan was adopted in 1964.

While the idea of the Brisbane City Council saving some money is great, when it comes to mass transit, we need to think big, long term and improve Brisbane’s ability to adequately shift people around and cater for more infill development, eg future proof the city.

The daily bus grind - Victoria Bridge Busway into the CBD
The daily bus grind – Victoria Bridge Busway into the CBD

Rail infrastructure is the commonality of ‘world class cities’, where the population is supported by modern, high capacity, high frequency metropolitan rail infrastructure. Whether it is a Hong Kong style MTR system or the New York subway system, these places almost could not function without it.

Now that we’re thinking long term, here are a few quick facts to abolish any current perceptions that buses are better than LRT or metro systems:

  • Capacity. Buses don’t allow for many people. Your average Brisbane Transport bus seats around 38 passengers and has a total capacity of between 70-80 people. Compare this to one of the new G:link Bombardier Trams on the Gold Coast which seats 88 people and has a maximum capacity of 309 passengers. For a growing city like Brisbane, future proofing high growth areas with adequate capacity is extremely important, otherwise we would need another Victoria Bridge just to cater for additional buses.
  • Bus Congestion. Bus congestion in the CBD is acute, and this is primarily due to the low capacity nature of buses and lack of interchange bus hubs feeding CBD bound buses. 600 buses per hour entered the CBD in the AM peak in 2011 (220 in Adelaide St). Under the business as usual scenario, this is expected to rise to 1,070 in eight years.
  • Future Demand. Lets take a snapshot out of the original Gold Coast Rapid Transit case study which analysed Bus Rapid Transit against Light Rail Transit or (LRT).
    • “In theory, both bus rapid and light rail could meet the expected demand. However, theoretical passenger capacity of the bus rapid and light rail systems was then assessed against what was actually practically achievable. It was found that a bus rapid system was unlikely to cope with passenger demand without significant enhancements to the system, for example overtaking facilities at all stations, grade separation of the system and/or full priority at all intersections. These enhancements were not considered cost effective or appropriate for the Gold Coast Rapid Transit project due to the significant level of impact on properties and the traffic network that would result.”
  • A Mode People Want to Ride On. This concept is very simple. Numerous research papers and publications have concluded that overwhelmingly, people prefer riding rail as opposed to buses. Why? As no real data is available to explain this, some interesting points below might help:
    • Urban rail systems shape a city – positively. Well-conceived urban rail systems do much more for a city besides move people from point A to point B. As fixed-rail transit, they uniquely shape urban land-use, development, and growth patterns. The “rail effect” serves to stimulate desirable development along the line. In fact, rail lines shaped how most American cities (including Austin) developed in the early 1900s. A rail system’s power to affect land-use patterns will never be shared by buses; the public investment in rails along a fixed route is an assurance of permanence. Developers and investors need to mitigate risk; they get no help from a bus route, which could move or disappear overnight.
    • Getting people out of their cars requires enticing “choice riders” – people who own a car but choose to use transit instead. Everyone knows it, so let’s say it: Buses lack sex appeal and yuppie appeal. In our image-conscious culture, who wants to ride the bus? Yet in cities around the world, people love taking rail. Maybe it’s our happy association with the choo-choo trains of childhood – whatever, it works.
    • Urban rail is green transportation. All the enviro-reasons that mass transit is preferable to cars – for clean air quality, for environmental sustainability, for climate protection – apply equally to urban rail.
    • Urban rail attract tourists, conventioneers, and visiting grandchildren as fun “transportainment.” A city’s visitors, tourists, and convention attendees can be counted upon to deliver a steady base of riders – provided that the urban rail conveniently takes them where they want and need to go.
    • Urban rail systems are also a cost-effective investment over decades. Trains and trams last at least 30 to 50 years and can be refurbished for another 50 years of service. Buses, by contrast, wear out after eight to 12 years. Plus, tracks don’t require the constant maintenance and expansion of roads.

Brisbane isn’t large enough for a metro system and too sprawled out – WRONG.

A common misconception is that Brisbane isn’t large enough for such a system, or that we are too spread out. Examples can be taken from all over the world, particularly Europe showing smaller cities with underground metro systems, however why not talk about the extremest example there is to disprove this theory. Take the Swiss city of Lausanne as an example, which is the smallest city in the world with a metro system. Lausanne has a total population of just 133,897 and an average density of 3,200/km2.

Brisbane with a population of 2.3 million has a population density of approximately 4,800 persons per km2 in the CBD, similar to that of Barcelona. However some of the densest areas of Brisbane are between Spring Hill and Fortitude Valley which has a density of 64,125 persons per km2 due to it being high density dwellings (apartments) on an area of only 0.007 km2 (7,000 m2).

Greater Brisbane 2011 population density (per km2) by Statistical Area 1 geography

With close to 20,000 apartments coming online within Brisbane’s 10km city ring, the need to properly plan long term is stronger than ever.

Lets talk politics

With or without an election, the number one issue that should be first and foremost on the Brisbane political agenda is Brisbane’s non existent world class mass transit system.

In just the last seven years, Brisbane will have amassed a huge amount of road infrastructure – totalling a staggering $12.6 billion paid by a mix of Brisbane City Council, State and Federal Government funds.

  • Gateway Bridge Duplication (final cost $1.8 billion) – COMPLETED
  • Clem7 (final cost $3.2 billion) – COMPLETED
  • AirportLink (final cost $4.8 billion) – COMPLETED
  • Go Between Bridge (final cost $338 million) – COMPETED
  • Legacy Way (estimated completion cost $1.8 billion) – COMPLETED
  • Kingsford Smith Drive Upgrade (estimated cost $650 million) – UNDERWAY

While a true world city does need key road infrastructure, it is time to grow some common sense and do what other global cities are all doing and invest in places, people and efficiency through LRT or an underground metro system which integrate into the urban fabric and help create safe, walkable environments.

Recently the Labor candidate for Lord Mayor Rod Harding announced an investigation into Light Rail. While admirable and a step in the right direction, after all these years why now has this policy only now been announced by Labor?

A snipit from Rod Harding’s Light Rail

Now is the right time for Brisbane to take some bold steps forward to support the future of our great city.

Labor’s investigation of light rail follows a recent shift around Australia towards light rail.

Recent light rail projects and proposals include the successful Gold Coast Light Rail projectSydney Light Railthe Adelaide Light Rail proposal, and the ACT’s Capital Metro project.

A future light rail project would support new transit-oriented developments (TODs) by providing connections to both transport nodes and also key activity centres such as the CBD, hospitals and tertiary institutions.

On the other side, current Lord Mayor Graham Quirk responded in a Brisbane Times article with the following:

“So what we are seeing is a very expensive solution to something that is not a problem,” Cr Quirk said.

“The blue City Glider works perfectly well,” he said.

Asked by journalists whether the idea was feasible, Cr Quirk said in 2007 the council found light rail was seven times more expensive than the City Glider bus service.

“We did a comparison between light rail and the blue City Glider,” Cr Quirk said.

“And the blue City Glider is seven times cheaper to operate and set up and run that it would be for light rail,”he said.

“So it is just not a good use of public money,” he said.

Cr Quirk said Labor’s proposed costs were “fanciful.”

“They are undercooking what would be the real cost of a light rail network,” he said.

Labor’s eight-kilometre idea would have to make major changes to two inner-city bridges, Cr Quirk said.

“You are never-ever going to do that for $700 million,” he said.

“It would be more like double that at the very least.”

When you consider that $12.6 billion has been spent on road infrastructure in the past seven years and continues under the current Liberal administration with the Kingsford Smith Drive Upgrade, $700m or even double that – $1.4 billion spent on a modern inner city LRT system servicing Queensland’s largest employment hub of over 50,000 jobs in Australia’s third most populous city, it doesn’t seem like a fanciful waste of public money.

And despite the conveniently timed announcement by Rod Hardling, when he says the Gold Coast Light Rail has been a success, he doesn’t kid around. Not only did the Gold Coast’s $1.2 billion dedicated light rail corridor smash its forecasted patronage the first year it opened, according to State Government budget papers, it helped power a 25 per cent spike in public transport usage on the Gold Coast and slashed patronage on buses. Figures show the light rail has become so successful that it fell just short of exceeding the number of passengers on Brisbane’s CityCat ferry system.

Contrary to that, mostly all privately funded road projects in Brisbane have operated with dramatically lower than forecasted vehicle usage resulting in a total collapse of those private consortiums.


So, what is the most ideal scenario for Brisbane?

Starting with just one line at first. A Hong Kong style MRT or Sydney Metro driverless underground rail system running only within the 10km inner ring, servicing key growth nodes would result in unparalleled capacity improvements as well as a paradigm shift in population growth, employment improvements as well as creating new ‘desirability hubs’. Example here.

Sydney Metro Customer Experience

Secondary solutions would be to introduce light rail transit onto our busways which serve suburban based hubs. Busways which have fortunately been designed to be converted to LRT would dramatically boost passenger capacity as well as transit mode desirability. The conversion would also result in new growth and rejuvenation opportunities for so many existing inner urban nodes. Example here.

This sketch provided by the City of Ottawa shows the Downtown West Station of the new light-rail transit line.

Here are a range of urban rail projects currently underway across Australia.

Sydney Metro

Sydney Light Rail

Melbourne Metro Rail

The Gold Coast Light Rail

Capital Metro (Canberra LRT)

In July 2014, the Gold Coast got its first taste of a world-class public transport system and was a huge success. While all other major cities in Australia are implementing some forms of inner city urban rail projects, Brisbane is now at serious risk of stagnating and not properly catering for future growth if polititians don’t open their eyes to what is going on around Australia and the world.

Lets make 2016 and 2017 the planning years for a solid bipartisan supported mass transit plan, because we all want Brisbane to flourish.

Tell our city’s leaders via social media what you think about supporting mass transit urban rail for Brisbane or send an email via the button below.

Update 31st, January 2016 – The Brisbane City Council has announced a new Brisbane metro proposal. See story here.

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  • Excellent article. Couldn’t agree more, it is mind boggling as to why buses have for so long been heralded as the way to go when it is clearly obvious that it is not. It’s a real concern when you speak to people with no planning experience or background and yet make more sense than our politicians. 15 years ago I started a town planning degree at UQ and I remember a guest lecturer telling us why a new rail system had so many benefits in cities like Brisbane. The list is so heavily stacked in rails favour that we shouldn’t even be entertaining the idea of buses as the way forward. This needs to be fast-tracked as the other major cities, even our closest and smaller neighbour the GC are leaving Brisbane behind.

  • Two Interesting points for you to consider.

    1. All of the busways in SE Qld have been configured (platform heights, overhead clearances etc.) so that they could be converted to light rail at a later stage.

    2. Most of the major road projects you mentioned there were PPP’s (public private partnership) where the end result is a toll, or the in the case of a public transport outcome higher price for a ticket.

    That being said, I do agree that it is needed to avoid getting into a similar pickle that was the lack of road spending leading up to the glut of recent (last decade) of upgrades. Unfortunately due to the cost, governments will baulk at this (Quirk’s comments confirm this), when what they should be doing is putting extra money on top, so that it is not at capacity by the time it is built requiring further more costly retrofits later on.

    Melbourne’s major road network is a good example of this. In the late 90’s early 2000’s they got on the front foot and built upgrades that were designed for future capacities with projects like the Western Ring Road, Eastlink and various inner city tunnels. Unfortunately, since then they have had a similar attitude to the Queensland Labor Government of the 90’s where “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and when upgrades like East-west link, the counter proposal of the current government or the endless upgrades on the Monash Freeway they are bandaid solutions devoid of any forethought past the next election. Yes these examples apply to roads, however the message is the same – Don’t aim for Light rail for the sake of it, push to have it included to a future capacity standard.

  • This post misses the mark. Aside from the Cross River Rail tunnel construction, Brisbane has plenty of infrastructure – it is just not used properly.

    Brisbane already has a rail system – the QR rail network. This is better than Light Rail because (a) it already exists and (b) unlike light rail, does not run on the street or share intersections with car traffic. This existing network needs to be used better. More trains, more often. Buses feeding trains at key interchange points.

    The bus network needs to be reformed. Larger super buses carrying 150 pax and bus network reform would add an additional 12 hi-frequency lines to Brisbane within 2 years. RAIL Back on Track, Brisbane’s Public Transport Advocacy Group has prepared such a proposal, which can be found here: http://tiny.cc/newnetwork it can be compared to the current BCC bus network http://tiny.cc/checkyourbus.

    In addition, there is a comparison of Light Rail and Bus Reform has been done by RAIL Back on Track. Here you can see a comparison of citywide coverage of LRT versus Bus Reforms. LRT would reach very few people who already have excellent service.

    Citywide Coverage Comparison (LRT vs Bus Reform) http://railbotforum.org/mbs/index.php?topic=11894.msg167019#msg167019

    The publication ‘Light Rail and Bus Reform – Guide For Media Outlets’ compares both modes. The only real corridor with merit is the CBD-Coronation Drive-Centenary Suburbs alignment. The Centenary Suburbs does not have good access to either rail or busway. For everything else, bus reform would deliver major improvements.

    Light Rail and Bus Reform – Guide For Media Outlets.

    If developers want Light Rail to boost their property values, they should consider returning some of that public funds boost back to taxpayers by contributing to construction.

  • Thank you for this excellent article. Wholeheartedly agree with the points made. We’re currently living overseas – Central Europe – and have become particularly sensitive to just how strongly Australia is running a risk of falling behind other developed countries, especially – not only – with regard to transportation infrastructure and state-of-the-art urban development planning. As anyone in his or her right mind would have to admit, doing away with the trams some decades ago was a huge mistake. I hope the council will consider sustainable, modern solutions as they’re being introduced across the globe to make large cities greener, more aesthetic, and more convenient.

  • GR8 article. Though we shall all be dead before we ever see a subway or mass transit in hopeless Brisbane. Sad. Toll tunnels are the answer, as they sift all the responsibility off the City/State government. Urgh.

  • The only problem I have with investing huge sums of money into systems like this is that people assume that what has happened in the past and what is happening right now, is what will happen in the future. I believe the whole work structure is changing.

    The way we work, how we work and where we work tomorrow will be different to anything we experienced in the past and even today.

    There is an assumption that more people will move into city areas to be closer to work. But how and where we work now will be completely different in 10 years.

    Futurists and commentators are already saying that any where between 40% and 70% of the jobs that exist now will not exist in 10 years due to robotics, artificial intelligence and technological developments.

    There are an increasing number of people working for themselves at their home in micro and small businesses. The technology we have now allows us to run our businesses wherever we happen to be in the world. This whole system of commuting to a place of work is the last century, last millennium, industrial age way of thinking. We have already been in the information age for a good 20 years and the way we work is also starting to change.

    Just look at in what technology companies such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, Tesla, SpaceX and Microsoft (to name but a few) are investing. It’s things like drones, virtual reality, robotics, AI, satellites and 3D printing (again to name but a few).

    We run the risk of having massive amounts of hugely expensive infrastructure sitting idle because nobody needs to use it, and ghost cities of tall buildings and blocks of flats in the CBD because nobody actually needs to be there any more.

    We’re in the dying stages of the current need for all this type of infrastructure. It may only cater to us for another 20 or so years. The funds could be better spent on improving our communication and technological requirements to better enable us to work away from the city and CBD and focus on decentralised co-working shared office spaces and hubs.

  • Why did you not mention the following rail projects?
    Let’s start since 2004. Robina to Varsity Lakes extension; Salisbury to Kuraby triplication; Orrmeau to Coomera Duplication; Coomera to Helensvale (current); Corinda to Darra Quadruplication; Springfield Rail Line; Caboolture to Beerburrum duplication; Moreton Bay Rail Line (current). Not to mention Gold Coast Light Rail (two stages). The second stage of that project being the first of any of the above that a Federal Conservative Government has put money into.
    Or mention the following Busway Projects:
    a. RBWH has a station; b. PA Hospital station; c. King George Square Station; d Multi-modal connection station at Roma Street; e ditto at Park Road; f Boggo Road Busway; g Northern Busway; h. Eastern Busway to Bennetts Road; Again no Federal money. and also the excellent Soorley/Hayes Green Bridge to UQ which should be acknowledged.
    Or mention that the places such as Melbourne and Sydney have integrated ticketing systems years behind the Go-card?
    We absolutely need to keep on building urban public transport infrastructure – finally now at a Federal level the debate will be which side will contribute the most.

  • There’s a simple cheap interim solution to problem of buses clogging up Victoria Bridge during peak hour and that is make a dedicated busway with the left lane of the Captain Cook bridge. Most buses going over Victoria Bridge can be sent along William St onto the Freeway and Captain Cook bridge at Alice St and direct to the busway at Woolloongabba. Only very few need to make stops at the Cultural Centre, Vulture St and Mater Hill.

    The BAT tunnel is much more critical than a light rail service in the inner city. As much as I love trams and want to see one in Brisbane it is difficult to cost justify and Brisbane’s narrow streets make the logistics quite difficult.

    The real future in public transport lies in Skytran (http://www.skytran.com/) – a high speed, above street level, cable car service which works out at a tenth of the cost of any of its alternatives and doesn’t need dedicated space on the roads, perfect for the inner city where streets are narrow. It can spread anywhere like power cables feeding power into every street.

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