Canberra Light Rail

Canberra is a city with a lot of similarities to Christchurch. They both contain roughly half a million people, they both have low density of development with few geographic constraints. Consequently they both have high car mode share. They both experience some congestion, although it’s not as acute as other cities. As a result they don’t get the same attention afforded other cities in their respective countries.

One difference is that Canberra, unlike Canterbury, can legitimately lay claim to producing rugby’s greatest ever first five-eighth.

This is them at roughly similar scales.

In 2019 Canberra completed it’s first light rail line. Greater Auckland did a nice wee summary here.

Canberra light rail finally opens its doors to the public ...

The business case was completed in 2015. I’ve had a good read through of this, and summarised the key elements of it here. The relevant documents can all be found online here.

One really important first step for them was developing a long-term vision for a citywide network of light rail lines. A long-term vision is something Auckland has managed to do with it’s congestion-free-network. Both Christchurch and Wellington have struggled to formulate a vision like this.

They then picked one to start with – the red line from Gungahlin to the city centre. This links a suburban centre to the north with the city centre to the south, via residential areas and as yet undeveloped land in between.

Patronage was forecast as this:

These forecasts proved to be surprisingly accurate. Actual patronage is published here. The first few months after opening were almost bang on the 2021 estimate of around 15,000 boardings per day. Then covid hit and it dropped off a cliff. Over the last year it has steadily increased and is back to about 80% of where it had been.

If you’re thinking about what it means to shift 15,000 people a day, just as a point of reference is Riccarton below.

As per the 2018 census (here), the green corridor below contained 37,000 residents and 61,000 workers/students. About 10,000 of these both lived and worked/studied in this corridor (the equivalent figure for Canberra is 13,400). Riccarton Road currently carries around 12,000 bus passengers per day.

I’m not saying I think light rail down Riccarton Road is what Christchurch should be doing. I’m just highlighting that the patronage numbers that Canberra used to justify their light rail are probably not hugely different to what a similar scheme on Riccarton Road would achieve.

The project cost around $800 million in capital, and $30-40 million per annum in operating/maintenance costs. Using an analysis period of 30 years (surprisingly short) at a discount rate of 7% (surprisingly high), this represents a total net present value cost of $823 million. Benefits were calculated as $984 million, meaning the project just squeaked through with a benefit-cost-ratio of 1.2.

39% of benefits were land use benefits. This is typical of mass rapid transit projects, where land along the corridor suddenly becomes more useful and therefore more valuable. People find it useful living near light rail lines, and businesses find it useful to locate there.

Next biggest benefits were travel time savings. This includes both those using the service, and the time savings due to decongestion because there’s fewer cars clogging up the roads.

Wider Economic Benefits is the third biggest component. This comprises agglomeration and job productivity benefits. Wikipedia explains it as:

The basic concept of agglomeration economies is that production is facilitated when there is a clustering of economic activity. The existence of agglomeration economies is central to the explanation of how cities increase in size and population, which places the phenomenon on a larger scale. The concentration of economic activity in cities is one reason for their development and growth.”

Basically a city’s economy will work better if people can move around it more easily.

Carbon emission reductions are included in “Other Transport Benefits”.

A good business case is as much a work of literature as it is of engineering. It needs to tell a compelling story that decision-makers, who aren’t always technical numbers-focussed thinkers, feel they can get behind. There are some key messages that come through very clearly throughout this report.

They really try to ram home the idea that this light rail project is not just a transport project, it is about building a key piece of infrastructure that the rest of the city can then develop up around. It is city-shaping. On the very first page of the executive summary they say:

Capital Metro is the first stage of a light rail network that will have a transformative effect on Canberra. It will also substantially enhance other city transformation activities which are planned or underway…
As with any city transformation activity, the project should not be viewed in isolation. Instead, it should be viewed as also improving outcomes from other urban renewal activities underway in Canberra.”

They talk a lot about the land use change that light rail will enable. There are lots of numbers showing how Canberra is currently lower density than most cities, and why this is a problem.

Greenfield expansion requires more land, which presents economic and environmental costs. The ACT is reaching a point where the land that is most cost effective to develop is already subdivided or is planned to be. Most remaining ‘urban capable’ land presents significant financial and environmental costs because of its location, terrain and areas of endangered habitats. The development of remaining greenfield land development generally becomes more expensive over time as the supply of more easily developed land is exhausted. It is more costly to provide services to greenfield developments than it is to provide services to infill developments. Such development presents significant environmental as well as financial costs, driving a need for sustainable urban re-development and densification.

They keep stressing that this is not a new idea, it has always been the vision for the city (Walter Burley Griffin is the American architect who designed Canberra in 1911).

The project builds upon Walter Burley Griffin’s vision for light rail within Canberra.

They devote quite a bit of space to urgency– explaining why this investment is needed now rather than deferring it for a few more years (“four more years boys, four more years…”).

Traffic congestion in Canberra is not presently as severe as in other major Australian cities such as Sydney and Melbourne. This is not to suggest, however, that Canberra does not already suffer from congestion (particularly in the rail corridor during peak periods) or that Canberra should persist with worsening levels of motor vehicle congestion until the issue reaches an untenable point. Instead, Canberra has an opportunity to address existing issues of car dependency and congestion whilst limiting the anticipated future degradation of transport levels of service.”

And later…

Viewed in isolation, it is possible for the ACT to continue with land strategies along the rail corridor which results in urban revitalisation occurring at its present pace. In combination with other problems of low land densification, car dependency and challenging economic outlook, however, it is desirable to address this problem now so as to facilitate an improvement in Canberra’s long term economic and community prospects.
The Capital Metro project will greatly assist the ACT Government in achieving urban revitalisation and densification along the corridor.

And later again:

Given lead times involved in achieving meaningful urban densification and infill development, it is imperative the ACT Government take action now which seeks to transform Canberra into a compact, sustainable city. The Capital Metro light rail project facilitates such densification and infill development in Canberra.”

All up, I think it’s a useful reference for Christchurch to take notes from. There are some elements about Canberra that are different to Christchurch (e.g. it’s a city that was always intended to have light rail). But there are enough similarities that we’d be fools not to look pretty closely at this.

Canberra's Light Rail is 6 months old! | CMET

7 thoughts on “Canberra Light Rail

  1. Chris I think you are right with the “it’s a city that was always intended to have light rail” cautionary statement.
    Canberra light rail has been built in wide road corridors that were always designed for light rail. Christchurch’s arterial roads are not the equivalent. Most of our roads are the standard ‘one chain width’ i.e. 20m.
    Putting light rail down Riccarton road faces the same difficulty as Dominion Road – it would require the full or partial closing of the road for through traffic.
    Arterial roads could be widened to boulevards which would have many benefits (see below article) – but I wouldn’t recommend that be where Christchurch starts its transit network.
    View at


    1. Yes exactly – Christchurch was not designed to have Light Rail – it was *BUILT* on Light Rail / Trams. This is important because one of the costs of Light Rail is the need to move services such as sewers & storm water. But these old Tram routes already have the services located away from the location of the tracks. So it is much cheaper to re-lay tracks along old Tram routes. However – it is very possible that the CCC has blindly installed new services in ways that negate this advantage – but to suggest that it is impossible to run Light Rail done Papanui or Riccarton Roads is to forget that these road were built for Trams.


      1. Oh sorry I didn’t realise that’s what Luke was getting at. Trams aren’t the same thing as light rail- there’s the services but also neess to have a right of way that’s not impacted by traffic. Riccarton Rd is only 20m so quite challenging to fit in.


      2. We’re probably could quite easily build small trams on riccarton rd that share the lane with traffic, and are therefore slow and unreliable. But I dont think we’d want to do that, that’s not what I’m meaning when I say Light Rail.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is exactly the sort of thing that concerns me. Riccarton Road is ideal for light rail – it used to have trams… so when new pipe infrastructure is installed is it enabling light rail, or is it being placed where it will preclude light rail?

    I take Brendan’s point that the regional rail network should be the initial focus… but that transit corridor is not in danger. Many of our old tram routes might be.

    It was short sighted to pull up the tram routes in the 1950’s – now 70 years later are we destroying future options with short sighted infrastructure installation?


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