The International Light Rail Magazine
+44 1733 367610

Connecting Canberra

Concrete slipforming ahead of the first rail laying in suburban Canberra in August 2017. Image credit: Transport Canberra/ACT Government

In recent decades, citizens of cities the world over have become used to the idea of urban sprawl – particularly in the years after World War Two when new car-based developments encouraged suburban living and out of town shopping. However, in the Australian capital, the prospect is for new developments that in the years up to 2030 will create a more compact city. Canberra’s population is expected to increase to more than 500 000 in the next 15 years, up from around 400 000 today.

The city currently has a population density of under 450 residents per square kilometre – low compared to other capital cities around the world. The plan to drive this in the coming decades will help support both more efficient public transport and vibrant neighbourhood centres.

Canberrans recognise the relationship between this evolution and greater accessibility. However they also understand the convenience of having a car; as such, a symbolic moment in the push to reduce the reliance on private vehicles came in December 2017, with the arrival of the first of 14 CAF LRVs for the first stage of Canberra’s light rail.

Opening of the first line between the city and Gungahlin is expected late this year. It has been estimated that light rail could make public transport travel times 30% faster than that of general traffic.

Delivering light rail

Since 2016, delivery of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government’s vision of a high quality integrated public transport system that is convenient, efficient and affordable has fallen to Transport Canberra. This organisation combines the former Public Transport Division with the Capital Metro Agency, established by the ACT Government in July 2013 as the body responsible for planning, design and delivery of the first stage of a possible Canberra-wide network.

Light Rail Stage 1 (LRS1) is progressing well with project milestones on track along the Gungahlin – City Corridor. This scheme was a 2012 election commitment, and contract and financial close were both achieved in 2016.

Following a ‘first sod’ ceremony at Mitchell in July 2016, by October 2017 the laying of track slab had progressed sufficiently to allow the first rails to be installed on Flemington Road between Nullarbor Avenue and Gungaderra Creek Bridge.

The project involves construction of 12km (7.5 miles) of route between Canberra’s Central Business District and Gungahlin town centre, via Dickson. It is to run Hibberson Street – Flemington Road – Federal Highway – Northbourne Avenue; the so-called ‘Northbourne Corridor’ was selected due to the potential redevelopment benefits, while Gungahlin is growing five times faster than the capital overall.

Northbourne Avenue was established as a wide boulevard with a central median strip, which will now be used for the light rail line; the route is to be double-track throughout.

Including the termini at Northbourne Avenue in the city (north of Alinga Street) and Hibberson Street in Gungahlin, there will be 13 stops with provision for a further two to follow. Stops are to have a mixture of island and side platforms, and in addition to canopies will incorporate aspects such as CCTV, digital information screens, help points and hearing induction loops. Seven are in areas in the National Capital Authority area of planning jurisdiction, the others in that of the ACT Planning and Land Authority.

Although the LRS1 contract did not specify the method of power supply (subsequently decided as OLE throughout the first phase), future extensions may include areas where overhead wires will be prohibited. Therefore it was a condition that vehicles would be future-proofed for adaptation to wire-free operation.

The chosen location for the depot and control centre is in Mitchell, alongside an existing ACT Government site on Sandford Street. The design package includes a stabling yard; maintenance hall and administration building (incorporating the Operations Control Centre, or OCC); back up OCC and security building; traction power substation; and LRV wash shed.

Canberra’s PPP model

The Canberra Metro consortium has been chosen to build, maintain and operate this first stage under a 20-year Public Private Partnership, involving not only the line’s construction, but also the supply of vehicles, operations, maintenance and finance.

The expected total project out-turn cost is AUD707m (EUR450m). The annual availability payment – which covers operational costs plus capital costs – is averaging around AUD67m (EUR42.5m).

Canberra Metro is made up of Pacific Partnerships; CPB Contractors; John Holland; Mitsubishi Corporation; Aberdeen Infrastructure Investment; Deutsche Bahn International and CAF.

Excepting the colossal Melbourne network and the remarkable survivor that is the Glenelg line in Adelaide, Australia’s modern light rail era is comparatively new. This gave
the particular challenge of obtaining suitably experienced resources with technical experience. The heated market and large-scale projects elsewhere in the country has meant that engagement practices and offers for key personnel and construction resources have had to be tailored to meet the market.

The buoyant Canberra housing and development market has also meant that civil contractors have been nearly fully engaged on other projects and there have been challenges in enticing local contractors to work on the project at competitive prices.

Yet the project continues to achieve local employment targets, and construction has continued to ramp up to the stage where there is now a workforce of over 700 staff and contractors engaged on a daily basis during the current phase of construction.

Vehicles and operation

Following the arrival of the first CAF Urbos LRV in December 2017, the second and third are due in March; the remaining 11 are to follow at the rate of one per week.

Fully low-floor, the air-conditioned 33m-long and 2.65m-wide vehicles are designed to carry 207 passengers, 66 seated, with space for up to four bikes. Maximum operational speed for the five-section units is to be 70km/h (43.5mph). Bespoke features include the layout and livery and local indigenous artist Uncle Jimmy Williams was involved in the seat fabric design. Another Canberra artist, Hannah Quinlivan, will have her designs incorporated into platform screens.

Ten trams are needed for the expected opening timetable of six-minute headways in the peak (off-peak headways are to be 10-15 minutes). This is to be supplemented by an additional four vehicles which allows for maintenance spares, special events and any increase in service levels to five-minute headways if demand requires.

Planned operating hours see the first service departing Gungahlin at 06.00 Monday to Saturday (08.00 Sunday) and Alinga Street at 06.00 (08.30 Sunday). Last services are to leave Gungahlin at 23.00 Sunday to Thursday and 00.30 (next day) for Friday/Saturday night services; and Alinga Street at 23.30 Sunday to Thursday and 01.00 (next day) for Friday/Saturday night services. End-to-end journey times are expected to be 24 minutes.

It is estimated that the service will attract around 3900 passengers during morning peaks in 2021, rising to about 5200 by 2031. Daily boardings are estimated at over 13 000 (in 2021) and more than 20 000 (2031).

Future expansion

Over the next generation, Canberra will deliver its Light Rail Masterplan, extending the reach of the system to help shape the city’s future. The network will boost Canberra’s sustainable growth by changing and improving transport options, settlement patterns and employment opportunities; it is fundamentally about urban renewal.

A southern projection to Woden has been selected as the next stage in a sequenced future development of a city-wide network. Light Rail Stage 2 (LRS2) will create a public transport ‘spine’ for the city, connecting employment hubs, community services and commuters from the north to the south in an approximate 11km (6.8-mile) expansion.

In May/June 2017 Canberrans were asked for their input on these route options and stop locations. This community feedback was included as critical input to the business case that is currently being considered by the ACT Government. The business case includes the precise route, the procurement approach, detailed costs estimates, benefits, and economic analysis.


Find out more

For regular updates on Transport Canberra’s light rail projects, visit

Article originally featured in April 2018 TAUT (964). Please see our April issue for the Australia special, covering the Gold Coast, Newcastle, Adelaide and Sydney.