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Preparing Canberra light rail

Canberra Urbos 013 heads north to Gungahlin on opening day, 20 April 2019.

Australia’s Federal Capital welcomed the launch of the country’s newest light rail system on 20 April 2019, with over 25 000 passengers sampling the new service on opening day. Following an opening ceremony presided over by Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Minister for Transport Canberra and City Services, Megan Fitzharris, a weekend of free travel was offered on the 12km (7.5-mile) line between Gungahlin and the city centre. With revised bus routes acting as feeder services for the new line, a month of free travel on both buses and trams began on 29 April.

Light rail: A century in the making

The City of Canberra was officially founded on 12 March 1912, the result of a disagreement between the south coast cities Sydney and Melbourne as to which should become the capital of the young nation that had been formed as the Commonwealth of Australia 11 years earlier.1

American architect Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin won a competition to design the new conurbation, planning a garden city with a road network laid out in concentric circles. Rapid transit for the expanding settlement was to be provided by a city-wide tram network that ran along the generous median strips of the proposed main avenues. The density of development within these corridors was foreseen by Griffin to support the network’s operation, providing an excellent degree of patronage.2

However a combination of short-term pragmatism and a lack of finance to develop Griffin’s masterplan meant this original tramway plan was never realised, with public transport’s function performed by buses instead. This was the case for the majority of the next seven decades, until 1994 when a detailed study found that the introduction of light rail would be feasible for the growing capital. Initial planning began, but stopped when the Liberal Party cancelled the scheme following its victory in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) State elections in 1995.3 In 1998 the Labor Party returned to power, the project was reignited and the planning process restarted.

So although the concept of steel wheel-on-steel rail transport for Canberra isn’t new, it took 106 years after Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin first called for a tram network as part of their masterplan for the new capital for the first LRVs to arrive.

Until April’s launch, urban public transport in Canberra had still been focused primarily on bus-based solutions, although taxi and Uber services are used widely. The main transportation mode is still the private car, however. Demographically, the capital’s residents comprise mostly young families, many with a university background working for government or the defence industry.

The city has grown rapidly, especially over the past decade, when population levels within the northern Gungahlin district grew at an average rate of 6.8% per annum.4

Canberra’s light rail project

In the early 2000s, a shift towards a more compact city supported by the 2004 Sustainable Transport Plan was observed and corridors were identified with an increased density of development around high-capacity public transport. In 2009, the current plan for a city-wide network was introduced and the business case was approved for a first 12km (7.5-mile) standard-gauge line in September 2014.

In January 2016 the Canberra Metro consortium – Pacific Partnerships, CPB Contractors, John Holland, UGL, Mitsubishi Corporation, Aberdeen Infrastructure Investments, DB Engineering & Consulting (DB E&C), CAF and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG) – was selected as the preferred bidder for the Public Private Partnership (PPP) design, build, operate and maintain concession. The concession runs until 2039, with the ACT Government contributing AUD76m (EUR47.6m) towards the AUD707m (EUR442.6m) project.

Stage one runs from Gungahlin in the north of the city, incorporating 13 stops along the main arteries of Flemington Road and Northbourne Avenue to terminate in the city centre near the main intra- and intercity bus stations, as well as the major shopping district. En route LRVs run through some of the city’s biggest neighbourhoods and serve the university before reaching the city centre.

The depot and Operations Control Centre (OCC) are located in the industrial area of Mitchell approximately halfway along the route; it was at this location that work on the line began in a ceremony on 12 July 2016. Electrification is provided at 750V dc, with five substations along the route; this includes a provision for the line’s next stage.

As part of its role within the consortium, DB E&C was first tasked with a qualitative design review of the project planning. Quality was ensured through benchmarking of both national as well as international standards such as the German BoStrab. In preparation for the operational phase, the company developed the procedures and regulations for the safe and reliable operation of the new system as well as the training documentation for both drivers and control room operators.

As part of its bid, the consortium relied upon the customer satisfaction and patronage growth approach of Deutsche Bahn. To achieve superior safety standards, a commitment was made to fulfilling several Australian Qualifications Framework thresholds, with all operational staff trained in accordance with the Cert IV in rail operation and Cert III in Rail Customer Service. The trainers and assessors are all Cert III in training and assessment.

Testing and commissioning

The first CAF Urbos 3 made its trial runs in June 2018. The Spanish manufacturer has supplied 14 33m five-section double-ended LRVs, each with 66 seats, and is also responsible for ongoing maintenance under a separate agreement. The vehicles are designed for easy retrofitment of onboard energy storage systems for independent operation away from the catenary, which
will be required for future extensions to the system.

The light rail corridor was divided into four distinct areas during testing and commissioning; this enabled the final stages of construction and landscaping to continue during the day while testing took place at night.

Starting from area 1 – Gungahlin Place to Nullarbor Emergency Crossover – drivers began their first trips along this 3km
(1.86-mile)  stretch of tracks to test their route knowledge, and in particular the signals, signs and crossing intersections. Furthermore, the performance of the rail systems – including communications and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) – were validated.

Once the process in area 1 was complete, and had received the necessary approval certificates from the national regulator and the independent certifier, drivers were permitted to move into area 2, and once this was complete onto areas 3 and 4. Drivers undertook close to 25 000km (15 500 miles) of route training in area 1.

Once all four areas had successfully achieved certification, drivers began to update their knowledge of the route and the standard operating procedures, including degraded and emergency operations.

As the new operational body, Canberra Metro Operations (CMET) –  a partnership between John Holland and UGL with DB E&C acting as a subcontractor – has selected one Driver Trainer who can both assess and certify drivers for route knowledge and implement classroom training. Therefore, to ensure that all drivers have sufficient driving experience, CMET has introduced the ‘mentor’ system; eligible drivers for these roles were chosen based upon their previous skills, authority and quick learning abilities. The mentors were the first to be trained on any given area, then acting as multipliers to train a number of drivers – usually two per mentor, per shift.

Once a mentor deems a driver competent, these then undergo final assessment with the Driver Trainer. This can take between ten minutes and several hours depending on the individual’s skills. Only once he or she has passed these accreditations can the driver start driving solo.

After the initial interview, prospective drivers go through medical testing and must provide a valid driver’s license, police background check and a WWVP (Working With Vulnerable People) card – this can take two to four weeks. Theory training takes about two weeks; this includes first aid and fire management, and cultural awareness training. During construction this included related training and safety awareness in the rail corridor, which has now become ORI (Operations Rail Safety) induction. It also includes all the LRV training – rolling stock, points, signals, stops, communication rules, OHL, customer service and conflict management, KPI training and operating rules (normal, degraded and emergency).

Once priority and signalling were implemented along the route, drivers drove with the trainer for an additional time to become accustomed to the changes in the infrastructure behaviour before they moved on to driving with the mentors. Assessments were either done in one specific area or, as the project progressed, across the wider route. The assessment is based on a number of movements (full loop, turnbacks, driving into the depot etc) and general behaviour and manner of operating the vehicle.

As drivers expanded their training, a special service was introduced to shuttle CMET and construction employees from the Mitchell depot to the construction head offices near to the Dickson stop. This process not only provided drivers with passenger transportation experience in a closed environment, but also gave CMET and construction staff a great substitute to using their private cars for work-related travel around the city. This was beneficial for two reasons: firstly, staff in the temporary OCC started their on-job training during the testing and commissioning phase, while drivers could also be used for T&C manoeuvres. The latter was not formalised as part of the training due to the nature of testing manoeuvres which at times must disregard driving rules.

All operational personnel began their training during the T&C phase, requiring safety-relevant training within a construction site. Similarly, all personnel were assessed for computer-based psycho-technical skills to ensure safety-first decision-making and appropriate response times.

Recruitment and training

In preparation for the opening, CMET has recruited staff from the construction team for its maintenance department to ensure that the skills learned in the design of the system are applied to the ongoing operations of the new line. Similarly, CAF has employed local technicians and prepared them to take over rolling stock maintenance. It was found that personnel who had already worked with the systems and rolling stock could be trained faster and were used as trainers.

These experienced personnel were the first people used for testing and commissioning, as route knowledge did not play a crucial role due to the first movements being carried out under supervision. Other staff were recruited locally, including from such professions as teaching and the military, as well as customer service managers with experience in the hospitality industry.

Although CMET aimed to employ Canberrans wherever possible, experienced operations personnel were also recruited from other rail projects. For the launch, CMO has employed 33 drivers, four Driver Trainers, eight Duty Managers, 24 Customer Service Officers (CSO), although this is expected to increase with enhanced timetabled services.

Training during the testing and commissioning phase has been carried out intermittently. Alongside trainer and supplier training, and to ensure that trainees received enough practical experience, logbooks were created. These were detailed, ensuring every step of each process was captured – once a trainee finished a section of the logbook, a Mentor, Trainer or Operations Manager reviewed the accomplished tasks and co-signed them off. The next step from here was practical assessments to ensure the practical training had achieved its aim.

DB E&C created operational procedures for CMET by benchmarking similar light rail systems in Australia and in various cities in Europe, while incorporating the specific characteristics of Canberra. Further, to ensure these procedures were understood, validations were undertaken with both drivers and OCC personnel as either field or desktop exercises. This accomplished two aims: procedures were checked and refined before service completion testing and trainees became very familiar
with procedures, especially those for degraded and emergency operations.

As the nation’s capital, Canberra attracts large numbers of tourists all year round so CMET has made a point of focusing its recruitment of customer service personnel on those who are multilingual. All customer-facing staff have also been through intensive training that includes a detailed understanding of the needs of customers with limited mobility, as well as cultural awareness coaching as it is important to be aware of the requirements of the different target groups who will use the new service.

Australia’s indigenous culture is vast and the area currently occupied by modern Canberra lies on the territory of the Ngunnawal people. For the opening ceremony, an elder was invited to ‘bless’ the line and local artwork was incorporated into the system’s design.

Most members of the customer service management team were recruited from the hospitality sector to allow the transfer of their existing customer-focused skillsets.

Marketing the new service

In co-operation with Transport Canberra – a directorate of the ACT Government that took over responsibility for public transport, roads, walking and cycling on 1 July 2016 – CMET created a ‘Voice of the Light Rail’ campaign that saw 100 students in years 11 and 12 from four colleges along the route (Gungahlin, Daramalan, Merici and Dickson) audition for the opportunity to record the public announcements for the line’s 13 stops. From 12 finalists, five were chosen and this campaign was great for both raising the visibility of the new service and achieving public acceptance.

Furthermore, the local rugby team was recruited for safety videos for social media, and employees with diverse backgrounds, such as a former teacher who has now become a driver, and women in the workforce, were interviewed in the local newspaper.

As the commissioning phase reached a busier section of the light rail corridor, CSOs were placed at strategic intersections and public areas to provide safety information and pedestrian awareness. Safety messages were also wrapped onto the new CAF trams to promote rail safety.

To further promote the service, CMET organised a Christmas charity event, delivering gifts to local families using one of the new LRVs. The system’s Facebook and Twitter pages are constantly updated with marketing messages and safety information, and an orientation event to give community groups the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the new vehicles was held
at Gungahlin Stop.

Preparations for opening day

In the months leading up to the start of passenger services, DB E&C assisted in the preparation of timetables and ensured that drivers and duty managers were suitably prepared for the 20 April opening.

DB E&C operations staff participated in daily meetings with the testing and commissioning team to co-ordinate all training and testing activities. Once enough drivers were deemed ready to drive on their own, ‘ghost’ running commenced to give operational staff time to adjust to quick changeovers and timetable running. This ensured the OCC had enough time to practice regulation tactics and peak operation prior to commencing service. During this period, CSOs were asked to ‘hop on and off’ LRVs to ensure a satisfactory ride quality.

It was important that DB E&C staff also participated in design meetings, closing out open designs and ensuring that all manuals and as-built drawings were submitted prior to taking over of the alignment.

Services are offered 06.00-23.30 on Monday-Thursday, 06.00-01.00 on Friday/Saturday and 08.00-23.30 on Sunday.
The end-to-end journey time is 23-24 minutes with peak headways of six minutes.

Looking to the future

Canberra is the first Australian city authorised to introduce driverless cars into traffic and CMET is investigating the opportunities offered by this innovation to help connect neighbourhoods to the light rail system. This includes a plan to allow driverless solutions for picking up customers from their home or designated location, via a smartphone app.

There are two free park-and-ride facilities, allowing customers an easy connection and removing the need for them to take their cars into the city centre. In future, CMET intends to provide bicycle rental options to create further smooth connections for customers from various stops.

The ACT Government has already announced plans to extend the line over Lake Burley Griffin to the south of Canberra.
With a population projected to reach 500 000 by 20305, it is hoped that the 11km (seven-mile) route to Woden can begin construction within the next year.

DB E&C with its consortium partners are confident that CMET will be well placed to incorporate this into the existing operation and maintenance schedule.

Article appeared originally in TAUT 979 (July 2019).