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Light Rail lessons from the Gold Coast

I’ve just spent a couple of days on the Gold Coast after tagging along to a work trip by my wife. Other than taking a few days off one of the things I was keen to do was to check out their new light rail system given it’s likely to be very similar to what Auckland Transport are proposing for the isthmus routes like Dominion Rd. I was very impressed by the system and the experience highlighted a number of areas where Auckland Transport could be doing better with our current rail system – there were a few areas where AT is ahead too though.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Tram 1

The system known as G:link is 13km long on a dedicated right of way, has 16 stations and was opened just over a year ago. It was built as a PPP at a cost of about $1.2 billion but that also includes 15 years of operational costs. The change in Prime Minister to Malcolm Turnbull almost two months ago as already seen changed attitude towards PT infrastructure and a second stage has been approved that will see the route extended 7.3km to the northwest linking the system into the heavy rail system that serves Brisbane and the travels through to the Brisbane airport. The cost for the extension hasn’t been announced yet as it’s in the middle of the tender process right now. As a comparison in Auckland, a route from Customs St, up Queen St and then down Ian McKinnon Dr and Dominion Rd to Denbigh Ave is approximately 7.7km.

Gold Coast Light Rail Map

The system uses 43.5m long trams that have 80 seats and are said to be able to carry 309 passengers. Auckland Transport are actually proposing light rail vehicles almost 50% longer (66m) carrying up to 450 passengers. They can travel up to about 70km/h but in the denser part of the urban area would only travel 30-40km/h. One thing that helped is they seem to have a lot of signal priority so only very rarely did they get held up at lights.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Tram

About the only disappointment I had with the trams themselves – and an area where Auckland Transport is heading in the right direction over – is that some had been wrapped completely in advertising. This is the same stuff that is used on buses with little holes so you can kind of see out the window but not quite.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Tram Advertising

Below is a shot of the interior which had a lot of poles for people standing to be able to hold on to – oh and the doors opened within a second of stopping – like Aucklands trains should be doing.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Tram Interior

The rubber pads on the floor are to hold a surfboard in place

The digital screens you can see alternate between showing travel times for the remainder of the route and connecting bus services. Digital screens like these are a requirement for new buses and I understand will likely be installed on the trains too.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Tram Interior Screens

The timetable for services is impressive, they run frequently all week and even late into night. This is shown below and as you can see due to frequency it becomes very easy to communicate.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Frequency

With the exception of the University/Hospital station which is underground, the stations all use a common design with a distinctive orange canopy. Some of the stations also had a coffee shack built in.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Station

A few other aspects of stations – they had at least two ticket machines or in many cases where there were side platforms like above two machines per platform. In addition, those ticket machines sold smartcards – something ATs HOP machines strangely don’t do. Another aspect that was useful and that has long been a bugbear of mine in Auckland is that there were multiple tag posts (the yellow box) all along platforms including right next to the ticket machines Some stations had up to 6 posts per platform. In Auckland if you wanted to top up your card at most stations you have to go to the middle of the platform, top up the card then walk back to the end of the platform to tag on. Stations also had PT network and local destination maps plus one thing you can’t quite see from the photo was a drinking fountain for water.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Station facilities

At the southern end the line ends at Broadbeach South which is opposite the large Pacific Fair mall. This also happens to be a large bus interchange and it has clearly been designed to make transfers easy. The LRT tracks/platform are in effectively an island which is surrounded by bus stops. When the tram arrives doors on both sides can be opened making it easy to get to a bus you may be transferring to so transferring is as simple as walking across the platform. You can see this in the image below with the tram on the right and the buses on the left and this is repeated on the opposite side of the tram.

Gold Coast Light Rail  - Station transfer

You may also notice from the image above that the platform you can see isn’t covered by the canopy. That’s because the intention is to eventually extend the line further south. The tracks are already in the ground however until the extension happens they’ve just widened the platform over the top of them.

All up it’s a fairly impressive system and already getting decent use. As a result of it public transport use on the Gold Coast is said to have risen by around 25% after just one year. In the first year there were 6.6 million trips on the system and so far is tracking to be over 7.5 million trips for the second year. That outstrips any of the individual lines in Auckland.

Lastly there was one additional outcome from the project and one that wasn’t included in any business case. The construction meant that a lot of the utilities had to be shifted which of course means they had to build new ones. Because of that the new infrastructure was of a higher quality and they’ve found has actually enabled more development to occur than was possible beforehand, in other words it wasn’t just the transport infrastructure that benefited from the project but all infrastructure in the corridor. This is perhaps a lesson for the planners and economists out there.

A light rail system like what has been built on the Gold Coast would be a fantastic addition to the central isthmus and there’s a lot from the system that AT could learn from to make the PT experience for all modes better.

55 comments to Light Rail lessons from the Gold Coast

  • Andrew R

    The stops look much further apart than the Melbourne stops. Some look to be ~1 km apart.

    • Stu Donovan

      longer stop spacing is good given the high frequency. Probably reflects the fact that density drops off fairly quickly on the GC once you get back from the waterfront.

  • Punch Drunk Baboon

    What’s the cost per km of that system applied to the whole proposed Auckland LRT network?

    • Stu Donovan

      Seems to work out about $100 million per km, which includes 15 years operating costs. So $1 billion per 10km.

      Cheap as chips! Really expensive, Belgian fries with home-made paprika mayo.

      • Anthony

        Wynyard tram track cost $8M for 1.5km of single track. Assume double track is double cost (conservative), gives about $10M per km or $100M per 10km.
        Probably is scope for significant savings on Australian costs.

  • Ricardo

    I’m glad you enjoyed your holiday. But as for removing half the width of Dominion Rd to accommodate this and the pretty grass strips in the artists views I have seen – no thanks. Dominion Rd movements are bad enough and as it is a critical arterial route will only get worse if this is put in place. I guess I’ll get attacked for stating the obvious – but traffic is real, has to go somewhere and if all those Nimby traffic respondents out there think it should all go somewhere else please let me know where they think this magical place is. The most intelligent thing for Dominion Road is to clearly mark two lanes each way, end to end, and if you want a train of any sort, put it above the road on pylons, thus reducing the footprint, then everyone will be happy. As for the Surfers example – have a chat with tradies, and emergency services. I know first hand the local fire service hates the reduced lanes and ability to move around quickly.

    • Scott M

      Where would the traffic go: Sandringham Road or Mt Eden Road.

      Traffic congestion cannot be fixed. More lanes just induces more traffic so it is a waste of time trying to “solve it”. Light Rail or PT creates a much more efficient way of moving people around and offers them a choice to get out of the congestion.

      The most congested places at peak times are the motorway and motorway interchanges. All those traffic lanes and its still mass congestion – funny that.

      • Sort of.

        Where trams have been implemented in other parts of the world it is delivered as part of a comprehensive change encorporating land use intensification. This is generally how it’s done in most of Europe to justify, maximise and give effect to the massive cost.
        We don’t seem to be taking this path and are simply looking to the corridors where bus services are at their peak and want to swap out for trams.
        I would be 100% in support of the tram proposal in Auckland if it was done in conjunction with low rise apartment block land intensification.
        How can we have a super city, which I guess was set up in part to tackle these issues in a coordinated fashion, and only look at half the equation.

      • Where would the traffic go? Where do you think the people on the trams come from? The same place the people on the trains in Auckland come from; they are people clever enough to work out that as these services improve it works better for them to leave their cars at home for many trips and use these very services. Traffic is not god given, nor in itself a good; moving things and people well are ‘goods’ however. And 77% of traffic in Auckland are private vehicles so it is private vehicle use that is the cause of traffic congestion and by far the best way to address traffic congestion is to incentivise and enable people to make other choices in how they move, especially at the peaks.

        Dominion Rd at the peaks is, as you say, already suboptimal as an arterial, and the buses are often full. Exactly; LRT there will offer the capacity and the speed to move more people quicker through here than could ever be the case with everyone in SOVs. Vehicle traffic is the problem, not the victim, in traffic congestion.

    • NickM

      “I guess I’ll get attacked for stating the obvious – but traffic is real, has to go somewhere and if all those Nimby traffic respondents out there think it should all go somewhere else please let me know where they think this magical place is.”

      I’m probably also stating the obvious, but at least some of it will be removed altogether by people changing mode from personal vehicle to public transport.

      “As for the Surfers example – have a chat with tradies, and emergency services. I know first hand the local fire service hates the reduced lanes and ability to move around quickly.”

      Why not allow emergency services to use the light rail lane? Presuming they are able to navigate around the trams (even at 7.5 minute frequencies that shouldn’t be too difficult, certainly no more detrimental than navigating through general traffic), it could actually improve their transit times.

      • The tradies and emergency services are held up by traffic; and traffic is overwhelmingly single occupant vehicles. The best outcome for freight, tradies, and emergency services is a citywide reduction in traffic, and this can only occur with the measures that won’t please our traffic engineer friend; full pricing of driving, including externalities, construction of complete networks high quality alternatives; Transit and Active, and the proper privileging of the public space on all our roads and streets in this order; Peds->Bikes->Transit->Freight->multi occupant Vehicles->single occupant Vehicles.

        Ricardo sees the world backwards, but in this he’s just stuck in a time warp from the dark ages of last century; and dinosaurs don’t last.

        • Sort of.

          Where trams have been implemented in other parts of the world it is delivered as part of a comprehensive change encorporating land use intensification. This is generally how it’s done in most of Europe to justify, maximise and give effect to the massive cost.
          We don’t seem to be taking this path and are simply looking to the corridors where bus services are at their peak and want to swap out for trams.
          I would be 100% in support of the tram proposal in Auckland if it was done in conjunction with low rise apartment block land intensification.
          How can we have a super city, which I guess was set up in part to tackle these issues in a coordinated fashion, and only look at half the equation.

        • Craig

          In Melbourne, the emergency vehicles all use the tram lines. That is fire, ambulance, paramedic and police. The trades park in the nearest parking garage and use trolleys to move their equipment around. The mentality of parking right outside your place of work is pure laziness. People are born pedestrians and even the most rabid car car driver becomes a pedestrian when they reach their destination.

          It goes without saying that those who insist on the right to drive, should realize that providing more options for people who do not wish to drive, makes it easier for them to drive.

      • JimboJones

        Tradies and emergency services can just use one of the parallel roads such as Sandringham or Mt Eden. But hey, lets not build something that will benefit lots of people just because Ricardo can show a few examples of people having to go slightly out of their way!

    • JimboJones

      I don’t think you would have been attacked if you had have stated ‘the obvious’ – that light rail can carry significantly more people per hour than the road ever can, and hence light rail should have priority. How can you possibly say the intelligent thing is to dedicate the whole space for road and make light rail prohibitively expensive by putting it on pylons. Why not do the opposite – put light rail along the road and put a new road (with appropriate tolls to pay for it) on pylons?

    • Nick

      But why would people care where the traffic goes if we can avoid it by using light rail? Yes, there are question marks around emergency vehicles, and (much less importantly) tradies. The answer is to come up with alternate solutions for them.

    • Punch Drunk Baboon

      There’s no loss of general traffic capacity on Dominion Rd. At the moment there’s one lane each way plus bus lanes. That would change to one lane each way plus LRT.

    • Michael

      The question isn’t “where would the traffic go?”, but “where would the PEOPLE in cars go?”

      (The answer, incidentally, is onto trams)

    • To accomodate high-capacity trams, Dominion Rd will only lose free on-street private vehicle storage (parking), not any existing car/truck/bus lanes. Get a grip.

  • NickM

    Matt, do you happen to know how much of the line is running on-street in dedicated lanes, and how much is on its own dedicated right-of-way?

  • stingray

    One of the essential elements of implementing an LRT system is to allow/encourage/enhance intensification along its stops. The GC example appears to be actually doing this. I’m concerned that we are missing this element from the Auckland LRT proposals.
    Intensification of Eden Valley, Balmoral, Mt Roskill town centres? mmm, I’m not sure that will be allowed by the nimby-friendly planning rules. The whole Dominion Road corridor needs to allow and encourage 4-6 storey buildings, and not just facing the street, but to a depth of 50-100m back from the street along the side streets. This will help to justify the LRT, and provide further patronage, but I’m not sure the Council is prepared to back such a proposal in the face of what is likely to be intense opposition. and shame for it!

    • JimboJones

      It will happen. It might not happen straight away, but the NIMBYs views will slowly be watered down once light rail is built and the demand in that area increases even more.

      • Well, a few years ago I got a flyer in my mailbox, warning that according to the UP our area would be zoned for “2 to 3 storey high-rise”. I don’t see how the discussion would go differently if they would try again in a few years.

        Maybe it’s OK if they make the line long enough. The zoning in the area around the city centre has the somewhat unusual property that the allowed density increases as you move away from the city centre.

        • Stu Donovan

          yes I have to laugh at those sorts of statements. I once saw a 7 storey building in Paddington (Brisbane) described by NIMBY residents (who were trying to whip everyone into a fury) as being a “skyscraper”.

          You don’t have to be a historian to know that the Empire State Building was constructed before most of Brisbane was anything other than gum trees. And to know that some gum trees approach or exceed 7 storeys in height …

        • “It might not happen straight away, but the NIMBYs views will slowly be watered down ”

          … as they die off.

    • Stu Donovan

      yes GC is very high density along this corridor compared to most parts of Auckland. It’s also linear, so gets quite strong demands in all directions. Whereas Auckland’s demands are quite tidal.

  • JimboJones

    At the same cost per km, the proposed Dominion road light rail line should cost around $700 million. How much is 15 years of bus operation currently? I guess you have to somehow include the increasing patronage cost too – maybe double it?

    • JimboJones

      At a complete guess, 1 million trips per year * 1 dollar subsidy per trip * 15 years = $15 million. Even if my figures are really wrong and if bus patronage is expected to grow significantly, its hard to see the savings from not running buses being in any way significant.

      • Sailor boy

        Theres 2.5m trips per annum already on Dom road. But More importantly the driver cost drop by about 75% With trams and that might well be 2. 5m a year plus adoubling of fares to add another 7. 5m a year

    • Stu Donovan

      correct.

      Most of the bus services on Dominion Rd operate with little to no subsidy. So you’re talking a very low cost per passenger.

      • And priority for buses could be improved on Dom for better throughput etc, but I guess the question is whether the full gamut of light priority etc can be achieved with buses given the road constraints and the sheer quantity of buses required? Giving fewer but bigger LRVs signalling priority is easier than for a higher number of buses I’m assuming? As that means the priority is quicker…?

        • Stu Donovan

          yes it seems easier to incorporate fewer, larger LRT vehicles into signal phasing. Just give LRT priority whenever they approach the intersection and otherwise revert to normal phasing.

          But from what I can see the primary argument for LRT in Auckland is less about corridor capacity (e.g. Dom Rd) and more about city centre stop and terminal capacity. Basically, Auckland’s city centre is unusual insofar as so many bus routes converge on Symonds street etc and then run north and/or north-east from there to terminate at Briromart or Wynyard respectively. Not much space for terminating and laying over buses thereabouts!

          • Anthony

            Grade separate intersections incorporating stations underground?
            Provides weather protection and increases catchment compared to mid block stations.
            Leaves road width available for traffic turning movements.

  • Ucemaesteo

    I was in nice recently where they have a light rail system, and emergency vehicles are able to use it as well

    • Ditto in Nantes, France; I saw police cars with sirens on zooming along the light rail route in the central city (which was otherwise closed to traffic completely)

    • fab

      The LRT in Nice rocks! The main shopping strip (equivalent of Queen St) is now pedestrianised and a pleasure to walk along, The difference between buses and LRT is really significant – no fumes, much less noise, comfort, reliability. Work is underway for a new line (on an east-west axis), which cannot come soon enough.

      Those monstrosities on the GC though, plastered in advertising…

  • Grant

    Have to try it out one day. Great setup.

  • Maybe this question is obvious, but are the terms “light rail” and “tram” synonyms? Or what’s the difference?

    • Stu Donovan

      not obvious at all, and it’s a fairly fluid distinction. Both trams and LRT run on-street. Trams are what used to operate in Auckland, i.e. rolling stock comprises of single units.

      In contrast, LRT is where (modern) multiple units can be connected together.

    • john smith

      There is no difference in the technology. People tend to use ‘tram’ for older street-running systems (called ‘streetcars’ in North America), and ‘light rail’ to distinguish newer segregated systems.
      Cutting across that, other people use ‘light rail’ or ‘tram’ indiscriminately according to whether they like them and want to portray them as modern, or dislike them and want to portray them as old-fashioned.

  • The Real Matthew

    Dumb Question

    Does the Light Rail go to any of the Theme Parks or are there plans to extend it so it does or are they still operating the bus system to the Theme Parks?

  • Nick

    You know, I wonder why in NZ, and particular Auckland, we do these things so poorly. All the great stuff mentioned in this post – the multiple tag points, being able to easily buy smartcards, long operating hours, clear graphics showing bus interchanges, simple yet effective stations. You just know we won’t achieve those basic things. It’s like with cycling infrastructure – yes, there’s been great progress, but why aren’t we going for best in the world? Why do we always follow so far behind? What’s different about us? Is it the number 8 wire, she’ll be right nonsense? Maybe I’ll be proved wrong. I hope so.

  • Ted F

    Do the trams require less substantial subgrade than roads that have the larger trucks running on them? I remember the Wanganui trams really being the birth of rock and roll because they seemed to directly onto sleepers on pumice. It seems to me that trams should reduce the axle loadings on roads even compared to buses with less wear and tear from braking and acceleration.
    Until the LRT is underway what can we do about removing all parking from Dominion and Mt Eden roads, so that we could have 24 hour busways on them now.
    Miami Emergency Services all use the rail/tram lines for emergency responses. The use of median platforms at stops with ticketing and shelter are great and should be incorporated in this plan.
    The whole effect will be to slow and steady the vehicular traffic instead of the present high speed corridor that Mt Eden/Dominion Road tries to be now.
    Stops at 1km interval could probably be extended slightly and still have the stops within reasonable walking distance of the residents.

  • Evan James

    There are two methods of construction of the right of way, and both are here on show in Auckland. There is laying tracks in concrete, which is expensive and time consuming, but quite long lasting; however it is expensive and time consuming to fix if there is a problem. It also makes for quite noisy running both inside and outside the trams This how it has been done at MOTAT on the line past the zoo. Then there is a more modern method that was used for the Wyndham Quarter tramway where a sub-base of concrete was poured but not smoothed off and the rails laid on top of that, with steel sleepers, and then filled in with hot mix asphalt. This was copied from Melbourne and is quicker and cheaper to construct and easier to fix if there is a problem. It also makes for quieter running both inside and outside the tram. As for basecourse, Auckland contractors are getting pretty good at that these days with the amount of new motorway construction and the like, and techniques and materials have been developed to speed up that process considerably and give an end result much stronger than anything that has been used in the past.

    • Ted F

      Thank you Evan, I wonder if contractors have improved their performance in laying basecourse if you know what is happening to the new motorway south bound by Snow Planet and what it’s cause might be? (from memory it’s also on the northbound side)

    • The Gold Coast tracks were in concrete and weren’t noisy at all, certainly not enough for me to notice and that was either in them or right next to them moving. Also in Wynyard the section along Jellicoe St uses a special noise dampening solution which I think means the tracks are in a rubber case or something like that.

      • JohnB

        Here’s a photo of the rail fully incased in rubber, before it gets set in concrete… helps keep things quiet and assists with stray current.

        http://s12.postimg.org/uel46go19/tram.jpg

        Also, GCLR is a $1.3B project, and this does not include Operations Period costings. It was for the Government early-works package and the light rail construction costs only.

  • Evan James

    Hi Ted – the problem is also northbound near to new Wainui Road bridge, so it is probably something to do with the ground conditions.
    However, although the motorway is relatively new, construction techniques have developed since then. On the north western motorway causeway a soft rock from the top of quarries in the Pokeno-Hunua Ranges quarries, going by various names such as SPR and ROP is used. This was previous discarded material, but they have found that by rolling it with sheep’s foot rollers – the ones with rows of bunt spikes on the rollers – and watering, the rock forms into a very hard pan. This technique was also used on the Maioro Road interchange and seems to be used with most new road works these days. Previously scoria mined from the various volcanic cones around Auckland was used for base course construction but that doesn’t seem to be the case any more. Another technique where ground conditions are difficult is to use a material called CTB, which is very much like the instant concrete from the home handyman stores. This is mixed in large plants at the quarries, and carted to the site in six wheeler tip trucks and either spread by the trucks or laid with a paving machine. It is then rolled and watered and forms a solid base onto which the road surface is then built up. This was used on roads in the Papakura area such as Clevedon Road and Porchester Road which were constructed on peat. That is just a thumbnail of what I have seen and read about in the various contractor magazines, but it is an exciting field that is evolving all the time, as more and more university graduates emerge with engineering degrees.

  • Evan James

    Hi Matt: The construction of the tramway at Wynyard Quarter was covered in issue 44 of the MOTAT Tram Section’s magazine The Controller. In Jellicoe Street the track was laid in a rubbery polyurethane mix, and on the rest of the circuit the track was laid on a base of compacted hard fill with cement added for stabilisation. Low strength concrete was poured between the sleepers up to the top of the sleepers, and then compacted hard fill was used to build the surface up to rail level topped off with a layer of hot mix bitumen. The consulting engineer on that job was Colin Zeff who had studied modern tramway construction in Melbourne and Europe. The difference in sound levels between track laid in concrete and in the Wynyard Quarter was demonstrated when MOTAT’s tram four wheeled tram 44 (built in 1906) ran at the Quarter. Quite a noise tram to travel in at MOTAT, it was transformed into a very quiet rider when at the Quarter.

  • Jingyang

    Local destination maps at stations are a darned good idea, especially where there are multiple exits. Also more signage telling you which station it is would be useful; and I do like the Wellington signs that show the previous and next stops as well. I know there are the electronic signs and announcements inside the trains, but some of us like to look out the windows 🙂 For myself I find that a station name alone takes longer to stick in the memory than clear signage and a mental picture that I recall when I see a locale again.

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