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Infrastructure and Transport – Light Rail

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 6 June 2023

Tags: Hobart Light Rail, Infrastructure, Transport, State Budget

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, you're quite disparaging about our position on public transport but the Greens in this place have been advocating for public transport since before you got in here. I want to take you to a claim you made in parliament last week that was just in fact reinforced by Mr Swain. You claimed that because that corridor would be a similar distance to the Gold Coast light rail, the cost would be around $1.4 billion, but this is a gross misrepresentation, as you know, because PricewaterhouseCoopers states that standard gauge rail would cost around $596 million. Why are you misrepresenting PricewaterhouseCoopers' analysis of the comparison between light rail and dinky old buses and will you retract that claim you made?

Mr FERGUSON - No, I won't be retracting anything I have said about the competing ideas on mode selection. The case for light rail in Tasmania has substantially in part been based on the reality that the infrastructure presently is rail and there have been assumptions made time and time again that we just need to use the rail that is there. That has been proven false because that rail is unable to be used again and whatever mode is chosen that rail must be removed. If you shake your head at that, that would surprise me because it is not safe for utilisation. We're happy to discuss that. So whatever happens -

Ms O'CONNOR - You're going to tear up the rail line and put buses in.

Mr FERGUSON - Correct, Ms O'Connor, because it can't be used. That is the position that has been clearly identified in the track condition report GHD did on behalf of the Government and at the significant urging of a number of stakeholders at that time. We commissioned that track condition report, paid for it, got the advice and it is unfortunate reading for people who legitimately really wanted to see light rail succeed. In light of that and together with the fact that it's an extraordinary amount of money for a corridor vision -

Ms O'CONNOR - That you made up.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, please let the minister answer in silence.

Mr FERGUSON - It is an extraordinary amount of money and we are choosing a mode that is fit for purpose for Tasmania. it is going to work and it will also be adaptable for the eastern and southern corridors as part of our long-term vision to enhance public transport in Tasmania.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, the PricewaterhouseCoopers report on the transport mode of 2020 is really clear and stark about the difference between rail and busways. Looking at this data, their assessment is that by 2027 there will 174 houses and 37 jobs from bus rapid transit but from light rail, there would be 776 houses and 180 jobs. By the time you get out to 2037 we are talking about more than 1000 jobs generated by light rail and 223 for bus rapid transit. We would like to know why you are so committed to selling Tasmania short and giving us a cheap, nasty, and as confirmed by the consultants, second-best option for the transit corridor.

Mr FERGUSON - Thank you for your question and I do respect the legitimate wish that you have and others for light rail. There is nothing wrong with wanting light rail, but it is about choosing something that is appropriate for our circumstances and making sure it is not just about a mode of choice which is restricted to the rail alignment, and that is what light rail would do if we followed your advice.

Ms O'CONNOR - You can connect it to bus services.

Mr FERGUSON - It cannot go anywhere else, it can only go where there is steel rail lines. For an adaptable solution that also meets the needs of the eastern shore and south of Hobart, the rapid bus transit model is very exciting. I would challenge you to stop calling it boring because it could be very exciting for -

Ms O'CONNOR - I have used them in other cities.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, please let the minister be heard in silence.

Mr FERGUSON - dealing with congestion and for major events that would be happening in Hobart and at Macquarie Point, if we have that adaptable mode of being able to move people where the solutions exist, it is a great model and very adaptable to Tasmania.

Ms O'CONNOR - There is an example which I hope you take on board. It looks like there has been too much work done to rip up the rail line anyway, but the example from Perth is that there was a busway through the middle of the highway in the southern suburbs. It was really unpopular and was taking about 14 000 people a day. They replaced that busway with rail because they knew it was more popular and they went from transporting 14 000 people a day to 55 000 people a day. My question to you is why wouldn't you, given this opportunity that you have as Transport minister, and who knows how long we will be in any of these jobs, invest in something that is going to spark an interest and be there for the long-term as a social and economic catalyst? In Perth, you see what happens when you replace buses with rail.

Mr FERGUSON - I respect the point of view that none of us are in these jobs forever and we need to make decisions that secure the state's future long after this crop of politicians are no longer here. We do need to plan for the future. One of the points that I've made on a number of occasions is that the existing track is not for any purpose. It just isn't; we would not be allowed to reuse it. Given that fact, and given the mode selection that we're adopting here, it does not prevent future change of use for that corridor for light rail, if that could prove viable in the future.

Given that the rail must be removed in any case, and that we're moving to a rapid bus transit solution, while not promising it in the future, it does not prevent it. But, this is a solution that we believe is adaptable for Hobart and it will allow the same mode of vehicle to be adaptable, so that buses can go wherever the pavement will allow. That means: the eastern shore; Tasman Bridge; northern corridor; the Brooker Highway; and the Southern Outlet. It also means that services can be switched - depending on major events, for example - and adapting the routes to suit; as well as aligning with the ferry opportunity. This is about mobility, not trains.

Ms O'CONNOR - Of course, I understand that. Is the track rail gauge assessment a public document?

Mr SWAIN - I think we've released that. If I could talk to that?

Mr FERGUSON - We'd be happy to share it. I will check if there's any commercial detail in it, but if we can assist the Committee with that, we will get it through this morning.

Mr SWAIN - In relation to the track assessment - there were issues with the three bridges, all of which are too narrow and they have condition issues where they weren't suitable for any mode. The track is worn, and under the track all of the ballast is contaminated with a range of heavy metal and asbestos. Anything that involves Australian Government money will have to pick up relevant design guidelines. None of those guidelines would involve track and polluted ballast. The report we had done by GHD was trying to get to a factual starting point, because there's been a lot of toing and froing about whether we could use the existing rail ballast or bridges. That report was, effectively, a condition assessment that said 'let's just get to an understanding of what can be used'. There were also substance and drainage issues that you had to be able to get to, to fix. So, it really came back with 'we can't use much of that corridor as it currently stands'. We might be able to use one of the three bridges if we can move the pillars and make them wider, but I still have to do a bit more work on that.

Ms O'CONNOR - Which bridge?

Mr SWAIN - That's the one near New Town High School - the Tower Road Bridge, possibly; but the other two definitely have to go.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, the Gold Coast light rail stage 3 has kicked off. Canberra's light rail extension has just announced it is going wireless. Perth has opened an airport train line, yet we're about to tear up tracks. Can you tell the committee what is the timeline for tearing up the rail tracks?

Mr FERGUSON - I can tell the committee and invite Mr Swain to provide more clarity and detail. We need to remove the rail because it is not serviceable. Even if a government would want to pursue light rail or any rail it would have to be removed. You would not be allowed to use it. You cannot use it, you are not allowed to and won't meet specification. No responsible government would do so.

Ms O'CONNOR - You can use it because the Glenorchy transport museum will be using the line from Glenorchy north, so of course you can use it.

Mr FERGUSON - Yes, north of Glenorchy and with the purpose that they have for heritage rail. That is not the mass movement of large numbers of people at an appropriate speed. I think that wonderful organisation has seen about 5000 volunteer hours to prepare that one-kilometre section of track. They have an ambition to take that to four, which is tremendous and we support that.

The public transport solution we would all be looking for is a mobility solution rather than a rail solution. We commissioned the report to give us the advice. I find it surprising that you or I or anyone would be prepared to argue with that track condition report.

Ms O'CONNOR - I haven't seen that report.

Mr FERGUSON - I even think it might be three years, but whatever the length of time, that report is not controversial. It hasn't been contested as far as I am aware but I'm happy for you to scrutinise it, by all means, with the deputy secretary.

Ms O'CONNOR - The time line on ripping up the rail track.

Mr FERGUSON - The question was about the time frame for early works packages.

Mr SWAIN - We've got to put some advice back to the Deputy Premier on that. One of the complications is that the federal funding has been moved further out into the out-years. In every case with a capital program, there is a biannual discussion with the federal government about cashflows and there are projects that get moved in and projects that get moved out.

We have a preferred pathway that we're finalising and getting some advice for the Deputy Premier. It doesn't perfectly line up with the cashflows so we have to have some further discussions around that with both our minister and the federal government. At the moment, physically we could be ready to start that work in the next 12 to 18 months but we have to make sure that the cashflows support that. We're looking at juggling the things that I talked about, the planning work on the corridor itself, the bridge package and the active transport detours that we are hoping will prevent any loss of cyclists mode through the build. That's not a physically constrained issue, it's a cashflow issue and we probably need to work through that a bit more.

The other thing that we're now in the process of getting more detailed advice on is the planning aspects of the project. The rail corridor is defined by reference to the rail track, so if you take up the track it ceases to be a rail line and becomes crown land again. We're just tracking through the status of that land once the rail is removed from a planning perspective, which could mean that we might need to do a strategic area plan and we're working through that detail to determine that. It's not so much a physical challenge, it's a combination of consideration of legislative approvals and cashflows.