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Light Rail in Perth

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 30 Oct 2012

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (19:41): I would like to put some remarks on the record about a project which has been very close to my heart since my election campaign in 2007-that is, to bring light rail back to the streets of the City of Perth. Perth had an extensive tram network before the Second World War which was laid down in the last years of the 19th century and transported residents of Perth between the wars. It was progressively neglected and dismantled and the last tram ran in the 1950s. Since then transport advocates across the city have been proposing to bring this much loved public transport mode back to the streets of Perth. So our campaign in 2007 built on more than a decade of work by the Greens WA, by local government authorities who are on the front line of traffic congestion and planning issues in Perth and by transport advocates like Professor Peter Newman from Curtin University, who has made it his life's work to improve public transport and amenity for the residents of the City of Perth.

The state ALP, particularly Minister for Planning and Infrastructure Alannah MacTiernan, had a plan on the books for a short section of light rail east-west through the City of Perth just before the ALP lost government in 2004. We wonder what might have been had there not been a change of government at that time. We launched our plan in 2007 and it was deliberately ambitious. We made three main calls on state government and on political parties which were to make this a network for the whole city, not just Nedlands to Victoria Park but something that paid strong regard to the fact that transport vulnerability is greatest the further you get from the central business district, and that is not just a pattern of Perth but is notable of all Australia's great cities. So we wanted a network that served the whole town.

The second call was that it should be powered by renewable energy. Electrified public transport, as is happening in other cities around the world, allows you to get not just out of oil but out of fossil fuel entirely. There are cities in Europe and North America that contract their entire electricity bill to wind developers and run public transport on the power of the wind.

Our third call was that this is urgent and that we cannot afford to wait decades to bring light rail back to Perth-we need this now. So we spent 4½ years working with local government authorities, particularly with WALGA, who have been great supporters of public transport. We have worked with transport advocates and academics. We have worked with industry and people who build these systems elsewhere in Australia and the world. We have worked with transport and planning officials in state government and we have worked with ordinary people-and extraordinary people-at public meetings and at every possible interaction and presentation around the City of Perth. And over four years we built the case.

The reason we did that is that light rail is not just a transport mode. If you do it right, it can be a tool for community-building. Light rail can be a way of anchoring sustainable urban development that gets people free of car dependence, improves air quality and amenity, and gets the city moving. It can provide for a greater density of housing, which in turn can provide genuinely affordable housing, bringing people back towards jobs, services and transport rather than stranding people on the edges of our great cities, far over the horizon, and condemning them to transport vulnerability. There is a reason why this technology is playing a central role in urban redevelopment all around the world, including, notably, here in Australia, the Gold Coast, Adelaide and Sydney; it is because of that city-building potential.

I am proud to say we succeeded. After many delays, the Premier of Western Australia announced a 20-year transport strategy-which, by the time it arrived, had been dubbed the '19-year transport strategy'-and foreshadowed, as he put it, a 'decade of light rail for Perth'. The indicative maps were something of a mixed bag. Part of Professor Newman's team's knowledge arc, the proposal to connect the two great universities of UWA and Curtin University with a link through the central business district and down to some of the large hospitals, is in the plan, as well as a northern spur through Mirrabooka out to Balga in Perth's northern suburbs, which are in fact extremely poorly served by transport at this stage. They got the tick, and that is worth acknowledging and celebrating.

But there was nothing proposed for the south or east of the city for decades to come. There was great work done by the cities of Fremantle, Melville and Cockburn, and I pay tribute in particular to the Mayor of Fremantle, Dr Brad Pettitt, who has done an enormous amount of work on ensuring that cities and local town centres do not plan light rail out of existence by planning away the all-important corridors that these vehicles will travel down. That great work in collaboration with other local government authorities looks like it has been disregarded for the time being. The huge planning effort put in by the Stirling Alliance, north of Perth, where they are proposing to create a second CBD, effectively, did not get a look in. So we still have a way to go. I am extremely optimistic that we will get these plans onto the books. We will get them linked into a light rail system. But we have got a lot of work to do yet.

Within a few months, Minister Albanese had pitched in $4 million to assist the planning effort, and it looked as though the project was set to get underway. And then, mystifyingly, the state government announced a four-year delay in the start of construction, saying that it would be 2016 before even stage 1 began. So on our three key priorities-a whole-of-metro strategy, a renewable power source and a sense of urgency-it looked as though we scored zero out of three. I understand why we cannot do it all at once, why we cannot simply build out hundreds of kilometres of light rail all at once, but we do need a phased metro-wide system that delivers for people well before the 2031 target date, which seems to be what the state government is hinting at. Certainly, in the draft transport planning documents that have been put on the table thus far, it actually tells most of the residents of metropolitan Perth that they are going to need to wait until the 2030s before they see anything more than an improved bus service.

In a recent budget estimates committee, however, the plot got much more interesting and actually gave me a bit of hope. Quietly, without so much as a Friday afternoon press statement, the Barnett government has made a funding application to Infrastructure Australia for a light rail project-not funding for a study but for a project. Our team has been advocating for that for five years, so it was a very sweet thing to have that established, but now I am even more mystified than before.

This is a good project. It is going to be very popular. It is going to get our city moving. I think it is the kind of infrastructure that, once it is built, we will look back and wonder how on earth we ever did without it. The politics of it are that this is a green transport project championed by the Greens WA, put into the ground by the coalition, and funded by an ALP minority federal government. Just for a change, everyone has a piece of this win. So why the Barnett government is being so coy about it is, I confess, something of a mystery, but the sooner we get this project started the better.

Parts of our great city, as with other Australian capital cities, are now paralysed by traffic congestion and it is becoming very difficult for people to even get to work. I can still remember, having been around and lived in Perth for long enough, a time when peak hour only went for an hour. Now key parts of our city's freeway network are simply paralysed for hours and hours every day. The sooner we get started on this project and on the consequential changes that we will need to make to the bus network, the sooner we can get light rail into some of our higher-density parts of town and the sooner we will then be able to redeploy buses into areas further out and increase their frequency. That will increase patronage and the entire public transport network in Perth will lift. It is time to get on board and it is time Perth got its light rail system back.


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