Thursday, 26 April 2012

Playing make believe: Light rail in Freo

I love light rail. Light rail was my first love back in my teenage days (it didn't mind pimples). It all started with the computer game Sim City. I had figured out the code for getting limitless amounts of money and wasn't subject to any budget realities whatsoever, so, in my role as pimply benevolent dictator, I ran up the bill putting light rail absolutely everywhere in my city.

My love affair with this humble form of public transport continued into my planning studies. From day one I was scribbling 'MS 4 Light Rail 4 Eva' in my notebook. I'd draw light rail doodles in lectures, and hang out with other light rail devotees to talk breathlessly about what Portland in America had done. One of our cooler, more hip lecturers even brought in a map of Perth's old tram network and showed us while we all 'took a knee' and huddled around him.

A couple of weeks ago I rocked up to the Building a Better Fremantle Forum. I heard a lot about light rail being one of the keys to a better Freo. Instead of leaving excited, I left a little disappointed. Don't get me wrong, light rail and I aren't headed to the divorce lawyers just yet. My problem is that we've heard a lot of talk about light rail over the last few years and I'm tired of playing make believe.

Freo isn't in the game

It pains me to say this, but there is no evidence to suggest that light rail will be coming to Freo anytime soon. Last year, the State Government released its draft Public Transport Strategy for the next twenty years. Light rail for Freo is not part of the plan.

I'm afraid that when Senator Ludlum casually claimed that the State Government was 'playing around with light rail in the northern suburbs' he was being a tad disingenous. Rather, the idea is to connect three major activity centres with the Perth CBD. The plan is to use light rail to connect the Perth CBD with Edith Cowan University, the University of Western Australia/Queen Elizabeth II Medical Centre and Curtin University.

Given that the state of Western Australia isn't run by a pimply teenager playing around on a computer game with a code for unlimited money, choices occasionally need to be made. And as much as I might not like it, I can see how the case for linking the above centres with the Perth CBD has merit compared to Freo's case. After all, we'll all be paying for light rail in some way and I personally want to see value for money.

Talking about the boring buses

With light rail in vogue, I empathise with our young up and coming local politicians. Who wants to build a platform on buses? However, it's not acceptable to raise false expectations and that's what I believe has been happening here. Freo has presented its case to the State Government and been knocked back. Is it possible that certain politicians weren't included in the memo, or are they choosing to talk about what's popular instead of what's possible?

In the spirit of thinking about what's actually possible in the next decade or so, here are some ideas:

1. More train carriages on the Freo line

These days, if you're one of the people catching the train during peak periods to and from Freo, you probably spend at least half an hour each day with your face crammed in to someone's whiffy armpit. The State Government has dropped the ball when it comes to planning for catering to increasing demand and I hear new rolling stock will not be available until 2015.

I'd like to see Freoites benefit from our local politicians and the City of Fremantle being able to communicate with influence so that more carriages are put onto the Freo line and catching the train in the morning can be a little more comfortable.

2. Introducing LATTE: reinvented, expanded CAT services for Freo

Buses will always be the ugly duckling to light rail. Late in my planning studies, during my rooftop garden phase, I was introduced to Curitiba in Brazil. Curitiba couldn't afford light rail and instead revolutionised the bus system, using different buses to fulfill different functions. I'm thinking we could do something similar in Freo.

I'd like to see an expansion of the CAT service. With the support of the State Government, Freo could take this model to the next level. I'm thinking reinventing it as the Local Area Total Transit Experience or LATTE (second only to light rail and rooftop gardens, planners also love acronyms).

The buses could be smaller, run more regularly and to a greater distance from the city centre. There could be different colours for different suburbs (for ease of use) and the buses could originate in local centres (near parking) and head into Freo, possibly with a few stops along the way. If sponsored, the buses could have wifi and people could sign up to a service that alerts them when a bus was within five minutes of arriving. Best of all, five trips could score you a free coffee.

3. Get in front of the queue

Last but not least, I'd like to see the City provide the results of the 2010 survey it undertook on light rail. I recall the survey being comprehensive and I'm disappointed that there is nothing on the City's website.

I'd like to see some kind of value gleaned from all that work and information. So how about the City getting serious and preparing a 20 year plan for getting ready for light rail? We are kidding ourselves if we think that Freo is the only other locality that wants light rail. To help put us at the front of the queue it would be handy to have this kind of document.


I put it to Senator Ludlum and Mayor Pettitt that if they're going to continue to wax lyrical about light rail coming to Freo, they may get more satisfaction from playing a round of Sim City (I'm happy to supply the cheat codes).

I think that it's time that they divided their time into thinking about a Plan B and Plan C.


  1. Well said, as always, Michael!!

    There is nothing wrong with wishing for lightrail in Fremantle, but the reality that it will not happen for some twenty years needs to be acknowledged by Brad Pettitt and Scott Ludlam. What is essential is that the City of Fremantle needs to put plans into place on how to cope with more residents, traffic, etc. and extending CAT bus services, smaller dedicated busses, etc. are good options to look at.


  2. Bob Sommerville27 April 2012 at 15:17

    I have seen extensive light rail working efficiently in cities in Austria, The Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic and Hungary.

    Two things always stand out. The first is the seamless integration with other public transport (and private transport sharing the same streets) with timetables to suit the patrons. The other is that outside of busy times they are mostly less than half full. These are all cities with a lot more people than Freo and who are used to public transport. Their city planning included the need for people to move about - it was/is not a feelgood fantasy like Freo light rail. Even on special days like Anzac Day and the Freo Festival the place is clogged by cars along with the trains particularly. Public transport in the Metro Area is not widely accepted even on days when it is well known streets will be blocked. I do recognise the trains and buses are fully loaded at peak times but overall Perth and the metro area is a car town. There is not the frequency of service that is such an important factor in efficient public transport. The transport system here is the reverse of these other cities - it is the public that comes second to the system. The bizarre situation we have here of insufficient car parking at train stations for patrons who WANT to get out of their cars is beyond belief. That we have patrons stepping out of the Fremantle station into a fence guarding a busway is almost the poorest example of transport planning that should consider the "customer first".

    We used to laugh at "pommie" bureaucracy with public services but we've certainly got the disease here. Check out the dumb sign erected near the cross walk outside the train station that advises people their bags could be stolen in Feo, that smoking is banned in Freo and bikes are forbidden to be ridden - plus to get to the CAT bus walk across the bus entry into the station maybe in front of a bus.

    There is another issue I see too and that is security. I do not see the undesirables on public transport in other places like I do here at times (but I am sure they exist). At Perth Central there must be more security cameras and idle staff (guards) in place than anywhere on the planet (per capita) and yet almost everyone who frequents the trains has a story to tell of harasment or unruly behaviour. That has nothing to do with saving energy, carbon footprint, light rail or atomic hovercraft.

    Sorry I diverged there a bit. I have heard of plans to run light rail down Hampton Road. Along with islands, single lane traffic and heavy haul trucks and buses that is going to be most interesting...especially with two way rail and stops to alight and disembark passengers a hospital nearby and garbage to collect. Hampton Car Park no less.

  3. Michael.
    While it is true that light rail in Freo is not going to happen in the next five years, as a good strategic planner you'd know the importance of planning for the longer term and embedding light rail ready corridors into our planning especially to the growth corridors to the south where more than ten thousand new residents will be moving in just to the south of Freo.

    I also remember "it'll never happen just focus on buses" argument been made about the Mandurah rail line just over a decade ago. All it took was a change of state government and some leadership to get it built. Probably a more worthwhile outcome than advancing to the next stage of Sim City.
    Cheers. Brad.

    1. Hi Brad,

      Agreed. Planning for the growth corridor is a must, getting to the front of the queue so that Freo doesn't miss out is important. What has the City done with the light rail survey information? It would be great to be updated on the City's progress on this project.

      While we are waiting for light rail, I'm interested as to what you think are some options for improving the options for people to use public transport?