Light Rail is not the right technology for Canberra

John L Smith, Farrer
March 2014

Canberra Times Letters revised April 10, 2023

Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit (ART) (Trackless Tram)
the Right Option for Canberra

John L Smith Email:
first published September 2019; last revised December 6, 2019

In November 2019 a delegation formed by the Committee for Geelong and including two transport consultants from the Melbourne group Urbis visited China to investigate CRRC ZhuZhou Institute Co Ltd’s trackless Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit (ART) system. Videos posted while on the visit by one of the consultants (Graham McCabe) showed that the vehicles are in service in the city of Zhuzhou. The versatility of these vehicles was evident in the shared bridge lane being crossed on route by the so-called "trackless trams".

Another video clip posted by McCabe show the bogie used to form the undercarriage. Its design is derived from the company’s high-speed rail technology and the video shows that it gives a ride similar in comfort to light rail. The bogie houses the electric motors, braking and steering. Each bogie is steered under the control of an optical guidance system that constrains each tram-car to the virtual track painted on the roadway.

Attention will now shift to the Geelong City Council and the expected decision to conduct a trial of the trackless tram over a route from downtown Geelong to the Deakin University campus on the outskirts of the city.

The first overseas trial of the vehicles was carried in July, 2019 in Qatar where the transport ministry is vying for faster urban transportation in time for hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The Qatar test was carried out on a 7 kilometer-long route in the extremely hot conditions in Doha. In February, the ART system passed various tests under harsh cold weather conditions in the city of Harbin in Northeast China.

In October 2019 the mayor of Liverpool Wendy Waller in south-west Sydney said “a trackless tram down Fifteenth Avenue will be a powerful transport spine, getting travellers and the people who will build and operate the new international airport to their destination quickly, efficiently and in a cost effective manner". Western Sydney Airport is included among the nation’s high priority infrastructure projects by Infrastructure Australia.

On November 14, 2019 when making the annual report on ACT Transport, Minister Chris Steel said that there "was no really good example of how this is actually working effectively to replace light rail". Backing him up Duncan Edghill, Major Projects Canberra, questioned "what happens to a trackless tram when you slam the brake on." It is clear from the video of the bogie system that Eghill's remarks were flippant and Minister Steel will soon have to admit that not even Stage 2A of Canberra’s light rail should proceed without an evaluation of the CRRC ART. The Minister's first point of enquiry should be to arrange a briefing from the Melbourne-based transport consultants who visited China with the Geelong delegation.

Given that what has been dubbed a “trackless tram” most resembles a high capacity (300 passengers) articulated electric bus with better ride quality, it would be worthwhile for Minister Steel to enquire of the National Capital Authority if it would approve this type of bus operating on Parliament Drive around Parliament House, as Route 57 and 58 buses do now.

The Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services told the Inquiry into Commonwealth Approvals for ACT Light Rail on June 28, 2018 that facilitating access to Parliament House for the 2500 staff and the 800,000 visitors per year, as well as those with business purposes would provide significant advantages, but he indicated that the proposed routes for Stage 2 were too far away.

Operating a main Civic to Woden trackless tram route via an upgraded Parliament Drive connected to a short extension of the Adelaide Avenue rapid transit bus lanes would save Canberra ratepayers at least $500 million over light rail. There would no need for a disruptive and complex State Circle construction because three little used overpass ramps from Parliament Drive onto Commonwealth Avenue and Federation Mall, and a connection to Kings Avenue already exist.

In the meantime, Andrew Barr faces several major challenges before a commitment to Stage 2A of light rail can be made. These include a cost of at least $1.6 billion for the entire Stage 2, controversy over a direct route versus his preferred milk run through Barton, route violation of the National Capital Plan, and refusal by the conservative government to allow overhead wires in the National Capital precincts.

The trackless tram does not have a permanent track. Instead it uses sensor input to automatically guide the vehicle along a virtual track painted on the roadway. It has all the best features of light rail vehicles but only 50 per cent of the weight. It is as flexible as a bus with the same turning radius as a 12 metre bus, rubber-tyred so that it can run on asphalt or concrete, and battery-powered. These characteristics would help solve every one of the challenges that currently confront Andrew Barr over light rail.

Without the significant cost of laying steel track in a deep concrete slab and the implied relocation of all utility services, trackless tram routes can be established at a much lower cost and with more alternatives in the route alignment, although a separate right of way is still essential for rapid transit. However, a route can be established quickly on suitable existing road lanes and incrementally moved to a separate right of way.

The manufacturer announced recently that it has begun mass production of trackless trams, with contracts underway with different cities. Becoming reliant on technology from a single supplier is not a serious issue in this case because all types of bus technology can operate on the same right of way.

Another outstanding advantage of the trackless tram is that the Canberra light rail network that has been foreseen in a twenty-year development time frame could be brought to fruition in a few years, and with a greater extent than was ever envisaged for light rail. For example, both the direct route and the alternative Civic-Woden route originally proposed through Barton become affordable and realisable in the short term.

The icing on the cake is that the expenditure involved in building a trackless tram network is not so great that the city would be hamstrung on taking advantage of other transport technology now in the pipeline. The progress by Waymo on driverless cars and their deployment as robot taxis in the US is impressive. It can be expected that the robot car driver will impact urban public transport in Canberra by 2030.

If the trackless tram technology does emerge as it seems, Andrew Barr will have some difficult questions to answer when he leads Labor into the territory election in 2020. Not only will he have to acknowledge that there are better distributed urban development opportunities availed by this flexible form of bus-tram, he will also have to admit that the obvious way forward is to sell the light rail vehicles that now ply between Gungahlin and Civic. The once light rail corridor will be traversed by trackless trams travelling the extent from Gungahlin to Woden. Being responsible for setting steel rails in concrete when a busway would have been effective, cheaper and readily adaptable will be more than an embarrassment.

Trackless Tram Trial will pose Questions for ACT Government

March 25, 2022 The City of Stirling has secured a trackless tram as part of an Australian-first trial of the technology in partnership with Curtin University and the Federal Government. Perth Now


A 32 metre ART vehicle has a smaller turning radius than any light rail vehicle.

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Queries and comments may be forwarded to Smart Canberra Transport (SCT), PO Box 579, Erindale Centre, ACT 2903


Cartoons by Emile Mercier (1901-1981)