Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Back to the Future

By Ian Lowe

Light rail systems are finding favour more than half a century since Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide scrapped their tram networks.

Light rail systems seem to be the flavour of the month. When I was young, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide all had extensive tram networks. Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide all scrapped their systems in the 1950s and 1960s, principally because it was felt that buses were more flexible and tram lines on the roads impeded other traffic. Adelaide retained one tram line from the western end of the CBD to Glenelg. Transport experts at the time criticised Melbourne for failing to follow the trend.

Now Melbourne’s tram network is widely admired and other cities are getting back into the swing. Sydney installed one light rail line from Central Station through Darling Harbour to the inner western suburbs several years ago, and recently extended it to the suburb of Dulwich Hill. Adelaide extended its one line right through the middle of the CBD, then pushed it further to the Entertainment Centre.

Both Sydney and Adelaide found the services so popular that the systems have been struggling to cope with the passenger numbers. Sydney is now planning a longer line through the inner eastern suburbs, providing transport to Randwick and the University of NSW.

The Gold Coast, long totally dedicated to the car culture, has just opened a light rail service running from Broadbeach all the way north to the hospital and the Gold Coast campus of Griffith University. The Sunshine Coast, where I live, has conducted a feasibility study of a new light rail system to reduce its dependence on the car.

There are some obvious reasons for the renewed enthusiasm for light rail. The capital costs are much lower than for heavy rail, but the vehicles have a similar ability to move large numbers of people. That is an issue in most cities, where the emphasis on car travel produces serious congestion during peak hours. Public transport is the only sensible way to handle the large crowds who attend major events. The light rail systems are powered by electricity, so there is no local air pollution.

The only problem is a political one. Since Melbourne privatised its tram system, the operators decided to dispense with conductors in favour of machines on the vehicles. But fare income seems to have declined significantly. When I travel on trams in Melbourne, I observe that many passengers do not buy tickets or validate their myki cards.

So the Victorian government, facing a difficult election later this year, has opted to make travel in the CBD free. This also follows a trend. Perth provides free bus travel in its CBD, encouraging commuters to leave their cars at home. And Adelaide has made public transport free outside peak hours for senior citizens.

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The New Zealand government has announced three energy efficiency initiatives. It has long been obvious that the most cost-effective way to cut pollution and slow down climate change is to improve the efficiency of turning energy into services. The Howard government published a report more than 10 years ago saying that Australia could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30% using measures that repaid their investment in less than 4 years.

Successive governments have been relatively slow to implement this advice, apart from improving the minimum efficiency standards of domestic appliances. Even that measure was opposed as “interfering in the market” by the flat-Earth economists advising one state government.

Now the NZ government has recognised that making energy use more efficient will improve business productivity and thus save money, as well as reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

The plan is to invest $3.8 million into the three schemes that will be run by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA). The government claims that businesses and households will save up to $30 million over the lifetime of the investments, so it is obviously extremely cost-effective.

One initiative will be specifically targeted at the food industry, working with meat producers and the dairy industry to identify efficiency opportunities such as improvements to heat recovery processes, boiler tuning and fuel switching. EECA already has a heavy vehicle fuel efficiency scheme. This will be expanded. One specific proposal is for the authority to work in partnership with industry to increase the uptake of fuel efficient tyres.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.