RON GARDINER. Brisbane City Council’s Metro Madness

Oct 8, 2018

To address busway-congestion problems in central Brisbane, City Council plans to introduce, in 2023, a new and ‘distinctive’ form of public transport. Priced at approximately $1 billion, the project has the inappropriate name Brisbane Metro  (common definition: a railway system, usually underground). Three aspects of Brisbane Metro are cause for urgent concern – choice of vehicle, proposed river-crossing route, and pervasive use of deception in promoting the project. The first two stem directly from Council’s aborted 2016 light rail project.

Brisbane Metro (BM) will purchase 60 ‘metro vehicles’, probably from overseas. A radically-new type of public transport vehicle, these will create operational and maintenance issues. Their power source, manufacturer and cost remain unspecified, but their length (24+ metres) and capacity (150 passengers) are specified. Crucially, their appearance is determined: doubly-articulated, rubber-tyred buses but, to emphasise their distinctiveness, designed disingenuously to resemble stunted light rail trains. Their wheels are hidden behind cowls and, with few exceptions, computer-generated images of them are oriented to foster the misconception that they run on rails.

Council claims that BM will benefit “the entire public transport system of Brisbane.” In reality, BM consists of two overlapping routes (called ‘lines’ – buses have routes!), one from the RB&W Hospital to the University of Queensland, the other from Roma Street to Eight Mile Plains. BM’s Business Case identifies the need for “a broader metro network”. Meanwhile, for most bus commuters and all train commuters, BM will be largely irrelevant.

Travelling between the existing underground busway station below King George Square and a proposed new underground busway station on the other side of the Brisbane River near the Cultural Centre, metro vehicles will take a convoluted and counter-intuitive route to cross the river. They will come to the surface and appropriate half the width of Victoria Bridge and a section of North Quay, from which general traffic will be excluded, permanently. (Currently, general traffic accesses North Quay and two of Victoria Bridge’s four lanes.)

This route necessitates significant construction work in central Brisbane – demolition of the congested Cultural Centre busway station, and construction, on each side of the river, of an underground-station-to-surface inclined tunnel. Tunnel portals will occupy half the width of two main arteries (Melbourne Street and Adelaide Street), key links at opposite ends of Victoria Bridge. Starting in 2020 and lasting 2.5 years, construction activities will create major bus and general traffic problems; interference with customary business, cultural and entertainment activities; and significant environmental degradation.

Why will metro vehicles use Victoria Bridge to cross the river?  BM’s Business Case states that, of 23 options which were evaluated (no details are published), BM “delivers the greatest benefit to Brisbane as a whole.” Noting the emphasis placed on the appearance of metro vehicles, perhaps the Victoria Bridge route was chosen for aesthetic reasons. Where better to display their distinctive train-like features?  In a tunnel, they would be invisible.

Elsewhere, both metro routes will be housed within 21 kilometres of existing busway (Brisbane has 27 kilometres of busway, built and owned by the Queensland Government), with metro vehicles and buses sharing busways. Too long to be driven on Brisbane streets, metro vehicles will operate only within busways, and can’t access any of Council’s seven bus depots, requiring 5.5 hectares to be purchased and developed, beside the busway, to stable and service them.

BM’s Business Case states, “Without investment in busway infrastructure, there will be insufficient capacity to meet projected growth.” The BM plan adds no new busway. The only obviously-beneficial infrastructure created by BM is the new underground busway station, necessitated by demolition of the surface-level Cultural Centre busway station. Until the Queensland Government builds more busways, significant expansion of BM is impossible.

The Business Case estimates BM’s capital cost, with absurdly unrealistic precision, to be $944 million. Frequently, it is asserted that BM is fully funded. This is questionable. Accepting ‘independent advice’ from Infrastructure Australia, the Federal Government pledged $300 million towards BM, but political volatility raises doubts. Certainly, BM will cost rate-payers at least $700 million – more than 60% of Council’s income from rates and utilities this financial year.

There are better ways to address busway congestion at the Cultural Centre:

  1. Link the existing King George Square underground busway station to the new Cultural Centre underground busway station by an under-river tunnel, retaining the surface-level Cultural Centre busway station – solving, long-term, a seemingly-chronic busway-congestion problem. There’s then no need to exclude general traffic from Victoria Bridge and North Quay. Sloping tunnels and their portals are eliminated. Construction activity in the city centre, and litigation risk, are reduced appreciably.

The dearth of vehicular river-crossings contributes to traffic congestion in the CBD. BM’s Business Case confirms this: “Additional cross-river capacity is needed, for both bus and rail.” Cross River Rail, the Queensland Government’s current project (unsupported federally), addresses part of this imperative. An under-river busway tunnel addresses the remainder. BM ignores it.

  1. Replace metro vehicles with a variant of currently-used, locally-assembled, singly-articulated buses, with low floors, three wide doors and passenger-carrying capacity of 130. Elimination of overly-long vehicles simplifies operations, new stabling and maintenance arrangements are eliminated, and immediate modification of 17 busway stations is unnecessary.

Installation of BM will inhibit consideration of a better strategy to address Brisbane’s future public transport requirements – such as incremental development of a comprehensive, largely-underground railway network, worthy of the name Brisbane Metro. A six-car train can move 900+ passengers, at speeds of up to 140 km/hr.

Scrapping BM will obviate a plethora of meaningless promotional slogans: “BM gets you home 50% faster; removes 125 buses from the CBD; unlocks the potential of the busways; increases liveability across the city; improves regional accessibility to Brisbane; positions Brisbane as a world-class destination; enhances access to global precincts.”

Taking account of BM’s tangible costs (property acquisition; major construction; vehicle purchase; busway station modification) and intangible costs (re-routing bus services and general traffic; inconvenience to pedestrians and cyclists; disruption of customary business, cultural and entertainment activities; environmental degradation; possible legal challenges – all for 2.5 years), will BM deliver value for rate-payers’ and tax-payers’ money?  Is it an opportunistic short-term ‘fix’ – or metro madness?

Note: Brisbane City Council’s Brisbane Metro Draft Design Report – Key Findings, April 2018 incorporates, on pages 8, 9 and 35, annotated maps of both BM routes. Pages 24 and 25 include a plan view of Victoria Bridge and its surroundings. The existing Cultural Centre busway station (to be demolished on implementation of BM) is located mid-way between the Performing Arts Centre and the Museum-Art Gallery complex. The existing underground King George Square busway station is beyond the upper right-hand corner of the plan, but is shown on page 9. Page 33 includes a rare side-elevation of the proposed metro vehicle.

Emeritus Professor Ron Gardiner is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Physics, and of the Institute of Physics (London). In 1989, he became QUT’s inaugural Dean of Science. He is a staunch advocate for public transport, and uses it frequently.

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