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Tech & Science Canberra's light rail extension to be wireless despite 'significant' retro-fitting cost

05:21  18 february  2020
05:21  18 february  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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Stage 2A of Canberra's light rail will now be wireless, before even entering the Parliamentary Zone. (Supplied: ACT Government)© Provided by ABC NEWS Stage 2A of Canberra's light rail will now be wireless, before even entering the Parliamentary Zone. (Supplied: ACT Government)

Converting light rail vehicles to wire-free technology for the next stage of Canberra's network could cost up to 20 per cent more per vehicle and is a sign the ACT Government is bowing to pressure from the Commonwealth, an expert has warned.

The National Capital Authority (NCA) has long called for the section of track from Commonwealth Avenue Bridge through the Parliamentary Triangle to operate wirelessly, in a bid to preserve heritage views on Commonwealth land.

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The next stage of Canberra ' s light rail project is unlikely to extend as far as Canberra Hospital, despite the extension being the most favoured of the government's proposed routes in a survey of Canberrans.

The ACT government has released four possible extensions for Canberra ' s tramline, and says it will announce its preferred route before the election. Transport Minister Meegan Fitzharris said Labor would commit to build the second stage before the October election

Chief Minister Andrew Barr has previously said he wanted to limit wire-free technology to only those essential sections because of concerns it could blow-out the cost.

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But yesterday's announcement by Transport Minister Chris Steel appeared to go against that original position, with an additional 1.7 kilometres of track from the city to Commonwealth Avenue Bridge set to be made wire-free.

Mr Steel admitted the decision to make stage '2A' wireless would also mean a bigger price tag, as batteries would need to be retro-fitted on the rooves of 14 existing light rail vehicles, instead of running traditional wires and poles from above.

But he said the move to wireless technology before the track hit Commonwealth land was worthwhile.

Associate Professor Matthew Burke, from the Cities Research Institute at Griffith University, said the announcement showed the ACT Government had conceded to the NCA's demands because it ultimately wanted approval for the trickier stage '2B' through the Parliamentary Triangle and on to Woden.

"The ACT Government's wedged here. The NCA's made it pretty clear they don't want an operation with catenary — the wires — and they've really forced their hand to run with a battery tram," he said.

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"It's one of Canberra's curses that it actually has different jurisdictions planning for the city and not always do great outcomes happen.

"I don't think this is a terrible outcome, but it's emblematic of the kind of battles that happen between those tiers."

Mr Steel would not reveal how much extra it would cost to install the batteries, which also require charging at stops.

"There's an additional cost to that but it's not prohibitive," he replied when asked.

Associate Professor Burke also could not put a dollar figure on retro-fitting the vehicles, but noted that the cost would be "significant".

"Compared to buying battery-operated trams from the beginning there's going to be quite a steep cost to retro-fit those vehicles, something in the order of maybe 20 per cent of the original purchase price," he said.

Wire-free cost should fall on the Feds: Andrew Barr

The ACT Government has consistently encouraged the Federal Government to chip in financially when discussing the need for wire-free technology on Commonwealth land.

"Given that is something that will be enforced on the territory by the Commonwealth, that would be fair and reasonable for them to make a contribution to that additional cost," Mr Barr said.

The Government is hoping to sign contracts and start building stage 2A before the end of the year.

The Commonwealth has asked the ACT to produce an Environmental Impact Assessment for stage 2B, as it tries to wade through the myriad of environmental and heritage concerns surrounding building light rail through the Parliamentary Zone.

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