Breathing life into Brisbane’s underground rail

Could driverless light rail be a key to Brisbane’s future transport system? Photo: Glenn Hunt Brisbane’s busways could be converted to use with a light rail system. Photo: Glenn Hunt

Tunnels such as the Clem 7 have transformed Brisbane’s road network. Photo: Glenn Hunt

Airport link tunnel. Photo: Harrison Saragossi

Brisbane’s future underground rail project under George Street must mesh with a stand-alone “driverless mini-metro” system in the city’s CBD to give the project “more bang for its buck”, an experienced tunnelling expert said.

It must also plan for more than one rail track in each direction.

Scott Keniston from the Australian Tunnelling Society will deliver a speech outlining these issues at the University of Queensland on Thursday to re-open public debate about the future of Brisbane’s underground rail.

Mr Keniston founded Bamser, a tunnelling advice service for Brisbane until it was bought out by a national management buyout and now operates from Perth to Sydney.

Mr Keniston, now managing director Skarpa PL,  has advised the New South Wales’ government on its North West Rail metro system – Australia’s first driverless metro system – and has advised the past two Queensland Governments on the Cross River Rail and Legacy Way tunnels.

“One of the key things that the new government needs to take into consideration is that the George Street corridor is a one-time deal,” Mr Keniston said.

“The alignment works really well, but are two tracks though that corridor really enough given that there is only one Roma Street?” he asked.

Mr Keniston said Brisbane has had cross-river link suggestions for 90 years well before Labor’s Cross River Rail and the LNP’s Bus and Train Tunnel in the past decade.

“We have actually had 90 years of proposals – and some of them very credible – which haven’t been built,” Mr Keniston said.

“And the reason for that is funding,” he said.

“And if you are going to compete for funding you need to have the ‘best bang for buck’ and get more for less.”

Mr Keniston will on Thursday recommend a three-pronged approach to give the new Cross River Rail “more bang for the buck.”

1 – Using a ‘driverless metro system’ around the inner-city; similar to Bucharest.

2 – Including extra underground train lines under George Street, but not adding the trackwork until needed.

3 – Planning for a time 15 to 20 years ahead, when Brisbane’s busways are all light rail.

Mr Keniston said all of Brisbane’s busways were built to be switched to light rail.

He said the idea of an ‘inner-city metro’ – separate but meshed to the new version Cross River Rail – had first been considered by Campbell Newman as Brisbane’s lord mayor in 2011.

“I had spoken to him two days beforehand and given him a presentation on how cost-effective a metro system might be,” Mr Keniston said.

Mr Keniston said the scheme was shouted down in the media before figures could be checked to see if they could be achieved.

“And then shortly thereafter he went off and declared that he would run for premier and the idea never went any further.”

Mr Keniston – who has a background in undergound mine engineering – said the incremental cost in providing the extra space under George Street would not be significant in the overall cost.

“It is not necessary to fit them out with tracks, but to create the (underground) space and have one eye on the future is appropriate,” he said.

He will on Thursday suggest the tunnels under George Street be dug by “road headers” and not tunnel boring machines, because TBM’s provide only a circular tunnel – not flexible enough – and “road headers” could save one year in construction time and costs.

However Mr Keniston said his strongest argument was that Brisbane needed to plan for 15 to 20 years in the future when most of Brisbane’s busways have been converted to light rail and “driverless metro” system ran through the inner-city.

Features of a metro system

– Driverless tram-like carriages running in a circuit;

– Stations are 800 metres to a kilometre apart;

– no timetables, just high frequency service around the inner-city;

– More standing rather than sitting passenger areas.

Mr Keniston said “metro” was inevitable in inner-city Brisbane.

“Almost certainly Brisbane will get metro,” he said.

“There are already comparable cities around the world with comparable population densities have managed to fund and operate driverless metro,” he said.

He named Bucharest in Romania – with its six metro lines – as a similar case to Brisbane.

Bucharest has a large urban area and a population of about 2.2 million residents, while Brisbane – which includes Australia’s largest local authority – has around 2.3 million residents.

“Driveless metro is very much the norm now and is being rolled out in very similar environments around the world,” he said.

“For Brisbane it’s a case of when, not if, is probably the summary.”

Funding issues

Mr Keniston said capturing value uplift – the rising value of properties close to good infrastructure – was the model to explore.

“There are a number of stakeholders which already benefit from the alignment being chosen,” he said.

“And they get that by default.

“The government benefits most by controlling most of the land around the future George Street station .

“But others will be taken on the journey and currently will garner that uplift in value for free.

“But I imagine that the opportunities to build on or around the stations would be something that the state  would be interested in valuing potentially for a transaction.”

Scott Keniston speaks on Thursday at University of Queensland’s Advanced Engineering Building; Room: 49-301 from 5.30pm for 6pm.

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