Light Rail that Works: Plan, Integrate and Optimise

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Saturday, December 28th, 2013
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Transport authorities considering the introduction of a modern light rail transit system or the extension of an existing system will face numerous challenges during the project’s planning, delivery and operational stages.

Light Rail Transit (LRT) systems are increasingly being retrofitted into existing urban environments. After all, these are the very places where people live, work and play. Very rarely are new LRT systems built in completely greenfield environments. It is not best practice to implement a modern rapid transit system only to end up moving empty trams around the network. As such, it is imperative that the LRT system be planned for the optimisation of transport demand efficiency and be matched with a system that provides the necessary capacity for both current and future considerations.

Challenges arise not only in relation to design and construction, but also with respect to existing policy, planning and procurement practices. The urban environment presents challenges in corridor and route selection, optimal station and interchange location, conflict with existing above and below ground infrastructure, and integration with the adjacent road transport system. However, more intangible challenges are also frequently overlooked.

Delivering ‘Bang For Your Buck’

Issues relating to a lack of supporting transport and regulatory policy, inefficient land use and poorly integrated transport systems must be acknowledged and resolved if the LRT system is to provide the “best bang for your buck” and serve as an efficient and sustainable transport system, or key element within the network.

By their very nature, LRT routes are not as dynamic or flexible once the tracks are laid, so it is very important to achieve optimum land usage and transit integration early on in the project planning phase. It may be necessary to make “tough decisions” sooner rather than later with respect to corridor and route selection that affords the best transport outcome over the life of the project and beyond. LRT projects should be viewed as “city-shaping” or “city-changing” projects.

System planners should not opt for easier corridor and route selections based solely on the ready availability of land or ask passengers to go to the “back door” – the edge of activity centres, when they want to arrive at the “front door” – right in the heart of the activity centre.

Capacity and Operational Efficiency

LRT corridor planning is not the same as highway or motorway planning, nor should it simply follow existing bus route networks. Highways skirt towns and cities and are often point to point corridors.  Bus routes are often historical and contract-based and may not suit the carrying capacity and operational efficiency of modern LRT systems. Total corridor passenger capacity may actually increase via the reallocation of road space from “lazy lanes.”

Existing public transport bus operations must be reviewed, with changes to bus operations (ie to feeder bus), bus routes (ie non-competing), to provide highly efficient bus–rail interchanges and to provide integrated fare and ticketing systems. The benefits of the new LRT line can extend well beyond the actual route.

Safety and regulatory policies and procedures may need to be reviewed due to the very nature of modern light rapid transit vehicles. LRT is not the same as heavy rail and should not be subject to the same regulatory and safety procedures of existing, and perhaps historical, heavy rail systems.

Funding and Cost Benefit Issues

Systems that will fully recoup construction and operational costs are very rare. Most LRT systems will rely on public sector funding and some form of subsidy. The fare box alone will not pay the way.  Innovative funding and delivery models, integrated land development, station and vehicle advertising, third-party services corridors, land value capture mechanisms, bus operational savings and optimised patronage and fares across the broader transport network are measures that need to be investigated during the project business case to provide the best value for governments.

The need for LRT systems to consider their long-term impact as well as integration with broader transport systems and land use underscores the need for multidisciplinary planning teams that can integrate many skills beyond traditional engineering if they are to maximise value for users and governments.

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