Recently, I noticed that the G:Link light rail system on Australia’s Gold Coast has been increasingly used as an example for light rail planning in our own region. A quick look at the Surrey Light Rail website shows several images of the Gold Coast system being used to illustrate light rail features, and TransLink’s video on the Surrey LRT system incorporates a lot of footage of the 13km Gold Coast system, describing it as “similar to the design underway for Surrey”.

It’s easy to understand why TransLink and the City of Surrey would be so keen to promote the Gold Coast system in our region – not that it has anything to do with the fact that the current President & Manager of SkyTrain, Vivienne King, was previously the CEO for G:Link’s operating company, KDR Gold Coast. It is no secret that Surrey has emphasized the economic development, land value, and land use shaping factors in its reasoning for choosing a light rail system. The Gold Coast system has been considered a success in this area.

How is it a success? For one, property values in Gold Coast “rose 30 per cent more” around LRT stations, and the system is attributed with contributing to an urban renewal outcome. With a station next to the famous “Surfer’s Paradise”, the system has also been attributed to making transit more attractive to tourists.

However, there is one metric by which Gold Coast’s G:Link light rail system is not a success. Light Rail on the Gold Coast has not resulted in a net increase in the Gold Coast region’s overall transit ridership.

The Gold Coast’s trams are a success but research shows light rail is yet to make a dent on road congestion

Gold Coast Bulletin – June 24, 2017

View Article  Mirror 1 Mirror 2

UPDATE  – Dec 13 2017 – I have managed to track down the original paper by Eric Keys; link is below.

I found out about this when I was pointed to an article in Gold Coast’s own Gold Coast Bulletin newspaper. This article reports on observations on Gold Coast made by Australian transport consultant Eric Keys, who noted his observations in a paper for the Australasian Transport Research Forum. The paper, which took note of all light rail developments in Australia between 2012 and 2016, was published with the goal of informing researchers studying how urban transportion projects are selected.

According to Keys, there is an extensive debate between researchers in Australia over the merits of light rail over rapid bus systems. This might be because other major Australian cities (such as Brisbane and Adelaide) have successfully integrated extensive busway systems as part of their transit networks.

Light Rail Development in Australia, 2012 – 2016

Eric Keys – Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University, Melbourne – ATRF 2016

Download Paper (PDF)

Keys points out that original projections for Gold Coast had forecast that daily transit ridership in the Gold Coast region would increase by 59 per cent with the introduction of light rail, and that the trams & wider public transit network would reduce congestion by removing 40,000 car trips. By far, in the 3 years that the G:Link light rail system has been operating, this outcome has not been achieved.

The problem? While the daily ridership count on the light rail system had reportedly surpassed the initial projections for the line, it was found that most of this ridership was riders that may have already commuting by public transit on buses, before the light rail was introduced.

“While the G: Link is enjoying healthy ridership the available evidence shows the project has failed to deliver the key outcome of increased regional public transport use.”

One of the key problems that was attributed to this failure to attract new transit riders was that few travel time savings were actually realized by LRT and bus riders throughout the Gold Coast region.

I can find no concrete numbers on how much travel time savings were created by G:Link over previous bus services, which suggests to me that commute improvements were not a focus when planning for this line. The entire system is situated at street-level, and the G:Link runs on city streets at the speed of surrounding traffic. If transit riders are not perceiving significant travel time savings over previous bus services, then the on-street alignment may be largely responsible for this.

Department of Transport and Main Roads data reveals 6.18 million light rail passengers in the 2014-15 financial year — about 18,200 trips per day — but that was offset by a decline of 6.15 million bus users.

As is typical with the construction of major rail and bus rapid transit projects, existing through bus routes that had used the corridors now served by light rail were cut back to light rail stations – requiring riders to transfer onto light rail. As a result, existing bus riders were finding that there was no time advantage with the light rail system in place and the transfer requirement.

It is an issue that has been noted by some prominent transit observers:

Other observers have noted that connecting bus services were given few upgrades in conjunction with the light rail system. Robert Dow – a spokesperson for the Australian transit advocacy organization “RAIL Back On Track” – made note of this issue when commenting on G:Link’s ridership outcomes.

“You will have this hard core of light rail supported by buses. It will be attractive to people. What has to happen is buses have to be given road priority,” Mr Dow said.

Dow further stated that the bus network on the Gold Coast had been treated shabbily by TransLink, the regional operator (I should mention before continuing that the regional transit operator in Brisbane-Gold Coast is also named TransLink, sharing the name with our region’s transit operator).

According to Dow, there is a need to “increase the network, increase capacity and hours” on the regional bus system – an undertaking which had not been performed already.

High operating costs could pose a major challenge for expanding bus service

Of course, as Jarrett Walker notes, the first phase of G:Link (which extends 13km) is very short – which means transferring bus riders are not on the light rail for any significant time. An extension of the G:Link system is underway and a second extension is in the planning stages, so there is a possibility that this will change.

However, in order for this change to be fully realized, the regional operator (TransLink) still needs to deliver on improvements to bus service – by improving the network, capacity and hours of existing bus routes. This will come at an additional cost for the Gold Coast region.

One major obstacle I feel that the Gold Coast region is going to face is finding the funds to pay for this increased bus service, especially with the mounting costs of operating light rail.

Operating subsidies for Gold Coast's Light Rail
G:Link requires an annual operation subsidy of $40 million AUD (approx. $38.6 million CAD), a number that is set to increase further as new extensions come online.

That means that G:Link’s operator is spending nearly $6.50 AUD per rider, and that G:Link is operating at a loss. Current go card fares to ride G:Link are normally $3.20 AUD during peak hours, and $2.56 AUD off-peak, indicating that between 50 and 60% of the operating cost per ride must be subsidized.

Whether or not this is higher or lower than the cost to subsidize bus services is a question to which I do not have the answer. However, TransLink will also have to account for any debt servicing payments to address the $1.5 billion AUD price tag to build the original 13km G:Link line, and the $426 million AUD to build the first of the upcoming two extensions.

I would hope that TransLink’s reluctance or inability to improve bus service in Gold Coast is not a result of challenges imposed by light rail’s high costs, but it seems possible that this is the case.

Poor reliability is a major issue

One other issue that I suspect has made a considerable contribution to this ridership outcome is that the Gold Coast system is prone to serious reliability issues.

Light rail proponents like to focus on the improved regularity of rail services over the bus services that they replace, which is true if trains are given dedicated lanes. Gold Coasts’s light rail system, which is indeed in dedicated lanes, presumably did improve service regularity compared to buses. Service is provided at a 7.5 minute frequency for most of the day and there is 24-hour service on weekends, operated every 30 minutes. When there are no disruptions, riders can expect trains to arrive on time.

However, service regularity is different from service reliability.

Because Gold Coast’s G:Link light rail is situated entirely on city streets, much of its reliability depends on both pedestrians and drivers not making errors in judgment ahead of an approaching train. Delays and service disruptions are often a result of train collisions with pedestrians and vehicles – when car drivers disobey a traffic signal, fail to yield right of way, or make a left turn in the path of an incoming train.

As such, G:Link has not been free of major shortfalls in its reliability.

In the 3 years since G:Link first opened, the light rail system has been shown to be extremely prone to service delays, shut-downs and other major reliability issues. These issues create serious barriers for those who live on, work on and make use of this LRT line every single day.

When trains are not showing up on time – or the system faces shut downs due to power problems, accidents, blocked tracks, and other issues common to LRT systems – this can have a remarkable effect on the ridership outcome of a transit system, especially when it is expected by its patrons to serve as a reliable, fast and frequent transit link

Accidents, when they do happen, can cause delays and shut-downs that last for several hours. In one instance, a fire truck that drove into the path of a light rail train caused the train to derail off of its tracks, damaging the light rail infrastructure, shutting down both directions and causing major delays:

Gold Coast’s light rail system will continue to suffer these issues because of its on-street, fixed-track design, and there is little that can be done short of re-building the entire system to be fully grade-separated, or converting it into a trackless train system.

Until then, it remains to be seen whether G:Link will be able to deliver on the promises of increasing transit ridership and reducing congestion in the Gold Coast region.

Issues with light rail systems going under the radar

As we consider whether or not to build a light rail transit system in Surrey or an expansion of the SkyTrain system instead, it is incredibly important that we properly examine any transit systems that have been cited as a model for our city. In many cases, big issues and inaccuracies, cleverly hidden by proponents of light rail technology, go under the radar and fail to be considered.

As an example, when the City of Surrey first indicated in 2012 that they would go ahead with a push for light rail technology, the LRT system in Portland, Oregon was cited by city planners and decision-makers as an example, specifically citing its ability to “shape development” around transit stations.

When I came forward and cited research showing that much of this real estate develpment around Portland’s LRT stations was incentivized through government subsidies, the City of Surrey all but stopped actively citing Portland as a model for its selection of light rail.

Since then, I’m sure that the City of Surrey has been keen to seek different systems to cite as a model for its light rail selection. Given the circumstances, I am not surprised that Gold Coasts’s light rail system – which has delivered on its urban renewal outcomes – has been put in this position.

However, Gold Coast’s failure to deliver in improving transit services, increasing transit ridership and reducing congestion should be noted by our decision-makers, and must not go forgotten.

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.
Gold Coast’s light rail is failing to attract new transit riders