Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Tram or light rail? What are we building in Canberra?

 Is it a tram or is it light rail?

Terminology around public transport technologies is often used in a fast and loose way by advocates and opponents. One persons rapid bus is another persons bus in traffic. The Capital Metro light rail project is a perfect example of using terminology as a veiled attack.

Trams, colloquially shortened from Tram Cars or Tramcars are typically associated with your average Melbourne tram. They travel on the street along rails embedded into the road surface and share the traffic with cars. In some places they are referred to as trolley cars.

Light rail, referred to as such because it is a smaller version of heavy passenger rail, is typically associated with more modern public transport systems, with low floor vehicles, travelling on its own right of way, and not sharing the road with cars. It is an industry standard term.

The public transport industry does not refer to the technology that Canberra is building as trams, it exclusively refers to light rail vehicles, or light rail transit. In Melbourne almost all new extensions to the tram network have been built to light rail specifications with vehicles separated from traffic on their own right of way. Fleet replacement has exclusively been low floor modern light rail vehicles, with articulated bodies, enabling 200 or more passengers. These are not tram cars. But the tram culture is strong and valued, and rightly the term Tram is used to describe their tram and light rail network.

Canberra is constructing a light rail route almost exclusively to light rail standard with light rail vehicles travelling on their own right of way and not sharing the road with cars. Despite this, in Canberra it has become a badge of ignorance worn proudly to refer to the Capital Metro light rail project as the Gungahlin Tram. Sadly, even the Canberra Times falls into this political and partisan language game. Although it is expected that political opponents of a public transport and infrastructure program will deliberately distort arguments and language in the contest of ideas it doesn't necessarily mean that they are right, and that it's a good example to follow. It is odd that journalists use lazy language when they are supposed to be reporting on events accurately, to inform their readers.

Will this influence the way that Capital Metro is referred to by Canberran's in the decades to come? I suspect not. There is no Melbourne tram culture here, and in Sydney the light rail system is not referred to as the Sydney tram, even though they also had a tram culture. Once the light rail system is operational and tens of thousands of Canberran's use it every day, it will create its own language.

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