Gold Coast light rail debacle should serve as a warning to other cities

The Gold Coast light rail project has had a number of significant failures, including major cost blowouts, major disruptions to local businesses during construction, and poor signage that will infuriate tourists who hop off at the Surfers Paradise station when actually another station, Cavill Avenue, is in the heart of Surfers. Now it’s being reported that screeching noises from the trams are upsetting local residents (Tram noise infuriates residents). So the benefit-cost ratio of the light rail system would be even lower than the low value previously expected, taking into account this disruption to the amenity of local residents.

Sure, light rail may encourage some tourism to the Gold Coast – e.g. some day-trippers from Brisbane wanting to take one ride on the tram – but I doubt the long-term tourism boost will be of the magnitude expected, as once people have ridden the tram once for novelty value they probably won’t come back. The major users of the tram service will probably be Griffith Gold Coast students catching the tram from the campus to the beach. I expect most tourists would be staying near the beach anyway or have their own car or a hire car with them. So I doubt the trams will yield significant tourism benefits and a significant injection of cash into the region. The major beneficiaries are likely to be students already in the region, and who could be more cost-effectively transported by buses (see my post Trams unlikely to be cost-effective – buses much cheaper).

So other cities would be wise to be wary of light rail given the experience on the Gold Coast, and trams certainly should not be returned to Brisbane streets, an idea which was floated a few weeks ago by Tourism chief Daniel Gschwind. It appears the ACT Opposition has figured out light rail is a waste of money based on the Gold Coast experience, with the Opposition Transport spokesman noting “What we have seen on the Gold Coast is the cost [of a light rail network] blow out to $100 million per kilometre.” (see ACT Liberals would stop light rail project if elected) Unfortunately, given the Gold Coast system has already been built, it will operate. Hence it will continue to cost Queensland taxpayers and Gold Coast ratepayers, who will subsidise the operating costs of a transport system that is unlikely to achieve sufficient passenger numbers to justify its huge cost.

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