Scope#12 | GoldlinQ

Take the tram to the surf on Australia’s Gold Coast

By William Sposato

The sleek tram glides quietly into the busy station on Australia’s famed Gold Coast resort; local residents and tourists exit through the large sliding doors with their swim gear and surfboards for a day at the beach.

Surfboards on a tram?

Yes, surfboard racks are a unique feature of G:link, the light rail network that has transformed the way people travel in this high-rise dotted resort mecca in Queensland, Australia, that attracts over 12 million tourists every year.

Modern-day trams, known more technically as light rail vehicles or LRVs, have become increasingly popular for mid-sized cities where the expense of a subway system would be prohibitive.

For the Gold Coast, light rail was seen as the perfect option with large crowds of residents and tourists moving north and south on increasingly crowded highways jostling for parking spots.

“The population on the Gold Coast is basically doubling every 20 years and everyone would like to live right beside the beach. So we needed a public transport system that would cater to people to move up and down that very limited space. Light rail brings that solution,” says Phil Mumford, chief executive of GoldlinQ Pty Ltd, the company created to supervise the construction and operation of the G:link system.

Implementation of the plan has been swift. With a green light given by the Queensland Government in 2009, construction started two years later and the 13-km Stage 1 line was up and running by 2014.

It has been a complex task to pull together the necessary expertise and most importantly win over the local community. Traffic disruptions were common in the construction period as busy thoroughfares were dug up to build not only the tracks, but also to update the underground water and power networks that the fast-growing area would need.

“It was a difficult construction period but we made it through, we were supporting businesses along the route as much as we could,” says Jason Ward, the communications and operations director for the project.

Through construction and the launch of daily operations, Marubeni has been a key player. It holds a 30% stake in the project and has been able to bring its global experience in large-scale transportation infrastructure projects.

“Our goal is to be much more than a passive investor. With representation on the board and involvement in the daily operations, we aim to contribute both financial and intellectual capital,” says Hanae Yamawaki, who has been seconded to the project by Marubeni. She seems to have few regrets about trading the packed trains of daily commuting in Tokyo for the ease of hopping on the G:link to get to work each day.

“My day starts with riding the tram to the office. It gives me time to think about the day and week ahead and I enjoy the atmosphere of the tram. In Tokyo, you don’t get the same feeling when you’re heading to work,” she adds.

Any misgivings by local residents and businesses have meanwhile been replaced by an appreciation for the safety and convenience the tram offers.

“There are more people coming to shop now. Since we are not in one of the big malls, it’s been a big help to bring people in front of our store,” says the manager of a trendy stationery store in aptly named Surfers Paradise.

The light rail vehicles, which are sleek newly built seven-module units, are a far cry from the urban trams of vintage movies. Spacious inside with easy disabled access, they can travel up to 70 kph along dedicated stretches but slow down to a pedestrian friendly 20 to 25 kph in the main shopping and dining streets just off the beach.

Another big safety advantage comes from giving tourists who like to relax with a few drinks the chance to head back after an evening without getting into their car. With that in mind, the trams run 24-hours on Fridays and Saturdays.

“Driving through Surfers Paradise, there are a lot of people around, so safety is a big concern for us, especially at night. It can be a bit of a party area so you really need to keep an eye out,” says Selena Devenport, one of the 52 LRV operators on staff to handle the 14 trams in daily operation. She adds that becoming a tram driver was a big change from her previous work in the hospitality industry, taking up her current role because “I thought tram driving seemed like an interesting thing so I applied.”

With Stage 1 in full operation (and with an on-time performance above 99%), construction is already underway for a 7-km extension that will link into the existing train lines (Stage 2), offering connections to the city of Brisbane and the mainline train network. Stage 2 was completed and started operation in December 2017.

That will be just in time for one of the biggest events ever to come to the Gold Coast, the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Bringing together 70 countries from around the former British Empire, the Games are one of the biggest in the world with over 6,600 athletes taking part. The influx is expected to create a surge in passenger traffic from the current 21,000-25,000 up to the system’s full capacity of nearly 80,000 daily.

“Every bit of planning by the entire GoldlinQ team is focused on assuring that this showcase event works seamlessly from the transport perspective,” says Mumford.

For Mumford, playing an important role in the showcase event is a clear demonstration of the value of the Public-Private Partnership that formed between the Queensland Government and GoldlinQ, including the investment and expertise from Marubeni.

“Given that we are a publicly and privately funded piece of infrastructure, it is important that it works for all parties. Our partnership has been a success, both for our investors, and for our clients and the community.”

For Marubeni’s Yamawaki, the satisfaction comes in seeing what the project has brought to the community.

“I enjoy seeing people riding the tram. Sometimes when I talk to the passengers, they say how much they appreciate having the tram and that G:link is making their lives better.”

Gold Coast light rail is an 18-year Public-Private Partnership between the Queensland Government and GoldlinQ Pty Ltd, including the investment and expertise of equity investor Marubeni.

All information contained in this article is based on interviews conducted in April 2017.