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Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities
Role of transport connectivity in stimulating development and economic activity

McAULEY, Mr Robert, Associate, Bishop Austrans

YORK, Mr Michael de Dutton, Convenor, Bishop Austrans Consortium


CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attract parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a opening statement before we proceed to discussion.

Mr McAuley : Good morning, gentlemen. Thank you for inviting us to attend today as witnesses. In Wednesday's Daily Telegraph,the New South Wales minister for transport, Andrew Constance, was kind enough to write the introduction to our presentation today, and I am very grateful to him for doing exactly that. Let me quote:

The future of Sydney transport has no drivers, no timetables and a truly interconnected network that puts the commuter first. Transport is a tech business, and governments need to get their heads out of the sand and get out of the way of innovators who can make everyone's commute easier every day.

He went on to say:

… money is not innovation and governments do not do technology well.… We can either ride this wave of technology, or get dumped by it.

How right you are, Andrew; but the concept that you are alluding to already exists. It is called Austrans, an electrically-driven, fully-automated, computer-controlled, high-speed driverless system that utilises the airspace above existing roadways. Light weight, air-conditioned passenger capsules power almost silently along at speeds of up to 120 kilometres per hour on rails cantilevered off pylons erected alongside roadways. No or little land to be resumed. No interference with existing traffic lanes. No tunnels to be bored. Austrans is indeed the transport system for today. It is extremely cost-effective to install and to operate as a mass people mover or as a serious alternative to the motor car in the off-peak travel time. As a concept that fits value capture criteria of today's world, Austrans is truly tailor-made. It can be fully integrated into the design of new high rise apartments, commercial buildings shopping malls and universities et cetera along its route. It can provide a fast and cost-effective interconnecting link with all existing main transport hubs, plus those being built and planned.

The tragic thing about Austrans is that it was developed in Sydney almost 20 years ago. In fact, the federal government invested, for then, an unprecedented $14.3 million in its research and development—an amount matched dollar for dollar by its inventor, Arthur Bishop, who was truly one of this nation's greatest inventive engineers. We now all fly safer in modern aircraft thanks to the landing gear developed by Arthur for heavy bombers in World War II. Today, over 20 per cent of cars on the roads of the world rely on variable pitch rack and pinion steering—another extraordinary product of Arthur's ingenuity.

In the 1980s, with the CSIRO developing and perfecting its computer-controlled operating system, Arthur designed, built and exhaustively tested full-scale prototypes of his Austrans system. At the time, it was light years ahead of all other public transport systems throughout the world. Driverless, electronically driven, computer-controlled, it was simply far too radical for governments at the time to commit to.

With the death of Arthur in 2006, his family company closed down and Austrans was all but forgotten—that is, until Michael York, an engineer who worked with Arthur, realised there was a black hole in current plans for both metro and light rail systems in the greater Sydney area. It was a hole that Austrans could fill. Operating as a feeder route system, it could provide transport to and from the major rail hubs, to people living and working in nearby fast-developing suburbs. A small consortium headed by Michael approached our local federal member, who happened to be John Alexander. He immediately grasped the potential of Austrans and encouraged us to continue. Thank you, John, for that.

And so we are here today with strong belief that a re-engineered Austrans, utilising today's technology, has a vital role to play in helping resolve our national public transport problems. During the final test period of the full-scale prototypes, Arthur commissioned the production of a videotape. It graphically illustrates precisely what Austrans is all about. I am going to screen that video now, and I have no doubt that each and every one of you will be able to visualise the role that Austrans could play in locations that you are familiar with.

CHAIR: While we are waiting for the video, and so we do not waste our time together, can you tell me what the passenger capacity is compared to current available light rail and heavy rail?

Mr McAuley : Michael is the expert on these things.

Mr York : What was the question?

CHAIR: What is the carrying capacity of your system—numbers of passengers—compared to light rail or heavy rail?

Mr York : Austrans will carry 8,000 to 10,000 people an hour. The cars travel three seconds apart, so they can go through like a train. If there are other cars at a station and there is a train going by, a series of cars going by, they can spread out, let that car in and the whole system goes through. The beauty of Austrans is that it is pick-up to destination nonstop.

I have some of the times here—we have done a feasibility study on the northern beaches—and from Brookvale to Wynyard station, it is 16 minutes; Balgowlah to North Sydney, 8½ minutes; Spit Junction to Martin Place, six minutes. This is pick-up to destination nonstop. I have some other figures here: Parramatta to Epping, 12 minutes; Epping to Rouse Hill, 24 minutes; Parramatta to CBD, 16 minutes; and Rouse Hill to CBD, 38 minutes. This is the travelling time for Austrans.

CHAIR: So the advantages are speed—

Mr York : Up to 120 kays per hour.

CHAIR: and flexibility.

Mr York : Well, also, once Austrans has got up to speed, from pick-up to destination nonstop, there is very little power used to drive the car. It is not like you are stopping at every station and having kinetic energy having to build up all the time. Once the cars get to cruising speed they use very little power. There are two 50-horsepower motors in the car, and the cars can be solar powered and battery—absolutely green.

CHAIR: Looking specifically at our various projects in Sydney and the current light rail going south to Randwick and beyond, do you think we may have been better served to have had the Austrans system going into the city, and would it have a greater flexibility to then circle within the city and do specific drop-offs?

Mr York : Yes. I can give you some installation figures, if that would be of help?

CHAIR: Yes—very much.

Mr York : They might have to be updated, but the figures—the ratios—between Austrans, light rail and heavy rail should stay the same. If we are looking at Austrans, it is $10 million to $20 million per kilometre; light rail is $15 million to $30 million per kilometre, and heavy rail is way above that. In operating costs, for Austrans it is 10c to 15c per passenger per kilometre. For light rail it is about 30c per kilometre, and buses are about twice that.

Buses are very expensive to run because of maintenance and diesel engines, fuels and drivers and everything. You have to remember that two guys in the control room control this whole transport system. There are no drivers. Just this week we had bus drivers not turning up for work. I believe up in Brisbane they have new trains up there and they have no drivers for them. This system will operate without people.

In peak hours, as I have said, it will take 8,000 to 10,000 people an hour. In off-peak hours, if no-one wants to travel, there are no cars moving on the track. So there is a big saving there. If a nurse comes out of a hospital at midnight and has to get home, she can go to the station, strike her card and within two to three minutes a car will turn up, and she has got personal transport home.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: I apologise because I have to leave for another commitment, so I might just ask a question before I go. Austrans essentially runs on a monorail-type track. Is that correct?

Mr York : Yes.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: Sydneysiders love to hate the monorail because of its visual impact. Are you concerned that the community might not accept an extensive network—

Mr York : The track can run down the median strip of a road.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: So it can do it at ground level?

Mr York : Or it can be cantilevered from the footpath over the parked cars or the first lane of traffic.


Mr McAuley : Incidentally, the video, which is five minutes, is ready to run.

CHAIR: Oh, good. Do you have another question before we go to that?


CHAIR: Let's see the video then.

A video was then shown—

Mr LLEW O'BRIEN: Very impressive. When was the last time its development was looked? I understand there was some interest back in the late nineties. Is that right?

Mr York : The federal government gave $14.3 million to Austrans for development in 1998, and the design went on until 2006.

Mr LLEW O'BRIEN: So 2006 would be the last time.

Mr York : There was a test track built at Chullora where that film was taken.

Mr McAuley : We have access to a couple of those vehicles. Although the track has since been demolished, the passenger modules and the drive systems are all in existence. They are covered with a little bit of bird what have you, but they are still there and could form the basis for further research in developing new technology that could be adapted for that use.

Mr York : The engineering is basically there, but it would have to be updated. For instance, solar panels and batteries have come so far since that date, so, instead of having the third-rail pick-up that we were showing there, it could be solar powered and battery operated.

Mr LLEW O'BRIEN: I would imagine that advancements in computer technology and software would probably be of benefit to you now. It is obviously directed at metropolitan areas. Is there any consideration being given to regional or—

Mr York : One hundred and twenty kilometres is the maximum speed. If you went from here to Newcastle, 120 kilometres probably would not be enough. But for suburban and city areas that would be fine. Although it will do up to 120 kilometres, around the suburbs you would probably do 70 or 80 kilometres. For instance, Parramatta to the CBD at perhaps 80 kilometres would take 16 minutes, I think I said.

Mr McAuley : We see it as the perfect feeder to the main metro lines that billions of dollars have now been spent developing et cetera. The population is away from them but that population still has to get to the main hubs, and there are great gaps in the links between where the metro and light rail connect that need servicing. Our suggestion at the moment, and the point of our presentation here, is to recommend that a pilot area be chosen and that an Austrans system re-engineered and designed specifically for that be tested. A couple of areas that came to mind were Victoria Road, Gladesville. I do not know if you are familiar with Victoria Road, being a Queenslander. It has one of the highest densities of cars at peak hour, and this system could be tried out on there. There is another area in John's electorate between, say, Parramatta and Macquarie Park which currently is being redesigned with a future plan for it to be interlinked with buses—the things that you want to get off the road. This can take over from buses and provide an unparalleled service.

Mr York : It seems to us that, the faster we build roads, the more cars there are to fill them. We never get over this problem. So Austrans is designed to replace buses on the roads and be an alternative to the family car to reduce the traffic on the roads.

Mr McAuley : We also firmly believe that in today's environment it is time we had an Australian designed, Australian-built and Australian operated system that we can all be proud of and prove, once again, to the world that we are indeed a clever country. It just needs a nod of approval from government to go to the next stage. We need government to say, 'Yes, there is merit in Austrans. Let's see where we can go to from here.'

Mr York : All transport is a cost to government. There is an outlay all the time. No transport system, to my knowledge, runs at a profit, whereas for Austrans, because there are no drivers, they are automated, two people in the control room can operate them, the maintenance is very little, the fuel is free from the sun and, when there are no people travelling, there are no cars moving on the tracks there is no expense. Austrans can run at a profit.

CHAIR: Coupled with value capture to actually fund the construction, those profits would be increased—is that correct?

Mr McAuley : Absolutely. I think that 'value capture' applies particularly to this. It was illustrated in that submission that it is possible to build the stations and have the actual Austrans go right within, say, shopping centres and go right to the door of universities. That could be incorporated into the design of major hub stations—the could feeder come right to the platform, as it were, and drop people off. If you were designing a corridor with high-level, high-density housing, these could be incorporated in the original design such that there was, in fact, a station within a big apartment building or, certainly, within the region. That is where I believe this value capture can be exploited to its maximum.

CHAIR: You could virtually create a carless community.

Mr McAuley : It is the next step. The driverless car is one step away, but a carless option—whether it be driver or driverless—is, of course, the ideal. I think that might be just a dream, because we all want our cars.

Mr York : One of the big features with this is that it is slot-card operated. So you would arrive at the station at Parramatta, push the button to go to the CBD, slot your card, which would pay for it and, within two to three minutes, just like with an elevator, a car would turn up to pick you up. So there would be very little delay at stations for people wanting to go from A to B.

CHAIR: Looking at the speed that it travels, I think it could even be applicable for the Tuggerah to Gosford region to get into Sydney, because we have huge amounts of commuter traffic each day taking way over an hour and you would be looking at about half an hour for that distance, wouldn't you?

Mr McAuley : Yes. Back 15 years ago when this thing was in its prime, the speeds were estimated at 110 kilometres an hour. With today's technology, it might be quite feasible to increase that speed on the longer routes to maybe 140 to 150 kilometres. But that is conjecture at the moment. That has to be examined, but it is a distinct possibility. It would be ideal, I think, for something like the Palm Beach run, where you have quite a long run and where, at the moment, buses are the answer.

CHAIR: Your request is that we find a pilot project that may combine value capture with this technology?

Mr McAuley : Absolutely.

CHAIR: For instance, a destination like Macquarie Park?

Mr McAuley : Absolutely. I think that is the way. It is not a gamble that the system will or will not work. It will work, but will it work to the same potential that we are all hoping? I think there is very little in doubt that it can and will work well. But let us not put all our eggs in one basket. With a small pilot project in a specific area and with the blessing of the local authorities and the help and research and development of the particular route and the needs of that area, you can tailor make something. And that is one of the beauties of Austrans. It is not just one system; it is an adaptable, flexible system to fit the environment that it is requested to provide a service in.

Mr York : What we need in a pilot plant is about 10 to 15 kays, with about 8 to 10 stations, so that it is a fair trial of the system.

CHAIR: No offence to Andrew, but I understand that Melbourne trams are the slowest in the world. Is that correct?

Mr GILES: I have heard that said, but I do not know if that is the case.

CHAIR: Therefore, it begs the question: if Melbourne trams are slow, what is the opportunity to retrofit Austrans on existing tramlines to increase speed and flexibility?

Mr York : Are you talking about over overhead tramlines or on the ground?

CHAIR: I am talking about if you were to look at gradually decommissioning these slow trams and refitting the Austrans system to give a better service, faster, more economically and quieter.

Mr York : You would need to first raise it above the ground, because if you had Austrans on the roads, like what is happening in Sydney, it would be too dangerous. You could not have the pick-up destination down George Street at 80 kays. Rather than put a tram system in George Street, I can see aisles down there or even the car running above the shop awnings, and the stations being in the shops, like the monorail was. So then there is no reclamation of land, because the shop owner has the station. The cars can travel at 60 or 80 kays—free up the roads again for the cars.

CHAIR: We have asked questions, but have you anything more to offer that we have not covered?

Mr York : I think we have covered everything. We would like to know what the next step would be down the track.

CHAIR: What we need to do is to find a way, through some bipartisan task force, to pursue these technologies. One of the things that came out in earlier hearings—I think it was from Peter Knight from Western Australia—was that there is quite a number of rail projects planned around the country. And there was a fear that we might end up with eight different gauges again in eight different systems. One of the areas of agreement to this point is that we should be looking at being able to collectively bargain for the best system. Or if we are getting to a critical mass, we should be building our best system. Therefore, that is where Austrans would come in, because it gives the opportunity to be utilising some of our factories that once produced cars to produce a rail system that has wide application throughout Australia, possibly with export opportunities.

Mr York : We would like to think that Austrans can take over from light rail and trams and perhaps even heavy rail in the long run. But really it is designed to reduce the traffic on the roads. What we are trying to do there is to remove buses from the roads. In peak hour, they are head-to-tail across the Harbour Bridge, and the Austrans can run through the pylons above them. What we are trying to do is reduce the traffic on the roads.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Michael and Robert, for presenting today. If you have been asked to provide any additional information, would you please forward it to the secretary by 3 November? You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and you will have the opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors.

Mr McAuley : I would like to leave a folder with some information on Austrans, together with a copy of the videotape.

CHAIR: Very good. We would appreciate that.