Perth rapid electric rail

Posted on March, 01 2012

Tweaking highways to accommodate trains 

Tweaking highways to accommodate trains

In a world-leading and credibly effective response to one of the most difficult urban sustainability challenges – low-density, car-dependent, sprawling cities – Perth has built rapid electric rail transport in the middle of existing freeways. In its Living Smart Program, it has also used eco-coaching to help people change to more sustainable transport, as part of the city’s highly participatory approach to sustainable development.

Keywords: car dependence, sustainable transition, electric rail, eco-coaching, participation

One of the most difficult challenges in urban sustainability is car-dependent sprawl cities, which have large ecological footprints due to high transport emissions and higher energy use heating and cooling low-density housing. Yet to be competitive, more sustainable forms of transport (e.g. walking, cycling, electric rail) usually require higher population densities than car-dependent cities tend to have.

Perth has been gradually shifting from car-centric planning. It was once one of the world’s most car-oriented cities, with 700+ vehicles per 1,000 people. Now it is currently cited, along with Portland, Oregon, as a leading example of a transition strategy (see also Portland and Vancouver). Perth’s strategy has been to build rapid electric rail transport in the middle of existing highways.

Mobility on the median strip
How it works: the Southern Railway uses a highway’s central median strip for a large part of its total route of more than 70 km. The solution benefits from the engineering conditions already in place, such as right of way, gradients, and bridges. Average train speed of 90 km per hour is faster than car travel speeds, by 30% or more.

A key goal was to achieve competitive journey times to the central business district of Perth, relative to the car. These fast trains have attracted usage at levels above expectations, and shown growth in the first few years of operations. Success of the rail-onto-highway approach is also demonstrated by its significantly higher speeds than other rail lines in Perth and other car-centric Australian cities (see also Zürich), paving the way for other cities use of highway medians as rail corridors.

Living Smart Program
The Perth metropolitan area is primarily based in low-density suburban development on circa 130 km of the Indian Ocean coastline. The primary transport form was single-occupant car use, which also dominated budgets for transportation spending by the government. This budget trend was checked, however, with the new era of making strong investments in public transportation.

Part of the success is also the use of innovative methods to help people transition to more sustainable transport use and lifestyles via the Living Smart Program, with eco-coaching, free auditing of water, waste, and energy, and free introductory tickets for public transport. These approaches have achieved high rates of transition from car-dependence, and large greenhouse gas emissions reductions – one outcome of the Perth government’s early commitment to unprecedented levels of participation for sustainability. Success is attributed to pedagogically high-quality processes enabling citizens to participate in planning activities and be confronted by the challenges of sustainable development.

Carey Curtis, “Evolution of the Transit-oriented Development Model for Low-density Cities: A Case Study of Perth's New Railway Corridor”, Planning Practice and Research, 23:3, 285 – 302

Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley, Heather Boyer, 2009, Resilient cities: responding to peak oil and climate change, Washington DC: Island Press

Public Transport Authority (Gov of Western Australia), “Transperth Patronage”,

Gehl study,

Preston L. Schiller, Eric C. Bruun, Jeffrey R. Kenworthy, 2010, An introduction to sustainable transportation: policy, planning and implementation, London: Earthscan

Key data are retrieved from the UN World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision,

Text by: Aaron Thomas

Perth – highway and railway
© Alexander Fortin
Map Perth