Keeping Queensland moving: transport in a flood crisis

Australia’s transport planners are better than most at dealing with disasters. AAP Image/Supplied by SES, Samantha Cantwell

Keeping Queensland moving: transport in a flood crisis

Australia’s transport planners are better than most at dealing with disasters. AAP Image/Supplied by SES, Samantha Cantwell

Transport access is essential for people to get to the goods and services they need in daily life. Never is that basic access more appreciated, and more desired, than when it’s taken away from us, such as in a major flood. People do terribly dangerous things when they need to get from one place to another: crossing swollen creeks cost at least two Queenslanders their lives this week.

Movement is essential to both evacuation and to restoring life as normal. The managers of our transport systems have enormous headaches trying to keep people and goods moving in a crisis, shifting people out of danger areas and then getting cities working again soon after.

Public transport is an essential part of community emergency management. There is much that the public never sees that suggests Australian authorities cope relatively well with this challenge. We do the preparation, the planning and the training for emergency response better than many other nations. And that means when we have to respond and then help with recovery, our public transport managers usually cope well.

Brisbane’s 2011 floods were incredibly destructive, causing over $4 billion damage to Queensland’s main roads network. But not one public transport vehicle was lost to the floodwaters, as the ferries were shepherded to safety in Moreton Bay, the buses were moved to higher ground, and the rail system similarly secured. The ferries lost most of their pontoons and were out of action for a modest period. The bikeways were famously smashed. Yet the bus and rail systems swung back into operation remarkably quickly, especially the buses, once the floodwaters receded.

This week the floods hit Brisbane’s systems hard again. The electric rail system lost electricity as a quarter of the city had no power. There were landslides across the rails, fallen trees and smashed signals.

But what could be opened almost immediately was, with the few spare buses available in the city brought in to supplement lost capacity. Only a single shuttle train could run through the heart of the central business district, with other trains sent on a bypass loop. Buses also replaced links to key ferry stops. Lots of people had to walk long distances to get to work as they couldn’t get to Central station. But as the Mayor noted, the central business district was “open for business” on Tuesday, the day after the event.

Floods shut down Brisbane’s public transport, but it was running again in no time. AAP Image/Dan Peled

It’s hard to fault the effort in South East Queensland so far this week. Evacuation messages were timely, targeted and, as the research suggests is demanded, delivered by figures of respect and trust. People with no need to travel were urged to stay at home.

It requires enormous skill and effective response mechanisms by public transport managers to achieve what they do. Australia has well-developed organisation and communication systems, ensuring rapid redeployment of public transport services.

Information provided to the public via radio, the internet and - noticeably in this current Brisbane event - various social media platforms, all helps ensure the population is kept up-to-date on what services are available, and what are not. The value of a centralised public transport authority, such as South East Queensland’s Translink, becomes clear in a crises like these, as all public transport operators already work for and under one agency. South East Queensland can be thankful it is ahead of Sydney and other cities in this regard.

Despite widespread road closures and hundreds of traffic signals out at key intersections across the South East, buses were up and running almost to timetable the next day, (except for where they couldn’t get through). This relies on drivers standing by their posts (drivers elsewhere in the world often fail to show up during a crisis!). It’s difficult work for these unsung heroes: precariously leaning street trees and other debris present hazards smaller vehicles may avoid.

But it’s outside of the cities where accessibility problems really bite. Floods are the primary reason bridges are destroyed in Australia. And roads are regularly cut by floodwaters where investment hasn’t been made in raising them above flood heights. As per usual, Northern Queensland finds itself cut off from the rest of the country due to the poor state of the Bruce Highway, with produce rotting on trucks as they wait to get through.

Where can we do things better? Mitigation by levees and dams, and ensuring structures such as bridges and key highways are resilient, is the obvious best spend. Key highways require investment as part of planning infrastructure for flooding landscapes.

City tunnels are particularly vulnerable; especially rail tunnels, where lighting, electrical and communications systems are destroyed by floodwaters. An important change was made to the design of Brisbane’s Cross River Rail project after the 2011 event submerged part of the proposed southern entry point. This change was made in part to ensure the tunnel can better avoid flooding. This should reduce the risks of catastrophes such as New York’s subway floods of 2012, the Prague Metro flood in 2002 or Boston’s subway flood of 1996.

Evacuation planning is also a wise investment as part of disaster preparedness. The best practice is regular modelling of catastrophic events to prepare and improve emergency plans. What would happen if a Category 1 cyclone hit the Gold Coast? How could the city be evacuated were many of its key road links rapidly put underwater? And where to? How would evacuation routes and preferred behaviours be communicated to the population, including the large number of tourists?

So if you’re cursing a late train or bus in Queensland this week, think of the problems that are vexing your transport planners. If extreme weather events get worse, as predicted, their job will only grow.