Of Roads, Rail and Bridges – The Continuing Saga Of The Old Freo Traffic Bridge

By Michael Barker
Editor, Fremantle Shipping News

This is a long read. In some ways the author has endeavoured to unburden himself of his involvement in the 12 month-long Better Bridge community campaign to secure a better replacement traffic bridge for Fremantle than that initially offered by Main Roads WA and the State Government a year ago. However, as he explains, the campaign isn’t over, with many in the Fremantle community still deeply unhappy with the latest offerings from an Alliance of experts appointed by the State Minister for Transport and Ports, Rita Saffioti. The Big Picture, ‘perfect world’ solution they demand remains elusive. But perhaps still achievable.

Coming up a year ago, the Fremantle community began to get wind of the latest steps in Main Roads WA’s ‘Swan River Crossings’ project, which had been drawn out for a year and more.

For some time, the need to replace the rickety but State heritage-listed Old Traffic Bridge, from Queen Victoria Street on the Freo side of the Swan River/Derbarl Yerrigan to Queen Victoria Street on the North Fremantle side, had been evident to the State Government, local government and Freo public alike.

In April 2019, the Commonwealth and State Governments proudly announced the ‘Swan River Crossing’ project was to be funded to the extent of $230 m, half coming from the Commonwealth and half from the State.

From the Commonwealth’ perspective the project was all about rail freight to the Port and roads.

The Commonwealth’s announcement appeared on The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications’ website and described the project thus –

The project will involve construction of a 257 metre, 4 lane (2 each way) concrete road bridge with a 3 track rail bridge (2 passenger tracks, 1 freight).

The project, it said, would improve freight productivity and access to ‘freight gateways’, increase ‘transport infrastructure capacity’, and ‘improve network reliability’.

The State, in a contemporaneous media release by Transport Minister Rita Saffioti, trumpeted the State’s successful pitching of the project to the Commonwealth Government for a funding contribution, noting that Infrastructure Australia had recently listed the bridge replacement as a national priority in its annual Infrastructure Priority List following submissions from the State Government.
The Minister was also at pains to say the replacement of the Old Traffic Bridge would put an end to expensive patch ups ‘while offering new opportunities to integrate additional rail capacity at a key bottleneck caused by passenger and freight trains sharing the same rail bridge’.

Here you again see the rail component figuring prominently.
The Minister added that the amount of container freight moving to and from the Fremantle Inner Harbour by rail was reaching record levels under the McGowan Government (22.8 per cent in March 2019), easing pressure on arterial roads to the Port.
Ms Saffioti noted that constraints caused by rail bridge capacity at the Swan River crossing in Fremantle ‘would restrict future growth in the share of freight moving to Fremantle Port by rail’. Plainly a suggestion that Freo people would have to suffer more heavy haulage trucks around the Port City if they didn’t accept more freight trains.

Keep in mind this is April 2019, before the Westport Taskforce, chaired by Nicole Lockwood, which was set up by the State Government to advise it on the future of the commercial container Port at Fremantle, had reported to Government recommending moving those operations to Kwinana.
Further down in the fine print, the Minister said the new bridge would address a key barrier in the Perth to Fremantle cycle route with the inclusion of modern standard cycling and pedestrian paths, and that it had ‘met’ with the City of Fremantle and would ‘investigate the feasibility’ of retaining parts of the old bridge for community use, subject to design of the new structure and future engineering investigations’.

In the 2019 Infrastructure Priority List the Swan River Crossing project was described at a much higher level of generality – the ‘initiative’ was stated as follows –

The initiative involves addressing the risk of closure for the Fremantle Traffic Bridge. This could be achieved by renewing or replacing the existing bridge, or developing and improving alternative crossings and routes.

The next steps set out in the List were stated to be –

Proponent to identify initiatives and develop options (Stage 2 of Infrastructure Australia’s Assessment Framework).

As an aside, one assumes the project description as ‘Swan River Crossings’ was dreamt up by someone in Main Roads WA during a team building session late one Friday night. The sort of name designed to soften an otherwise unglamorous civil engineering project. A bit like a land developer assigning the name ‘Glengarry’ or ‘Glenross’ to the subdivision of an unremarkable piece of barely undulating, dry land in the middle of nowhere. But I digress!

Plainly, the physical construction of a new traffic bridge was not dependent on a new rail bridge, or a new rail bridge on a new traffic bridge. But the continued existence of any rail bridge, old or new, to the west of the existing Old Traffic Bridge obviously had the potential to constrain construction of a new traffic bridge in that general vicinity. A quick glance at this image is self explanatory.

Of course, if you were the State Government and were planning, in a relatively short to medium time frame, to relocate the commercial container operations at Fremantle Port from the north side of the Port to somewhere south of Freo, like Kwinana, you would be bound to question, wouldn’t you, the wisdom of constructing a second rail track for freight just now, and also ask yourself whether the options for the location of a replacement traffic bridge might be significantly opened up if the commercial operations at the Port were to move south. Could not a new bridge be constructed much further west of the present Old Traffic Bridge in that scenario? The Bigger Picture scenario.

To move major traffic and bridge activity well away from the North Fremantle town centre might just, possibly, give that town centre the chance to heal the scars it still carries from the disfiguring it received when the Stirling Highway diversion and Stirling Bridge construction, completed in 1974, cut a swathe through old North Freo and severed the town centre from the primary North Freo residential area to the east.

Back to the current narrative. As of mid-2020, a year and a bit after the big infrastructure announcements, the best impression of what a new bridge alignment might look like was given to the community courtesy of a photograph of Minister Saffioti alongside Federal Fremantle MP Josh Wilson celebrating the securing of funding from the Commonwealth for the building of the new bridge. The image they held between them suggested the new bridge would be aligned, ever so gently, to the west of the Old Bridge’s alignment and away from the apartments near the river on the North Freo side.

Freo People on both sides of the river were anxious to see a new bridge that exhibited various attributes. North Freo people had agitated for years for some inspired precinct planning to help reverse, to the greatest extent possible, the aforementioned disfigurement of their locality dating from the Stirling Bridge and Stirling Highway construction works in 1974.

Freo people to the south of the Old Bridge shared that concern but also had a variety of other concerns. Many hoped the heritage-listed Old Traffic Bridge would not need to be sacrificed as part of the new bridge project and could be largely, if not wholly, saved and be made part of an enhanced public realm, along the lines of the famed New York City High Line urban park.

Others were concerned to ensure that, if a new bridge was to be constructed, it be a bridge of outstanding design, and a real part of Freo, both north and south of the river. And not just any old concrete crossover design pulled out of Main Road‘s assorted concrete bridges drawer.

Finally, in the midst of all this expectation, in late June 2020, Main Roads unveiled its proposed new bridge alignment with nary a prior word about it to the Freo community. To make matters worse, not only did the Main Roads’ proposed alignment not go ever so slightly to the west of the Old Bridge’s current alignment, but skewed it significantly to the east.

Wow. Community indignation overflowed. Battle lines were drawn! Main Roads had displayed an amazing capacity to disregard people in pursuit of what it considered to be the perfectly ‘efficient’ road solution. It seemed intent on proving that it was still an all-powerful, 1960s and 70s style road builder, that could dictate to elected politicians what they must do, with little awareness of its social responsibilities in the third decade of the 21st century. Its plans were unabashedly all about the ‘most efficient’ alignment – the quickest, easiest and cheapest road solution.

The idea that the new bridge might serve as a ‘local bridge’ for Fremantle people, as well as businesses to the south west and the north, seemed to have escaped Main Roads entirely. One could only conclude that all the Main Roads engineers concerned in the design had obtained their engineering credentials on the job, designing freeways in LA, at a time when the car reigned supreme.

And to add insult to injury, Main Roads proposed leaving a couple of remnant pylons from the heritage-listed Old Traffic Bridge sticking out of the water, near the southern bank, to remember it by. An even worse insult than leaving the remnant arch of the once majestic Convict-built Barracks at the end of St George’s Terrace, Perth, adjacent to another masterful Main Roads freeway. But again, I digress.

While the Freo community as a community had been shut out of all processes adopted by Main Roads to this point, and were simply informed of Main Roads’ decision on bridge alignment, Main Roads had apparently been speaking with representatives of the City of Fremantle for some time. But as it has since transpired, Main Roads didn’t seem to be listening to what the City’s people were saying about creating a bridge for the people, for the place, not just a ‘road solution’. The City, which was bound by confidentiality undertakings in its dealings with the State Government, was plainly and mightily frustrated by its fruitless dealings with Main Roads. All this became clear after the event.

At this point, Main Roads, having unveiled its bridge alignment, then stated it would engage in ‘Community engagement’. Obviously, it had picked up an old 1960’s or 70’s manual on how to do community engagement, which extolled the virtue of making a decision first and consulting later. Mind you, one wonders just what the Minister was thinking through all of this. Perhaps minds were on a State general election some nine months away and a plan to get the Crossings project across the line ASAP. Spend the money – the $230 m – before someone changed their mind. Chalk up one more achievement before the election.

Main Roads apparently thought that, by holding a few ‘Drop in’ sessions where they could explain to a few Freo people why it was doing what it had decided to do, and why there were no other options, it could satisfy the Minister it had ticked the community engagement box. Wrong.

By now community anger was on the rise. On 9 July 2020, Fremantle Shipping News published an Opinion Piece by Rebecca Clarkson on why what was happening was so inadequate and demanding that the community ‘be consulted’. Rebecca had originated an online petition to that effect which had quickly garnered around 2000 signatures. Here’s her Opinion piece.

Then, soon after this, DesignFreo, a body that, coincidentally, had just been formed to foster good design around Freo, called a public meeting for 30 July 2020 at Notre Dame University Fremantle to discuss the brewing storm of discontent. Even after complying with social distancing rules in place at that time, a seriously large number of seriously concerned Freo people turned out to register their displeasure with the Main Roads process as well as the outcome of its work. If Main Roads had been bold enough to turn up, they’d likely have been run out of town. But they didn’t respond to an invitation to attend. Probably a good decision to stay away. Not the first time they elected that course. Seems they only liked talking to very small drop in groups or individuals, not organised community groups comprised of informed people.

The panellists who spoke at this first DesignFreo forum were the aforementioned Rebecca Clarkson, Community Development Expert and instigator of the change.org campaign to retain the old bridge as a public space; Russell Kingdom, Urban Designer (Manager – City Design and Projects, City of Fremantle); Dr Anthony Duckworth-Smith, Research Fellow, Australian Urban Design Research Centre; and Brendan Moore, Aboriginal Engagement Officer, City of Fremantle. Simone McGurk, Fremantle MP and State Government Minister also joined the panel and spoke at the forum.

From Anthony Duckworth-Smith and Russell Kingdom, in particular, it became apparent that earlier efforts that they had made to get Main Roads to think about the Swan River Crossings project as something significantly more than a road solution exercise, had been singularly unsuccessful.

Well, lo and behold, the Minister got word of this event and the frustration in the Freo community with Mains Roads, not to mention the Transport Minister. No doubt Ms McGurk passed it on. A week later, on 6 August 2020, Minister Safiotti announced the McGowan Government would now be seeking ‘Community feedback (to) help inform heritage interpretation, design objectives, urban design and pedestrian and cycling connectivity.’

Then, as if there was not enough going on relative to the project, on 8 August 2020, the McGowan Government announced it had accepted the recommendation of the Westport Taskforce to relocate the commercial operations of the Port from Fremantle’s north side to Kwinana, subject to the business case being made out.

At that point, with Rebecca Clarkson at the helm, the Better Bridge Campaign was formed and began liaising with the established North Fremantle Community Association, a body long familiar with the urban planning slights visits upon North Fremantle before and since 1974.

On 1 September 2020, in Fremantle Shipping News, in my Friday on my mind column, I wrote a reflective piece reimagining the Old Traffic Bridge in the light of all these events and extolling the virtue of sometimes making a good decision by not making a decision.

By this time the Better Campaign and the North Fremantle Community Association were imploring Minister Saffioti to intervene to pause the Crossings project to take proper account account of public views and in particular the Bigger Picture, especially now the State Government had accepted the recommendation that the commercial operation of the Port go south.

A Town Hall Meeting was then called for 10 September 2020 at the Fremantle Town Hall by the Better Bridge Campaign. The Fremantle Shipping News was a promoter and supporter of the Better Bridge Campaign. I chaired the meeting.

Another huge crowd of Freo people packed out the Town Hall and heard presentations from Professor Peter Newman of Curtin University, also a Freo resident; Ingrid Maher of the North Fremantle Community Association; Dr Brad Pettitt, the Mayor of Fremantle; Deputy Mayor Andrew Sullivan, who presented in his personal capacity; and Rebecca Clarkson of the Better Bridge Campaign. For the record, while invited, Main Roads failed to attend or send a representative to this major meeting, citing a prior engagement to attend a small Fremantle local government precinct meeting the same night.

The Town Hall Meeting resoundingly called for a Pause in the implementation of the Swan River Crossings project. This photograph of the occasion speaks for itself!

It was clear Freo folk north and south of the river wanted the Government to take account of the Bigger Picture. Why rush into building bridges if the construction context was changing around us?

Soon after the Town Hall Meeting the Fremantle Shipping News published The Better Bridges Papers In which the various issues of construction, design and freight rail need were canvassed.

On 23 September 2020, Fremantle council similarly called for a pause on the project. And East Fremantle did the same.

Soon after, Minister Saffioti announced she had asked the busy Nicole Lockwood to facilitate a workshop involving Freo community representatives and Main Roads representatives to consider the Crossings options. The workshop, a day long affair, occurred on 23 October 2020. Along with with a number of other community representatives, I was invited and attended he workshop. The workshop was held in a good spirit. We were told by Main Roads about the limited life of the rickety old bridge, and how the pylons represented a considerable navigational challenge for boats going up and down the river, and how the constraints of the existing rail bridge meant there was really only one option when it came to the alignment of a replacement traffic bridge. And that was Main Roads published plan of a bridge to the east that required the demolition of the Old Traffic Bridge. It became apparent that Main Roads held only one brief from its Minister and that was to work out how to construct a new traffic bridge and a new rail freight bridge pretty much on or near the alignments of the the existing bridges. The Big Picture scenario was not in sight. Or in its brief.

It became very clear at the workshop that, despite the State Government’s acceptance of the Westport recommendation to move the north side commercial operations of the Port to Kwinana, no thinking had been given at all to the obvious implications for traffic networks and optimal bridge crossings that would follow upon the opening up for redevelopment of the huge north side area through to Leighton, if the commercial Port operations were to go south.

The workshop ended up on the note that most community representatives were disappointed with the direction being taken by Main Roads. They wanted the Government to rethink its position. At the very least, surely it was possible to construct a bridge further to the west than the existing Old Traffic Bridge. And did we really need a second rail freight bridge. Surely the one, which has worked tolerably well as a dual use bridge, could keep doing so until such time as the container operations went south.

Following the workshop, on 2 February 2021, just before the State General Election on 13 March 2021, Minister Saffioti announced the appointment of an Alliance of experts to partner with Main Roads to further investigate the available bridges options. It was said that ‘community feedback would guide’ the next steps. This, the community cautiously hoped, would at last lead to a consideration of the Bigger Picture scenario. But not so.

What the Minister didn’t say was that the Alliance had not been asked to consider any options beyond those in the vicinity of the existing bridges. The real job for the the Alliance was to say whether, despite Main Roads believing you couldn’t engineer a new traffic bridge further to the west, that was indeed possible.

On 4 March 2021, at a presentation of policies by Transport spokespersons for the major political parties immediately before the Election, which I attended, I asked Ms Saffioti why one wouldn’t adopt the Bigger Picture scenario in grappling with the Swan River Crossings project. Her glib response was that – ‘We don’t live in a perfect world’.

Then the Election was held. It certainly wasn’t a referendum on the Crossings project. It was the Covid election. The McGowan Government was returned with a large majority in each House of our bicameral Parliament. After the Election, Ms Saffioti remains the Minister for Transport. Sensibly, she is now also the Minister for Ports!

On 25 March 2021, it was announced that Fremantle Ports had leased land for a limited period of 10 years only to two container operators on the north side with no options for renewal, although there is a capacity in Fremantle Ports to grant another 11 years if the move of commercial operations south doesn’t proceed. All this confirms the commercial Port operations are likely going south.

The Alliance then got to work. It took some time, as you’d expect. At a further community Forum, on 11 February 2021, to which I and other community representatives were again invited and attended, the Alliance presented four traffic bridge alignment options. Options 1 and 2 – contrary to the earlier position of Main Roads – demonstrated that a new traffic bridge can indeed be constructed west of the existing Old Traffic Bridge alignment and closer to the existing rail bridge. Options 1 and 2 are effectively the same. Option 2 is just Option 1 without the second rail bridge.

Option 3 was the initial Main Roads eastern alignment.

Option 4 was for a new bridge on the alignment of the existing Old Traffic Bridge, which would be totally demolished. Apparently the WA Heritage Council is prepared to allow it’s demolition on the premise that a new bridge on the same alignment would evoke the memory of its predecessor!

No one much seems to support Option 3 – Main Roads’ initial ‘efficient’, east aligned offering.

As Leonard Cohen once sang, there is no ‘perfect offering’. There’s a ‘crack in everything.’ That’s how ‘the light gets in’.

The crack in the Main Roads offering has shone light on Options 1 and 4.

As I wrote recently on the Shipping News, if one were forced under pain of torture to vote for one of the four options, I would vote for Option 1 on the basis it causes less interference with the amenity of North Freo residents at Northbank.

It also is more likely to result in a bridge location that, with good design, can produce a good public realm outcome on the banks of the river on each side for all Freo people.

And from what the Alliance representative told me at the forum on 11 February, the 20 metres or so of the Old Traffic Bridge that would remain, after the rest is demolished to make way for the new bridge, could be fashioned with a skywalk to create a pedestrian walkway from the southern river bank, along that part of the Old Bridge, and up and across the new bridge to the northern river bank. This would make much more sense than trying to fashion a pedestrian walkway on the western side adjacent to the one or two rail bridges.

On 31 May 2021, Monday night just gone, DesignFreo held a second, follow up forum on the Bridge. A number of people as large as that in attendance at the first DesignFreo forum were present. The presenters were Anthony Deurloo, Director, Fremantle Bridges Alliance; Rebecca Clarkson, Community Development Expert / Better Bridge Campaign; Russell Kingdom, Urban Designer (Manager City Design and Projects, City of Fremantle); Dr Anthony Duckworth-Smith, Research Fellow, Australian Urban Design Research Centre; and Ingrid Maher, North Fremantle Community Association.

The Alliances four options were again presented. Discussion from panel members focussed again on designing and building a bridge that will be more than a ‘road solution’. Anthony Deurloo emphasised his past experience on projects such as the Mandurah Bridge that responded to public realm demands and retained some old bridge features.

Russell Kingdom suggested it may be impossible, with decisions about the commercial operations of the Port going south yet to play out and the fact that the process of relocation would take a number of years in any event, to delay the construction of a new traffic bridge, as much a Ingrid Maher and Rebecca Clarkson contended the four options offered remained limited and short sighted and the Bigger Picture is the best option.

Anthony Duckworth-Smith strongly emphasised the need for the project to produce outcomes well beyond a simple road solution.

Following the presentations, in the Q&A session, questions and statements from the floor showed that very few members of the Freo community were satisfied with the outcome of the Alliance’s options, even with Option 1 on the table. The feeling was palpable that a significant opportunity was being passed up to achieve a really great Crossings outcome for Freo, both north and South as a result of short sightedness.

The sense one got, was that a vast majority at the forum were in favour of the Big Picture option, the Option 5 that isn’t on the table, the option the Minister told me is a ‘perfect world’ solution.

There are no doubt those who would like to go to the barricades, who refuse to countenance any option offered and say they will continue to demand a better bridges outcome than that presently on offer.

One has enormous sympathy for the position of these refuseniks. My heart embraces it. However, my mind tells me to accept Option 1 as the best of a bad lot – and to keep on fighting.

Fighting to ensure we get a well designed bridge that becomes an important feature in the public realm of Fremantle in the years to come. With great spaces for walkers and cyclists. And a wonderful sense of place for everyone, including the traditional owners of Fremantle/Walyalup, the Whadjuk Noongar people.

After achieving that, fighting to ensure the effective master planning of the precinct including the north side of the Port through to Leighton and it’s redevelopment once the commercial Port operations go south – assuming the business case supports the move south.

At the Alliance forum on 11 May, we were told the Government is now beginning to move on the precinct planning issue. Let’s keep the Government to account on this and ensure the process starts soon – and that, this time around, we the people are engaged in the process from the get-go.

Perhaps the Bigger Picture scenario hasn’t faded just yet. Perhaps we can keep it alive – and see it happen.

Perhaps, just perhaps, that way we can still hope for a ‘perfect world’ Swan River Crossings outcome.

This article was written by Michael Barker, Editor of Fremantle Shipping News.