W Class trams – is this a great opportunity?Posted: August 17, 2010
Melbourne’s W Class trams have serious limitations when it comes to doing what urban transit systems are supposed to do – move people around efficiently and quickly.
But they might potentially provide enormous benefits – particularly in relation to tourism and city “branding” – that could make their continued operation (and expansion!) more than worthwhile.
Twenty five W Class trams currently operate on the 78/79 route (Chapel St) but the Minister for Transport says they will be phased out by 2012. Another twelve operate the free City Circle route. There are possibly another 200 W Class trams in storage.
While they exude history, they are old and more like museum pieces than components of a modern public transport system. The youngest models were built in the 1950s, but the design dates from the 1920s. So there is no denying that the W Class has many shortcomings for use on a contemporary transit network.
They are slow. They are not air conditioned. They don’t have low-floor access. They are extremely noisy. They are bumpy. They do not offer adequate protection to the driver in the event of a collision with another vehicle unless they run at speeds lower than 40 Km/hr. On mixed routes they would hold up faster and more efficient trams like those operating on the 109 route, preventing them from being used to their potential.
Some of these shortcomings might not bother tourists or occasional users. But regular commuters expect much higher standards than the W Class was designed for. Since around 2005 Melbourne has experienced a dramatic increase in patronage on public transport and the Government is struggling to find the capacity to meet this growing demand.
Twenty first century commuters travelling on a daily basis demand air conditioning in Melbourne’s hot summers and a fast and comfortable ride. It is no longer acceptable to run a service without satisfactory access for disabled persons and the growing numbers of inner city and inner suburban residents mean noise is becoming an increasingly fraught issue.
As a city we need to be promoting day-to-day use of public transport in congested areas. That means the service has to be reliable, not one where key equipment is out of service while it’s being repaired.
But having said that, the W Class trams could offer Melbourne a golden opportunity to “brand” the city and generate additional tourism revenue. Melbourne has the most extensive tram network in the world and is the only major city in Australia that has maintained a large working system. We actually have authentic historic trams still working our streets. Yet we seem to treat this heritage with little care or respect.
Whereas Sydney is known by the Opera House and the bridge, Melbourne’s most familiar icon is its trams. As more and more cities establish light rail systems, Melbourne’s continuous history as a tram city and its very large fleet of locally-built W Class trams could be a marketing advantage.
The National Trust has proposed that the W Class trams be updated to meet contemporary expectations and operated as a tourism service on a Grand Circle route running between the CBD and St Kilda (see map). The Trust contends that the cost of upgrading and maintaining the trams would be competitive with purchasing new trams. They say their limitations can be addressed while still keeping their heritage features.
There might be drawbacks with mixing the W Class trams with more modern vehicles on parts of the proposed route but the idea is appealing. In fact Melbourne could go further and follow the example of San Francisco.
San Francisco has parleyed its street car heritage into a major tourism generator in two ways – first, by preserving its historic cable cars and second by building up a large fleet of historic “antique” street cars to provide defined services in the inner city (it also has Muni, an extensive modern hybrid train-tram system). It has purchased these trams from many other cities in the US and elsewhere, including Melbourne.
Other cities like Memphis, Seattle and Savannah have acquired our W Class trams to give their cities a bit of character, personality and history. Why would we want to become yet another “look-alike city” when we have a real, continuous tram history? In other words, it’s not just a matter of keeping the W Class trams running, it’s a chance to go much further and exploit a potentially great opportunity.
There are definitely issues related to using the W Class trams on standard routes. There are also questions about the cost of updating and maintaining historic trams relative to modern vehicles. Similarly, the viability of a tourism service using either a W Class trams or other “antique” models has not been established.
I think it would be worthwhile for the Government to commit to a major, public study on the options and potential not only for preserving the continued operation of W Class trams but also for expanding significantly the number and range of historic trams in use and the geographical coverage. While the focus would primarily be on tourism and on building an identity for Melbourne, the potential for integrating historic trams into normal operations should also be investigated.
Thanks to Bruce Dickson who kindly supplied the superb San Francisco photos.