How can trams be made better?

Why Swanston St is the No. 1 priority for action (tram network city centre, 2011)

As a follow-up to yesterday’s discussion on cars (and trams) in the city centre, I thought it would be useful to look at the Melbourne City Council’s draft Transport Strategy Update 2011-2030, which apparently will be considered by Council tonight. This is a big report so for the moment I’ll only look at the section on trams (you can download the report here, but it’s a big download). The report says the key issues with trams in the city centre are:

  • Slow average running speeds – caused by sharing tramways with other traffic, limited priority at signalised intersections, insufficient distance between stops, and slow boarding and disembarking (excessive dwell time)
  • Network imbalances and gaps – in particular, the network is overly dependent on Swanston Street (see graphic). Even small disturbances can have a major knock-on effect across the network
  • Poorly designed interchanges e.g. at Federation Square and Southern Cross Station

These issues result in poor reliability and overcrowding. The report provides this example:

Tram route 96 is already one of the most successful, and the third most patronised, tram routes in Melbourne. However, current running times between Spencer Street and East Brunswick are 40 per cent slower than in 1950 (28 minutes today compared with 20 minutes in 1950). Route 96 trams spend 33 per cent of their journey time stationary. This is in addition to the 17 per cent of the journey spent loading passengers. This is a poor use of public investment in the tram system.

Council is impressed by the gains in speed made in Munich by a ten year program that separated trams from traffic, gave them priority at signalised intersections and optimised stop spacing. The report says these changes improved average tram speeds from about 16 km/hr to 21 km/hr, leading to greater reliability and punctuality and increased patronage.

Proposed network, 2030 - trams to the west and additional routes

Council proposes that a similar program be adopted in Melbourne, supported by increased frequencies as well as targeted extensions and rebalances. Council envisages new tracks/routes along Dynon Rd, Grattan St and into Fishermans Bend. Of particular interest is a proposal to move some trams from the St Kilda Rd – Swanston St corridor to the west of the city:

This will help activate development in the west of the CBD and reduce pressure on the Swanston Street-St Kilda Road spine…..A north-south tram alignment running through the Haymarket roundabout will also improve tram accessibility to the west of the Central City. This will link the Royal Parade corridor with the Peel-William Street tram lines.

There’s much more about trams in the report but let’s not forget that the State Government is responsible for trams, not Council. There’s also a lot in the report about other modes too which I’ll try and look at shortly.

26 Comments on “How can trams be made better?”

  1. TomD says:

    All sounds pretty good and accurate!

  2. poneke says:

    Tram route 96 is already one of the most successful, and the third most patronised, tram routes in Melbourne. However, current running times between Spencer Street and East Brunswick are 40 per cent slower than in 1950 (28 minutes today compared with 20 minutes in 1950).

    This is a very interesting report which I need to peruse in depth. Thank you for alerting us to this.

    However, one nit pick. Tram route 96 did not even exist in 1950. It was a bus route. It was converted from buses to trams in 1956.

    Similarly, the Gertrude St-Smith St-Queens Parade-High St route to Dundas St in Northcote was a bus in 1950. It was converted to trams in 1955.

    This Bourke St bus-to-tram conversion so infuriated the RACV, the newspapers and Henry Bolte that an order for 30 more W7 trams was cancelled by the Government, the healthy profits of the MMTB were stripped away to pay for the MFB and no further new trams were bought until the Z1s in 1975 and no further new routes allowed until the East Burwood extension from Warrigal Rd to Middleborough Rd in 1978. The MMTB had learned its lesson well enough by the latter to start tracklaying at Middleborough Rd and work inwards. Pity this was not done with the Knox City extension, curtailed at Vermont South by the Bracks government.

  3. brisurban says:

    I think a slow conversion to true light rail is needed.

    So stop spacing could be fixed up and made wider. This is not going to sound nice for people who are going to lose “their” stop, but I think it would be good.

    Traffic lights within the inner suburbs could be made to give trams priority and further separation from cars like the other cities mentioned (munich etc)

    Within the inner city core however, there will always be a lot of foot traffic, cars, congestion and so forth. I think there is real value in placing the trams here in to the highest level of priority available- a tram subway. Brisbane has a bus tunnel in the inner city, and there are places overseas that place their core underground. If you have something affect the core of your network, there is a very real chance the entire network will be disrupted.

    An underground tram subway would solve that.

    • BrisUrban, I’m calling your technological fetishism for what it is. Look back in Melbourne’s history and you’ll see many plans for putting Melbourne’s trams underground – mostly to speed up car traffic on surface roads.


    • Jason says:

      yep,underground metro system would be great,tram routes with higher patonage should be converted to light metro rail either underground or above ground,and the rest should be converted to bus/trolleybus operations.

    • Alan Davies says:

      This video shows both above-ground and below-ground operation

      • brisurban says:

        Yes. Many cities choose to protect the core of their networks by placing them into Class A right of way (grade separated, traffic and traffic light free) alignments but use Class B (traffic light and lane priority) and Class C (no priority whatsoever) further out.

        I’m not suggesting that all trams go underground- that would take too long and be too costly. But you could place the core of the network underground- perhaps the St. Kilda-Swanston St alignment and the Collins St services underground with an interchange station. If people are concerned about wanting to catch a tram on the surface then simply leave one or two routes to go via the surface and put the rest underground.

        In the end, the highest capacity might come from a light rail metro- using very large light rail vehicles operating every 2-5 minutes on the trunk underneath Swanston St/St Kilda Road and operating the smaller trams as feeder services to it. Just a thought. This way the smaller trams can get to the depot at the end of the day as well.

        • brisurban says:

          Just to clarify the rest of the surface network could stay surface, but with all the priority measures and treatments previously mentioned.

  4. brisurban says:

    Stuttgart tram subway:

    The tram acts as if it were a true metro system, but at 2:05 minutes into the video the tram exits the subway into the surface streets. You can make the platforms very wide and the vehicles high capacity too.

    100% car congestion free. People will walk further to high quality, higher speed and higher reliability services.

  5. Chris says:

    In a city like Melbourne with it’s car centric politics you’d need to be careful with the idea of grade separated trams, whilst it may be the best technical solution in some areas the RACV will spend the next ten years squealing about how all the trams need to be put under ground.

    Have a look at the Transport Politic articles about Toronto and how a large tram expansion was cancelled in favour of a smaller subway system – there may be merit to the subway plan but the politics boils down to cars take priority over public transport and trams are not allowed on roads.

    • brisurban says:

      Toronto has a great tram system about half the size of Melbourne’s and word on the street is that they are having serious problems with keeping even headways and reliable services.

      So the schedule might say “trams every 5 minutes” but on the ground the tram might not turn up for 10 and then a few in a row or some will be terminated early (‘short turned’).

      In the case of Toronto, the Transit City Light rail plan’s cancellation (in practice is was more of a modification) I thought was really about values. And I don’t think there is a technical answer to that, only a political one- large coverage area vs slightly slower service or small coverage area with faster service.

      The guiding principle I think shouldn’t be whether it “upsets the RACV”. If the core section of the tram network is not put underground, it will be slower and have more delays across the network. Sure “soft” improvements could be done but it would also have lower benefits I would think.

      I think pure cost of putting all trams underground will keep at bay any potential RACV lobbying for trams to go underground. Only the vital core sections need to in my opinion.

  6. poneke says:

    The council report deals with the question of underground trams neatly in the opening paragraph of the tram chapter. It speaks for itself:

    “Trams serve approximately 600,000 people every day in Melbourne’s inner metropolitan areas, on a 247 km network that is worth between $10 billion and $15 billion. Trams can move more than 10,000 people per hour in a single arterial traffic lane that could otherwise move only 800 cars. The tram network is one of Melbourne’s most important strategic assets. Trams provide high quality, on-street public transport that does not require passengers to travel underground to access it. They link together many nodes throughout the city because of the relatively short stop spacing compared to train systems.”

    • brisurban says:

      Alan, do you have a link to this report.

      The above paragraph is a pure description of what IS not what SHOULD BE, and as such is not a justification for or against the under grounding of the arterial part of the network. I’m not so sure that people are unable to walk down Swanston street. People are willing to walk further to higher quality, faster and more reliable services.

      Light Rail in Class A right of way can go up to 20 000 pphd with larger vehicles and exclusive Class A ROW, double what is quoted above.

      If the tram network is such a “important strategic asset” why has Melbourne not decided to give it the absolute highest level of traffic priority that is available.

      • brisurban says:

        The short stop spacing is also not a justification for leaving trams on the surface. If people want short stop spacing, that can be provided by leaving some lines on the surface and place the rest underground.

      • Alan Davies says:

        Link is in first para of my post

      • poneke says:

        I’m not going to waste my time further with a fanatic, other than to restate that the reason for the heavy patronage along Swanston St (and Collins and Elizabeth Sts) is that people who would otherwise walk a block or two catch the tram because there is always a tram at every change of the lights.

        If they had to go down steps to a subway, it would take them longer than if they walked, and so they would walk.

        There is one viable, nay urgent, tram subway required and that is through Haymarket.

        • brisurban says:

          I’ve just stated facts.

          Class A right of way is the highest level of priority
          Class B right of way (what’s being discussed) is a lower level of priority
          Class C right of way (what most of the Melbourne tram network is in) is no priority.

          If you want the best, you have to be willing to walk that bit further and people are willing to walk a bit further for quality. There’s nothing fanatical about these technical facts.

          • Yes, yes Brisurban, We know you’ve read Vuchic and Mees.

            Before the step change is made to the higher level of infrastructure, the optimisation of the existing infrastructure has to take place. One extremely quick, but contentious fix for tram priority would be taking out right hand turn arrows at traffic lights and making hook turns mandatory on all tram corridors. If you only take one thing away from Vuchic, make sure it’s the TI-CD model of transport planning where transport incentives are matched with car disincentives. Speed up trams and slowing down cars will be a great improvement to the street tramways that is the norm in most of Melbourne.


          • Russ says:

            Brisurban, that is not necessarily the case. The optimal distance for stop-spacing (and therefore walking) depends on how far people want to travel, and the speed of the vehicle has little bearing at all. It could easily be argued, as Poneke has, that because trips inside the CBD are generally short, stops ought to be closely spaced, and trams easily accessible.

            It is only people traversing the city (to MelbUni from Domain, for example, who will shortly be serviced by a train), or trying to reach or exit the core of the CBD who are inconvenienced, and then by not a lot once you account for the extra walking caused by larger stop spacing. There isn’t any great benefit (but great expense) in building up the core of Swanston St, when most CBD employment destinations lie several blocks east or west of that core, nor when the primary cause of congestion on the street is other trams (which won’t be fixed by under-grounding).

  7. brisurban says:

    Slow public transport competes more with walking and cycling than it does with cars.
    People will walk further to speed and frequency.

  8. rohan says:

    Re-introduce hook turns ! Easy and effective. Apparently they were the norm across the city in the 1950s. Would also assist traffic in busy inner city intersections where cars turning left are stopped by pedestrians, and the other lane is stopped by a right turning car. Ive seen traffic virtually at a standstill along Bridge Rd Richmond at the Church St intersection because of this. And Brunswick at Johnston. And Smith and Johnston. And Swan and Church. And every intersection along Chapel St. You get the picture.

  9. Dudley Horscroft says:

    Better still is to prohibit right turns at all major intersections. And in the CBD, and elsewhere where there is much pedestrian traffic, prohibit left turns at major intersections during the normal working day, when there are large numbers of pedestrians to hinder cars turning left. This would make it safer for pedestrians as well.
    And in the CBD, a very simple and very cheap way to speed up the tram services is to turn off all the traffic lights at the ‘Little” streets. Then a tram having crossed, say, Collins Street northbound, would not be stopped by a red light at Little Collins Street, and there is a fair chance it would not then spend time setting down passengers at Bourke Street during the ‘green’ only to have to wait through the ‘red’ before going on again.
    All the ‘Little’ streets should be left in, left out, no crossing the major roads, except Swanston Street. So no need for trams to be delayed at those streets. As for Swanston St, cars would have to take their chances between trams, but with other traffic removed, there is plenty of time between trams, and this should not be a problem.

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