Do Melbourne’s trams need conductors?

Multi-section Siemens Combino tram - could one conductor handle all this in peak hour?

On the face of it, The Green’s case for the reintroduction of tram conductors looks pretty convincing. They say that for a net cost of just $6-9 million p.a., 1,000 conductors could be placed on all of Melbourne’s 500 odd trams from the first service to the last.

The Green’s proposal rests firmly on the assumption that the presence of conductors would effectively eliminate fare evasion. While it would cost $50 million p.a. to employ the conductors, they would claw back virtually all the estimated $40 million currently stolen by fare evaders.

Fewer ticket inspectors would therefore be needed and there’d be further savings in reduced vandalism and injuries to passengers. The Greens have called on the Government to introduce a two year trial with 100 conductors, targeted at heavily patronised routes like the No. 96.

Given we’ve (theoretically) got an automated ticketing system, my default position is we shouldn’t need the expense of conductors anymore than we still need elevator operators, ushers at the movies, bank tellers, or someone to fill our petrol tanks.

Yet The Green’s proposal is what I call a “what the heck” argument. The logic goes like this: the $40 million is dead money, so we might as well get some value out of it by bringing conductors back. It’s not necessarily the optimum way you’d spend an unencumbered $40 million, but what the heck, our options are limited.

That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad idea. Restoring conductors could potentially provide a range of benefits. As well as checking validations, they could issue short-trip tickets, advise tourists, assist the disabled and provide at least a limited disincentive to vandalism and anti-social behaviour. In my view conductors could also provide an important intangible benefit – they would eliminate the ‘regularisation’ of evasion that is arguably inherent in the existing system.

Indeed, if the net cost really is less than $10 million p.a. as The Greens claim, restoring conductors sounds like a pretty attractive proposition. The idea could be very attractive politically to a Government that wants to demonstrate its bona fides on public transport.

But there’s the inevitable catch. The Greens assume 1,000 conductors because that was the staffing level when the conductor role was abolished in the early 90s and it seems to fit with the size of the current fleet (just under 500 trams) and the need for two shifts per day. However while the number of trams hasn’t increased significantly since the days of conductors, the size of trams has.

It’s doubtful that a lone conductor could make much headway through a crowded five-section Siemens Combino tram carrying 200 passengers in peak hour, while checking mykis, helping passengers and selling tickets. Either larger trams require multiple conductors in the peak – at greater cost – or it has to be accepted that conductors wouldn’t make as big a dent in foregone revenue as The Greens assume.

In any event, even if The Green’s number is accepted, it still under-estimates the number of conductors that would be needed. Due allowance hasn’t been made for conductors getting sick, going on holidays, attending training, and so on. Also, on-costs need to be factored in, as well as administrative support and the cost of equipment like mobile myki readers.

If I assume 1,300 conductors are required at $50,000 p.a., plus 50% on-costs, the aggregate cost is $97 million p.a. (I’ll follow The Greens in also assuming a saving of $10 million p.a. because 100 ticket inspectors would no longer be required, but I’ll add back $10 million p.a. for ancillary costs). That looks pretty expensive compared to the amount of evaded revenue conductors could realistically bring in.

But we don’t necessarily have to adopt the “what the heck” strategy. There might be other ways to recover all or part of the lost $40 million, thereby enabling any recovered funds to be applied to their optimal use. A failing of The Green’s proposal is that it doesn’t assess the alternatives. Read the rest of this entry »


Do trams provide better accessiblity than trains?

% of metropolitan households and jobs within 400 m of a tram/train/SmartBus stop (data from DoT)

New research by the Victorian Department of Transport (DoT) shows Melbourne’s tram system provides access to 34% of metropolitan jobs, whereas trains only give access to 15% (see first exhibit). The analysis found trams also give better access to housing – 17% of metropolitan households are located close to a tram stop compared to 8% close to a train station.

DoT calculated the proportion of metropolitan jobs and households located within 400 metres of tram, train and SmartBus stops, using 2006 Census data.

The superior accessibility of trams might seem surprising given most popular discussion about public transport is focussed on trains. Moreover, trams and trains both serve the employment-rich CBD, so the difference in access to jobs is probably higher than most expect.

The department doesn’t offer an explanation, however there are logical reasons for the superior showing of trams. These include the higher density of the tram route network, the greater frequency of stops, and the relatively high employment and housing densities in the central part of the metropolitan area served by the tram network (i.e. the inner city and inner suburbs).

In the inner eastern suburbs, for example, there are nine parallel east-west tram lines between Victoria Rd and Glenhuntly Rd, a distance of just 8 km. The tram line on High St in Prahran is paralleled by another route just 560 metres to the north on Malvern Rd and one 650 metres to the south on Dandenong Rd.

As shown in the second exhibit (under the fold), tram stops are much more closely spaced than train stations. Tram stops in the inner eastern suburbs are every 200-300 metres, whereas stations in this area are usually more than a kilometre apart.

The tram network also services an area of high job density. The inner city – the area within 5 km of Melbourne Town Hall – might only have 28% of all metropolitan jobs, but they are concentrated in a relatively small area. Likewise, 50% of all jobs in Melbourne are more than 13 km from the centre, but the 0-13 km half is necessarily at much higher density than the 14+ km half.

Compared to the tram system, the train network is relatively sparse, particularly in the middle and outer suburbs where not only the distance between the radial lines increases as a function of simple geometry, but the distance between stations also increases. The distance from Narre Warren station to Berwick station, for example, is over 4 km – the 400 metre walk radius assumed by DoT accordingly misses much more than it picks up.

Suburban rail lines don’t in any event tend to be near jobs. As I’ve pointed out before, the vast bulk of suburban jobs aren’t located within large centres, but instead are relatively dispersed. Even the minority of jobs that is located in large centres tends to be spread out over a relatively extended area rather than concentrated within a small and neat 400 metre radius.

Clayton is by far the largest concentration of jobs within Melbourne’s suburbs, yet very few of the jobs it contains are near a rail station. The second largest job concentration in the suburbs is Tullamarine, which isn’t served by rail at all. The high proportion of jobs accessible by SmartBus services signals clearly that most suburban jobs aren’t within 400 metres of a rail station.

But providing potential access to lots of jobs is not the same as actually delivering workers to them. Trams might be within 400 metres of twice as many jobs as trains, but the latter nevertheless carry well over twice as many commuters to work each day as trams. There are a number of reasons for this difference.

One is that the assumed 400 metre walk distance is harsh on rail. Commuters are prepared to walk further to their nearest stop if the overall journey is long. As rail work trips are on average much longer than tram trips, the assumed walk distance to a station is too restrictive – a distance of 800-1,000 metres would be more reasonable.

Another reason is that many more train travellers get to their train station by other motorised modes – principally by car, but also by bus and tram – than is the case for trams. In fact half as many train travellers combine motorised modes as simply take the train direct. In contrast, the number of workers who use another motorised mode to connect with a tram as their main mode is quite small.

Probably most importantly, taking a tram to work is slow. Trams stop frequently and, because they don’t have their own right of way for much of the route, get caught in peak hour traffic. Commuters who have a choice will take the train instead, either driving to the station or using a bus or tram to connect. Another factor is that many inner city and inner suburban workers are on high incomes – rather than take a slow tram, some will get a car and/or a parking space as part of their remuneration package and will elect to drive instead.  Read the rest of this entry »


Is this a real tram ‘network’?

Yarra Trams proposed new routes (unchanged routes not shown)

The Age reported on Yarra Tram’s new plans for Melbourne’s trams during the week. My perpetual beef with The Age is they don’t provide links to background material and in this case they didn’t even provide a diagram. Not good enough in the digital age! So, here’s a presentation by Yarra Tram’s Clement Michel, as well as the accompanying map of the company’s planned new routes.

The presentation highlights the problems with current tram operations that prompted the proposed changes. For example, the No. 96 took 20 minutes to journey from East Brunswick to Spencer St in the morning peak in 1950 but now takes 28 minutes. It spends 50% of the time moving and 17% boarding — but 33% stationary. That compares poorly with tram and light rail systems elsewhere.

The new routes are intended to complement other initiatives, such as greater priority at traffic lights and segregation from traffic. A key purpose is to relieve pressure on Swanston St-St Kilda Rd, which is clogged with a tram every minute and has the friction of 31 traffic lights between Melbourne University and the Domain. Part of the proposal is to route some services via the western end of the CBD.  Some Swanston St passengers would have to change trams e.g at Domain Interchange.

It is also proposed to effectively “halve” some long routes and introduce cross town or feeder services (similar to the existing Footscray to Moonee Ponds service) so that loads can be better balanced. Long routes can be inefficient because the number of trams is constant along the route but the loads vary. The changes would mean higher frequencies can be targeted better to busy areas.

An example of the proposed changes is the existing West Preston to St Kilda service. The proposal is to split it into two services — a St Kilda to East Melbourne route operating via Spencer and La Trobe Sts, and a West Preston to Docklands service. Read the rest of this entry »


Energy efficiency in transport – some surprises!

The latest edition of the Transportation Energy Data Book: Edition 28 was released last year by the US Department of Energy (Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy).

I’ve derived the accompanying graph from Chapter 2 of the report. There are a couple of points of interest here.

In particular, the data shows that load factors are very important. Although public transport is more energy efficient than cars when it is fully loaded, it has to operate at off-peak times and on secondary routes, when patronage is low. Read the rest of this entry »