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 »

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 »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Do we want cars in the city centre?

Possible road pricing cordon boundary, inner Melbourne - Clarke and Hawkins, 2006

I’ve noted before that only 30% of commuters who work within the Hoddle Grid – i.e. the area bounded by Spring, Flinders, Spencer and La Trobe streets – drive to work. However only a block or two beyond the city rail loop, the share of work trips taken by car increases steeply to 50-60%, and above.

Peter Parker at Melbourne on Transit offers an explanation. Using Metlink, he found a journey from Laverton station to Melbourne Town Hall in the morning peak takes 33 minutes. However if the Laverton traveller is bound for nearby Docklands (Waterfront City), the trip takes an extraordinary 54 minutes. Anyone travelling from Greensborough station to the same two destinations would have to allow an additional 29 minutes to get to Docklands and if travelling from Cheltenham station an extra 30 minutes.

In other words, once a traveller gets off the rail system in the CBD, further travel to near-CBD destinations is very slow. This is in part because the rail loop was not designed primarily to move people around the CBD and in part because trams are slow. Peter explains:

We have trams but unlike some compact European cities we don’t have a dense metro in the job-dense 2-5km core that allows for fast local travel. Instead for the ‘last mile’ we rely on slow surface modes, notably trams and buses, often without their own right of way.

Public transport’s mode share in the vicinity of Waterfront City is just 22%. This is despite the area having a frequent tram service. Given the huge investment in public transport in the city centre, any mode share below 50% is very disappointing, but the figure for Waterfront City is appalling.

I suspect there are two key reasons for the low mode share of near-CBD areas. The first is simply that the cost of driving and parking in these areas is still reasonably low – so workers drive because they can. Perhaps there’s a high proportion of workers in the CBD fringe whose status attracts a “company car”. Perhaps also there are more institutions like hospitals with shift workers who drive off-peak. The second reason is that movement within the city centre by public transport is too slow. That’s partly because the rail loop is not configured well for intra CBD trips and partly because trams are slowed by cars, particularly at intersections.

The CBD is one of those places where I think it’s very hard to justify commuting by car, given the enormous investment in public transport infrastructure and the extremely high accessibility it provides to the rest of the metropolitan area. It’s such a vital asset to the city as a whole and to the State that its amenity should not be despoiled by the noise, fumes and danger of too many cars.

The Melbourne City Council has proposed some worthwhile improvements, such as a maximum speed limit of 40 km/hr in the CBD (although I’d prefer 30 km/hr) and a plan to eliminate cars, taxis and vans from Swanston Street (although I fear the potential for pedestrian/cyclist conflict has not been fully resolved). Read the rest of this entry »

W Class trams – is this a great opportunity?

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Melbourne Bicycle Share all spin?

I hope I’m proven wrong but I can’t help feeling Melbourne Bicycle Share is much more about political spin than about transport.

The PR material indicates the scheme is pitched at short-distance and short-duration travellers “running an errand at lunch or going across town for a meeting or lecture”. It extends “your public transport options and makes the CBD more accessible than ever before”.

The big question to my mind is what exactly is the need that this scheme is filling? Or more precisely, what is the justification for the Government subsidy it requires?

The very idea of a CBD is that it is walkable and if the trip’s too far then travellers take public transport. In fact public transport in Melbourne’s CBD, where we have the choice of the city rail loop and a dense tram system, is pretty good by world standards. Quite simply, the CBD doesn’t need share bicycles for transport.

I can’t see a lot of sense, either, in spending public money to take off-peak passengers away from public transport – that’s the very time when the system has spare capacity and should earn extra revenue with minimal extra cost. And why subsidise walkers to ride instead?

I’m not in any event confident that Melbourne Bicycle Share is even going to work. Read the rest of this entry »