What makes cities work: The restaurant tram

I was thinking about what makes good cities work effectively, and it occurred to me that a prime example is the Restaurant Tram.

Melbourne restaurant trams

That day we took the Restaurant Tram, we made our way from the train at Southern Cross Station to the pick-up point next to Clarendon Street. The convention centre (Jeff’s Shed) was busy with some expo or other. Throngs were heading in and out of the Casino.

We rolled along Bourke Street through the centre of town, then up past Parliament, back along Latrobe and William Street, the streets were busy with Saturday afternoon shoppers.

But you can see the restaurant trams gliding through the City every day of the week.

Inside the Melbourne restaurant tram

On any day in central Melbourne, some people are working. Some people are shopping. Some people are studying. Some are visiting, eating, and doing a mix of all these things and more.

(How many people? The City of Melbourne Daily Population Report estimates 844,000 people on weekdays, and 579,000 people on weekend days in the municipality. To an extent this should dispel fears of a CBD “ghost town” for the AFL parade if it occurs on a public holiday.)

The tram of course uses the tram lanes, so it doesn’t block motor traffic. While it moves slower, it doesn’t need to serve each stop, so overall speed is about the same as service trams — so it doesn’t block them either.

Thus we have a luxury eating establishment moving through the busiest part of one of the world’s biggest cities, without causing conflict with the myriad of activities happening around it.

It’s successful because the demographic exists in Melbourne (either resident or visiting) to support it. It’s also successful because it travels through busy streets, so the diners can people-watch. It could only be successful in a busy city.

Likewise, thousands of people converge on the city centre every day, co-operating, collaborating, and doing their thing without blocking others. This is the formula to economic prosperity.

The key to a successful city is that completely diverse activities can coexist in close proximity.

Melbourne restaurant trams

And it’s also why efficient transport systems are so important.

Trains, trams, buses, bicycles, all bring people in and move them around efficiently by minimising the space each person takes as they move.

Cars… not so much. They take up too much space per person (and often block the more efficient modes) and have to be stored close to where the person is going.

I wouldn’t ban them outright, but the more that can be done to encourage the most efficient modes in the busiest parts of Melbourne, the more that everybody is able to get on with their thing and stay out of everybody else’s way, the more prosperous our city will be.

Transport choice

The RACV has again cited choice as a reason to go ahead and build huge road projects, including the East West Link which the Andrews government has a clear mandate to scrap.

(Remember, a survey showed only 38% of RACV members support East West Link.)

Ah yes, choice. Let me give you an example of transport choice.

My friend Gary had a choice. For years he endured the 232 bus across the Westgate Bridge to work in Port Melbourne. Every time I’d see him he’d have a tale of the latest delays, missing buses, and service diverted.

The service kept declining, so eventually he gave up. After hearing his tales of woe, I couldn’t blame him. He’d given it a good go.

So now he drives. Now he’s stuck in the Westgate traffic with all the other drivers.

Caught in traffic

As a parting shot, the bus service was effectively deleted – the version of the 232 that ran via Port Melbourne no longer runs. If he had to use the bus today, he’d have go of all the way into the City, then back out again.

That’s not choice.

The problem is not that people don’t have the choice to drive. The problem is not a lack of road space.

After 70 years of motorway investment, and little into other modes of travel, the problem is that too many people drive because they have no other viable choice.

Metro rail tunnel: The time is right

The metro rail tunnel concept is about ten years old, having first publicly emerged in late-2005.

In some quarters, it’s been seen as an unnecessary white elephant — an expensive way of providing for extra passenger capacity in the CBD, when other cheaper ways were available to cope with increased patronage.

But time has passed, and many of those cheaper measures have either been implemented, or are on the way.

Flagstaff station, morning peak

For instance, a 2007 PTUA paper, written as the patronage boom really took off and crowding became a serious issue, noted these suggestions:

More shoulder-peak services to help spread the peak load. This has happened on most lines. As an example, the 2006 Frankston line timetable had 5 trains departing Flinders Street between 6pm and 7pm, then they fell back to half-hourly — and almost no expresses after 6pm. The current timetable has 9 trains in that hour, including expresses, then trains at 10 minute intervals until about 7:35, then every 20 minutes until 10pm, before they fall back to half-hourly.

Return to service Hitachi trains that can be brought back cost-effectively. This happened, until the next point took effect in a big way…

Order extra trains — scores have been delivered since then, substantially increasing the size of the train fleet.

Run all trains as 6-cars until 10pm, 7 days-a-week — this happened (with some, understandable, exceptions such as suburban shuttle services), in fact they stay as 6-cars until the last service each night.

Simplify stopping patterns to maximise track capacity and make the timetables more legible — this has happened on most lines that had express trains. For example the Ringwood group had about a dozen stopping patterns in the AM peak — this has been reduced markedly, though the PM peak is still a mess.

More off-peak services — the longest (and thus busiest) lines now run every 10-15 minutes all day, every day. Plans are in place to spread this to more of the network… when the politicians provide funding.

More tram/bus services to feed into the rail network. Some progress where Smartbus services have been provided, and some minor tram improvements, but you’d have to say most connecting bus routes are still lacking.

The paper also criticises City Loop operation, taking aim at the midday Loop reversal (since removed on the Clifton Hill group, and rumoured to be on the way out for the Northern Loop soon), and suggests running more trains direct to Flinders Street to take advantage of track capacity — which now happens, with changes over the past few years meaning CBD track capacity is getting much closer to full.

Flagstaff station

Some (but not all) of the points raised by others in the debate (such as in the late Paul Mees’ excellent 2008 paper on the topic) are also under way, or at least being planned, including:

Improving wheelchair loading/unloading with more staff. In fact what’s happening is raised “humps” at CBD stations (and some others) allow wheelchair users to board and alight the train themselves.

High capacity signalling — now flagged to be trialled on the Sandringham line, before rollout to the rest of the network.

More efficient train designs to carry more people and speed up loading/unloading — modifications to X’trapolis trains have already occurred, and changes to Siemens and Comeng trains are under way. The next train design (initially for the Dandenong line) is likely to be a more space-efficient design from the beginning.

Moving driver changeovers out of Flinders Street — not yet, though there have been moves towards this, with driver facilities being built at the outer ends of suburban lines.

Other relatively minor changes have flown under the radar a bit, for instance after widely publicised problems with gate queues at Flagstaff, the booking office was moved to allow more gates, a bypass gate was installed for surges, and faster gates have recently been installed.

Not every suggestion has been taken up — duplication of single track on numerous lines is a problem which continues to result in delays quickly snowballing.

And some still believe double-decker trains are the answer — that’s a debate that will rage for decades to come, but the official position seems to be that longer dwell times make them less efficient than well-designed single-deck trains.

But many of the cheaper/quicker initiatives have happened. And meanwhile, the CBD (and inner suburbs) keep growing. To keep the City’s economy growing and thriving, the transport system needs to be able to keep feeding it with people — and heavy rail is the most efficient way of doing that.

I can’t speak for everyone, but the fact constructing the tunnel will take a decade, and that many of these (relatively) cheap and easy upgrades are coming into place provides the confidence that now is the right time to push ahead with the rail tunnel.

MMRP tunnel depth infographic

Tunnel benefits

On top of the other changes happening, the tunnel will bring another huge boost in rail capacity, particularly for the growth corridors to the north and west: the lines set to benefit the most are the Sunbury, Craigieburn and Upfield lines (remembering that the Werribee line is getting a boost from the opening of Regional Rail Link this year).

Also benefiting will be the Dandenong line, with — it’s expected — the new stations being designed for longer trains than the City Loop can cope with. Swanston Street/St Kilda Road trams will also see relief from crowding, thanks to serving stations at Domain and Parkville.

So there will be a lot of benefits.

But the plan isn’t absolutely perfect, and it’s inevitable with any project of this type that some trains will be re-routed, requiring people to change their travel patterns.

The government will need to tread carefully as they plan and build this project, and communicate what the design decisions are, and why they are happening.

As opposition public transport spokesman David Hodgett said in The Age yesterday, “Melbourne is growing at almost 100,000 people per year and this is an incredibly important project that we have to get right.”

EWLink zombie is dead, buried, cremated – some thoughts

East West Link is now that it’s dead, buried and cremated (to coin a phrase). Though I’m not sure that’s how you destroy zombies.

Zombies

Some closing thoughts on the project…

The $339m payout is less than a single year of the expected $345m annual Availability Payments that would have been paid if it had been built — let alone the billions in other costs. So yes it’s a lot of money, but given the <1 Benefit Cost Ratio, we the taxpayers of Victoria really dodged a bullet here.

Part of the problem is that for the huge cost, the tollway would have provided some traffic relief… but only for a short time. Studies by the Linking Melbourne Authority showed traffic on Alexandra Parade would have returned to the previous levels by 2031, just 12 years after opening.

Given it won’t be built, the Eastern Freeway will continue to finish at Hoddle Street. It was planned that way. In 1973, Premier Hamer cancelled the forerunner to the East West Link, an inner-north surface freeway across, and but pushed ahead with building the Eastern, knowing it would finish at a dead-end, which the road lobby happily accepted at the time. So the current situation is by design.

Being a zombie, it came back. Salami tactics.

Where traffic from the Eastern Freeway goes

East West Link wouldn’t have helped unclog the Eastern and Hoddle Street, because most cars are headed for the CBD and inner city, not across to Flemington and the airport. You can actually see this when driving east to west: the traffic moves faster in the 1-2 lane sections from College Crescent to Elliot Avenue than it does in the 4-5 lane sections further east.

In fact, current traffic levels are falling. Vicroads data shows traffic fell up to 15% on Alexandra Parade (depending on where you measure it) between 2002 and 2012.

Of course, more traffic would head east-west if there was a motorway provided to do it. This is why the road wouldn’t have provided more than a few years’ relief. More traffic would be induced.

We’ve spent seventy years trying to solve traffic congestion by building more road space for cars. Sooner or later we’re going to have to accept that it doesn’t work.

Broadly, transport is supply-led. You build more roads, you get more cars. You provide more (usable) public transport, you get more people using it.

But the scale of PT capacity is vastly bigger, because each person isn’t bringing 2 tonnes of rubber, metal and plastic with them, so it takes a lot longer to fill up again.

Want to shift 2000 more people per hour along a road? You’ll have to widen the road all the way along and add a lane. Example: the M1 widening, 2007-2009, cost $1.39 billion. And now it’s full again.

Want to shift 2000 more people by train? That’s just 2-3 extra trains; about 10% of a rail line’s capacity.

So, more capacity can often be squeezed out of existing lines, but even if we have the expense of a new rail line, it will take decades to fill up again.

Despite red herrings like “tradies!!”, most people can use PT if it’s provided and competitive with driving.

So now Labor’s pushing ahead with the metro rail tunnel instead, which (along with level crossing removals, signal upgrades, fleet upgrades, and the one thing they haven’t announced yet: duplication of single track) enables a lot more people to be moved through our busy city. Now they just need to figure out how to pay for it, given the Feds under Abbott won’t.

The political implications of all this are obvious. The Coalition went into the 2010 election and won it on the back of public transport issues — reflecting survey after survey that said people wanted PT ahead of big roads.

(A few surveys conclude people want motorways, but only when they’re not offered a choice. But money is limited. Choices have to be made. We can’t afford every multi-billion dollar project that’s thought up, especially not the ones with poor returns on investment.)

Then in late-2011 the Coalition completely changed tack and tried to ram through the East West Link ahead of the 2014 election.

Tony Abbott declared the 2014 election to be a referendum on the East West Link. Well if that’s true, the people voted it down.

Will this zombie come back? Perhaps.

But the lesson here is clear. If you’re determined to embark on the largest infrastructure project in the state’s history, seek a mandate for it.

PS. When I put in the Shaun Of The Dead references, it was just for a cheap laugh. But that specific point about destroying the brain is a reminder that these issues about how we want our city to develop, and whether we want to pursue policies prioritising private cars or mass transport are not primarily about engineering, but ideas.

More reading:

Corrs Lane, Melbourne’s narrowest public laneway?

Corrs lane is a handy shortcut between Little Bourke Street and Lonsdale Street, just east of Russell Street.

At the northern (Lonsdale Street) end, it’s so narrow that you could easily walk past it without noticing. It’s all a bit… I dunno, Platform 9 3/4.

Corrs Lane, Melbourne - at Lonsdale Street

I noticed yesterday snapping pics that there seems to be one property entrance in this narrow section, which still gets mail deliveries.

It’s narrow enough that two pedestrians can just pass each other. If a wheelchair user squeezed in, you’d have problems getting past.

Is it the narrowest laneway in the CBD? I don’t know… anybody know?

Corrs Lane, Melbourne - at Lonsdale Street

After a little way, the lane soon widens out to a more standard width, with various Chinatown restaurants prominent.

Corrs Lane, Melbourne

It was one of these restaurants (since disappeared/changed hands from the looks of it) which a group of us, all of whom worked at various places in Lonsdale Street, used to eat at regularly around the turn of the century. Partly based on its small size, and partly based on the tiny lane to get there, Josh dubbed it “The hole in the wall”, though I’m sure it had a real name.

At the time the lane had no markings at the northern end, and in fact I totally failed to direct someone to the restaurant by phone once, as I couldn’t remember where he needed to look to find the lane.

At the southern end, it seems extra wide thanks to the presence of one of the last single level car-parks in Melbourne’s CBD, with some bonus Melbourne street art to brighten the place up.

Corrs Lane, Melbourne

I had a quick search around, and couldn’t figure out what or who Corrs Lane is named after, but couldn’t find anything — it’s not in this excellent list of names from the Royal Historical Society of Victoria. Maybe better researchers than I will have more luck.