The new improved Preston tram depot

Back in September 2010, the then-Brumby government announced an $807 million investment in new trams and infrastructure:

Dandenong based company Bombardier will design, construct and maintain 50 new low floor trams for Melbourne as part of an $807.6 million investment by the Brumby Labor Government including a new tram maintenance and storage depot at Preston.

This was an upgrade to the existing Preston depot, originally built in 1924 for construction of the W-class fleet. The renovations took some years, and had to respect heritage aspects of the complex, as well as cope with tram operations during construction. But it’s now completed, and on Sunday Yarra Trams held an open day, with an official opening from the Minister for Public Transport. I went along for a look.

The weather was fine, and there was a pretty good turnout. It’s quite an impressive facility. Some photos:

The automated tram wash. It can handle any class of tram — though presumably someone needs to close the windows (where applicable) first!
Preston tram depot: tram wash

The sanding area, where trams sand hoppers can be refilled. Sand is dropped on the track when extra grip is needed.
E-class and B-class trams in the sanding area, Preston tram depot

A traverser, for moving trams from track to track. Our guide wasn’t sure if the new, 33-metre long E-class trams might just fit. I like that it’s in “Met” colours. You can see at least one Z1 tram in the background; they will be out of service forever, retired by the end of this month.
Tram traverser, Preston depot

B-class tram up on jacks for repairs. It’s quite impressive to see up close. The depot can handle repairs to any class of tram, though normally it appears only B and E-class trams are stabled here. Minor repairs are also done at local suburban tram depots.
B-class tram being serviced, Preston tram depot

Another B-class tram with the front taken off. The depot workers had a say in how it should be laid out after the renovation.
B-class tram being serviced, Preston tram depot

E-class tram in for some work.
E-class tram being serviced, Preston tram depot

The E-class trams are not perfect, but they do bring welcome extra capacity, and importantly increase the number of accessible trams on the network. And they do look rather splendid in the sun.
E-class trams at Preston tram depot

Yarra Trams has several tram simulators. One portable one was set up in the depot for visitors to have a go on (and boy was it popular), but this is the permanent, more fully-featured version.
Tram simulator, Preston tram depot

Spike the rhino on display outside. The campaign around awareness of trams continues.
Rhino!

B and E class trams, and some dork in high-vis. I was surprised at how orderly the depot appears.
Daniel at Preston tram depot

The official opening:

Just outside the depot is the tram and pedestrian-only Miller Street, over the South Morang line, connecting to nearby route 86. If it looks familiar, I’m pretty sure it’s where that iconic scene in Malcolm, of the title character coming over the hill, was filmed.

One sad note. Sadly, at the southern end of the depot, well away from the operational part of the complex, two W-class trams sit neglected, vandalised.
Vandalised W-class trams outside Preston Depot

But that said, the depot upgrade is great to see. This kind of investment in the capacity and efficiency of the tram network is important to keep services improving.
Preston tram depot

Now, if only the government would get fully behind proper tram traffic priority, so these valuable assets could spend less time waiting at traffic lights and stuck behind queues of cars, and help trams reach their true potential to keep Melburnians on the move.

Tram stop barriers – are they good design?

Yesterday’s collision between a police vehicle and a tram stop barrier has raised the issues of whether those barriers are a good design.

Police vehicle collision with tram barrier
Source: ABC News

Thankfully the two policemen will recover.

The barriers are intended to stop pedestrians crossing the tracks at tram platform stops. It’s hardly surprising that people do this, given many of the stops are so long as to fill entire city blocks, and it is often the quickest way across.

At the Federation Square stop in question, time saving isn’t likely to be an issue because unlike the other stops on Swanston Street which are open, the two platforms are enclosed. Perhaps the fear is people will jump the tracks due to congestion on the platforms — in which case the logical thing to do is to widen them. Given little traffic congestion southbound at this point, widening and moving them across to take one southbound traffic lane would make sense.

People crossing between tram platforms in Bourke Street

Certainly crossing the tracks could potentially be dangerous, particularly on Swanston Street with a large volume of trams. But are there statistics supporting the use of barriers? And at quieter stops, if people pay attention, is it really a huge issue?

As I understand it, crossing the platforms is deemed to be an equivalent offence to doing so at a railway station, which doesn’t make sense given trams are slower, can stop faster, streets have a smooth surface rather than ballast, and of course the distance down from the platform is much smaller.

Another issue with the barriers is that emergency vehicles using the tram tracks (which they often do) are unable to move around stopped trams. Here’s an instance of an ambulance going to a call, stuck behind a tram.

Ambulance stuck behind tram due to barrier

Platform stops are important to help provide an accessible and efficient tram service. But perhaps the wisdom of block-long stops in busy urban areas, and the use of barriers in particular, needs to be considered.

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Post delivery by tram

For some time – since well before the introduction of the Free Tram Zone – I’ve seen uniformed Australia Post employees with small delivery carts on board trams in central Melbourne.

Post by tram

At first I wondered if this was a good use of space on a tram, given how crowded they can get.

But I think it’s arguable that it’s Australia Post being smart about moving (at least some) letters and parcels around a busy urban environment, quickly and cheaply and without taking up the road space that the usual van fleet would take.

Similarly, long distance travellers with wheeled luggage often seem more inclined to use public transport than catch a taxi — Gordon Price described this as “the only significant new mode of transportation to develop so far this century.”

(Note: I’ve seen Post employees stand back and wait for a less crowded tram, rather than trying to squeeze on with a cart, so it’s not like they’re being totally unreasonable about it.)

Now it turns out Amazon is doing something similar in New York City on the subway.

Once upon a time many cities had freight trams. Perhaps this is the 21st century version of that.

And perhaps it’s yet more evidence that the wheels of commerce can adapt to not requiring motor vehicles to survive and thrive.

Post delivery by tram

Hospital precinct: still no accessible tram services

Melbourne’s expanding fleet of low-floor trams are being allocated to tram routes that lack wheelchair-accessible stops, while accessible tram stops are being built on routes that have no low-floor trams.

— The Age: New accessible tram stops not on the level for those most in need in Melbourne

Let me present a prime example.

Hospital precinct: RWH and RMH

This is Melbourne’s hospital precinct in Carlton/Parkville. The Royal Melbourne Hospital, the Royal Women’s Hospital, and the Melbourne Private Hospital are all in close proximity. The Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre is currently under construction. The Royal Children’s Hospital is just up the road in Flemington Parade. Various research and specialist facilities are also nearby.

As in any busy precinct, where lots of people converge, parking is at a premium. Public transport access is important, and eventually (2026) it’s planned the metro rail tunnel will serve it.

But for now, it’s trams and buses:
PTV map of hospital precinct. (Pointer to RMH is incorrect.)
(Note: PTV appears to have placed the RMH in the wrong place.)

At present, it’s served from the west (Footscray and North Melbourne) by bus routes 401 and 402. Bus 546 from the east (Heidelberg and Clifton Hill) also goes past, though only on weekdays. All these bus services are scheduled to be served by accessible buses.

From the north and south are trams — the 19 along Royal Parade, and the 55 and 59 along Flemington Parade.

Here’s the brilliant bit:

Royal Parade (route 19) is served by low-floor trams, but has no platform stops…
Royal Parade, hospital precinct tram stop

…Flemington Road (routes 55 and 59) has platform stops, but no low-floor trams.
Tram 59 in Flemington Parade
Platform tram stop, but step access to tram

That’s correct — in the hospital precinct, there are accessible trams without accessible stops, and accessible stops without accessible trams.

The overall result is no accessible tram services, making prams difficult and wheelchairs impossible.

It’s almost as if they’ve been aiming at reaching targets for trams, and targets for tram stops, and not giving much consideration to where the two intersect… let alone the importance of accessible services for specific locations.

The closest place where accessible trams meet accessible stops is at Haymarket, at the northern end of Elizabeth Street. To the RMH or RWH this is about 400 metres, or a 6 minute walk for an able-bodied person (crossing numerous at traffic lights along the way). But for somebody with limited mobility, this would be a somewhat arduous task.

The rail tunnel is at least a decade away from completion, but even if it were opening tomorrow, obviously work should continue to make more of the tram and bus systems accessible.

It’s not known when low-floor trams will arrive on routes 55 and 59 — no doubt it relies on depot and power upgrades to accommodate the new trams, which are generally longer and use more power than the older trams — so a solution for the Royal Children’s Hospital may be some time away.

But it should be a no-brainer that accessible tram stops on route 19 along Royal Parade are needed — at the very least at the corner of Grattan Street to serve the other hospitals.

Update: the Yarra Trams proposal to connect routes 8 and 55 would bring low-floor trams onto Flemington Road. It’s unclear when this will happen – and bear in mind William Street (where route 55 runs) currently has no accessible tram stops in the CBD.

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.