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.

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.

Tram changes: Some make sense. Some, it seems, less so.

Via a couple of stories in the last few days, The Age has revealed proposed changes to the tram network, probably to take place from mid-year with the next big round of timetable changes.

Some context

First, some context. All the changes need to be seen in light of fleet changes, and growing patronage.

The load surveys for trams track crowding on trams at the pressure points, specifically the CBD fringe, and in the CBD itself. The “Average Maximum Capacity” figures for the last published survey in 2014 show worsening crowding on many routes.

(See also: What are the load standards for the different types of trams?)

Meanwhile the new E-class trams are rolling out onto route 96, and its D-class trams in turn are moving to route 19 (see below), with their B-class trams then moving to other routes. This is what Yarra Trams refers to as their Cascade Plan, and although it hasn’t been properly published, there’s a fair bit of detail in this document which has leaked out:

Yarra Trams fleet cascade plan, 2012

The oldest of the smaller Z-class trams are being retired. Overall it means more large trams on the network — so not necessarily growth in the fleet size, but certainly growth in fleet capacity.

Route changes

So, what are the proposed changes?

Route 8 (Toorak–City–Moreland) would be removed. The southern section would be served by an extension of route 55 (West Coburg–City–Domain) through to Toorak. The northern section (which mostly overlaps with route 1) would be served by a diverted route 1 to Moreland, as well as route 6 (Glen Iris–City) being extended to the current route 1 terminus at East Coburg.

Route 19 (North Coburg–City) will go to all D-class trams. Those are the longer low-floor trams introduced last decade, moving off route 96 as the E-class trams come in. The catch is trams will run slightly less frequently, though the precise details haven’t yet been released.

There’s one other unconfirmed change worth noting: All CBD routes would be upgraded to run at least every ten minutes off-peak on weekdays. This would presumably affect route 55 along William Street, and others such as those on Swanston Street which currently run at lower (typically 12 minute) frequencies.

These changes mostly makes sense. Having the 55 go to Toorak makes cross-town journeys from Toorak/South Yarra to Kingsway/South Melbourne easier. Those who want to go up St Kilda Road can still change at Domain Interchange, which was re-built in 2013 to enable a cross-platform transfer (in both directions) for this.

The northern section changes should make little difference to frequency, but depending on the balance of big trams, hopefully will add some capacity.

The question for busy Swanston Street (specifically the Domain via City to University section) will be whether a higher proportion of large trams makes up for one less route.

And for route 19 — will slightly fewer, but slightly bigger, trams provide enough capacity? That route is very busy at peak times, but also after dark. We’ll only know when we see more detail, and how it works in action.

Domain Interchange, shortly after it re-opened in April 2013

City Circle

The City Circle is also planned to have changes, with the proposal that it run in one direction only, with the route bypassing HarbourTown, thus returning it to an actual circle(ish). It sounds like this change is yet to be approved/locked-in.

At this stage it’s unclear if that would remain at the current 12 minute frequency (or perhaps 10 if bypassing HarbourTown), thus half the total current number of trams running, or some other arrangement.

Let’s assume for a moment that it’s reasonable to push the tram system as a whole towards modern, air-conditioned, low-floor trams, to increase accessibility and competitiveness with cars.

Even if that’s the case, it doesn’t make sense to cut the Ws from the City Circle in the context of:

  • rampant CBD crowding (in part due to the new Free Tram Zone) meaning having City-only routes actually makes more sense than ever to work alongside Suburb to City routes
  • the cost already spent to restore W-class trams
  • popularity of W-class trams with tourists (and locals), given their heritage value (even if they mostly don’t use heritage colours!)
  • eventual future provision of accessible trams on other routes covering almost all of the streets included in the City Circle

The unconfirmed information floating about is that instead of a cut in service, there’ll be the same number of trams, but all running in one direction. This would mean instead of both directions every 12 minutes, only one way (clockwise?) every 6 minutes.

That’d be pretty silly. Any delays from City Circle trams to other services would be removed in one direction, but doubled in the other. Likewise any relief to other overcrowded services would be in one direction only.

Crowded tram

Why no information? Why no consultation?

Perhaps the real problem here is that, as is far too common, bits of information are leaking out without any visibility of the entire plan, and the thinking behind it. (Remember, much of this was originally intended to happen next month, but will now presumably be in June when Regional Rail Link opens.)

Rather than put it all out there when asked last week by the media, there’s been no further clarification on what’s become public.

There’s already confusion. For instance some people seem to think Moreland Road in Brunswick will lose regular tram services, which isn’t the case.

Has this plan been flagged at the Yarra Trams Meet the Manager sessions held this month? I don’t know.

Changes are needed on the trams, and much of what’s proposed seems to make sense, but it’d be better to explain it all than to just assume that will the public hear the headlines and believe it’ll all be good — unfortunately the reality is that many will assume it’s all bad.

PS. There’s a petition running to retain W-class trams on the City Circle and at least one other route.

The pros and cons of the new #FreeTramZone

Some of the arguments in favour of the Free Tram Zone seem very simplistic.

The Free Tram Zone debate

Shaun Carney built a whole opinion piece around this in the Herald Sun on Thursday: basically, it doesn’t matter if it’s poorly thought out, sucks away resources, and doesn’t get people out of cars — if it’s cheap or free, it must be good — and hang the consequences.

Things aren’t that simple.

The Free Tram Zone is not without its advantages, of course. Here are some pros and cons to ponder.

Pros of the Free Tram Zone

Given the decision to scrap short term tickets under the Myki system, and the ridiculous situation of no facility to buy or top-up a Myki on-board a tram, it’s helpful for tourists and other occasional users in the CBD and Docklands.

In fact it can probably be sold to prospective tourists as a feature. It’s handy for instance to be able to catch a free tram to the Skybus terminal, rather than waiting for their less-frequent hotel shuttles.

It might help reduce congestion in the CBD, particularly from short distance taxi trips.

It may help relieve the crowding on the City Circle, which has been problematic for years, particularly on Flinders and Latrobe Streets.

Some streets seem to be coping fine with loads. From what I’ve seen, Collins and Elizabeth Streets seem pretty much okay most of the time (thanks to many routes serving them). William Street is managing, despite probably having the CBD’s least frequent service. I haven’t looked closely at the others. This may change over time of course.

It’s difficult to touch-on a Myki on packed trams, so it saves people the trouble.

If people don’t touch on and off, it may help cut tram loading delays at some stops.

It gets more people onto public transport, including some who wouldn’t otherwise use it.

The maps, signage and announcements (at least on trams where they’re automated) are pretty clear about where the Free Tram Zone starts and ends.

Free Tram Zone advertising/signage

Cons of the Free Tram Zone

Crowding seems to be getting worse on some streets. This is particularly a problem on Bourke Street, probably more so than any other street. On Bourke Street there is route 86 (every 7-8 minutes weekdays off-peak) and route 96 (ditto), and on paper at least they’ve spaced them evenly for a tram every 3-4 minutes.

But in practice delays occur resulting in gaps of ten minutes or more, followed by several jam-packed trams in a row. This photo on Friday shows on route 96, there was going to be one tram (the one I shot footage from within, below) then a 15 minute gap, followed by 2 trams within 2 minutes. There was also a short delay on route 86 at that time, resulting in gaps of up to 7 minutes — enough for significant crowds to build up.

Delays on tram route 96

This could be countered by running short services just through the CBD. But the most recent change was that Bourke Street actually lost its short route 95 services last year in a route revamp. The simplicity is welcome, but the crowding isn’t.

Or it could be fixed by resolving delays along the routes, so that more trams got to the CBD on schedule. This is mostly due to lack of traffic light priority, but there seems to be little appetite to fix this, and even if there was, it’s a challenging exercise to eliminate all delays.

Delays compound as more people try to pack in, of course, making the problem worse, and resulting in delays right along each route.

As a paid customer, I’m not very impressed with the change, or at least the resultant crowding, and I don’t seem to be the only one.

Here’s video showing what is becoming more common. The video below is in two parts: Inside the tram was shot on Friday at 2:01pm at the Bourke Street Mall stop, westbound on route 96. Outside the tram (apologies for the horrible mobile phone audio in this second clip) was shot on Thursday at 1:33pm at the same location. Note the doors are open for a full minute before the tram can move off again.

Is there space inside the tram in front of the lady with the stripy shirt? I don’t think there was — I think there were people of diminished height not visible in the video. People were left behind at the stop, and TramTracker said the next tram (86 or 96) was 7 minutes away, by which point the crowd would have built up again.

If you have a pram or a wheelchair, you’re probably wanting a low-floor tram. Finding one with space aboard, especially on Bourke Street, just got a lot harder. (I’m amazed the two in the video above squeezed on; the lady on the left had help from one passenger who appeared to give up his space. The bloke on the right appeared to get a bit narky with the crowd.)

Similarly, if you want a specific route, things are now more difficult. You might want to consider catching whichever tram comes first out to the edge of the Free Tram Zone where the crowding is less worse, and waiting for your route there… if you wait for it at one of the busier stops, there’s a real risk you won’t be able to fit on board.

The lunchtime peak seems to be getting longer. Of course CBD trams have always been packed at lunchtime, but my impression is the period of the worst crowding is lasting longer into the afternoon. This photo was taken moments before the video from inside the tram, above, at 2pm:

Crowding on tram route 96 in Bourke Street

The cost is a problem. Fare changes this year are estimated to be costing about $100 million per year, though I’d suspect most of that is the zone 2 change. But that may go up if they have to put more resources into easing crowding. Revenue reductions mean less funding available for service upgrades.

Those who primarily benefit are tourists (who can probably afford tram fares), CBD residents (who can probably afford tram fares), international students (as long as they primarily live, study and travel within the CBD), and motorists (who don’t need encouragement to drive to the CBD, and can probably afford tram fares).

In fact almost nobody who catches public transport into the CBD and out again benefits (with the exception of Earlybird passengers). You have CBD travel already included in your fares, including if you’re using V/Line. (It’s unlikely many Earlybird passengers benefit on the way to work, as apart from Docklands, no spot in the Free Tram Zone is more than two stops from a railway station.)

The Free Tram Zone falls short of some major tourist destinations — it ends one stop before the Casino (on both route 55 and routes 12/96/109), the Museum (86/96) and the National Gallery of Victoria (Swanston Street routes). Of course the zone has to end somewhere. But if you’re going to have it (and I don’t think you should), then if it’s going to stretch to the Victoria Market and cover all of Docklands, shouldn’t it also stretch to these major attractions?

Free Tram Zone: Casino is out, Batman Park is in

Free Tram Zone: Museum is out, Victoria Pde is in

Despite good signage, at stops and shelters, on platforms, on trams, there seems to be some confusion about where the zone applies. Authorised Officers have been spotted just outside the zone boundaries. Hardly surprising though, is it? (That 3AW story also quoted a lady claiming there is no information online. Not so — it’s very prominent on the Yarra Trams, PTV, and City of Melbourne web sites.)

It will more people onto public transport, but may do little to encourage mode shift from cars. Many people may be switching from walking instead, and it may encourage motorists to drive into the CBD and Docklands, knowing they can catch free trams (though fortunately the CBD parking levy zone is larger than the Free Tram Zone).

It may not be good health policy. I don’t suppose there’s any firm information yet, but one friend who works in this area suggested to me that it is likely to cut the amount of incidental exercise some people get. As an example, I saw one lady on Friday, in fine weather, board a tram at Queen Street for a ride of less than a block, to William Street. She didn’t appear to be a lost tourist.

If don’t they put more trams onto the CBD routes, crowding will probably get worse. If they do, they’re effectively diverting resources for no revenue gain, while people in the suburbs who are crying out for better services (many with currently only one bus per hour) and who are willing to pay a fare, miss out.

I don’t know if there are commandments for economics, but if there are, surely there must be one that says you don’t give away a product people are willing to pay for. It seems madness that there was heavy demand for CBD trams when fares applied, and they just made them free. It’s a curious thing to decide to increase subsidies for.

Note that the Coalition had a plan to expand the E-class tram order by another 50. This would eventually have added to tram capacity. No word from Labor on this.

If you do touch-on within the Free Tram Zone, you’ll get charged. If you touch-off within the FTZ, and want to bother, you can probably get a reimbursement. Should they have properly programmed the FTZ into Myki? Perhaps — there used to be a “Zone 0″ for the City Saver Zone… but it’s unclear if it could have handled a zone being free, and it would mess with Tram Zone 1 Default Fares… and Myki GPS is hopeless, so who knows if it would have worked.

(Remember, if you were using public transport to get into and out of the CBD anyway, and you were going to pay a daily fare anyway, it doesn’t matter if you get charged for a CBD tram trip.)

Myki signage on trams, December 2014

The Myki message has changed over the years from the simple consistent “Top-up, Touch-on, Touch-off”, to having a raft of exceptions. On trams it’s now touch-on… unless you’re travelling entirely in the Free Tram Zone. Touch-off… only for trips entirely in Zone 2. Confused yet?

Meanwhile, more and more people are returning to work throughout January. It’ll be interesting to see just how crowded it gets.

So, there are pros and cons

So there is good and bad from the Free Tram Zone. It’s not all bad, and it’s not all good — it’s more complex than that.

The problem with free things is, someone has to pay for them.

I still think the bad outweighs the good, but I suppose we’re stuck with it for now.

And if you’re trying to get east-west across the city and want to avoid the crowds, you might want to consider the Lonsdale Street buses. Not free, but not swarming with people either most of the time.