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 view out the front window

When I was a kid, I liked to kneel on the front seat of the (W-class) tram, looking out the front, and watching the driver, trying to figure out how it all worked.

I reckon the front still gives you the best views.

View out the front of a W-class tram; Latrobe Street

Back in the day I recall a control to apply the power, another to brake, with a big wheel as the backup brake (akin to a handbrake I suppose — I was once on a tram whose main brake had failed, and we rolled slowly up Carlisle Street, with the wheel being used to bring us to a halt at every stop).

Many trams didn’t have doors, but those that did had an extra lever to open and close them. These days there are various other newer controls in the cab.

W-class tram controls

W-class trams

I love W-class trams. They truly are an icon of the city. In my youth I fondly remember watching the road ahead from the seat just behind (and to the left) of the driver, as we rolled up and down the hills on Balaclava Road. Or hot summers in the seat next to the (open) door, the cool breeze on my face — preferably wooden seats, as the vinyl ones got horribly sweaty.

Or the tiny pleasure (now impossible) of stepping out of the door, onto the running board, and onto the street as the tram was still slowing to a stop.

But a number of questions spring to mind following the Liberals’ pledge to keep and upgrade more W-class trams for regular route service.

What about accessibility? So far there seems to be no mention of this. It’s not unsurmountable — some US cities have high-level platforms that work with heritage W-class trams, though it’s unclear how this would work with low-floor trams on the same route. Something has to be done to meet Disability Discrimination Act requirements. Level boarding also helps others, including parents with prams, and speeds up boarding generally.

Will they manage to lift the 35 kmh speed limit? If not, it’s going to result in slower trips, and quite possibly worsened traffic congestion. Sure, many inner-city streets are slow anyway due to the amount of traffic, but part of keeping trams to time is having good acceleration and being able to reach something approaching the speed limit on those streets (since traffic tends to bank up behind trams; less so in front of them).

Having these trams only outside peak effectively means the whole fleet will need to be much bigger than otherwise required. What are the implications for operations (during swap times; complicated) and depot space? The latter is becoming a problem, and in fact the latest government funding for new trams includes a lot of money for expanded depot capacity.

Capacity will also be an issue on some routes; a W has more seats than a Citadis or 3-section Combino tram, but holds a lot less people because it has less standing room. Steps rather than level boarding is also likely to result in longer boarding times, further slowing down those routes.

Air conditioning always comes up as a topic for discussion on older vehicles, especially as we approach summer. I suspect they are simply not capable of being upgraded for it.

Finally, the pledge is for just $8 million of funding. There’s about 200 trams in Newport Workshops; it’s hard to see that $8 million is going to go very far at all.

So there’s a lot of unanswered questions.