How the 20th century was almost dominated by electric vehicles, rather than petrol

It’s amazing to think that had circumstances been different, the western world might have developed its road transport around electric engines rather than fossil fuels.

That’s one of the key points made by “A Most Deliberate Swindle“, by Mick Hamer – the tale of the London Electrobus company, which pioneered the use of electric buses in London in the early 1900s. I was sent a preview copy — it’s being released later this week.

It’s an interesting story, and is really both a book about Edwardian-era fraud, and transport. I confess the latter is of more interest to me, so I have to admit I skimmed a little bit over the background story of the some personalities involved: a mix of gentlemen who spotted what was essentially a worthwhile venture, a viable electric battery bus, and used it to fleece shareholders out of their money.

As it turns out, a major contributor to the buses being reliable enough for service was the batteries, and part of the story relates to how the Electrobus company’s management fooled the American inventors into handing over the technology.

And yes, for a time, the electric bus service was successful and popular with passengers, thanks in part to a smoother quieter ride, which also made them popular with local residents.

The idea unravelled thanks to the scammers being more interested in making money by cheating people than selling electric vehicles and running electric buses.

The real sting in the tale is towards the end of the book, when author Hamer points out that 20th century motor vehicles ended up being mostly petrol powered because the technology happened to be ready for prime time, cheap enough and reliable enough, at just the right juncture. It gained momentum, and like VHS winning over the technically superior Beta, became dominant.

So but for chance, it could have been electric vehicles instead that dominated during the 20th century, certainly for buses, but also for other service vehicles and even private cars.

London as a city in many ways holds enormous influence, particularly around the Commonwealth, but also farther afield. If electric vehicles had taken off in Britain in the 1900s, then right across the world, issues such as city air quality and lead poisoning from cars might be much less of a problem than they were and are — particularly now, when more electricity generation is being moved to clean sources of power.

Today, Tesla and others are pushing electric cars, and while they won’t solve traffic congestion, they are certainly advancing the technology. In the last year or two, numerous countries have announced the phase-out of petrol and diesel cars.

And yes, there’s a push for electric buses too — they’re being promoted by local companies and campaigns — here in Melbourne, PT Not Traffic have a campaign for electric buses on inner-city routes.

There’s plenty of detail in the book, and one thing that struck me was the names of the companies (both real and fraudulent), which back in those days certainly told you what the company did (or at least claimed to do). These days they’re a lot more abstract than some of those in the book: “The London Electrobus Company”, “The Electric Tramways Construction and Maintenance Company”, or the “Gould Storage Battery Company Limited”.

It’s a good read, and worth a look. It’s due out this Thursday 28th September.

Old photos from September 2007

Here’s yet another of my blog posts of photos from ten years ago: September 2007.

Around this time there was a somewhat sarcastic Metlink fare evasion campaign, which pointed out that fare evaders’ trips were subsidised by everybody else, and that fare evaders should therefore offer to buy dinner or mow the lawn of a fare-paying passenger. Someone obviously didn’t like this.
Anti-Metlink/Connex advertising, September 2007

Well before Uber, the Department of Infrastructure would be out and about inspecting taxis.
Department of Infrastructure inspecting taxis, September 2007

In ten years, the room where we have the computers (formerly a formal dining room when the previous owner lived here) hasn’t changed a great deal, though the computers themselves have changed (here we have mostly beige; now the screens are wide, and most equipment is black), as have the kids’ haircuts and pyjamas. It looks like Isaac (left) was watching a Doctor Who video on Youtube, and Jeremy was editing a video.
Computers in September 2007

The shops at Centre Road, Bentleigh. Smartbus liveried buses are (and were) rare on route 703, even though it was one of the original Smartbus routes. In fact, the 703 still doesn’t actually run to Smartbus standards.
Centre Road, Bentleigh, September 2007

Being a geek, I always chuckle at publicly displayed tech that goes wrong. This Windows display had stopped…
Windows playing up, Highpoint, September 2007

…on closer examination it seemed to have lost its network connection.
Windows playing up, Highpoint, September 2007

This pic is from a visit to Tony and Rae, for their Grand Final barbecue (which won’t happen this year because Tony, being a Richmond supporter, will be hoping to actually be at the game). At the time they lived next to the Brooklyn freight line, which isn’t electrified, but runs from Newport to Sunshine. Unexpectedly this Hitachi electric train went past, pulled by a diesel loco. Using the carriage number 37M, I’ve found there are other photos of this day on Vicsig.
207_0743

And finally…

Craigieburn station, waiting for a train. Ooh, a steam train! No, not actually waiting for that train…
Waiting for the Premier, Craigieburn station opening, September 2007

It was the official opening of the electrification from Broadmeadows to Craigieburn, so then Premier John Brumby and then Transport Minister Lynne Kosky rode a train (from Roxburgh Park, one station back) to be there.
Then-Premier John Brumby at Craigieburn station opening, 30/9/2007

There was a press conference…
John Brumby and Lynne Kosky at the Craigieburn station opening, September 2007

…and then the Premier was whisked away afterwards by car. Minister Kosky stayed to chat to people.
Premier's cars, Craigieburn station opening, September 2007

The media were all over it, interviewing locals, interest groups, and then filming on a train heading back towards the city.
Media on train, Craigieburn station opening, September 2007

Here’s the ABC’s TV news coverage. Since then, happily, the South Morang line has opened, and is being further extended to Mernda. And yes, I am wearing a Cats scarf, in celebration of their win the day before.

If services are frequent enough, should timetables be more flexible?

One thing you notice on many of the world’s big metro systems is that people don’t check the timetable… because there is no timetable to check. Or if there is one, nobody bothers.

It’s becoming the same way around some parts of Melbourne.

Trams — most people use TramTracker displays at stops or on their phone, or they just rock up at the stop with the (not unreasonable) expectation that the next tram isn’t too far away. They want to know how many minutes until the next tram, not that it’s the 9:24.

Buses — not many individual Melbourne bus routes are very frequent. But a few are, such as the 401 and 601 University shuttles, and some of the Smartbus routes run every 6-7 minutes in peak hour.

Trains — it’s the same in peak hour on a number of train lines. If your commute is say Newport to Southern Cross, then with 9-12 trains between 5am and 7pm on weekdays, you’re probably not going to bother checking a timetable.

In fact I’m told that increasingly, Myki touch-on data shows that where the trains come every 10 minutes or better, people are arriving at the station at random intervals, rather than timing their arrival at the station just before a scheduled train.

As I found recently in my non-scientific poll, increasing numbers of people use real-time information to check departure times, not static timetables… or don’t bother at all, because their service is frequent.

Maintaining headways, not timetables

What if we took it a step further? What if we said that for any service with a frequency of, say, 8 minutes or better, that the timetable no longer matters?

Some operators call this Headway Running. It recognises that maintaining a service at regular intervals is more important than having them depart at specific times.

There’s a clear benefit to passengers. Here’s an example:

Train departures from Elsternwick

This is the weekday Sandringham line timetable for Elsternwick to the City in morning peak.

7:36 7:43 7:51 7:58 8:06 8:13 8:21 8:28

Basically a train every 7-8 minutes. It’s a busy line.

So what happens when a train is cancelled? Even in the most reliable systems, it can happen. Let’s say the 7:58 goes AWOL.

7:36 7:43 7:51 —- 8:06 8:13 8:21 8:28

Everything’s fine until the 7:51. Then a big gap. Assuming each train is normally evenly loaded, you get twice as many people trying to squeeze onto the 8:06 as the others. In the real world this can result in people being left behind because there’s no space, affecting the following trains.

Longer station dwell times occur because of the crowding, as people try to get in the door, meaning the 8:06 runs late, making the problem even worse. It could take another half-hour for things to get back to normal.

What if the train operator could alter the times of the trains around the missing one, to reduce the gap?

(Some lines, Sandringham included, have infrastructure or other constraints that may or may not allow this in real life. And on some lines, differing stopping patterns make this more difficult. Assume for a moment these aren’t a problem.)

What if they were able to delay the train before by 2 minutes, and run the train afterwards 3 minutes early?

7:36 7:43 7:53 —- 8:03 8:13 8:21 8:28

The biggest gaps are now 10 minutes, which is worse than the usual 7-8, but heaps better than 15. The affected trains might have 30% more than the usual boardings, rather than double.

Most passengers wouldn’t even notice the time difference. They might notice the crowding is worse than normal, but that’s better than it being crush-loaded and/or being unable to board.

London Underground train departing

Remove the padding

There’s another benefit. Current timetables have had padding added to try and ensure punctual departures. On my line, the Frankston line, in 1997 the running time from Frankston to the City (via the Loop) was 70 minutes. It’s now 78 minutes (with only 1 minute added due to an extra station; Southland to open soon). Glenhuntly to Caulfield is now consistently timed at 5 minutes; in 1997 it was 3-4. Hawksburn to South Yarra now allows 3-4 minutes; it used to be 2-3.

With frequent service, as long as you have enough trains/trams/buses, you can unshackle them from having to wait for a specific departure time, and run them as fast as you can, as long as the frequency can be maintained. Hold them back a bit if one gets too far ahead of the next one, but otherwise, don’t wait for minutes everyday for the timetable to catch up.

Tweak the timetable at quiet times

Another benefit could be that timetables could be altered to reduce frequency when the capacity doesn’t demand it, such as between Christmas and mid-January.

Demand reduces markedly during this time, but the strategy currently employed to reduce service is a blunt instrument — on the trains at least, in years when they do it. Some services are simply dropped out of the timetable, leaving some huge, uneven gaps in the service.

(The trams actually seem to get this right, with more nuanced reductions, for instance frequency might drop from 5 minutes to 6 minutes, which is fine, provided the capacity is sufficient.)

Could we have headway running on frequent services?

The operating contracts in Melbourne mean the operator gets penalised for the cancelled train. If the other trains run late or early, they get penalised for that too.

There’s a strong argument for giving them the flexibility to alter services to minimise gaps between them — particularly when the service is very frequent, but even for less frequent services.

At some locations where very frequent services run, it’s a no-brainer. For instance St Kilda Road trams heading towards the City, where there can be a tram every minute or two, but sometimes longer gaps appear which cause overcrowding.

Late departures at Bentleigh

On the trains, this type of thing can be difficult because lines share tracks in the central area, so delaying one train can affect another.

The plan is over time for them to be separated out — hence the metro tunnel project. Eventually more lines will be independent. When that happens, you could do as other metro systems do, and feed more trains into the system, filling up capacity, maintaining a service every few minutes without worrying that a particular train arrives at 8:03 exactly.

Tram Tracker showing St Kilda Junction departures

Does it let operators off the hook?

Operators under these conditions would be off the hook for meeting specific times, but face other challenges in keeping an even frequency running. It may be quite difficult to shift drivers and vehicles around by a few minutes if they are coming from or going to other runs, or are due for a break.

And you’d still penalise operators for a cancelled services. The change would be that you wouldn’t penalise them for punctuality if (according to an agreed criteria) alterations are made to minimise gaps between services.

The point is, there are many cases where this would be better for passengers, so it would be good if it was an option on some routes.

The new contracts haven’t been published yet, but as I understand it, they will miss this change, despite increasing numbers of frequent services across the city. A shame.

Maybe next time?

Update 9am: Sorry to add this addendum, but there’s probably actually two questions here:

1. Should operators run to timetables, but have punctuality penalties waived if they shift things around to reduce gaps when cancellations occur? Cancellation penalties would still apply. Arguably this could apply at times/on services of lower frequency.

2. Should they get rid of (public) timetables altogether and run to headways permanently? This is a high frequency thing. What threshold would people find acceptable?

Thoughts?

A quick look at the new Metro and Yarra Trams contracts

It’s no huge surprise that the State Government has announced incumbent operators MTM and KDR will continue to operate Metro Trains and Yarra Trams respectively.

The current contracts started in 2009, and expire in late-2017. These new contracts will run through to 2024, with an option for another 3 years to 2027.

Despite an RTBU campaign, clearly the state government didn’t want to take the system back into public ownership.

The new contracts resolve several weaknesses in the old contracts, including unplanned service alterations such as station skipping, Loop bypasses, short shunting, with penalties applying for these.

It’s important to remember that these are sometimes justified. For instance if a counter-peak train carrying few passengers is delayed, and that train will subsequently form a peak hour service, is it better to let it run late for both of those services, or to skip some stations (with due advice to any passengers affected) to get it back on time to carry a peak load?

There will be a ban on intrusive advertising will ban all-over ads that block windows, making it difficult to see in or out. It sounds like some limited covering of windows will still be allowed, so we’ll have to see the fine detail of this, and how the operators and their advertisers actually implement it — it’s not like most tram and train exteriors don’t offer a lot of other real estate.

There will be an automatic refund for network-wide incidents such as the July train shutdown — though again, the precise details will be significant. In July, some people who were turned away from railway stations by staff and didn’t touch-on were therefore not eligible for compensation.

(I suspect the tram system is likely to be more resilient, as central control might be a less essential part of everyday operation.)

And there are “passenger experience” measures with penalties attached, tracking things like cleanliness.

One particularly interesting snippet: apparently Metro will put buses on standby at five strategic locations, in readiness for major disruptions. I’m assuming that would just be during peak hour when it’s difficult to get buses deployed. I wonder how many rail operators do this — though I also wonder how many rail systems this busy have 150+ level crossings regularly causing disruptions due to suicides or accidents.

These infographics from Transport For Victoria highlight a number of the changes — scroll across to see more:

Presumably the planned Comeng train refurbishment includes these previously flagged changes to interior layouts and seating, and inter-carriage connections. It’s unclear what the planned upgrades to B-class trams, and other train types will entail — note the X’traps and Siemens refurbs are getting a lot more money than the Comengs.

The performance targets are rising. What’s perhaps significant is that the targets are above the figures achieved by the operators for much of the past year, so they’ve set themselves a challenge to improve.

Here’s a comparison of Track Record figures from the past 13 months (August 2016 to August 2017), to the new thresholds:

MTM has missed the new train Delivery target twice (including July, when the big shut down occurred) and missed the Punctuality target 9 times.

KDR has missed the new tram Delivery target three times (March, April and May 2017), and missed the Punctuality target 6 times.

Unfortunately, compensation will still not be automatic, except for network-wide disruptions. For monthly breaches of the target, it’ll still only apply for Myki Passholders who bother to put in the application.

And unlike some compensation in the past, it will still only apply if the network-wide average falls below the threshold, so if your line is crap but the rest are okay, no compo for you.

Punctuality is particularly a problem for the trams, because they fall victim to other road traffic, which is outside their control. The operator can only do so much when it’s ultimately up to government to institute measures such as dedicated roadspace and traffic light priority to get trams moving. (As noted in this recent post, Melbourne’s trams spend an incredible 17% of their time simply waiting for traffic lights.)

William St tram prang

The increased spend on proactive maintenance and renewal is also likely to be important, to help prevent issues such as track, signal and fleet faults that regularly cause cancellations and delays.

Some things don’t appear to have made the cut this time around — I would like to have seen a move towards headway running (maintaining a service frequency, rather than strict departure times) when high frequency services are running — more on this in an upcoming blog post.

And in the information published yesterday, there’s been no mention yet of planned service upgrades (such as PTV’s plans for 10-minute services), timetable consolidation (eg PM peak on the Ringwood line is still a mess of different stopping patterns), infrastructure projects to be included, or the move towards “metronisation” that was flagged in the 2009 contracts.

Hopefully the full contracts will be published soon.

From what we’ve seen so far, it looks like a step forward. Now let’s see if it all results in an improvement in service quality.

* * *

PS: This from ABC Online today:

Trains and trams in Brussels and Belgium… any lessons for Melbourne?

My holiday blog is currently up to Brussels.

In this (lengthy) post I’ve looked at the many types of rail transport in Belgium, and I try and ponder lessons for Melbourne.

Belgian use of rail ranges from trams — street-based and on separate alignments as in Melbourne, but also underground “pre-metro” routes — the Metro, and suburban and long-distance heavy rail.

Trams

Brussels has quite a large tram network – apparently 16th largest in the world. Similar to Melbourne, the trams arrived in the late 1800s.

Some tram routes, particularly in the central city, run along the street, either in their own lanes, or in mixed traffic – pretty similar to all Melbourne tram routes.

Perhaps those in mixed traffic are the older routes, developed before motor cars were much of a problem – but they certainly cause delays now.

Brussels tram delayed by car

Brussels tram slowly makes its way past a truck parked too close to tracks

Where trams run in their own segregated lanes, they mostly seemed to have reasonable physical separation, though I suppose this might prevent emergency vehicles using them. Note the centre fencing, presumably to discourage pedestrians crossing where they’re not meant to.

Brussels tram route 82, near Midi station

Some of the older trams are high-floor, not level boarding/accessible. But much of the fleet is made up of newer accessible vehicles.

All of the trams in service seem to be are articulated, longer models, akin to Melbourne’s newer E, D2 and B-class fleet. (Melbourne will go that way, with the phasing-out of the Z-class fleet, and eventually the As, to be replaced by bigger trams such as the E-class.)

All the stops I recall seeing had platforms, even if they were just raised kerb extensions like this:

IMG_20170717_205622322_HDR

Most if not all stops also had screens with real-time information, something currently only available at major tram stops around Melbourne.

Stop spacing seemed to be wider than in Melbourne — it’s not clear to me if this was always the case in Brussels. Changing this could be controversial, especially if it moves stops away from intersections, which provide pedestrian access via neighbouring streets.

Further out in the suburbs of Brussels, most of the trams run along dedicated tracks, often alongside roads, though I didn’t see any in the middle of boulevards like St Kilda Road, Dandenong Road or Victoria Parade in Melbourne.

This one, route 3, is actually a “pre-metro” route, — partly underground (see below).

Brussels light rail/tram

Brussels light rail/tram

Where they had to cross roads, the trams seemed to have good priority – it seemed rare to have to wait at traffic lights. Wikipedia says that tram priority has been installed at 150 intersections, and it certainly shows.

Brussels trams have no conductors. Ticket validators were on the trams, with ticket machines at the stops – at least most of the stops, from what I saw. Stop spacing seems to be wider than in Melbourne, making provision of ticket machines more practical, though still expensive on a big network.

Apparently you can buy a single trip ticket from the driver, which is more expensive. I didn’t see anybody doing this.

Given it’s an open system, I assume there are random ticket inspections, though I didn’t see any occur.

Inside the trams are colour displays telling you which line you were on, the name of upcoming stops, and which tram, bus and metro lines you can interchange to at the next stop, along with an indicator showing which side to exit. Alongside GPS with Google Maps, it made it very easy to navigate, even for a non-French-speaking tourist newbie like me.

Interior of a Brussels tram

Trams waiting at the terminus would show how many minutes to depart, alternating with other information on the destination display. Very handy when there were several trams waiting. This would be great at termini such as Elizabeth Street or Acland Street.

Brussels tram terminus, with tram showing minutes to departure

Pre-metro

Some tram lines are completely segregated, with underground sections. This is known in parts of Europe as “pre-metro”: a transitional phase between light rail and fully-blown metro. In some cases these operate with signals and other heavy-rail-like infrastructure.

Edit: a chat with someone who knows about this stuff indicates that pre-metro may be found in Belgium but is rare elsewhere. Underground sections of tramways have been implemented in many cities to bypass congestion points, but most of these are done with no intention of later conversion from trams to metro as happened with Brussels Metro Line 1, built in the 1960s as pre-metro and converted to metro in 1976.

Pre-metro station, Brussels

Pre-metro stations are big like metro stations, with paid areas and fare gates. The platforms are low and short, to suit the trams using them, but ready for conversion later.

Pre-metro station, Brussels

Pre-metro tram interior, Brussels

Would this work in Melbourne? There were some proposals last century to bury tram lines in the city centre, though this was not part of a plan of conversion to metro later. The advantages are speed and capacity for trams, as they have absolute priority. But the disadvantage is it’s a longer process for people to enter the stations and board the trams.

Still, for Brussels it’s an interesting step between trams and metros.

Melbourne’s metro tunnel will relieve St Kilda Road trams, but it’s main goal is providing heavy rail capacity to existing lines in the city centre, so in that context it wouldn’t work.

The Brussels Metro

Then there’s the actual Metro, which in Brussels has several lines, some developed out of pre-metro lines. The network is relatively new, with the first lines having opened as pre-metro trams in the 1960s, and heavy rail in the 1970s.

Metro routes are numbered, with the numbering being consistent with the trams. The rail network map includes both Metro and pre-metro routes. In this map, lines 1, 2, 5 and 6 are Metro, lines 3, 4 and 7 are pre-metro trams.

Brussels Metro and train network map

The Brussels Metro trains are bigger than trams, and as you’d expect, they use high platforms and signals (though some of the trams and pre-metro lines also use signals). Frequency is similar — for passengers, the main difference is the capacity.

Brussels Metro station

Most of the Metro fleet in Brussels is from a 1970s design, with very boxy carriages, but we found they were clean and fast. There are four sets of doors per carriage, and as seen in the video above, you pull a handle to open them. They close and lock before leaving the station.

The trains feature lots of orange, and feel a bit smaller than the suburban trains you see in Melbourne, but are larger than London’s deep tunnel Tube trains.

Newer Brussels Metro trains also have the orange colour scheme and hard seats that don’t look very comfortable, but aren’t too bad for short trips.

Interior of a new Brussels Metro train

To my surprise, there is a public timetable, but it appears few people ever look at it. The base frequency on the individual lines seems to be 10 minutes until late at night (about 6-8 minutes in peak hours), but much of the network has multiple routes sharing tracks, making a combined all-day frequency of 5 minutes at most stations (3-6 in peak).

This official page notes current upgrades will allow frequency up to 30 in some sections, with new trains starting to replace the old, and line extensions. This also appears to be associated with proposed future driverless operation of the trains.

Countdown clocks and/or train location indicators are provided on every platform.

Brussels Metro station train indicators

Crowd at a Brussels Metro station when a train went out of service unexpectedly

The in-carriage displays on the older, more common, trains are far more primitive than on the trams, but still manage to alternate between the route/destination and the next station name, and have an indicator showing which side the approaching platform is.

Brussels Metro interior

Some carriages had marked areas for bicycles, though they are banned in peak hours.

Brussels Metro: bicycle storage

As in many cities, only some parts of the metro were underground – no doubt where there was no other option, given the cost. Some areas were elevated, or at ground level. No level crossings, of course.

Brussels Metro

All the stations were gated – mostly requiring a card to enter, but one-way gates not needing a card to exit — reflecting the flat fares. Ticket machines were at all the stations, only a few of which had staff.

Fare gates, Brussels Metro

Overall the network seems pretty busy at most times of day. At some stations we saw soldiers on duty, reflecting that Brussels is at a high alert level following terrorist attacks.

Soldiers on duty at a Brussels Metro station

Heavy rail

And finally there’s the heavy rail network. This is completely separate to the Metro, and much older, dating back to 1835.

Brugge Station, Belgium

Train approaching at Brussels Nord (North) station

Around suburban Brussels, there’s the S-trains (with numbers, similar to German suburban trains), suburban services covering areas of Brussels mostly not covered by Metro and train.

Further afield are intercity and international trains, including high speed services. In some cases, the intercity express trains currently share tracks with the suburban trains, but we saw a lot of track expansion works, so in the future I’d expect to see more dedicated tracks for trains of different speeds.

Currently most of the suburban services are not very frequent — typically only every 30 minutes. The track expansion is part of the planned Brussels RER, which will enable higher frequencies.

While the Belgian network is completely state owned, other operators run their trains into and through Belgium, including state railways from Germany and the Netherlands, and private operators such as Eurostar and Thalys.

Dutch train in Brussels

German Railways ICE train in Brussels

In the Belgian fleet, there was a mix of ages of train. Some of the suburban fleet were modern and spacious, and we caught an intercity double-deck train that looked very new, perhaps built to cope with the big crowds we saw on some services.

There’s a mix of First Class and Standard Class accommodation on all trains, including S suburban routes.

Belgian Intercity train at Brugge

Belgian double-deck Intercity train at Brugge

Interior of Belgian Intercity train, lower deck

Platforms also vary. At many stations, you have to climb steps up into the trains. Unlike the tram and Metro networks, there doesn’t seem to be any current effort to implement level boarding.

Low platform/high floor on a Belgian InterCity train

Louvain-la-Neuve station near Brussels

Passenger information was provided by displays in the newer carriages, but this was lacking in the older ones. At busy stations, information was excellent. A bit mixed at the minor stations. Information was generally provided in two languages (French and Dutch/Flemish) or even three (add English).

Brussels S-train interior

Brussels Nord: delays on the trains

The trains themselves were mostly spotless — same with the trams and Metro carriages. But unfortunately, occasionally you did see one with extensive graffiti on carriages, such as this one, which includes covering part of one window, as well as the destination display. (As is often the convention, I’ve pixellated it so the vandals don’t get their work displayed by me.)

Tagged train, Belgium

Some stations have massive bicycle parking facilities, holding many hundreds of bikes. This is at Brugge:

Bicycle parking at Brugge station, Belgium

Brugge station, Belgium

The Brussels Mobib card used on the trams and Metro is valid on some parts of the heavy rail network within Brussels (all of the S/suburban services, I assume). On most other services, paper tickets are dispensed from vending machines, and checked by conductors on all the trains, including suburban trains. There are no gates at stations.

Belgian rail ticket: Brussels to Brugge

Outside the Mobib/suburban area, there are a variety of fare discounts – far wider than what we see in Australia for just children, low incomes and pensioners: There are special deals for journalists, military personnel, families, and even pregnant women get free upgrades to First Class.

Belgian train ad. Loosely translated: "To all travellers, don't put your bag on the seat, unless you believe objects are alive. Mutual respect is class."

…and yes, they have a train to the airport.

Brussels: train to the airport departs Midi (Zuid/South) station

Brussels: looking down at Heysel Metro station and tram terminus frrom the Atomium

Lessons for Melbourne

So what are the good things that the Belgians are doing that could be translated to Melbourne and Victoria?

The Brussels Metro being a completely separate rail system to the heavy rail network is, I think, not something that is terribly useful in a Melbourne context. Many European cities adopted separate metro systems to get rail into historic city centres where heavy rail couldn’t go, for reasons of cost or political barriers — think of London’s heavy rail vs Underground systems. That’s not an issue in Australian cities.

In any case, the trend recently seems to be to extend heavy rail underground through city centres — the Brussels RER will include tunnelling to connect existing heavy rail lines; London is doing it with Crossrail to connect urban rail through the city; Zurich recently completed a cross-city rail tunnel — all of these are similar in principle to Melbourne’s metro rail tunnel project.

Separating out rail routes, as Melbourne’s tunnel will help do, can help transition the Melbourne suburban network into a big city metro. For passengers, the primary benefit of the Brussels Metro over Melbourne’s suburban trains is frequent service all day, cutting waiting times and making interchange easier. We can do this too.

The use of double-deck trains on busy intercity and commuter routes is perhaps something that should be considered here. There’s a dwell time impact that means they are less attractive on frequent routes (eg Melbourne’s metro/suburban lines), but V/Line’s commuter services might benefit from them, provided dwells can be managed — the current V/Locity fleet isn’t great for this either, though it may be less of an issue in the context of the busiest station being the terminal at Southern Cross, with lots of platforms.

Passenger information, particularly on Brussels trams, is something we could adopt — with colour screens showing next stop and interchanges to train/tram/bus. Gold Coast Light Rail has put colour screens in its trams, and in fact Yarra Trams is starting to trial these on some trams — good to see.

There’s clearly room for improvements to information at tram stops, railway stations, and on-board buses and trains too.

Tram priority in Brussels and other European cities might be where we can learn the most. Proper separation of dedicated tram lanes along streets is rare, resulting in a lot of motor vehicles getting onto the tracks.

In Melbourne, trams spend an unbelievable 17% of their time simply waiting at red lights. So we not only have the world’s biggest tram network, we also have the slowest. I haven’t found any hard data for Brussels, but from the tram rides I took — primarily on reserved track — this seemed far lower.

Tram delays at traffic lights - international comparison

This article has some detailed information on how Brussels has achieved its tram priority, noting that absolute priority for trams isn’t politically achievable, but maximum priority is:

Therefore, in the eyes of regional representatives, remote controlled traffic lights cannot represent a point of contention and must constantly lead to a compromise with respect to the physical and temporal sharing of space. The priority given to public transport is a relative – and not total – priority. It is an explicit political choice. Brigitte Grouwels explains that:

“the system of remote controlled traffic lights functions according to the principle of “maximum priority”, and not absolute priority. During the design of traffic light plans, certain limits have been imposed on the system: no traffic light cycle longer than 120 seconds and no blocking of successive crossroads.” [BCR parliament, 2010].

And in Melbourne? We’ve had numerous trials. Technology doesn’t seem to be a barrier. It comes down to politics.

It’d be nice to think there was the political will to systematically cut delays to Melbourne’s trams. It would mean much more efficient use of our huge tram network and its fleet, and increasing service frequencies for “free”, and make public transport a quicker more attractive option.