“Step-free” doesn’t mean DDA-compliant

All of Melbourne’s suburban railway stations have step-free access to the platforms.

Except one: Heyington. To get to either platform involves steps.

Heyington is set into the side of a hill. From the street you go down some steps to the citybound (“up”) platform. Or if you want the outbound (“down”) platform, that’s down some steps, across a walkway, and then down some more steps. (The outbound platform is accessible directly from the adjacent St Kevins College, but that appears to be a private entrance.)

Heyington Station

Heyington Station

Other rail networks

So, every Melbourne station except one has step-free access.

That’s a long way ahead of many of the bigger old rail systems around the world.

In Sydney, by my count, 109 out of 178 (61%) are accessible (following huge investment in lifts), though the proportion across New South Wales as a whole is around half.

In London, it’s around a quarter of Underground stations and about half the Overground stations. It’s also pretty dire in Paris.

Earls Court station, London Underground

It’s not that hard to see how this happened. Much of Sydney is very hilly, so many stations hug the side of hills (like Heyington does), which would have made it quite difficult/expensive to provide ramps, back in the days when accessibility for wheelchairs or prams wasn’t seen as a concern.

(For similar reasons, Sydney never had very many level crossings. Sure, they’ve done a good job at getting rid of theirs, but they never had that many to start with. Melbourne in comparison is fairly flat, so we ended up with lots of level crossings.)

On old underground systems like London and Paris, some of the stations were built before lift/elevator technology had really matured, and it would have been expensive, and not seen as a priority. Providing ramps to station platforms deep underground would have cost a fortune, so to this day they’re very reliant on steps. Some cities are spending up big on retro-fitting lifts.

How did Melbourne end up with ramps almost everywhere? There must have been a policy in place, because stations going back well over a hundred years have them — the MATHS stations rebuilt in the 1910s are a good example, but you can also find photos of Flinders Street Station from the 1890s with ramps.

Whatever the reasons for the policy, it showed foresight.

Ramps at Sandown Park station

DDA compliance doesn’t just mean ramps

So, all Melbourne stations except Heyington are step-free. But this doesn’t make them compliant with the latest legislated standards.

The Disability Discrimination Act, and the subsection, the Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport are far more specific than just “no steps”. Melbourne’s station ramps, particularly the older ones, are too steep for some people in a hand-operated wheelchair to use, and can cause problems for people with other mobility difficulties.

Here’s a summary of the relevant DDA standard (AS 1428.1):

Summary of DDA building standards

So basically you need ramps to be no steeper than 1:14, and at that gradient, you need a landing every 9 metres.

DDA probably isn’t perfect. But it mandates a pretty good standard, which if followed, makes more public spaces accessible to most people, not just the able-bodied.

Some upgrades coming

The current state of many of the stations means, even though there are no steps, it’s difficult for some people to use them.

In the past, some stations have been proposed for upgrades; some have happened, some have faced fierce resistance.

Fortunately, the level crossing removal program is resulting in many stations being rebuilt to modern standards. This is a ramp down to the platforms at Bentleigh station — note the gentle gradient, and landing midway along.

Bentleigh station ramp

Accessibility information

If you have specific mobility needs and you’re looking to travel — for instance, you might be capable of using modern DDA-compliant ramps, but not the older steeper ones — there’s not very much official information online.

The rail network map simply says that only Heyington lacks step-free access.

The detailed station information on the PTV web site doesn’t distinguish between a station with fully-DDA-compliant ramps and lifts, and one with steep ramps.

In fact it cheerfully notes stations that have steps, without telling you what this means:

  • Heyington has steps which means you can’t access the platforms any other way.
  • Box Hill and Ormond are also listed as having steps… but platforms are accessible via lifts and/or ramps.

It mentions if station parking, phones and toilets are accessible, but again, doesn’t clarify what this means. Accessible from where? Caulfield’s new accessible toilets are on platforms 2/3, reached from the street via two steep ramps.

Worse, it claims Heyington’s toilets and phone are accessible — I didn’t notice a telephone, and there are certainly no toilets available there.

PTV Journey Planner options

Planning journeys

The PTV Journey Planner can be told:

  • You can’t walk very far
  • You need services and/or stops with wheelchair access

(The Journey Planner seems to know which trams are accessible and which aren’t — eg 96 normally is, 57 normally isn’t. Just don’t bother trying to look at the tram timetables online, which don’t show it.)

But you can’t specify that you need:

  • Unassisted/DDA-compliant wheelchair access
  • Visual displays on the platform (eg hearing difficulties) to confirm you’re boarding the right service
  • Tactile guidance paths (even though these are in the PTV database)

(I’m not trying to catalogue every specific need people might have, just show some examples.)

Google Transit doesn’t have any options other than being able to preference less walking, even though the GTFS data specification includes accessibility information.

Ultimately if you need more information than is available online, the only thing I can suggest is contacting PTV and Metro for that information… if they have it.

Perhaps we should be thankful that most of the train system is accessible, at least with assistance.

Most buses are compliant. Trams… that’s another story altogether.

Clearly lot more is needed to improve the transport system as a whole to achieve full DDA-compliance.

* * *

Further reading:

Thanks to Karen for inspiring this blog post via discussion of her mother’s mobility needs.

Old photos from October 2007

ZOMG, for the first time since I started this series, I forgot to post photos for October 2007 in October.

And nobody noticed.

Not surprising; I suspect I’m the most amused by these.

Here they are.

First, here’s the classic pic of Flinders Street Station. Basically the same nowadays, but covered in scaffolding for the renovation — back then there was also no tram platform stop adjacent on Flinders Street.
Flinders Street Station, October 2007

This view looking across from the northern side of Federation Square. Somewhere in amongst all that traffic is a safety zone tram stop!
Flinders Street Station, October 2007

Me in the City Square. Less grey hair back then, and the Square itself is now rubble, with metro tunnel construction underway.
In the City Square, October 2007

Also in the City Square, late in October the the Christmas Tree being built.
Building the Christmas tree in the City Square, October 2007

A relative rarity: a City Circle tram heading up Swanston Street, for reasons unknown. This spot has been remodeled with tram platform stops since then.
City Circle tram in Swanston Street, October 2007

City Circle tram in Swanston Street, October 2007

Scaffolding collapse in Exhibition Street — someone chose a poor place to park that day. Thankfully, apparently, nobody was injured. (I see I posted it at the time)
Scaffolding collapse, Exhibition Street, October 2007

Swanston Street: a tandem and a Merc. Well, at least one of them is meant to be there.
Swanston Street - tandem and Merc

My home filing system, whereby everything piles up until I can’t stand it anymore, then I sort through it. Not good. Probably prompted by doing my taxes. I’ve done my taxes for 2017… though I am overdue to do some filing.
Daniel's filing system

The use and misuse of footpaths

I ran a Twitter thread over the last fortnight, highlighting some of the ways that footpath space is misused, or mis-allocated.

This blog expands on those posts.

In some of these cases, capacity constraints are causing problems for large numbers of pedestrians. Able-bodied people are often able to avoid those hazards, though it does slow them down.

More seriously, for those with limited mobility, such as those in wheelchairs, these issues can cause real problems for people just trying to get out and about.

1. Advertising

Real estate advertising blocking footpath

This is commonplace. It’s also in contravention of local council law. For instance, Glen Eira outlaws the following:

  • Placing advertising sign/s or displaying any goods on a Road (including a footpath) or Council Land unless permitted under the Glen Eira Planning Scheme.
  • Owning or occupying a Property from which trees, plants, shrubs or any other thing overhang or encroach on any Road (including footpath) at a height of less than 3 metres or from which a gate obstructs any Road or footpath.

Typically if you ask a real estate agent on Twitter why their banners are blocking the footpaths like this, they’ll invariably say they’re investigating, and ask for details of the specific property, as if it’s some unique occurrence.

It’s not of course. It’s a style of banner that is widely used. There have been occasional prosecutions for this — perhaps there need to be a few more so the real estate industry starts adapting. Some have found a solution: a smaller banner that is clear of pedestrians (though probably not 3 metres above the path).

2. Motorcycles

Motorcycle blocking footpath

Motorcycle parking on footpaths is legal in Victoria — a situation that is unique in Australia. In this post from 2013, I looked at the guidelines (which are not enforceable) and asked the obvious question: are the laws actually appropriate, particularly in busy city centres?

One can argue that motorcycles are more space-efficient than cars. Not if they encroach onto footpaths they’re not.

City of Melbourne’s 2012 transport strategy paper on “Flexible and adaptive private transport” estimates that just 1-2% of trips to the City are by motorcycle. From how they take over vast areas of footpath in some areas, we should be thankful it’s not any higher.

The paper identified this Action (number 42): Increase the supply of motorcycle parking in congested areas to reduce the need to park on footpaths and prohibit motorcycle parking where it obstructs walking, or other complementary activities.

Sounds good, but as far as I know, the short list of three locations in the CBD where motorcycle parking is banned in 2017 is exactly the same as it was in 2001.

There is a law that if the motorcycle obstructs the footpath then council officers can take action. But this is vague. The above example blocks half the busy footpath. Is that an obstruction? (If I blocked one lane of a busy road, I’m sure that would be.)

3. Narrow footpaths

Inadequate narrow footpath

Footpaths like this are found right along most of the Little streets in Melbourne’s CBD: one lane of traffic, two lanes of parking, and two narrow footpaths for pedestrians, despite them being in the majority.

I’m guessing the street has been this way for a long time. Doesn’t mean it still should be. And with City of Melbourne progressively replacing footpaths with bluestone, there’s an opportunity to re-allocate space in favour of the most space-efficient, most desirable mode.

Priorities, right? Recently there have been calls to make Chinatown car-free, at least at some times of day, but throughout the CBD there’s a good argument for reducing parking and widening footpaths to cope with crowds and encourage more walking.

4. Parked vehicle overhang

Motor vehicle blocking footpath

Another common sight where car parks are adjacent to footpaths, including 90-degree street parking.

Someone with limited eyesight who didn’t spot this huge vehicle sticking blocking half the footpath could do themselves a serious injury.

Education of motorists could help, but a design change to prevent this type of overhang would be better.

Possibly this is illegal under the same laws quoted above; it’s not really clear.

5. Traffic signs

Road sign blocking footpath

This one was first spotted by Victoria Walks. Notice how the road is blocked anyway — though this is a temporary (every lunchtime) measure.

Certainly though the roadway is wide enough that it could accommodate the sign plus traffic.

I complained to City of Melbourne about it. They replied that while the placement:

was not ideal, it was not appropriate to locate it on the carriageway, taking up a parking space, as it would affect the servicing requirements of abutting properties within this limited parking area.

They also acknowledged that they only left 1.1 metres of footpath clear, narrower than the recommended clearance of 1.2 metres to allow for wheelchairs.

So there you have it. As far as City of Melbourne goes, parking in the middle of the CBD is more important than footpath users, including those in wheelchairs. And that includes when it’s a sign to advise of No Parking!

6. Driveway extensions

Parked car blocking footpath

This is pretty common in the suburbs. Some motorists think their driveway includes the footpath.

It’s possible to dob people in for this. In the past some have been issued with fines.

But more widely educating might be a better start. Glen Eira have publicised it in their regular newsletter, but given how common it is, more is needed.

7. Motorcycles moving on footpaths

Motorcyclist riding along busy footpath

This is just south of Flagstaff station, one of the busiest pedestrian locations in Melbourne.

It’s not just that the motorcyclist is parking on the footpath; it’s also that he needs to ride it from the nearest ramp. Thankfully he was doing so slowly, walking it (even though he’s sitting on it)… apparently undeterred by the swarm of pedestrians coming towards him.

The bigger problem is that, this footpath is so busy that City of Melbourne have an automated pedestrian counting device to monitor it, and pedestrians regularly walk on the road to avoid obstructions. Despite that, no action has been taken to simply ban motorcycle parking along here.

As per number 2, the ban locations haven’t changed since 2001. Given the explosion in growth in the CBD, that’s just ridiculous.

8. Parked cars

Parked cars blocking footpath

Meanwhile in the burbs, this is happening.

It’s not even clear why these motorists have chosen to mount the footpath, as there’s plenty of space on the road. It’s permitted in some countries, but doesn’t seem to be here. (When I was learning to drive, I was told this was an instant fail.)

For someone with a pram or mobility aid, the choice is try and get past on the grass (and hope you don’t get bogged down) or use the parallel cycling path — not ideal.

9. Caravans

Caravan blocking footpath

Similar to number 6, though trailers and caravans seem to be even more of a blind spot for some owners.

10. No footpath at all

No footpath

Common in some outer-suburbs, but also a problem in Glen Eira. There are a number of streets around Bentleigh and East Bentleigh with no sealed footpath at all.

Pushing a pram? Or you have wheeled luggage? Or in a wheelchair? I guess you just use the roadway and hope a car doesn’t zoom around the corner and skittle you.

Why this persists I have no idea, though I’m told City of Glen Eira at least is moving to address it.

11. Trees and bushes

Bushes blocking footpath

Refer to the council laws quoted in number 1. These are meant to be maintained to leave clearance of 3 metres above the path, which would allow plenty of space, even for an adult on a bicycle (legally on the footpath if they’re supervising an under-12).

The couple pictured above (they’re walking in single file) had to manoeuvre around the bushes to get their pram past. Lucky the weather was dry so the nature strip was okay.

How would someone in a wheelchair go? Onto the grass or cross the street I suppose.

William Street 9am. Narrow footpath + obstructions = people walk on road

The common theme here

Most of us were born with two feet to walk around.

But those who choose to walk, rather than drive, are constantly marginalised, by poor planning, and poor regulation.

The built environment, and the way some people are allowed to misuse it, actively discourage walking.

And almost nobody cares.

This is despite the numerous benefits to personal health, as well as society at large, from more people walking instead of driving.

Brussels has zebra crossings. Lots and lots of zebra crossings. Could we have more too?

One of the things I found fascinating about Brussels on our recent holiday was – in contrast to Cardiff – how they’ve gone out of their way to make life easy for pedestrians.

Most striking was that there were zebra crossings. Lots and lots of zebra crossings.

Zebra crossings in Brussels

When I first spotted how many there were, I wasn’t totally sure what I was seeing, and actually warned my fellow travellers to watch and observe the locals, just in case the road markings didn’t mean what they mean in Australia. Did vehicles really have to stop for pedestrians at all these locations?

Yes. The stripes mean the same thing (except if there are traffic lights). There are just lots of zebra crossings.

Walking to the Metro in the rain, Brussels

Zebra crossings on main streets, zebra crossings on minor streets, zebra crossings on divided roads with trams in the middle, zebra crossings at intersections and mid-block.

Lots and lots of zebra crossings, and drivers observed them – perhaps because they’re so used to them.

Roundabouts? Not a problem. In Australia, these are virtually the only locations where vehicles in any direction don’t have to give way. Exceptions are rare. The Belgian roundabouts I saw had zebra crossings on all sides:

Brussels street

Two T-junctions so close together that putting zebra crossings on every side would mean three in row? Sure, go ahead. The motorists will survive:

Zebra crossings in Brussels

Generally, motor vehicles had to give way to pedestrians, but pedestrians had to give way to trams.

Zebra and tram crossing in Brussels

How much does having lots of zebra crossings affect traffic? It’s hard to say, but the cars driving around didn’t seem to be unduly held up. When I saw peak hour traffic set in, it was clear that – as anywhere else – the main thing delaying cars was other cars.

Some wider streets had traffic lights with pedestrian crossings. At many of these, you didn’t have to press a “beg” button – there was no button. The green man triggered automatically:

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

This not only tells pedestrians approaching that they don’t have to press a button to cross. It also indicates the authorities have no intention of changing it (and necessitating having a button) any time soon.

This of course is how it should be. If you’re giving the green to vehicles, why wouldn’t you also give the green to pedestrians? (More about this in another rant post soon.)

Note the signalised crossings have the same on-road markings as zebra crossings. I wonder if that helps with compliance? They’re much more obvious than the Australian dashed line markings.

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

At a few spots I saw, buttons were necessary to trigger the green man. These seemed to be reasonably responsive, not making you wait too long:

Pedestrian crossing button in Brussels

In some locations, presumably those that get very busy at times, the crossings were very wide.

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

Along with mostly wide footpaths (at least, wide enough to cope with pedestrian traffic), the design of the crossings left one with the impression that Belgian authorities would prefer you walked than drive.

It’s the sort of thing that some might not even notice, but it left an impression on me. If only Australian authorities were so inspired.

Could we do this in Australia?

Sure. But while some new zebra crossings have popped up over the last few years, they don’t seem to be routinely installed.

This spot outside Gardiner Station clearly should have been a zebra crossing:

This was almost a zebra crossing, but someone messed up. (I shouldn’t have opened my big mouth. It’s now entirely a signalised crossing… which thanks to the beg button, many people ignore):

This is the newish tram stop on Collins Street at William Street. It could have had zebra crossings at the non-intersection end. But someone decided a signalised crossing was a better idea. It’s maddeningly slow to wait for if you’re crossing, and many people just cross whenever there’s a gap in the traffic:

Collins St near William St

I would think there’s also scope to place zebra crossings on side streets at intersections, particularly in suburban shopping centres.

Main road/side street intersection, Bentleigh

The law says a vehicle turning into the street gives way, but convention is often the opposite, with vehicles exiting the street often giving way instead.

And pedestrians sometimes wave stopped motorists on, when the motorist is doing the right thing and giving way. (Do me a favour: if you’re crossing and other people are too, don’t wave the car on. You might not be in any great hurry to get where you’re going, but you don’t speak for everybody else.)

Painting zebra crossings right across the side street would not just encourage walking, it would also help reduce the confusion over who’s meant to give way to whom, in what are typically high traffic (pedestrian and vehicle) areas.

Ditto car park entrances, where motorists entering and exiting are meant to give way to pedestrians.

More zebra crossings are perfectly possible. Here’s what they’ve done in Footscray. It was quiet when I took this photo, but often there are lots of pedestrians around. Somehow, the traffic still gets through:

Zebra crossings in Footscray

Potentially two-lane main roads like Centre Road and McKinnon Road could have zebra crossings too. That would be bringing it up to Belgian standards, and would be in line with the Vicroads Smartroads strategy which says it’s meant to prioritise pedestrians and buses. What would be the effect on traffic? It would be interesting to see it modelled.

Ultimately, if we prefer people walk where possible, more needs to be done to encourage it.

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 โ€“ and not total โ€“ priority. It is an explicit political choice. Brigitte Grouwels explains that:

โ€œthe system of remote controlled traffic lights functions according to the principle of โ€œmaximum priorityโ€, 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.โ€ [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.