I was wondering how Sydney’s new light rail line (L2, CBD to Randwick, opened mid-December) is performing, so I took a look at the figures. Despite a number of technical problems, the line had than 1.2 million trips in January, which seems not too shabby.
How does that compare to Melbourne’s busiest tram routes?
Unfortunately comparable data is hard to find, but back in 2018, the Victorian Greens did an FOI on tram patronage data, and the figures which came back included annual patronage for 2016-17. A good basis for a comparison, with some caveats.
Melbourne tram patronage overall (as seen in the Budget Papers) has grown only about 1% between 2016-17 and 2018-19, so I didn’t bother to adjust the figures. The last big surge was 2014-15 when the Free Tram Zone was introduced.
I initially excluded routes 8, 55 and 58, as in May 2017 routes 8 and 55 merged to become the 58. But instead I’ve taken the 58 figure for May-June and multiplied by 6.
It would be nice to see some more up-to-date data for Melbourne – the recent deployment of larger trams may have seen patronage on some routes increase in the past year as the constraint of overcrowding is relieved.
The NSW data is incomplete or likely to be inconsistent, as the new line only just started, and the Newcastle line is also pretty new.
So I used the numbers from January and multiplied it by 12 – January might be quieter than a typical month, but it actually gave a higher figure overall for the L1 inner west/Dulwich Hill line and the Newcastle line than their actual patronage over the past year.
The L3 line will open in coming months, as a branch of L2, and boosting frequency over the common section into the CBD, so expect further strong growth in Sydney.
Important: this NSW data includes Opal only, and excludes trips using other types of tickets.
Adelaide’s tram network is confusing. It used to be just the one line to Glenelg. Now they confusingly listed as four different acronyms on the web site (why not route numbers?), but the route map and the printed timetable booklet which could help you make sense of it only shows three of them.
Proposed Adelaide tram extensions seem to be on hold at the moment.
Gold Coast Light Rail saw heavy growth in 2018 thanks to a line extension and the Commonwealth Games, which may mean it dropped in 2019. They’ve got another line extension probably coming soon, which should boost patronage.
I initially missed Canberra. Have updated the graph.
I did not include tourist trams in Ballarat, Bendigo, and elsewhere (Whiteman Park, WA, and St Kilda, SA, spring to mind). I’m more interested in actual public transport (though Melbourne’s City Circle route 35 is included)
It’s somewhat arbitrary to look at just trams, of course. In Brisbane and Sydney, they have very extensive inner-city bus networks which replaced their old tram networks, and still serve a similar role to Melbourne’s trams.
And remember, route lengths vary widely, which affects boarding numbers.
But with the above caveats in mind, how do things look?
The busiest two tram routes in Australia are in Melbourne: the 96 (St Kilda to Brunswick) and 109 (Port Melbourne to Box Hill) – but the brand new Sydney L2 (City to Randwick) line isn’t far behind.
Sydney L2 replaced a number bus routes. The south-west ends of 96 and 109 replaced heavy rail lines, though the north/eastern ends of those lines date back many decades.
Sydney’s older L1 (City to Dulwich Hill) line also performs quite well, between Melbourne’s extremely long 75 (City to East Burwood) and route 11 (City to West Preston).
Adelaide’s small network sits somewhere in the middle, and the Gold Coast line isn’t too far off the middle as well. Edit: More up-to-date figures (see comments) show the Gold Coast line patronage is growing fast, and is well within the top ten.
Canberra’s relatively new line is increasing, but still not too high compared to Melbourne routes.
The least patronised lines in Melbourne are the 78 and 82 (neither of which serve the CBD) and the very short route 30 (Latrobe Street), almost all of which is duplicated by route 35 (City Circle).
Newcastle’s short 2.7km line has the lowest patronage in the country.
Here’s a comparison of total public transport patronage for 2018-19:
Note how Sydney’s trains and buses easily outstrip Melbourne’s trains, trams and buses.
The Sydney Metro line opened during this period, but in part replaced a section of the Sydney Trains network. Expect strong growth in coming years.
I’ve included half of V/Line patronage (eg trips in outer-suburban Melbourne), not that it makes a huge difference overall.
Apart from Sydney’s patronage being higher, it’s also growing faster. Why is that?
Sydney’s new infrastructure (metro and light rail) is helping, but also there’s been a big focus on service frequency on both new and existing lines, particularly outside peak periods. Sydney’s (heavy rail) stations are now mostly served by trains every 15 minutes or better until midnight – a long way ahead of Melbourne’s mostly half-hourly evening train services.
It’s a similar story on Sydney’s tram lines, with services every 15 minutes in the evenings – better than Melbourne’s 20 minutes (Monday to Saturday) or 30 minutes (Sundays). Melbourne’s daytime weekend tram frequencies are slightly better than Sydney’s L2, but the opening of the L3 line will double for the common section of the route.
The focus on increasing frequencies and cutting waiting times just isn’t happening in Melbourne.
Individual routes are getting service upgrades, but for all the talk of the metro tunnel and the Suburban Rail Loop to have turn-up-and-go services, the opportunities to deliver that right now by and large are not being delivered.
Melbourne also could and should be addressing traffic priority for trams, and more aggressively resolving accessibility issues.
And we should be extending suburban tram routes to more logical termination points. Quite a few fall short of railway stations due to rivalry between the railways and tramways last century. Enhancing overall public transport network connectivity like this would help boost patronage where it can be easily accommodated, at the less busy outer ends of routes.
Expect strong tram patronage growth in Sydney when the L3 line opens later this month.
And don’t be surprised if soon, Australia’s busiest tram route is in Sydney, not Melbourne.
We need to break the cycle of dependence on cars to get around this city and we need to solve the operational issues that are holding our public transport network back.
The problem is he seems to have assumed that fares are the biggest barrier to getting people out of their cars:
We needed to … do more to encourage people onto public transport. … If price will get them there, then we should drop the prices. Our city needs this and our environment needs it.
I don’t think that’s right.
The biggest barrier is lack of good services – public transport that actually presents a viable, time-competitive alternative to driving.
It’s not such a big issue in the CBD and inner suburbs, where the trams (including in the Free Tram Zone) complement the trains and buses, and provide a pretty dense, pretty frequent, connecting network, at least during daytime. In these areas, public transport competes strongly. Only a minority of people come into the CBD by car, for instance.
It’s the middle and outer suburbs where the only option might be buses every 30-60 minutes, and if you’re lucky there are trains, but only every 30 minutes after dark. Most people won’t use these at any cost if they have a car.
Still, given the Free Tram Zone has been around for five years now, the effects of its introduction should be visible…
And the current debate got a few myths flying.
Did the FTZ get more people onto trams?
Yes it did. Budget Papers show patronage rose sharply, from 176.4 million in 2013-14 to 204 million in 2015-16, an increase of 16% in just two years — the highest growth in at least 20 years.
In fact in the data going back to 1947, the only higher jump I could find was following the patronage dip from the 1990 tram strike that knocked the trams out of action for over a month.
Did the FTZ discourage driving?
No it didn’t, and this is the real problem.
In January 2015 there were two major fare changes:
Zone 1+2 fares were capped at zone 1 prices;
and the FTZ was introduced.
Analysis of VISTA data (which surveys tens of thousands of people and their travel) shows that the first change, capping Zone 1+2 fares, resulted in a reduction in car travel. Some people who previously drove to Zone 1 stations now board trains closer to home. Despite it also introducing some issues to the fares, the effect on reducing driving has undoubtedly been a good thing.
But the VISTA data also showed that within Zone 1 (where there was no price change apart from the FTZ) more people are now driving to the area included in the FTZ. Conclusion: The FTZ has encouraged more driving.
This is in line with car parks promoting their location within the FTZ.
The other thing the data showed was similar to the anecdotal evidence: many people hopping onto trams had previously made their short CBD journeys by walking or cycling (including using the blue hire bikes, partly killed off thanks to the FTZ). This is not a positive change.
Doesn’t everybody benefit from the FTZ?
No they don’t. The people who benefit are those who did not reach the zone by public transport.
If you do catch public transport to the CBD/FTZ, you get trams included in your daily fare (unless you used the Early Bird train fare).
This means that for most paying public transport users the FTZ makes no monetary difference.
Some of the confusion around this might be because in some other cities in Australia, there is no daily fare cap, or it is very high, so you would pay extra for a lunchtime tram trip to the shops. Not so in Melbourne.
Wouldn’t scrapping the FTZ would hurt the poor?
The main beneficiaries are people drive into the FTZ – who as the Grattan Institute says, are more than twice as likely to earn a six-figure salary as other workers.
Some international and interstate tourists also benefit by not having to buy a Myki card, but only if the entirety of their travel is within the CBD and Docklands. It seems unlikely that those people are unable to afford the cost of public transport fares – though better sales and distribution of Myki cards, for instance through hotels, would be a good idea.
There are some students on low incomes who live in or close to the FTZ. Most of them can already get substantial discounts on fares. But I’ll wager most people living in the FTZ are not hard up for cash.
Melbourne’s “battlers” are more likely to be found in outer suburbs with no efficient frequent usable public transport, struggling to afford the running costs of the cars they need to get where they need to go – or struggling to reach education and work opportunities.
Those people should be the priority for assistance.
Crowding? Can’t they just run more trams?
Crowding has long been an issue on CBD trams, but has got markedly worse with the FTZ.
It’s particularly an issue in evening peak hour, when paying passengers who want to head outbound are squeezed off the trams by free passengers riding a short distance. The above video shows route 19 outbound at 5:45pm.
Indeed, overcrowding exists across the entire public transport network. However, this is not by any means an insurmountable problem. This is an operational issue that could be solved by adding increased services or shorter shuttle routes that take passengers to the perimeter of the zone.
Running more trams is the logical answer in principle, but problem is that right now, there are no more trams to run.
Could they buy more? Yes. But in the context of them struggling to even provide upgrades to ensure a fully accessible, or indeed fully air-conditioned fleet, where does this money come from?
Nobody expects transport systems (road or rail) to completely pay for all their costs, but at least if patronage is growing on fare paid routes, then revenue is increasing to cover some of this investment.
Funding for expensive upgrades to free services with no financial return is a hard ask when there are so many other demands on public money.
Even accounting for the huge cost of running the Myki system (about $100m/year — all those upgrades like new faster readers don’t come for free) that’s still a lot of foregone revenue that would have to be covered if there were no fares.
The beneficiaries would be wider than the FTZ of course — but mostly it would be those people who have a service that is good enough to use.
Those in the outer burbs with their hopeless buses would not start using public transport just because it was free. They’d still drive.
To draw an analogy: Free outer-suburban public transport is like free payphone calls. Few people make use of it, because frankly the experience of payphones is just nowhere near as convenient as mobile phones, which most people own already – even though they are not free.
Ultimately even if government had that money to spend, upgrading services would do far more to get people out of their cars and using public transport.
As Chris Hale notes: In wealthy cities like Melbourne, potential public transport passengers are indifferent to fare changes or discounts, but respond robustly to enhanced service.
It’s almost as if the politicians who designed it back in 2014 just drew a line around the Hoddle Grid, plus Docklands and the Vic Market, and didn’t consider the tourist hotspots… or indeed where the boundary tram stops were located.
The Free Tram Zone was the classic politicians’ “let’s draw a line on a map without thinking about it too much”. The original boundary as announced in March 2014 didn’t even consider the location of *tram stops* (eg Fed Square, Batman Park). https://t.co/ZbUxkgU71rpic.twitter.com/qt9gBIqL9X
Did the FTZ speed up trams? Few people now need to touch their tickets. But timetable and performance data shows no overall speed benefit, and the tram operator has raised concerns about delays, with CBD trams now averaging just 11 kilometres per hour. Crowding appears to have more than countered any boarding/alighting time saving for individuals.
Was the FTZ to cover for the City Saver Zone, not catered for under Myki? The City Saver Zone was catered for under Myki. It worked on trains and buses provided the user touched on and off.
Unofficially it worked on trams too, but was removed in mid-2010 when touch-off was made optional on trams. This was thanks largely to slow Myki Reader response times, though dodgy GPS may have also been a factor.
Have fare cuts like the FTZ and the nearly flat fares added to upwards pressure on fares generally? Yes. Around the same time the Coalition introduced those changes, they also flagged CPI+2.5% rises from 2015 to 2018, which were subsequently implemented by Labor. A short trip in Melbourne’s Zone 1 now costs about double that of Sydney.
What happens with the FTZ now?
We’ll see. The Inquiry will go ahead obviously, but the government has already said they don’t want to expand the zone – in fact their response to the Herald Sun sounds awfully like “we know it causes all sorts of problems, but expanding it will make it even worse”:
The state government has rejected a call to extend free CBD tram services, saying it would increase crowding and make trams run slower across the network.
If the robust debate seen last week proves nothing else, it’s that it’s a politically vexed issue, and it’s probably easier just to ignore the problem.
I’d love to think the government would be brave enough to get rid of the Free Tram Zone – to claw back some revenue, relieve crowding and stop encouraging CBD motorists – but unfortunately for paying passengers, we’re probably stuck with it.
Over on the trams, they have an ingenious solution: a portable, temporary crossover. It was in use in Swan Street in Richmond (route 70) for a few days this week while tram platform stops are built:
This enabled them to terminate trams at Richmond station, with disrupted passengers able to either change to a train, or walk 400 metres to where trams could resume.
Apart from placement of the temporary track, they also needed to install some overhead wire. Of course it’s made easier to manage in this case by the road closure.
But it’s smart thinking, allowing trams to run as far as possible, reducing disruption for passengers, and avoiding the mess and cost of replacement buses.
Temporary track is nothing new. Back last century it was a common occurrence around the tram (and train) networks. But that was in a bygone era, when I suspect labour was cheap.
For long term projects, it still sometimes happens. Over Easter, the Dandenong and Frankston lines near South Yarra were ripped up and rebuilt as part of Metro tunnel works, and will be ripped up again as the junction to the new tunnel portal is built. There have also been tram tracks relocated on St Kilda Road which may need to be relocated again as the tunnel works continue.
But overall, temporary track is less common in modern times, at least on short term projects.
Hotel buffet breakfast at the Sheraton is an eye-popping $44 per person. This is no big surprise – hotel breakfasts are always expensive.
But they’d said at check-in that we had a $50 credit, so that took the cost down to $38 for the two of us, which is probably cheaper than if we went out somewhere for breakfast. So we dined in — and very nice it was too.
Three course breakfast? Why not! That’s okay — we would end up walking all day.
The locations plotted on my Google Maps timeline for the day aren’t quite right. At no point did we walk on water, for instance. But given the glorious weather, we did explore extensively on foot — and all within a few kilometres of the hotel.
Heading out of the hotel, in Hyde Park we found preparation for the Sydney half-marathon, and this bloke from a backpacker tour group, minding all the bags while his compatriots were evidently elsewhere.
One lesson I’ve learnt over the years is that if there’s a particular impetus for your trip, then if possible get that thing done as a priority.Just in case.
Amazing 500ish year old tapestries visiting from France.
When M had mentioned it to an acquaintance who had never heard of tapestries, it was apparently interpreted as some kind of culinary event. Apparently tapestries are delicious… because they’re closely related to tapas.
We’d booked for 10:30am on Friday in the hope that being early on a work day, it would be quiet. It wasn’t — busloads of retirees seemed to be coming in, and as we looked around, it got busier and busier. Still good though; if you’re in Sydney in the next month or so, get along.
We pondered also looking in at the Archibald finalists, also on display. The queue just for tickets was getting long, and we could see that inside it was very busy, so after a look around the gallery shop, instead we headed out for more walking.
First up to Mrs Macquarie’s Point, where spectacular views were to be found, and we joined in the other tourists at snapping away at the Harbour Bridge and Opera House.
At some stage my phone lost its data connection. Odd – I don’t recall that happening before. There was some confusion getting it resolved, as when I had WiFi, I checked Telstra’s outages page, which said there was a fault in the area. Telstra’s people on Twitter however suggested rebooting, which turned out to resolve it.
Then we walked across the Botanic Garden. Why is it Garden, singular, when Melbourne has the Botanic Gardens? I demand to know. (If you’re wondering they’re a similar size – Sydney 30 hectares, Melbourne 38, though I suppose Melbourne also has a separate garden at Cranbourne).
This VMS was flashing messages for the forthcoming Vivid festival, so naturally I snapped on particular message.
On a recommendation of a friend, we had lunch at the Governor’s Kitchen, the restaurant adjacent to the Sydney Museum.
One delicious yet relaxing lunch later (well, apart from perhaps a little too much traffic noise), we headed back to the hotel for a bit, then out into the CBD proper along George Street.
George Street used to be a wall of buses at peak times, but currently it’s being dug up for the light rail project.
As you can see, they use concrete blocks for bollards in Sydney. Except unlike in Melbourne, these don’t appear to attract litter or decorations.
Some commenters from Melbourne who may or may not be fully informed have noted that while Yarra Trams might not be perfect, they’d have had the whole thing done and dusted within weeks. Witness the diversion/reconstruction of tram tracks along St Kilda Road – it took about two weeks.
Mind you the George Street design includes wireless technology — the tracks have a conductor rail that will pass power into the trams as they pass over. This probably means more construction impact under the tracks, requiring removal of underground services.
One contact also reckoned that because Sydney authorities don’t know how to build light rail (tram lines), the whole project is (over) engineered to heavy rail standards. That might explain why on a previous visit light rail services were suspended due to a signal fault, and why the following day we encountered a tram/pedestrian crossing with signage that warned us to beware of trains.
Despite it still being light, the sun was going down, and the gloriously warm weather from the middle of the day had gone, with the temperature dropping rapidly.
Taking a somewhat roundabout route, we ended up at the Opera House, where we’d booked a tour.
Being a few minutes early we sat and people-and-seagull watched. Along the water’s edge, restaurant wait staff served a row of al fresco diners, in turn watched by a row of seagulls.
As soon as diners left, the seagulls would move in on any leftover food.
At the Opera House, they do a Backstage Tour taking 2.5 hours, which sounds like it might be good, but we decided a simple one hour tour of the building would suffice. It was very interesting, with our guide quite knowledgeable, and some fascinating titbits of information about the construction and history of the place.
The sun had gone down, and Circular Quay and the Bridge were looking lovely in the moonlight.
We kept walking, first back to the hotel, then across Hyde Park to the Bodhi vegan restaurant – another recommendation – for a very tasty dinner. Meals to share that include very delicious imitations of duck and chicken. Fakeducken, you might say?
Back to the hotel. Google Fit reckoned 20,300 steps for the day. Enough walking.
In fact these two points are related, because only Melbourne’s newer (post-1987) trams are air-conditioned. Another new tram in service means an old one out, and the proportion of air-conditioned trams goes up.
Using the VicSig tram fleet page, and making some adjustments for the newest E-class trams in service, I’ve tried to graph where things go from here.
Given W-class trams are no longer used in service except on the tourist-oriented City Circle, I’ve excluded them for the purposes of this discussion. (Apparently there are 38 of them.)
Precise information is a little hard to come by. There are no official fleet figures made public. VicSig figures seem to include some trams that are fit for use, but kept in storage.
So these figures may not be quite right, but I think they’re pretty close. (I’ll make modifications if I find corrections.)
2018 fleet size
So, excluding the W-class trams, and noting again that this is my estimate:
A total of 467 trams
34% are low-floor
Based on the load standard, which is not really the capacity, the total fleet can carry about 49,000 people (noting that there are always some trams out of service for maintenance etc)
Given the deadline of 2032 for accessibility compliance (DDA/DSAPT), how do things need to progress from 2019 (when the current order of E-class trams comes to an end, and 80 will be in service) to make the entire fleet low-floor?
The answer is about 22 new trams every year until 2032 — which is almost double the current rate of delivery of about one per month.
That they’ll continue the broad pattern of each new tram replacing an old one — which is not quite right — the Rolling Stock Strategy from 2015 says: As new larger trams will replace smaller old trams the total number of vehicles will drop in the short term, although passenger capacity will continue to increase.
That the new trams will continue to be E-class trams — they might look for a new design sometime next decade, or at least incremental improvements.
It also assumes all of the post-2000 low-floor trams remain in service — some of these will be getting pretty old as well by 2032.
And it assumes they’d wait as long as they could before reaching compliance!
Assuming all that, on this theoretical trajectory:
Z-class trams would disappear in 2023.
The last of the non-air-conditioned trams (A-class) would disappear in 2026.
The one-for-one replacement of older, initially smaller trams with larger ones, has a side effect: total capacity will increase from about 49,000 people now, to about 77,000 people in 2032.
Larger trams replacing smaller ones is also why it’s a huge project in terms of depot space, and additional power substations being built.
Will the fleet meet the 2032 deadline? It depends on the State Government continuing to order more new trams.
There are rumours of another order coming, but nothing firm yet — something to watch for in the State Budget in May.
Even more intimidating than the fleet is the infrastructure. DDA/DSAPT includes a number of requirements (for instance, signage and announcements), but accessible stops are a key requirment. There are around 400 accessible tram stops out of a total of about 1700 (eg 25%). And many of those done so far have been the easy ones, along segregated track.
The benefits of a more accessible tram system are obvious — both to those with mobility difficulties, and also parents with prams, and anybody with luggage.
Reaching the target of full accessibility by 2032 is going to be tricky. It needs to be a key focus for government in the years ahead.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 trains per hour 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And finally there’s the heavy rail network. This is completely separate to the Metro, and much older, dating back to 1835.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.)
Some stations have massive bicycle parking facilities, holding many hundreds of bikes. This is at Brugge:
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.
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.
…and yes, they have a train to the airport.
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 in Melbourne, resulting in a lot of motor vehicles getting onto the tracks.
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 — delays seemed far fewer.
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.
Back in September 2010, the then-Brumby government announced an $807 million investment in new trams and infrastructure:
Dandenong based company Bombardier will design, construct and maintain 50 new low floor trams for Melbourne as part of an $807.6 million investment by the Brumby Labor Government including a new tram maintenance and storage depot at Preston.
This was an upgrade to the existing Preston depot, originally built in 1924 for construction of the W-class fleet. The renovations took some years, and had to respect heritage aspects of the complex, as well as cope with tram operations during construction. But it’s now completed, and on Sunday Yarra Trams held an open day, with an official opening from the Minister for Public Transport. I went along for a look.
The weather was fine, and there was a pretty good turnout. It’s quite an impressive facility. Some photos:
The automated tram wash. It can handle any class of tram — though presumably someone needs to close the windows (where applicable) first!
The sanding area, where trams sand hoppers can be refilled. Sand is dropped on the track when extra grip is needed.
A traverser, for moving trams from track to track. Our guide wasn’t sure if the new, 33-metre long E-class trams might just fit. I like that it’s in “Met” colours. You can see at least one Z1 tram in the background; they will be out of service forever, retired by the end of this month.
B-class tram up on jacks for repairs. It’s quite impressive to see up close. The depot can handle repairs to any class of tram, though normally it appears only B and E-class trams are stabled here. Minor repairs are also done at local suburban tram depots.
Another B-class tram with the front taken off. The depot workers had a say in how it should be laid out after the renovation.
E-class tram in for some work.
The E-class trams are not perfect, but they do bring welcome extra capacity, and importantly increase the number of accessible trams on the network. And they do look rather splendid in the sun.
Yarra Trams has several tram simulators. One portable one was set up in the depot for visitors to have a go on (and boy was it popular), but this is the permanent, more fully-featured version.
Spike the rhino on display outside. The campaign around awareness of trams continues.
B and E class trams, and some dork in high-vis. I was surprised at how orderly the depot appears.
Just outside the depot is the tram and pedestrian-only Miller Street, over the South Morang line, connecting to nearby route 86. If it looks familiar, I’m pretty sure it’s where that iconic scene in Malcolm, of the title character coming over the hill, was filmed.
One sad note. Sadly, at the southern end of the depot, well away from the operational part of the complex, two W-class trams sit neglected, vandalised.
But that said, the depot upgrade is great to see. This kind of investment in the capacity and efficiency of the tram network is important to keep services improving.
Now, if only the government would get fully behind proper tram traffic priority, so these valuable assets could spend less time waiting at traffic lights and stuck behind queues of cars, and help trams reach their true potential to keep Melburnians on the move.
The barriers are intended to stop pedestrians crossing the tracks at tram platform stops. It’s hardly surprising that people do this, given many of the stops are so long as to fill entire city blocks, and it is often the quickest way across.
At the Federation Square stop in question, time saving isn’t likely to be an issue because unlike the other stops on Swanston Street which are open, the two platforms are enclosed. Perhaps the fear is people will jump the tracks due to congestion on the platforms — in which case the logical thing to do is to widen them. Given little traffic congestion southbound at this point, widening and moving them across to take one southbound traffic lane would make sense.
Certainly crossing the tracks could potentially be dangerous, particularly on Swanston Street with a large volume of trams. But are there statistics supporting the use of barriers? And at quieter stops, if people pay attention, is it really a huge issue?
As I understand it, crossing the platforms is deemed to be an equivalent offence to doing so at a railway station, which doesn’t make sense given trams are slower, can stop faster, streets have a smooth surface rather than ballast, and of course the distance down from the platform is much smaller.
Another issue with the barriers is that emergency vehicles using the tram tracks (which they often do) are unable to move around stopped trams. Here’s an instance of an ambulance going to a call, stuck behind a tram.
Platform stops are important to help provide an accessible and efficient tram service. But perhaps the wisdom of block-long stops in busy urban areas, and the use of barriers in particular, needs to be considered.
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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.
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.)
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.
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:
(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…
…Flemington Road (routes 55 and 59) has platform stops, but no low-floor trams.
That’s correct — in the hospital precinct, there are accessible trams without accessible stops, and accessible stops without accessible trams.
The overall result is no accessible tram services, making prams difficult and wheelchairs impossible.
It’s almost as if they’ve been aiming at reaching targets for trams, and targets for tram stops, and not giving much consideration to where the two intersect… let alone the importance of accessible services for specific locations.
The closest place where accessible trams meet accessible stops is at Haymarket, at the northern end of Elizabeth Street. To the RMH or RWH this is about 400 metres, or a 6 minute walk for an able-bodied person (crossing numerous at traffic lights along the way). But for somebody with limited mobility, this would be a somewhat arduous task.
The rail tunnel is at least a decade away from completion, but even if it were opening tomorrow, obviously work should continue to make more of the tram and bus systems accessible.
It’s not known when low-floor trams will arrive on routes 55 and 59 — no doubt it relies on depot and power upgrades to accommodate the new trams, which are generally longer and use more power than the older trams — so a solution for the Royal Children’s Hospital may be some time away.
But it should be a no-brainer that accessible tram stops on route 19 along Royal Parade are needed — at the very least at the corner of Grattan Street to serve the other hospitals.
Update: the Yarra Trams proposal to connect routes 8 and 55 would bring low-floor trams onto Flemington Road. It’s unclear when this will happen – and bear in mind William Street (where route 55 runs) currently has no accessible tram stops in the CBD.