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.

The new improved Preston tram depot

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!
Preston tram depot: tram wash

The sanding area, where trams sand hoppers can be refilled. Sand is dropped on the track when extra grip is needed.
E-class and B-class trams in the sanding area, Preston tram depot

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.
Tram traverser, Preston depot

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.
B-class tram being serviced, Preston tram depot

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.
B-class tram being serviced, Preston tram depot

E-class tram in for some work.
E-class tram being serviced, Preston tram depot

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.
E-class trams at Preston tram depot

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.
Tram simulator, Preston tram depot

Spike the rhino on display outside. The campaign around awareness of trams continues.
Rhino!

B and E class trams, and some dork in high-vis. I was surprised at how orderly the depot appears.
Daniel at Preston tram depot

The official opening:

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.
Vandalised W-class trams outside Preston Depot

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.
Preston tram depot

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.

Tram stop barriers – are they good design?

Yesterday’s collision between a police vehicle and a tram stop barrier has raised the issues of whether those barriers are a good design.

Police vehicle collision with tram barrier
Source: ABC News

Thankfully the two policemen will recover.

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.

People crossing between tram platforms in Bourke Street

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.

Ambulance stuck behind tram due to barrier

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.

Plug: Get my transport-related posts by email (via MailChimp)

An email each morning — if there’s a new transport-related blog post.

Post delivery by tram

For some time – since well before the introduction of the Free Tram Zone – I’ve seen uniformed Australia Post employees with small delivery carts on board trams in central Melbourne.

Post by tram

At first I wondered if this was a good use of space on a tram, given how crowded they can get.

But I think it’s arguable that it’s Australia Post being smart about moving (at least some) letters and parcels around a busy urban environment, quickly and cheaply and without taking up the road space that the usual van fleet would take.

Similarly, long distance travellers with wheeled luggage often seem more inclined to use public transport than catch a taxi — Gordon Price described this as “the only significant new mode of transportation to develop so far this century.”

(Note: I’ve seen Post employees stand back and wait for a less crowded tram, rather than trying to squeeze on with a cart, so it’s not like they’re being totally unreasonable about it.)

Now it turns out Amazon is doing something similar in New York City on the subway.

Once upon a time many cities had freight trams. Perhaps this is the 21st century version of that.

And perhaps it’s yet more evidence that the wheels of commerce can adapt to not requiring motor vehicles to survive and thrive.

Post delivery by tram

Hospital precinct: still no accessible tram services

Melbourne’s expanding fleet of low-floor trams are being allocated to tram routes that lack wheelchair-accessible stops, while accessible tram stops are being built on routes that have no low-floor trams.

— The Age: New accessible tram stops not on the level for those most in need in Melbourne

Let me present a prime example.

Hospital precinct: RWH and RMH

This is Melbourne’s hospital precinct in Carlton/Parkville. The Royal Melbourne Hospital, the Royal Women’s Hospital, and the Melbourne Private Hospital are all in close proximity. The Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre is currently under construction. The Royal Children’s Hospital is just up the road in Flemington Parade. Various research and specialist facilities are also nearby.

As in any busy precinct, where lots of people converge, parking is at a premium. Public transport access is important, and eventually (2026) it’s planned the metro rail tunnel will serve it.

But for now, it’s trams and buses:
PTV map of hospital precinct. (Pointer to RMH is incorrect.)
(Note: PTV appears to have placed the RMH in the wrong place.)

At present, it’s served from the west (Footscray and North Melbourne) by bus routes 401 and 402. Bus 546 from the east (Heidelberg and Clifton Hill) also goes past, though only on weekdays. All these bus services are scheduled to be served by accessible buses.

From the north and south are trams — the 19 along Royal Parade, and the 55 and 59 along Flemington Parade.

Here’s the brilliant bit:

Royal Parade (route 19) is served by low-floor trams, but has no platform stops…
Royal Parade, hospital precinct tram stop

…Flemington Road (routes 55 and 59) has platform stops, but no low-floor trams.
Tram 59 in Flemington Parade
Platform tram stop, but step access to tram

That’s correct — in the hospital precinct, there are accessible trams without accessible stops, and accessible stops without accessible trams.

The overall result is no accessible tram services, making prams difficult and wheelchairs impossible.

It’s almost as if they’ve been aiming at reaching targets for trams, and targets for tram stops, and not giving much consideration to where the two intersect… let alone the importance of accessible services for specific locations.

The closest place where accessible trams meet accessible stops is at Haymarket, at the northern end of Elizabeth Street. To the RMH or RWH this is about 400 metres, or a 6 minute walk for an able-bodied person (crossing numerous at traffic lights along the way). But for somebody with limited mobility, this would be a somewhat arduous task.

The rail tunnel is at least a decade away from completion, but even if it were opening tomorrow, obviously work should continue to make more of the tram and bus systems accessible.

It’s not known when low-floor trams will arrive on routes 55 and 59 — no doubt it relies on depot and power upgrades to accommodate the new trams, which are generally longer and use more power than the older trams — so a solution for the Royal Children’s Hospital may be some time away.

But it should be a no-brainer that accessible tram stops on route 19 along Royal Parade are needed — at the very least at the corner of Grattan Street to serve the other hospitals.

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.