Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Timetable Tuesday #114: 70 years of tram timetables - how have they changed?

Summary: You can wait up to twice as long for 
a tram at night than your grandparents had to.  

Trams are Melbourne's slowest changing (and some would argue slowest moving) public transport mode. We're getting new trams and upgraded stops but the pace of progress towards accessibility was described as slow by the state auditor-general. Also rarely are lines extended despite many stopping about 1km short of stations due to a history of competition rather than connection between modes. 

The inner suburbs the trams serve have changed much faster than their transport. They are now less industrial and more gentrified. Urban consolidation within them is seen as an alternative to (or at least a moderator of) fringe sprawl. Trams are talked about as being keys to our city's livability which in turn assists international investment but in action are merely taken for granted. 

In particular, trams' ability to handle the increased transport effort growth and density require is hampered by (a) slowness and unreliability due to their extensive on-street running with car-caused delays and (b) service levels that have hardly changed in decades or have even been cut. 

The most recent service change on some routes appears to have been a reduction. This is due to a recent wheel shortage putting some older trams off the road. Apparently due to long supply chains and 'just in time' philosophy we don't stock sufficient spares locally.  

Anyway that's hopefully temporary. What about long-term trends in tram service levels? Back in the early days, going back to the cable trams, the motto was "Always a tram in sight". In other words a turn-up-and-go service. This compares with railways that was more a freight mover and transit for those outside the contiguous urban area. Their users caught specific trains and relied on timetables (ie a regimented industrial type mentality as opposed to post-industrial temporal fluidity). 

Transport Vlogger Reece Martin did a comparison of Toronto vs Melbourne trams. Our system's big advantage is its geographical extent. But on frequency Toronto was way better with consistent 10 minute or better service day and night. Wheres our trams can have gaps of 20 or even 30 minutes. Watch it here: 

As it turned out Melbourne once had Toronto-style tram frequencies. Then, mainly between 1954 and 1969, we cut them. On every route. Fifteen years ago I bought a book that listed these cuts and wrote a blog post summarising them. That post was just a chronology and didn't graphically show these and subsequent service changes. Hence it didn't present the 'big picture' particularly well. 

I've finally got around to presenting them in time-line form. I'm not going say that it's 100% correct; there may have been some changes that I've missed. And some tram routes are more frequent than others. But Krustylink's old tram timetables has been of great assistance to gauge service levels in the '80s and 90s. Along with personal memories of service upgrades in the early years of franchising. Where there are variations, I'll take Route 67 as a representative route for no better reason than it being one that I once lived near. 

On the diagrams below years are left to right. The first year is 1951 with the last being 2021. Service levels are bottom to up. They are 1 to 6 trams per hour, though the legend shows this as frequency (every 60, 30, 20, 15, 12 and 10 minutes). Hence the taller the green the more frequent the service. Click on the image for a better view. 

Weekday interpeak

Service cut from every 10 to every 12 min early on where it remained for decades. There was a further cut to every 15 min on some routes (notably those that serve St Kilda Rd) in the early 1990s. However these were some improvements in the early years of franchising with approximately half our routes operating every 10 minutes or better interpeak. However Route 82 between Footscray and Moonee Ponds remains a laggard with a better service on weekends than on weekdays. Its weekday midday frequency remains less than it was in 1989 despite dense development since.  


Did you know that Melbourne trams once ran every 10 minutes in the evenings? Amazing but true. It starts off with a similar story to weekdays but the cuts kept on coming. By the end of the 1960s waits for trams were double what they were in the early 1950s. 

This was the same era in which television came, local cinemas shut and the main people out at night were youth in their hotted up cars. Then, and this is the biggest story of this post, service stagnated for the next 50 plus years except for some shoulder peak and early evening improvements. Tram timetables have remain largely cast in stone despite all the wider social changes eg flexible working  hours, night time economy and the 24/7 society. The erosion in frequency means that, especially at night, you can often drive to a destination in less time than it takes for the tram to show up at your stop. 

Saturday afternoon

The reason I say Saturday afternoons is that it seemed that Saturday mornings had a more intensive service reflecting past shopping patterns (Many Melbourne bus routes still have that pattern in 2021 despite the need having gone). The drop off here was less sharp than on weeknights. At least some routes (like the St Kilda Rd group) had early 1990s cuts that have not been reversed. 

Saturday night

A similar pattern to weeknights with a halving of service from 10 to 20 minutes. Service upgrades since have been to expand span of hours rather than frequency. 

Sunday morning

The question marks relate to uncertainty over early 1950s frequency - it could have been 10, 12 or 15 minutes. The cuts to the current frequency were made about 60 years ago. Another type of cut was the replacement of quieter tram routes with buses on Sundays (and sometimes Saturday afternoons). This practice largely ended in the late 1990s, making trams more consistent and simpler to use as almost all routes ran 7 days. There was however still an oddity with the 55/68 but that was fixed in 2005. A few tram routes now run a 20 minute service (instead of 30 minutes) and some other routes have had the midday frequency made to start a bit earlier however the half-hourly frequency remains widespread in the important 7 to 9am slot.  

Sunday afternoon

What I've loosely defined as Sunday afternoon (or really 10am to 7pm) is where there has been the biggest turnaround in frequency across all times reviewed. Possibly a sweetener for privatisation, this Kennett government initiative boosted Sunday service levels to those which operated on Saturday on all metropolitan tram and train routes. These are the sort of big service upgrades we need but have rarely been implemented by subsequent governments, particularly on trams. Anyway the effect of this was to restore frequencies to 1960s levels after a 30 year trough. 

Sunday night

Nothing much here. 1960s cuts and no serious restoration of service. With few exceptions, this leaves our 30 minute service frequency at just one-third that of comparable tram routes in Toronto. 


One might quibble about details, but the big picture is this. Big cuts from the early 1950s to the late 1960s as the Tramways board sought to balance the books in the face of rising wages and falling patronage. Higher deficits were accepted in the '70s and '80s but service remained static and patronage rose for some years in the '80s. 

That was until the industrial activism and further service cuts in the early 1990s. Some restoration of service happened from the mid-1990s with conductors removed from 1998. The improvements then tailed off with little happening frequency-wise on most routes in the last 20 years. Instead emphasis has been on extending weekend span including Night Network. Thus our densifying inner area is hardly closer to having an all-day turn-up-and-go tram service than it was a generation ago and has a much inferior frequency to that enjoyed by their grandparents.  


Anonymous said...

A couple of months ago I left a 57 tram to catch an 82 to Moonee Ponds. I checked my phone app and unbelievably to me, between 10.30 and and 2.00 the service drops from 15 minutes to every 20 minutes. I think weekdays every tram route has at least a 12 minute service or better. It's just so wrong. A quick envelope calculation tells me one less tram is required.

Peter Parker said...

Yes, 82 is definitely the runt of the pack with regards to service. Other trams got their interpeak weekday service restored after the early '90s cuts but the 82 missed out (though it did get 7 day service which was previously missing). However the 223 bus remains as an inefficient duplicate service.