Friday, September 01, 2023

A quick look at Melbourne's tram plan

While they feature on tourist tea towels, are frequently described as 'iconic' and carry more people than you'd expect from the network's limited catchment area, Melbourne's trams have long been underinvested in.

Major issues include: 

a. slowness and unreliability due to a lack of separation from car traffic
b. often poor stop and vehicle accessibility with glacial progress towards legislated targets
c. routes that stop short of logical termini or miss now dense inner area corridors 
d. crowding due to too small trams, the ill-advised Free Tram Zone and decades of declining or stagnant frequencies with timetables that don't reflect modern travel needs, especially nights and weekends

Yesterday the government released a vision for trams via Melbourne's Tram Plan (media release here). It's the second modal transport plan in as many years, with Victoria's Bus Plan coming out in 2021.

The plan

Melbourne's Tram Plan starts with a snapshot of the network. 475 trams carry over 200 million passengers per year on 250km of double track. 75% of this is shared with car traffic, making, as others have pointed out, Melbourne trams amongst the slowest in the world. Also just over one-quarter of stops are accessible (450 / 1600), making a new rapid-build approach necessary to deliver universal accessibility. 

A second theme is the extent to which trams support city commerce and activity. They connect densifying inner suburbs and activity centres in ways that our trains, with their complex and still half-reversing City Loop, do not. And they provide fill-in last-mile feeder coverage that trains do not. 

Infrastructure renewal is also important. Large accessible trams require new or rebuilt depots. They can also be power-hungry, drawing up to three times the power as older trams. This requires attention to the power system's capacity (although the Next Gen trams will be better with onboard storage and regenerative braking). 

What is the plan's response to these challenges? 

Here they are in summary: 

A network hierarchy comprising the CBD grid, trunk corridors and the suburban network 

The trunk corridors are basically the most heavily loaded inner suburban part of the network extending about 5 or 6km from the CBD (a bit more to the north).

Trunk corridors are intended to have 'high frequency service' while the suburban network is intended to have 'turn up and go' service. The plan doesn't specify the actual frequencies involved but I'm going to guess 5 minutes for trunk corridors and 10 minutes for the suburban portion. Suburban portions today vary from about every 6 to every 15 minutes off-peak with 12 minute frequencies very common on routes that feed into St Kilda Rd. 

How might one do this in practice? The most controversial approach could be to convert the network into trunks and feeders. Trunks might have big trams every 3 to 5 minutes while feeders have smaller trams every 6 to 10 minutes. This may raise objections as forced transfers may replace one seat rides on corridors like St Kilda Rd. A less radical approach, applicable to long routes like 59, 75 and 86, is to have half the trams going to the terminus with the other half going only half way out. This could enable higher frequency and capacity on the busier sections of routes, while those near the end still have a single seat ride. Other possibilities could include splitting indirect routes like the 3, 16 and 72 which few passengers would ride end to end. 

The above is just my speculation as the Tram Plan, like the Bus Plan, is light on network specifics. Given we're not far off the Metro Tunnel opening (which we're told is ahead of schedule) and its interactions with the tram network, a few more hints on what is envisaged here would have been nice. Also, even if resourcing is tight, there might still be scope for some 'quick wins', such as discussed here for Route 12.  

Central Melbourne connectivity and reform  

Certain corridors and precincts are identified including La Trobe St, Spencer St and the western part of the CBD. The latter could be enabled by the Metro Tunnel which could allow some trams to be shifted from the Swanston St corridor. The extent to which this can happen depends on how frequent Metro Tunnel trains end up being (which we don't know yet).   

Stops and corridor upgrades

Due to the scale of work needed, the plan says that stops will be upgraded to accessibility standards by corridor. 1600 stops will be grouped into 100 corridors (averaging 16 stops each) with this shaping how work is tendered out. Two of the first corridors to be upgraded will be along Route 86, with the third along Route 82. 

The future

Those who pick up a plan expect to read about the future. Horizon 1, or the current agenda, is all about more accessible stops and a lot of preparing (for new trams) and planning (for network reforms). Along with reliability and passenger information initiatives. 

What's called Horizon 2 is medium term up to 2032. This includes new trams and stops and exploiting opportunities presented by the Metro Tunnel. 

Finally Horizon 3 is post 2032. This encompasses further network development and some expansion. In political terms this is almost in the 'never never'. And there is a possibility that we will see services on the Suburban Rail Loop start (due 2035) before the tram network gets any longer than it is now.  

A lot of people mention trams to Fishermans Bend. These are not mentioned in this plan. Last year the government greatly upgraded bus services on two routes with an excellent 10 minute weekday frequency. Apart from some extra weekend trips serving nearby apartments, that is probably OK for now. Some will complain but I'm afraid I don't see their angst. Even with a tram Fishermans Bend would lack the fast accessibility from the multiple directions it needs to. It would just be another New Quay - out on a limb, commercially unsuccessful and ages to reach from most places. I'm inclined to prioritise developing the Arden precinct first, and then when Fishermans Bend's time for high density comes do transport properly with a Metro 2 from the west


That's a quick summary of Melbourne's Tram Plan. It's a useful document in that it gives stakeholders and the general public an insight into current departmental thinking. But as always more detail would have been nice. 

How much of it will happen? Parts have already been announced, budgeted and are underway. But other parts are subject to future funding, on which we'll get a clearer picture on in the 2024 and 2025 state budgets. 

While we'd all love to be optimistic, the record so far with 2021's Bus Plan indicates that those who don't expect too much too soon are unlikely to be proved wrong. This is especially given current trends (as exemplified by the 2023 state budget) is in the direction of less rather than more spending due at least partly to rising interest costs on major projects (committed to when interest rates and construction costs were lower). 


Andrew said...

The tram plan was a disappointing read. We are none the wiser for any plan.

Damo said...

Lots of words to basically say nothing. Not worth the paper it is written on.