The Gold Coast Light Rail, also known as G:Link opened in July 2014, making it Australia’s newest completed tram/light-rail line.
I was very impressed when I rode it last week. As you would hope and expect, they’ve put a lot of thought into the design, and there are a number of things Melbourne can learn from it.
The line is 13 kilometres, from Broadbeach South, parallel to the beach, through the very busy, dense centre of Surfers Paradise, up to the Gold Coast University Hospital at the northern end.
While not ideal — it doesn’t serve the airport or connect to the rail line to Brisbane — they obviously built it with later extensions in mind, as both termini have additional currently unused track which is intended to be used should the line be extended.
An extension to Helensvale Railway Station got underway in 2016, expected to open before the Gold Coast hosts the Commonwealth Games in 2018.
Behind hoarding at the northern terminus you can see work is already underway.
From what I saw, along almost all of the route the trams travel in their own dedicated lanes. This has resulted in closure of vehicle traffic lanes, and in some sections of Surfers Paradise Boulevard, means car traffic can only travel southbound. The nearby Gold Coast Highway caters for through-traffic.
This has turned Surfers Paradise Boulevard from something of a traffic sewer (as I recall it in 2011) into almost a transit mall, with a small amount of parking for southbound cars, but mostly they move slowly through seeking to access side streets and off-street parking.
I did see what I’m guessing was an Uber X car, doing a couple of laps trying to find their booked fare. At one point he stopped and a couple climbed in, only to get out again when it became apparent it was the wrong Uber.
There is a small section of shared roadway where cars and trams mix, northbound only between Thomas Drive and Cypress Avenue towards the northern end of Surfers Paradise — it appears this is to provide vehicle access to a few side streets.
Traffic light priority
What’s really eye-opening to a Melburnian is the traffic light priority for trams.
T lights are used extensively along the route. But unlike Melbourne, they don’t go green for trams unless trams are approaching. And when they do, they anticipate the tram’s arrival, triggering the T light to prevent the tram having to wait.
Yes, real traffic light priority. Not just reducing delays, but keeping the trams moving.
This video shows it in action.
Melbourne has almost nothing like this. The closest we have is the two former rail lines, 96 and 109, where trams approaching former rail level crossings get priority, sometimes even with boom gates.
But we have many, many other routes running in their own lanes/alignments that could benefit from this technology. At the very least, it should be implemented in places like St Kilda Road, Dandenong Road (subject to a trial in 2015 – what was the result?), Victoria Parade, Burwood Highway, Flemington Road, Royal Parade, Plenty Road…
And there should be no reason that approaching trams in mixed traffic can’t also be detected so they can get a green.
Gold Coast tram priority isn’t perfect. In the very densest part of Surfers Paradise I saw trams waiting at red lights. It wasn’t actually obvious why this was the case, as it appeared a tram green could have been inserted into the sequence without unduly disrupting other motor and pedestrian traffic.
The other issue is that sometimes the tram didn’t get the green soon enough, and had to slow down slightly. This is a noticeable issue on Melbourne’s 96 and 109 routes as well. Perhaps it’s to enforce a slower speed limit at possible conflict points with cars.
Tram stops and tram accessibility
Stop distances are far wider than most in Melbourne.
By my calculations there’s an average of about 850 metres per stop, though some in the dense area of Surfers Paradise are a bit more closely spaced.
All stops have platforms, and all trams are low-floor, meaning the entire route is accessible for mobility aids and prams — as you would hope for such a recently built system.
Possibly unique, inside the trams there are dedicated spots for surf boards, though I didn’t see any in use.
There is extensive use of ads covering the windows. Visibility from inside looking out seemed mostly okay on a clear day. But it may be quite a different story at night, especially when raining.
Announcements and screens indicating the next stop helps obviously, but it was difficult to see inside as the tram arrived to tell which section was least crowded.
Card readers are at stops, not on the trams. Of course this is possible where there is only a small number of stops — it would be difficult on a huge system of hundreds (thousands?) of stops, as in Melbourne.
Each platform has a ticket machine and information. I saw no platform staff (sometimes seen at busy Melbourne CBD stops) though it appeared common for the stops to have small retail (eg coffee shops) built-in.
The tickets are part of the Go Card system, offering smartcards or short term (single trip) tickets.
Other than drivers, there are few staff on the system. I did see what appeared to be the equivalent of Melbourne’s Authorised Officers, groups of two or more uniformed staff roaming around, it appeared with ticket checking equipment, but I didn’t see them checking tickets.
Some trams included advertising nagging people to pay their fare – as with Melbourne, the system is open, but they sometimes have ticket checking blitzes.
When you ask Google Maps to plot you a trip from Gold Coast Airport to Surfers Paradise, it tells you to hop aboard the 777 bus (which runs every 15 minutes, 7 days-a-week, which I think might make it a better level of service than just about any single Melbourne bus route, though some combined services would surpass it).
Then it tells you to alight the bus and walk ten metres and board a tram the rest of the way.
Frankly I didn’t believe it. Ten metres? They’re making it up.
But when you step off the bus, you see it’s true. The Broadbeach South interchange is really nicely setup – buses arrive either side of the tram, which is on its terminating track in the middle of platforms on either side.
(Apologies, I have broken my own rule here and neglected to get a good photo with a camera that properly captures the LED displays.)
When the light rail line opened, local bus routes got a shake-up. This makes sense – with a new 13 km trunk route, it’s logical to change bus routes around to feed into it rather than parallel it, though a few routes still make the north-south route parallel to the trams.
Quite obviously the designers have given some thought as to how to make interchange, particularly at Broadbeach South, as easy as possible. Other connecting services weren’t quite as good, but still — I don’t think we have anything this good in Melbourne. (There is a tram/bus interchange at Queensbridge Street outside the Casino, but it’s in a location which is unlikely to see many passengers changing between those services.)
The interchange includes bicycle parking, and there are shops nearby, though no retail directly integrated into the stop.
And how often to the trams run?
Well the “timetable” (which is actually a frequency guide) sums it up: every 7.5 minutes on weekdays, 10 on weekends, 15 evenings and early mornings, and 30 overnight on weekends.
On weekdays overnight, the 24/7 700 bus, which normally connects with the tram at Broadbeach South, is extended to parallel the tram route, running every half-hour on weekdays overnight.
This means this line runs a better off-peak, evening and overnight service than almost any Melbourne tram route, though we have more frequent peak services on some routes.
Specific times aren’t published at stops, nor on paper timetables — the stops have realtime departure countdowns, and the paper timetables only have the frequencies. This is probably almost okay when the trams are every 10 minutes or better… less so when only every 15 or 30 minutes.
The Translink web site (and it appears Google Maps/Transit) includes specific times.
Lessons for Melbourne
The trams in Melbourne and on the Gold Coast are operated by the same company, Keolis DownerEDI Rail (KDR).
Gold Coast’s single line opened only in 2014, and is built to modern standards. Melbourne’s tram system is vast, and aging. We can’t expect our network to be brought up to these standards overnight.
But we can learn a lot from the Gold Coast.
More frequent services at all times would cut waiting times and make trams more attactive to passengers.
The opening of the line helped boost Gold Coast public transport overall by some 22% in the first ten months. Improving Melbourne’s tram connections (such as ensuring trams don’t terminate just short of railway stations) would help the whole public transport network to grow.
Tram priority is something holding Melbourne’s trams back — and is an important part of the Gold Coast system. Putting in some proper traffic light priority to prevent trams having to wait at traffic lights would be almost imperceptable to Melbourne’s inner-city motorists, but help ensure tram travel is more time-competitive and that our huge investment in tram infrastructure is more efficiently used.