Trackless Trams – pros and cons

Federal Labor is getting behind a “Trackless Tram” idea for a route from Caulfield via Chadstone and Monash Uni to Rowville, pledging $6 million for a business case if they win power next year.

The proposal is to run from Caulfield via Dandenong Road past Chadstone, then Ferntree Gully Road, Blackburn Road past Monash University, and then along Wellington Road and Stud Road to Rowville.

The route is very similar to the current 900 Smartbus route, but is more direct between Caulfield and Monash, and is claimed to be faster.

The map below (from this document) shows the route, and proposed travel times for TRT (“Trackless Rapid Transit”) against other modes from locations either side of Monash.

Trackless tram: Caulfield-Rowville proposal

Note the map shows a connection with the proposed Suburban Rail Loop station at Monash University. This station won’t actually be on Blackburn Road, but nearby.

The problem with trackless trams

Trackless Trams are controversial in some circles. The Public Transport Association of Canberra has this new article talking about the hype and reality around the technology.

A Trackless Tram is arguably an elaborate bus. It typically includes:

  • battery electric vehicles (eg it’s not a trolley bus using wires)
  • vehicles designed to look like trams
  • dedicated right of way
  • some special tech for a smoother ride than the average bus

So it’s basically a fancy guided Bus Rapid Transit system operated by battery electric vehicles.

One claim I’ve heard is that Trackless Trams are used in 200 cities. This is a wild over-estimation… but Bus Rapid Transit is used in about 200 cities (including Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide) – possibly this is the origin of the claim.

Another, earlier claim about Trackless Trams was their suitability as driverless vehicles. This seems to have disappeared from most recent proposals – I suspect the technology has not been shown to be ready for prime time.

There are other concerns. The weight of the vehicles necessitates a special heavy duty road surface. This means they can’t regularly divert off the route if there’s a disruption, and it also means the construction cost may be substantial, as it might include moving underground services. If the road surface is unsuitable, you get problems with damage to the road.

Another big problem is establishing one line with unique technology. This means high establishment costs, and difficulties with unfamiliar and new equipment. (Victorian public transport doesn’t have a good record with new technology. Myki’s okay now, but remember the mess when it started?)

Perhaps this wouldn’t matter so much in a city with no existing medium-capacity transport system. But Melbourne already has a huge tram system, and has considerable expertise in building, maintaining and running them. And although a Caulfield to Rowville line (of any technology) might need its own depot, a tram track connection with existing route 3 at Caulfield would mean new tram fleet could easily access existing tram maintenance facilities.

Alongside issues of new/unique technology are the risks of vendor lock-in. No single manufacturer has exclusive rights over established standard tram or bus technology, meaning that future expansion or maintenance is more flexible and price-competitive. Not so Trackless Trams.

Finally it’s worth noting that in the Chadstone/Monash Trackless Tram proposal, the vehicles would have their own dedicated lanes along the route, but they’d still cross paths with other traffic at intersections. When asked, the Vicinity proponents said they were not proposing for traffic priority at intersections – presumably to keep the cost down.

So it’s in danger of being not much faster than Melbourne’s existing lane-separated tram and bus routes.

The advantages of Trackless Trams

Challenges aside, if Trackless Trams are a fancy form of battery electric Bus Rapid Transit, what does that mean?

It becomes about marketing.

In Victoria they don’t want to build tram lines – there’s been continual resistance to even very short but logical extensions, very few recent extensions built, and the proposed Monash/Rowville light rail idea seems to have gone nowhere.

And of course they never properly resource buses. Even the premier Smartbus routes never had adequate weekend frequencies.

But Trackless Trams have got people excited. Political buy-in means that from this Caulfield-Chadstone-Monash-Rowville proposal we might actually get a willingness to provide a good service: a direct route, high frequency at all times, and speed.

Maybe it is just a fancy bus. But as far as I’m concerned, they can call it whatever they want if it provides some good outcomes for passengers.

Hopefully the special “track” surface requirements would mean that on-road priority couldn’t be watered down later by allowing other vehicles to intrude. And the plans seem to include high-standard stations with good pedestrian access into Chadstone and other destinations.

And yes, it might end up being cheaper and quicker to build than light rail. Maybe.

Queue for 900 bus, and Oakleigh extra bus, Chadstone on Boxing Day

What about fixing the buses?

It’s important to remember that while some people don’t see buses as “real” public transport, when it comes down to it, there’s no shortage of people who will use them, if they’re provided when and where people want to travel. Make them good enough, and they are popular.

So while the powers-that-be make up their minds on Trackless Trams, why not fix bus route 900? Beef up the frequencies to at least every 10 minutes at all times, make it more direct (the stop at Huntingdale isn’t really as important when the 601 shuttle is running – and this could be extended to run on weekends and late evenings) and improve the on-road priority.

Perhaps a truly effective bus service would undermine the Trackless Tram idea too much. But on the other hand, it could also help justify further investment – in that, or in conventional light rail.

TT: doubts remain

It’s not hard to see why Vicinity/Chadstone wants better public transport to the centre. No matter how big they make their car park, it’s still a constraint on shopper numbers.

Trackless Trams have potential. But doubts remain around the costs, for this proposal the lack of traffic priority, and most importantly the risk of an immature, orphan, proprietary technology.

Some sources indicate the government is seriously considering the idea. They will need to tread very, very carefully.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

21 replies on “Trackless Trams – pros and cons”

According to the weights in the linked paper, ordinary road surfaces would be suitable as these vehicles will have gross weights lower than similarly sized trucks, and axle weights within the limits that apply across the nation. That would be essential because they need to use tyres, and tyres (of a normal size that will fit into a truck, bus or ‘tram’) aren’t be rated for unusually high loads unless speed and distance are limited.
The trouble with these vehicles is that they would lack the stability that is provided by rails. Using a multi-articulated bus – which is what they are – would require either a sophisticated control system to manipulate the couplings, suspensions and brakes to avoid sway and maintain straight-line tracking, or it would require very low speeds. Possibly both. The paper briefly mentioned updating ADRs to suit these vehicles, but this is not a trivial task and has never happened quickly. It will be especially difficult when (if) authorities ask for evidence that the vehicles will be dynamically safe. They are not magic. There is a reason actual trams have tracks.

I would hope Victoria learnt a lesson with the disastrous C and D trams that the cheap option can have very bad outcomes. I am not excited by a bus that looks like a tram running a bus service.

My concern with “Trackless Trams” is that unlike Traditional Light Rail, “Trackless Trams” can easily be taken away as with a Traditional Light Rail it’s more permanent.

They may as well have just built a Brisbane/Adelaide style busway instead, at least it’s easy and cheap to build and it’s more familiar than “trackless trams”

I think this corridor should be light rai, compatible with the rest of the Melbourne network but fully seperated along the route. However, if the people in power are determined not to provide light rail along the corridor, I don’t see much value in developing and implementing this new technology with the huge risks involved. You’d be much better spending the money to put in a decent busway, introduce a new bus service running the length of the route and boost frequencies of existing services with partial cross-over. A dedicated busway, running articulated or double-artic buses, with a 3-4 minute service frequency will could probably carry the same as “Track-less Trams” with a 7-8 minute service frequency. There is no need to re-invent the wheel here and adopt the awkward love-child of the two.

The only reason that Trackless Trams have an advantage over regular buses are that they are double sided, both with doors and for the driver’s cab. That’s really about it. So unless space is such a constraint that platforms are to be built on one side only and there is no room to turn the buses around at the end of the route then there is no reason to implement it.

On this point:

“Hopefully the special “track” surface requirements would mean that on-road priority couldn’t be watered down later by allowing other vehicles to intrude.”

Since it’s only a strengthened pavement and not a special guideway like the Adelaide O-Bahn, all they’d need to do to water it down is take down the bus lane signs to allow normal road vehicles to share the lane.

In the event that 900 diverted away from Huntingdale station, would it be worth rerouting one or more of 802/804/862 via the station?

Caulfield to Rowville is one of the few cases where a significant extension to Melbourne’s tram system could make sense, given that the St Kilda Road and Dandenong Road corridor is already segregated and therefore upgradeable to proper light rail (minimum ‘silver’ 75/100 on the ITDP’s BRT Standard test). You could then extend 64 from Malvern to Rowville, while providing a north/south local service from East Brighton to Kew in lieu of the current mixed-traffic branches of routes 16 and 64, which would help to isolate the rest of the tram system from traffic-derived delays in that region. You could also make route 3 via Luna Park the permanent alignment instead of alternating between 3 and 3a.

There’s a legitimate question of whether or not this concept falls to the sunk cost fallacy, though I suspect it would be more viable, politically, to provide light rail from Malvern to Rowville than to convert Malvern to the city to BRT.

Re the comment by Marcus, haven’t we already seen that when bus only lanes were removed in Springvale Road was it? Somewhere near there.

Save the money for proper bus reform, and reinstate the SmartBus brand and livery for actual premium 20/7/365 bus routes (SmartBus routes are not premium, they lose to the 246 among others and are half-hourly on the weekend). If the current bus “anti-services” in Melbourne actually ran frequently and long hours 365 days a year just like trams, people would be catching them just like trams instead of avoiding them like the plague. If a bus route doesn’t warrant such levels of frequency, for example route 740 or 673, scrap it completely and replace it with a FlexiRide service that runs on-demand until midnight every day of the year (no, not 6PM, not 9PM, midnight – buses should have the exact same hours of operation as trains and trams).

The steel wheels of a Tram/Train are so much more energy efficient. The route is also not excessively hilly so gradients are not a concern.

If the want to go cheap, just start with dedicated bus lanes and priority traffic lights to start. This ‘new’ technology is just a glorified bus.

What I’d prefer is a elevated light metro, similar to skytrain/DLR

Despite the additional segregation that trams do have over busses in Melbourne, they still end up slower when averaged over the city:
With a mature tram system across Melbourne its bonkers to consider a unique vehicle/infrastructure for such a small project, particularly when there are no unique benefits that it would be leveraging. We don’t need a orphaned mode that is half way between a bus and a tram when either of the existing methods easily solve the problem.

@Nathan, that’s a good point. I wonder if a double-sided bus has ever been contemplated, eg doors on both sides, to enable island platforms. That said, you run back to the problem of specialised fleets.

One of the neat things about Brisbane busways is that they’re used by standard buses, so regular routes can share some of the infrastructure.

@Marcus, perhaps the key to keeping the “track” for buses/PT is fencing it off from the regular traffic lanes.

@David, no, I would definitely not run one light rail route from Rowville to the City (via tram 64). The two segments would serve quite different trips, and you’re just introducing reliabibility problems.

@Jeff. [citation needed]

@Robert, that Auckland document is excellent.

Re the article you have linked, about extending tram lines…

…. the CEO talked about, we need to increase capacity first. I argue, that extention of route #3, it would make use of, only the almost dead empty section of the tram route, as, most of those who join the tram at East Malvern R/S, would only be going as far as say Caufield, to access the university at that location.

As for a tram version of this Rowville route, the inner city end, would be best suited to terminate at Caulfield anyway, and not run into the city from there. The majority of those who use this route, would, be catching a train from Caulfield into the city anyway. It may be prudent to, run a second route, straight down to Huntingdale R/S, for these customers too.

Rail Futures Insttitute, have been promoting the idea of, this trackless-tram proposal.

While this thread specifically excludes electric trolley buses, perhaps it’s time to have another look at them, and to do it properly this time. Since 1961 I have seen nothing but manipulated reports, doctored figures, unrealistic assumptions and other questionable methods used to justify their withdrawal and to prevent their return to our streets. I want to get the ball rolling by suggesting that we start using the term trackfree tram to describe the three-section trolleybuses in service in several cities. There is little, if anything that a tram/light rail vehicle does that cannot be done better by a trackfree tram. Writing from South Africa, where public transport is in an appalling state, I would like to call out some Australian academics who have beaten a regular path to our country but have left us with nothing to show for it.

>In Victoria they don’t want to build tram lines – there’s been continual resistance to even very short but logical extensions, very few recent extensions built, and the proposed Monash/Rowville light rail idea seems to have gone nowhere.

I don’t know whether this is the Government or the general public, but are they…ashamed of having an extended tram system? I thought it was an icon of the city. I say we should just use conventional tracks and keep the tracks themselves integrated with the rest of the network, even if the services aren’t. Instead, maybe trial the battery system that Newcastle and Parramatta LRT are using, and gradually expand that to the rest of Melbourne’s network.

Totally agreed with Heihachi’s simplification of the services. Start maximum waiting times of 10-15 mins around the clock to midnight on all major roads, and it would make a difference. And buses should talk to trains and hold back their service if a train is late. I think there are already GPS and real-time apps for that, so the buses really don’t have an excuse.

It is a bus. Call it a bus. Give it priority or dedicated road space. Give pedestrians priority access at stops, so they don’t have to fight with traffic. Set a route that is efficient and avoids contention with traffic (e.g. don’t have your bus waste half an hour making a loop through shopping centre car parks like the Airport “smart bus” does). Finally give a decent service frequency and schedule an additional service to make up for cancellations outside peak hours.
You never know, it might raise the profile of busses if there are routes that passengers are not punished for taking.

@Hisashi sadly the situation is quite the opposite. I know of stations where the bus goes through ahead of time to allow the driver a 10 minute smoko at the timing point 500M down the road. This is outside of peak, so instead of connecting with alighting passengers, they face a 40 minute wait for the following bus.

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