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.
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.
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.