Trackless Trams – pros and cons
* Post authorByDaniel https://www.danielbowen.com/author/db/
* Post dateThu 18 November 2021
* 7 Commentson Trackless Trams – pros and cons
Trackless trams at Chadstone (Artist impression)
Federal Laboris getting behind https://www.theage.com.au/politics/victoria/labor-pledges-to-plan-trackless-trams-in-melbourne-s-south-east-20211104-p595ut.htmla “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 https://www.monashprecinct.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/TRT-Josef-Seidlers-Presentation.pdf) 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 hasthis new article talking about the hype and reality around the technology https://ptcbr.org/2021/11/14/are-trackless-trams-really-ready-to-replace-light-rail/.
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 fancyguided https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guided_busBus 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 https://brtdata.org/(includingBrisbane https://www.ugllimited.com/en/case-studies/current/brisbane-busways, 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 https://sbenrc.com.au/app/uploads/2020/06/FAQs-report-on-Trackless-Trams-11-May-2020.pdf. 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 messwhen it started https://www.danielbowen.com/2009/12/30/myki-has-arrived/?)
Perhaps this wouldn’t matter so much in a city with no existing medium-capacity transport system. But Melbourne already has ahuge tram system https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tram_and_light_rail_transit_systems#World's_largest_tram_systems, 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 toeven very short but logical extensions https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/lobby-urges-tram-extensions-to-avoid-dead-end-trips-20130305-2fj48.html, very few recent extensions built, and the proposedMonash/Rowville light rail idea https://www.danielbowen.com/2018/04/10/caulfield-to-rowville-tram/seems to have gone nowhere.
And of course they never properly resource buses. Even the premier Smartbus routes never hadadequate weekend frequencies https://www.flickr.com/photos/danielbowen/7929419540/.
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 https://www.flickr.com/photos/danielbowen/49277434546/in/dateposted/
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’sno shortage of people who will use them https://www.danielbowen.com/2019/12/27/chadstone-buses-boxing-day-2019-edition/, if they’re provided when and where people want to travel. Make them good enough, andthey are popular https://twitter.com/danielbowen/status/354088283074072576.
So while the powers-that-be make up their minds on Trackless Trams, why not fix busroute 900 https://www.ptv.vic.gov.au/route/12753/900-rowville-caulfield-via-monash-university-and-chadstone/? 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.
* TagsChadstone https://www.danielbowen.com/tag/chadstone/,Monash
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7 replies on “Trackless Trams – pros and cons”
Thu 18 November 2021 at 8:38 am https://www.danielbowen.com/2021/11/18/trackless-trams-pros-and-cons/#comment-348414
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.