Thursday, July 20, 2017

Light rail or tram?

Light rail is a pompous mouthful to make something old seem new. I prefer tram.

The variety of sources I have used for this post is very wide, but principally, it older men who are very experienced with public transport and are prone to ranting and talking about the good old days, and how Europe does it so much better. Having seen some train and train systems in Europe, they are probably right.

Without great map knowledge of Sydney, the first criticism I heard of Sydney's proposed new light rail system is that while it is good for the line to connect Circular Quay to Central (the principal train station), it should have then gone down Oxford Street and turned into Anzac Parade. Instead its route from Central has meant demolition of some properties and the tram running along quite narrow streets, with a good bit of extra infrastructure needed. I have heard reasons why this became the plan, but I am doubtful. It is possible that if the tram ran along Oxford Street, it would be overwhelmed with numbers. Err, don't build anything where it will be too popular. Later: Having a look at a map, it is impractical to service both Central and Oxford Street.

Very soon after the light rail project was announced, forecast patronage figures were looked at and it was decided to double the length of the trams ordered, to 60 metres, That is a very long tram and it must be getting close to what is normally known as a train. There is no doubt in my mind that Sydney's new light rail will be popular.

However, as I believe per a press release, Sydney was not prepared to learn any lessons from one of the world's oldest and largest tram systems, in Melbourne. Apparently Melbourne is old fashioned and has trams on streets. Sydney is building a light rail line. Well, Melbourne does actually have light rail too. Nor was Sydney prepared to learn any lessons from Queensland's brilliant Gold Coast light rail with the vehicles having complete priority over traffic. Having seen how well it worked last year (maybe the year before), it is a blueprint for any light rail system. That is not to say it is without issues, though.

There are good aspects and bad aspects about Melbourne's tram system being run by a French company. Whether it comes from Europe or not, Melbourne is one of the experts in fast tram track replacement and construction. Instead of setting the tracks in quick setting concrete, that later requires a jackhammer to break up, a shallow compacted base is laid, topped with concrete sleepers, a shallow layer of concrete to hold the sleepers and rails in place , then topped with bitumen. The bitumen topping is aesthetically much better, blending with the road, does not break like concrete and is much easier to work with when repair is necessary. Best of all, it is quieter as the trams run along the track.

I suspect Canberra is going down the same road as Sydney with its new light rail, and the real point is the over engineering. Sydney is laying its tracks in concrete over a metre deep in places. This is so unnecessary and I don't know why? Of course Melbourne knows nothing about trams and its advice on track construction would not be welcome.

The grumpy old transport experts often talk about Sydney's existing light rail, from Central to Dulwich Hill. The service is very poor. It is very slow, being impeded by a lack of traffic light priority, (hello Adelaide's tram to Glenelg), overcrowding and terrible bunching of trams. That is, three trams arrive together, then there is not one for twenty minutes.

There are two major accusations at Sydney's new light rail. The first is that it is massively over engineered, and consequently very costly, and so because of the cost, no more light rails will be considered as they are clearly too expensive to build.

The second goes by the name of APS. Trams need power and normally pick up the power from overhead wires. The mass of tram wires in the sky were quite ugly in the past, but now with modern materials, they are much more simple and dare I say, almost elegant. Nevertheless, the elegant simplicity of overhead wires was deemed too much for George Street in the Sydney city, so the trams will use APS within a section of George Street. What is APS?

APS is a French acronym, meaningless to most of us, but it is a system where the tram picks up power from a source built into the road. It is not dissimilar to London's Tube where the trains pick up power from a third rail in between the two tracks. A picture can tell a thousand words. Here is a photo where a new tram line was built in an historic area of Bordeaux. It was decided overhead wires would spoil the area, so the APS system was used. The metal where the tram picks up power is visible between the sets of tracks.


Of course you can't have a live rail in the middle of the road. People would get fried when they step on it, so it is only active when the tram is passing over it. The system will be used in George Street between Circular Quay and Park Street in the city. From thereon, it will be the standard overhead wires. The arguments I have heard against the system are as follows.

It is very expensive to install, much more so than the usual overhead wires. While not so widely done now, once the wires were just attached to buildings, with no poles needed for support, as you can see in this first photo I took when we were in Yurong Street, East Sydney. The wires were attached to decorative rosettes bolted into brick walls and there are still many to be seen on Sydney buildings. http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_BjA9HB5RzRc/Skyjpy6qsEI/AAAAAAAADDc/za7Fea-Uctg/s1600-h/Rosette.JPG

It is not yet a reliable technology and could be affected by heavy deluges which Sydney is prone to. Of course it does not just add to the cost of construction. Trams will have to be equipped to use the system. It may well not work as planned and wires might go up at a later point anyway.

Anyway, what would I know as I am from Melbourne and we have only had trams running continuously since 1884 and light rail since 1987.

17 comments:

  1. Sigh. Our proposed plan is a bit of a hotch potch. It will be slower than the buses we have now, and will make other traffic slower too. And at this stage will only cover a small fraction of the city. At immense cost. I will wait and see.
    I do mourn the trees down Northborne Avenue though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. EC, that it is slower is outrageous and difficult to understand. We too have recently lost a number of mature elm and plane trees to progress. More on that later.

      Delete
  2. I love trams and use them them every day

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Gosia, they are a good way to travel, but I like speed, so prefer a train.

      Delete
  3. I loved the trams of sheffield

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. John, I thought I heard something about it recently. Yes, it is being extended to Rotherham.

      Delete
  4. I was sad to see the removal of trees in Canberra to accomodate the tracks for their new 'light rail'. I'll be interested to see if it gets well used once it is built.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ad Rad, I don't know enough about Canberra to give an opinion except to say such projects are usually well researched and successful. Always sad to lose trees.

      Delete
  5. Yes! Queensland's Gold Coast light rail, having complete priority over private traffic, works a treat!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hels, how it should be everywhere and not hard to do if it is built now from scratch. For some reason Sydney and Canberra are taking no heed.

      Delete
  6. Seems Sydney is too proud to "join the rest" and insists on standing alone with a more expensive, completely different light rail system which may or may not work.
    Silly in my opinion. Look around, see who has a system that works well, has been working well for some time, and copy it. You know, the sensible way to do things.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. River, so many European do trams very well, with fast and frequent services, even former Eastern Bloc countries which are quite poor.

      Delete
  7. It seems like one of those win/lose situations Andrew, the idea of no wires is very appealing the cost outrageous!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Grace, I am not sure but I think George Street, where the tram will run is not a remarkable Sydney Street, so I would opt for wires. I could be wrong though. Can you please check next time you visit your family.

      Delete
    2. I will check in October Andrew 😊

      Delete
  8. Anonymous8:38 am

    A little late to the tram debate. Nobody learns from the past. There was a tram line to Bondi along Oxford St but it was torn up. Along with a huge network throughout Sydney as cars became more popular. Now its cars and buses that cause congestion. (Perhaps its juts as well though. Can you imagine queens catching their high heels in the tram lines during mardi gras?)
    There used to be a rail link from South Brisbane to the Gold Coast then on to Tweed Heads but again it was closed in the 1960s when cars took over. A pity no one had the foresight to see that trams/trains and cars could co-exist and in time rail would become essential in easing traffic congestion. - Ian

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ian, Sydney's tram system was so fast and efficient at moving people, it is a tragedy that it was removed. We used to have a gay street party in our golden metre where a tram runs, not like Oxford Street's golden mile, and the 'girls' managed on the tram tracks, including a parade.

      I wasn't aware of the rail line to Tweed Heads. Idiots!

      Delete