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.
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.