Familiar sight: a crowded tram stop at Flinders street with no tram in sight. Photo: Joe Armao
Years of work to improve sluggish travel times around Melbourne has done nothing to reduce the city's plague of late-running trams, with punctuality figures stubbornly hovering at the same low level for a decade.
The state and Yarra Trams have combined to spend tens of millions of dollars in recent years on a host of projects to speed up trams, including giving them signal priority at more than 500 intersections and building dedicated tramways and super stops in key areas.
Yet the past 10 years of tram performance data reveals these projects have consistently failed to lift travel times across the network. Tram punctuality is measured in two ways – at destination and along the route. At destination it has sat at or just above 70 per cent for the past nine years, data shows; along the route it has sat at just above 80 per cent.
A tram is counted as on-time if it arrives no later than four minutes and 59 seconds behind schedule, or no more than 59 seconds early. Operator Yarra Trams is contractually obliged to run a minimum of 77 per cent of trams on-time.
Professor Graham Currie, chairman of public transport at Monash University's school of engineering, said it was well understood that Melbourne's trams were slow and unreliable because they continually got stuck in traffic, yet efforts to segregate trams had been piecemeal.
“Our trams are among the slowest in the world, and the reason is that we're not light railways, we're streetcars,” Professor Currie said. “We have the largest streetcar network in the world, 190 kilometres of mixed traffic operations. Our trams travel at 15-16 km/h, some are down to 9 km/h, and their reliability is shocking as a result of traffic interference.”
Melbourne tram operator Yarra Trams this month took to lobbying the public to nominate their local tram route in the RACV's annual red-spot survey, which seeks to identify Melbourne's most congested locations.
The operator has listed on its website Toorak Road, Glenferrie Road, Burke Road, Sydney Road, Chapel Street and Smith Street as streets where tram travel times are most crippled by congestion.
Meanwhile, a project announced by the Napthine government in April 2012 to convert route 96, Melbourne's busiest tram route, into an end-to-end light rail is moving slower than a tram on Chapel Street on Saturday night.
The route 96 project is intended to separate the 14-kilometre route between St Kilda Beach and Brunswick East from traffic, in the expectation that this will vastly improving tram punctuality and reliability and demonstrate to the public the benefits of tram segregation. Each stop on the route will also be rebuilt to meet disability access standards.
Public Transport Minister Terry Mulder said on announcing the project that the development phase was “expected to be complete in early 2013”, ahead of the arrival of the new E-Class trams, but more than two years later the project is yet to move beyond concept stage.
Public Transport Victoria, the authority for the project, is still locked in community consultation with local councils and traders, who are concerned about losing on-street parking spaces. Acland Street traders even held a mock funeral for the coming death of their shopping strip last year.
The first five of 50 new trams that can carry 210 passengers have already entered service.
Public Transport Victoria's Andrea Duckworth said detailed designs were being prepared for the route's northern terminus at Blyth Street and for all stops south of Richardson and Reid streets in Carlton North, following community feedback.
“PTV continues to work with VicRoads, Yarra Trams and councils to confirm the locations of the remaining stop upgrades,” Ms Duckworth said.
But Professor Currie said the extended consultation phase was a sign the government was not truly interested in the project.
"I get the impression this lot aren't really serious about [tram] priority," he said.
“We've been talking about the project for a long, long time. It would be really good to see some action. We've bought the new trams to put on the route, but we're still waiting to get the road space and the signal priority working.”