Whatever you do, don't argue with a tram

I have lived in cities with trams. They are marvellous but you don't want to tangle with one.

In Berlin, my colleague came into work one morning a little bit late. Her face was ashen and her voice was shaking. It was winter in Germany and she had just seen an old woman slip on the ice and been - steel yourself - beheaded. She had fallen across a rail in the rush hour and that was it.

Canberra Metro and the ACT Emergency Services Agency staged a car versus light rail vehicle crash to test the responses of firefighters and paramedics.  Photo: ACT government

Canberra Metro and the ACT Emergency Services Agency staged a car versus light rail vehicle crash to test the responses of firefighters and paramedics.  Photo: ACT government

Too much rushing in the rush hour. It is always tempting to run for that tram rather than wait for the next one, even in Berlin where the next one is never more than a few minutes away. People take their chance and sometimes, they lose the fatal gamble.

As trams head our way, Canberra Metro which will run the light rail system is already warning about tram safety. “Take care when pushing a pram not to let the wheel get stuck in the track,” it advises. “Pay attention and stay alert at all times.”

In a city of trams, everyone knows that a tram is not to be trifled with. Whatever the rules on paper, the rule on the street is (as with giant cargo ships on the high seas): just get out of the way. A car versus a tram is not a fair contest and a pedestrian versus a tram is a puny lad against a heavyweight.

A very heavy weight. In Melbourne, there are striking posters featuring a rhino on a skateboard. Yarra Trams puts out videos reminding people, particularly young people on mobile phones, that a tram at 60 tonnes weighs about the same as 30 rhinos. "If a rhinoceros on a skateboard was heading your way, you'd get out of the way, right?" is the slogan.

On the latest figures, there were 1930 "incidents" involving trams in Melbourne in 2017.

Nobody died but there were 67 serious injuries, half when people slipped or tripped. Three-quarters of the injuries were to people over the age of 65.

On top of people-tram clashes, there were 977 bumps between trams and cars in 2017, up from 962 in 2016 - that's about three a day.

The rhino on a skateboard problem is not confined to Australia. One of the manufacturers, Bombardier, has been installing detection devices in Frankfurt, Marseille, Berlin and Cologne, with Zurich, Brussels and Duisburg to follow. A special camera sets off a claxon if an obstacle - like a human being - is detected. Will Canberra have the same?

Education is needed in our car city.

On the Gold Coast, the tram operator has done a strong awareness campaign. The warning says: "Our trams weigh 60 tonnes when empty.

“As a light rail system, our trams are built to be as quiet as possible which means that once you’re used to the noise of the tram, and are distracted by other things, the approaching sound of a tram can be lost in the background as ambient noise”.

One of its messages is: “remove head or earphones when walking on or across our network, and limit mobile phone conversation." Good luck with that!

In Berlin, there was another safety problem: cyclists have rumbled that a tram line is a flat and direct link between A and B. Perfect for cycling - except when the wheels get stuck in the groove.

I can tell you that there nothing quite like the fear you feel as you realise that you and your bike are about to hurtle to the hard ground, and with a tram too close behind for comfort. For an eternal second, you foresee in slow motion the pain you are about to feel.

Romantic, trams are. They trundle along.

But you don't want to play chicken with a rhino on a skateboard.