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On Saturday, Sydney’s new light rail system began carrying passengers between Circular Quay and Randwick. Widespread media coverage and social media since has consistently highlighted a major concern with the new system: the inordinate slowness of travel along the tram tracks and excessive end-to-end travel times.
It is salutary to compare the new transport system's performance with that of the original Sydney trams between Circular Quay and Randwick. The CBD and South East Light Rail, or CSELR, is taking on average 50 minutes to cover the distance compared with 26 minutes for the Sydney trams in the 1950s.
The $2.9 billion dollar light rail has passed its first test with Sydney commuters after an opening weekend filled with glitches.
This comparison is even more jarring when we consider the light rail has 14 stops and the trams had at least 18 stops between Circular Quay and Randwick. It should also be born in mind that the CSELR has modern, more powerful trams and a greater proportion of exclusive rights of ways to avoid traffic congestion.
So what has gone wrong? Basically the state government has been badly let down by Transport for NSW. In the early days of the project Transport for NSW engaged a consultant "shadow operator" to set the parameters for the new operation. This British-based consultancy’s expertise was basically the provision of heavy rail intercity services (equivalent to services between Sydney-Canberra or Sydney-Goulburn). In addition Transport for NSW turned to heavy rail and/or road traffic consultants for engineering “expertise”.
The result is the acceptance and development of operating procedures which do not make appropriate use of the modern tram and light rail infrastructure now available in Sydney.
Consider dwell times for trams at stops. Based on overseas experience these should be approximately 20 seconds, a figure that is part of the normal tramway operations in Canberra and the Gold Coast. Obviously there is considerable room for improvement here.
Priority for trams at signalled intersections is at best rudimentary. Fifteen years ago I was given a tour of the Gothenburg Tramways by senior management. They had tram priority and they demonstrated this by bringing out a vintage four-wheel tram fitted with a transponder ie the black box which signals the approaching tram to the signal control circuitry. As the tram approached the intersection, a special light signal authorised the driver to proceed at full speed up to the red traffic light, which would operate in his favour as the tram approached the intersection. In contrast, many of the CSELR procedures require the driver to slow to a walking pace or even stop before the priority light operates. Time lost, $6 million dollars of tram and 415 passengers have less priority than a handful of cars, each with an average of 1.1 occupants.
Transport for NSW senior management tells us that light rail vehicles cannot stop quickly. This is nonsense and reflects an ingrained heavy rail mentality. Anyone who has experience of an emergency-stop situation in cities such as Zurich, Brussels and even Melbourne is well aware that a tram, with three braking systems, will pull up much faster than any bus.
Operational speed limits are also a major fail. Restrictions on speed pulling into a stop and mandated slowing well before the stop are fine for heavy rail but not necessary for trams. They are not applied to buses in Sydney and are contrary to well established and regular operations across Europe where they operate professional and well-run tram systems as a matter of routine.
Any concerns the government may have about the safety of pedestrians and passengers if these procedures and restrictions are changed could be allayed by getting in experts from Europe to advise on running a system that is both safe and efficient.
It’s time we cut the PR spin and got down to doing some real system tweaking to deliver what should be a first class, modern tram system.
Greg Sutherland is an engineer with extensive experience in transport and logistics.
He was the senior transport adviser to the NSW minister when the Inner West Light Rail was inaugurated in Sydney.
This article first appeared on www.smh.com.au
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