Light Rail

“HE WOULDN’T KNOW A TRAM was up him unless the driver rang the bell” was one of the old-fashioned stock phrases for stupidity a co-worker of mine once liked to use. He wasn’t from Melbourne: he was merely old enough to remember the Sydney before 1966 where tram tracks ran down the centres of major roads. Whenever I wind up talking or thinking about trams and light rail in the context of urbanism I think of that phrase—because trams, more than being vehicles or potential vehicles in a real streetspace, are much more important as tokens of human urban imagination.

Sydney Light Rail, Haymarket
Sydney Light Rail, Haymarket

Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, which I am currently reading (but haven’t finished), begins with a tram ride through Leningrad. So far it’s quite an interesting exercise in not-quite-nostalgia, a fake historical futurism and a story about a political economy that never existed. The tram sparks down the road, crowded and communally sweaty, and there, the mathematician has his Eureka—it’s a profoundly romantic moment.

Everybody knows about the romance of private vehicles and private transportation; people mythologised horses and carriages and sleighs long before the internal combustion engine putted onto the scene. They’ve always been chockers with meaning and significance: consider the official reaction to Jesus doing nothing more than clopping into Jerusalem on a donkey, or the fixations of characters in nineteenth century novels about numbers of footmen on their barouches. When we’re thinking about light rail, similarly, there’s public transport romance to be acknowledged which goes well beyond the rational into the realms of desire and fantasy. People go a bit nuts for trams, whether they’re Wikipedia editors, private museum operators or local government policymakers.

I’m hesitant to give in to the romance of light rail in Sydney, despite the surface allure. I do love a tram, but I’m not sure about them in the streets. There are a couple of reasons, but don’t let’s just take my word for it, let’s see some pictures.

Amilcar! Next slide, por favor.

Botany Tram
Botany Tram

Here’s an electric Botany tram, number 198, unfortunately undated but taken sometime after 1903 and by the looks of the men’s uniforms, sometime before the First World War. The car itself is dissimilar in almost every way to modern trams: for a start, it’s actually light, made of wood and sheet metal. It’s mostly open to the elements and the floor stands a good metre above the rail and road surface. The width of the running boards suggest that when things were busy the passengers probably travelled on the outside, hanging on to the poles (as the conductor is shown), breezing through the traffic. With modern eyes, it’s an accessibility and public liability nightmare, and you wouldn’t want to catch one in a rainstorm. Picturesque as the number 198 was, modern trams are entirely enclosed, safer and easier to board.

But let’s have a look at some old pictures of trams in traffic, that congestion which we’re trying to replace, right? Sydneysiders should be able to recognise most of these locations.

Aerial View of Railway Square
Aerial View of Railway Square (1938)

Looking W along Oxford Street from near the corner of Brodie Street, Paddington.
Looking W along Oxford Street from near the corner of Brodie Street, Paddington. (1956)

Looking SE along Oxford Street at the junction of Wentworth Avenue, Oxford, College and Liverpool Streets.
Looking SE along Oxford Street at the junction of Wentworth Avenue, Oxford, College and Liverpool Streets. (1955)

Looking SE from elevated position at corner of Bourke, Flinders and Oxford Streets.
Looking SE from elevated position at corner of Bourke, Flinders and Oxford Streets. (1960)

Looking SE from elevated position above the corner of College Street and Oxford Street.
Looking SE from elevated position above the corner of College Street and Oxford Street. (1957)

At cnr of King St and Enmore Rd Newtown.
At cnr of King St and Enmore Rd Newtown. (1957)

Looking SE from elevated position above corner of Oxford Street and Bourke Street.
Looking SE from elevated position above corner of Oxford Street and Bourke Street. (1959)

All of these locations, Railway Square, Oxford Street and Flinders St, and the corner of King Street and Enmore Road, are fairly critical narrow points for Sydney’s road transport. They’re narrow, heavily trafficked, very dense in pedestrian activity and they’re points through which lots of different services have to go through. It’s worth noting that many of the bus routes which now operate are based heavily on routes once travelled by trams.

The first thing to note is the relative density of vehicle traffic. There’s not much to speak of in any of them compared to even off-peak traffic today. The second thing to note is the massive physical expansion of footpaths, dedicated parking space and pure-pedestrian areas between the tram era and today—it’s especially noticeable in the photographs of Taylor Square. Certainly there was less of a division in the early twentieth century between vehicular and pedestrian space, and walkers and drivers of relatively lower-powered cars shared road space more easily. Still, it’s noticeable how physically big the roads used to be.

Last of all is the total lack of anything you’d identify as a traffic-calming or traffic-controlling feature: there’s not even a double line in the middle of the road, let alone a median strip or road planting or a bus-only lane. A traffic libertarian like Peter Phelps MLC must look on these photographs in wonder. It means that traffic can much more easily bypass a stopped or broken-down tram, but later in the century that openness had a cost in terms of injury in accidents.

So trams work, or at least worked, in a streetscape in many ways different to the one we have now. From a purely transport perspective, there’s a lot to stop them from ever working again in the same relatively efficient way.

  • We demand a great deal more of modern trams in their safety, enclosure from the weather, and accessibility, and we tend take up more space inside them. Modern trams are much larger and heavier than early twentieth century models.
  • When we replaced Sydney trams with buses, we gained a few underestimated benefits: the ability to run express and limited-stops services, most notably. Unless you duplicate the line, all trams are by definition all-stations.
  • We’ve changed our walking behaviour. Heavy rail lines forbid humans from ever getting close to the carriages, but a lot has changed in the way walkers use public space in the fifty years since the last Sydney tram left. Central CBD streets, like Collins Street, in Melbourne are quite different here from those in Sydney—they’re a great deal wider, and they’ve coped better with the increase in population.

Like the other major rail-based fantasy project of Australian romantics, the High Speed Rail, a lot of arguments in favour of trams are based on solving problems in favour of a pre-determined answer. Trams sharing space with private vehicle traffic? Introduce a congestion charge. High relative costs compared to buses (and walking)? Subsidise ticket prices. Existing bottlenecks? Specialised tunnels and separated cuttings. And so on.

Light rail arguments in Sydney always devolve at some point into the romance of the public transport artifact itself: an old-fashioned, squeaking, sparking, electric-train-in-the-middle-of-the-road. You can’t argue against it because it exists in dreams and in wishes.

When you ride a tram you’re embarking on a steampunk adventure, a trip slightly outside history and in a fantasy land where conductors have black bags, caps and a saucy attitude (even if Jeff Kennett sacked them all), you can ride on the running boards (even if actually, you can be arrested if you try to ride on the bumper bar), there’s a bell (even if it’s actually an electric horn), and everybody wears goggles and brass hats. I dislike the steampunk aesthetic not for the physical ugliness but for the ahistorical attitude to industrialism: there’s never a safety guard, or a handrail, or a warning notice.

Thinking about it, though, I, personally, am helpless before the sound of a motorcycle, hopelessly, irrationally blind, despite adulthood and a well-developed sense of physical cowardice, to the real dangers of serious physical injury, incapacitation and death. To hell with doubt or uncertainty. Bring on the trams and may the State Treasury and taxpayers suffer the consequences.



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Fyodor · 6 March 2012, 17:59 · #

Noice. Too good for this blog, mate. NTTAWWT.

NOBA: trolleybuses overcome many of the problems you associate with trams while retaining most of their advantages. Won’t satisfy the “it’s not real if it’s not rail” enthusiasts, but.

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ana australiana · 7 March 2012, 10:02 · #


Humble request for next post projecting trolleybuses onto Sydney?

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Liam · 7 March 2012, 10:13 · #

Thanks kids. I am not worthy, etc. etc.
Regarding trolleybuses, a few thoughts: I like them but they don’t solve all the problems.

  • They’re far quieter than either buses or trams, with no engine noise or rail screeching. They’re much better at steep hills than light rail, which would work well for Sydney. Can’t argue against those benefits.
  • No particulate emissions from an electric motor. Great for air quality! But the power still has to come from somewhere. Same for trams, obviously.
  • Unless you have duplicated lines (overhead, I mean), one bus still can’t overtake another if it’s stopped to pick up passengers, or for whatever other reason. So one bus tends to back up all the other buses.
  • It’s easier but still difficult to put on many more trolleybuses for very high demand peaks, like school pickup and dropoff times, or at 1am on the 1st of January after the fireworks, or just before kickoff at the Grand Final.
  • You can’t detour them for roadworks, so transport during road/cable maintenance is a big deal.
  • If you’re thinking about building a new route or re-routing one to reflect changing demand there’s a lot more infrastructure—-it’s not just a matter of sticking a few bus stops at intervals.

But I will think about it some more.

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FDB · 13 March 2012, 19:13 · #

I believe there are (and if not there could be) batteries for trolleybusses which allow them to operate offline for short periods. So that covers two of your dot points to the negative.

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Liam · 14 March 2012, 09:34 · #

Well here’s a bit of an eye-opening image. Two extinct modes of transport and one highly endangered.

So it appears that contrary to my claims:

  • Sydney has had trolleybuses in the past, on lines from Kogarah to Sans Souci and Town Hall to Potts Point, and
  • They were able to change lanes, overtake and pick up/drop passengers at the kerb.

I’m halfway to being convinced, but as Fyodor says they’re never going to convince the “it’s not a tram!!!1!” crowd.

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FDB · 16 March 2012, 19:12 · #

If they looked that cool, there’d be a chance.

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anthony · 10 April 2012, 18:01 · #

If they look cool, there’s always a chance.
What I like about light rail -and this is a completely biased irrational by my lights stand – is that enforce the notion of shared use with something that’s not going to be muscled around by a car. As you mention, there’s car space and then there’s pedestrian space. As a cyclist I hover between both worlds.


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