Episode 15: Off the Rails

trackless tram Create Digital

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester is keen on forgoing steel wheels for rubber tyres when Let’s Get Welly Moving decides how it will link the central rail station with Newtown and beyond. He reckons our creative little capital could shine as an early adoptor. Why are many public transport advocates worried? 

The timetable for Let’s Get Wellington Moving might be as vague as a long range weather forecast but it has placed Rapid Mass Transit at the centre of its strategy. Problem is, we don’t know what form that RMT will take.

Should we, as our Mayor has been suggesting,  become one of the first to embrace the newest kid to run around the block, the so-called Trackless Tram?

Or is the spine linking the central city with its southern and eastern suburbs served best by a more tried and tested light rail approach?

For a start, what’s the difference? Basically, light rail runs on steel wheels rolling over steel rails. It’s what we used to call a tram, and some still do.

Light rail differs from heavy rail in that its vehicles can negotiate tighter curves and steeper grades, and they don’t weigh as much – funnily enough. Heavy rail’s greater mass enables it to carry heavier loads and run more powerful locomotives. This makes it ideal for freight and higher speed passenger services.

A trackless tram operates much like a light rail vehicle does. If differs from light rail in that it rolls along a road on rubber tyres.

So what’s the difference between a trackless tram and a bus? Well, that’s when things get a little more subjective.

Ideally, your trackless tram has its own designated road way and uses an automatic guidance system to follow a pre-determined route, as our trackless example in ZhuZhou does. Its interior space is similar to Light Rail. You can board or exit from any door, and like light rail, the vehicle runs in either direction.

However, at least one of the trackless examples cited in my research, runs like a bus, and steers like a bus. To paraphrase somebody’s remark about walking and talking like a duck, doesn’t that make it a bus?

To sling another cliche at you, why bother dressing mutton as lamb?

Firstly, say its supporters, because it’s cheaper to build than light rail. Secondly, because when a bus looks and behaves more like a tram, it’s funkier and more people want to use it.

It’s not entirely clear how the trackless tram idea reached Wellington. I first noticed  it entering the conversation last year. In fact one of the first articles in this part of the world extolling the virtues of trackless traction appeared in this Australian blogsite last year, written by Peter Newman, Sustainability Professor at Perth’s Curtin University.

A few months ago one of Newman’s colleagues, Marie Verschuer, was in New Zealand with a similar message.

I tracked her down by phone for an interview in Perth,  in which she described Trackless Trams as the “evolution of the bus”.

You get something that looks and feels like light rail with less disruption (less digging up streets to lay tracks) which means lower initial cost, which means less pressure on rate and taxpayers.

Marie argues if you want to increase the uptake of public transport and reduce reliance on cars, the trackless tram offers easier pickings.

When local media published Marie’s comments, FIT Wellington’s John Rankin was one of the first to respond. He reckons we should stick with the steel wheels, at least for the initial line through the central city to Newtown and the eastern suburbs.

FIT stands for Fair and Intelligent Transport. It’s a collection of engineers, planners and health professionals trying to increase this country’s transit IQ. This was his initial response to the Trackless Tram excitement here.

You can listen to John’s reasons for sticking to the tracks in the podcast above, but I’ve also listed them below.

First, longevity. Steel rails last at least 25 years. Roads need resealing. Some will need strengthening. Chances are we’ll still have to dig up a lot of road to enable it to handle a trackless tram load.

Second, light rail currently has greater capacity.  Trackless tram fans can point to the currently experimental set up in the Chinese city of Zhuzhou, but a more established version could look like this. Marie describes this as an example of a trackless tram. Others regard it bus rapid transit. Whatever you call it, it doesn’t offer the same capacity as  a typical light rail setup, such as this one currently going into service in the capital city across the ditch, a city which just happens to be about the same size as Wellington.

Third: light rail uses less energy to operate. Simple physics. Steel wheels on steel rails encounter less friction. Rubber’s greater grip does enable trackless trams to climb steeper hills, but for the planned route run from Wellington Rail to the eastern suburbs, steel rails eat up less juice. Light rail literally is greener. It can even run in the grass.

Tram in grass John Rankin

That’s nice. In fact that is Nice.

Fourth: Whatever option you choose – and here Marie and John are in agreement, it has to have its own designated right of way. If you’re supporting Trackless Trams because you think they can just slip in and out of ordinary traffic, you’re doing the rest of us a disservice. If it gets bogged down in existing congestion you’re no better off than you are in a conventional bus. You might as well stay in your car, if you’re not prepared to walk, cycle or scoot.

Fifth: The investment effect. Light rail encourages residential and commercial development along its route and the people who move into those developments tend to use light rail instead of a motor vehicle. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two kinds of trams just yet, given the trackless technology in its higher capacity form has only been around for a few years. Still, is it wise to use a new technology for such a key part of the city’s transit spine?

In my conversation with John I suggested steel wheels have another potential advantage over rubber; access to the heavy rail network. If we build it to the same track gauge, what’s to stop us running a light rail service from Johnsonville or Melling to Mirimar?

John is unconvinced. The conventional wisdom is light and heavy rail don’t mix. When a heavy rail vehicle collides with a light one, the results are disastrous for the latter, and anyone inside it.

Still, I’m curious, and hope to revisit that possibility in a later Traffic Jam.

But I’m getting off track. Back in the world of rubber wheels there is potential Wellington could tap into. John sees Trackless Trams as an option for Karori, a route that doesn’t have the traffic to justify investing in light rail. Interesting to see at least one local body candidate is already on board with that idea.

Then there’s the issue of retro-fitting rapid mass transit inside our post 1960s suburban sprawl. Just think of all the development around Whitby, Paraparaumu, and Waikanae that’s only going to grow in response to Transmission Gully and the Kapiti Expressway.

Perhaps trackless trams are the future for lower density suburbs? Perhaps, if we really want to link  Petone and Grenada we use rubber wheels to get the tram over the hill?

John Rankin shared a quote with me. It’s from Peter Newman, the academic who got the trackless conversation rolling in this part of the world; “If a Trackless Tram is to be able to attract value capture opportunities it must be more like a train than a bus. It must be more like a fixed service that will not be easily removed from serving a station where developers are needing to see a return from their investment.”

Which brings this post to its final point.  A lot is made by some politicians, and even a few bloggers, of how trackless trams can deviate from their route; no worries about a disabled train blocking your way, and if there’s an earthquake, you don’t have buckled rails shutting down the system.

However, fixed rails and wires, and even earthquakes haven’t stopped existing trains and even our dear old departed trolley buses from working in a Wellington setting. Sure, it might be handy to pass a disabled unit every now and then, but if that’s happening on a regular basis, you’ve got a crap system.

bus lane parking

Worse, what if the knowledge the “trackless tram” can get around an obstacle gives others licence to sneak onto its path?

People tend not to park on rail lines.

The thought of them or their car being taken out by a train (no matter how light) puts them off.

Happy Jammn’.


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