What is Melbourne's metro? What could it be?

What is Melbourne's metro? What could it be?
What is Melbourne's metro? What could it be?

What is a metro? It's a good question and it has many answers. Not least because Australian rail systems don't neatly fit into categories like how people readily and easily classify rail networks in Asia, Europe and North America.

Using terms like heavy rail, metro (or subway), light rail transit (LRT), bus rapid transit (BRT), tram (or streetcar) or bus network will generally be understood with little to no explanation and these generalist terms can be related to aspects of any city's public transport network.

It's only if a person wants to write or talk about a comparison of a heavy rail, bus or tram networks with those located in a different city that the marginally grey-yet-roughly-understood terms become deep ravines of multi-shade grey; with no clear path to use as a route through the confusion.

Alan Davies on his Crikey blog recently wrote on this topic and the set of characteristics he talks about are summarised thus:

There’s probably no correct answer, however here’s what I’d suggest are the key characteristics of a metro:

  • A high density of lines and stations forming a ‘grid’ pattern – there’s a station within a reasonable walk of virtually any origin or destination within the area of service.
  • A large number of interchange stations at key ‘grid’ nodes – they provide connectedness by enabling travellers to transfer between lines.
  • Very high frequencies – between 2 and 4 minutes during the day. Short headways maximise capacity and minimise waiting times.
  • High capacity carriages – The emphasis is on standing rather than sitting. Wide doors allow quick loading and unloading.
  • High speed – trains run in their own grade-separated right-of-way. Each line has a dedicated set of tracks from end to end.
  • Long hours of operation – the metro is used for all trip purposes, not just commutes.
Alan Davies, What the hell is a bloody “metro” anyway? (Crikey, December 02 2015)

Of the three primary modes of public transport in Melbourne, I think the one which best fits within this set of characteristics is our tram network. It's not an exact match - nothing ever will be - because the Paris, Madrid, Montréal and Copenhagen metros; the London tube and overground; the New York and Toronto subways; the Chicago L, the Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok MRT/MTR are all quite different in scale, coverage, operational hours and capacity either at a macro level or on a line-by-line comparison level.

Likewise in other German cities what are effectively trams are called metros: Cologne, Bonn, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and Hamburg and their respective U-Bahn (Untergrundbahn or underground railway) networks are a primary example.

Sticking with Germany, if you look at any city's public transport map, you'll note little to no emphasis on different flavours of rail service is present; for example, here's Berlin.

Hands up who's been to Berlin! Did you visit Alexanderplatz, FriedrichStraße, Museum Island, Tiergarten / Zoo or Hackescher Markt? Chances are you used the S-Bahn to get to / between these places, not the U-Bahn which would generally be considered more Berlin's "metro".

What is Melbourne's metro? What could it be?
Tram congestion on Elizabeth Street. Image from Marcus Wong's Rail Gallery

Melbourne's tram network has a high density of lines and interchanges (to a greater degree in the south and east, less so in the north) where there are multiple chances to change routes. Although not able to carry the same amount of people as a standard train, the capacity of a single tram line is greater than a bus network running with the same frequencies.

Trams have longer operational hours when you compare to the entire bus network and the frequencies on individual lines are respectable with anywhere between 7 and 15 minutes being the inter-peak norm.

High-speed, high capacity carriages and the "very high" part of the frequency equation are the clear characteristics which don't really fit for defining Melbourne's tram network as a metro. However that doesn't things can't change.

In among the transport news and comment in media elsewhere recently, trams and light rail had some headlines last week. The Rail Futures Group launched three papers on Friday, two of which had been present on the group's website for some time, including the Trams and Light Rail in Melbourne's Transport Future paper.

The authors advocate for renewed focus on Melbourne's tram network by recognising that Melbourne's tram network is vital to the local transport needs of the inner and middle suburbs of the north, east and south - the areas which are seeing significant growth - and that steps should be taken to improve speed and reliability of existing services as well as conduct a program of extending existing lines and tying it all together with better metropolitan land use.

The key component of speeding up and improving tram reliability is extending hook turns to all roads which have a tram route present and installing active priority systems at signalised intersections throughout the network so that when a tram approaches the intersection, lights turn red and stop traffic crossing the tram route and then allow the tram to move through the intersection without stopping.

The paper quotes research conducted for Plan Melbourne where average speeds on the current tram network can go as low as six kilometres per hour (kph) and the aim should be to raise the average speed of the classic street-based tram network to something comparable with other systems around the world, in the region of 16-24kph.

Likewise numerous line extensions to enable greater interconnectedness with other tram lines and heavy rail lines are present as well as three brand new light rail lines - like those being built in Sydney and recently completed on the Gold Coast - to Doncaster, Rowville and along Dynon and Ballarat Roads are being advocated.

The launch of the three papers are timely given Infrastructure Victoria is on its way to assessing the state's infrastructure needs, to which the Victorian Government is required to respond with a short-to-medium term infrastructure plan once the 30 year strategy from the statutory body is presented to Government.

View larger map

To me, a 'metro' should be technology and capacity blind, but to a point. The above is an attempt to (literally) blur the lines between heavy rail and trams. It has the existing tram network (green), with proposed extensions from the Rail Futures paper along with a couple of my own (all in red), the three new light rail lines (slightly thicker red lines) plus one that wasn't mentioned in the paper: Springvale Road.

The entire map is overlaid with how the heavy rail network would look like according to the PTV heavy rail network plan released back in 2012. No more lines dominated by the City Loop, but seven lines which flow in, through, and out of the city plus an eighth which is the Tullamarine airport line. I've indulged a little bit more here as well, all of which will be explained and form the basis of future articles.

The lack of stations and interchange points as visual markers as you'd expect on a public transport map is entirely deliberate. The point is to highlight paths throughout the city irrespective of mode (and therefore capacity/speed) and direction.

Interchange with other lines and modes - the characteristic I'd weight the most when asking the question what makes a metro a metro - is obvious when you view the city at this macro level. Just like when you view a map of Paris and the metro is depicted indifferently to the RER and when you look at a map of Berlin, the U-Bahn and S-Bahn lines are barely distinguishable.

Melbourne's heavy rail network is on a path to greater frequencies thanks to level crossings being removed, the Melbourne Metro Rail project, a new signalling system and higher-capacity trains being introduced.

If tram speeds were increased, with reliability improved through altered road rules outside the CBD and more dedicated rights-of-way were built in existing corridors, cross-town routes built in areas where there are none, vehicles the size of the E-class (or larger) deployed en masse, and space for people prioritised higher than space for cars became the guiding principle for network investment; then who's to say the tram network couldn't legitimately be called Melbourne's metro?

Lead image credit: Wikipedia.

Alastair Taylor

Alastair Taylor

Alastair Taylor is a co-founder of Urban.com.au. Now a freelance writer, Alastair focuses on the intersection of public transport, public policy and related impacts on medium and high-density development.

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Comments (9)

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johnproctor
No doubt their are equally reports from bus association Victoria calling for bus investment on similar routes to this one from 'rail futures' - and one from racv saying all the roads should be upped for private vehicles.

Re: apartment numbers... I'd be interested to know how many are planned for parramatta. Probably more in 3/4 buildings than the number in Doncaster East you've quoted. Similar to parramatta Sydney inner East light rail basically terminates at a major hospital and/or university 5km from the city (think parkville precinct or alfred). They are building what we already have in our current tram network up there not speculative routes out to the middle suburbs...

Springvale road even taking into account Clayton/Monash/Glenny/nunawading is 16km (ie longer than route 96) just without a CBD level job or residential hub. (Monash employment centre is low density and massive, basically same size as cbd+docklands+southbank+Parkville/Carlton) putting one light rail through doesnt make it the anchor needed for a route north/south along springy or East out to Rowville... Maybe it does west somewhere. 2-3 stops in Monash/oakleigh/chadstone/Caulfield(or camberwell). Even then probably a stretch.
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johnproctor
^ same argument stands but insert 'invest in our embarrassing bus network' instead of tram network.

Run bus lanes on Springvale road. Run 5 minute frequencies (not 15). Remove half to 1/3rd the stops. Make the stops better than a flag and the major stops better than a flag with a shelter... Why don't Monash/glen Waverley/oakleigh interchanges have waiting areas, ticket machines etc?

Same goes for Rowville route. Widen the Wellington road bridge to provide bus lanes on that missing section if we really think it's a service that supposedly justifies a billion+ dollar light rail or a multi billion dollar railway.
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Aussie Steve's picture
I am not too sure about all the proposals. Some look great on paper, but in reality would work and could be better served with a better bus service.

There is really no need to extend the #8 nor #6 tram. They both function well and end at a good location and the geography of the hills would be a major issue I think for the trams.

The creation of a Burke Road north-south tram is an excellent proposal as is extended the #3 tram to Malvern East station (not Chadstone); the #11 tram to Reservoir Station; the #57 tram to Avondale Heights; and the #48 tram to Doncaster (not Nunawading).
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Adam Ford's picture
And Mr Proctor is on the money. The entire NETWORK would be more efficient if even the handful of lights on Swanston were capable of sensing when they had a tram waiting there.
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Adam Ford's picture
Interchange with modes might b de riguer in the inner city, but it most definitely isn't in the suburbs, though you could say that forParis too.

TRam speeds are an issue for the whole network now. You don't need to extrapolate too much the current trends before they hit unusable territory. It took me half an hour to get from Bourke and Swanston to Brunswick Street last Friday by tram because mostly of loading/unloading. The Free tram Zone is the worst idea in public policy basically ever. f
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