Categorising the Melbourne tram network by environment

Melbourne’s tram network is one of the biggest in the world, with 24 routes traversing 250 kilometres of track, dating back over a century, and progressively extended and upgraded in the years since.

Today the challenge is to keep services moving despite increasing traffic congestion, carrying more passengers than ever before, while meeting new accessible transport standards. This is difficult activity given no two parts of the network are the same – so how can the Melbourne tram network be categorised by the environment they runs through?

Z3.202 headed north on Swanston and Flinders Street

Exploring the network

Melbourne trams pass through the CBD streets, stuck at traffic lights and mixing it with clueless motorists performing u-turns over the tracks.

C.3005 westbound on route 109 stuck at the Collins and Queen Street traffic lights

They run down the middle of roads on the edge of the city, separated from cars.

Z3.150 northbound on route 55 on Flemington Road at Gatehouse Street

Along tree lined boulevards.

D2.5002 northbound on route 19 crosses the former Inner Circle railway bridge on Royal Parade

They run though suburban shopping strips.

Z2.101 snaking through the kink in High Street at Northcote

Pedestrians darting between shops.

SW6.896 trundles south on Chapel Street with a route 78 service

Lined with parked cars.

Z3.198 running a citybound route 57 service on Union Road, Ascot Vale

With a single stopped car enough to delay multiple trams.

D2.5007 leads a trio of northbound route 19 trams stuck in traffic on Sydney Road, Coburg

They trundle along residential streets.

B2.2008 approaches the former Hawthorn Depot, with a citybound route 75 service on Riversdale Road

But cars are never far away.

Moving slower than walking pace, Z3.150 still crawls east along Maribyrnong Road with a route 82 service

Other streets are lined with car yards and other ‘big box’ type retail outlets.

B2.2007 heads along Keilor Road in Niddrie with an outbound route 59 service

On rare occasions the tram tracks leave the road, running alongside the road.

Z3.200 returns to Moonee Ponds on route 82 near Highpoint

But running in the median strip is more common.

A1.232 heads west with a route 30 service along Victoria Parade

Sometimes trees give way to concrete.

B2.2010 climbs up Plenty Road towards Grimshaw Street in Bundoora with an inbound route 86 service

But trams still don’t have right of way at traffic lights.

Z3.227 heads east on route 64 at Dandenong and Hawthorn Roads

The sole exception being the former railway lines to Port Melbourne and St Kilda.

D2.5018 heads north on route 96 near Albert Park

Where the service is more ‘train’ than ‘tram’.

C.3013 arriving at the Graham Street stop

Classifying the network

Thankfully I didn’t need to explore the entire Melbourne tram network to classify the environments that it passes through – this 2008 report by SKM Maunsell/Evans & Peck did all of the work for me, with figure 2.20.

The legend is as follows:

  • Mix – shared on-street with other vehicles in mixed (residential, retail, commercial etc.) land use environment (eg. Commercial Road, Keilor Road, Droop Street)
  • Shopping strip – shared on-street with other vehicles in shopping strip (eg. Chapel Street, Glenhuntly Road, Sydney Road)
  • Residential – shared on-street with other vehicles in residential area (eg. Riversdale Road, Hawthorn Road, Melville Road)
  • Residential right of way – segregated track in road median in residential area (eg. St. Georges Road, Dandenong Road, Victoria Parade)
  • Priority light rail – grade-separated segregated track in former heavy rail reserve (eg. St. Kilda, Port Melbourne lines)
  • Light rail – segregated track in road reserve or parkland (eg. Plenty Road, Burwood Highway, Royal Park)
  • CBD – right of way in centre of road in CBD
  • Boulevard – right of way in centre of road (St. Kilda Road, Royal Parade, Flemington Road)

Problems – we’ve got loads

The report details the challenges facing the Melbourne tram network.

Tram stops are located at varying spacing along each route. Most stop intervals are between 200 and 500 metres, but in places they are less than 200 metres. Close stop spacing generally increases access to the system but reduces the average speed of the service, reducing the attractiveness of tram travel for passengers.

Most tram stops are not DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) compliant, although there is a program of platform stop implementation underway. DDA compliant stops provide level boarding, enabling easy access for everyone, including wheelchair users and mobility impaired passengers. Furthermore, platform stops are more popular with passengers on account of the improved access, safety and amenity afforded. Monitoring studies have found that stop dwell times have been reduced owing to quicker boarding and alighting times for passengers resulting from the removal of stepped access.

The tram rolling stock which currently serves the network varies widely in performance and capacity.

Service speeds are slow by world standards mainly because of the large proportion of shared running with other vehicles. Speeds average 16km/hr across the network, slowing to an average speed of 11km/hr in the CBD. The segregated sections of track achieve about 25km/hr, however this represents only a small portion of the network.

Reliability is a key issue for tram operations. The high degree of shared running with other road vehicles gives rise to many delays, which can be attributed to traffic signals or obstruction by other vehicles. Traffic congestion accounts for about 40% of tram running time. Modelling undertaken for DOI suggests that unless substantial improvements are made to tram priority and operation in the roads, tram speeds could fall by at least a further 8% by 2020 as a result of increasing road congestion. Tram operating costs will correspondingly increase.

As the tram network shares the road with other traffic, considerable delays to tram services are experienced where the demand for road space is high. These delays are exacerbated by the lengthy signal delays encountered at intersections crossing Alexandra Parade and Victoria Street.

But also details how a quality tram service builds patronage.

Work completed by the Department of Infrastructure highlighted that Route 96 along Nicholson Street has the highest patronage, possibly due to the fact that it offers the best relative journey times to the car in the corridor it serves, has a degree of separation from traffic and has rolling stock with greater passenger capacity.

Smith Street and Brunswick Street have lower tram speeds, reflecting the interaction and conflicts with traffic due to parking and right turning vehicles. However services using these routes have very high levels of patronage, suggesting that a substantial proportion of the people-moving task on these roads is performed by trams. Any works which assist in reducing the tram travel time on these roads would attract even more passengers.

And the moves being made in 2008 towards improving the system.

The ‘Think Tram’ initiative being managed by VicRoads involves the implementation of a series of priority measures across the tram network, with a stated aim of increasing tram service speeds. Measures include the implementation of physical separation devices, part time tram lanes, ‘T’ lights at intersections and traffic signal re-phasing. Recent part time tram lanes and associated signs have been installed in Fitzroy (Smith Street, Brunswick Street) and Balwyn (High Street, Doncaster Road).

The Think Tram program has had some success in giving trams greater priority; at a minimum it has enabled trams to maintain their travel times relative to growth in traffic congestion, as opposed to reducing travel times. The application of ITS technologies and the positive separation of tramway right-of-way from other road users, especially right turning vehicles, appear to offer the best solutions

A decade later, and unfortunately little has changed – the new low floor E class trams have allowed the retirement of a handful of remaining high floor W and Z1/Z2 class trams, and the rollout of platform stops across the network is slowly progressing, but improving tram priority is still in the ‘too hard’ basket.


The report I’ve quoted above is titled East West Needs Study: Transport Supply and Demand and was completed in 2008 report by SKM Maunsell/Evans & Peck. From the report preface.

The Victorian Government has appointed Sir Rod Eddington to lead a study into the need for an East-West Transport Link. The East-West Link Study Team supporting Sir Rod has commissioned Sinclair Knight Merz- Maunsell to undertake the Transport Planning Study forming part of the East-West Link Needs Assessment.

The purpose of the Transport Planning Study is to carry out a strategic evaluation of the existing and future mobility constraints for travel between the east and west of Melbourne and identify opportunities for a range of options to address future travel requirements.

Liked it? Take a second to support Marcus Wong on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!
You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

10 Responses to “Categorising the Melbourne tram network by environment”

  1. Beren Scott says:

    Number one get rid of all small trams, replace with long multi carriage trams. You cannot use teams during peak hour on st kilda road.

    Number two get rid of cars entering the city. Reduce the number of roads that cars can enter into the city, mostly roads without trams.

    Build better freeways around the city. East west tunnel, an above ground hoodle freeway.

    Extend some of the tram lines. Push the north coburg tram line all the way north up to craigieburn.

  2. David Stosser says:

    My first step was to split the “tram” network into a system of streetcars, for local and feeder trips no more than 15 minutes long but chained together, and a system of light rail for metro and commuter trips of up to 25 and 45 minutes long respectively.

    Those tiers require different average speeds, passenger comfort standards and stop spacing to work properly, which is related back to route alignment width – if the road is too thin and you want segregated running, then you have to sacrifice on-street parking, nature strips or through traffic lanes. Sometimes that will be justified, other times not so much; but the threshold seems to be whether a road is wider than 20.1168m (1 chain) or not, measured between private property boundaries.

    This is what I’ve come up with: – map – key

    I have only marked purple for the St Kilda Acland St area, but I think there are other chunks of the network that would also qualify.

  3. rohan storey says:

    Been thinking about this, because as you say not much has been done to speed up trams, apart from rationalising stops in some areas, and consequent separation from cars. I rekon the only characterisations that matter are whether the trams run on own right of way or not (or at least are unlikely to be held up by cars). Be interesting to see which spots slow trams the most – inner city shopping like brunswick street, or the long stretches of track in the middle burbs where there’s lots of traffic lights and cars queueing and any right turning car holds up a tram. The first probably always slow, the others slow at peak hours. Yes solutions seem ‘too hard’; how to separate tram from cars where there’s only really two lanes each direction ?

    First idea, hook turns everywhere ! So at least right turning cars wont hold up trams at intersections. Better than right turn lights, cos that makes the sequence longer, and you can still end up with right turners holding up trams. Second idea, remove parking within 100m of intersections, and a physical separation of tram track from the one line of traffic left, or maybe its two, as long as the tram stop is on the other side of the intersection, which means basically only one lane for traffic, after the intersection, but thats whats happening already – yes I know that traders screamed last time, and they would again, but if it happened, and more and longer and faster trams became a reality, well we’d probably all benefit. A load of people who still choose to drive from the middle / outer middle or further would be slowed, but with more faser trams maybe they’d switch !

    This sort of thing far more urgent than rebuilding punt road intersections.

  4. Alexander says:

    I’m still amazed by how little traffic light priority there is, given how much of a difference it would make and how (relatively) easily it could be implemented.

    There’s way too many places where a tram stops behind a line of cars 50m from the stop, waits a full light cycle, then moves forwards to the stop and waits another light cycle before departing. All it needs is for the tram to trigger the light cycle as it approaches, and then hold the light green until it departs.

    I’d like to see some major restrictions on car traffic in some of the more congested shopping strips too, currently places like Sydney road don’t work for anyone. One idea being tried in Toronto is requiring all cars to turn left at every cross street, preventing through traffic along the strip but retaining local access. I haven’t heard yet if it is successful or not.

  5. Jacob says:

    You forgot the 2005 removal of the tram overpass on Flinders St that allowed trams to go over cars (I think).

    Harbour Esplanade had the tram lines separated from the road and then the muppets moved the tram tracks to be in the median of the road.

    As for trams being caught behind cars turning right – the tram driver should be allowed to make the traffic light go green using an app on his phone.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      Tram priority at intersections is always a solved problem from technology front – trams have a transponder onboard that talks to the traffic light controller:

      Problem is that VicRoads ignore it, and run intersections to maximise the throughput of cars.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *