Wham Tram Thank You Ma'am - Have the Greens jumped the shark again?

Ah, the Greens. Like your well meaning Nanna who still gives you a Freddo Frog every time you see her, they mean well but... they just don't get it.

While their commitment to better public transport can't be faltered, it seems they have the economic sense of Greece. It's this complete lack of financial responsibility that led them to come up with this gem last week: Connecting Melbourne's Trams.

To be fair, much of this plan isn't the most crazy idea bandied about in Melbourne's transport planning sphere. That prize is reserved for the Public Transport Users Association's 1991 plan to build a heavy rail spur line to Princes Park, to cater for those millions of fans that used to turn up to watch Fitzroy play the Brisbane Bears and thus couldn't fit on the tram that stopped right outside the ground.

Now there's no denying our tram network needs some love, it is something I have spoken about before. However with money for transport projects becoming thinner on the ground, we need to be very selective on where we spend that money. While the Metro Tunnel should be our first priority without a shadow of a doubt, its $9 billion price tag means we must think long and hard as to where the rest of the transport budget is spent. This means setting out a pipeline of projects, ensuring the cost is spread out over time, as well as providing a steady stream of jobs to build them.

In typical Greens fashion, they have thrown common sense out the window and decided it is a better idea to try and fix all our transport woes in one foul swoop; at least the ones involving trams. And so their tram plan was born; containing a collection of 15 different extensions at a cost of $840 million, a price tag that would make that much maligned spendthrift, the drunken sailor, weep tears of pain.

And unfortunately for this bag of mixed sweets, it contains more boiled lollies than it does chocolates.

$840 million may not sound humongous in light of today's infrastructure costs, however it does when it is being spent on lots of little projects that have an overall questionable benefit. Let's analyse some the best and worst suggestions. Inspired by my first viewing of the spaghetti western classic just last week, I have divided them into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good

1 - North Balwyn to Doncaster Hill

This actually makes sense which is why I can't understand why the Greens are backing it. For decades now they have been bleating about how a Doncaster heavy rail connection is the most important project in Melbourne, and now they are actually advocating a reasonable alternative. Or more likely, they are very unreasonably advocating we build both. Either way, this could be a winner. As building a Doncaster heavy rail link has many issues.

This could solve the problem of having a rail link to Doncaster, without the multi billion dollar price tag heavy rail would come with. One down side is the current 39 minute journey time from North Balwyn to the CBD. However with a project 96 style upgrade to light rail, the journey time could be significantly reduced.

2 - Highpoint to East Keilor

Given that Avondale Heights/East Keilor are currently not served by heavy or light rail, this would add some value. With no room for a heavy rail line, a grade separated light rail route down Milleara Road would service quite a large residential area much quicker than buses would in the peak. Another tick.

The Bad

1 - Footscray to Docklands and City

Right thoughts, right words, wrong action. I don't understand why you would run a tram down Footscray Road, not only is there no residents to service, it would also wreak havoc with the trucks going to the Port of Melbourne creating a recipe for disaster.

Beyond Footscray Rd, the tram would then need to turn right at the major truck intersection at the Docklands Highway, run down busy Whitehall Street, before having to turn at another major intersection at Dynon Road. Given the Port of Melbourne own land on both sides of Footscray Road, it would more than likely be vetoed as part of any long term lease deal anyway.

Surely it would make more sense to go from its current terminus in Docklands, run north through the soon to be new residential precinct E Gate, then along Dynon Road where it could eventually service the Dynon urban renewal precinct, sandwiched between the rail line and Dynon Road itself. No trucks impeded, while servicing two high density residential areas, how could the Greens have got something so basic so wrong?

2 - East Malvern to Chadstone

There's no doubt that a lack of a rail connection to Chadstone Shopping Centre is one of the great Melbourne planning oversights, however I don't know whether a tram link is the best answer. A tram line down heavily congested Warrigul Road would be a disaster, and there are already options for a heavy rail link from either Alamein or East Malvern that would be better equipped to deal with the numbers that frequent the shopping centre. The East Malvern option would even partially pay for itself by selling off land above the Glen Waverly Line.

The Ugly

1 - Bundoora RMIT to South Morang

Dear oh dear. The justification for this is that it will ease pressure on the much overcrowded South Morang Line. However with a journey time of over an hour already from Bundoora to the CBD, how much mode shift would we actually see if people could catch the tram instead of the train?

Childless couples could get on at South Morang and have three children ready to start school by the time the tram arrived at Bourke Street! This works out to be nothing but an extension to join the dots.

2 - Toorak to Camberwell Rd & North Melbourne to Richmond

I don't quite understand what the point of these are. This is the transport version of architect Jahn Gehl's 'Bird Sh*t Architecture' theory.

It is like someone went up in a chopper over Melbourne and said to themselves 'Wouldn't it be nice if those trams lines linked up and completed a pretty pattern?" Routes 8 & 75 already run to the CBD, while the 3.96 km gap is already serviced by route 72. The 1.2km gap in North Melbourne would save about 5 mins by not having to go via Peel and La Trobe Streets.

3 - Coburg to Gowrie Station

This extension merely hugs an existing low patronage heavy rail line. What is the point of this? It is fast becoming a case of quantity of ideas over quality...


Overall, the Greens proposal does contain a few good ideas. However they seem to have fallen into the trap of trying to flesh it out with too many bad or pointless ideas just to make it look comprehensive. Worse still the cost is just a random number.

With no business case, or even an estimated BCR to back it up, it is hard to justify any of the 15 proposals. There's also no explanation of how they arrived at an average cost of $15 million per km (see Alan Davies blog post on Crikey for a good summary on this point).

Trams are great for short to medium urban journeys as their hop on/hop off nature makes them ideal for trips in high density areas, and/or as connector/feeder services to heavy rail. Conversely, due to the increased number of stops, using them as a high patronage, long distance commuter service to the CBD fast becomes a case of diminishing returns. A concept that seems to have been completely ignored with the idea to extend to places like South Morang and Knox.

The Greens would be much better served to concentrate on getting up a few of the really good ideas, rather than a large series of average ones. But of course, they won't. Welcome to the planet that is the Greens, where populism outranks economic reality - every time!


Aenveigh's picture

Disappointed at the partisan view espoused here. It doesn't add to the analysis, which is unfortunately weak anyway - the tram extensions are generally not intended as single-seat journeys to the CBD, but to improve the 'network effect' and mostly act as feeder services to heavy rail stations (from where you would travel to the CBD). Indeed, the pilloried 86 extension has been lobbied for by the local group for exactly that purpose - not as an alternative means of travelling to the CBD.
The 'pretty pattern' of joining the dots in fact closes gaps in the network, and therefore represents regions of enhanced mobility. The fact that some extensions are likely more beneficial than others has already been covered effectively by The Urbanist -

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gobillino's picture

True, I think that part of the rationale driving this plan is around feeder opportunities into the established heavy rail network, but the Greens plan almost completely ignores that fact that many of these feeder opportunities exist currently in the form of buses. There's absolutely nothing in the plan to demonstrate why tram is superior to bus in providing this complementary network. Still I do think that a few of the extensions make sense, and was very surprised to see Martin deride the North Melbourne to North Richmond link - One of those that I think makes the most sense. It might not be specifically why the Greens are advocating this connection, but based on future land use, and the opportunities to simplify the operation of the network, this one ticks a lot of boxes. Dismissing it on the basis that those areas are already serviced by a series of relatively inefficient routes misses the point. In terms of supporting continuing development and land use change in this area, higher capacity direct light rail is a no brainer. I think you've applied your suburban network connections thinking to a very urban context on this one.

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James Adams's picture

No doubt many (most) of The Greens' suggestions are ridiculous in a time when Governments need to be financially mindful. But I think I'd disagree with your rationale of which are worthwhile and pointless.

The proposed connections in Victoria St, North Melbourne are to create a new east-west route, in a similar manner to how Route 78 operates in Chapel/Church St. I think it's ridiculous that North Melbourne Station isn't actually connected to the North Melbourne shops at all (no, not even a bus). It would connect all the inner-northern fringes of the city, a bit like the orbital SmartBuses, but a bus in this case is unreasonable when nearly the whole route already has rail!

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johnproctor's picture

I agree to a certain extent re: partisan nature of this article and the 'vibe' of some discussion on the site. in a general sense I think the site needs to consider better managing the tone of some articles if it is to become a serious industry hub. Also worth considering a 'social media policy' for your twitter feed as I'm not that interested in the owners view of Q&A every week particularly on issues not related to urban issues.

Re: this particular article - I don't agree with much.

Firstly and as referenced below one thing that isn't covered in this article at all is the lack of evidence base the greens have used or propose to use in evaluating their policy pre-delivery. This was discussed in Alan Davies Urbanist post.

I think the Doncaster tram extension might be something that people thinks makes sense as a 'at least we're giving you something' alternative to a rail link. I haven't seen any numbers either way to suggest its a good or bad idea. Although it may be a two way benefit with taking Balwyn people to Doncaster and Doncaster kids to the Kew Schools precinct. Of course there are a number of buses that already do that...

Why would you build 5.8km of track to Keilor East off the 57 when you could build say 2-3km of track from the Route 59 just before it crosses the Calder Fwy. And why would someone tram through Highpoint to work compared to a decent bus service on Buckley Street to Essendon Station? Does the costings inlcude a new bridge across the Maribyrnong at Cordite Road?

Footscray/Chadstone/Gowrie extenstions and the Toorak Rd from Route 8 to Route 75 agree with conclusions reached here (although again the Greens, the writer and myself are completely ill informed as to potential patronage on the extensions, costs, and alternatives available).

The Bundoora to South Morang discussion is an interesting one. I see it as similar to Doncaster in a way. Locally it might allow outer residents to have better access to the bundoora education/jobs/medical precinct. and could concievably with the right zoning and amenity work from Council lead to the area around South Morang station being a hub for that Bundoora area served by the tram link into Bundoora and a train link to the City and a Smartbus to the Airport - also close to Epping Hospital and Plaza. Case in point (including 'future tram stops'!)

Re: the Richmond to North Melbourne tram link. I think the response is a bit bizarre. our central city transport planning is still so hoddle grid centric. we've seen the success of the 401 bus route connecting North Melbourne Station to Parkville. Why wouldn't a similar (tram) route from North Melbourne Station to the northern edge of the city be successful? Why wouldn't growing residential populations across the northern edge of the city from Victoria Gardens/Collingwood/Fitzroy/CBD Annexe/Carlton/North Melbourne/West Melbourne not want to be connected east-west to all of those same destinations/jobs/education opportunities/services. Its frankly ridiculous how hard it is to get from Fitzroy to North Melbourne.

anyway a few random thoughts all backed up by zero analysis or factual information.

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Mark Baljak's picture

Let me chime with a few points John:

  • The article should have been tagged as an opinion piece rather than transport. That's my particular error.
  • In response to the Q&A comment we do extensive demographic research and like to think we understand our readers so the content is varied. Our topics are broad yet still specific to Melbourne and the urban experience/issues, we don't expect every reader to appreciate or even like every article; more a matter of personal taste and what you choose to read? I'm happy to be corrected on that one?
  • The social media policy suggestion - I won't speak for that aspect as I'm not a user but I will say we don't get remunerated for articles. If we did it would be made abundantly clear at the head of the article. That's what I gleaned from your initial comments.

As for your comments to today's article and in general - always worth reading! We'd like our transport section to be stronger but it's quite difficult getting those employed in the industry to offer their time and opinions due to a number of reasons. If ever you're in a position to write an article or two...

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Aussie Steve's picture

I too must add my 2cents worth here and say that some of what the Greens are proposing is excellent, whist others are questionable. The idea that all tram journeys from the suburbs lead to the CBD is now no longer true, and connecting people to existing transport services, such as the extension of the Bundoora tram to South Morang is a great one. Linking employment hubs is key to changing transport patterns in Melbourne.

There is clear need to prioritise the works and there are other inner city links that require further exploration to provide better links such as the proposed northern CBD east-west link along Victoria St/Pde and, dare I say, a continuation of the tram along Barkers Rd to service the highly populated school hub in northern Boroondara.

And stating that there are existing bus routs covering these proposed extension is not a good enough reason not to build them. Most people don’t want to change modes of transport where possible and providing key extension, such as the one proposed to Doncaster, is an excellent outcome as outlined by many above.

Clearly a good start by the Greens, and much better than the silence from the Liberal and Labour parties, but still not ideal not comprehensive.

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gobillino's picture

And stating that people don't like changing modes is not a good enough reason to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, without considering a whole raft of other priorities across the network. A $100M investment in a route 48 upgrade might see an uplift in 5-10% in patronage, and a $5M investment involving a restructure of bus routes, synchronisation of timetables, and better interchange facilities at the terminus (eg Vermont Sth to Knox) might achieve the same outcome, with $95M left to spend on other projects. I'm not saying it wouldn't be a worthwhile project, but it shouldn't be the default project that everyone assumes is necessary without any real evidence to substantiate that.

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Bilby's picture

"While their commitment to better public transport can't be faltered" ... it sounds like it can be faulted.

And, "In typical Greens fashion, they have thrown common sense out the window and decided it is a better idea to try and fix all our transport woes in one foul swoop". Perhaps it would be common sense to have a go at fixing PT in one fell swoop, though ...

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Riccardo's picture

I don't thinking is just the Greens who jumped the shark, the author of this piece has too.

The partisanship is unbecoming the site, but worse, his original premise is that the Libs are promising 9 big ones for the so-called metro, it will take all the money, that is the right thing, and people should therefore stop thinking about any additional spending.

All these are wrong. who said the so called metro is the right project, or even needed? That it should cost 9 bills? That 9 bills should be the some total of PT spending? Maybe the so-called metro shouldn't be built, which would imply, without justifying, that you could build lots of these little tram extensions.

If you shouldn't spend 9 bill, because its wasteful, and spend 2 bill on other wasteful projects...I guess you have not wasted 7 bill? Which is better you would think.

Plenty of the projects on the Greens list are crap including some suggested as not, but one on the so called ugly I think is a great project, and that is making Victoria to errol one long tram route.

Stop thinking the Hoddle Grid is the CBD. it is not!

The CBD stretches from Albert Park to Melbourne Cemetery, and from Hoddle St to the Bolte bridge.

A Victoria St tram would be just another CBD hop on hop off tram route, while the street itself should get the full 'capital city' zoning and let the buildings rip.

In the same vein there are projects missing from that list. Completing the park st tram route from domain to the bay, for the same reasons as for Vic. Let her rip. Fix Sturt St route and frequencies as well.

Once the CBD (correct definition) trams are fixed, I'd be happy if most of the rest of the network was ripped up. The silly ones like the desired for extension south eastern routes. Route 19 north of brunswick rd. Unless a street tramway has genuine high volume hop on hop off traffic, they are useless, and they are far too slow for commuter traffic.

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