Yesterday Judith Collins announced National’s Wellington transport policy. Amongst all the talk of tunnels and other road upgrades, one small thing that stood out to me was the mention of trackless
“We think bus priority and bus rapid transit offers much more flexibility for Wellington, and value for money. In time, that may mean trackless trams“.
It stood out to me for two reasons:
- It’s such a weirdly specific term, one that most people will never have heard of, that it seems odd to even include it, especially as it doesn’t really add anything to what they’re promising.
- It wasn’t the first time she had used it, saying something almost identical in her Auckland announcement.
“I am also announcing today that Phil Twyford’s Ghost Train will be replaced by rapid buses or trackless trams to Onehunga.“
As I wrote last week, it’s been frustrating to see different public transport modes becoming increasingly politicised. These different technologies are simply different tools each with their own strengths and weaknesses and shouldn’t be an ideological expression. Transport Spokesman Chris Bishop was quick to reply to me saying they’re not promising trackless trams but that just makes me wonder which segment of the community are they trying to signal by including it.
Putting aside the politics of it all, most people won’t have heard the term trackless trams before. So what are and how are they different from other transport modes?
The term “trackless trams” emerged about 2-3 years ago from China with the promise of delivering a light rail like experience without the need to build tracks. In reality it’s just the latest in a long line of ideas to repackage a combination existing bus technologies under the umbrella of a fancy/catchy name – in other words largely a marketing gimmick. This isn’t to say that they’re bad, but more that they’re not anything new or revolutionary. In essence trackless trams are electric, articulated (or double articulated), guided buses with a modern tram like appearance.
Let’s take a look at some of those features:
These are obviously fairly straightforward as we already have electric buses in New Zealand and we could certainly do with a lot more.
Articulated/bendy buses are something we’ve moved away from in recent years in favour double deckers. There are still some around, such as this operated by Bayes Coachlines.
Overseas double articulated buses exist such as this nearly 25m long trolleybus in Lausanne, Switzerland has just gone into operation just over a month ago to replace a system where a normal sized trolleybus towed around a second bus as a trailer. These buses also contain batteries to allow them to run some distance off wires.
Articulated buses have both advantages and disadvantages over double deckers, here are a few of them:
- By being a single level they can have more doors than a regular bus, thus allowing for faster boarding and alighting of passengers – if you’ve ever seen how long it takes for a loaded double decker arriving in the city centre to unload you’ll understand why this is useful.
- They can be configured for more metro style seating thus having significant capacity for standing passengers. The bus above is said to be able to hold about 225 passengers, more than twice that of a double decker.
- They don’t have issues with low ceiling heights like there are on double deckers.
- They take up more space, this is particularly an issue at bus stops, such as those in the city centre where there is limited space.
- As I understand it, the hinge that articulates the bus is more expensive to maintain.
- You don’t get as great of a view as you do from the top deck of a double decker.
Guided buses are something that have been around for some time and come in a variety of different forms.
Adelaide’s O-Bahn and the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway in the UK use concrete narrow concrete tracks with a side wall, and buses with a sideways facing guide wheel that is connected to the steering system to keep buses controlled.
Both Caen and Nancy in France had a system that used a small single track embedded in the road to guide it – though they can be driven off the track too. Like with the trackless tram, these proposals these were sold on the promise of being cheaper to install and operate however that hasn’t panned out and Caen are now replacing their system with full light rail.
Like the trackless tram, Rouen in France uses optical guidance, with cameras on the bus following lines painted on the road.
There are a few major concerns with many of these systems, such as:
- These systems can be unreliable and some have already been replaced, such as a magnetically guided busway in Eindhoven in the Netherlands.
- There are not many of these systems and they tend to use proprietary technology. This creates technology lock in to a single supplier and there’s no guarantee that supplier or technology will still exist when it comes time to replace the fleet. Compare that to normal buses or even light rail where there are multiple suppliers to choose from.
- Depending on the design of the road, when buses drive over exactly the same spot every time it can create rutting resulting in poorer ride quality and more expensive repairs.
- They still have a lower capacity per vehicle than with light rail meaning more of these buses need to be run to meet the same level of demand. More frequent buses are good but only to a point as after that benefits from things technologies like signal priority disappear.
The classic Wellesley Street bus sausage pic.twitter.com/WoOhA83QAM
— Liz Allen (@place_creative_) February 12, 2018
All of this means that it might not end up all that much cheaper over the long run.
Given they need a road to run on, one thing these buses can’t do is run on green tracks, though the Cambridgeshire example comes the closest.
Modern tram-like styling
This may seem like a minor point to some but buses that look more modern, and not a box on wheels, are likely to attract more passengers – there was a bit of this when double deckers first launched. One of the companies best known for this is Vanhool and like a tram or the trackless tram suggestion, even have a driving cab at each end.
Many of these features are what is proposed for the eventual Airport to Botany route.
So many of the ideas that fall into the “trackless tram” term are things that already exist and are in use around the world where they’re just called what they are, buses. Though there perhaps is some benefit in a name to describe higher-quality buses, much like how light rail is used to refer to higher quality trams – but in my view trackless trams isn’t it.
Perhaps what National need to be talking about is not the name but what their proposal enables. Talk about if they’re promising to build a dedicated route with modern vehicles, about what that will do for travel times, frequencies and reliability etc.