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Could trackless trams replace light rail?

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Quick to install, quiet and highly cost effective – trackless trams could significantly ease traffic congestion in Australia’s largest cities. That’s according to 2018 WA Scientist of the Year Professor Peter Newman AO, who is researching the new technology with a team of experts from the Sustainable Built Environment National Research Centre (SBEnrc).

Trackless trams are similar to light rail systems in their aerodynamic design and all-door boarding systems, but they have additional benefits.

Because they run on rubber tyres, trackless trams could theoretically be installed over a weekend, causing minimal disruption to local communities and businesses. In comparison, it can take months or even years to lay tracks for light rail systems and build overhead wires.

Trackless trams are quieter and more environmentally friendly, because they are powered by lithium ion batteries that can be recharged within 30 seconds at solar-powered stations or depots.

There is also potential to install a millimetre-accurate autonomous guidance system. This would increase the patronage capacity of a trackless tram service to 12,000–30,000 people per hour, per kilometre, on a single 50km/h lane – higher than light rail, which can carry 10,000–20,000 people per hour.

These benefits equate to significant cost savings for the trackless tram, with the researchers estimating construction costs at $6 million per kilometre for each set of three cars, plus a station. This is a major improvement over light rail systems, which the researchers estimate cost a minimum of $50 million per kilometre.

The research has received interest from prominent city councils, including the cities of Canning, Perth and Stirling, Town of Victoria Park, as well as local government areas based in Melbourne, Sydney and Townsville.

Cities in Africa, Europe and North America have also expressed their interest in the research.

Newman says the SBEnrc research team first learned about the technology when they began investigating the best options for developing an inner and middle suburban transport system in Perth.

Professor Peter Newman at the Curtin Hub for Immersive Visualisation
Curtin sustainability expert Professor Peter Newman is leading the push for trackless tram technology to ease Australia’s traffic congestion problems (photo: Sam Proctor).

“The trackless tram looks incredibly attractive as a technology breakthrough,” Newman says.

“We conducted economic analysis and transport analysis, as well as a series of workshops with stakeholders to determine our findings. We also travelled to Zhuzhou, China to try out their autonomous rail transit system, which would form the basis for trackless tram technology.”

New funding arrangements

Newman’s team is proposing an integrated land use model where private investors would fund the new trackless tram systems. Investors would determine the stations and transport corridors based on how they would benefit local communities and increase the nearby land’s value.

The investors would pay for land along the route, road preparations, construction of tram carriages, and even operate the system in that corridor ­­–­ sparing taxpayers most of the expense.

“We need to transition to more entrepreneurial approaches for delivering transport. This allows for more efficient use of the infrastructure, new sources of funding, a reduction in car dependency, and increase in economic growth and productivity,” explains research assistant, PhD student Sebastian Davies-Slate.

“The barriers to this model are institutional. There is a community expectation that transport will be delivered by government almost regardless of cost, essentially as a form of welfare. This prevents a market for urban transit developing in Australia.”

While the funding model goes against decades of Australian tradition of centralised government control of transport and land use planning, it isn’t a new concept, even in Perth.

The Nedlands Park and Osborne Park lines on Perth’s tramway network, which opened in 1899 and ceased operation in 1958, were funded by private investors who recognised the value in building real estate and recreational facilities along these routes.

A map of the Nedlands Park Tramway Estate and an old photo of tram in Hay Street
Nedlands Park Tramway Estate map (left) and passengers aboard the Bulwer Street tram in Hay Street, Perth (right) (sourced from the collections of the State Library of Western Australia and reproduced with the permission of the Library Board of Western Australia).

Similar models are used internationally. The privatisation of Japan National Railways in 1987 has led to decades of city building along major transit hubs. The Brightline rail system, which opened its Florida services between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach in 2018, was funded by Florida East Coast Industries – a real estate developer.

Looking to these examples and interest from SBEnrc’s local government partners, Newman is hopeful of progress in the near future.

“The integrated land use model should be trialled in Australia because it enables high-quality public transport to be built without government funding and urban regeneration to integrate with transit,” says Newman.

“Both goals are clearly wanted by everyone but they haven’t found out how to do it before.”

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