Friday, 25 March 2011

Down Under Tour 2011: ADELAIDE

Adelaide Trams

Adelaide boasts a single, but rather modern tram line, the only line that survived the general closure of the network in the 1950s, mainly because most of its alignment was on a separate right-of-way, except for the short section from South Terrace to its former city terminus at Victoria Square, as well as the westernmost section through the seaside suburb of Glenelg. This line was actually a steam railway before it was converted to tramway operation in 1929. Finally in the 2000s it was extended through the city centre proper to the Railway Station and North Terrace and eventually in a second stage to the so-called “Entertainment Centre” (which is not a cinema complex or something like that as I expected but a venue that's only used on certain days, so the last stop serves primarily a park-and-ride facility).

The original stretch was completely upgraded before new trams were introduced in around 2005 (the same Bombardier Flexity Classic model as used in Frankfurt/Main – S class there). The new sections are technically well-built, a reserved lane is available throughout, but operationally I would classify it as a complete failure. The trams spend almost more time waiting at traffic lights than actually travelling through the city, this makes the idea of a reserved lane almost obsolete. The concept of priority at traffic light for trams (and buses) is something unheard of, so each tram has to wait a full traffic light cycle to continue its journey, and traffic lights generally change very slowly all over Australia compared to most European cities (Vienna is a bit Australian in this). Between Railway Station and City West the planners were obviously forced by politicians to reduce the line for some 100 m to single-track, just to allow a separate lane for cars turning right into the Convention Centre parking! Outbound trams are forced to manouvre themselves over two sets of points which has to be done at some 5 km/h (we all know that Citadis trams don't like points at all....). This is a clear case that the reintroduction of trams is handled very half-heartedly by some who still believe that the car is king in the city!

The overall impression is therefore that the tram service is extremely slow through the city centre and walking is often the faster option, on the section beyond City West the travel speed increases, but again is “compensated” by long waits at intersections. Trams don't travel very fast either on the old Glenelg route, but intersections here have railway-like barriers so trams can proceed as they should. To avoid a busy intersection, an overpass with an elevated station was opened in 2010 at South Road, which is a quite pleasant station with lifts and rather steep stairs.

For the latest extension Adelaide acquired some of Madrid's superfluous metro ligero Citadis trams which are quite popular here. Except for the adverts on most vehicles, they basically maintain the Madrid livery with the typical red nose.

The stops have a modern appearance but lack equipment one would expect of a modern light rail line, like next-tram indicator. Instead, there is a full timetable displayed, which is rather hard to read. Generally during the day, trams run every 15 minutes between Entertainment Centre and Glenelg, with additional runs between West Terrace and South Terrace. Travelling on the line between Entertainment Centre and South Terrace is free! The island platforms of the busiest stops in the city centre are far too narrow, and for example at Rundle Mall (the city's pedestrianised shopping street), it takes a long time until people can actually get away from the platform due to the aforementioned long traffic light cycles. In some cases I observed that tram drivers don't open the doors until a tram in the opposite direction has come to a halt too, to avoid pushing over the platform edge!

So while a lot has been done in recent years to upgrade and extend the line, I think a lot more needs to be done to make it a more efficient and faster means of transport. The managers should take a trip to Melbourne to learn that things can be different, especially the exaggerated safety measures. More extensions have been proposed, but currently the upgrading and electrification of the railway network is given priority.

Adelaide Trains

The Adelaide suburban train network is some 20-30 years behind those in other Australian cities, but like the similar Auckland system, this is finally changing. At present mostly two-car diesel powered trains serve 6 branches all radiating from the terminal station located at the northern fringe of the city centre. The older Jumbo trains are proper DMUs, and they are loud and take a while to accelerate, whereas the newer stock is diesel-electric, and despite the noise they make they are almost like electric trains when it comes to acceleration. In fact, these are now being refurbished and most of them will be converted to full EMUs by 2013. In preparation for electrification, the Noarlunga Line is closed south of Oaklands station while the entire track is being renewed. As has already been done on the Outer Harbor Line and part of the Gawler Line, new concrete sleepers are being laid, which will allow the future re-gauging of the entire system from broad gauge (1600 mm) to standard gauge. New trains have been ordered from Bombardier, and these will also be ready for conversion to standard gauge at a later date.

The system has a strong suburban character, with busy peak-hour trains and quite empty trains during off-peak. The overall impression is that it is a slow system, but with one-person operation dwelling time at stations is short. Trains from the southern branches run around the western edge of the city before reaching the terminus, so in a next step a tunnel under King William Street would certainly be recommendable to create a through north-south axis penetrating the city centre directly (apparently someone else had proposed this in the 1930s). Passengers from the southern lines are not able to change to the tram line, despite Goodwood rail station being located right below the tram bridge across the tracks. So someone working in the Victoria Square area, for example, needs to take a long detour or take a long walk from Goodwood to the nearest tram stop. A proper network integration would certainly include a transfer station at this point.

Most railway stations have only very basic equipment, generally a busstop-like shelter and a busstop-type timetable post. Ticket-vending machines are located inside the trains. Some stations have been rebuilt in recent years, but while Oaklands and Hallett Cove are quite pleasant (although a simple concrete floor isn't really the most elegant style), I would vote the elevated Port Adelaide station the ugliest new station built in recent years worldwide. It sits on a beautiful historic viaduct, but the concrete/sheet-metal station will hopefully attract some graffiti soon to embellish it....:). Mawson Interchange has a similar style, but the lack of visual appeal is at least compensated by a cross-platform interchange between buses and inbound trains. As the system has a rather light-rail appearance anyway, with short trains and closely spaced stations, it might have been a better idea to completely convert it to light rail, maybe with some RegioCitadis-type rolling stock which support higher speeds on railway lines.

So while the development of a modern railway system has just been launched, Adelaide may be considered leader in fare integration in Australia. There is a single ticket for all modes, and only a single zone for the entire area which extends almost 100 km north-south. A day ticket costs AUD 8.60. Besides the free tram ride in the central zone there is also a free circular bus around the city centre. Tickets are of the smaller Paris/Madrid-type magnetic cards, but barriers only exist at Adelaide railway station – but there the access/exit barriers only check whether you have a ticket, and you are still supposed to validate it on the train!

What makes Adelaide unique in the worldwide transport scene, however, is its O-Bahn: this system was developed in the German city of Essen, and then copied nowhere else but in Adelaide. This type of busway consists of concrete beams with lateral guideways, so buses can run at a speed of up to 100 km/h over the 12 km grade-separated busway, which only includes two intermediate stations, so the perceived travel speed is indeed very high. The O-Bahn is used by numerous bus lines, some leaving the busway at the Paradise Interchange or continuing beyond the “terminus” at Tea Tree Plaza. The busway was built through a linear park along the Torrens River, and its visual impact is enormous, and in fact it is impossible to cross the “tracks”, unless there is a bridge or underpass. The major problem seems to be the fact that the O-Bahn starts some 2 km from the city centre, so a solution is being sought for the route along Hackney Road where the fast buses are now caught in traffic jams during peak hours. So while I'm normally not advocating bus-based transport, I have to admit that the O-Bahn is by far the fastest type of transport in Adelaide (and the ride at top speed is still pleasant!) and that it will be hard to convince people that a conversion to light rail might be a better option. The way the Glenelg tram is operated now it is hard to imagine that any kind of train would be able to travel at 100 km/h – and the buses take most passengers directly to their destination.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Tour Down Under 2011: SYDNEY Tram & Monorail

The reintroduction of trams in Sydney was rather an anecdotical event, as still today the only existing line is hardly present in the people's minds. It is not integrated with other transport modes, and for the short distance it travels, rather high fares are charged (the line is even divided into two fare zones!). It is certainly a good option for residents in Lilyfield and Glebe to get into the city centre, and for some visitors to go from the Central Station to the Convention Centre or Darling Harbour. Other destinations like Paddy's Market or Chinatown can easily be reached from the railway station on foot. The section actually newly built for the tram is quite short, the largest part being a disused freight line going to the former docklands. The stops have proper light rail platforms, but lack other standard elements like next-tram indicators (they only run every 12-15 minutes), ticket machines (they exist but are out of order and tickets are sold by an onboard conductor). There are two stations that are sort of underground, Pyrmont Bay and Star City, but both are not too pleasant, more like tram stops in the basement of a building. John Street Square stop lies in a deep cutting and like the neighbouring Fish Market is accessible via a lift or steep stairs. Most other stops are accessible via ramps, with passengers crossing the tracks. There are no level crossings for motorised traffic west of the point where the old freight line begins near the Paddy's Market stop. The line is planned to be extended along a still used freight line to Dulwich Hill, so there will be mixed service. There has been talk about extending it on the city end down to Circular Quay, but unless this is combined with a drastic reduction of buses running along George Street or Elizabeth Street, there is not much point in doing so. Even before the Dulwich extension, the existing line needs to be integrated into the overall transport network, then it can become the backbone for good transport in the inner western suburbs.

The tram is operated by Veolia as “Metro” light rail, and this company also runs the Sydney Monorail, which is a mere tourist attraction (and couldn't cope with normal passengers anyway in case it was integrated). The fact that a combined day ticket is available for tram and monorail and that both are shown on a joint “metro” map makes you think that the tram is also rather a tourist attraction.

Metro Transport (Light Rail & Monorail)

Much more useful as normal public transport than the tram are the frequent Sydney ferries, which are also very popular among tourists as unlike the tram they offer splendid views of the harbour, the Harbour Bridge, the Sydney Opera House and the city skyline. These are included in the MyMulti tickets or offer inexpensive single fares.

All in all, it appears that NSW politicians are far less convinced than their colleagues in Victoria that providing good public transport is not only a necessity but an essential element for a city which claims to have a high living standard. It is not enough to cover the basic needs, instead a lot more needs to be invested to convince people that living in a big city without a car can actually be possible.

Tour Down Under 2011: SYDNEY CityRail

CityRail can without doubt be classified as a MASS transit system, but it is certainly not a RAPID transit system. It is indeed one of the slowest rail systems I have ever been on. This must have been different some 6 years ago, before a new timetable was introduced in 2005, due to the regular delays registered prior to that. The new timetable, however, was so stretched that delays are virtually impossible, as speeds were reduced and time buffers were built into the timetable. While I have not observed any substantial delays during my two-week stay in Sydney, the negative side of this timetable is that each and every journey on CityRail appears to be an extremely slow adventure and requires a lot of patience.

This is one of the factors why I would say that in the often mentioned rivalry between Australia's two major cities, Melbourne and Sydney, in the field of urban transport, Melbourne beats Sydney by far. The Melbourne system appears much more modern and fast, despite the numerous level crossings, which in Sydney are rather the exception on some outer stretches. Although CityRail is a large system and one of the most complex railway systems I have seen, it leaves many areas of the metropolitan area without coverage, notably, the entire northwest, the northeast, as well as many parts of the southeast (which were initially meant to be served by several stations beyond Bondi Junction on the Eastern Suburbs Line). The northwestern area has been repeatedly on the agenda, last only a couple of years ago with the proposal of the Euro-style “North West Metro”, which shortly after was curtailed to become a “CBD Metro” only (which has also been forgotten after a few months). A rail line to the northeastern suburbs was only seriously considered when the Harbour Bridge was built in the 1930s, which had provisions for a second pair of suburban tracks on the eastern side, which were then used by trams for several years (and since by cars, of course...).

So while Melbourne's overall coverage is better, the suburban rail system there is complemented by a huge network of trams, a type of transport almost absent in Sydney. Instead one relies on the hundreds of bus routes, which like in most places are difficult to understand and many finish service at ridiculous times in the early evening. Even the newly introduced Metrobuses don't even run until midnight. So Iwas glad that my accommodation was within walking distance of a rail station. Bus maps for the Sydney Buses exist but are hard to find, and almost all date from 2009 and don't include the new Metrobuses. Most bus stops have only minimal information, although printed timetables are available and even have a route map for that line, which is quite useful when you are unfamiliar with the area. There are no annoucements within the buses. So once again I have to say that the bus system is far below from what one might expect from a world-class system.

Back to CityRail, I generally don't like double-deck carriages a lot, as they give you a very bad view of who is on the train, and with only two doors on each side, it also takes much longer for passengers to get off or board. Also, Sydneysiders seem to be a bit like Stockholmers, as they only get ready to get off once the train has come to a stop, instead of preparíng themselves before. This may be a result of the fact that they know that the train will be standing in the station for a while anyway, so why hurry? All trains have 3+2 perpendicular seating, but I don't like the 3-seat side at all. Mostly noone wants to sit in the middle seat, and it is generally empty or taken by a bag. Unfortunately I also observed that unless you claim this seat, it will never be offered to you by the bag's owner. It is also quite troublesome to get out of the window seat if both or just one of the other two seats are occupied, as these people have to stand up and actually get out into the narrow aisle to let you out. On the other hand, noone wants to stand in this narrow aisle neither upstairs nor downstairs. So, I think that Melbourne's choice for future 2+2 seating is generally better. Sydney has, however, one feature hardly found anywhere nowadays and quite popular (I only recall this type of seats from old suburban trains in Spain in the 1980s), and that's the possibility to flip the back support of all seats so that you can always sit in the direction of travel. Apparently when some Tangara trains came without this option, passengers claimed that and got it again on the latest Millennium trains.

Most trains, except on the Carlingford Line and Olympic Park shuttle operated as 200 m long double sets made of 8 cars. On all types it is possible to walk from one car to the other within a 4-car compound. While during off-peak you can find yourself sometimes the only passenger on a carriage, the trains get extremely packed during peak hours. Probably due to the length of these trains, they are operated with two staff, a driver and a guard in the middle (front cabin of second trainset). The guard watches the timetable and opens and closes the doors (and plays the “Doors closing – stand clear” message). Many stations also have a dispatcher on the platform, so all in all quite a lot of people employed. On newer trains stations are announced automatically, but on older the guard had to announce them. The cleanliness inside the trains is rather deficient, often litter is lying around and graffiti is also a little problem. Most trains have air conditioning, except the oldest which are unbearable on a hot summer day (which seem to be frequent in Sydney). I also hated these still numerous trains as they didn't allow me to actually look out of the window, as on the upper floor the windows are placed at a level where my elbow is. On the lower level you can only see other people's legs on the platform... The Tangaras offer a smooth ride but the air con doesn't always work perfectly and the windows are horrible, as they seem to be made of some plastic instead of glass and have long lost their full transparency. So my favourite ones are the Millenniums and their related type Oscar, which was actually designed for Intercity services, but some of them are also used on suburban lines. The newest series is the Waratah, but their introduction into passenger service has been delayed by many months now and I didn't get a chance to ride on them. I could only see one waiting in the maintainence yard at Auburn.

As said before, the CityRail network is very complex and probably is in urgent need of simplification, but this would require some substantial investment to separate different lines from each other and from other rail services such as “Intercity” trains (more like German RegionalExpress) and freight. There are also a few long-distance trains sharing the same tracks. The line that's most significantly separated from the rest is the Eastern Suburbs & Illawarra Line, which has at least hourly Intercitys on the South Coast Line and some freight also. Trains on this line leave Bondi Junction about every 10 minutes, 5 minutes during peak, and with several underground stations in the central area it appears to be the most metro-like line in Sydney. But not even on this line you could say that there is a train every 10 minutes at a certain station because like on all other lines CityRail operates a rather confusing stopping pattern, and even local rail fans told me that it is impossible to understand the pattern, not to talk about trying to represent that on a map or line scheme. So if you thought that the funny 4-letter train codes on the Paris RER are confusing, you'll appreciate that system next time you're in Paris. CityRail, however, has clear destination indicators on all platforms which show where the train is stopping. In fact, while you're waiting, you'll hear this announcement also acoustically every few minutes, unfortunately without telling you when the train will arrive (e.g. “The next train on platform 4 goes to Epping via Central stopping at xxx and then all stations to Epping.”). I believe that a clear and regular stopping pattern would help passengers and operation alike. Also adding route numbers like S1, S2 etc would be an extra help, especially as the current line names don't properly match the map, you still have to be careful and make sure your train stops at a certain station. Printed and posted timetables are readily available, but I do doubt that a normal passenger is capable of reading them properly. The official map is also a bit misleading when it comes to the City Loop, where trains do not terminate but continue on another line out to the western suburbs, generally Inner West Line becomes the Bankstown Line and the South Line becomes the East Hills Line and viceversa. Some way of depicting this would certainly be recommended, as for example passengers with luggage going to the airport would rather stay on the same train then change at Central, even if it takes some more time. Depicting the so-called Cumberland Line as a normal line on the map is also misleading as there are only 2-3 trains a day, depending on the direction. The single-track Carlingford Line only has a train every hour (this line was to be integrated into the Chatswood to Parramatta via Epping link, of which eventually only the eastern part was built), the Olympic Park Shuttle from Lidcombe runs every 10 minutes, with hourly trains directly to Central). At most of the other stations there is a train at least every 15 minutes in inner areas, and every 30 minutes on some outer sections, like Richmond (partly single-track) or Emu Plains.

Stations are generally in a good shape, many of the suburban stations preserve a small historic building on the platform, though often hidden behind modern canopies. Like in other Australian cities, most stations have acceptable toilets. In recent years, many stations were retrofitted with lifts to provide full accessibility (the door height of the trains matches more or less the platform, and for wheelchair users, the train guard can unfold a manual ramp located in a cupboard on each platform).

Sydney has quite a few underground stations, dating from different periods, from the classical 1920s St James and Museum stations (both look nice and are well-preserved, but the platforms are much too narrow for today's crowds!), to the 1930s stations built in conjunction with the Harbour Bridge crossing at Town Hall and Wynyard (the latter with a certain NYC Subway feel on the upper level); to the metro-like stations on the Eastern Suburbs Line completed in the 1970s (the worst-looking certainly that at Central, which requires some kind of modernisation, otherwise the stations are 70s style but still nice); to the badly designed 1990s stations on the AirportLink (narrow platforms, illogical accesses, and dim lighting!); to the newest deep-level stations between Chatswood and Epping, which boast spacious and pleasant caverns (probably my favourite Sydney station being Epping underground, with its twin tube platforms, the most metro-like station of all...). The station at Olympic Park opened for the 2000 Olympics is a covered three-track station in a trench with a very European design. The recently rebuilt Chatswood station is also a typical station you could find anywhere in Europe nowadays, with stainless steel, glass and concrete as the main elements, but with a few orange finishings it has a pleasant individual touch to it.

In 2010 the first steps were made towards and integrated fare system, but only very half-heartedly. For single journeys you still need to buy a separate ticket for buses and trains, whereas weekly and monthly tickets are available for all modes (including ferries, but not the tram, see separate post), a ticket called MyMulti and on sale for three different zones. Three zones includes the entire system operated under the CityRail label, which also covers the Intercity routes to Newcastle (170 km) or south to Kiama and beyond. A day pass for all zones is sold at 20 AUD, I had a weekly for 57 AUD. Unfortunately there are no day passes covering only zones 1+2, the typical area normal tourists would go, unless they plan a trip to the Blue Mountains. While I was here, the station access fee was finally abolished at Green Square and Mascot on the East Hills Line, two normal suburban stations on the privately built AirportLink, while the two airport stations still require an additional fare of some 11 AUD. Apparently there have been steps towards introducing a smartcard system, but this somehow failed and now there are useless posts at station entrances which were supposed to carry the card readers. Like in Melbourne or Brisbane, the CityRail system is an open system with proper ticket barriers only at major stations. I observed many people jumping the low gates and no staff did anything about it. So fare evasion must be a major problem, and during my two weeks my ticket was never checked by any inspector. Transit officers exist as I saw them sometimes on platforms but rather dealing with drunken passengers or so. MyMulti tickets, even if bought just for zone 1, are valid on any bus and ferry in the 3-zone region, but except Sydney Buses, bus operators in outer areas have no proper readers for the magnetic tickets, so they simply issue a zero fare paper ticket. So, many steps will have to be taken yet until a fully integrated system will be available (also one of the factors Melbourne is winning this battle...).

CityRail (Official Website)

TransportInfo (Trip Planner & Fare System)

CityRail at Wikipedia

CityRail at UrbanRail.Net