It may seem like I am at war with the concept of trackless trams. I’m not. The concept is perfectly fine, a positive development in the world of rapid transit. However, what does bother me is the way the new technology is being framed as a replacement for light rail, because, in doing so, a lot of misleading information is being touted about.
In some circumstances, it may be true that trackless trams could be a good alternative for light rail, I can certainly see that. However, how is this different from when bus rapid transit (BRT) has been seen as a suitable alternative to light rail in the past? So let’s go through the key arguments and see what is really going on here, but first…
What are trackless trams?
If you try to look for the “trackless trams” article on Wikipedia, it doesn’t exist. Instead, you get a list of four different types of long-existent bus technologies:
- A guided bus
- Rubber-tyred trams
- A trolleybus
- An autonomous articulated bus.
Now, that certainly doesn’t mean as a concept it doesn’t exist. It does, it was developed by CRRC Corporation in China. It is claimed that they are neither a tram nor a bus, combining the best of both worlds. Like a bus, it has rubber wheels and can, technically, run on any road surface. It is electric and can recharge at the end of the “line” in 10 minutes, or at intermittent stations for 30 seconds, but this is something that is not particular to this mode as this technology is also used on buses (currently being trialled in Wellington) and light rail (Newcastle, Australia). Where things get different is in terms of capacity, speed, and ride quality which is said to be of light rail quality as it utilises an “…autonomous optical guidance system, train-like bogies with double axles and special hydraulics and tyres” as claimed by Peter Newman of Curtin University in Western Australia (an institute that seems to be going on some sort of propaganda mission for trackless trams or “autonomous rail transit” as they call it).
So, basically, I agree somewhat that it seems to combine features of buses and light rail. That’s great! In essence, however, I can’t seem to get past the obvious problem that it is simply an improved form of BRT with (allegedly) better capacity and ride quality. Some BRT systems are already doing things like this anyway, with the use of buses that are bi-articulated and look like light rail vehicles, and that hasn’t really changed the dynamic of mode choice towards BRT and away from light rail by significant amounts. Far from being a new mode, it seems to be more of a specific application of BRT from a Chinese company. Is it really the “death” of rail?
What are the claimed benefits of trackless trams over light rail?
“The trackless tram costs around $6-$8 million per kilometre. And it can be put into a road system over a weekend.” – Peter Newman, Curtin University, WA
The cost claims are the first problem I encountered with trackless trams. Why? Because it doesn’t describe “like for like”. Put it this way. If I said that over a particular route we could build light rail, with full right-of-way, with proper stations and priority measures at intersections, or we could simply paint lines on the road for a bus to follow, and claim it as the same thing, you’d know I was full of it. The latter simply isn’t rapid transit.
For trackless trams to work as rapid transit you need significant infrastructure improvements, just as if you are to develop proper BRT and avoid “bus creep“. And those improvements cost money. A lot of it. Otherwise you simply have a bigger bus. The cost claim worries me because it appears to be a very targeted deception. Yes, if we are to compare painting a line on the road for trackless trams to follow, and laying rail in the ground, then trackless trams will be a lot cheaper.
However, rapid transit is much more than that. Regardless of mode, you need to ensure a right-of-way, segregate it from road traffic, put in priority measures, build proper facilities, such as stations, to handle passengers and so on. One of the claims by Peter Newman and others, however, is that trackless trams can pretty much run on any road surface with light rail quality ride, and don’t damage road surfaces over the long term like buses do. This is rather convenient because it implies that you don’t have to put much effort into a dedicated right-of-way to get a high quality ride, therefore legitimising the lower cost claims on a like-for-like (well, sort of). I remain dubious about that claim, especially considering that it is dependent on road space being available to easily convert in the first place. In any case, I don’t think that you can truly avoid disruption or cost in developing trackless trams to the same standard of service as BRT or light rail, at least not along an entire route.
Relevance to New Zealand
Recently, rapid transit has been discussed in Wellington and Christchurch, while light rail is planned on two corridors in Auckland. Marie Verschuer, a trackless trams expert from Curtin University, recently visited Wellington and claimed that the city would be perfect for trackless trams. Her chief claims were cost, the ability of trackless trams to deviate around accidents, and the idea of rails being last century technology.
“It can be implemented easily without the disruption to your businesses while you’re doing it …you just paint the lines on the road…” – Marie Verschuer, Curtin University
The cost claims, again, concerns me most, as it is a tremendous oversimplification. For a start, Wellington does not have huge, wide, boulevards that can simply have a bit of paint applied to create a trackless rapid transit corridor, without need for a serious rethink and reconstruction of the road layout. Even if it did, rapid transit is supposed to allow you to rethink the way entire transport systems and environments operate. You may not want to just paint lines on a road, you may want to change how the entire road space is used; that’s the benefit of rapid transit. The claims relating to cost ignore all of this, isolating the expenditure to one thing; the need, or lack of need, to lay rails. There’s much, much more to it than that. Claiming that you simply need to paint lines on the road is, in my opinion, highly misleading.
Even more worryingly, it appears that Marie Verschuer actually recognises a need for further expenditure, even while touting the cost savings claims. According to the media story linked to above, she said that trackless trams would only be useful if if they were given dedicated space and priority at the lights. Quite true, but it changes the story immensely. Are these costs included? How much priority and dedicated right-of-way is needed? Wellington and Christchurch are looking at corridors with limited road space to manipulate, so if you have to rebuild that road space and/or purchase properties, what do the costs savings look like then? Remember, information on the northwest light rail project in Auckland illustrated that high quality BRT and light rail didn’t actually have a huge cost difference (see below).
The claims about trackless trams ability to deviate around disruptions or accidents is a tactic long used by BRT supporters over rail modes, so doesn’t surprise me. Apart from the fact that this feature isn’t the priority of rapid transit, it is also a hugely subjective point, depending on a lot of variables to even be remotely true, such as the nature of the “line” it operates on allowing the vehicles to do this. It’s simply not a factor that should carry such weight in the decision making process.
So are trackless trams a bad idea?
No, in general, not at all. My frustration is with the misleading claims relative to implementation versus light rail, but overall I don’t think trackless trams are a bad idea, they just have a place. People like Peter Newman and Marie Verschuer, for whatever reason, are pushing the concept like sales people; talking up the benefits and avoiding the context and detail that is crucial to making a well-informed decision. Like BRT and light rail, trackless trams will have their applications, and if a robust analysis proves they are the right fit in a given situation, then that’s great. The problem is when a particular approach is pushed using half-truths and manipulated data and information, simply to crowd out other approaches – for whatever reason. That’s not on, and can lead to support for ineffective or sub-par ideas being applied. There are no silver bullets, and it is always worth reminding yourself that it is in the interests of those pushing new technologies to claim it is so.
Don’t just take my word for it. There is a lot of concern about the “hype” for trackless trams. Check out this article for some further clarification around trackless trams.