Myth: Trains and trams are obsolete and should be replaced with Maglev / Light Rail / Monorails / Trolley buses / this year’s trendy technology
Fact: In the 1960s it was popular to think new technology would solve every problem. In the case of transport systems at least, the technology has failed to live up to the promise. Just as a humble Corolla will get you to the shops every day just as readily as a rally-bred Ferrari, so the attractiveness of public transport for day-to-day travel has everything to do with service levels and very little to do with how much technical prowess it demonstrates.

That old aphorism, “Technology is the answer, now what was the question again?” could have been coined specifically for application to urban transport systems. Scarcely a year passes when we are not treated to special features in the mass media on some fascinating new mass transport technology. In the sixties it was flying cars, monorails and automated people-movers: today it’s wireless light rail, Very Fast Trains, magnetic levitation, guided busways, trackless trams, satellite tracking and smartcards. All too often these ‘gadgetbahn’ fads are fuelled by our very own transport planning bureaucracy, which touts them as magic solutions to attract people to public transport.

The continued obsession of public transport planners both here and elsewhere with trendy new technologies may simply reflect the dominant influence of engineers within the profession. It is an engineer’s job to understand and develop technology, and there is no question that the sensible application of new technology can sometimes make it easier to get around on public transport. But planning a transport system generally requires a quite different set of skills: skills that are all too frequently ignored in the rush to keep up with the latest technological marvel. Too often the emphasis is on technological inputs to the system, rather than the outputs that matter to passengers.

Case Study: The SmartBus Saga

In Melbourne, there are many suburbs that for decades lacked any kind of public transport service on Sundays, while many more suffered from bus services running at Kafkaesque 70-minute frequencies that no-one with a choice ever considered using. To remedy this situation would have only required some old-fashioned planning skills and a little funding (which could come from savings made elsewhere in the transport portfolio, that those same old-fashioned planning skills would identify). Only in the late 2000s did the government take some tiny steps towards introducing Sunday bus services in many of these suburbs. But even these mostly run at 60-minute frequencies, providing no alternative to anyone with a car in the driveway.

More encouragingly, the handful of orbital SmartBus services and other rapid bus initiatives (like the 900 Caulfield to Rowville service) have contributed to substantial increases in suburban bus patronage since being introduced in that brief period of reform in the late 2000s.

But it didn’t start out this way. A large part of the reason the planning bureaucracy continued dropping the ball on provision of decent local bus services between 2000 and 2006 is it was distracted spending millions of dollars on its original high-tech, high-cost, low-relevance idea for a ‘SmartBus’. This involved satellite-tracking systems with real-time information displays on a very small number of limited-hours routes that probably didn’t include your suburb—and critically, didn’t get any service improvements to match the gadgetry. Even years after being installed, those fancy displays were still less useful than a plain old paper timetable.

I rang the Met to see how I’d get there. After a 3 minute 45 second wait on hold I got through to a consultant. With the help of my Melway, I advised the consultant that Bus 888 seemed to connect Nunawading and Glen Waverley stations (there is also an 889 but I missed this and she didn’t mention that to me or give me the times for it). Consequently, I thought the buses only went every 30 minutes and got a cab to the appointment. On my return journey I walked to the bus stop, gazed at the electronic sign (blank) and pressed the pedestrian crossing style button (it doesn’t say to press it) – still blank. So I did the old fashioned thing and read the timetable on the stop post and discovered the 15 minute frequency.

Why is this post 20 metres from the electronic sign? Why is the electronic sign so tall? Why don’t they work? Are the electronic signs yet to be operational? [Actually, they were installed in 2002.] They were blank at all the stops….Why is this called a Smartbus anyway?

—Message to the PTUA from Martin, a frustrated bus user, June 2005

In November 2005 the original Smartbus displays, after a history of continual malfunctions, were switched off and a software redesign took place at a cost of $5.6 million. It turned out the new software would be incompatible with the existing signs, and as a result dozens of electronic signs were scrapped, with not so much as a replacement paper timetable to tell people when the next bus would run.

In March 2006, project coordinator Geoff Newbegin told the Oakleigh Monash Leader the electronic signs would cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars to replace. The result: more millions down the drain, that could otherwise have been spent on evening and weekend bus services.

Mr Newbegin said the substitute software, coming online in June, would be used on new SmartBus services Melbourne-wide. Weekly bus user Doug Newberry said the system was up the creek and the display units should be chopped down and paper timetables put up at the shelter.

Oakleigh Monash Leader, 6 March 2006

Commuters waiting at SmartBus stops were supposed to be given up-to-the minute arrival times based on satellite tracking of traffic conditions and buses. But technology failures meant SmartBus information signs have been almost permanently switched off. Next year the Government will introduce hi-tech Smart Cards that allow bus, train and tram passengers to use electronically imprinted plastic cards to pay for travel. Who would bet it won’t be another expensive and misnamed debacle?

—Editorial, Herald Sun, 24 March 2006

The rejigged SmartBus signs remain in place, and now do a passably good job of indicating the next bus departures. In other respects, however, they have become even less useful. At Bentleigh, the electronic signs used to display information for connecting train departures, but they no longer do so: the Next train display (taking up half the area of the sign) is permanently blank.

But as noted at the outset, there was a happy-ish ending to this story. In response to public criticism and lobbying by the PTUA, the government eventually shifted its Smartbus focus away from electronic signs and toward the things that really matter: higher frequencies, and service until later in the evening. The current ‘SmartBus standard’ is service every 15 minutes until at least 9pm (albeit not every service labelled a SmartBus actually meets this standard). For this, SmartBuses have been rewarded with rapidly increasing patronage—more than enough to cover costs—which the signs by themselves failed to deliver. There is a lesson here that matches the experience in other cities.

International Success Stories: No Fancy Gadgets, Just Good Planning

If bus services were frequent and reliable there would be no point to having real-time information, as one could simply turn up knowing that a bus will arrive within a few minutes. At best, real-time information might be just a nice add-on, like TramTracker on the tram system, rather than something you do instead of fixing up the service. This is the attitude taken in Toronto, where bus patronage is an order of magnitude higher than in Melbourne, though there are no real-time displays. Toronto is in fact so technologically backward, public transport-wise, that until well into this century it still ran trains similar to the blue ‘Harris’ cars that Melbourne stopped using around 1980. Nonetheless, those old trains carried three times as many passengers as the San Francisco BART, a ‘space age’ mass-transit system that is not only larger than the Toronto system, but also serves an area with a higher population.

The city of Zurich has some of the most successful public transport in the world. Yet it has no Maglev, no O-Bahn, no monorails and no ultra-high-speed trains. This is not for want of trying by the city engineers: in 1962 they floated a proposal to put the main tram lines underground and replace the rest with ‘space age’ buses; in 1973 there was a similar proposal for a new metro system, not unlike the BART which dates from the same period. As both proposals were defeated by referendum, this required the planners to find another way to make trams run efficiently in city streets. Their solution was to systematically remove all impediments to the movement of trams, through such mundane measures as adjusting traffic light sequences, installing concrete kerbs between tram and car lanes, and declaring turn bans at certain intersections. The measures were so successful that they are now employed in a large number of European cities.

Another Swiss invention is the ‘pulse timetable’, where inter-city trains converge on a single location five minutes before the hour and depart for other locations at five minutes past the hour, allowing anyone to transfer from any service to any other in just ten minutes. No fancy technology is required, just a few planners with a brain between them.

Transport planner Paul Mees summed up the shift which took place from the big capital-works projects of the 1960s to the more subtle planning interventions that have made public transport successful in cities like Toronto and Zurich:

The boundless technological optimism of the 1960s saw breathless predictions of the imminent invention of new forms of public transport that would enable the limitations of older modes to be overcome. Monorails, dial-a-bus and networks of automated individual capsules running on elevated tracks were earnestly discussed and promoted. But these new technologies came to nothing, just like the visions of electronically controlled cars speeding effortlessly along automated freeways. The television show ‘The Jetsons’ never made the anticipated transition from comedy to documentary. The demise of the optimism of the 1960s can be charted through the three editions of Brian Richards’ book Transport in Cities. The first edition, published in 1966, is a catalogue of monorails, people movers and other gadgets; the third edition, published in 1990, talks about traffic calming, pedestrianisation and timed-transfer networks. The focus has shifted from engineering to planning.

—Mees, A Very Public Solution, p.79

The Pitfalls of Too Much Technology

Perhaps if there were a bottomless pit of money to spend on public transport infrastructure and services, our planners’ obsession with costly technological ‘solutions’ would be harmless enough. Unfortunately, the technological approach often leads to a destructive conflict between transport modes, as supporters of rival technologies compete for planners’ attention.

In Brisbane, for example, the planning orthodoxy from the 1990s onward supports busways because these are thought to be an ‘optimal’ public transport technology. The first of these to be built was the South East Busway, which runs parallel to an existing railway line and actually runs for part of its length on land released by tearing up one of the tracks on this line. Trains in Brisbane are underused for the same reason as trains in Melbourne, because of the lack of feeder bus services to railway stations. Buses that could be feeding people to a faster, higher-capacity rail system are instead taking people on parallel routes all the way into the city, because of the attitude in planning circles that trains and buses are somehow in competition with one another instead of capable of forming a network.

There are huge levels of rail infrastructure within Brisbane that are not put to good use due to poor frequency, poor interchange facilities and bottlenecks on train lines…. If the South East Busway were operated only two buses per hour and buses were confined to go only up and down the busway with no services feeding into it, there would be uproar and patronage rock bottom. But this is exactly how South East Queensland’s train system is being operated.

—Reader comment to Brisbane Times, 4 May 2011

In no Australian city, however, are suburban trains as underused and neglected as in Adelaide, which has for some time held the title of Australia’s most car-dominated capital city. In part this is due to Adelaide’s 1980s experiment with another pet technology, the ‘O-Bahn’ guided busway. The O-Bahn technology was imported from the German city of Essen, where it was invented in order to allow buses to share existing tramway tunnels, and has yet to be replicated anywhere else (although other incompatible guided busway technologies are in use in Japan and the UK, and share many of the O-Bahn’s drawbacks).

According to official sources, the dozen or so Adelaide O-Bahn routes together carry around 7 million passengers a year—equivalent to the average for just one of Melbourne’s two dozen inner-city tram routes. However, even this modest level of patronage is significantly greater than for any other public transport service in Adelaide, leading to the impression that the O-Bahn is ‘successful’, even if by world standards it is middling at best.

Like Melbourne, Adelaide has the urban geography and a large part of the established infrastructure necessary to support vastly improved public transport, based on a seamless network of train and bus services. New technology could also play a part where it is appropriate, cost-effective and fulfils a clear need. However, Adelaide’s O-Bahn exemplifies most of the pitfalls that can arise when adopting ‘novelty’ technologies like trackless trams, monorails and Maglev trains:

  • Cost. Despite being promoted as a low-cost alternative to ‘heavy’ rail, the O-Bahn probably cost at least as much to build as a straightforward extension of the existing train network. The O-Bahn opened in 1985 at a cost of $98 million for 12km of busway and bus fleet. The original Northern Suburbs line in Perth opened in 1991; it was nearly three times as long (33km) but cost only a little more than twice as much ($230 million) to build and stock with trains. Allowing for the 50% inflation in prices during the 1980s, this makes the Northern Suburbs line much cheaper in real terms. (It’s been pointed out that the cost of the O-Bahn was also inflated due to the unfortunate choice of route along a former freeway reservation, which ensured it has to run on an elevated concrete structure for most of its length. Nonetheless, there is no evidence to suggest that a train line on a similar structure would have been any more costly.)
  • Compatibility. The O-Bahn is a standalone system, with a unique vehicle design. It therefore can’t be retrofit to connect into the existing train network or to Adelaide’s residual tram lines. It also requires dedicated repair and maintenance facilities (which accounted for much of the high upfront cost), is tied to a single supplier for vehicles and parts, and for many years suffered (as did Essen) from an aging bus fleet due to the relative unavailability of new buses. All this adds up to high operating costs, as well as capital costs: new buses were bought in the 2010s for $750,000 each, about 25% more than the typical cost of a conventional bus. The system is poorly integrated with the rest of the public transport network, and lacks priority for buses at the city end, resulting in longer travel times compared with what a conventional train line could achieve.
  • Capacity. The theoretical capacity of the O-Bahn is 18,000 passengers per hour in each direction, compared with 30,000 per hour for a train line. (The capacity of the services that currently run on the O-Bahn is about 2,000 passengers per hour.)

Much the same observations applied to the ill-fated 3.6km Sydney monorail. This was built in 1988 at a cost of $70 million (or $20 million per km, three times as much as Perth’s Northern Suburbs railway), and catered primarily to tourists, with a carrying capacity less than Melbourne’s trams. Ever since 1998 when the original operator decided to sell up, there were calls to dismantle it due to the unsightly nature of the elevated rail. It was eventually acquired by the NSW Government and decommissioned in 2013.

Brisbane’s busways, to be fair, are relatively low-tech. They use ordinary buses and don’t rely on specialised technology. But even they, like the O-Bahn and the Sydney monorail, have not lived up to their claim to be a low-cost alternative to rail (which they are largely duplicating). For example, the 4.5 kilometre, $30 million mid-2000s extension of the South East Busway to Springwood had a slightly higher cost per kilometre ($7 million) than the suburban portion of the Mandurah railway built at the same time in Perth ($6 million). The first section of the Eastern Busway, meanwhile, was a 1km tunnel that cost $465 million, and whose entrance is less than 1km from the nearest station on the parallel train line. For less than $10 million worth of well-designed interchange facilities, buses from the eastern suburbs could have coordinated with the train network instead, saving over $400 million in the process.

Conclusion: No Technology is ‘Optimal’

Vukan Vuchic, Professor of Urban Transportation at the University of Pennsylvania, observed that there is no one optimal public transport technology. Rather:

[In most large cities] the optimal transportation system should consist of several complementary modes coordinated in a single multimodal system.

—Vuchic, Urban Public Transportation, p.102

A telling contemporary example is Curitiba in Brazil. For many years, Curitiba’s popular high-capacity ‘bus metro’ has been touted as a living example of the ‘optimality’ of buses and their superiority over rail as efficient mass transport. But since the 2010s Curitiba has been planning to convert its central core bus services to rail, with a 2014 tender putting the cost at $680 million. Buses are a very successful mode of transport in Curitiba, but as the city continues to grow, a multimodal system becomes more compelling.

The transport needs of ordinary people in cities are best met by well-planned public transport services that build on what already exists. New technology can help improve the speed and efficiency of these services, but one must never lose sight of the need to apply good planning skills to the technology in order to make it work for passengers.

As I once said myself when visiting a sprawling western U.S. city, if the dazzling trip planning app on my smart phone has attractive graphics and fonts but tells me the next bus isn’t coming for another 45 minutes and will eventually drop me on an arterial without a sidewalk, two miles from my ultimate destination, the fancy information technology and an unlimited electronic fare card [isn’t] going to entice me to choose transit.

—David Bragdon, For Transit’s Sake, TransitCenter, 3 March 2014

It is Thursday and my 66th birthday. I have an early business appointment in Melbourne…. I decide to take the train. I make a commitment to be early enough at the station to buy my Metcard, but Connex does not keep its commitment, the 7.29 has taken a sickie…. I arrive late for my appointment, one hour and 20 minutes after I left home. Later in the day…. I arrive at Windsor station, but the scheduled train is also on a sickie. A conveyance eventually arrives…. I stand all the way. I eventually get off and walk home in the dusk, dispirited, remembering a bygone era of wooden trains painted red that always ran on time and were never cancelled.

—Graeme Madigan (Brighton), The Age, 28 April 2008

Last modified: 15 November 2021