Train, tram, bus (Liamdavies/Wikipedia)

On a recent week-long business trip to Melbourne, Australia, I had the pleasure of attending a Twenty20 cricket match. I’m not a cricket die-hard. But as someone who’s coached youth baseball for a number of years, I’ve had to reflect a lot on its fundamentals. It was fascinating to see how minor and arbitrary choices in competition design take a game with similar athletic elements and turn it into something entirely different. It was an interesting meditation on what might have been had the designers of baseball been a little less imaginative.

For a Seattle resident, Melbourne’s transit system is also an exercise in alternate history. Melbourne has a lot of basic similarities to Seattle: about the same metro population, many immigrant groups, buildings from a 19th-century gold rush, a vertical Central Business District (currently a forest of cranes), and boundless single-family sprawl beyond. Admittedly, the topology is much less challenging.

But there were a series of midcentury decisions that turned out quite differently in Melbourne. Broadly speaking, Melbourne didn’t throw away its railroads when cars were the Next Big Thing. And so, the city is an outlier in several respects:

  • Having never torn up its streetcar system, Melbourne has the largest tram network in the world. Though usually given its own right-of-way, the system is large and complicated enough to feel much more like a bus network than a handful of carefully branded lines.
  • They didn’t gouge out chunks of downtown for freeways.
  • The city’s legacy railways mostly didn’t become trails — instead, they were electrified and now carry subway-style trains into far flung suburbs (there are also limited “V/Line” commuter rail lines with locomotives).

There have been no major new rail lines in Melbourne since World War II. Only now is the City working to expand capacity by building a new tunnel under downtown. This 5.6 mile, US$5 billion project will open in 2026.

Not much has changed in 70 years (Tonicthebrown/Wikipedia)
Melbourne’s Trams (not to scale)

Melbourne’s trams are roughly of the same scale as Seattle’s old streetcars, but with dedicated space where it most matters. For all the ink spilled in our domestic streetcar wars, it comes out as a mildly positive wash: somewhat smoother than a bus, a driver not delayed by rider questions, nicer stations, and every now and then disruption by a car blocking the box. Having quite so many lines actually erodes one of the advantages of American systems: it is sometimes hard to decipher just what tram is going to come, and where it will take you.

Public Transport Victoria is entirely cashless, requiring an A$6 (US$4.80) Myki card to board buses, trams, and trains. It is not appreciably easier to get or recharge than an ORCA card. Given all the angst over the ORCA fee, abolishing paper transfers, and cashlessness, it was amazing to see this in operation without much fuss. On the other hand, the burden for tourists is lightened by a ride-free area in the downtown core.

I saw a bunch of people on bikes in midsummer. I didn’t try to ride, but I’d put the infrastructure as similar to Seattle’s, with nice stretches of lanes and trails punctuated by frustrating gaps in the system. Melbourne’s bike share system is station based, which now feels hopelessly outdated to someone from Seattle, and is hamstrung by the same helmet law that plagues King County.

It’s hard not to be jealous of what Melbourne has for its transit. The infrastructure is there in comprehensive railways and dedicated tramways, and the bonds are long paid off. Downtown is rapidly accessible from anywhere, so that 80% of trips to there are by transit. Although many services are run by the private sector, it all falls under Public Transport Victoria, which coordinates operations in an integrated system. With no giant capital program to sell to the public, the downsides of this integration are minimal.

To someone raised on American sports, one of the most bizarre things about Cricket is that in many versions of the game, one team completes all of its scoring before the other gets a chance to “chase.” 30 years ago, Seattle had essentially no quality transit while Melbourne’s was extensive. I’m not sure we have enough wickets left to catch up.

43 Replies to “Transit Tourist: Melbourne”

  1. My husband was on that same business trip and my three-year-old son and I tagged along (because when else will we get to Australia?). We stopped in Sydney the week before, then flew to Melbourne for the meeting. Both cities were a breeze to navigate by rail. We thoroughly enjoyed not needing a car until our last day, when we drove to Philip Island. (If our son were older, we would have booked a tour there, but we wanted the option to drive around and get him to nap.) Our son, who is train-obsessed anyway, loved the trams and got very upset when I chose to walk a couple blocks instead of hopping on a tram. We pass the East Link construction sites almost every day, waiting until we get a tiny taste of what Melbourne has!

    1. As an American who lived in Sydney for three years, don’t tell Sydneysiders that their city is a breeze to navigate by rail; instead, people complain all the time about how awful their trains are. I could only laugh.

      1. Sydney’s train system is very good, but I can’t blame them for wanting to convert to a true Rapid Transit network. It was a bit frustrating running between platforms at Central Station just to get to the next train to Circular Quay.

  2. All is grand in Melbourne except for one major flaw and that is restrooms! Hard as hell to find a public facility. Even McDonalds lacked one. Also, their women have been woefully taught basketball wrong! There coffee shops are amazing though! Some of the best ones in the world.

    1. This might be a surprise, but Australia, the UK and NZ supermarkets, shops and stores typically don’t have rest rooms for customers to use. It was as much a surprise to me when I came to the US that everywhere has these!

    2. All is grand in Melbourne except for their gun violence. One major flaw, besides the restroom situations, of course…

  3. As tempting as is to go “if only we had our old streetcars”, it is important to realize that the old Seattle streetcars didn’t have more passengers capacity than today’s buses, nor did they carry more people, nor did they have dedicated right-of-way to get out of traffic (although, there was a lot less traffic, back then, to begin with). They were basically buses on rails.

    And, as to legacy rail corridors being converted to trails, how would people get around without the Burke-Gilman trail? Transit is important, but walking and biking corridors are too. And the Burke-Gilman trail is extremely well-used.

    1. Legacy rail corridors can be shared.
      Rail advocates have never said – “Use the corridors exclusively for rail.”

      Every rail corridor isn’t perfect for every transit use, but to completely ignore making use of these assets for any high capacity use is incredibly short sighted.

      1. Many of the legacy corridors, Burke Gilman included, were single track, which doesn’t allow for any train service that’s remotely frequent. Still plenty of room for a to-way bikeway, though.

      2. It all depends on how often you space your sidings and how reliable you make the timetable so that trains are able to meet at the scheduled siding. There are some pretty frequent single track lines in Europe.

    2. They had the right of way when they traveled in the center of the street, like San Francisco’s cable cars, or mainline trains at level crossings. They didn’t stop for cars and pedestrians: cars and pedestrians had to go around them. Part of the motivation for making downtown streets one-way was to eliminate streetcars and vacate their superior right of way so that cars would be on top.

    3. Would the BGT really be a great passenger rail corridor? For a large part of its length, it’s got a cliff on one side and water within a block on the other, so many people wouldn’t just be able to walk to a bus/train running along it. IIRC it was a freight railway transporting lumber (and maybe coal) from the Eastside to Seattle, and I imagine it didn’t have any depots along the way.

      1. Actually, it was Northern Pacific’s northern passenger line to King Street Station. The freight line to Canada and Bellingham was the ERC, but the varnish turned at Woodinville and took the short cut to Seattle.

        I’m sure it also carried some freight, but it was built for passenger service

      2. The Burke-Gilman Trail started off as a railroad line built by the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railroad. When the SLS&E ran out of money the line was sold to the Northern Pacific. When the Burlington Northern took over the NP in 1970 the line was abandoned and the BGT was created.

      3. Couple of years back, spent several weeks’ worth of walking visits to the railroad right of way now carrying walkers and bike riders past the Save Our Trail signs uphill from Kirkland. Seemed to me it would take some widening, though not much, to add single-track street-rail caliber of SLU and FHS cars. As equivalent of those moving walkways along airport concourses.

        Might work on Burke Gillman as well. Worth a look by a civil engineer who also drives SLU or FHS. Maybe on “Detail”- special temporary assignment at full wages. Will have “Savers'” kids writing pro-streetcar graffiti all over their parents’ Michelangelo’s. Childen really are provably transit’s fiercest advocates. Have seen one-year-olds start pointing and making positive noises every time a LINK bell comes upstairs.

        Only danger. They sometimes turn into clones of me.

        Me. I mean Mark

      4. Where is this cliff?

        Although the segment between Sand Point and Lake Forest Park (approx. 7 miles, the samr distance from Mukilteo to Everett) suffers from the same walkshed constraint as the North Sounder line. Actually 1 block better.

      5. Guy, so is the old trackage that runs from Woodinville down to Redmond and used to continue along the east shore of Lake Sammamish to Issaquah part of this SLS&E? If so, then it sounds like Skylar was right; there is coal near Issaqual (Coal Creek Parkway…..).

        The NP did run it’s Bellingham and Vancouver BC passenger trains along it as a shortcut to KSS. They ran to Vancouver via the CP Sumas branch and then the main line, not the interurban that ran straight to Sumas.

        Thanks for the history correction.

      6. The rail line along the eastern shore of Lake Sammamish was built by the SLS&E as part of a Woodinville to North Bend corridor. It also was purchased by the NP and abandoned after the NP morphed into the Burlington Northern. There was a sawmill on the eastern shore of Lake Sammamish that seemed to be the biggest industrial customer.

      7. I’ve been told that the 90 series piers where the cruise ships now dock was once set up for loading coal that was brought in from the foothills on this line. There was also a sawmill in Fremont that received logs, UW got various materials, and the NOAA / Navy facility.

        Really, in the era of “Less Than Carload” freight almost anything was a railroad customer.

    4. Granted, it’s been over 65 years, is that whatever their theoretical capacity, the streetcars on Clark Street carried a lot more people than the buses. Probably packed so tight that nobody could count them anymore than they could the individual pieces of horse-meat in a can of dog food. Both modes, very slow.

      CTA elevated + subway lot faster. But similar actual passenger experience. Except that for any vehicle, crowded vehicle loaded to capacity in general purpose traffic is a crime against humanity. Air conditioning- average passenger knew exactly the condition of the air. Dirty, hot, and smelly.

      But no, even give same right of way and signal pre-empt, buses do not offer as comfortable a ride as streetcars, on same fully-reserved trackway as trains. Even in their own lanes, best bus still has a side-to-side motion that gets old fast. Also, much slower to load.

      Given a reserved lane, both vehicles work very well, separately and together. If the transit system feels like bothering with basic coordination. Though over same amount of time, I think pavement under tires needs repair more than steel track. And gets more likely to get temporary bad patches.

      Buses also have the advantage of being able to leave the transitway. DSTT bues excellent example of every point above. So to save money, concentrate on both coordination and training. But don’t turn down a single railcar if you can get it.


  4. The MUNI streetcar system in San Francisco is also an example of a network that is successful. MUNI has its own downtown tunnel to avoid congestion but once the MUNI cars reach the Sunset neighborhoods and are running in mixed traffic they continue to make pretty good time. They are certainly more comfortable than a bus and well integrated with the neighborhoods.

    Most of the neighborhoods with MUNI streetcar service aren’t any more dense than Columbia City. The density isn’t created by height but by intensity. The commercial districts along the MUNI lines are mostly 1 and 2 story buildings (not 6-20 stories). The difference in SF is that there are miles and miles of neighborhood commercial districts bordering the streetcar lines, not just a few nodes of vertical development at major stops. The only drawback with MUNI cars is that ADA access is complicated.

    1. They don’t make good time in the Sunset or Church Street; they make very bad time and aren’t faster than our streetcars. The one good point is where the Church line goes alongside a hill in its own ROW and speeds up to a respectable speed.

      The F line is somewhere in between because the stoplights are about every three blocks (at SOMA numbered streets), and the Embarcadero segment doesn’t have crossings, so it’s more like Link in SODO. (Although Link in SODO seems to have gotten faster than when it started, and I don’t think the F line is as fast as that.)

      1. When I first rode the N-Judah line in about 1972, cars were PCC streetcars. Which served their routes and ridership pretty standard, stops signs and all. Trouble was that in most ways, MUNI has never felt like running the Boeing Vertols any other way.

        Cars, as machinery, were much worse. Though next fleet, the Breda’s were nose to nose with ours for overweight, terrible maintenance, and so oversized that MUNI had to discontinue valuable measure of running cars of three different lines,coupled through the Market Street Subway, and uncoupling at West Portal. And timed-meet and couple inbound.

        For such a politically active town, SF passengers seem weirdly acquiescent. Maybe they like the unhurried pace- like that Grateful Dead song about legendary locomotive engineer named Casey Jones. Like rest of “American Beauty” album, basically Stephen Foster on LSD.

        Except the song had Casey on cocaine, which was legal in his day. “Lady in Red” in that one case did not mean a prostitute. Just that running single-track, a red signal meant you’d be dead in a minute if the LSD, or cocaine, made the switchman think the lever was the tail of a giant lizard.

        But of all US systems, much admire MUNI for amount the front-line people who run it by just driving it. Probably because whole system agrees that because the job’s too hard for anybody else to run it, drivers best employees to do it. Wish our electric vehicle instructors all came from there. Also that all our trolleybus drivers spend at least a month on the 24 Divisadero.

        On Russian Hill, uphill vertical left turn under a couple coach-lengths of dead spot. Cable cars take some skill and Congressional for bravery too. And often equal bus ridership per car, though hard to verify because the car’s got so many people hanging onto the outside handhold platforms that it looks like a hedgehog. Like much else when you’re on acid.


    2. MUNI has five lines in its tunnel. It creates delays. Having four would have been better; three would be quite smooth.

      Melbourne also have a multi-line transit tracks and stations, enabling blending and branching to offer lots of direct service (no transfers) but the first wait may be longer.

      Meanwhile ST refuses more than two. Should we be studying a blending and branching route strategy in the current West-Seattle-Ballard study?

      1. That’s why having a stacked, shared-platform station at SoDo would be revolutionary. Not only would it make in-direction transfers easier, it would make it possible for DSTT trains to go to the airport and SLU/New Tunnel trains to go to West Seattle or Burien.

        Maybe such trains only run as a peak hours or special-event overlay service, but they become possible.

      2. I realize that I didn’t submit a comment about this during the WSB comment period and i should have. I didn’t see it listed.

        The biggest operations constraint is the MLK median segment. It makes it hard to have a train more often than every 6 minutes, meaning that two lines would mean a direct train every 12. Of course a timed, level cross-platform transfer at SODO would almost make that irrelevant.

        The other constraint is political. Turning around half of the trains at Northgate or Wilburton or Federal Way or even SODO would cut frequencies for areas beyond those stations.

        ST has to date been avoiding the topic of how to balance loads on their very long lines. As overcrowding occurs, ST will been running mostly empty trains for many miles at the outer segments while riders wanting to board in the City of Seattle will have to push their way onto an overcrowded train.

        I remember Zach Shaner’s piece from awhile back on a multi-line scenario. ( Of course, now as an ST employee, he can’t publicly raise the issue any more. Should we? These things really need to be tested and forecasted rider patterns need to be analyzed. It informs the way that we should desiign stations and rail tracks for WSB.

      3. The speed of Muni is pretty awful. The last time I was in San Fransisco, I was walking down Market Street and almost keeping pace with it. They Muni trains stop at every stoplight, when on the surface, have passenger stops as frequently as a traditional local bus, and to top it off, they actually have on-board fare payment, which delays service. In fact, about the only advantage that Muni does have over a traditional bus is the underground tunnel through downtown – an advantage that some of our Seattle buses have also.

        Another big annoyance with Muni is that, in order to collect to CalTrain, you have to ride the slow train all the way around downtown, in a giant U-shape, averaging about 5 mph. When all is said and down, you basically have to leave Golden Gate Park just after 5 PM to catch a CalTrain that departs San Fransisco at 6 PM (which is, itself, not a super-fast train either).

        One of the things that drives me crazy about the bay area is how long it takes to get from San Francisco to Silicon Valley if you aren’t lucky enough to have your own car or a corporate shuttle. When I was last there, a corporate shuttle sitting in traffic down 101, in the height of afternoon rush hour, was *still* over 30 minutes faster than than riding the CalTrain back the other way around 9 PM.

      4. At least some of the tram lines in Berlin are on-board fare payment. However, they do so from on-board ticket machines so it doesn’t delay boarding that much.

      5. The Market Street F surface line is similar to our Broadway streetcar in terms of speed.

        Muni Metro underneath is better — but not great. It was worse before they built the Turnback to fix a systems flaw that naive rail people didn’t think of ( .

        These kinds of design mistakes can easily occur as a rail system gets more lines. It’s why I keep hoping ST will quit hiring funding and policy experts as managers and hire seasoned people who have actually run light rail systems for several years.

        Finally, Caltrain will soon be much quicker to reach from Union Square when the Central Subway opens in 2019.

      6. Would transit service be improved by ripping out the MUNI streetcar lines and replacing those routes with rubber-wheeled buses? I don’t think so. Even optimized BRT service wouldn’t be an improvement because those neighborhoods have evolved around streetcar service. The population density and commercial density fits with the streetcars, not BRT. If you are traveling between Market Street and the Ocean Beaches would you take the 7 Haight/Noriega or one of the streetcars? The N or L will both save you about 10 minutes.

        MUNI buses could use a stop diet, however. All the buses seem to make way too many stops.

        I don’t think anybody who has to go from Market Street to the CalTrain station would use the streetcar. There are plenty of buses that run directly to train station.

      7. The F line is more of an extra tourist attraction than regular transit so its slowness doesn’t bother me. For pure transportation there are the underground lines, BART, buses, and the Mission Street bus.

        Ripping out the streetcars is solving the wrong problem. The problem is slowness, so the solution is signal priority.

      8. All that’s required to make the Metro Tunnel operate smoothly is the ability to have multiple trains use a given platform. The platforms are BART-train length so they can easily fit two two-car Muni trains with plenty of room to spare. As I understand it, the problem is with the signal system. They need to make two blocks within the station envelope; it’s coming but not yet.

      9. Mark said MUNI was designed the trains could be coupled in the Market Street subway and then split for their various destinations. That’s the reason for the mysterious announcements “two-car K, K”, so that the lines can be different. But for some reason I forget they either never used it or only used it for a short time (I have never experienced it).

        I don’t like coupling because it already takes 10-20 minutes for any MUNI train to come off-peak, and I don’t want them consolidating those so the waits are even longer.

      10. This 2013 article references why MUNI quit coupling cars:

        It was partly the problem with the Breda cars. The new cars from Siemens are now in testing and longer trains are returning.

        Another issue was that because there was no turnback until the mid 1990’s, Muni needed to couple trains in order to have enough headway to not jam up the tracks when trains reversed at the end station. A new train control signal system also enabled trains to arrive and closer together, so the need to couple was lessened.

        Ironically, the Breda cars arrived when they got a labor concession to not have a driver in every car cab after cars were linked.

        On a related topic, any rail line that has trains of varying lengths should tell riders how many cars are on the train. I think we’ve all agreed here that Link should announce train lengths — and yet ST seems to still be dismissive about it.

    3. The big reason SF has miles and miles of commercial corridors is because their housing vernacular is much denser. Rowhouses or near-rowhouse SFHs are everywhere and it creates, as you said, sustained density that Seattle can only dream of. When you have that level of residential density you can have robust commercial corridors throughout the city (including along streetcar lines). In Seattle much of the city is made up of single family houses on decent-sized lots with yards. The trade off is we largely have commercial nodes surrounded by oceans of single family zones.

      1. Outside of the northeast quadrant of SF, there aren’t really that many commercial corridors. Most are less than about a half-mile in length ( except for Geary and Mission).

      2. But the residential density is even higher than the small-hot houses in the older parts of Seattle. That’s what made it an easier sell to maintain frequent transit in the residential areas, which has probably always been frequent since the streetcar era.

        (Although there was a period in the 80s when the drivers were so complacent the skipped two schedule slots and ran three buses together in the third slot, because who wants to drive alone?)

  5. “Admittedly, the topology is much less challenging.” Martin, you’ve blown away most of your unfavorable comparison with a single sentence. Not only does Seattle itself have less surface room than average hill-town in Portugal, Spain, or Trieste, which is in Italy now, but got its streetcars when it was part of Austria-Hungary, but also the stingiest inheritance of right of way where we need it most.

    Also, it’s not as if our choice of cars over transit was made with malice afore-knowledge, let alone-thought. Worst likely miscalculation was that the streetcars would always be there to take the load of the roads.

    1945. War that obliterated our industrial competition took us out of the Depression. Thousands of young men coming home legitimately thinking they deserved a break. Like a time when the average person could buy a car. And compared to what was now the smoking ruins of Europe, same population density as the moon.

    Full to the horizon with farms for sale for housing by farmers also tired of being poor, car-less and with linear hog-wallows for freeways. Cutting them a break for lack of knowledge that the country could ever have traffic jams. Now, that “ship”, which has always been “sailing” has “come about” on a different “tack” I mean a different angle, as a huge wood bar with a sail the size of a building bats the inattentive all the way to Melbourne.

    Once again, with streets less quaint if less dirty, where nothing automotive can move. The exact same motivation that triggered Carmageddon. Thank heavens all the horses are now galloping along carrying only slim straight-backed girls across the highlands of Redmond, not really chasing foxes, who unfortunately dressed like they are, though foxes don’t don’t know that . So leaving trails a lot cleaner than average city street back then.

    Even for light rail, and BART, Metropolitan San Francisco is relatively flat, because the valleys mandating cable cars and trolleybuses have wide, flat floors for easy cut and covered. So my main point is not defense of blind selfishness, and horse-blinkered brains. Just that our task at hand is to rearrange Eastern Tacoma so rail has any passengers. Secretary of Transportation will deny everything, just like Energy Department’s geiger counters.

    So in tribute, last verse of the real Australian National Anthem:

    “Tan me hide when I’m dead, Fred
    Tan me hide when I’m dead
    So we tanned his hide when he died, Clyde
    And that’s it hangin’ on the shed!”

    But have a car, mate: Take a knee and you lose your leg.

    Mark Dublin

  6. BTW: Have a CARE. mate. Your passport says you’ve already got three CARS! Wombats bite people that can’t spell. Tie your bloody kangaroo down!


  7. 1) Thank you Martin for all you’ve done and continue to do for transit. Truly happy you had some time to explore and recharge your batteries.

    2) “I’m not sure we have enough wickets left to catch up.” I think we have enough heavy hitters on our team from not just Sound Transit but also Everett Transit, Community Transit, King County Metro, Skagit Transit, Washington State Ferries and maybe Pierce Transit to catch up.

  8. Martin, we were there in late 2012, so I don’t know if this is still true, but the two things I remember most about Myki were having to buy it in a dodgy convenience store in the basement of Flinders Street Station and that the trams had on board Myki readers (sometimes more than one) at every door.

    The other thing about right of way for trams, the conductors are empowered to fine you, literally on the spot, for taking your vehicle to somewhere where you interfere not only with the efficient running of the tram but the ingress and egress of passengers. I was on a bike share bike (I believe this is the earlier vendor who went out of business,so apparently it was replaced; and I bought a bike helmet for A$5 which was available at every 7-11 in downtown Melbourne, which is saying something) and I biked past a tram that was unloading. The conductor got off the tram, stopped me, discovered I was an American tourist and let me off with a warning but said that next time she would fine me, right there.

    It’s a different country.

    1. And word to whoever came up with fare-evasion charge for “tapping” an ORCA card wrong number of times: Let’s keep it that way. Here, and there- transit systems in free countries should need at most a polite reminder.

      Mark Dublin

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