Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Streetcar Lessons from Melbourne

As a lifelong resident of the Toronto region, it was easy to fall into the trap that streetcars are a historical anachronism, and that of all the cities they rolled through only Toronto didn't tear the tracks up. Even in North America that's an oversimplification; New Orleans, Boston, Pittsburgh, and other cities maintained their tracks when most others were dismantled, although it's true that no other Canadian city did.

Overseas it's completely different. I wouldn't have guessed it in the time before Wikipedia, but it happens that while Toronto operates the largest streetcar system in the Western Hemisphere, the city of Melbourne, Australia operates what may well be the largest in the world - right now, there is a lack of consensus on Wikipedia - and their trams are just as much a part of the urban social fabric as streetcars are in Toronto. Nevertheless, from time to time the scissors still need to come out.

The Age of Melbourne reported yesterday that the city's "tram superstops" - miniature stations in their own right, reminiscent of the new boarding platforms along the 512 St. Clair streetcar's new right-of way - are too short for the new vehicles the city will take delivery of in 2012, and that they will have to be extended. I haven't been able to find any reference as to what these vehicles are or who the manufacturer is, but the cited length of thirty-two meters matches up nicely with Bombardier's Flexity, the same family of streetcar that will hit the streets of Toronto next decade to relieve the aging CLRV and ALRV fleets. Melbourne's most recent purchases were of Combino trams, the longest of which are just shy of thirty meters long.

Two meters, it seems, counts for safe departure from all doors.

This possibility of obsolescence is definitely something that should be taken into account by planners when it comes time to design the Transit City stops. All-door boarding has been one of the intended hallmarks of the project since it was unveiled, and a streetcar longer than its station would turn that hope to dust. The rights-of-way will be expensive already, and it'd be far better to design in some extra room from the outset rather than plan only for today and leave tomorrow to tomorrow. It's thanks to that kind of foresight that Bloor-Danforth subway trains can cross the Don Valley beneath the Prince Edward Viaduct.

I'll be keeping an eye on the Melbourne tram system - it seems to me to be a worthwhile "other" against which to contrast Toronto's own streetcar operations. Few things can be studied seriously in isolation. For example, no matter how people might have gnashed their teeth over the cost Toronto's had to assume in order to make sure new streetcars hit the rails, it's not really all that bad. The city and the province will, together, pay $1.22 billion for two hundred and four vehicles and their assorted spare parts. Melbourne's tab for a mere fifty new trams is $1 billion AUD, which according to the exchange rate measured by XE.com at 12:28 AM today, converts to $903,719,804.17 CDN.

Perhaps Mayor Miller is a better negotiator than he lets on.

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