Melbourne boasts the largest tram system in the world (I'm not a big fan of superlatives), but for most European tram enthusiasts it is quite surprising that such a large system has survived in such a remote place. According to the Metlink brochure, its route length is 249 km, which may be correct, but I'll have to check that later. This compares to some 180 km in Vienna and Berlin, and generally it is still said that Saint Petersburg is still up in that category, but noone has provided a plausible current length.
The Melbourne tram system, certainly a paradise for any tram fan, has everything a tram system can have. Vintage tram vehicles not only operate on the FREE city circle line introduced primarily for tourists but also popular with locals as it is free (though slow and often packed! - labelled line 35), but they also run regularly on line 78/79 through the busy Chapel Street in South Yarra and Prahran, and line 30 (which is a reinforcement service along LaTrobe Street). Besides these, there are four different types of vehicles, two older high-floor trams and two standard low-floor trams well familiar to Europeans, the Siemens Combino and the Alstom Citadis (with some newer ones first leased from Mulhouse but now permanently staying down under). The Combino trams surprised me for the small amount of seats they offer, I'll have to check at home whether the European versions have the same seating arrangement. The other weak point is that they are rather loud, probably partly due to the loose wheels they have in the middle, but they are always loud rattling along the streets, both when you're inside and outside. The Citadis seem to be slightly more quiet and offer much better seating, so in this case I would opt for the French solution. But anyway, I was told that Bombardier trams have been ordered as the next generation.
See Wikipedia for more details: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trams_in_Melbourne#Fleet
As far as alignment is concerned, the network also includes everything one might think of, from street-running in mixed traffic with cars, to marked-off lanes, to reserved right of way, to railway alignments taken over from former suburban railway lines (line 96 to St Kilda, and 109 to Port Melbourne). Sometimes boarding is from street level (car drivers generally stop, and sometimes I observed tram drivers telling them off if they didn't or even writing down their number). When the doors open, a sign like that at pedestrian crossings folds out and trams have flashing lights on. Generally my impression was that traffic among cars runs smoothly and that it is not too dangerous, as obviously everybody driving around here has grown up with trams, so it's not a strange element for them in road traffic. Sometimes there is a narrow boarding area in the middle of the street protected by a fence, but it's very narrow, so one doesn't really feel comfortable waiting in that space. In recent years many stops have been completely rebuilt and are now proper “platform stops” and also shown as such on line panels. These mostly have electronic next-tram indicators. Generally, all stops have a proper stop sign (in green, of course, like everything related to the trams), and mostly there is also a timetable displayed, but sometimes I found it missing. As is normal with street-running systems, the punctuality is somewhat at random, sometimes I was surprised how much on time a tram arrived, and sometimes you wait for a while and then you get two or even three vehicles arriving at the same time.
The termini are mostly very basic, and generally one single-track in the middle of the road. This may be quite a problem during peak service, when the stop is still occupied by the previous tram, or the stop has to serve even two different lines. At some termini, there is a set-down point still in the double-track section, so at least passengers can get off instead of waiting to enter the terminus proper. I was surprised that several stub termini located perpendicularly to another passing tram line do not have a track connection to that line, which is common in other places to facilitate diversions in case of disruptions.
Swanston Street in the downtown area is probably the busiest tram route in the world (maybe Karlsruhe's Kaiserstraße is similarly packed and therefore now gets a tunnel underneath), with a total of 9! lines running through there – and 7 of these terminate at Melbourne University, which has quite a peculiar layout to cope with so many reversing trams (all bidirectional and single units): there are three reversing sidings between the running tracks, located one behind the other; if I have observed it correctly, an arriving tram goes into the next available siding, but obviously cannot remain there long either. Despite this heavy traffic on Swanston Street, the system works fine, but generally there are far too many stops, basically on every street corner, and sometimes in between, too. Being so many, the maps don't show all the stops, not even the line panels do. So for better orientation, the stops are numbered. But the stop signs also show the name of the stop (basically the crossing street). The numbering system is not completely useful, although it helps, of course, but with the construction of platform stops, the total number has been reduced on some sections, but the numbers remain. Also, the number of the stop can only refer to one line, and when there are two or more lines running along the same stretch, the numbers on one line may get out of order. Usually the numbers run from the city centre to the suburbs. The stops on the lines that were extended into the Docklands area had to be given negative numbers, well, in reality its D1, D2, etc.
The trams share the fare system of the Metro and bus system, but recently it was decided that all tram routes can be used with a zone 1 ticket to simplify things. On outer stretches (part of the overlapping zones) the cheaper zone 2 ticket can also be used. Officially, and I was told so today by a ticket inspector, everybody has to validate their Metcard each time they board, but nobody does it as it doesn't really make sense, but those using a Myki smartcard have to touch on and off, which takes quite a bit more time, so it seems almost unimaginable that the new system will one day work as the only ticket, as it would delay boarding and alighting enormously. And they will still need ticket inspectors (and inspecting Myki tickets also takes much longer as they have to introduce it into their control device!). I heard from some people that the extremely costly introduction of the smartcard system was more of a political decision than an economic one, especially as the distribution of the revenue seems to be working fine as it is now.
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