Friday, 25 March 2011

Down Under Tour 2011: ADELAIDE

Adelaide Trams

Adelaide boasts a single, but rather modern tram line, the only line that survived the general closure of the network in the 1950s, mainly because most of its alignment was on a separate right-of-way, except for the short section from South Terrace to its former city terminus at Victoria Square, as well as the westernmost section through the seaside suburb of Glenelg. This line was actually a steam railway before it was converted to tramway operation in 1929. Finally in the 2000s it was extended through the city centre proper to the Railway Station and North Terrace and eventually in a second stage to the so-called “Entertainment Centre” (which is not a cinema complex or something like that as I expected but a venue that's only used on certain days, so the last stop serves primarily a park-and-ride facility).

The original stretch was completely upgraded before new trams were introduced in around 2005 (the same Bombardier Flexity Classic model as used in Frankfurt/Main – S class there). The new sections are technically well-built, a reserved lane is available throughout, but operationally I would classify it as a complete failure. The trams spend almost more time waiting at traffic lights than actually travelling through the city, this makes the idea of a reserved lane almost obsolete. The concept of priority at traffic light for trams (and buses) is something unheard of, so each tram has to wait a full traffic light cycle to continue its journey, and traffic lights generally change very slowly all over Australia compared to most European cities (Vienna is a bit Australian in this). Between Railway Station and City West the planners were obviously forced by politicians to reduce the line for some 100 m to single-track, just to allow a separate lane for cars turning right into the Convention Centre parking! Outbound trams are forced to manouvre themselves over two sets of points which has to be done at some 5 km/h (we all know that Citadis trams don't like points at all....). This is a clear case that the reintroduction of trams is handled very half-heartedly by some who still believe that the car is king in the city!

The overall impression is therefore that the tram service is extremely slow through the city centre and walking is often the faster option, on the section beyond City West the travel speed increases, but again is “compensated” by long waits at intersections. Trams don't travel very fast either on the old Glenelg route, but intersections here have railway-like barriers so trams can proceed as they should. To avoid a busy intersection, an overpass with an elevated station was opened in 2010 at South Road, which is a quite pleasant station with lifts and rather steep stairs.

For the latest extension Adelaide acquired some of Madrid's superfluous metro ligero Citadis trams which are quite popular here. Except for the adverts on most vehicles, they basically maintain the Madrid livery with the typical red nose.

The stops have a modern appearance but lack equipment one would expect of a modern light rail line, like next-tram indicator. Instead, there is a full timetable displayed, which is rather hard to read. Generally during the day, trams run every 15 minutes between Entertainment Centre and Glenelg, with additional runs between West Terrace and South Terrace. Travelling on the line between Entertainment Centre and South Terrace is free! The island platforms of the busiest stops in the city centre are far too narrow, and for example at Rundle Mall (the city's pedestrianised shopping street), it takes a long time until people can actually get away from the platform due to the aforementioned long traffic light cycles. In some cases I observed that tram drivers don't open the doors until a tram in the opposite direction has come to a halt too, to avoid pushing over the platform edge!

So while a lot has been done in recent years to upgrade and extend the line, I think a lot more needs to be done to make it a more efficient and faster means of transport. The managers should take a trip to Melbourne to learn that things can be different, especially the exaggerated safety measures. More extensions have been proposed, but currently the upgrading and electrification of the railway network is given priority.

Adelaide Trains

The Adelaide suburban train network is some 20-30 years behind those in other Australian cities, but like the similar Auckland system, this is finally changing. At present mostly two-car diesel powered trains serve 6 branches all radiating from the terminal station located at the northern fringe of the city centre. The older Jumbo trains are proper DMUs, and they are loud and take a while to accelerate, whereas the newer stock is diesel-electric, and despite the noise they make they are almost like electric trains when it comes to acceleration. In fact, these are now being refurbished and most of them will be converted to full EMUs by 2013. In preparation for electrification, the Noarlunga Line is closed south of Oaklands station while the entire track is being renewed. As has already been done on the Outer Harbor Line and part of the Gawler Line, new concrete sleepers are being laid, which will allow the future re-gauging of the entire system from broad gauge (1600 mm) to standard gauge. New trains have been ordered from Bombardier, and these will also be ready for conversion to standard gauge at a later date.

The system has a strong suburban character, with busy peak-hour trains and quite empty trains during off-peak. The overall impression is that it is a slow system, but with one-person operation dwelling time at stations is short. Trains from the southern branches run around the western edge of the city before reaching the terminus, so in a next step a tunnel under King William Street would certainly be recommendable to create a through north-south axis penetrating the city centre directly (apparently someone else had proposed this in the 1930s). Passengers from the southern lines are not able to change to the tram line, despite Goodwood rail station being located right below the tram bridge across the tracks. So someone working in the Victoria Square area, for example, needs to take a long detour or take a long walk from Goodwood to the nearest tram stop. A proper network integration would certainly include a transfer station at this point.

Most railway stations have only very basic equipment, generally a busstop-like shelter and a busstop-type timetable post. Ticket-vending machines are located inside the trains. Some stations have been rebuilt in recent years, but while Oaklands and Hallett Cove are quite pleasant (although a simple concrete floor isn't really the most elegant style), I would vote the elevated Port Adelaide station the ugliest new station built in recent years worldwide. It sits on a beautiful historic viaduct, but the concrete/sheet-metal station will hopefully attract some graffiti soon to embellish it....:). Mawson Interchange has a similar style, but the lack of visual appeal is at least compensated by a cross-platform interchange between buses and inbound trains. As the system has a rather light-rail appearance anyway, with short trains and closely spaced stations, it might have been a better idea to completely convert it to light rail, maybe with some RegioCitadis-type rolling stock which support higher speeds on railway lines.

So while the development of a modern railway system has just been launched, Adelaide may be considered leader in fare integration in Australia. There is a single ticket for all modes, and only a single zone for the entire area which extends almost 100 km north-south. A day ticket costs AUD 8.60. Besides the free tram ride in the central zone there is also a free circular bus around the city centre. Tickets are of the smaller Paris/Madrid-type magnetic cards, but barriers only exist at Adelaide railway station – but there the access/exit barriers only check whether you have a ticket, and you are still supposed to validate it on the train!

What makes Adelaide unique in the worldwide transport scene, however, is its O-Bahn: this system was developed in the German city of Essen, and then copied nowhere else but in Adelaide. This type of busway consists of concrete beams with lateral guideways, so buses can run at a speed of up to 100 km/h over the 12 km grade-separated busway, which only includes two intermediate stations, so the perceived travel speed is indeed very high. The O-Bahn is used by numerous bus lines, some leaving the busway at the Paradise Interchange or continuing beyond the “terminus” at Tea Tree Plaza. The busway was built through a linear park along the Torrens River, and its visual impact is enormous, and in fact it is impossible to cross the “tracks”, unless there is a bridge or underpass. The major problem seems to be the fact that the O-Bahn starts some 2 km from the city centre, so a solution is being sought for the route along Hackney Road where the fast buses are now caught in traffic jams during peak hours. So while I'm normally not advocating bus-based transport, I have to admit that the O-Bahn is by far the fastest type of transport in Adelaide (and the ride at top speed is still pleasant!) and that it will be hard to convince people that a conversion to light rail might be a better option. The way the Glenelg tram is operated now it is hard to imagine that any kind of train would be able to travel at 100 km/h – and the buses take most passengers directly to their destination.


  1. A few months ago on our local PBS station they showed the movie "Look Both Ways, " which includes a good deal of Adelaide suburban rail footage.

  2. sorry to say that you can never be a professional transport planner if you do not advocate bus-based transport.there is nowhere in the world that can run a complete public transport sytstem without are what seems to me more or less a railfan.


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