Are trackless trams really ready to replace light rail?

HomeNewsBlogAre trackless trams really ready to replace light rail?

Every few years a “revolutionary” new transport technology arrives on the scene, accompanied by a whole lot of fanfare about how it will render all other comparable forms of transport obsolete. Ten years ago, it was the “Transit Elevated Bus” or “TEB” which promised to solve congestion by straddling the road rather than taking up a lane of traffic.

Technologies like the TEB, which promise to fix our traffic woes at an affordable price thanks to the wonders of new technology, usually have one other thing in common – they never deliver on their wild promises.

When reality bites and these ‘gadgetbahns’ fail to live up to the hype, they often leave a trail of destruction in the form of traditional public transport projects that were delayed or cancelled thanks to unsubstantiated promises that this new technology could do the same job for less. In the end, the real losers are public transport users. 

The latest technology to fit the mould is the “Trackless Tram” – a bi-articulated electric bus with optical guidance technology, manufactured by CRRC. Optically guided buses have been around since the turn of the century, but have struggled to gain traction due to dust, leaves, fog and severe weather limiting the practical functionality of the system in the real world.

Like most gadgetbahns, the Trackless Tram is currently being sold as a replacement for traditional public transport technology such as light rail. It does so by claiming to be cheaper and easier to install, while still giving the impression of being a high-quality system.

The cancellation of Adelaide’s tram network expansion was justified on the basis that Trackless Trams will render such investments obsolete. Since then, there has been no investment by the South Australian Government in trams, trackless or otherwise. Money has instead been poured into extravagant road projects at the expense of public transport.

Other jurisdictions in Australia such as Geelong and Parramatta have also seen Trackless Trams floated as a viable public transport option. Proponents of the technology promise significantly lower costs and reduced delivery times as “there is no need to build rails, they will just use existing roads”. Governments are led to believe that they can finally have their cake and eat it too.

There are many reasons to be sceptical of claims that Trackless Trams are “ready to replace light rail”, made most prominently by Curtin University’s Professor Peter Newman. To uncritically buy into this hype is to ignore the many reasons why high-quality public transport is so rare – namely, that it costs time and money to build, which requires strong political support to deliver.

This piece examines the claims made about Trackless Trams to better understand their merits compared with existing public transport technologies such as light rail or traditional bus rapid transit. While focused on the debate in the Australian context, this analysis could be applied to any mid-sized city across the world.

Claim #1: Trackless trams are one-tenth the cost of light rail

The most commonly cited benefit of Trackless Trams is that they cost significantly less to build than light rail. A frequently referenced figure has the system cost $6-8 million per kilometre to install. Newman compares this to the cost of light rail systems such as Canberra’s stage one ($57 million per kilometre) to illustrate the apparent cost savings.

How Newman arrives at the $6-8 million per kilometre figure is unclear. Another article of his suggests that Trackless Trams could cost between three and ten times less than light rail. This relative cost estimate is derived from a 2017 feasibility study on rapid transit for Sydney’s Parramatta Road that estimates the per kilometre cost of light rail at $15.1 million and a “guided electric transit system” at $5.6 million, which it claims are sourced from a separate, unidentified 2014 study by the Canadian Government.

While the Parramatta Road study makes clear that these cost estimates should be used as a comparative guide only, as evidenced by the significant lowballing of the per kilometre cost of light rail, Newman et al. make no such distinction when reproducing the figures in their “manual” for Trackless Trams. This manual also claims that Trackless Trams are cheaper than traditional bus rapid transit, with the methodology behind these calculations being equally unclear.

The inaccuracy of this figure is further highlighted by the details of the first serious proposal for a Trackless Tram system in Australia, between the Melbourne suburbs of Caulfield and Rowville. With no bridges or tunnels required, it should be an ideal demonstration of how Trackless Trams can be implemented locally with minimal cost or disruption.

Instead, at $74 million per kilometre, Australia’s first Trackless Tram system is expected to be significantly more expensive than stage one of Canberra’s light rail. Far from being “one tenth” the cost, the Caulfield – Rowville proposal suggests that the actual cost of Trackless Trams is within the normal bounds of an Australian light rail project, which can start from as low as $30 million per kilometre.

Why is this the case? After all, isn’t a Trackless Tram just a fancy bus with some lines painted on the road? Well, as it turns out the truth is a bit more complicated than that.

Claim #2: Trackless trams can be installed quickly with minimal disruption

Following cost, the second biggest selling point of Trackless Trams is their alleged ability to be installed “virtually overnight”, as claimed by Peter Newman et al.

If this were true, it would certainly give Trackless Trams an edge over light rail, which requires significant upfront construction. The recent experience of the Sydney CBD and South East light rail has shown what happens when projects of this scale and complexity are mismanaged. It is understandable that cities might look for alternatives to avoid repeating the same costly mistakes.

The most complicated part of building a light rail system is relocating critical utilities under the corridor. This enables the construction of a sturdy and dedicated right of way to separate the vehicles from general traffic. It is acknowledged by Newman et al. as being one of the key drivers behind the cost, time and disruption of building light rail that they claim can be avoided with a Trackless Tram system.

One of the traditional problems associated with running mass transit on existing roadways is the rapid deterioration of the pavement (“rutting”) due to the heavy wheels running repeatedly over the same sections of road, resulting in an uncomfortable passenger experience and damage to the vehicles. This issue is one of the key reasons the French city of Nancy is decommissioning its fleet of guided rubber-tyred trams.

In January 2019, Newman et al. claimed that the unique technology of the Trackless Tram meant that rutting would not be an issue. Instead, the system was said to be free to operate on existing roadways without needing to construct a reinforced right of way, therefore eliminating the requirement to build the most difficult and costly component of light rail.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these claims turned out to be wildly premature. By January 2020, rutting at the first commercially operating Trackless Tram line in the Chinese city of Zhuzhou was so severe that the optical guidance system was no longer capable of docking at stations, rendering the line noncompliant with disability codes after only one year of operation.

Despite the early optimism, Trackless Trams appear bound by the same laws of physics that apply to other heavy, rubber-tyred vehicles. To deliver the same smooth ride, level of passenger comfort and long-term infrastructure savings associated with light rail, Trackless Trams are likely to require a similar level of upfront investment to reinforce the roadway, along with all the accompanying time, costs and disruption.

This begs the question – how are proponents of Trackless Trams able to make sweeping statements about cost and disruption that appear to have very little basis in reality? As it happens, they don’t have an awful lot of material to work with.

One of the strangest aspects of the hype around Trackless Trams is the speed with which they have gone from “emerging technology” to “tried and tested” in the public consciousness, despite there being very little publicly available information about the systems that do exist.

In reality, CRRC’s Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit (ART) is a proprietary technology that has seen very limited deployment, with less than 50 kilometres of route currently in operation. These routes have already demonstrated shortcomings with the technology, including the identified rutting issues and top speeds significantly lower than the advertised 70km/hr (50km/h at Zhuzhou and 55km/h at Yibin).

Contrary to popular belief, Trackless Trams are an immature technology, with many of the purported benefits yet to be adequately demonstrated in the real world. What little evidence we do have instead suggests that Trackless Trams are destined to be the latest in a long line of gadgetbahns whose lasting impact will be the meritless and premature cancellation of otherwise worthy public transport projects.

Far from solving our congestion problems, there is a real risk that the false hype around Trackless Trams will do significantly more harm than good, leaving our cities more congested, less accessible, and devoid of public transport options that are actually proven to work.