Are trackless trams a game changer?

A new approach to transport is heading our way. But don’t be fooled. The trackless tram isn’t just transport. It’s an unlocking device for urban development, says Professor Peter Newman AO.

Newman, the distinguished professor of sustainability at the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute, has spent the last four decades championing rail “because rail creates better cities”.

But now, a new urban transport system is on the blocks – one that Newman predicts will be a “gamechanger” for cities around the world.

Underpinned by rapidly-evolving technology, such as driverless guiding systems and electric propulsion, the trackless tram can travel up to 70 kilometres an hour through city streets while carrying between 300 and 500 passengers.

The trackless tram is essentially a standard light rail set of carriages with all the benefits – speed, safety and fixed-route land-value creation among them. But it offers three important distinctions.

Because the running gear is replaced with rubber tyres, there is no digging up streets and very little disruption to neighbourhoods (although space must be found on the roadway). While many light rail projects take years to build, the trackless tram can be installed virtually overnight.

Powered by lithium ion batteries, trackless trams can be recharged in just 30 seconds at a solar-powered station.

And they are driverless, navigating the corridor by magnetic strips and sensors.

“They are quiet like light rail, significantly faster than most traffic and people can move in and out very quickly,” Newman explains, adding that they have up to 10 times the carrying capacity of cars.

“Rail creates centres that make urban development more diverse, walkable and interesting. Trackless trams can do this, but at a significantly cheaper cost. This is the breakthrough we need.”


A driver for urban development

China has built the world’s largest high-speed rail network, laying more than 20,000 kilometres of track, and is aiming to add another 10,000 kilometres by 2020. Last year, China’s CRRC Corporation, one of the world’s biggest train manufacturers, unveiled the world's first trackless tram in the city of Zhuzhou, as a complement to this high-speed rail network.

But trackless trams can be constructed locally, and Newman estimates the cost is in the range of $5 million per kilometre.

In comparison, Canberra and the Gold Coast have coughed up around $50 million per kilometre for their light rail networks. Sydney’s investment in light rail has come at the hefty price tag of $120 million per kilometre, although most of that has been spent regenerating ancient services underneath the track that stretch back to the start of settlement, Newman adds.

Newman says it took a while for trackless trams to win him over, but they have significant advantages over buses because, like standard light rail, they follow a long-term fixed route. This means they are magnets for urban development within a one kilometre radius.

“Bus manufacturers are turning to electric systems because they are cheaper, particularly as battery prices come down. But they are still buses, and I don’t see them replacing trains.”

Tram stops include passenger platforms, battery recharging facilities and links to local shared mobility options – but most importantly they provide a constant stream of pedestrians.

“The trackless tram acts as a facilitator of dense urban development. The only downside is that it hasn’t been tried at the city-level yet.”


First mover advantage ahead

Newman says Australian cities are already looking at the technology’s potential, including Brisbane, Cairns and Townsville. Melbourne’s Fishermans Bend could be a test bed, and so could the route to the new Western Sydney Airport.

While Australia’s city-shapers explore the options, Perth may be the first to embrace the trackless tram, Newman says “because we already have a consortia of local government looking at how we link this together”.

What is Newman’s message to the property industry?

“This is an unlocking device for urban development. And because this technology is significantly cheaper than other forms of rail, you don’t have to wait for government – you can work together with other developers to make this happen.

“Innovative developers are going to go out there and do it. And they’ll win. And the others will sit back and say ‘why didn’t we do that’?”.