Clean Transport

Published on December 31st, 2014 | by James Ayre


How Much Would It Cost Nowadays To Build A Massive Tram System Like Melbourne’s?

December 31st, 2014 by  

Melbourne, Australia, is home to what is by far the largest streetcar system currently in operation in the world — one that makes those found in the US cities where there is one at all seem like a fair ride in comparison. The urban streetcar system comprises roughly 249 kilometers of double-track and 487 trams in total.

You’re probably getting jealous now, and for good reason. So a good question to ask would be, why doesn’t the city I live in have such great public transportation infrastructure? And how much would it cost for it to develop a similar system?




Now an important point to make from the start on this topic is that Melbourne’s system has been in place for quite a long time now — such systems were actually very common throughout much of the world in the early parts of the 20th century. Had the system been removed back in the 1950s-60s like the systems in many other major Australian cities were, the costs for building it would likely now be unaffordable.

Going by the $1.6 billion that it cost to build the relatively new 13 km Gold Coast G link line, Melbourne’s system — were it to be developed today — would probably cost somewhere around $30 billion. Going by other recent light rail projects, it could be even higher, up to $45 billion.

Big numbers. So, why would it be so much more expensive nowadays?

One of the main reasons is that new systems almost invariably are kept separate from now ubiquitous car traffic — something that wasn’t always necessary.

The Urbanist provides some relevant thoughts on that matter:

However if Melbourne were building a new system today from the ground up it would face the same sorts of pressures to provide a much better and more costly network (eg with more segregation from traffic) that other cities are experiencing. Decisions made many years ago simply wouldn’t be politically viable in today’s car-oriented world. 

A brand new 250 km network would have the advantage though of offering an opportunity to obtain substantial economies of scale. However whether that opportunity was realized would depend on the sequence of construction; Melbourne’s network was built incrementally over the course of a century.

There’s no guarantee, or even likelihood, that any new network of similar size would be constructed in accordance with the most efficient schedule. No matter what they might say, politicians don’t think or act like that.

All good points. It’s also worth noting that the level of bureaucracy and intermediation (and accompanying graft) has increased pretty significantly in the years since the Melbourne network’s creation. There’s a lot of red tape to go through in the modern world, and a lot of people with their hands in the pie. It no doubt isn’t as simple to get things like the tram network done nowadays as it was back then.

The main takeaway from this all, though, is that maintaining and/or rebuilding or renovating legacy infrastructure is usually the most economical approach to public transportation infrastructure buildout… by far.

It’s just too bad that so many of these quite effective tram systems (which once covered the US) were done away with during the wild embrace of the personal automobile during the last century.

Image Credit: LHS; RHS

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

  • DogzOwn

    67% of Australians commute to work by car, need new kinds of transport to entice people out of cars, we’ve been waiting 55 years for train link to airport, why not install Maglev up alongside freeway, 22km city to airport 4mins 58secs, no congestion ever, all with change out of $1B and running and maintenance cost as low as 30% of tram

  • globi

    Instead of trams one could introduce high capacity trolley buses (up to 260 passengers). link.

    Buses can run on existing infrastructure.

    And even if they run on seperate lanes as the Transmilenio in Bogotà, they only cost about 10% of what a Metro would cost. link.

    • Larmion

      They coud. A better question is why.

      Buses are responsible for more PM emissions than cars, even if the bus is electrical (as per a study for the Belgian government). A heavy vehicle with rubber tires release particulate matter through wear and tear on road and tire.

      Trams, meanwhile, don’t have that problem due to their steel tracks and wheels. An added benefit is that the lower friction coefficient also sharply cuts energy use per mile travelled.

      Rail vehicles also have the potential to transport more passengers per hours per line, especially with so called ‘supertrams’.

      To top things of, tracks require less maintenance once built than roads. Tramlines over a century old still run fine with minimal running costs, while roads need continuous replacement.

      And then there’s pure human stupidity: study after study has shown that more people are willing to change from car to tram but not from car to bus, simply because buses are associated with poverty and failure (at least in the Anglosaxon world, remember Ms. Thatcher?).

      The city where I lived had trolleybuses for a while. They were abandoned due to lower than expected environmental benefits and escalating running costs. Their line was temporarily taken over by regular buses while tram track is being built along their old route.

      If it has to be quick and with low upfront costs, go (trolley)bus. But if you’re playing the long game, rails are the way to go.

      • globi

        TRB reports that the 388 km system is bus rapid transit is projected to cost $3.3 billion. link.
        Which is 93% billion less per km than the costs for the tram line mentioned in the article.

        Besides that 200 passenger in a trolley bus emit far less particulate matter than even 200 people in 200 electric cars and even trams release particulate matter: If you are seriously worried about those emissions from trolley buses you would invest those $30 billions not spent on a more expensive new tram infrastructure on solar- and windfarms and in return have a much greater emissions reduction.
        (These $30 billion saved and invested in solar- and windfarms would provide orders of magnitudes more power than all the trolley buses could consume combined. $30 billion = 15 GW of wind power = 26 TWh = 10 times the power consumed by the entire Swiss railway system. link. )
        Besides, trolley buses are also less noisy than trams. In fact, the trams in Clermont-Ferrand do run on tires. They are much less noisy and allow the tram to climb much steeper inclines and decelerate much faster. link.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Bangkok runs two classes of buses. The “business class” buses are all air conditioned and don’t pick up more passengers than there are seats. They cost a bit more than the regular city buses but not a terrible amount more.

        If it’s a terrible traffic day one can get on an “Air Con” and be assured of a comfortable crawl across the city. At a tiny portion of what a taxi would cost.

        I think it’s time to consider ‘business class’ for public transportation. Give people a less crowded, guaranteed seat option. A place to plug in and wifi connectivity.

  • Matt

    US trams didn’t die from lack of use. Check the record they were destroyed by the auto companies to remove competition. As for sharing right of way, the newest street car system in US is on the same roads in Cincinnati Ohio. Still under construction, more years of political fighting to get it than years to build it. Of course maybe it will still be kill, Cincinnati has a subway system that got partially built then killed, so now just have the old tunnels.

    • Ronald Brakels

      In Australia tram lines did suffer a decline in use with the spread of motor vehicle ownership in the 50s and 60s. Australian cities other than Melbourne decided it was cheaper to replace old tram lines with buses and lines were ripped up leaving just a single line in Adelaide. (Whether the Australian auto industry had anything to do with this I don’t know.) In retrospect this doesn’t appear to have been such a great idea, particularly during the oil shocks of the 70s.

  • Gough Whitlam

    Or Australian labour costs and poor productivity. Take your pick but it would costa a motza.

    • Ronald Brakels

      With a considerable amount of tram line built back when Australia was the richest country in the world it was affordable. And it has the benfit of lowering Australia’s oil consumption by about one percent.

    • Ronald Brakels

      As for Australian productivity, as you well know Gough, Australia is the only nation to ever sucessfully mount an anti-submarine weapon on a tank.

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