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

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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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James Ayre

James Ayre'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.

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