Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Travelling the world's longest Guided Busway

Glenelg to Adelaide Tram at Glenelg
At 12 kilometres, Adelaide's O-Bahn Busway is the world's longest and fastest guided busway. As I was visiting Adelaide to give a talk, I thought I would take a ride before it is eclipsed by the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway (ANU Alumni have been invited to visit Cambridge in July). My hotel was near the Glenelg Tram so I decided to include that in the journey. The tramway runs 12.3-kilometres from the city CBD to the coast south of Adelaide in a straight line. The tram system was refurbished in 2006 with Flexity Classics vehicles from Bombardier and improved track and stops. The network was extended further into the CBD in 2007.

The trams have raised platforms and good separation from traffic (the trams run on their own right of way for most of the trip separated from roadways). Adelaide has a well integrated ticketing system with one ticket working on buses, trams and trains. I was able to purchase an all day ticket from a conductor on the tram. The bus drivers also sell tickets and the trains have coin operated ticket machines. Tickets are validated at the start of each ride with machines near the entrances on the vehicles. Unlike the inconvenient and dangerous Melbourne system, there are no ticket vending machines on the trams.

While the trams are only a few years old, the fabric of the seats are starting to show signs of wear. There appears to be no padding in the seats at all, with thin cloth laid over a very hard plastic shell. A few mm of padding would make the seats a lot more comfortable. The windows of the trams have been covered with advertising on the outside which limits vision through the perforations in the ads. Commuters are unlikely to notice this, but it is annoying for tourists who want to see the view.

The ride of the trams is much better than the old class H trams (which are run on weekends for the tourists) but is still bumpy in places. The few hundred metres of track at Glenegle has a nasty vibration, which made my teeth hurt, and needs work. However, the discomfort is rewarded when the tram comes to a stop at the end of the line in sight of the ocean, with a cafe on one side and a mall on the other.

There are bicycle lockers provided at some stops and bicycles (and surfboards) are not permitted on the trams. The stops are well laid out and designed for long vandal resistant life. There is a sponsored mural near the depot at Glandore.

The section of the line in the Adelaide CBD and at Glenelg is free, providing a very useful service for short journeys. Unfortunately this results in overcrowding of the trams in the CBD. However, this was not as uncomfortable as the loading on the Istanbul tram.

Some of the stops were by request, with an automated announcement advising when the passenger needed to push a button to request a stop. One problem with this is that, unlike a bus, there appeared to be no audio or visual feedback to indicate that the stop request had been received, leaving me wondering if the tram was going to stop. Overall this was an excellent service which should be expanded.

Adelaide O-Bahn Busway

Unlike the trams, which run down the streets of Adelaide, the busway was much harder to find. Google's trip planner advised me to take buss M44 and indicated which stop it left from in the city (in the same street the trams leave from). It would have been useful if the planner indicated what tram stop the bus sto was near, as this is a very long street with a lot of bus stops. Eventually I found the stop and checked the bus had a guide wheel. The wheel looks like one from a children's tricycle, mounted horizontally just behind the front door of the bus. This is linked to the front wheels of the bus and steers it automatically on the busway. I cancelled my ticket in the machine as on the tram. The buses for the buss way look very old and in need of replacement, reminding me of some in India. In particular the articulated buses look very worn (there are technical problems in replacing the articulated buses).

The buses travel slowly through the city traffic, indistinguishable from any other bus (apart from looking a generation older). They then divert onto the busway, past a warning sign to motorists and over a "sump buster" to catch those which did not heed the warning. The busway looks like a children's toy wooden railway rack enlarged. The track is made of concrete sections laid on concrete sleepers. There are gaps between the sleepers where you can see the ground underneath. There is a disconcertingly small lip on the side of the track for the guide wheel. The track for the opposite direction seems very close (with the windows on the right die of the bus limited to only opening a few cm, presumably for safety). It would appear that if the guide system failed the bus would be derailed, colliding with an oncoming bus or plummeting off the bridges into the river, but the other passengers seemed unconcerned.

The busway follows the Adelaide River Torrens Linear Park away from streets, making it feel like a trip in the countryside. The buses travel at 80 to 100 km/h and stop at three interchanges: Klemzig Station, Paradise and Tea Tree Plaza. At each stop the bus leaves the busway and returns to running on a regular road. As a result the busway itself is not very apparent to the commuter.

For a system that has been in use for twenty years, the o-bhan is in good condition. The interchanges look a little dated, the buses look past time for retirement, but the track system looks like it could go on for ever. Adelaide should keep this system.

There is a problem with a slightly bumpy ride with the joins between the sections of concrete track (much more frequent joins that with steel tram lines). These bumps have caused problems with uncomfortable oscillations in new designs of articulated buses, but are also uncomfortable on regular buses. It should be possible to overcome this problem with a computer controlled ferromagnetic damper added to the bus suspension.

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