Monday, 14 April 2014

this Melbourne tram stop is going to get someone killed

Six weeks ago, I sent the following correspondence to Melbourne's fine public transport authorities, concerning the Macarthur Street tram stop at Parliament station.

Although I was promptly thanked for my "very detailed feedback" (chuckle chuckle), I am still yet to receive a reply of any substance.

Impatient for new blog material, and desperate to safeguard the well-being of the Travelling Public, I now throw my usually stoic patience to the wind, and post my letter for all to see.


To the team at Yarra Trams,

When I was a boy, I used to love spending hours poring over my Dad's collection of bush survival manuals. Because of these books, my young mind soon became equipped with the foolish notion that I was now well trained to negotiate with wildlife ("chimpanzees can be very bad tempered"), navigate extreme weather ("do not drive in a hurricane"), or fight off a shark ("most sharks are cowards and can be scared off by the jab of a stick, especially on the nose").

But my favourite section of these books was always the chapter on constructing snares. I was fascinated by the myriad ways that various critters could be outsmarted through mere combinations of string, sticks, and rocks!

I mention this because now, thanks to you, I have had the opportunity to observe one of the finest snares ever constructed—the Macarthur Street "easy access" tram stop outside Parliament train station. If there is any creation of man or nature that is more adept at placing life in peril than this tram stop, I am yet to see it.

On a sunny day, I love to spend my lunch breaks sitting with a book in Gordon Reserve, right next to the Macarthur Street stop. But it's hard to get much reading done. Once, usually twice, or sometimes even thrice during the thirty-odd minutes I am there, I hear a cacophony of ding-ding-dings and honk-honks from stopping trams, mixed in with shouts from angry commuters.

The problem? Cars are failing to stop behind the tram for passengers to alight and board. In most instances I've seen, cars are scooting through the tram stop even as the tram doors have opened and passengers are moving onto the road. Here's a video (not mine) of a tame instance of this problem.

Realising that (a) somebody is eventually going to get killed, and (b) I will never finish Don Quixote with all these distractions, I resolved to investigate further.

And my conclusion is this: the design of the "easy access" stop misleads drivers into thinking they don't have to stop when a tram arrives. In other words, the Macarthur Street stop is a perfect snare.


As you can see from the book, a well-made snare follows four basic rules. Firstly, you must avoid disturbing the environment, leaving no sign that there is a trap in place.

Here is my photo of the Macarthur street tram stop, taken from the Spring Street intersection.  This is what drivers see as they approach—namely, nothing!  No markings on the road.  No flashing warning lights. No visible signs. Just open road.

"Oh, but we put a sign there!", you say. Yes, you're right. Here it is, circled in red:

Oh, for christ's sake, let's try again. Here it is—this time with the previous red circle circled again with another red circle and some arrows and whatnot and another circle added:

Unfortunately, until everyone starts wearing Google Glass (and listening to what I say), no driver will get to see my red circles when they approach Macarthur Street. Instead, they'll see a clear, empty road.

I've also noticed you've installed an electronic sign for traffic coming in the other direction.  Unfortunately, when I was there taking pictures, it (helpfully) wasn't working:

The second maxim of good snare design is to hide your scent. Macarthur Street does this very well.  Drivers do not smell a tram stop coming.

Coming from the west on Collins Street, car drivers pass tram stops at Spencer, King, William, Queen, Elizabeth, Swanston, Exhibition, and Spring Streets, each and every one of which is segregated from traffic, allowing passengers to wait in the centre of the road while traffic passes freely.

Coming from the east, drivers pass tram stops at Albert Street and St Vincent's Plaza, which again separate passengers from vehicle traffic, allowing cars to keep driving as the tram stops.

But at Macarthur Street, unlike any other stop I can think of in the area, drivers are required to stop on the road behind trams, contradicting the entire setup of the rest of the Melbourne CBD, which (admirably) does its best to keep vast amounts of people and automobiles apart as much as possible.

In fact, your own website agrees, stating that "the new easy access stop on Macarthur Street is different to other stops in Melbourne". That same website then goes on to provide, of all things, a users guide on how to drive through the stop!  Frankly, this is ridiculous—I don't know if Yarra Trams pools its resources with the brains trust behind myki, but when public transport arrangements now require the public to read instruction manuals in order to venture out-of-doors safely, something is amiss.

"Ah, but road conditions change", you say, "so drivers should pay attention appropriately!" Well, this leads me to the third snare design rule—camouflage.

Three things happen to the road as cars approach the Macarthur Street stop. The first, as seen in my "red circles and arrows" picture above, is that a raised plastic yellow dividing line separates tram traffic from vehicle traffic.

Secondly, the road becomes slightly grade-separated from the tram tracks, rising up as a ramp:

And thirdly, as seen above, small reflective dividing markers form a barrier between tramway and roadway.

Taken together, what these three changes in the road do is create the impression amongst motorists that they are entering a dedicated piece of roadway, where neither tram nor pedestrian will stand in their way. After all, CBD motorists are used to this arrangement—as I said earlier, cars approaching most of the new platform "superstops" are funnelled into dedicated roadways as they approach and drive past the stop.

The problem is, while Macarthur Street looks as if it follows this model, providing an express lane for cars to zoot on by, it acts in a completely opposite manner. In essence, the tram stop has become camouflaged.

Even your own copywriter is fooled by this arrangement, with your website stating: "Pedestrians will have safer access to trams as cars will need to enter a dedicated area of road"—a worrying statement, given that we've seen exactly how the road is not dedicated solely to cars!

Finally, we have snare design precept number four: make it strong.  Rest assured, you've done well here; this urban snare is very, very strong. But, if you are thinking about transforming Macarthur Street from a maze of death into a place where people can safely board and alight trams, small measures can still be taken.

If I were in charge of fixing this silly thing, I'd paint TRAM STOP AHEAD (repeatedly!) in large multicoloured letters on the road approaching the stop, throwing in a few rumble strips for good measure, and then at the actual tram stop, clearly mark the area over which people will be walking by way of colourful diagonal stripes, and maybe some murals of sharks and bears and snakes just to reinforce the point that this Macarthur Street "easy access" tram stop is a very dangerous place.

But what do I know?  I've only read a survival manual.

Yours sincerely


PS: please plug your electronic sign in.


Update: In a convenient piece of timing, I received a response from Yarra Trams two days after posting this article.  Although the response did not discuss any of my concerns regarding the design of the tram stop beyond noting that Yarra Trams' engineering department would "consider the matter", it noted that:

"any additional treatment or road markings at this location would be the responsibility of the City of Melbourne. As Yarra Trams’ network is unique in being mostly shared with other road users, areas of responsibility are defined between us and other authorities."

Interestingly, the design of the stop itself was a project by ThinkTram, an entity "managed by VicRoads in partnership with the Department of Transport (now Public Transport Victoria) and Yarra Trams, in consultation with local government and local communities". 

Because of this, I initially addressed the above correspondence to ThinkTram, who then passed the issue onto PTV, who then handed it off again to Yarra Trams.  It therefore appears that although the tram stop was designed and built by ThinkTram, enquiries about it are being handled by Yarra Trams, while present and future responsibility for it now falls to the City of Melbourne.  An odd arrangement!

Next stop: the City of Melbourne.


  1. At the very least a series of painted pedestrian crossings would help.

  2. FYI The electronic sign lights up only when a tram is present, and does not illuminate all the time.

    1. That explains it, thanks for pointing that out. Still, that's rather ridiculous -- it seems like a case of "innovation" for innovation's sake. If the point of the sign is to warn drivers of the tram stop, surely it should be illuminated AT ALL TIMES, no?

      For example, even if no tram is present, a clearly visible sign would help to educate drivers passing through the stop for the first time, so that if they come through again (with tram), they're aware of the need to stop.

    2. Totally agree with that - a static sign with flashing lights is probably better than an illuminated sign. I prefer NSW's flashing school zone signs (as you know that there is a school zone present, even though it may be irrelevant at that point) rather than the Victorian ones that only tell you when the speed has changed without necessarily explaining why.

  3. I'm amazed that someone hasn't just gotten a bucket of paint and just painted their own markings on the road.

    Probably the best way about it.

  4. The issue of which agency is responsible for the stop (painted markings) is classic bureaucratic buck-passing. There is actually a provision in the rail safety law for interface agreements - which requires all those with a stake in a given section of track to agree on how it will be managed. Vic has done some stuff with its rail laws recently - I'm unsure whether that applies to trams as they almost always interface with roads - but in any case it's bemusing that they are washing their hand of it here. That's pretty poor stuff.