Ensuring that rollingstock supply keeps up with the boom in infrastructure construction is a significant task for Victoria, but the state has a plan to do it.
Over the next 30 years, the population of Melbourne is forecast to grow to roughly eight million people. Notwithstanding the impact of COVID-19, the city is expected to return to its pattern rapid growth over the next three decades.
Three decades is also about the expected lifespan of rollingstock. What this means is that today, Victoria must begin planning for the trains and trams it will need to ensure that the population of 2050 can move around the city in a safe, accessible, and convenient manner.
Compounding these timelines is the age of the current rail fleet. The oldest rollingstock still operating on the network are the classic carriages on the regional network with some over 60 years old. Similarly, the oldest metropolitan heavy rail cars are approaching 40 years of service, as are the ageing Z-class trams. These oldest trains and trams are less reliable than their more modern counterparts, provide a diminished customer experience, and in the case of Victoria’s fleet of high-floor trams, are non-compliant with legislated disability standards.
To address these challenges, in 2015, the Victorian government released the Trains, Trams, Jobs 2015-2025 Victorian Rolling Stock Strategy to outline a pathway for the state to meet its need for new and improved trains and trams. Five years on, and with growth continuing, the strategy is in the process of a refresh. Louise Bensz, strategy and business case manager, rollingstock development, at the Department of Transport Victoria, outlined to attendees at AusRAIL Live & On Demand that while updated, the new strategy shares the same aim as the original.
“The Victorian rollingstock strategy seeks to ensure that Victoria’s train, tram, and bus services have the right vehicle at the right capacity to meet passenger needs demand,” said Bensz.
In the years since the first strategy was released, infrastructure in Victoria has undergone a transformation. Project such as the Regional Rail Revival program are already having an impact on how Victorians travel, and with upgrades to the physical infrastructure to allow for more services, there is a need for rollingstock to fill that demand.
“Investment is required in rollingstock to ensure that we can improve service reliability, improve service frequency and also ensure that we can meet capacity increase across the network that’s built in the infrastructure program,” said Bensz.
Bensz enumerated four key concepts that will drive the future rollingstock procurement strategy. These include; more frequent and reliable services throughout the day, accessibility for all, connecting the cities and regions, and reducing journey times between economic centres to support growth outside of the city centre.
To achieve these goals, the rollingstock strategy not only proposes the number of carriages to be purchased, but a smarter way to approach purchasing, operating, and maintaining rollingstock. This starts with increasing uniformity across the fleet. Then, by sectorising the network, resilience is improved. Looking for ways to maximise infrastructure capacity and reducing empty running improves services and increases revenue. Finally, the ability to be flexible in the delivery of services would allow for the matching of appropriate rollingstock with the level of passenger demand. This could include considering different rollingstock options for different travel times.
“Our refresh strategy is looking to outline a pathway for government to have strategic investment ensuring we have the right type of vehicle for our network, with a strong pipeline of projects for our local industry,” said Bensz.
Amid these logistical and operational issues, the Victorian rollingstock strategy also seeks to support the local rollingstock manufacturing industry. With minimum content requirements on local purchase orders of rollingstock, forecasting future demand and the rollingstock needed to meet those requirements means that the sector can avoid boom and bust cycles.
So far, the project has supported 10,000 jobs and local content requirements create a “unique opportunity” for the industry, according to Bensz.
The principles and goals that make up the strategy were recently applied in the Victorian government’s announcement that it would purchase 100 new trams for the Melbourne network. The purchase of the Next Generation Trams would go towards ensuring that the Melbourne light rail network has the capacity it requires to move passengers efficiently, while also meeting accessibility standards as all new trams will be low floor. Finally, the 60 per cent local content aspiration is expected to support up to 1,900 direct and indirect jobs and the state’s advanced manufacturing sector.
The purchase of 100 new trams addresses the current misalignment between the task that is required of the network and the capacity of the high floor tram fleet to meet that. Their low capacity, combined with a lack of accessibility and a high cost of maintenance meant that the current fleet was not fulfilling the immediate and long-term aims of the network.
Not only improving the customer experience through the introduction of modern trams with improved passenger information and airconditioning, the tender has been designed to meet the needs of the network and industry. The use of onboard energy storage is designed to reduce the load on the existing electrification network. The tender, developed through an interactive design process, also promotes collaboration between industry and government in meeting the unique aspects of the Melbourne tram network.
With further purchase orders expected for regional and metropolitan rollingstock, Bensz said that the strategy will guide the development of tenders to align best with the infrastructure boom.
“When we’re applying the rollingstock lifecycle and our strategy it’s really important that we keep drawing back to the growth in patronage and also the task in which the vehicle is to perform.”