On Trackless Trams

Zhuzhou, Hunan, China has deployed a segment of `trackless trams’ (map – it runs on the north-south route in the center of the map in this Olympics district). The technology, explained in this video, is an articulated, rubber-tired on road, electric vehicle that carries passengers on a marked right-of-way adjacent to traffic. The interior has a layout typical of trams or LRT vehicles, and it has tramlike doors. The stops are at stations with protective gates aligned with platform doors like modern LRT and Metro systems so people are less likely to be on the track.  The vehicle, though billed as “autonomous” is in fact merely  “driver assist”, as the video plainly shows a driver and steering wheel and explains. The markings on the road are used to help the guidance system (and the driver) stay centered in the lane.


There is a lot of hype about such systems. It is being widely promoted by Prof Peter Newman out of Perth (Curtin University), who has long been influential in transport policy in Australia, and has had government positions. (You may remember him from Sustainability and Cities).

In Australia, `trackless trams’ keep getting suggested for various corridors, two in particular are”

  • From the City of Liverpool (Western Suburb) to the now under construction Western Sydney airport Links: (1) (2) (3) The Liverpool – airport corridor has been mooted for public transport, and BRT seems perfectly logical there, trackless tram loses the ability to feed the line from side streets.
  • Parramatta Road from the City of Sydney to Parramatta. This is a suburban strip/car sewer for much of its length, and could be so much more. With the construction of the tunneled motorway project (WestConnex), there have been promises made to rejuvenate the road and create an exclusive transit lane for its length (it exists in places but not continuously), but commitments are fluid. The route once had trams, and today has many many buses. Links: (1) (2) (3)


One broader issue of course is that it is a bit of vapourware. There is a Chinese line as noted above (so it is decades ahead of Hyperloop), but essentially no one here has ridden on it, and many people/professionals are naturally skeptical of performance and reliability and real costs.

Politicians however are especially vulnerable to the new and shiny (the TV series Utopia/Dreamland is a documentary), anything that gets them above the fold in the newspaper or on the local news at 6, so it attracts more attention than more mundane ideas like bus electrification and exclusive bus lanes and transit signal pre-emption, in short Rapid Bus or Bus Rapid Transit.

And there is a strong anti-labour thread in these discussions, so any opportunity to automate and get rid of drivers and of the risk of labor work actions is seen as attractive. That said, the technology isn’t actually automated yet. Not to say it won’t be in the indefinite future, but not for the initial deployment.

Trams in Sydney especially are seen as expensive, and the two of the most recent tram projects (Newcastle LRT, and the City and Southeast LRT in Sydney) have had huge cost blowouts (and were poorly scoped), so naturally there is searching for other modes.

Perhaps electric bus rapid transit needs a rebranding, but no one should be confused about what a `trackless tram’ actually is. It is an advanced, electric bus in an exclusive bus lane operating like gold standard bus rapid transit. There is nothing wrong with advanced buses. There is nothing wrong with bus lanes. There is nothing wrong with bus rapid transit. Cities should deploy more of these things, and if politicians need to use the silly phrase “trackless tram” or anything else to get this popularly accepted by a political class, media, and public with the attention of a gnat, there are worse indignities the profession suffers.