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Experts urge caution as council candidates push for trackless trams


Lord Mayoral candidate Sandy Verschoor and central ward contender Driller Jet Armstrong say ‘trackless trams’ are the future of public transport in the city, but transport and engineering experts remain wary of the fledgling technology.

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Both Verschoor and Armstrong say they would support a council-led push for the State Government to invest in the autonomous tram technology.

New generation ‘trackless Trams’ run on rubber wheels and are powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

Chinese engineering company CRRC unveiled the first trackless trams – dubbed the “future alternative to light rail” – in November last year, with testing still underway to determine their suitability for mainstream use.

Verschoor is entering the upcoming council elections promising to “strongly advocate” for the State Government to consider investing in the technology.

She said a slim design and impressive cost efficiency made investing in ‘trackless trams’ a “no-brainer” for Adelaide, and spruiked the potential for the vehicles to connect O’Connell Street to the city centre.

“We can’t just keep harking back to the ’80s with our transport; we have to keep looking forward to the future,” Verschoor told InDaily.

“The evidence is that trackless trams won’t impact businesses – with the extension to 88 O’Connell that would take two years to rip up the centre of the road and to put in the tracks – but with trackless trams that wouldn’t be the case.”

Verschoor said the trams could save the Government “hundreds of millions of dollars” in running costs and infrastructure works.

She said the trams could also be used to connect the city to the airport.

“The reality is we do need to connect to the airport and this could be how we do it,” she said.

“It would provide a quick and low-cost alternative for travellers to and from the city.”

Central ward candidate and Sugar nightclub owner Driller Jet Armstrong has also thrown his support behind trackless tram routes to North Adelaide and the Airport.

He said routes could be extended to Norwood and Unley – similar to Labor’s tram extension plan.

“We have so many visitors to Adelaide, we have to have ‘trackless trams’ to provide them with that quick and easy transport through the city,” Armstrong said.

“With the ‘trackless trams’ you could definitely turn right onto North Terrace and then towards the East of the City, connecting it back to the city centre.

“Having ‘trackless trams’ for the airport would be amazing.”

But despite some optimism – including Curtin University professor of sustainability Peter Newman’s claim that ‘trackless trams’ are the “future alternative to light rail” – other academics say there is too little research to justify the technology’s supposed benefits.

Monash University professor in transport engineering Graham Currie told InDaily it was “too early” for Governments of any level to consider investing in the technology as information from CRRC was yet to be independently supported.

“We shouldn’t jump for it without the research and the proper consideration – it’s all too uncertain,” he said.

“What we have at the moment is a monopoly situation. All that we know is what the Chinese company that makes them – CRRC – is saying, which is speculative data.

“What they are saying is highly encouraging but we have to take a medium-term view – about 10 years – before we know if what they’re saying about the technology really adds up.”

Currie said he would “absolutely support” Verschoor and Armstrong’s push for council to consider the technology for the future, but warned it would be unwise to invest straight away.

“We should be improving our public transport systems and we should be doing it in the most cost-effective way but we should be waiting another 10 years in the horizon before we seriously consider investing in this new technology.”

University of Adelaide senior lecturer in geography Dr Jennifer Bonham, who specialises in urban mobility and processes, told InDaily while she was yet to research trackless trams, the autonomous nature of the vehicles would need to be carefully considered.

“One of the advantages with the tracks is that people know where they are going,” she said.

“I certainly wouldn’t invest straight away based on the cost savings because they are still only assumptions.”

But, she said ‘trackless trams’ were worth investigating as an alternative to more cars on the road.

“I think it’s certainly worth investigating some of the advantages, particularly based on the cost and how they would improve the overall public transport sector.”

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