Sunday, November 6, 2011

Why do trams drive slowly?

Recently I got a message from @drbuttocks about trams running slowly and I thought it might be worth exploring. The tram issue more than the buttocks. While I can’t promise an answer to every occasion when a tram runs slower than normal, I hope I might be able to expand on some of the reasons why this happens. These are in no particular order!

1. The most obvious reason for a tram driving slowly is early running, and this is a pretty big one. A tram that runs early does the following:

a. Stuffs up the driver behind, who picks up passengers who should have been on the earlier tram, but missed it and found that the “2:45pm” didn’t turn up. They aren’t usually the happy and forgiving kind, either.

b. The company loses through penalties, of which early running is a major culprit. However, for a tram to “run early” in terms of the penalty system, it has to pass a specific point and not just any old stop. What happens in between these specific points can be interesting.

c. When a roster review comes around, the powers that be can identify that a tram has taken less time between two points and if enough trams do that, the timetable is tightened.

2. Sometimes trams can suffer from faults that can cause problems with movement. There are hundreds of different things that can go wrong on a tram, and when you don’t have a steering wheel, driving slowly can be very effective. However, if a tram does have to drive slowly because of a fault, passengers should be removed. Yes, it sucks, but if my brakes are causing issues, I’m not about to use passengers as crash test dummies.

3. Drivers themselves can have an impact on going slow. I have certain spots on the network where I’ve had awful accidents and I naturally go a little slower. There are also areas that have frequent accidents (and much less frequent attention). Sometimes there are track issues, where due to infrastructure, trams need to drive slowly. Sometimes a tram that’s been involved in a minor accident can remain in service. If that occurs, a slow driver should come as no real surprise.

4. Some drivers, when running early, drive slowly. Others get to a point where they can stop without blocking traffic and just wait it out.

5. Periods of the year can also impact on our timetables. School holidays can make certain trips, especially around 3pm, seem much longer without the little bundles of joy.

6. Some drivers are pricks and are looking for the short shunt. This doesn’t happen as often as it seems, but there are some drivers who drive slowly so they don’t have to go all the way. They usually get sorted out back at the depot for stuffing us up.

7. There are some older drivers out there. Older people tend to drive a little slower than younger people. It’s because they don’t have the reflexes they once had, or they’ve seen what happens to their mates who are in a rush.

8. We are trained to drive at a safe speed and to have the tram under control at all times. If conditions are crappy, such as rain or lots of pedestrians, speeding isn’t really an option. There are also protocols for tram movements, especially in the city.

9. Sometimes we are instructed to go slowly. We might need to swap drivers with another tram (to get the journey back on time without turning a tram around). Sometimes there might be drunks on the tracks somewhere.

10. If a passenger is talking to us up front, you can’t expect us to keep our feet planted. While there are notices up telling passengers not to do this, most people seem to think they’re the exception.

11. Conditions can dictate our speed. If there’s a tram in front with a problem/slow driver, obviously the tram cannot overtake. Safe gaps need to exist between trams, and if you’re right up the back of a packed tram, you might not always see what’s in front.

12. It’s easier and smoother to stop a tram travelling slowly than one travelling faster. Less chance of a passenger getting injured and less chance for other injuries and damage. It would be wonderful if we could get out there and drive faster, but due to the nature of the poorly-policed roads, especially the tram system, we can’t. There’s simply too many dickheads and not enough hours in the fortnight for the appropriate paperwork that would follow.

13. The driver’s being a dick and using his or her phone/reading the paper while they drive. Yes, this does happen unfortunately. I’m not one to do so – I only whip out the phone when I’m not driving. As per the rules.
If it helps at all, my shift won’t finish any faster if I put my foot down. If it says I’m finishing at 2147hrs, that’s when I’ll be finishing. We don’t get home early if we race, and it usually ends in tears when we do. It also works the same the other way – why on earth would we drive slowly to piss off our passengers? I do it for safety and punctuality (definitely in that order). The last thing I want while operating a heavy vehicle without a steering wheel is someone in my ear about how they left it to the last moment before leaving for their appointment.

It’s actually much more stressful to try and stick to the timetable than it used to be, so plenty of drivers have adopted the “fuck this shit, I’m going to do what’s comfortable” mentality. I’m one of those. It seems as though the company has reached the conclusion that tram drivers don’t need their lay up time at the end of the line, and if they run late, we don’t get fined as much as when they run early. If we can make them run late all the time, they can never run early. So while many drivers might respond to this by driving faster to keep up, there are plenty of us who have done the opposite. In terms of “thinking like a passenger”, I’d rather have a relaxed driver turn up a few minutes late than have some stress-ball race up on time and make me fear for my life. If you get the chance to ask any driver about this, please do. Working for almost 5 hours at a time without a decent break like we used to have is bullshit. Yes, we can leave the terminus later and have a bit of a breather, but we get called in and harassed by managers if we do. We also cop abuse from passengers, many of whom find it easier to yell at us than to make it formal – which counts against the company in the government’s eyes. I wonder what long-term issues this so-called policy will have?

(Disclaimer: this is not some sort of union-backed “go-slow” campaign, as claimed by some that exists in the train system when union bashing comes in and out of fashion. It’s a simple way of dealing with a very stressful occupation.

Here’s an example if you need it.

I leave the terminus on time. Throughout the journey, I run later, and later, and later because the time between two points has been set so I don’t run early. I have ten minutes at the other end, but I get there twelve minutes late. Not late enough for a short shunt, but late enough that when I change ends to go back, I’m already late. This snowballs and places us under a lot of pressure. Naturally, all the passenger sees is a late tram, perhaps a driver under the pump if they look a little closer.

@drbuttocks and others, I hope this clears up some of the reasons why trams go slowly. Yes, it can be very shitty and annoying, especially if you’re running late, but please keep an open mind. Most of us are doing our best to keep things moving and we appreciate your patience and tolerance!


  1. "but there are some drivers who drive slowly so they don’t have to go all the way. "

    As a passenger, I have experienced being kicked off a tram because a tram is either turning around before the end of the line, or running direct to the end of the line without picking up/setting down passengers. (Both of which usually occur along Swanston street in between Queensbury Street and Melbourne Uni, where Melbourne Uni is the endf of the line and only 5 or so stops away).

    Is this just those "some" drivers, or are there legitimate reasons for this?

  2. Thanks for enlightening us about this, mate. It's not really something I've experienced in a while, fortunately. But it's certainly something that's puzzled and frustrated (it's difficult to stay objective as a passenger - though I do have considerably more patience with Yarra Trams than I do with Metlink) me from time to time.

    Loving the blog. Keep up the elucidation :)

  3. What is the "penalty system"?

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