Monday, September 12, 2011

I See Red!

While it might appear that we have scant regard for red lights, it also appears people are willing to apply the same laws of physics to a tram that they do to a car (which is often 5% of less the weight!). These people include those who design the timing of lights between the orange and the red. It's a common complaint and without actually driving a tram, it is rather difficult to appreciate what's going on.

I'll knock out the basics. In some intersections, T-lights are separate to the traditional light sequences. Sometimes you get the three signals (white, orange and red) and other times you get a white 'T' that flashes up briefly during the sequence. These can function independently of the traditional vehicle lights, so while a tram might appear to be going through a red light, it is in fact using a separate light. Most drivers gong before moving off, as it might be a surprise for jaywalkers, etc. If I was breaking the law in a massive vehicle like a tram, I doubt drawing attention to the fact by gonging would help! Some signals have been around forever, and some have been installed under the Think Tram program to help get trams moving. For the most part it works very well, but can suffer from:

1. Cars blocking the intersection.
2. Jaywalkers (especially intending passengers running in front, who probably moan about late trams or grumpy drivers on Twitter afterwards).
3. Not enough space on the opposite side to clear the intersection.
4. Defective lantern (the light's blown).

One rather major problem with this design is that the tram has to be stationary long enough for the sensor to pick it up. That, and the fact that sometimes they appear to work randomly and are often biased towards traffic exiting the city. Sometimes they don't even work at all during certain hours in certain directions. I'm sure VicRoads could answer plenty of questions, but I digress.

Regular traffic lights present a rather unique set of problems for Tram Drivers. Off the bat, the lights are designed for other vehicles, cars mainly. T-light sequences are usually longer as they take into account the different speed of trams. The best way to communicate this is perhaps by using gas and electric cooking as an example. They both cook, but gas heats up much faster than electricity. Then there's the weight difference. The lightest tram without passengers is almost 20 tonnes. Yes, 20,000kg. Put this up against your average 900-1100kg car, and you can see why we're a little slower. Unlike cars, we have can have a large number of unrestrained passengers, some standing. We need to consider our load (something @96tram does more often on Twitter I think. If you don't follow, do it now). And now this is where it gets mildly technical, but bear with me.

The massive tram network is broken down into sections and these are separated by section insulators. These are essentially points where the massive circuit can be broken without shutting down the whole network. Say a truck hits an overhead pole at Flinders and Swanston. Trams throughout the city and along most of those routes can still continue. Anyway, the actual section insulators are "dead" zones in the overhead without power and as we cross them, we need to stop accelerating. Ever see those large flashes of light at intersections in the city? Yep, that's them. Even if we burn them or stop accelerating to drift under them, we lose power. Due to the intersections, many of them are placed at either side of the middle, so just as we're speeding up from a stop, we have to ease up. This, added to all the other issues that trams face, contributes to our lack of success at sometimes making across the intersection in time.

Oh, and there's a final reason that is usually the one most passengers and pedestrians think of when trams run lights - we're in a hurry. I've seen trams go through reds before and not just by a whisker either, so I know it happens. It could be fatigue, impatience, late running, any number of things. I know I've a couple of close calls and I'm going to do an entry on fatigue issues later on that might explain that we're not all impatient shits. If you're on a tram and the driver is running the reds (and not using white Ts instead), get in touch with Yarra Trams on the website. It gives us all problems, with rostering issues and other fun things. And besides, it's always nice to know legitimate discipline works - not just that initiated by tabloid newspapers.

So what does a professional tram driver like me do to avoid such danger and embarrassment? My trainer taught me that as soon as the red man starts flashing, sit back and relax for the next set. So far that's worked well, except for the abusive set who see green with no tram moving and then see red. Yes, you're going to be late for your train/bus/brain transplant/yum cha/pilates session, but leaving things so late that a single change of lights can make or break your day is not anyone's fault but your own.

Some things to remember as a pedestrian when you're around trams:
1. We're big, heavy and have plenty of blind spots. You don't ever want to find out where they are.
2. Even if the green man is up, it's not some magical protective shield that stops the laws of physics. If you're lying on the slab down at the coroner's office or eating food through a straw for the rest of your life, knowing whose fault it was or who broke the law won't change a thing. Always look where you're going! This goes for all kinds of traffic and is not some sort of threat. There are plenty of dipshits out there on drugs, raging against talkback radio, tired, sleepy, angry, in a rush, drunk and just plain dumb. They speed, can't read, fail to indicate, run lights and do all sorts of stuff. They may or may not have licenses, registered, serviced or roadworthy vehicles, insurance or the balls to stop after an accident. It might be stolen. They might be old, frail, blind, deaf. They might hit the accelerator instead of the brakes, they might get hit from behind, they might have a pregnant woman on board. The truth is even if you know or are related to that person driving the vehicle, how can you ever be 100% about it? How on earth does a parent reverse over their own child? Shit happens, and the important thing is to have your wits about you when it does to avoid getting stained or to avoid it all in the first place.


  1. I'm really enjoying your articles, and they're collectively forming a fantastic reference to which to point people. Keep it up!

  2. I really hope I am not a tram behind you if you only move forward at traffic lights when the green walk signal is showing, in fact I hope I am not passenger either. If a green traffic light is showing, there is no reason why a tram cannot proceed if the intersection is clear. If trams are to be a choice of transport when there are alternatives, they really need to be moving faster along their routes. Otherwise, pretty spot on.

  3. But Andrew, there is indeed a reason: moving off in a tram on a green light doesn't guarantee that the light won't be red by the time the tram clears the intersection. In that case, cue all the complaints about trams running red lights. It can be pretty lose-lose at times.

    Most of the city intersections have very precise timings, e.g. "don't walk" signal flashes 15 times before vehicle signal turns yellow. Knowing the exact position of the cycle at any particular point in time can be advantageous, but there's still always the risk of being wrong or the light sequence being altered.

  4. Thanks for all the compliments. I have to say that while this method might be slower, it's a lot safer - no dramas or complaints from anyone, except a handful of impatient passengers. There are many city intersections with varying times. It's hard to gauge.

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  6. Alex, it does not matter what the traffic lights do in the meantime. Trams can start on a green light. This is Melbourne where trams often aren't clear of intersections when the opposing lights turn green. It is the nature of the beast. I can think of some intersections where it would be impossible for a tram to enter if the thought of a traffic light being green on the opposing road stopped the driver from proceeding.

  7. Just to add, what might work in east west streets in the city where there are less trams, may not work in Swanston Street where the slightest delay can cause a bank up of trams.

  8. I agree that at law, if the light is green and the road beyond the intersection is clear, then the tram should go. As a tram driver I myself routinely take advantage of this.

    However, I do so with extreme caution because people frequently demonstrate poor understanding of The Road Rules.

    In my experience, moving a tram through a city intersection near the end of the "green time" often leads to, at the very least:

    1. near-misses from vehicles executing hook turns incorrectly

    2. unnecessary attention in the form of car horns—and consequent erroneous deduction from onlookers that the tram is at fault

    3. unofficial—and probably even official—complaints when trams are seen to (albeit legitimately) be temporarily fouling someone else's green light

    And unfortunately, laws aside, these at times constitute reason enough not to go on a green.

    Does it result in lots of small, avoidable delays that essentially snowball? Absolutely.

    But I'll take these any day over longer delays caused by impact with a vehicle or pedestrian, even if at law I'm absolved of all responsibility.

    Don't get me wrong: I totally wish that it didn't need to be this way. That it is, though, is beyond my power.

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