One tourist called it ‘the tram that never comes’. Will new penalties make a popular Melbourne attraction run on time?

<span>‘A tram ride on the City Circle is an experience,’ a tourism chief says of the Route 35 service around Melbourne.</span><span>Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian</span>
‘A tram ride on the City Circle is an experience,’ a tourism chief says of the Route 35 service around Melbourne.Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

It’s one of Melbourne’s top tourist attractions and not even cold, foggy weather can deter Dang, Nguyet and their daughters, Quynh and Chi, from joining the crowd of fellow travellers experiencing it.

The Vietnamese family of four say a trip on the free City Circle – serviced by green and gold vintage trams with a pre-recorded audio tour guide – has come highly recommended for their Melbourne holiday.

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“I like the cold,” Quynh says as she waits for the tram to rattle and rumble down Flinders Street. “We came here [to Victoria] to see the snow for the first time anyway.”

They only have a short wait before the tram arrives. But many others aren’t so lucky.

The wait for some Route 35 trams is dragging out to 30 minutes that same day, more than double the 12 minutes required under the tram operator’s contract with the Victorian government.

Despite being a popular tourist drawcard – it duels with the Royal Botanic Gardens as Melbourne’s top attraction on the world’s biggest travel site, Tripadvisor – Route 35 has long been beset by delays and cancellations. One of the latest reviews on the site is titled The tram never comes.

But the government says the familiar rattle of Melbourne’s vintage W-class trams should become more frequent as it hands over the reins of the world’s largest light-rail system to a new operator.

Under the contract, the City Circle service will be subject to new performance targets – separate to those for all other routes – and penalties will be introduced for non-delivery.

A Public Transport Users Association spokesperson, Daniel Bowen, says the change makes sense as under the current contract there is “no incentive to stick to the timetabled service”.

“There probably was a focus on the routes that got penalised, so if there was a driver shortage or an event on, that would be prioritised,” he says. “It’s not a great look if tourists are waiting out in the cold and rain for extended periods for a tram that does show up.”

Felicia Mariani, the chief executive of the Victoria Tourism Industry Council, believes the tram is a major drawcard.

“I know we have the free tram zone throughout the city, which probably makes the route less important than it used to be, but a tram ride on the City Circle is an experience,” she says.

“It’s provides commentary, they use the beautiful old heritage tram. It’s not just a utilitarian trip from A to B. It’s an experience really unique to Melbourne.”

She says it’s important the route is seen “as part of the public transport network” by its operator.

“Not having [it as] part of their obligations sends a signal it’s not important, so it’s nice to see they have added it in,” Mariani says.

The public transport minister, Gabrielle Williams, last week announced that France’s Transdev and the Chinese-government-owned construction giant John Holland will take over the running of the tram network from 1 December.

The consortium’s contract, reportedly worth $6.8bn, will run for nine years, with promises of improved reliability and customer service.

Bowen says the new operator should go further with the City Circle tram, including by making it run in both directions as was previously the case, to allow for more use by workers in the central business district.

“There are certain journeys around the CBD for which the City Circle was the best route to catch if you’re going to and from a particular spot that wasn’t served by the other routes,” he said.

“It’s become less useful than it was for those sorts of trips, because it only runs in that clockwise direction now.”

The government has also said the new contract will deem trams more than 20 minutes behind schedule cancelled, bringing tougher penalties for late services and incentivising the operator to run services as scheduled.

Bowen says the new measures will not be helpful unless the government also commits to improving traffic flow on roads shared with trams.

“Hopefully the new incentives work,” he says. “But, ultimately, they can only do so much. If the traffic in inner-city city Melbourne is terrible, penalising the operator for that doesn’t help.”

Back on Flinders Street, Brian, who is visiting Melbourne from the US, says he didn’t mind a 10-minute wait for a Route 35 tram as he thinks it’s a more comfortable way to see the city on a cold winter’s day..

“It’s too cold to get off and take a look around so I am probably going to ride this thing around and get off where I started and get a coffee,” he says.

“Or maybe something stronger.”