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Lyon: A tramway built in record time

The eagerness to open a tramway in France's second city has certainly not faded as C. J. Wansbeek discovers.

Alstom has produced an unique front-end design for the Lyon Citadis tram. Picture C. J. Wansbeek
Alstom has produced an unique front-end design for the Lyon Citadis tram. Picture C. J. Wansbeek

Much progress has been achieved since this magazine published an article in December 1997 with the headline 'Lyon eagerly awaits the return of the tram'.

Standard-gauge track-building at Lyon has reached breakneck speeds, a 26-track tram depot was built in record time, and each week a super-long truck from Alstom La Rochelle on the Atlantic Coast calls at Lyon, for the delivery of a yet another complete five-section low-floor Citadis tram. The entire 39-unit fleet will be operational in time for the start of the two-line tramway system on 22 December 2000. Costs of this FRF 2790 million project, in which a work force of over 1000 is involved, have been kept under tight control. All time schedules were met, tracks were laid through densely built-up areas. The goal is to finish the project within 3.5 years. Lyon is another proof that French cities possess the savoir-faire to build quality tram lines according to plan.

The city of Lyon is among the jewels of the Continent, situated at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers. With a population of 1.2 million, it is the second city of France. It lies 400 km south of Paris, and only 200 km west of Torino in Italy. In this elegant city, Italy seems nearby. With its ochre-, pink- and sand-coloured mansions, the Rhone River front evokes memories of the facades near the Arno at Firenze. In 1998, the entire inner city of Lyon, with its countless Renaissance buildings, was placed under the protection of UNESCO's Heritage of Mankind list. Lyon offers the best gastronomy of France; a place with a Southern joie de vivre.

In November 1996, when it was decided to "faire le tramway" (to build a tramway network), only a handful of people at Lyon understood what was going to happen, says Monsieur Pierre Garnier. A civil engineer by training, Monsieur Garnier is the Director of Development of SYTRAL, the public transport authority for the Greater Lyon Area. Interviewed recently at his office near the Part-Dieu railway station, Monsieur Garnier recalls that by 1995, almost everyone at Lyon was complaining about the deterioration of urban life. The sound levels on the avenues of Lyon reach levels around 70 decibels, whilst the threshold of 60 is the limit where the human body gets irritated and tired. The city seems near suffocation, there is much air pollution, caused by avalanche of private motor car use. Motor car use rose 25% since 1986. Over one-fifth of all car journeys at Lyon are made to cover distances of just one kilometre, or less. Instead of walking or cycling or the bus, it is the car. Trams were no longer a choice at Lyon, where the tramway system had closed in 1957.

In 1965, one-fifth of all traffic at Lyon was by bicycle. By 1995, the bicycle was almost gone. During more than three decades, but with limited success only, billions were invested in public transport - suburban railways, buses, trolleybuses. With 7 trolleybus lines still running in 2000, Lyon operates France's largest trolleybus network. On top of that, since 1978, Lyon built an entirely new 4-line metro system, which is now fully-grown, with a total track length of 31 km after completion of an extension on 1 September 2000. Construction costs of the four line metro network were over FRF 15 000 million.

Despite this excellent public transport, the modal split shows gains only for the motor car, which by 1995 accounted for over 85% of all journeys in Lyon. A few years ago, says Monsieur Garnier, we concluded that the only solution would consist of a transport plan with in-built measures to curb the grow of motor car use. So with the 1997 decision to build the tramway, came a policy to moderate car use. The tram, by the way, was preferred, as tram lines cost FRF 125 million/km to build (including the costs of embellishing the alignment), against FRF 500 million/km for the Lyon metro lines.

The changes were prepared with great care. Detailed transport studies were undertaken. In 1996, a debate with the citizens of Lyon was organised. Everyone was invited to express his views on the DPU, Plan des Déplacements Urbains, or Urban Transport Scheme. Several options to rescue the city from strangulation were presented to the population. Everywhere meetings were held, expositions, information through the media. Tens of thousands of inhabitants participated, many gave their views, there was a broad opinion poll based on scores of questions, everyone made it clear that something had to be done.

For a while, Lyon tilted towards introducing guided buses in one form or another, such as Bombardier's GLT/TVR, or the Matra Civis or the Translohr by Lohr. Soon, the tram came out as the serious option, reliable and manageable. Monsieur Garnier can only smile when asked for his view on urban networks in France which recently ordered guided buses of a yet-to-be-proven technology. Lyon abhors such surprises. Neither has it any interest in a tram without overhead wire. as may be pioneered by Bordeaux.

Monsieur Garnier predicts that chances are minimal for a bi-mode dual-voltage tram-train in France, following the Karlsruhe and Saarbrucken model. The idea of the hybrid tram-train is 'en vogue', and many in the suburbs of Lyon have now demanding to have a tram-train connection, but, Monsieur Garnier notes, no one seems to realise how high the price tag of the train-train is. And let's be realistic, he adds, there are some ten SNCF suburban railway lines in the Greater Lyon area, all in need of modernisation.

Why not first upgrade the existing railway lines? This means that the SNCF should order modem regional trains, for one-man operation, and that frequent and regular survives should be introduced by SNCE And what on earth prevents SNCF from re-activating the now-closed railway line to East Lyon, starting from the Part-Dieu station? All these measures may cost relatively few francs, and SNCF could finance this on its own. Only if this approach proves successful, it would make sense to study the idea of linking any suburban railway tracks with the Lyon urban tram tracks.

The outcome of the 1996 debate on the DPU is that Lyon formally adopted two permanent basic goals:

  1. Restrict the growth of car use;
  2. Create a total of 12 'lignes fortes' (busy routes), an interlocking network of public transport arteries covering the entire city.

Over these routes, there should be first-class transport. For a while it seemed as if all or most of the twelve lines were to be train lines, but in June 1997, the decision came to start with two tram lines, not more for the moment.

Nothing has been decided about future network expansion, everything depends on the outcome of the March 2001 local elections. These will be held all over France on the same date. Voters in many cities have an opportunity to make it clear through the ballot box that they want a tramway in their own city too. Meanwhile, technical studies at Lyon continue, and a second east-west line seems a logical complement to the first two lines.

Monsieur Garnier says that many had assumed that nothing would change. It must be admitted, even today Lyon is not very strict in its approach, and a parking regime (based on tariffs and a strict enforcement of parking rules) exists only in the central area, where it costs only FRF 12 per hour to park a car. But slowly the tram is making itself felt now, a difference with the metro, which runs invisibly below the surface. The tram lines of Lyon have claimed long strips of street surface, as these lines will be double-track, on reservation over their full length. Many streets were narrowed to make room for the tram. All these streets will be embellished, with long lines of trees. They will be made more attractive, with a reduced space for the motor car.

The long Avenue Berthelot in central Lyon used to be a noisy six-lane thoroughfare, over which there thundered 45 000 cars per day. Now it has been narrowed, an attractive tram reservation has been laid on its northern side, and the result consists of sheer urban beauty. Most shop-keepers are enthusiastic about this upgrading of their street. Motor car traffic is from now on only allowed in one direction. Parallel to the new Tram reservation, a total of 310 lime trees have been planted, to further embellLyonish Avenue Berthelot.

The first Lyon tram to make its appearance on the rebuilt Avenue Berthelot, which will be served by route T2. Picture: SYTRAL

At Lyon, for the first time, the motor car is confronted with limits, trams will go first, and cars are not allowed to use tram lanes. This is absolutely new, says Monsieur Garnier. He underlines the significance of the breakthrough: the politicians are backing the priority for the tram. A tram is visible, and uses its own reservation, so no car driver will be tempted to illegally park his car on a tram lane. On the other hand, bus and trolleybus operation at Lyon is often hampered by illegal parking.

So Lyon promotes public transport, and discourages motor car use. The approach will be soft, and there are no schemes to close off the inner city for cars, The inauguration of the tram will be flanked by an increase of the Park & Ride capacity, from 2500 today to 3000 in December 2000. One particular P&R facility is worth mentioning. This is the future 400-car P&R facility situated 10 km outside the city, in the green fields, bordering on the A43 motorway, near an exit called Porte des Alpes (incidentally, this is a few hundred metres from the new tram depot). Hopefully this conveniently located P&R facility will attract many commuters, who are invited to park their car here, and take tram line 2, which reaches the offices of central Lyon within 15 minutes. Holders of a tram ticket or pass may make use of this P&R free of charge. It is planned to create more P&Rs near tram stations, France's first large scale train-related P&R development.

Lyon small map
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Both tram lines are of a classic design, without tunnels or a complicated infrastructure. Each line will offer 4-minute headways during rush hours. Each will carry some 50 000 passengers per day. They will both have their western terminus at the Perrache railway station, both will run over the Galliéni Bridge (reinforced with a layer of steel plates to better withstand the impact of the trams), to reach the west bank city centre. Immediately after crossing the Rhone River, the lines split. Line TI, with a length of 8.7 km and 19 stops, turns to the north, first follows the Quai Claude Bemard, then crosses the central business district, and serves the Part Dieu rail station, a focal point of long-distance TGV train services. From here, the line continues further to the north, to the campus area of La Doua (30 000 students). The final stretch to La Doua had originally been planned as an extension of underground line B, but here the tram was selected as the transport system instead. At four points (Perrache, Guillotilère, Pan-Dicu, Chaipennes) there is interchange with three of Lyon's four metro lines. Commercial speed of route Tl will be 18 km/h.

Tram line T2, 10 km long and 20 stops, goes to the cast, almost in a straight line, to reach the suburbs of Bron and Saint-Priest. In December 2000, it will be completed as far as Porte des Alpes. Line T2 connects with three metro lines at three points (Perrache, Jean Macé, Grange-Blanche). Work is in progress to extend this line further to the cast, and the 5-km 9-station extension to Saint-Priest/Bel Air should open in 2003. This extension of line T2 has already been approved, a budget is available, so route T2 will soon reach a total length of 15 km. Commercial speed of tram route T2 will be 22 km/h.

Line T2 goes in the direction of the airport, which is now called Saint-Exupery Airport (instead of Satolas), in honour of the author and aviator who was born in Lyon 100 years ago. The green area between the airport and the city is becoming a zone for high-tech and ICT-related business, and tram line T2 will stimulate the area's development. There are no plans to extend the tramway all the way to the airport, some 25 km east of the city. On the other hand, Monsieur Garnier underlines that for Lyon, there is no upper limit for the service length of a tram line, and Lyon does not share the dogmatic view of certain other cities that tram lines should not exceed a length of 10 km. Measured in single track, Lyon is now building 39 km of operational tracks plus 4 km of service tracks for the tram maintenance works and depot.

Hopes are that investors will build their offices and factories near the stops of route T2. It should be noted that nowhere in France, are there legal instruments to influence the choice of location of residential complexes of factories in relation to metro or tram. Few European countries have such possibilities. Among the exceptions is The Netherlands, where, roughly said, an employer is not allowed to offer more than 1 parking place for each 10 employees if there is a tram stop within 100 metres from his office or factory. If there is a railway station nearby, even stricter rules apply. But at Lyon, the situation is not under such a strict regime, and the tram must compete on the basis of sheer quality.

The Lyon tram depot is at the suburb of Saint-Priest, alongside the A43 motorway. It was inaugurated in March 2000. It was fully operational when visited in June 2000. The depot is on well-fenced and well-protected piece of land of 50 000 square metres, there are nine tracks under the roof of the workshop, and another 17 roofed tracks in the storage area. Each depot track has space for three trams, which means that there is storage capacity for 51 trams (plus 9 on tracks in the works shop). There is also an automatic washing and cleaning facility, opposite the depot. A connecting track leads to a specially-designed track ramp, over which complete Citadis trams can be loaded and unloaded on lorries.

The futuristic driving position of the Citadis with the screen based fault monitor prominent. SYTRAL
The futuristic driving position of the Citadis with the screen based fault monitor prominent. SYTRAL

The 5-section Alstom double-ended Alstom Citadis trams for Lyon offer a low-floor over their full length. Originally, the idea was to buy 43 units, this order was later reduced to 39. There are no options for more trams. However, the extension of line T2 to Saint-Priest/Bel Air, due to open in 2003, may require the purchase of an additional six trams. The first trials at Lyon show that the air-conditioned Citadis performs satisfactorily, with very low noise levels. The Lyon version of the Citadis has two motorised trucks under the front and the rear sections. One body section rests on a non-motorised bogie and two are suspended sections.

The modular concept means that, if desired, each Citadis may be extended with two sections (one on motorised bogies), to a seven-section tram with a total length of 42 metres (same length as the Strasbourg 'jumbo' trams), against 32 metres of today's five-section vehicle. This could be done at roughly 20% of the price of a new tram. The Lyon tramway concept is flexible, by paying 20% more on trams, the passenger carrying capacity can be increased by some 20%. This would require a rebuilding of the tram stops, which now have a standard length of 35 metres.

Alstom does not give guarantees on life-cycle costs. Warranty is generous, but not unusual: Corrosion five years, motors four years or 250 000 km; bogies three years. The Citadis is equipped with three flexible Arpege-type trucks (bogies), which enable the tram to cope with all sorts of situations, and even if tracks are damaged or twisted, the Citadis rolls on smoothly.

The transport undertaking of Lyon, TCL, is fully capable of handling the trams. It has links with SEMALY, the engineering and construction firm, which, among others, designed and built the broad-profile automatic metro cars for Lyon's underground line D, inaugurated in 1992. Unlike the three other metro lines, line D dives deep below the surface, and this line, known as MAGGALY, proved far more complicated and expensive to build than had been predicted. At Lyon, the cost and time overruns of metro line D contributed to a pro-tram attitude since the mid-1990s.

There is so much know-how at hand, that Lyon has been able to solve all problems in connection with the tramway building, without resorting to outside help. Yet, there is an active exchange of information, and in June 2000, Lyon hosted a one-day conference for all French tram cities and all cities with serious tram plans. A few useful tips on solving teething troubles came from Montpellier, which received its first Citadis one year before Lyon, where deliveries started in April 2000. The formal supervisor of all operations is SYTRAL, the Transit Authority for the Greater Lyon Area, in which 55 self governing communities are included. SYTRAL also acts as the overall coordinator of the tramway project.

The author thanks Monsieur Pierre Garnier Director of Development of SYTRAL, for his assistance with the preparation of this article.

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