LRTA logo Light Rail Transit Association
Light Rail for better public transport

Karlsruhe: Back to the future

Karlsruhe is celebrating 100 years of electric trams

Frank Muth focuses on the most exciting part of its history:

The present. Part 1.

What makes Karlsruhe's trams famous is the fact that it managed to expand public transport to the homes of many people far into the region and offer them reliable, frequent and fast transport with modern Light Rail Vehicles, while reducing the operating deficit! The integration of regional railway services into the city tram system led to passenger numbers doubling from 1985 to some 133 million in 1999. Today light rail services cover the city and the region with a 341-km network, of which 115.6 kilometres are on DBAG railway track. The amazingly low deficit of DEM 41 million in 1998 was down from DEM 54 million in 1994.

In 1986 the first tram ran onto the rails of the Deutsche Bundesbahn (DBAG German Federal Railway), when an extension of the Albtalbahn (AVG) to the north of Karlsruhe could make use of a still occasionally operated freight line. Only six years later, in 1992, the first Light Rail line opened from Karlsruhe to the regional town of Bretten. Dual-System Light Rail Vehicles started running directly into railway mainline territory. The run of new customers beat even most optimistic forecasts: on Sundays Light Rail carried around 3000 (sic!) per cent more passengers in comparison to the old railway service, while ordinary weekdays saw a somewhat 'more modest' 340 per cent increase. No wonder, the German business-journal DM named the dual-system car Product of the Year. This success boosted the light rail system. Extensions have been added to the system nearly in semiannual rhythm, and "Karlsruhe" has become the short form for a new light rail concept.


Kaiserstrasse enjoys a frequent tram service during the evening as well as the day.
Two low-floor trams can be seen in this view. F. Muth
A dual-system medium-floor Stadtbahn car on a short-working service SS from Wörth to Berghausen stops at Europaplatz on the busy Kaiserstrasse. F. Muth
A dual-system medium-floor Stadtbahn car on a short-working service SS from Wörth to Berghausen stops at Europaplatz on the busy Kaiserstrasse.
F. Muth

The Karlsruhe concept

The Karlsruhe concept means meeting the customer's individual mobility needs as best as possible: This 'pick-up-the-customer-at-his-front-door-approach' led to a dense integrated network of light rail and feeder buses, short journey times, greatest possible comfort and a market-oriented fare system. Karlsruhe's light rail system offers comfortable, direct rail connections (free of interchanging) from the region and suburbs right into the inner city. Customers should always find a stop near home, and the fast-accelerating light rail vehicles offer short journey times.

Transport undertaking Verkehrsbetriebe Karlsruhe (VBK) realised quite early that for a bigger market share (and more favourable modal split) the disadvantages of public transport over the car had to be minimised. Important obstacles are the technically-enforced interchanges between different modes of public transport, particularly apparent at Karlsruhe Main Station (Hbf) when local railway services and Trams worked on different levels.

This city in the south-west of Germany is relatively young. It was founded by Markgraf Karl Wilhelm in 1715, who built a palace in the centre of his hunting grounds in the plains of the Upper Rhine valley (Karlsruhe means literally Karl's rest or haven). South of the palace a new town was constructed with the streets all pointing to the palace, giving the townscape the shape of a fan.

Thus, 'Fan City' became a synonym for Karlsruhe that today has about 270 000 inhabitants. Important institutions are the Constitutional Federal High Court, a Technical University and the Atomic Research Centre. The river Rhine passes Karlsruhe in a short distance to the west, where a port with several oil refineries forms the industrial part of the city.

A remote main station

The centre of the city is formed by the East-West thoroughfare Kaiserstrasse, a little south of the palace. In 1913 the Main Station was moved from its location at Kriegsstrasse about two kilometres south. The former railway area allowed Kriegsstrasse to become a wide east west traffic thoroughfare, while the station was moved to the southern edge of the housing area. In 1913 nobody complained over a tram ride into the city, but modern-day railway commuters of 1990 faced time-consuming and costly detours on their way from the region to the offices in central Karlsruhe: long stairways and inconvenient walks at the Main station, crossing of a busy street, waiting time plus an extra ticket for the tram. Any car ride was more comfortable and more time-efficient. VBK was in the fortunate position that it not only had the idea of removing that outdated form of (non-)service but could also draw on several important achievements of its earlier history.

Historical achievements


An exhibition the mark the centenary of electric trams in Karlsruhe was held from 19 March to 23 July 2000, featuring the wartime utility KSW tram 116 (later 83), which last saw duty on the Daxlanden-Rappenworth bathing season shuttle service. E.C. Dawes

As the oldest tram system in the south-west of Germany (opened 1877), Karlsruhe was the only one to be built in standard gauge. In the early 1950s the City Council courageously voted down plans for the abandonment of trams, although experts had spoken in favour of trolleybuses. During that time the enormous threat from the automobile lobby brought many other tram systems down. Equally important was the decision for the integration of the metre gauge Albtalbahn, serving the region south of Karlsruhe. The former Albtalbahnhof (terminus) was in another remote situation in relation to the city and one tram stop short off the Main station. While the axe came for many similar German Kleinbahnen (private railways), the satisfying passenger and goods traffic and the commitment of the local politicians saved the life of the Albtalbahn. With track and vehicles worn out in 1957 the decision for a re-gauging and integrating the Albtalbahn into the standard gauge tram network was easy. Through-running articulated cars symbolised the integration of two modes of transport divided by different gauges.

The result must have been very persuasive! At a time rather hostile towards trams, the city administration soon presented another project of two additional tram lines into the northern region in 1962 that would partly use existing main line track! But the communities of the area submitted their vigorous protests immediately - they feared better transport connections as a first step to incorporation. And indeed only after the incorporation of Neureut during the 1970s, did the project finally achieve momentum. The plan then was to reach the centre of Neureut via a tunnel. But fortunately the slow pace of settlement at Neureut lead to the investigation of cheaper 'intermediate' solutions. The focus went back to the use of a piece of railway line that then was only used for freight trains. After many the legal and technical questions were finally solved, the line could be opened in 1979. Passenger numbers jumped up far beyond expectations. The line was later extended to Leopoldshafen (1986) and finally Hochstetten (1989).


Quality public transport in a village street at Blankenloch illustrates the flexibility of the light rail vehicle, which is equally at home in city streets and on main line railway. F. Muth

The big success and very few technical troubles encouraged VBK to negotiate further connections that finally lead to an agreement for dual-system operation in 1988. Supported with funds of the Federal Department of Research and Technology, the dual system light rail line started its fantastic performance on 25 September 1992. A Verkehrsverbund (joint tariff system) was introduced in 1994, offering the use of all public transport with only one ticket. At the same time VBK took over the local services of DB to Bruchsal, Wörth, Baden-Baden and between Bruchsal and Bretten. Step by step those services were successfully transformed into dual-system light rail lines that ran through onto the city tram system. The tram found new markets in an area once beyond its reach.

Another obstacle for public transport could also be removed: historically the railway stations often had to be erected far away from the main streets of the towns and villages in the region. The construction of road-bypasses reduced car traffic and allowed for the laying of single street track in the narrow main streets. Thus the tram finally came to the front door of many people in the region too, something nobody could have even dreamed of with the old railway lines. Needless to say that many people now find it easier to make their choice in favour of public transport.


Lower deficits

Most amazing to visitors might be the real reduction of the operating deficit. Nearby Mannheim is known for a very efficient tram system, but with a smaller tram network it has a significantly higher deficit than Karlsruhe: in the business-year 1998/99 Mannheim's MVV had a DEM 57 million deficit, while VBK came up with only DEM 41 million in the business year 1998. This deserves explanation. Any tramway system needs a certain infrastructure from administration through workshops to depots and sub-stations. The fixed costs of the infrastructure do not change much if used for 20 or for 50 trams. But using the infrastructure with more revenue-earning trams those fixed costs contribute proportionately less to the overall costs. Adding a few tracks and a few people to the staff is comparatively less expensive. By dividing the fixed costs of the Karlsruhe tram infrastructure between more and more passengers, light rail becomes cheaper with every new extension.


At Europahalle the tram terminus is laid out to handle crowds attending concerts or other major events. This is the latest type of five-section low floor tram. F. Muth

Easing the burden of the fixed costs, only then can light rail play its most important trump card. In Germany the biggest chunk of public transport costs are the wages (and social benefits) of the staff. Rail-bound transport here has two economical advantages: first it can carry many more people with one driver than a bus, and second the much more positive public image of rail transport attracts more users then any bus service. So, in the large tram system of Karlsruhe, the actual operation costs of buses are often higher then those of light rail - even in the suburbs. As a simple formula one can say for German tramway cities: any route demanding more than one articulated bus every ten minutes during daytimes could be operated cheaper by a tram, that would also attract even more passengers.

The economic success of light rail in Karlsruhe has this economic base line. Light rail attracts more passengers, makes better and better use of existent tram infrastructure and reduces the costs by serving more customers with significantly less staff than necessary for any bus service. So, every extension to the light rail system makes the whole system better value for money.


Light projects - light costs

The economical change to the more cost-efficient mode of transport works in spite of the fact that undertakings have to build and maintain any railway line on their own. In Germany the undertakings (usually owned by their communities) have to approach city councils for capital spending on infrastructure. Only then will State funds (and partly Federal money) be forthcoming to cover up to 80 per cent of investment costs. It could be said that public money is invested in transport modes with lasting cost, environmental and traffic flow benefits.

map of Karlsruhe Regional light rail 2000

While a number of German cities used this money to built a few kilometres of subway within their city centres, Karlsruhe so far has invested the money into cheap overground extensions and consequently could stretch the money far into the region. The addition of a few new, more accessible, stops and the occasional re-alignment of track into the main street have perhaps brought smaller advantages then a heavy rail solution would have brought to the particular residents. But using light rail many areas could benefit from the marked improvement of transport within a short time.

The comparatively small extra investment into Bistro-Services, panorama windows and friendly colour schemes made cars more attractive to use. A lot of thoughtful details - from the door to door interchange point (feeder Bus/light rail) at a clean and well-lit stop with shelter, information display and postbox, to the small news-stand at larger stations that also sells timetables and travelcards adds to the attractiveness of the system. Providing solutions to secondary needs is an investment in customer satisfaction.

Beating the 'safety mentality'

Before dual-system vehicles could bring in the harvest, they needed consent: consent of the technical authorities, consent of the politicians and finally 'consent' of public opinion. Germany has a culture of defining technical safety mostly as the fulfillment of technical norms and orders. Technical norm books are defining standards TÜV (TechnischerÜberwachungsverein - technical supervising board) checks any technical item for compliance with those norms from cars to toasters and of course trams, track, overhead and stations. The German culture of responsibility within public authorities heavily relies on checking ideas or inventions against guidelines, norms or regulations. The advantage is that safety has been heightened, but the over-application of norms has made it difficult for new ideas to come through. (It has been said that Bill Gates never could have been successful in Germany, starting his computer business from a garage. In Germany a garage does not have a window wide enough to fulfil the Arbeits-Schutz-Bestimmungen another protective norm defining standards for workplaces - so a garage could not have been permitted as a proper workshop or office. A more pragmatic approach is not in sight.

It is obvious the question of a tram running on railway-track would present a challenge, to put it mildly. In Germany, railways are built, maintained and operated to rules set up in the Eisenbahn Betriebsordnung (EBO - Railway Operating Regulations), while tramways follow the lighter standards of the Betriebsordnung Strassenbahn (B0Strab - Operating Regulations for Trams). To get permission for a dual-system vehicle, the German attitude 'impossible according the norms' had to be overcome first - by spreading the enthusiasm virus. Then with cleverness, creativity, flexibility and persistence technical solutions and agreements would be found to fulfil every legal ('normal') requirement. A suitable wheel profile was found and the problem of tram's steel frame not complying with UIC-standards was met by extreme short braking distances (applying the standard tram magnetic track brakes). Interchange points from DC tram track to AC mainline track could be settled with a regulation from the Federal Department of Transport. Insiders have identified overcoming the 'safety mentality' as the real sensation of the Karlsruhe model - after all what good is the best technical solution, if the people in charge do not accept it?

list of extensions 1975-2000

To be concluded in the February 2001 issue


Karlsruhe: top