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Firenze; trams return to the city of art

Italy's latest light rail system is behind schedule, but worth waiting for. C. J. WANSBEEK has paid a visit.

Culture made Firenze world-famous. Since the Middle Ages, this has been a city of art-lovers, an entourage of refinement. A city of such standing cannot function properly without trams. So it was decided that, after the 1958 closure of ‘classic’ tram service, the city will be enriched with a state-of-the-art light rail network. In April 1998, the Italian government authorized the construction of a 7.5-km long line. This includes the building of an entirely new tram-cum-pedestrian bridge over the Arno River. It was predicted that the project could be finished within 33 months. Construction should have started in March 1999. However, that schedule was not maintained.

Electric minibuses run past the Duomo in the old city of Firenze, but this street is scheduled to see trams again when line 2 is built. (M. R. Taplin

For many months the tramway project was at a deadlock. In the summer of 2000, after tenders had been invited under an EU-wide procedure, it was found no single construction firm submitted a credible proposal to build the tramway. Yet, the city and ATAF, the transport undertaking, were determined to go ahead. Tenders were invited again, under a new procedure, and ATAF’s hopes were realised in the form of an early Christmas present, when it was able to award a construction contract for the first tramway-related works to a consortium of Italian civil engineering companies for a price around ITL 25 000 million. On 8 January 2001 there was the start of work on the civil engineering project to build a road underpass at Piazza Vittorio Veneto, leaving the surface free for trams and pedestrians. Further contracts were to be awarded this spring and the target is to inaugurate the first tram line in the Autumn of 2004.

Like the earlier ‘classic’ tram, the new light rail system will be standard-gauge. There may be several lines, and all will be built on reservation. Automatic signal priority will be given at all street crossings. No rolling stock has been ordered so far, but the new trams must be low-floor over their full length. The city of Firenze also decided it was modular trams, that might be extended in later years, if traffic picks up. Route number 1, already approved by the Government, will have its terminus opposite Stazione Centrale di Santa Maria Novella, or SNM, the main railway station, located on Piazza della Stazione. From the station, tram line 1, with construction costs of ITL 221 000 million, will run to Scandicci, a neighbourhood in the south-western part of the town.

The line has been baptised "Firenze-Scandicci Tramway". In fact, two self-governing cities are backing the tramway scheme, Firenze, as well as neighbouring Scandicci. So formally, this is an interurban line. It will follow an almost straight line (so high commercial speeds are attainable), have length of 7.6 km and there will be 13 stops. The idea is to buy 32 articulated 2.30 metre wide trams, which will run in coupled sets, with an overall length of 34 metres. A coupled set of trams can carry 280 passengers, of whom 40 can be seated. At peak hours, there will be a tram every three minutes in each direction. This will bring the passenger-capacity to 5000 passengers in each direction per hour.

Tramway proposals map

Apart from the entirely new bridge across the Arno river, which will be built some 500 metres west of the existing Ponte della Vittoria, the Scandicci line will have other interesting features. These show that the new tram infrastructure has been designed with a "super-tram" or even light metro in mind. What is in the pipeline now at Firenze will far exceed the quality of the earlier tramlines. These include a broadening of an existing river-crossing, which will make room for the tramway on the Corso Aldo Moro at the point where it goes over the Greve river bridge. At the suburb of Scandicci, a tunnel for motor cars will be built near Piazzale della Resistenza, in order to make room for the trams. Likewise, at Firenze, a six-lane underpass for motor cars will be built underneath the Piazza Vittorio Veneto (near the Ponte de la Vittoria), in order to allow the tram to smoothly negotiate the wide semi-circular tram tracks around this strategically-located square near the quays of the Arno river, some 500 metres west of the city centre.

In 1955 the FS railway station at Santa Maria Novella had just been rebuilt in modern style, while old two-axle trams made their way across the adjacent square for a few more years. (ATAF

Tram line 1 will not penetrate the medieval city centre; it will have its terminus opposite the SNM railway station. The terminus will be rather basic, a three-track stub terminus, and over a distance of some 100 metres tram passengers will have to walk to reach the station hall. The historic city centre is nearby, but the tram line does not intersect the core. There arrangements may seem simplistic. In fact, they are not. There are several plans to bring the tramline closer to inner-city destinations, either by extending tramline 1, or by creating new tram lines. Equally promising are the blueprints to build another tram line, this time to the future station of the future North-South high-speed railway line, which will bypass the historic inner city of Firenze. So the tramway route design allows for sufficient flexibility in light of the vast urban changes now taking place.

On the green fields near the tram terminus at Scandicci, an eight-track tram depot will be built. There is enough empty land around it for future expansion. Probably new residential areas will be built at Scandicci, which will mean more customers for line 1. Total travel time by tram from Scandicci to the SNM Station at Firenze will be 15 minutes.

Track relaying in Piazza Duomo in 1939 took little heed of the needs of pedestrians and none at all of motor traffic. (ATAF

In 1999, it was reported that money had already been allocated for a second tram line. This line 2 will be an East-West route, starting at Peretola airport, the city airport of Florence. The eastern terminus of line 2 will be at Piazza Beccaria. Construction costs of line 2 will be ITL 260 billion, of which ITL 114 billion will come in the form of State grants.

The 22-stop tram line 2 , with a length of 10.1 km, will serve the inner city of Firenze. Key points served will be: Peretola - Novoli - Stazione Alta Velocita - Stazione Santa Maria Novella - Piazza Beccaria. Over a length of some 2 km it will share tracks with tram line 1. In first instance, line 2 will have its temporary terminus on Piazza Piave, a square bordering on the Arno river, from where the visitor can enjoy a marvellous panorama of the city. Line 2 will serve the area near the Cathedral (Duomo) as well. At a later stage, possibly by the year 2007, line 2 will be extended from Piazza Piave to reach Bagno a Ripoli, a densely populated neighbourhood in the south-eastern part of town.

Line 2 will not run directly past the SNM station, but from one of the stops, a convenient link with the rail station will be constructed. This will be in the form of a long escalator, or mechanical walkway. In the Firenze transport system, a key role will be played by line 2, as it will serve the yet-unbuilt, future station for the Milano-to-Roma high-speed trains, which in future will bypass SNM and Firenze’s city centre. The new Stazione Alta Velocita will open by 2005.

Firenze’s last new trams arrived in the late 1930s, typical Italian bogie cars, capable of carrying a good crush load of passengers, as shown here. (ATAF

In approving the future line 2 the City Council and the government office responsible for historical and artistic assets has placed a constraint that no overhead wires should be erected in the historic city centre, especially near the Duomo. This was done in the knowledge that SPIE Enertrans and Ansaldo, French and Italian companies respectively, are currently engaged in experiments aimed at replacing overhead wires for trolleybuses and trams by ultra-modern third rail powering at street level. In particular, the city of Bordeaux, which has ordered a fleet of Alstom Citadis trams for its future tram lines, seeks an alternative for overhead wires for use in the streets of its historic inner city. Probably Firenze will be another testing place for such a system. Of course those with long memories (or good eyesight) can remember the former tramway system with its trolley poles circumnavigating the Duomo, and evidence of overhead wire wall mountings is still in place on the cathedral walls, well hidden on the dark green marble.

On the drawing boards, a very impressive, line 3 has just made its appearance, and was approved by the City Council on 28 December 2000. This will be a 34-stop tramline with a length of 14 km, with construction costs estimated at 420 billion LIT. Line 3 will run as follows: Careggi - Piazza Dalmazia - Fortezza Viali - Piazzale Donatello - Campo Marte - Rovezzano - Viale Europa. With no less than three tram lines in the pipeline, the city of Firenze and ATAF might already be hoping that the government’s financing plans hold good.

Commuter rail around Firenze got an impetus in 1999, when the commuter railway to Borgo San Lorenzo, run by FS, the Italian State Railways, came back in service, after a closure of 54 years, following WW II damages. This suburban line will be electrified in 2002. Plans are to step-by-step upgrade this commuter line to create a real quality service.

Thanks to Dr. Marco Talluri of ATAF for his help with the preparation of this article. Further assistance also came from Alessandro Fantechi of the University of Florence.

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