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The new tramways of France

(and eight other visits as well)

The LRTA has conducted its own tour of the new French systems.
Michael Taplin and John Horne deliver the verdict.

The LRTA tradition of an overseas tour, combined with a Convention to mark some suitably-new tramway development, slipped from the calendar some time ago, a victim of package tour legislation, plus the fact that with new British systems coming on stream, the annual AGM has given the opportunity for the ‘inspiring tour plus dinner’ format that marked previous events. It is also a sad fact that the Wyse/Hunt tradition of leading 100 members to Europe by ferry and train is now virtually impossible to organise, given the fundamental market changes and attitude to group travel. The sight of a crocodile of British, with suitcases, walking through the streets from Bruxelles-Midi to the Hotel Van Belle is a thing of the past.

These changes resulted from (or perhaps resulted in) the growth of air package tours and coach holidays. The Tramway Museum Society late autumn tour by coach has established itself over many years, and has shown what can be done. Organiser Ian Longworth is the proprietor of Timeline Travel, purveyors of coaching holidays to the residents of Manchester and south Lancashire, and a conversation during a trip to San Francisco led to the LRTA Council deciding to join with Timeline Travel in marketing a spring 2001 tour to the new tramways of France. An itinerary was devised visiting the three systems newly-opened in 2000 (Lyon, Montpellier and Orleans) plus two others which had opened substantial extensions (Strasbourg and Nantes) during a nine-night tour.

Thus it was that two Timeline coaches met at Dover docks on 28 April, having collected some 70 participants from around the UK, for the channel crossing to France (where we were joined by an Italian and an American). Having selected the clockwise method of visiting the various cities, the furthest we could get on the first night was the ancient hilltop town of Laon, with its sprawling newer development on the plain. As the photo on page 221 of our June issue showed, the two areas were once linked by an unusual tramway incorporating a rack section. Today the fixed track replacement is a cable-hauled rubber-tyred people mover installed in 1989 that carries about 4000 passengers/day on the 1.6-km line in three cars. It also shuts at 20.00 on Saturday evening until Monday morning.

With a late ferry departure it was clear that our plan to offer the chance of a ride after dinner would have to be changed, so dinners were postponed and the travel-weary participants deposited in the bus station at 19.30, to distribute themselves amongst the last three ascending departures. Although the system is automatic, the human presence of a ticket seller ensured this could be accomplished, notwithstanding the ticket machines only taking coins, while most of the party had only wallets full of French banknotes.

Having established what a horizontal lift can do for public transportation, refuelling and rest followed before an early Sunday start towards Strasbourg. At the planning stage it had been thought that an en-route stop at Nancy would permit participants to make up their own minds about the Bombardier TVR guided trolleybus system. Unfortunately the debacle described in our May report meant there would be nothing to see apart from some rusty centre-slot rail, so instead at lunchtime the coaches rolled into the French border town of Sarreguemines to set down at the railway station. Here we were able to sample Europe’s first international ‘tram train’ by boarding a fine Bombardier car at a platform of the large, traditional and distinctly-underused SNCF station, southern terminus of the Saarbrücken light rail line. Whether the day ticket permitted two adults to travel together at weekends was never satisfactorily resolved, but this hardly mattered as no ticket inspection was encountered during our four-hour stay.

Once across the Sarre river bridge and onto DB tracks (taking pointwork with caution) the route follows an unaltered secondary railway to the outskirts of Saarbrücken, where, after an on-the-move voltage changeover (15kV ac to 750 V dc), it becomes a modern urban street tramway through the city centre to a four-track tram station in front of the rail station. The line then continues north through increasingly-hilly territory to a terminus at Siedlerheim opened last year. On the way one can see the track connection is in for a further link to DB tracks towards Völklingen. The Saarbahn cars seem to live in a freight yard at Brebach, yet are free of the ghastly graffiti now widespread in both Germany and France. From Siedlerheim terminus (cars stand on a gradient that would give the British inspectorate kittens) work is in progress to extend the line to Riegelsberg on road-based alignment, for opening late in the autumn.

The influence of Karlsruhe is spreading (perhaps even to South Hampshire in due course), but the modest example of Sarreguemines-Saarbrücken is not claimed by SNCF as one of their major achievements. They point instead to the existing use of LRV-type cars on other parts of their rail network, and to a list of places where they plan to do the same, replacing more traditional railway stock. The first, using cars for which tenders have already been sought, will be on the Aulnay-Bondy railway, linking RER lines B and E in eastern Paris. A proposed eastern extension shows as a street-level tramway on some maps, but is not in stage 1. Through working to street tramways at Mulhouse, Strasbourg and Grenoble is planned, though timescales are uncertain.

The busy tram stop at Les Halles in Strasbourg, as a ‘jumbo’ Eurotram swallows up the crowds. M. R. Taplin

Later that evening we arrived in Strasbourg, where some were delighted to find their hotel bedroom gave them a birds-eye view over Les Halles tram stop. The first tram on Monday morning went unheard, for there was a full day free to visit this lovely city at the heart of European democracy. This was six weeks after local elections had seen the defeat of a mayor who had claimed the tramway system as his own, so there was apparently some pressure on CTS to cut back on official visits.

The first line of 1994 (A, Hautepierre-Illkirch) has been so successful at boosting public transport patronage that its central portion (Rotonde-Etoile, linking two park-and-ride sites) has been boosted by supplementary route D. Route letters B and C are taken by the two new routes opened in September 2000. These share a common southern terminus at Elsau (new depot and park-and-ride), running to the city centre, where they intersect A and D at a right-angle crossing at Homme de Fer before continuing to République, at the heart of the administrative and cultural quarter. Route C then becomes a branch to the University and high-density housing around Esplanade terminus. The much longer route B runs north past the congress and fair grounds to the suburb of Hoenheim, where a terminus has been created alongside the SNCF line for bus interchange and more park-and-ride. Unfortunately after the elegant way the tramway has been incorporated into the fabric of the city elsewhere, this looks like someone from the brutalist concrete school of architecture was given the job.

The Strasbourg network is all about giving the tramway style, and it is worked by some of the most stylish trams in the business, the ADtranz Eurotram. Built at York, then Derby (the 2000 batch were fitted out locally by Lohr), the latest 43-m cars with nine body modules swallow-up the crowds most effectively (double-ended, 2.4 m wide, 92 seats plus 178 standing). The area of glass is remarkable, deliberately maximised to give passengers a feeling of security; Strasbourg was a leader in this area, to the extent that a well-loaded car looks from the outside like a moving queue. It is noticeable that Alstom’s Citadis, which we were to encounter on the three new systems, has gone for the same theme, but has avoided the very large all-glass doors which are the Eurotram’s weak point, both in terms of speed of operation and serviceability record.

Drastic re-allocation of road space in favour of public transport is evident in this view of Strasbourg’s Place Broglie. M. R. Taplin

Notwithstanding political change, plans to further extend the network are still being developed to add 12.5 km of tramway, including an international line across the Rhine to Kehl in Germany. More trams will be needed, but with ADtranz swallowed up by Bombardier, and too many low-floor designs chasing current orders, it is clear that CTS may have to pay over the odds if it insists on having more Eurotrams.

The next day was May day, the fête de travaille in France, when public transport workers take the day off to celebrate international workers day. Knowing this in advance, we had scheduled travel to Lyon via the Swiss city of Geneve, where such socialist icons are ignored. However what became clear was that the French public transport workers were also going to be on strike on 2 May (the day scheduled for our visit to the Lyon undertaking), as part of their campaign for retirement at 55. With two blank days in France, it was decided to reschedule Geneve to the afternoon of 2 May, and travel to Lyon on 1 May via Basel and Lausanne.

In order to bring low-floor access to all routes as quickly as possible, Basel is rebuilding its Swiss Standard trailers with a small stepless centre section. M. R. Taplin

Thus the bonus of Saarbrücken was added to by a few hours on the contrasting Swiss systems. Basel was its usual efficient self, with a variety of green trams carrying good loads. The arrival of Combino low-floor trams seems to have caused some unusual rolling stock redistribution to route 3, including a motor+trailer+motor formation, and an articulated car with low-floor centre section paired with a Swiss Standard motor. The Combinos were still scarce, but as provided a direct comparison with Strasbourg’s long trams, at 43 m with seven body sections. Siemens has eschewed the bogie-under-cab principle in favour of a more conventional overhang, and in a single-ended 2.3-m wide tram fits in 90 seats and 163 standing passengers.

Hurrying off to Lausanne, the coaches set down by the lake at Ouchy, so that the party could travel on the rack line to Flon, changing there to the TSOL light rail line to Renens. In its new guise as ‘metro’ line 1, the TSOL has a new image, as displayed in our April 2001 report. However the basis of operation has not changed at all, with clockwork running required to provide an even headway over the single track with passing loop outer section. In fact, to cope with May Day crowds at the end of the afternoon, we witnessed the boosted frequency come into operation as extra trains were inserted from the depot, and one turned short of Renens to fill an inbound gap.

Lyon's Avenue Bertholet runs due east from Perrache for over 3km, giving good 'always a tram in sight' potential. Jean Mace stop provides Metro interchange. D.J.Smithies

Tram-less Lyon on 2 May was frustrating, but our good friends at Alstom stepped into the gap by arranging a presentation about the Citadis for us on the Tuesday morning. We were met by Helen Connolly from the Paris head office PR department and John Ireland, from the tram project group at La Rochelle, and given a brief introduction to Alstom and its Rail Division. John, as a former Preston GEC man, is one of many who made the move to France during the days of GEC-Alsthom, and remain with the renamed company. Alstom has expanded by acquisition, bringing Germany’s LHB and Poland’s Konstal into the group, and most recently the rail interests of Fiat, Italy. Taken together over 500 trams have been built in 10 years, but this is behind Siemens in terms of worldwide sales, while both are outstripped by Bombardier Transportation (the merger of Bombardier and ADtranz).

One has to get used to ‘concept’ marketing names these days. The Alstom range of rail vehicles is grouped in rising speed order: Citadis, Metropol, Xtrapolis, Coradia, Pendolino, and TGV. Citadis is the tram product, either Citadis 300 for city service or Citadis 500 for ‘tram-trains’. No 500 series have been built yet, although SNCF is considering tenders for 79. The first Citadis 300 fleet entered public service in Montpellier last August, closely followed by Orleans and Lyon. The trams delivered or on order/option are:

Partial low-floor100% low-floor
Montpellier28 (+2)Lyon38 (+1)
Orleans22Alstom 1
  Paris13 (+47)
 109 254

The low-floor Citadis is a new modular product designed to take the company forward from the so-called French standard tram developed for Nantes in 1984 (46 built) and the first low-floor design developed for Grenoble in 1987 (53 built) and also delivered to Paris (38) and Rouen (28). The price differential between partial and full low-floor is now relatively small, so the partial low-floor design is losing its appeal, though some operators may feel more comfortable with the conventional motor bogie than the motored Arpege or Corege designs which are needed for 100% low-floor.

Melbourne (Yarra Trams) and Rotterdam are notable as large ‘traditional’ street tramways with their own well-entrenched standards, an environment more challenging than the all-new networks where Citadis has operated hitherto. Rotterdam’s cars will be single-ended. Melbourne’s will be only 22 m long on two motor bogies. Both cities chose flat sides, whereas all the French cars have curved sides. Some trackwork in Melbourne (and perhaps Rotterdam with its sandy soil) is decidedly rougher than Citadis has faced before. Hence the decision to build rubber and coil spring primary suspension into their bogies rather than relying on the resilient wheel for primary suspension as on new systems. The only 100% low-floor cars in service to date, in Lyon, have no primary suspension and only steel coil springs between the car body and frame; the whole body flexes, and can be heard quietly doing so.

The Valenciennes and Bordeaux cars exist as mock-ups; Valencienne’s has a conventional look, but Bordeaux’s has been produced by a design house (as was Lyon’s). There is an awareness of the need to reduce both capital and operating costs to meet market demands. Citadis aimed at a 30% reduction in both cost and weight; compared with Grenoble’s 46-tonne car, an equivalent Citadis weighs only 34 tonnes. The need to reduce both car and infrastructure costs accounts for the decision to build a 2-km tramway near the Alstom factory in La Rochelle, on which certain cost-saving ideas will be carried out. As a follow-on to the Lyon order Alstom has built itself a 100% low-floor Citadis, but with the Dublin front-end design. The line, which will include sharp reverse curves, is not intended immediately to carry passengers other than invited guests, although a larger role may develop as the municipality is interested in a link to the rail station. For Alstom, cheaper tramways would expand the market, since smaller towns could justify their construction and there are many in the population range 250 000 to 500 000 which are currently out of reach. Hybrid systems would also be easier to challenge.

After an extensive question and answer session, which continued over lunch, we thanked Alstom for their hospitality, and rejoined our coaches for the motorway ride to Geneve, for it was getting on for 18 hours since we had seen a tram! The Geneve system has expanded recently, and we were dropped near the terminus of the latest extension to Palettes. TPG has provided extra capacity by adding centre sections to its trams, the original ‘low-floor’ design of 1984. Flat floor yes, but stepless entrance no, and it was surprising to see that the new centre sections did not attempt to introduce this feature.

With more extensions at the design stage, TPG will have to decide what to specify when it comes to further cars. The three termini are each linked with the other, giving three tram routes, and the bus/trolleybus network has just been reorganised on a similar simpler basis. Trolleybuses seem to be out of favour, with larger numbers of gas-powered Volvo articulated low-floor buses entering service.

Thursday 3 May was set aside for a day trip by TGV from Lyon to Montpellier, but the early morning was the first opportunity to see Lyon trams in operation. Views about the looks of these striking trams ‘in the flesh’ were mixed, perhaps the same as peoples reaction when the Strasbourg car first appeared. One obvious drawback of the Lyon front end is the constrained space for a destination display, and what is offered looked very cramped. The 100% low-floor interior is neat and very attractive, and the cars ride well, though the tight curve approaching Perrache terminus seemed to trouble their suspension. Most of the noise comes from the Citadis body articulations and that is being tackled by a design modification. The difference between the two routes is striking, with the T1 to IUT - Feyssine looking like a typical city tramway (plenty of curves) that has been there for years, while the T2 to Porte des Alpes is much straighter and serves more modern development.

Most people’s personal tours finished at Part Dieu station, just as the sun came out. The points and a short stub are already in here for a future line. The TGV to Montpellier was effortless, though frustratingly a couple of weeks in advance of the opening of the Mediterranée high-speed line, which could be seen at various points en-route. The feel of the south of France starts before Avignon, and when we escaped the dusty rebuilding of Montpellier station you could feel a difference in the air and the attitude on the streets. Many could not resist the temptation of al fresco dining alongside the tram tracks in Comedie (with waiters dancing to and fro between the trams), the embryonic hub of what should become a system over the next few years. An exhibition/consultation exercise for line 2 was in progress in a side hall of the impressive opera house.

As the party assembled after lunch TAM officials summoned a special tram by radio to pick up in the precinct and head for the spacious depot in the north-west sector of this city. Even here we could not totally escape the effect of strikes, as nurses from the largest hospital decided to promote their cause by sitting down across the tram tracks, causing 20 minutes of disruption (and some interesting turn-short reversals). A very thorough depot tour was given, with ample opportunity to quiz our hosts. The first line, opened in August 2000, had been hugely successful in attracting public transport patronage and trams were full for most of the working day, thanks to the diversity of establishments served. Fortunately TAM chose to go for 2.65-m wide trams with 2+2 seating, maximising capacity, but even so the decision had been taken to buy not just two more trams, but also equip the original fleet with two more intermediate body sections (and another motored truck).

The massive Antigone development on the east side of Montpellier dwarfs the tram stop serving residents and visitors. M. R. Taplin

The special car then set off for the eastern end of the line, and we saw the sites for two new stops planned to open as development takes place. The route layout through the city centre is quite tortuous and disorientating for a stranger, and required construction of a viaduct and a gallery alongside SNCF tracks to get through to the east side. Here the tramway serves three sides of the huge Antigone development, modern construction in the style of the Roman forum might be one way to describe this area of mixed residential/retail/business and leisure. The line continues to Port Marianne, where more residential development is taking place, and finishes at the Odysseum centre, dominated by a multiplex cinema. What was abundantly clear was how the tramway had been carefully designed to offer optimum access to almost everywhere that anyone in Montpellier might want to go, ensuring excellent patronage from day one in France’s fastest-growing city.

The visit to this attractive city was all too short, and most had it marked as a place to come back to. We wished we could have kept the Mediterranean climate as next morning’s early tram rides in Lyon were spoilt by torrential rain. The coaches set off for the long drive to Orleans, but after an hour could not resist a stop at the tramway town of St Etienne. The party was dropped at the south end of the line, and picked up (somewhat soggy, and minus one) at the north end 80 minutes later. For most this was the first time they had seen the system without PCCs, and frequent service of 35 low-floor articulated cars (with some Alstom credentials) being the order of the day.

The long autoroute drive north took up the rest of the day, though some still managed to fit in an Orleans tram ride between claiming their hotel room and changing for the LRTA Convention Dinner. This took place in an attractive riverside restaurant recommended by SEMTAO tram project director and LRTA member Christian Buisson. We were pleased to welcome Monsieur and Madame Buisson as our guests at the dinner, together with two Vice Presidents from Alstom Transport: Barry Howe responsible for Marketing and Strategy (particularly turnkey projects), and Terence Watson responsible for International Sales and Marketing. An Alstom trio was completed by a francophile German, René Tutzauer, tramway and light rail product manager. A very convivial evening ensued, ending with speeches and toasts. Responding to these, M. Buisson (who earned his spurs project managing the first ‘new’ French tramway in Nantes) told of how one of the big events of each month was the arrival of Tramways & Urban Transit through the letterbox; his wife knew then not to disturb him for an hour. He very kindly presented the LRTA Chairman with a copy of a special volume of Orleans tramway postcards through the ages, commissioned by SEMTAO to mark the opening of their first line last November.

Saturday morning dawned distinctly cool, and comments about the ‘frozen north’ were heard. Orleans seems to wake up late and at 09.00 the LRTA contingent (back to full strength) was the largest mass of people on the streets, heading for the railway station tram stop, where we met up again with Christian Buisson, and the son of long-time LRTA French member Jacques Bazin, who was training to be a tram driver. The city was decorated for the annual Festival Jeanne d’Arc, so it was a bold move by these gentlemen to kit out a tram with Union flag headboards at each end!

This special car toured the system, heading first north to the other rail station (Les Aubrais) and the grassy Jules-Verne terminus, before heading south through the city centre and across the river to cover the long southern line to Hôpital de la Source. Those who find Manchester’s Eccles line sharply curved and rather indirect might find fault with some of the new French routes. Montpellier has already been mentioned, but at the southern end of Orleans southbound cars twice turn north, whilst a 200-degree curve outside Gare d’Orleans is flanked by two 90-degree curves the other way. This comes from threading a new tramway through an old city without resorting to demolition. Orleans has curves of 25-m radius.

As happened a century ago, several cities objected to the appearance of overhead wires in certain sensitive zones. After all, France had more conduit tramways than England did, although London’s track mileage was highest. Modern French overhead is not very obtrusive (though Orleans chose some curious double-arm poles for many sections where span wires were not possible) and the best is very good. Orleans was challenged over spoiling the appearance of the King George V Bridge across the River Loire, but managed to get across using specially-designed traditional poles with span wires and attractive lighting fixtures. The colonnaded Rue Royale was another challenge, solved with wall mountings and ‘hidden’ stop equipment. Car traffic is still allowed northbound, driving over the boarding area between track and colonnade, but as each tram arrives at the stop a barrier drops out behind across the car lane so that passengers may board safely.

Track layouts are generally simple, but with plenty of crossovers, including the facing variety, which can be taken at line speed. The new depot layouts, on the other hand, are surprisingly complex and include curves which seem unnecessarily sharp, which has had some amusing consequences at Orleans. Alighting from the special tram, some visitors found themselves walking along broad timber baulks, fixed on the inside of each rail, and wondered what they were for. A pair of Unimogs is provided for shunting dead cars around the yard and into the (unwired) workshops, but they found the curves too tight when pushing a heavy tram. The solution was to mimic the Paris Métro and lay a baulkway so that the Unimog’s tyres could get a grip.

SEMTAO have, for the first time in France, contracted with the car manufacturer for all maintenance over a 15-year period (with five-yearly rests). The clean and spacious workshops are therefore Alstom premises. There are six roads, two with pits, and two without overhead to permit an overhead runway crane. Traditionalists were pleased to find a small turntable with track leading to a white-tiled bay where bogies can be hosed down and steam-cleaned. There was also a small trailer ‘works car’. Understanding his visitors, M. Buisson apologised for its lack of fleet number!

Orleans’ depot and workshops are big enough to serve a second line, planned to run east-west and cross the present line near the city centre. Both extremities will run over SNCF tracks, and for this reason the present cars were delivered with 125-mm wheel treads rather than the 110 mm typical on street tramways. This had the unwanted result that cars sometimes ran noisily because their wheels fouled the paving, so the profile is being modified slightly. Having a wheel lathe on the site was also valuable during the commissioning period, when it was found that construction dirt tended to lead to wheel skids and flats.

In fact there are some locations on most systems where noise or vibration is troublesome, usually where trams are closer to homes than one would choose. Orleans has one quiet street on the northern section where residents are still placarding their properties about the problems created by the tramway, and this makes politicians in the new Town Hall administration nervous about committing to line 2 just yet. Free tickets were kindly provided by SEMTAO to cover the rest of the day on service cars.

Sunday was earmarked for Nantes, where train connections from Orleans meant long coach rides along the Loire valley, though this gave us a close view of the severe flooding around Angers. The coaches decanted the party near the Orvault Grand Val terminus of route 2, an out-of-town retail area quite dead on a French Sunday. The first inbound car to arrive acquired an exceptional load therefore, before picking-up its complement of passengers from the residential and university complexes as we headed into town. There was ample time for those who wished to ride the system, and sample the new ADtranz low-floor cars on line 1. It was clear straight away that Nantes has disappointing corrugations on some sections of line that date from 1984-91. Apparently the 1930 ex-Düsseldorf Schörling railgrinder 145 has been hors de combat for some time, and the situation has got so bad that a specialist railway grinding train has been contracted in for this summer. Perhaps there was a fault with a particular batch of rails, for most of the system remains smooth and quiet, and is ageing well.

The newest sections of route were the traditionally laid-out route 3 (still being extended) and the western extension of route 1 on grassed reservation, where the new cars showed their very sprightly performance. Sunday loadings on the outer sections were rather low, and it would have been nice to see the system performing its weekday feat of mass transit.

Bank Holiday Monday saw the return to the UK, unfortunately to a ferry schedule that did not permit a stops at what might have been the 12th system of the tour, Paris line 2, though the eagle-eyed did just spot one of RATP’s trams as we crossed the former rail line near Issy.

Readers will already know of the speed with which new French tramways are being rolled out. But those who had not visited these cities in recent years were surprised, even on such brief acquaintance, by the quality of the work and the way in which the whole urban landscape is upgraded as part of the same package. The way in which half of a main traffic route is now routinely segregated for public transport still seems extreme, until one sees how well it works. Careful provision for resident’s parking, ample park-and-ride and easy connections with other modes are among the more obvious features. The trams are in the streets, but not ruled by street traffic. The fact that the overall quality of the townscape has been much improved at the same time as the new tramways were built has surely helped them gain acceptance. Orleans, a fairly small city of 243 000, planted no less than 1300 mature trees of 20 species (some quite exotic) as part of their landscaping. Fares are reasonable and include park+ride+tram. Information is good with ample maps and leaflets available.

There is much to admire at Birmingham, Croydon , Manchester and Sheffield, but it would do no harm to revive that Edwardian habit, the European study tour for planners, politicians and designers, though perhaps at a slightly less frantic rates than our two coachloads. It just remains to thank our Timeline crews, Ian, Tony, Peter and Duncan for their heroic driving efforts on our behalf, and to our good friends at Alstom in both England and France for rescuing what could have been a very ordinary trip and turning it into an exceptional one. We were pleased to hear that our Orleans host, Christian Buisson, is moving up the Transdev tree to adopt a wider role in their world tramway involvement, and wish him well.

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