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Darmstadt: A mature tramway grows again

C. J. WANSBEEK visits a 115-year-old German system that has woken from its slumbers.

A mature, stable tramway system can be admired at Darmstadt, a city 50 km south of Frankfurt, known as Wissenschaftsstadt (Science City). In this city, with a population of 150 000, one finds a university, a wide assortment of high-tech industries, including a major chemical industry, as well as a main office of the National Telecom authority. The city lies on flat land, against the backdrop of the Odenwald, with its beautiful green hills. The street lay-out of Darmstadt is spacious and elegant, thanks to the princes of Hessen who, in earlier centuries, made Darmstadt a jewel of cultivated urban life.

2 pictures plus system map

Darmstadt has an interesting tramway history. Steam trams started running between the city centre and Griesheim and Eberstadt in 1886, and in 1890 to Arheilgen. These three suburban lines became part of the Süddeutsche Eisenbahn-Gesellschaft (SEG) in 1895. This company ran 21 German light railway and tramway systems from its headquarters in Darmstadt. Also in 1895, the city council decided to build an electric tramway, with the first line opening in 1897, and three routes in operation by 1902. After long negotiation both steam and electric trams were able to share the same track in Rheinstrasse.

Dominating Luisenplatz in the centre of Darmstadt is ‘Long Ludwig’, the 18th Century column erected to honour Prince Ludwig of Hessen. ST12 tram 9120 on route 9 is named Szeged after Darmstadt’s twin city in Hungary.
C. J. Wansbeek

However this caused problems with the development of the electric service, which needed to be enhanced to serve the new Hbf (main railway station) west of the city centre, and the city council was soon trying to buy out the SEG concession. These approaches were rebuffed and SEG developed plans to electrify it steam tram routes. The city threatened to build its own route to Eberstadt to compete with the SEG. Common sense prevailed in 1912 when the city and SEG agreed to form a new joint company Hessische Eisenbahn-Aktien-Gesellscahft (HEAG) to merge their tramway interests. HEAG also took control of the city electricity works.

Electrification of the steam tram lines began, but was held up by the war and subsequent economic conditions (Griesheim was occupied by French troops in 1918/9), so it was 1922 before the last steam tram ran to Griesheim and Arheilgen. The electric tramway expanded to eight routes by 1923, and the first buses appeared in 1927.

In 1941 HEAG was retitled Hessische Elektrizitäts-Aktiengesellschaft, recognising the importance of the electricity supply side of the business. Trolleybuses ran from 1944 to 1963. By 1954 the SEG had disposed of all its railway and tramway interests and its shareholding in HEAG had passed to the Essen tramway undertaking, where the SEG sold its last wholly-owned tramway to the municipality. In 1957 the city of Darmstadt bought out EVAG’s 37% shareholding, and the three directors from Essen ceased to sit on the HEAG board. Interestingly EVAG retained ownership of the former SEG head office in Darmstadt until 1958.

Since 1989 the transport operation has been an arms-length wholly-owned subsidiary of HEAG, HEAG Verkehrs GmbH. 26% of the capital was transferred to the Landkreis in 1995. This paved the way for the Rhein-Main Verkehrsverbund or joint tariff area (RMV) in the same year.

The stops at Luisenplatz are always. Crowds board ST13 9870 for the long interurban ride to Alsbach. The yellow livery advertises the local newspaper.
C. J. Wansbeek

Today this stylish city is extremely well served by a six-route metre-gauge tramway network, with a total length of 36.2 km. Most tracks are on reservation; in the outskirts of town the tram tracks attain railway standards, and trams speed over the well-maintained infrastructure. Trams are busy at all times. They run on schedule, centrally monitored and controlled, and at all major tram stops there are electronic displays showing waiting times for each tram (and bus) route serving that particular stop. The transport division of HEAG carried 30.1 million passengers in 2000.

The longest route is line 8, which runs every 30 minutes, between Arheilgen in north Darmstadt, via the city centre, then through a succession of narrow streets in medieval villages to Alsbach in the south. Before reaching Alsbach, the tram runs over an excellent alignment, which once was a railway line. Bicycles are allowed, and in the trailers behind the motor trams there is enough space to store them. From Alsbach, the passenger can treat himself to a bike ride through a hilly landscape, the Odenwald, which has a truly Alpine atmosphere.

The low-floor trailers, of which Darmstadt has 30 in service, may seem an oddity, but in this tranquil graffiti-free city, the trailers are a welcome means to increase the transport value of the system. People behave, even groups of young children riding those trailers keep themselves under control. Schwarzfahren (fare-dodging) is well below the German average of 5%.

For many years, the Darmstadt tramway network was kept more-or-less intact, but a strong vision was lacking. Buses replaced trams on routes 5 and 6 in 1960 and 1970 respectively, to eliminate stub termini and provide service further into the suburbs. This zigzagging meant that 10 years of development potential was practically lost. For a while, it seemed as if Darmstadt would build O-Bahn lines, following the experiments at Essen. O-Bahn is a bus with lateral wheels that run within a concrete guideway. At Essen, the O-Bahn experiment, which ended in commercial failure, meant that several tram lines were sacrificed to make room for the newcomer. Fortunately, Darmstadt dropped this plan before it could materialise.

A consultancy study was undertaken in 1985 by a Hamburg firm, which recommended that the tram system be maintained. So gradual improvements took place, such as building reservations, and at present 70% of the tram track length is on reservation. Indeed, the commercial speeds are high (22 km/h), and every passenger of route 8 to the southern suburbs and villages can enjoy the thrill of riding a tram running up to 70 km/h. The best commercial speed (29 km/h) is achieved by limited stop route 6, which benefits from extensive traffic light priorities.

The politicians of Darmstadt admit that trams may be more expensive to run than buses, but trams are well worth that price, given their superior riding comfort, larger passenger-carrying capacity and their environmental friendliness. Moreover, the fact that there is already a well-developed track network is by itself regarded as a major criteria for keeping the trams rolling, said HEAG Tramway Director Dipl.-Ing. Karl-Heinz Holub during a recent interview with this magazine.

The long period of doubt had made Darmstadt the last German town still to operate two-axle trams in regular service. It was not until 1991 that they finally disappeared, together with the four-axle articulated trams acquired from Remscheid in 1969. Indeed HEAG and bought new two-axle trams as late as 1955, and second-hand ones in 1964.

The first articulated trams arrived in 1961, and by 1963 20 six-axle cars of classes ST7 and ST8 had been delivered by the Berlin company DWM. Darmstadt is one of the few West German systems never to have bought a new Duewag tram (some second-hand Duewag trailers from Bielefeld ran for a while), preferring the products of the Berlin firm DWM (later Waggon Union) and more recently LHB of Salzgitter (now part of Alstom). The original articulated trams can now be seen on the streets of Iasi in Romania.

Eight 6-axle articulated ST10-class trams (7601-8) were delivered by Waggon Union in 1976. In 1982 modernisation began in earnest with the delivery of five 8-axle ST11-class trams (numbered 8209-8214). The design was derived from the ST10 series, however, the ST11 trams are double-articulated vehicles. In 1991 a second batch of 10 similar vehicles was delivered to form ST12-class 9115-9124. Since 1998, HEAG has bought LHB low-floor trams, in a double-articulated, 8-axle version, known as ST13-class, of which 20 units have been delivered (9855-9874). It seems logical that new tramline extension will require more rolling stock, but nothing has been decided yet.

Details of ST13 class tram

The ST13 trams are of a similar construction as the successful NGT8D-class low-floor trams for Magdeburg, described in this magazine in October 1999. There are strong personal bonds between the transport managers of Darmstadt and Magdeburg,. The Magdeburg/Darmstadt low-floor tram offers 70% of the tram floor in a low-floor configuration, which means there are (small) steps inside the tram. Utmost care has been invested in these trams, there is air conditioning, the windows have been designed to offer standees a good view of the street, the seats have been covered with tasteful cloth, and noise and vibration levels are minimal. Indeed, it is a pleasure to ride this tram.

The HEAG car numbering system may look odd, but he first two digits in the fleet numbers refer to the year of delivery, and the last two to the place within a series; thus there are high-floor trams 01-24 and low-floor trams 55-74, plus LHB low-floor trailers 25-54 (9425-54). Still in the fleet are museum car 37 (Gastell 1912) and a three-car set of Verbandstyp cars 12 + 184 +187 (Rathgeber 1954), which can be hired for special occasions. Verbandstyp 11 is used for works duties.

The low-floor trams proved such a plus for the tram system (bringing easy access to the network and boosting traffic levels), that the city of Darmstadt has now set its mind on expanding the tram network. In August 2001 construction starts of a 4-km branch to Kranichstein in the north-western part of the city. HEAG, the transport and power company, had been reluctant, as is feared that the Kranichstein extension might be expensive to build and expensive to keep in service.

A map of the new line to Kranichstein now under construction, branching from existing routes 7 and 8 in Frankfurter Strasse.

However, the population of Kranichstein, where many new houses are being built (the population will rise from 12 000 to 18 000 in the next few years), successfully lobbied and finally got a tram line of their own, for a fast and convenient link with the inner city, to be inaugurated in 2003. With headways of 15 minutes, and speeding over a private right-of-way, the Kranichstein trams will offer speeds of up to 70 km/h. During rush hours, there will be trams to Kranichstein every 7.5 minutes.

There has been a standstill period of 22 years, during which no new lines were built. Actually, the Alsbach extension at the southern end of route 8, which opened in 1979, had been the latest. Now tramway building is again taking place, and HEAG, the transport undertaking, is confident that other new lines will prove easier to get built. Apart from the Kranichstein line, two more lines are now in an advanced planning stage:

For Herr Holub, metre-gauge is here to stay. He considers the riding comfort and all other aspects of a modern metre-gauge tram as good as that of any standard-gauge vehicle. Regauging a tramway system is seen as a waste of money. But it is a fact that in a wide circle around Darmstadt, several railway lines are of growing importance as commuter lines. These include railway lines to the Odenwald, and the 2-km long line from Eberstadt (served by tram lines 1, 6, 7, 8) to Pfungstadt.

Recently, HEAG has commissioned Alstom-LHB to investigate the possibility of building trams with adaptable axle width. Is it possible to create through-going lines, following the Karlsruhe model for bimodal running, by having the vehicles adapt to a change in track gauge, from 1000 mm to 1435 mm and vice-versa? According to Herr Holub, the Alstom-LHB factory was very pleased to get receive a challenging question from Darmstadt. Can trams, like the TALGO trains of Spain, be developed to jump over track gauge differentials?

The author would like to thank Dipl.-Ing. Karl-Heinz Holub, Managing Director of the HEAG Transport division, for his kind co-operation with the preparation of this article.

Suggested reading: H. Bürnheim, J. Burmeister: Bahnen und Busse rund um den Langen Ludwig, Stadtverkehr in Darmstadt, 128 pages, Alba, Düsseldorf, 4th Edition, 1997, ISBN 3-87094-357-2

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