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IJtram: Link to Amsterdam's Island city

The Netherlands' latest tramway extension serves a new housing area that was once fresh water.
By C. J. Wansbeek.

A star is born. Tram 26 has the potential, with an investment of EUR 200 million. Currently under construction in Amsterdam (population 800 000), this new service will follow an almost straight line, over a length of 8.5 km in its first phase, to link Amsterdam's inner city with IJburg, a futuristic seven-island residential area on land reclaimed from the freshwater IJsselmeer. The name IJ (pronounced: 'eye') denotes the harbour area of Amsterdam. Hence the name of IJburg. Route 26, of course, is marketed as IJtram, a concept agreed between the city and government in March 1996.

The journey takes off from existing tram tracks opposite Centraal Station, where the lay-out of the terminus loops for routes 16, 24 and 25 is spacious enough to receive the newcomer. These are the only 'old' tram tracks to be used by route 26, and they form the only physical link between this line and the other 16 tram lines of Amsterdam. Immediately after leaving the station area, route 26 will be on entirely new standard-gauge tram tracks, on reservation, electrified at 600 v dc.

A map of the IJtram line showing its relationship with rail, metro and tram lines.

Track-laying will start in May or June 2002, and trial runs should commence in December 2003. At political level, it was decided not to extend route 26 beyond Central Station. It will not penetrate the inner city, even if this is perfectly feasible and even if many passengers might wish so, in order to avoid changing trams. But route 26 must be fast, and clogged inner-city streets have been declared off-limits for the newcomer.

Also at Central Station, one finds the underground stub terminus of two existing metro lines, 53 and 54 respectively, shared with 'hybrid' line 51. Near this point, another, lower-lying underground metro station will be built, to accommodate the North-South heavy metro line which will probably be extended as far south as Schiphol, the airport of Amsterdam. The decision to build the North-South metro line has already been taken. There are, however, mounting doubts. Traffic forecasts of the 9.5-km long line (100 000 passengers daily) seem too rosy. Construction costs are probably underestimated. A Sword of Damocles hangs over the future of the North-South metro.

The Amsterdam Combino carried its first passengers on the occasion of the opening of the new extension of route 1 off to Osdorp line to De Aker on 8 December 2001.

By contrast, there are no doubts at all about IJtram, a classic tramway. From a technical point of view, tram 26 offers nothing new. But the area it will serve and the alignment it will follow offer a few surprises. Going east from Central Station, route 26 uses a new tram lane parallel to the main railway line, where it will share tracks with an existing city route, probably the 16, which should be extended by 2 km to the east from Central Station to reach IPTA, or International Passenger Terminal Amsterdam.

The IPTA extension of route 16 will be inaugurated only after route 26 has entered service over its full length. In the track layout of route 26 all measures are built-in for the smooth incorporation of the IPTA branch, which is also called IPTA lus (meaning IPTA loop), and will cost EUR 3.9 million. Official hopes are that it will open between April and June 2004, but this is dependent upon the factual inauguration of route 26, which has already been postponed once. Route 16 will branch off from line 26 near the colossal, airport-style cruise ship terminal, built recently to accommodate the expected invasion of sea-cruise passengers anxious to catch a glimpse of this city, known as 'the Venice of the north'. Boasting over 30 000 17th-Century mansions and other monuments, Amsterdam, a tourist attraction as well as a haven of permissiveness, is different indeed. Where else in Europe will tourists be welcomed by trams lined up in front of a terminal building built for handling cruise vessels?

The first idea to serve IJburg was this third rail light metro running into a tunnel under Amsterdam's Centraal Station; only part of the tunnel was built.

Directly east of Central Station, routes 16 and 26 bypass a mothballed 500-m tunnel segment built there long ago, when it was assumed that IJburg would be served by heavy metro, with a terminus underneath the railway station. However, Amsterdam encountered such huge problems with the construction of its first metro line, inaugurated in 1977, that at that time it seemed as if metro construction would cease for ever. For this reason, Amsterdam tried its luck with tram-metro hybrids, which are used on line 51, inaugurated in 1992. The 51 is a complicated operation. It shares a central tunnel segment with third-rail high-platform metro lines 53 and 54; further south it runs with semi-circular 'light metro' line 50; further south again it shares tracks with catenary-equipped low-platform tram line 5, and even further south line 51 runs over tracks (at present being extended by 1.5 km to Westwijk in the suburb of Amstelveen) shared with no other line.

So in 1999 a return to the well-proven classic tram concept for IJtram met with quick approval from the Dutch Ministry of Transport, which agreed to subsidise the project by a hefty EUR 157.5 million. On top of that, the city of Amsterdam contributes EUR 42 million from its own resources.

Before diving into the long Piet-Hein tram tunnel, IJtram halts at Rietlandpark, a two-level segregated tram interchange station, built in the open air (with platforms protected by shelters), accessible to trams only. At Rietlandpark, IJtram will have to dive into a deep open cutting, to 6 m below street level. The surface-level at Rietlandpark will be used by tram route 10, which is currently being extended by 2.2 km from its Javaplein terminus north to reach Azartplein, situated on the so-called KNSM Island.

KNSM is the name of a now-defunct steamship company, which once served Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. The Azartplein is a central square in a former docklands area, reconverted recently into a fashionable residential area. Due to the difference in vertical alignment there will be no track connection here between routes 10 and 26.

Halfway between Central Station and IJburg, route 26 runs through the 2-km long rail tunnel parallel to the Piet-Hein road tunnel. The rail tunnel was built simultaneously with the road tunnel, in 1997, and had been kept in reserve since. At a point further to the east, route 26 surfaces to reach the westernmost islands of IJburg over the EnneYs-Heerma bridge.

Over grassed tracks in the median strip of a wide boulevard, route 26 crosses a string of three interconnected islands, Steigereiland (Landing-stage Island), followed by Rieteiland (Reed Island) and Haveneiland (Harbour Island) respectively. These three island will be serviced by IJtram's first stage at precisely the moment when the first IJburgers will occupy their homes. Probably 3 500 houses will be completed simultaneously in the summer of 2004, so there will be enough patronage for the tram from the first day of operation. Total travel time over the 8.5-km line from Central Station to the Haveneiland terminus will be 18 minutes. Headways will be between 5 and 6 minutes during rush-hours, and 10 to 15 minutes at other times. Commercial speed of route 26 will be 28.3 km/h, the fastest of any tram line in the Netherlands.

On the islands of IJburg, the maximum speed for the trams will be restricted to 50 km/h. This limit was explicitly imposed by the city council of Amsterdam, which wishes to tailor IJburg to a human scale. Small and beautiful. This means that the city council tolerates no fences or hedges to segregate the trams. The city council is aware that in the southern part of the city, after several fatal accidents, fences over a length of 3 km had to been erected on both flanks of the tram lane of fast-running surface line 51. The city council has decided that route 26 will definitely not become a copy of the 51. The council says that fences in urban surroundings do not befit a city tram.

Four more islands, more to the east, will be reclaimed from the sea in the years ahead. These are: Centrumeiland (Central Island), Middeneiland (Middle Island), Strandeiland (Beach Island), Buiteneiland (Outer Island) . Once completed, these islands may see a simple 4-km long extension of IJtram, by 2008, or by a 2-pronged extension.

But here, all options are open. So far, no decision has been taken concerning the use of the land surface of the four islands, and city planners prefer to keep their hands free. The success of the first three islands will define the future land use of the four other islands, which could be used for building residential areas, and/or creating beaches, and/or cemeteries, and/or recreational parks, and/or shopping malls. There are also plans to serve the four eastern-most islands by a future branch of existing metro line 53.

By 2008, the four eastern islands may also be served by an extension of Zuidtangent, a 100% reserved bus lane between the cities of Haarlem, Amstelveen and South-East-Amsterdam via Schiphol airport. With EUR 267 million already invested in Zuidtangent, it is hoped that this bus lane will make the national airport accessible at all times, even when all roads are clogged, in particular for the benefit of airline employees. This Zuidtangent includes a series of interlinked tunnels and bridges.

In 1998, HTM, the transport undertaking of Den Haag, offered to construct Zuidtangent as a light rail system. The request was rejected, as HTM could not convince the regional authorities that Zuidtangent could be realised as a light rail line in time for the national flower exposition Floriade, which in 2002 will be held near one of the Zuidtangent's stations. So the bus concept was retained. However, transport planners have carefully designed Zuidtangent in such a manner that it respects all light rail standards. A conversion of Zuidtangent to a light rail line at some future date is a real option. When Zuidtangent reaches the south-eastern tip of IJburg by a 10-km extension in 2008, it might be in the form of a light rail line, replacing the busway.

In recent months, the popularity of IJburg has soared. Many feel attracted by the prospect of residing literally 'in the sea', surrounded at all sides by the fresh water of IJsselmeer, one of Europe's largest sailing sports areas. There will be ample mooring facilities within walking distance of the houses. The project is serious and attractive, and so is tram route 26, its lifeline. When completed, IJburg will have a population of 45 000, occupying a total of 18 000 dwellings. Planned are 12 000 jobs on the islands, so many IJburgers will have to do their daily commuting to outside destinations.

At IJburg, the city of Amsterdam has imposed a stringent anti-car, pro-public transport policy. It will be difficult to reach IJburg by car. At its western tip, it can be reached by road over the EnneYs-Heerma bridge, where for motor cars there will be only one lane per driving direction. At its eastern tip, it will be accessible by road over a bridge with two lanes per direction, but it this second bridge will not be built before 2005. The major link with the outside world will be IJtram. Thus route 26 will have to work hard to attract a loyal backing of satisfied customers. It is forecast that it will carry 50 000 passengers daily. This task will be entrusted to GVB, the municipal transport undertaking of Amsterdam.

For the first few years the Enneüs-Heerma Bridge will be the only link to the satellite city of IJburg. Motor traffic will use the northern two lanes and trams run on the southern two (with provision for use by emergency vehicles).

A bottleneck may be formed by the Enneüs-Heerma bridge, the vital link between the 'old land' and the western tip of IJburg. Here, the tram will run on a double-track reservation on the southern half of the bridge, but the tracks will be laid in concrete, in order to enable vehicles of the emergency services to use the tram lane. No special provisions will protect the tram lane here against any illegal use by other vehicles. One can only hope that the tram lane will not be blocked by other traffic. The official policy is that Amsterdam will expressly refrain from measures to keep cars away from the tram lane on Enneüs-Heerma bridge, as in other parts of Amsterdam there have been some lethal accidents caused by anti-car protective barriers surrounding tram tracks. So it remains to be seen whether a punctual service of route 26 is compatible with the 'solution' chosen for the Enneüs-Heerma bridge.

More remarkable is the decision to have the Combino trams of route 26 stored in the open air at night. One may doubt the wisdom behind this decision. Trams can get ice-cold in the winter; there is a risk of vandalism. A series of 25 five-section, single-ended 29-m cars of a total of 155 (ordered from the Siemens factory at Krefeld, Germany) will be allocated to route 26. For overnight storage of the Combinos there will be a six-track siding near the Zuiderzeeweg tram stop, on an already existing uninhabited island, called Zeeburgereiland (Sea Borough Island).

At first sight, it is hard to understand why Amsterdam builds no covered depot for its IJburg Combinos. But there is a reason behind it: the future of Zeeburgereiland, now a piece of wilderness, is still being debated. The island occupies a central position in Amsterdam, which pursues a policy of developing a 'compact city'. As Zeeburgereiland is perfectly accessible by road (A10 orbital motorway), and soon by IJtram, it may be foreseen that Amsterdam will opt for housing development at Zeeburgereiland. This means that transport planners are reluctant to invest heavily in a tram depot which might have to make room for apartment blocks within a few years.

The same applies to the intermediate turning loop for line 26, also planned at Zeeburgereiland, but equally of a preliminary nature. It might have to be relocated as well. Whatever the outcome of the debate, it has already been decided that the depot and the turning loop shall be at close distance from each other, and that both must be located at Zeeburgereiland, both in their provisional form as well as in their final shape at a later stage. The city of Amsterdam feels that the Combinos will be sufficiently safe on a siding protected by cameras, fences and barbed wire. But transport planners agree that a lasting solution for the storage of the IJtram Combinos must be found.

Situated at the half-way point of the line, the turning circle will enable GVB to continue regular tram service should the outer part of the IJtram line be disrupted for whatever reason. Itmay also serve as a park-and-ride terminus for traffic off the A10. This single loop is a modest measure in contrast with what one sees at the new tram lines of France, with their abundance of crossovers.

One must also hope that IJtram will be able to cope with the situation on the square in front of Central Station, where it shares tracks and pointwork with several other tram lines. With such intensive tram traffic as there is at Amsterdam, there is always a real risk of derailments or collisions.

All opinions expressed are those of the author. The author would like to thank Ms Désirée Barendregt, of IVV (Department for Infrastructure, Traffic and Transportation), City of Amsterdam, for her kind support with the preparation of this article.

All pictures courtesy City of Amsterdam/GVBA

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