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Nice: Quality tram in a city of beauty

France's fifth largest city has plans for light rail expansion right up to the year 2015. C. J. Wansbeek explains.

A second wave of new French tramway systems is rolling over the country. With nationwide local elections in 2007already in sight, more cities are rushing to build tramways. Hopefully, the voters will reward their leaders for the huge investments in light rail under way at Le Mans and Bordeaux. Likewise, the second tramline for Montpellier is also scheduled to open in 2006, ahead of the elections. It is hoped that tramway construction at Valenciennes may start soon. Latest to join the tram club is the city of Nice, the beautiful capital of the Côte d’Azur, where construction of tram line 1 is scheduled to start in mid-2003.

Place de l’Armée du Rhin looking east at one of the old wedding-cake style hotels. Tram tracks coming from Rue de la République (on the right) will be laid in front of this building. (C. J. Wansbeek

Lying at the point where the Alps meet the beaches of the Mediterranean, Nice enjoys a superb year-round weather. A golden strip of land near the sea, where everyone looks relaxed, in search of the good life. Tourism started long ago, as can be seen by the scores of hotels built in the form of wedding cake mansions, with subtle tones of orange and yellow. There is much culture to enjoy in the many theatres and museums. Nice is a big city, the country’s fifth-largest, with a population of 350 000.

The palm-lined Promenade des Anglais marks the southern limit of the 19th-century city, following a gently curved beachfront, where bikini-clad ladies are basking in the sun, even in January or February. The Promenade leads to the airport, which is France’s second-busiest after Paris, lying 10 km to the west. East of the Promenade des Anglais lies Vieux-Nice (Old Nice), with cobble stone alleys. The Promenade des Anlgais ends at Place Masséna, where several other arteries converge too. Soon, trams will be running from this square, continuing over the Jean Medicine Avenue in an almost straight line to the northwest. From Place Masséna, in the other direction, trams will continue in the direction of the north-eastern outskirts of town.

The coming of the tram means a farewell to a traditional live-and-let-live attitude. At Nice, public transport used to enjoy a low priority. However, a few years ago, it became obvious that something had to be done. Streets jammed most of the day. Traffic grinding to a halt. How to act? There is not really much opportunity. Railways play a limited role. For the benefit of commuters, there are a few small stations on the coastal railway line from Nice to the west. There are urban and regional bus services, and there is an under-utilised metre-gauge diesel single-track railway line to the north, leading from Nice to Digne, a distance of 166 km, which has its terminus a few hundred metres north of the SNCF main station at Nice. This is the highly scenic CP (Chemin de Fer de Provence), offering an unforgettable trip every rail fan should make at least once in his lifetime.

Nice once boasted a complete network of tramlines, converging on Place Masséna. In the inner city, trams in those days got power from a caniveau (slot conduit electricity supply). In the outskirts of town, power supply was by classic overhead wire. The last tram was unceremoniously withdrawn in 1953, and as far is known, not a single Nice tram car has been preserved. There are none on static display, and all tracks have been lifted.

Half a century later, everyone applauds a new generation of trams, which hopefully will bring a better and cleaner city. The tram will enhance the image. Twenty 37-m long, five-section double-ended low-floor trams will be ordered by Nice in late 2002. The tram with a width of 2.65 m will offer much comfort, such as airconditioning and very high windows, to enhance the feeling of safety and belongingness. If the traffic catches up, the trams of a modular design can be stretched by a 6th section. In June 2002 the design of the tram, with its flanks in striking greens and greys, was selected by the mayor of Nice, who believes in the tram as the way out of chaos, in a city where reserved bus lanes are nothing but parking spaces for law-breaking car drivers.

By contrast, the tram at Nice, as the example of Lyon shows, will certainly not be blocked by parked cars. You cannot park on tram tracks, trams by definition run fast. At Nice, as in all tram cities of France, there will be traffic-signal priority for the trams at all crossings. The tram will run almost noiseless, even on the rather steep slopes. The topography of Nice, a city built on hills, is difficult, so the tram (standard-gauge, double-track, 750 volts), with 4-minute headways during rush hours, will finally bring coherence to what is now a loose collection of neighbourhoods. Trams will make Nice a habitable city. Capacity will be 2 400 passengers per direction per hour.

Avenue Jean Médecin will become tram-only at the point where it reaches Avenue Jean Jaurès, the southernmost point of the line, with the famous shopping arcades of Av. Jean Médecin.

At present, it requires nerve and adroitness to safely navigate a motor car through this witches’ cauldron, and probably many are unable to cater for their private transportation. The tram, which will achieve a commercial speed of 18 km/h, will bring mobility for the many who shun the driver’s seat. The tram’s performance will attract the patronage of people from all walks of life, including the wealthy and the beautiful. It has been calculated that 125 000 persons live within 400 m walking distance from one of the 20 Nice tram stops. Within the same distance, 42 000 jobs are concentrated.

Before the tram was chosen, there had been talk of a VAL-type automatic mini-metro, comparable to those at Lille and Toulouse. But at Nice, there is no room for that. In 1996, the basic decision was taken to build at Nice a TCSP, Transport en Commun en Site Propre, which means a public transport line on a reservation, which might be either a tram or a guided bus. For a while, Nice toyed with the idea of using a guided bus, such as Civis, TVR or Translohr. But the option of a guided bus was dropped when there came reports from Nancy and Caen, two cities where guided buses of the TVR type are faced with severe technical problems.

In the year 2000, Monsieur Jacques Peyrat, the Mayor of Nice, decided to go for a tramway sur fer (tram on steel rails). Monsieur Peyrat’s role is pivotal. Apart from being a Senateur (member of Parliament), is also acts as chairman of Communauté de l’Agglomération Nice Côte d’Azur. He is widely lauded as a man of vision and tenacity. Monsieur Peyrat has based all planning on a 'real' tram, and certainly not a guided bus of some sort.

There will be local elections in the year 2007. In 2006, the first tramline must be operational. Experience in other French cities has shown that under such pressure, tram projects thrive, and are neatly carried out, on time, within the budget. The EUR 350 million needed to build the first tramline at Nice (including EUR 39 million for 20 new trams) is already set aside, so execution of the project can start in the autumn of 2003, as soon as administrative and political hurdles have been taken. Of course, no construction can start before the Déclaration d’Utilté Publique has been awarded to the project.

Prescribed by law, the Public Enquiry took place in February-March, 2002. It centred around an exhibition, which managed to attract 7 000 visitors. They could see a collection of maps, scale models and diagrams. Everyone with questions got a detailed reply from qualified city officials. On top of that, 3 000 other citizens expressed their views through other channels, such as phone and e-mail. So a grand total of 10 000 persons took part in the consultation process. The local press reported on the Public enquiry. Following French legal procedure, as the next step, a 3-member Commission of Inquirers will draw conclusions, expected by September 2002. Either the tram project is positively judged. Or it is positively judged with reservations. Or, third option, it is judged negatively. The expectation is that the project will continue, perhaps modified.

Following a big 'U', with a length of 8.6 km, tram line 1 will comprise 20 stops, which means an average distance between stops of 440 m. Starting in the north-west it will serve the following stops. Terminus Nord (P+R for 700 cars), Fontaine du Temple (P+R for 300 cars), Stade du Ray (a big sports stadium), Boyer, Auguste Raynaud, Général de Gaulle, Gare Thiers (SNCF main railway station), Notre-Dame, Jean Médecin, Masséna, Jean Jaurès, Garibaldi, Saint-Jean-d’Angély, Université, Saint Roch, Virgile Barel, Pont Michel.

In 2004, an east-west bus line entirely on reservation will be introduced, which will intersect the tramline at the bottom of the 'U'. The 9.9-km long bus line will run from Place Ile-de-Beauté (in the historic harbour area) to an office complex of administrative services known as CADAM in the west, it will comprise 27 stops in westward and 28 stops in eastward direction. The east-west bus lane will be built to tramway standards, and possibly by 2010, it can be upgraded to become tramline 2. For this bus line, four km of reservation has already been built to TCSP standards.

Line 1 has the potential to become one of Europe’s most surprising tram routes. At its north-western extremity, at Terminus Nord, also called Comte de Falicon, there will be a large P+R, inviting all car drivers coming from the nearby A8 Autoroute (motor way) exit to switch to the tram. Some 100 parking spaces will be reserved for tram personnel, as at this point there will be the tram’s only depot and repair works, with a capacity for some 50 trams. The area near the terminus is surrounded by steep hills, and the trams will climb over spiralling tracks to reach the depot.

Artists impression of the grassed reservation in Boulevard St-Roch in north-east Nice.

However, many residents of this sector feel that the A8, one of France’s busiest motorways, is already causing too much noise and pollution. They feel that a tram depot in their neighbourhood would be too much. But at Nice, there is no good alternative, there is no open space available for a depot in the city centre. At the north-eastern extremity of the tramline, near Pont Michel, a depot could be built. But this spot is much more difficult for tram drivers, many of whom will necessarily arrive at their jobs by car in the early-morning hours.

On the western leg of tram line 1, there are several interesting features. The tram bypasses the modern, glass-and-steel terminus of the CP, which lies some 200 m away. A tapis roulant (moving walkway) is envisaged here between tram and CP. The area in front of the CP terminus will soon be occupied by the new City Hall, and this will greatly enhance the tram’s transit value. Likewise, the tram will not directly serve the SNCF main station, known as Gare Thiers, which lies some 200 metres away from the tram stop bearing its name. Here too, a walkway will offer the solution.

An alternative would have been a long and deep tram tunnel underneath Gare Thiers. This idea was rejected on cost grounds, it would have been too expensive. But the second reason was that it is difficult to keep an underground tram station clean and socially safe. This is a fact of life at Nice, a very cosmopolitan city with its share of social unrest and street crime. So a walkway at street level may be less sophisticated, it nevertheless offers a strong subjective feeling of safety, and that is what counts most. Over the full length of the tram line wide sidewalks will be created, with trees, offering protection against the sun and the rain. Much care will be given to make the surroundings of the tram line as attractive as possible – this is elegant-minded France at its best.

Also on the western leg of the 'U'-shaped tram line is a beautiful stretch between Auguste Raynaud and Général de Gaulle, to be laid in much green, a couloir de verdure (strip of lush green). This stretch will enable to tram to follow a straight line, in order to create it, several residential properties will have to be demolished. Most of the houses on the list are already owned by the municipality, which started to buy houses here as early as the 1930s, with a view to create a diagonal break-through for public transportation. Yet, now that the final hour of the houses is approaching, protests are heard against the proposed demolition to make room for the tram. The protests may cause some delay for the tramway project. Near Boulevard Raynaud is the university campus of Valrose, with 5 000 students.

On its eastern leg, the tramline will more of less serve Acropolis, the big conference building, where in December 2000 the EU summit of heads of State took place under French presidency. The tram will however be built through Rue de la République, two blocks away from Acropolis. This option was preferred, as the conference building is regularly sealed off from the outer world when important events take place. Such measures would greatly hamper regular tram service if the tracks were to lie too close to the conference building.

Two P+R facilities will be built on the eastern leg, at St.-Jean d’Angely (350 cars, this parking is guarded) and Pont Michel (500 cars, this parking will be guarded too) respectively. The latter is the terminus of the line. From this point, an extension of the tramline over nearby SNCF-owned railway tracks might be feasible. It lies straight on the Nice-to-Breil railway line. Near St.-Jean d’Angely a new railway station on an existing SNCF line will be created, offering a convenient interchange between tram and train. At the same point, there is a fast-growing university with a future capacity for 8 000 students.

According to Monsieur Didier Clavel, member of the 20-man project team that will act as the brains and the heart of the tramway project, the Pont Michel terminus deserves special attention. Beyond this point, the tram may be extended to several fast-growing new neighbourhoods in the north-east. This extension may be created by connecting the tram tracks with the nearby SNCF railway tracks near Pont Michel. But here, there is already intensive SNCF service in the direction of Breil with frequent TER-class commuter trains. So any track-sharing with trams of line 1 with 4-minute headways might lead to conflicts.

A more realistic approach seems to forget about the SNCF tracks (which run on the sparsely-inhabitated east bank of the Paillon river), and instead build the tramway extension on reservation on the north-west bank, where new neighbourhoods are expanding, in particular L’Ariane. From here, another growth zone can be reached. This is La Trinité, which has already 10 000 inhabitants. Mr. Clavel says that the tram extension from Pont Michel to L’Ariane and La Trinité has already been decided. This extension is realistic.

The original tram line 1 was conceived b y the city of Nice, and is strictly confined to the territory of this city. Nice did all the planning, and took all financial burdens of tramline 1. After that, in January 2002, the Agglomération saw the light, the public authority for Nice and 22 surrounding self-governing communities. Since then, tramway planning takes place in a much bigger frame, that of the region. All financial and administrative barriers to expand the tramway system have been removed, thanks to the Agglomération. From a city with a population of 350 000, Nice has now the governmental centre of a region of 490 000 inhabitants, and their number is growing fast. The entire Côte d’Azur coastal area now is home to over one million inhabitants. This includes Menton, Antibes, Juan-les-Pins, Cannes and Saint-Tropez. A pivotal figure in now the mayor of Nice, who is famous for his outspoken pro-tram attitude. The mayor of Nice is also chairman of the Communauté. He now has the opportunity to enrich the Côte d’Azur area with a coherent, tram-based, environmentally-friendly transport system of quality and beauty.

The construction of the tram line will be accompanied by a total restructuring of the inner-city street network, several streets will have to be closed for car traffic. Many city bus lines will be re-routed to become feeder lines for the tram. Pedestrians an cyclists will benefit enormously, as the construction of the tram line will be accompanied by the creation of a 26-km inner city network of bike lanes, complete with several covered bicycle parks near tram stops. Also, long new walking routes will see the light of day. It was found that in the inner city 43% of all traffic movements is by foot, so it is only logical that trams and pedestrians will received preferential treatment.

At all levels, the carefully-designed tram must help improve city life. A corner stone is the lighting scheme, or plan lumière. Over its full length, the tram line will be highly visible, at daytime and at night time. There are eight type of lights, so whether it is in a narrow street or on a wide boulevard, everyone will have a clear sight of the tram – tram passengers, pedestrians, car drivers. Among the types are various forms of well-defined éclairage ambiance magistrale (trams in a soft bath of light), or éclairage fonctionnel (tram under sharp spot-light).

A 40-km growth scheme for the Nice tramway comprises the following projects to be realised in the next ten years:

Further plans are on the drawing board. It might be possible to create a tramline from Lingostière (northern terminus of line 3) to the city centre (track link with line 1) over the under-utilised tracks of the CP, perhaps by cutting back CP service to Lingostière and rebuilding the Lingostière-to-downtown segment into an urban tram line. Another plan is to extend line 1 beyond L’Ariane even more to the north-east. Yet another blueprint is to go far more the west, and go beyond Cagnes, and create as many P&R facilities as possible, given the near-complete saturation of the road network of the entire coastal region.

With so much French transport quality in the making, the only thing left for British readers is to hope that by the time the first trams at Nice will start making their daily rounds, there will be a direct UK-to-Nice TGV (or Eurostar) high-speed train service, to make the full trip in grandiose style, on modern tracks.

The author expresses his thanks to monsieur Didier Clavel of Mission Tramway Ville de Nice for his kind support with the preparation of this article.

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