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Valenciennes France's next tramway city

Tramways are making a triumphant comeback all over France. C.J. Wansbeek looks at the latest project, which is likely to be given the go-ahead before the end of 1999.

All over France, between Channel and Pyrenees, tramlines are under construction. A brotherhood of French tram professionals has discreetly formed itself.

Their tram-minded 'camaraderie' enhances a mutual exchange of technical data. The brotherhood was quick to react when SEMURVAL, the transport undertaking of Valenciennes, said it needed a little help from its friends. So the nation's tram heavy-weights hurried to this city in Northern France, to drum up local support for a proposed 21-km tramway system. After approval, expected before the end of 1999, Valenciennes will become France's tram city number 13 (if one includes all French cities where tram construction has been approved). After that, Le Mans is now lining up as prospective tram city number 14.

Lying near the Belgian border, Valenciennes is the centre of an industrial conurbation, with a total population of 340 000. Unemployment is still alarmingly high, after the mining and steel industries closed down 20 years ago. A new future is sought in motor car building, hi-tech and service industries.

Most politicians are in favour of building a tramway system, linking all these sites, as the embodiment of the better life sought by all. The idea that the tram should return, is largely the work of one man with a vision, Monsieur Jules Chevalier, aged 79. He is still mayor of Aulnoy-les-Valenciennes, and also chairman SITURV, the regional transit authority to which Valenciennes belongs.

A decade ago, Monsieur Chevalier tried to reduce the role of the private motor car by offering a tramway plan as an alternative. And then there is also the always-present Monsieur Joé1 Pitrel, director of SEMURVAL, the local transport undertaking, of which Monsieur Chevalier (again) is president. Monsieur Pitrel will hopefully soon receive orders from his political bosses to start building a tramway system for his city. SEMURVAL belongs to TRANSDEV, which employs 11 000, and runs a fleet of 5 515 buses to serve 85 French cities and regions. TRANSDEV also owns London United, and does consultancy work at Dublin. TRANSDEV is involved in the implementation of eight light rail projects, including six in France, one in Portugal, as well as Nottingham in the UK. These come in addition to SEMURVAL's five existing light rail systems in France, all of which are currently undergoing expansion and upgrading.

However, at Valenciennes, a tough opposition role is played by shop-keepers in the inner city who try to block track-laying in front of their doors. Rumour has it that Vigi, the anti-tram lobby, receives money from the city's main employer, Peugeot, the car maker. It should be noted that Peugeot will soon have to play second fiddle, as the new Toyota factory near Valenciennes will employ 3000, if not more, against 3000 by Peugeot. Recently, top management of Toyota declared itself fully in support of a tram at Valenciennes.

A recent survey made it clear that most citizens are equally in favour of trams. During the SEMURVAL seminar at Anzin, it was disclosed that a public opinion poll of 1247 people found 83% considered the tram "an interesting proposal". 69% said they would certainly patronise it.

In the middle of this controversy, one finds Monsieur Jean-Louis Borloo, the mayor of Valenciennes, who seems half-hearted about it all. Many compare him with a Hamlet-figure. It is felt that in these times, the mayor should show more vision and courage. This explains the impasse, despite the fact that all technical studies for the tramway have been completed. The blueprints show a tram where it will perform best: over reserved tracks in the narrow shopping streets through the inner city. The streets will be rebuilt into attractive, pedestrianised malls, with no car traffic. The tram will provide give direct access to hundreds of inner-city shops, cafes and restaurants.

This plan is being opposed by the anti-tram lobby, who wish to relegate the tram to the city's circular boulevards, at least 300 metres away from the inner city. To build the tramline that far away from the pulsating heart of the city would undermine the tram's potential. According to SEMURVAL's market research, only an inner-city route will generate a sufficient number of passengers to justify an investment in light rail. In an effort to break through the stalemate, SEMURVAL held a seminar in March 1999, at which members of the brotherhood explained the benefits of modern tramways 'á la française'. Some 300 invited local politicians, consumer lobbyists, environmentalists and civil servants listened attentively. Speech after speech made it clear that many French cities are in love with their new trams, in particular those cities which have used the tram as an instrument to bring new life to their inner cities and surrounding regions. This is why SEMURVAL, despite all the fuss, still hopes to inaugurate its first tram line as early as 2002.


The French-speaking city of Geneva, Switzerland, was represented by Christoph Stücki, director of TPG, the transport undertaking, who repeated what he has already told this magazine (see Light Rail & Modern Tramway July 1997). At Geneva, car ownership is among world's highest. Yet, each Genevois makes an average of 300 tram and/or bus trips per year, and the market share of trains and buses is as high as 34%.

Tramway expansion will soon further improve quality, whereas the trolleybus, due to its limited capacity, will not be expanded. Trams, with their immense passenger-carrying capability, are, on a seat-kilometre basis, less expensive to run than buses. This was been calculated by the TPG staff, who themselves were surprised with such facts and figures in favour of the tram. There is sound economics behind Geneva's tram expansion schemes.

A few years ago a VAL, or automated mini-metro, was rejected as a serious option for Geneva, after TPG had found that VAL construction costs per mile are three times higher than those of a tram, Monsieur Stücki said. At the Valenciennes seminar, experts explained that constructing a tramline is now easier than ever. Banks are now showing interest, and are willing to lend money to an extent never shown before, for periods up to 40 years, against rates as low as an annual 3.7%. This means that tramline construction no longer has to rely on State funding, or cheap loans from the European Investment Bank (as used by Grenoble and Saint-Etienne). Strasbourg in 1992 was the first to use a tendering procedure to obtain cheap money for its first tram line. Apart from being affordable, trams are now officially recognised as the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation, implying that the shop-keepers of Valenciennes must stop their anti-tram lobby.

Monsieur Stücki said that at Geneva, there had been an outcry against tramway extensions. The shop-keepers along Boulevard Georges Favon were among the noisiest. Now that the tram has been running there for three years, everyone is satisfied, above all the shop-keepers, who greet many new customers arriving by tram. The tramline over Boulevard Georges Favon was easy to build, there was no disturbance of normal life.

Geneva, which never did away with its tram, now has three tram lines, and more are in the pipeline, including two border-crossing lines into France, each with a length of some 15 km. One to the east, to the French town of Annemasse, with TPG trams using a railway alignment (to be regauged to metre-gauge). The other line to go the west, to Pays de Gex, also in France. Plans are ready to build a 2.1 km. tramway extension from Comavin station to the north, to Place des Nations (seat of the UN), via Rue de Lausanne. Tramway building at Geneva is in trusted, professional hands, so most opposition to tramline construction has gone now.

Monsieur Stücki cultivates relations with the owners of car parks, whose parking passes entitle car drivers to a free one-hour use of all TPG trams and buses. From the car park owners, TPG receives 1 Swiss franc per car parked (and thus per free ticket issued). This co-operation has grown into a substantial source of income for TPG. Equally important, this formula keeps thousands of cars out of the city centre.


Grenoble (population 378 000), lying in south- east France, is where the renaissance of the modem French tram began. Since their introduction in 1987, Grenoble's low-floor trams of a striking design have enriched the cityscape, with its attractive pedestrianised malls, where trams pass by quietly at a few inches' distance from the animated open-air terraces. TAG is the name of the transport undertaking, and its newly-appointed executive manager, Monsieur André Magnon-Pujo, reiterated at Valenciennes the success story familiar to readers of this mag- azine (see LR&MT, February 1998).

The tram has dramatically improved the market share of public transport. Less cars simply means a better city of Grenoble. In 1970 there were 17 million TAG passengers. In 1990, after the tram had entered the scene, 34 million, most of them by tram. In 1998, with tramline A extended twice (in 1996 and 1997) and line B in service, there were over 50 million TAG passengers. Thanks to the tram, public transport at Grenoble now has a market share of 20%. Soon a third tram line will open at Grenoble. A fourth is already on the drawing boards.

Tram line A cost a total of FRF 1282 million francs. Tram line B cost 780 million. The State subsidised the two lines to the tune of FRF 372 and FRF 150 million respectively. More financial support from the local community will come, since the VT, or versement transport, was increased from 1% in 1990 to 1.75% in 1993. This is the maximum level allowed under French law. The sole exception to that is Paris, where employers must pay up to 2.2% to subsidise two things at the same time: the famous Carte Orange for the mobility of their employees, and, secondly, investments in new public transport infrastructure.

As explained by Prof. Carmen Hass-Klau and Dr. Graham Clapton in the March 1999 issue of Transport & Urban Transit, the VT is a percentage of the total payroll which must be paid as a form of tax by all local employers (including state organisations) who employ a minimum of nine persons. All over France, VT revenues are administered by a Syndicat, a political organisation for transport matters, representing an urban conurbation. In France, these syndicates act as the political masters and assign concessions to the local transport undertakings, which are in fact franchise holders, such as TAG in the case of Grenoble.

Monsieur Magnon-Pujo made it clear that Valenciennes, like Grenoble, has the right to make a full use of the VT to pay for tramway construction. Indeed, Valenciennes, in April 1998, increased the local VT to 1.75%, and since then new reserves have been built up. At Valenciennes, there is already FRF 100 million in cash from VT revenue amassed in reserve, to be spent as soon as the Valenciennes tram project receives the green light. The VT revenues can also be used to pay the annuities of a commercial loan which has been concluded to finance tramline construction. There is no contradiction, it was said at the Valenciennes seminar, between a high level of VT levies and the contracting of new commercial loans.


Strasbourg (pop. 430 000), which in 1992 inaugurated one of Europe's most stylish new tramway systems, was represented by no one less than Monsieur Roland Ries, its mayor, who is also president of CTS, the local transport undertaking. Monsieur Ries reminded his audience that the 1960 demise of the Strasbourg tramway was a grave mistake. As early as 1973, blueprints for a new tramway system were ready. After that, time was lost on quibbling, and many dreamt of a VAL, or automated mini-metro. In 1989, the tram was picked, in 1994 tram line A opened, as part of an ambitious programme to make the inner city a beautiful place again.

The renewal of the inner city of Strasbourg has become a success story, and so is the tram, which made it all possible. Before the tram came, the private motor car at Strasbourg had a market share of 75%, which was far too much, and this share was even growing year after year, said Monsieur Ries. In his city, the market share for public transport was a mere 11 % in 1990. The political will developed to reduce the role of the car, and all other forms of environmentally friendly movement now receive preferential treatment: walking, cycling, as well as transport by tram. 12-km long Tram line B will soon open in Strasbourg, where a total of 10 km. of new tram lines is under construction at the moment.

In the year 2000, the network will have grown to a length of 25 km. Near many tram stations, spacious P&R facilities have been created, and the inauguration of line B will bring an additional 1000 parking places for free use by tram-riding car drivers. Monsieur Ries gave examples of streets where car traffic has been reduced from four to one lane, which means more space for sidewalks, cycle paths, and, above all, a fast tram on reservation, benefiting from priority of traffic lights at all level cross roads. A tram can be built at low costs, by using a strip in a street; at Strasbourg the only exception was the expensive 1200-m tram tunnel, which was needed to tunnel under the spacious railway yards and urban motorway above it.

A recent survey shows that 92% of the Strasbourg population is happy with the tram. Monsieur Ries said that there is no opposition against the tram, but there are many practical questions from citizens about construction activities. As a policy measure, all questions from citizens are carefully noted and promptly answered. Monsieur Ries, speaking as the mayor of a leading city, stated that it is the responsibility of politicians to explain the situation. So they must tell it that the cities are in danger if unlimited car use goes on. Politicians must educate the citizens on what is happening and what is at stake. Politicians must then propose solutions, they must debate, and make a choice.

At the Valenciennes seminar, one could have heard a pin drop as Monsieur Ries made this statement on political courage in the presence of three hundred assembled citizens. The message was clear: a mayor should not waver about a serious tram plan. The city does not belong to the car, he said. Cyclists and pedestrians have more right to use the city. Unless we do something, all our cities will deteriorate into formless heaps, said Monsieur Ries. He abhors 'villes tentaculaires', or ever-expanding sprawls, for which, he noted, there is not enough space in Europe. He also opposes the 'ghettoisation', the creation of self-enclosed neighbourhoods. So tramlines must be built, to keep cities alive and maintain accessibility. Monsieur Ries made a few remarks on opposing shop-keepers. Strasbourg has found a solution. An independent committee reviews all complaints from shop-keepers. The committee has the funds to indemnify all those whose turnover is threatened by tramway construction. The money is paid out quickly, no red tape. At Strasbourg, not a single shop was forced to close as the result of tramway construction. All businesses went on trading.


Monsieur Jean-Jaques Rivel, a shopkeeper in the inner city of Saint-Étienne, said that trams run in front of his door Also, Monsieur Rivel is chairman of the local shop-keepers association, and as such, he is very much in favour of the tram. Trams means business. His city (population 316 000) has one very busy tramline, running straight through the densely built-up core of the city, on double-track over the busy shopping mall Grand' Rue, with a width of only 11 metres (for a full description of this system, see LR&MT, May 1998).

Monsieur Rivel said that Valenciennes is a honest, hardworking city, like his own hometown, and that the inner city of Valenciennes will prosper with a tram over its main shopping streets in the inner city. "We, the shop-keepers of Saint-Étienne, are grateful that we have our tram, which brings us our customers", he said. In the pedestrianised streets there is a perfect 'cohabitation' between trams and pedestrians, and everyone agrees that only the tram can transport the thousands who enter and leave every hour. In cities like mine, there simply is no room for cars, said Monsieur Rivel, who also served a term as president of the local transport undertaking. Saint-Étienne, like Strasbourg, has developed efficient methods to deal with complaints. If tram track renewal causes a temporary closing-off of streets, fast procedures are put at work to reply to questions and pay out financial indemnification.

It requires political courage to say that the tram must have a reserved space, but the rewards are tremendous. The tram is the best instrument for urban mobility, said Monsieur Rivel. A recent poll held among 5 000 local families showed that the overwhelming majority of the population of Saint-Étienne wants more tram services. In addition to the existing north-south tram line, Monsieur Rivel said, a second, east-west tramway could be built, and he predicted that the second tram line will see long rows of shops on both flanks, a repeat of what one sees with tram line 1. A tramline brings prosperity, he said.


Tram project director Monsieur Christian Buisson described the Orléans tram project along the lines he followed in this magazine (see T&UT, October 1998). In this medium sized city (population 256 000) a surprisingly long north-south tramway, with a length of 18 km., is under construction. This length was chosen in order to connect all major neighbourhoods, offices, railway stations, hospitals and university campus sites with each other, in an effort to bring coherence in a very loose urban sprawl.

Monsieur Buisson made it clear that at Valenciennes, a tramline will be the only instrument to bring order in the use of land and improve the quality of urban life. The tramway construction will require one million man-hours, the equivalent of 800 new jobs, he said. The Orléans tramway, due to open in late 2000, will, according to Monsieur Buisson, have a tremendous psychological impact.


The president of the transport undertaking of Nantes, Monsieur Alain Chenard, described how his city (population 510 000) surprised everyone when it inaugurated its modern tramway system in 1985. Ever since, the tramway system has been expanding. The car had taken possession of the city of Nantes, the car had become master of the space. This dominance has now been broken; the tram has again made Nantes a good place to be. Monsieur Chenard was mayor of Nantes in the early 1970s, a time when the city was flooded by cars, a threat to the quality of urban life.

As Monsieur Chenard said, every city belongs in first place to the pedestrians. At Nantes, in all streets and all neighbourhoods where tram lines were built, a thorough urban renewal was put through. Drab streets and uninvitingly-looking squares packed with parked cars were converted into elegant, tree-lined tram lanes, surrounded by ample space for cyclists and pedestrians. Many cities, including Nantes and Strasbourg, are proud of their long stretches of voies engazonné, tram lines laid in grassed lawns. In quality-conscious France, this is a new standard for tram lane building, and Orléans announced that no less than 5.5 km. of its future tram line shall be in the form of grassed reservation.


The seminar made it clear that in France, tramway management is based on much goodwill and know-how. This will make it easy for Valenciennes to proceed with the plans for a standard-gauge tram line entirely on reservation, with priority at all traffic signals. The Valenciennes tramway system will carry the name 'Transvilles', to underline that a series of cities and villages will be brought together by the tram. In fact, there will be two tram lines, with a total length of 11 km., to be inaugurated on the same day. Line 1 connects Dutemple in the north-west corner of the city with the university campus at Poteme/Les Tertiales. Line 2 runs between Anzin and Aulnoy-les-Valenciennes, in the southern area. Sharing several km. of trackage in the central segment, both lines will serve the SNCF station and the centre of town.

By 2005, construction of tram line 3 should start, from Anzin to the city of Denain, a distance of 10 km., where the tram will use the alignment of a closed mining railway, over which speeds of up to 70 km./h will be reached. SEMURVAL, in alliance with the local transport syndicate, has gone at great length to duly inform the population about the plans. In the first semester of 1999, there will be a public inquiry on all aspects. This is prescribed by law. After that, the last remaining hurdle is the Déclaration d'Utilité Publique, DUP, which is legally required for projects of this importance. The DUP is awarded by the Préfet (or governor) of the region (a somewhat smaller entity than a Département). Normally, this is the final green light. Should however the Préfet give negative advice, then the matter will be referred to the Conseil d'État, the highest-level of the French government system. In some cases, the DUP comes fast; in the case of Orléans it took a year.

The easy-to-understand situation at Valenciennes warrants the expectation that the DUP may come before the end of 1999. As in the case of Orléans, actual tramway construction will start the very day the DUP is awarded. Already now, SEMURVAL has 17 Citadis 301 low-floor trams on conditional order from Alstom, with an option for 1 or 4 more. This order will be confirmed within minutes after the letter containing the DUP has fallen on the doormat of SEMURVAL's office.

The author is grateful to Monsieur Joél Pitrel, Director at SEMURVAL at Valenciennes, and Monsieur Christian Buisson, Director of SEMTAO at Orléans, for their support in preparing this article. All opinions are those of the author.

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