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Light Rail for better public transport

Five Rules for successful light rail systems

By Horst Schaffer Deputy General Manager of VBZ (Zürich Transport Company)

When a group of totally convinced representatives of tramway operators founded the Light Rail Commission within the International Union of Public Transports (UITP) in 1978, only a few could have imagined that this transport system could one day have found such widespread acceptance. Meanwhile, thanks to technical progress the former tramway has developed into an attractive light rail system and re-conquered many towns which had shut down their old tramways after the Second World War.

Especially remarkable was and is the trend in the USA (particularly in California), the renaissance of the urban tramway in France and in Turkey. Meanwhile there are new systems in Great Britain, Spain and Portugal. The first new systems have also been realised in Asia (Hong Kong, Manila and Kuala Lumpur) and in Australia (Sydney) and these will be followed by others. In the former Eastern European states the beginning of a transformation of many old tramway systems into modernised light rail systems also can be observed.

Well over 100 projects are presently being examined worldwide and await decisions. The new introduction of light rail systems requires initial investment and demands a relatively long planning and construction phase. Hence such systems are not viewed as an opportunity for electoral success by short-sighted politicians. Advocating the construction of an urban rail system demands political farsightedness and the honest intent to really solve the mobility problem in an agglomeration. So it is little wonder that in some countries the political decision to build such systems in some cities and countries can stretch out over years.

After four years chairmanship of the Light Rail Commission, Bob Tarr (he was one of the first members) asked me: "to write an article about my perspective of the state of play and prospects for light rail and tramways throughout the world, and to get a view from me, and indeed any other views I have, about the world of public transport and the part light rail and tramways has to play in it." This invitation is a great honour and a challenge to me to order all the impressions I have acquired in my own business and in my committee activities and to compress these to a definite finding.

Mobility management as a great challenge of the coming decades

While - especially in the West - the central problems since the '70s have been the management of the energy stocks and the disposal of increasing amounts of waste, one of the primary themes of the coming decades will be the management of man's constantly increasing requirement for individual mobility.

More than 130 million cars are concentrated in the main traffic ways of Europe's conurbations alone. Traffic congestion in the countries of the European Union causes economic costs of more than 50 billion Euros. In the major cities the resources for additional traffic space have been long since exhausted and moreover, cities which comprise only roads and multistorey car parks offer hardly any space for an attractive life. France has declared war against the frightening increase in road deaths on its country's roads. With unorthodox and macabre TV publicity its citizens are being desperately called to reason; at a time when even small cars have more than 100 hp.

Hundreds of reports have been and are being compiled on the pollution of the environment and the atmosphere. Traffic restrictions in summer due to high ozone loads are clear alarm signs that these problems are no longer theoretical.

The development is paradoxical: For those who cause these problems there is increasingly less attractive living space in the agglomerations of the world. So they are fleeing from the towns and therefore need additional mobility. These problems have long since ceased to be only the concern of USA and Europe. Worldwide, ever more conurbations are suffering similar problems, whether in Mexico, Egypt or Japan. Everywhere the politicians face these developments more or less helplessly.

But calls for change and reason alone are not enough. On the other hand mobility is an important factor of the quality of life and the economic force of mankind. Bans and restrictions are becoming unavoidable. But in a democratic world, these too have their limits.

Can technology alone be the way out?

Two directions of action can be observed, which are being followed up by the opponents of unrestricted individual mobility: full coverage electronic traffic management systems should follow the technical madness of an over motorised means of locomotion, which can guide the motorists to their destination on the remaining free areas with as little congestion as possible. In addition the automotive industry is pumping billions of Euros into the development of small cars, to at least ease the space and exhaust gas problems.

All such developments are useful and in principle welcomed. But it would be an error to imagine that they alone could permit unlimited growth in mobility requirements.

Primarily it is not a question of giving over the existing traffic areas to even more intensive use by cars, but to win traffic areas back for the people. For instance a person using public transport takes up 90 times less traffic space than a private car. That means that efficient, effective and environment-compatible transport systems must be provided, especially for large amounts of people, which will permit a reduction in the number of cars, without limiting people's mobility.

Are there alternatives to the private car?

This question is false. If the mobility problems are to be enduringly solved, then the present day prevailing way of thinking in transport modes must be replaced by a new thinking in mobility. That is to say, a suitable means of transport with the lowest environment load should be selected for each transport assignment. Hence it is primarily a question of influencing the mobility behaviour of every single person.

On average each person makes about 1000 journeys per year. On each occasion he makes a selective mobility decision; this being on the basis of his experience, current expectations and the availability of the means of transport. For that the contrast between the private car and public transports should no longer exist. Combined mobility, the combination of the advantages of an integrated public transport system with the advantages of private transportation, is the new way. This means the best possible mobility with the least possible costs and traffic.

The success of combined mobility in Switzerland shows that tomorrow's mobility will be less orientated to the transport modes than to the services provided. Not that car ownership will be important but the best possible use of all means of transportation. So primarily it is not a question of seeking new means of transport or systems, but creating alternatives to the private car in the form of comprehensive mobility offers, which can completely solve the diverse customer problems from the provision of travel advice to the transport of luggage and settlement of the travel accounts.

Public transport is the heart of combined mobility!

A highly integrated public transport system is an absolute necessity for combined mobility. In future, opportunities for public transport are better than ever before, providing it seizes this promptly and in a customer-orientated manner. Good examples are long distance travel with the French TGV and the German ICE, which can already successfully challenge the place of private cars and air travel. But also in short distance transport there are good examples of successful public transport systems. When these successful systems can become the core of comprehensive service packages permitting the attractive solution of the largest possible number of individual customer requirements, then public transport has the chance to restore the cities of the world to places worth living in.

Within such considered systems the urban rail system has especially high chances of success. It offers a high performance capability with simultaneously high compatibility with urban life and structures being both flexible and environment friendly. Light rail systems can be realised in stages and are combinable with other rail transport systems.

Light rail systems can be cost-effectively introduced as independent systems in medium sized towns or in addition to underground or urban railways in major cities.

Also false would be to assume that light rail systems were a patent recipe for every application. A series of preconditions must be satisfied if investments in a light rail system is to result in market successes. These can be summarised in five rules:

  1. The high quality offer must really correspond with the customer's needs.

    The layout of the line must correspond with the effective demand. Interchanging should be the exception. Where it is unavoidable, the infrastructure must be configured as conveniently as possible. Attractive headways and operating times tailored to the user groups are indispensable. Passengers in Zürich rarely have to wait for more than five minutes, and no resident is more than three minute's walk away from the nearest tram or bus stop.

    Easy accessibility is to be permitted to the largest possible number of target groups with the offer of a comfortable journey. Adequate capacities are to be provided for peak times and passengers should not be punished with long waits during times of low demand.

    In view of the fact that soon even mid-range cars will be fitted with air conditioning, this feature must also not be denied to public transport.

    Low floor vehicles with stepless entries have fundamentally eased access, especially for the disabled, to light rail systems. But it should not be overlooked that all technical problems of low floor vehicles are far from being satisfactorily solved, especially with 100% low floor vehicles, The development target is nowhere near reached since many comfort elements of classic high floor vehicles have been lost. Suitable solutions will ensure that the high noise levels in the vehicles and the harder suspension due to the limited space for the spring movement will disappear in the medium term.

    However, restrictions to the design of the vehicle interior brought about by the wheel arches is still leading to solutions which impair the movement of non-disabled passengers. Reduced numbers of doors, or their non-optimal arrangement (together with the obstructions to internal passenger circulation brought about by narrow gangways) often thwart time-savings attainable through faster boarding and alighting. Then there are the sometimes unreasonable seat dimensions resulting from the accommodation of technical equipment inside the vehicle.

    All these things annoy the passenger each time he uses the transport and are in blatant contradiction to the expectations of the inveterate car user who, for instance, is accustomed to automatically and individually adjusting the driver's seat in his own car. Technical innovations therefore are only promising of success providing they bring about real additional customer benefits and do not cause reduced values for other groups. Against this background good future outlooks are offered, also for more conservative solutions than 100% low floor vehicles.

    Representing real innovations are for instance, dual system vehicles which not only run on urban routes but can also use the infrastructure of the main line railways. These permit the avoidance of changing and through the use of railway infrastructure, reduce investment costs. This renders light rail systems economically attractive also for agglomerations whose centres have less than 100 000 inhabitants (e.g. planning projects in Luxembourg). About 25 cities in ten European countries are interested in participating in the research project TURN (Innovative Tramway Systems in Urban and Regional Networks) of the European Commission.

  2. Professional marketing of innovative solutions.

    The public mobility offer must be characterised by proximity to customers and be tailored to the customer groups by continuously new and innovative offers. The public transport must become a trademark, a brand, such as TGV, ICE or Shinkansen. While attractive speed and a high service level are the hallmarks of these systems, public transport must be characterised by reliability, flexibility, problem-solving capability, that is to say, extreme customer-orientation.

    Decisive for marketing public transport systems is not only user-orientation but in particular the incorporation of inhabitants and companies along the routes, and also the integration of the light rail infrastructure into the urban structure.

    Marketing is not to be a question of demonizing the car but the purposeful influencing of mobility behaviour, the enticement to the alternative. Through a high level of availability the behaviour can be vigorously aligned in favour of the public transport offer. Using the light rail system must be seen as the done thing. By virtue of its presence in the road system, a light rail system skillfully integrated into the townscape has great competitive benefits compared with private traffic which just goes with the flow.

  3. Professional system management.

    High demands are to be imposed on the management. A high level of reliability is, on the one hand, to be ensured on the basis of unrestricted customer-orientation. Acceleration measures such as priority to the light rail system at traffic light signals, segregated tracks and control by a central control system are important conditions for success. Passenger safety is to be guaranteed at each stage of the journey, i.e. the passengers must have the certainty of being protected.

    Operating costs on the other hand are to be kept low; cost benefits must be to the advantage of the customers.

    Central and significantly more important than the technical systems is the selection, promotion and management of the staff. These represent the big opportunity of public transport as it is a service by people for people. Motivated and customer-orientated personnel must be part of the trademark.

  4. The light rail system must be part of a comprehensive mobility system.

    It is not sufficient to place a line in operation. There must also be a sufficient number of adapted feeder lines. The complete traffic network must be co-ordinated and mutually adapted. But even with optimal transport system offers, customers are not always served. Customers must be provided with a competent advisory service and comprehensive care. Travel costs must be transparent and payment simple.

    A public transport system organised in such an exemplary fashion can satisfy a large number of mobility requirements. But many problems still remain: what about luggage, cycle transportation? What is available outside the light rail system operating times? How are customers treated in the case of a breakdown?

    So there must be supplementary provisions: Co-operation with taxis, car sharing and car rental offers, cycle hiring and parcel services.

    Chances of success are in the creation of comprehensive packages around the light rail system. Solutions are demanded for each mobility case, from the consultancy to the after sales service phase. In total these packages must be superior to mobility with a private car. Even where this seems almost unattainable at first glance, it must nevertheless be the demand of the public transport provider.

  5. Support from a mobility policy.

    Where policy makers are really in earnest about improving the quality of life in conurbations then it may no longer be a question of whether the car or public transport is the better transport system. A comprehensive mobility policy must be promoted, which once again places the well being of mankind in the forefront and offers alternatives to the private car, allowing each individual the possibility to choose the most environmentally compatible transport system for each mode of locomotion. And in suitable cases, this may also be the private car.

    At first glance, the satisfying of each of the above five rules appears theoretically simple. Practice shows however that this is unfortunately not the case, to say nothing of the difficulty of satisfying all the rules at the same time. So it will be some time before successful alternatives to the private car will be standard practice worldwide. The only hope is that mankind still has time to wait.

    Nevertheless there is still hope. New light rail systems will be constructed and development will see progress. Vehicles will become still more comfortable, computer systems will render the provision of information more comprehensive and simpler, electronic ticketing system will further simplify access to the systems. But as stated before, technical solutions alone are not sufficient!

    Behaviour in selecting the suitable mobility must change, existing road space has to be relocated from private vehicles towards public transport and alternatives and incentives to use public rather than private transport have to be provided! This philosophy must be promoted. That is an important assignment for public transport operators. The worldwide dissemination of these considerations is the aim of the Light Rail Commission also under its new title Light Rail Committee.

Horst Schaffer (57) is Austrian, studied in Vienna and graduated as an engineer. Since 1968 he has worked for VBZ and was engaged in a variety of important projects such as designing Tram 2000 or building the tram line extension to Schwamendingen.

Today he is Deputy General Manager of the company VBZ and responsible for planning, marketing, sales and operations. Since 1987 he has been a member of the UITP International Light Rail Commission and chaired this Commission between 1995 and 1999.


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