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Stuttgart - the full loaf

UITP honours Horst Schaffer; How a German motor city has more and better public transport than England's second city. Getting the big - and the small - things right gets people out of cars. By Bob Tarr Secretary General LRTA

If you were always fed just crumbs and were told that they were 'bread', I guess that you'd get to believe it. If one day you came across a full loaf you might just get a little overwhelmed.

That is what has just happened to me. Like 59 million other subjects of the United Kingdom, I'm used to thinking that what passes for public transport in this country is 'bread'. Every so often 1 have to escape to somewhere else to remind myself that what we have in the UK is, in fact, 'crumbs'.

Stuttgart in autumn is itself overwhelmed - with yellow - not only the yellow trams and light rail vehicles of the Stuttgart Strassenbahnen company but all the glorious yellows and golds of autumn. Can there be another major city with vineyards in its city centre, less than 400 metres from its main railway station? Can there be another industrial city with so many woods and forests in sight and but a short tram ride from the city centre?

Honour for Horst

The occasion of my visit was the elevation of Horst Schaffer of VBZ, Zurich, to Honorary Chairman of the Light Rail Committee of UITP (International Union of Public Transport) to mark his sterling service as Commission Chairman until earlier this year. Hans Rat, Secretary General of UITP Stuttgartwas there to witness the event as was Manfred Bonz of SSB, Horst's predecessor and Tony Depledge, the LRTA's President and a Deputy Chairman of the Light Rail Committee. Raymond Hue, of TCAR, Rouen, the new Chairman of the Light Rail Committee (previously known as 'Commission' - a new and complex structure has been introduced to modernise UITP and develop its workings) presided over the occasion.

Good though it was to see a former colleague elevated to the loftiest heights that Light Rail can bestow, even better was the opportunity to taste 'the full loaf' of public transport as used by the citizens of Stuttgart - home of Mercedes-Benz - every day. DB trains, S-bahn regional rapid transit trains, the SBB's extensive light rail stadtbahn system and now, just two traditional tram lines waiting to be upgraded and modernised to full light rail standards. And, of course, not forgetting an extensive system of buses feeding and distributing passengers to and from the S-bahn, light rail and tram lines.

'Just-in-time'

Indeed, witnessing, repeatedly, buses arriving 'just-in -time' to deliver passengers to light rail lines and waiting to take incoming passengers with, effectively, no waiting time at all, from the light rail system is truly impressive - while turning one green with envy. So this is what high quality public transport is actually like - and to think 1 was expected to believe UK Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott when he said all that was needed was some low floor kneeling buses!

In a city whose prosperity is every bit as founded on the motor car as is that of my home city of Coventry, England and is pretty certainly considerably greater, one cannot but be impressed by the sheer density, frequency and quality of its public transport. Nor by the fact that public transport's modal share increased between 1976 and 1998 while that of the car actually fell.

Getting things right

Stuttgart demonstrates how quality public transport depends on getting a whole myriad of things constantly right, from the big things - like real, seamless, delayless integration of services and modes and fast, comfortable vehicles - to the small things - the route maps on light rail vehicles which show by flashing light which stop is next as well as which direction the train is running and which services each station connects with (there are few stops which do not have connections). And measures such as having real people present and circulating (not stuck behind glass barrier) at the Hauptbahnhof hub of the transport system proactively helping people who are not sure which tram or light rail line to take or where it departs from. Even the humble bus stop is more than a piece of street clutter in Stuttgart. In Britain the norm is for there to be no service or timetable information at all on bus stops - no indication of the route or timetable and whether a bus will come in five minutes, 30 minutes, a week's time or ever. In Stuttgart the European standard of excellence is well observed - with simple and comprehensive information giving the route, number of minutes to each of the following stops and a comprehensive timetable.

What a pleasure it was to ride in comfort on SSB's comfortable light rail vehicles, elegantly painted in their all yellow livery with soft and reassuring recorded announcement of the next stop, no irritating door closing warnings, or visually offensive colour schemes to highlight door locations or knobbly pavements to inconvenience the many to help just a few.

Stuttgart v Birmingham

Stuttgart, with its population of some 560,000 makes an interesting and dramatic contrast to much larger Birmingham (population around lm). Stuttgart has six S-bahn lines with 10-20 minute service frequency, ten light-rail lines and two tram lines (tram and light rail totalling 99 km now and 106 km shortly), not forgetting a myriad of bus routes feeding the mass transit lines. Birmingham - well, it's too embarrassing to make the comparison really. But it does have one light rail line, which might be extended one day and run through the city centre on-street, half a dozen local rail lines and lots of buses.

Stuttgart has its light rail and tram lines underneath the city centre and the fact that only 3% of the total length of its light rail and tramway lines are actually shared on-street is doubtless the key reason why its services - and all their interconnections - are ruthlessly on time. Of course, Birmingham was to have had at least a pale imitation of the Stuttgart underground core as the central 'cross' of the Midland Metro system - two tunnels with easy vertical change between them through which the 16 to 20 Midland Metro lines would have run with no delays due to street congestion. The powers to achieve this, acquired at the cost of several million pounds, were, it is sad to say, voluntarily and unnecessarily relinquished by the county's Passenger Transport Authority in what must have been the shortest-sighted, politically maladroit and ill-advised decision that any such body has ever taken. Britain's second city is now doomed to suffer the consequences for the next century or more as such powers for tunnels in Birmingham can never be won again - not least because the underground 'gaps' have been closed off by new high rise buildings with deep foundations. Of course, if it is only one light rail line which has to proceed on-street through the city centre there will be but little consequences - except for the buses which will be thrown out - but what about the other 15 to 19 light rail lines which Birmingham must have if it is ever to have, even in 25 or 50 years time, the high quality public transport which Stuttgart has today?

Twenty lines or one

Few who know anything about the practicalities of running public transport believe that 15 to 20 light rail lines can be run on-street through the heart of a major city without disastrous results to (a) the speed and time-keeping of that public transport (b) movement of other modes of transport, public and private and freight at street level and (c) the environment and ambience of pedestrianised streets. While one or two, or even three or four tram/light rail lines can positively enliven and humanise a city centre compared with motor traffic, and are the perfect answer for smaller cities, such as Zürich or Coventry, Grenoble or Nottingham, Nantes or Croydon, it is logistical nonsense to attempt to do so in cities of a million or more where serious mass transit moving huge numbers of people in the minimum time possible is the challenge and anything less than almost total success in doing so will just result inStuttgart people continuing to use cars and, in the long run, businesses relocating to more enlightened and civilised locations.

Depressing UK realities

I returned to the UK with my pro-public transport batteries fully recharged, but they began to run down almost immediately as I listened to news reports suggesting that local councils see workplace parking charges and congestion charges as politically unacceptable unless spending on improved local public transport, which they would finance, happens first. I think they're right, but I fear Government will take little heed. What chance is there of it doing so when, for the first year of the Local Transport Plans, it told local authorities to plan only measures which could be achieved in a short time and cost little and - when it got the resulting submissions - had the brass neck to criticise local authorities for showing little vision!

It is Stuttgartwhen one knows what can be achieved elsewhere and then sees what, in one's own back-yard is, in reality, not happening that optimism turns to pessimism and stimulation to indignation. It is on such a disillusioned note that, I am afraid, I must finish this, my last contribution of this Second Millennium (by my calculations this 31 December is, quite properly, the end of the Second Millennium as Christ was born in Year Zero and therefore the beginning of Year 2000 will indeed be the start of the Third Millennium).

A Happy New Millennium to you all!

Bob Tarr


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