Fort Lauderdale France Light Rail Metz Streetcar

Commitment to Tramways Makes France a World Model for New Urban Rail

» Over the past twelve years, the total route mileage of tramways systems in France has multiplied by five — at a cost reasonable even for small cities.

Last weekend, the city of Brest, on the far western coast of France, opened its new tramway, a 14.3-km (8.9-mile) line that connects the center city to the west and northeast. 50,000 daily riders are expected in a city of about 140,000 inhabitants. This Friday, Orléans, an even smaller city in central France, will open its second, 11.3-km tramway line. The first already attracts about 40,000 daily users.

These two cities are far from alone in France. Across the country, cities large and small have adopted the construction of modern tramways* to bring their citizens a modern form of public transportation that has led to improved circulation, more convenient networks, and renovated downtowns. Like American streetcars, these tramways operate at the ground level, usually without grade separation from automobile traffic, making them relatively cheap to build; on the other hand, like American light rail, tramways operate within their own rights-of-way and they feature long trainsets that can carry the equivalent of four busloads or more — in other words, they actually improve transit capacity and performance.

The appeal of tramways is easy to understand. The electric vehicles are silent, modern-looking, and entirely flat-floor. Their tracks can be nestled in a lawn, creating a grass median through which trains run; if done right, they can be used as a tool to restore the beauty of an urban boulevard, rather than deface it, as do some light rail lines traveling on grade-separated track. In some cities, like Nice, Bordeaux, and Orléans, vehicles have been designed with batteries that allow them to travel some distance (such as across a historic square) without the need for overhead catenary wire. In virtually every case, tramways in France have been specifically located on major bus corridors, in order to replace overcrowded routes with higher capacity services.

France is not alone in using trams, of course; Germany, notably, has dozens of such systems across the country, as do Switzerland, the Netherlands, and others. But as of late, France’s cities have made an unparalleled investment in the mode. While France had virtually no historic tramways left by the 1980s outside of short routes in Marseille, Lille, and St. Etienne, by the end of this year, 25 cities will have such networks and 29 will by 2016, as the map above shows. And most of this construction has occurred since 2000, with an increase from 124.7 km nationwide to 624.1 km (388 miles) by the end of this year, a 400% increase. In 2010, 2011, and 2012 alone, 160.2 km will have been built.

As shown in the chart below, seven cities account for about half of all tramway route kilometers in the country. Lyon and Montpellier have expanded most quickly, each adding more than 56 km since 2000, with Bordeaux and the Paris region adding 40 km each in the same period. Paris and its suburbs will add another 54.3 km to the network by 2014.

In France as a whole, these tramways currently carry about 2.8 million riders a day, compared to about 1.6 million daily riders on all U.S. light rail and streetcar systems. These riders appear to be attracted to trams above and beyond what had previously been offered through bus service. In Lyon, four tram lines opened since 2000 have brought in a considerable numbers of users; the rail system attracted 58 million riders in 2010. But the city’s transit network as a whole grew by 86 million riders between 2000 and 2010 (an increase of 30%), meaning that the new trams were not simply moving people from buses into trains. In other words, the investment in rail appears to be paying off in terms of moving people into public transportation who used to be using some other mode of travel. That, again, is not a surprise: It is not only enjoyable to travel by tramway, but such service is also usually faster and more comfortable than equivalent bus service.

The focus in France has been on urban tramway networks, especially compared to the previously fashionable automated metro networks. Though those systems — built using VAL technology in Toulouse, Lille, and Rennes — were seen as the future of French rail systems in the 1980s, their high construction costs caused by the complete grade separations they require makes them less them adaptable to the needs of less populous urban areas that may be able to instead afford a tramway line. Indeed, this is the point: Through the widespread use of tramways, France is providing new urban rail systems to dozens of cities that in another context would not be able to afford the costs of trains. In the process, cities across the country are experiencing significantly improved transit that is attracting more and more riders.

Trams are not always cheap; the Brest line, for instance, cost about €40 million per mile to build, or $50 million per mile. Some cities, like Besançon in eastern France, have been able to limit costs to about $35 million per mile. Even that may be more than one might hope for steel implanted in concrete.

But in the American context, those costs come across as reasonable. The U.S. Department of Transportation revealed its latest TIGER discretionary grants last week. The one streetcar project that got the nod was the Wave in Fort Lauderdale, which will cost $83.2 million (of which the federal government will pay $18 million) for 1.4 miles of track — that’s $59 million per mile. In exchange, the Florida city will get a rail line that attracts an estimated 2,800 riders a day thanks mostly to the short, tourist-oriented route where virtually no bus ridership currently exists. The streetcar will have to share its right-of-way with cars and the vehicles themselves will be around 66 feet long, just a bit longer than an articulated bus. Stations are likely to be slightly improved bus shelters.

The other streetcar systems currently being built in the U.S. have all the same limitations — and many of them are very expensive, too: Cincinnati’s line will cost $50 million per mile to build, Seattle’s $53 million per mile, and Atlanta’s $72 million per mile. At these costs, American cities should be pushing for their streetcars to work a bit more like French tramways.

… Or even French buses. In Metz, in eastern France, the city is investing in a very innovative bus system called Mettis that is currently under construction and expected to open in September next year at a cost of €170 million for 17.8 kilometers of service — or about $19 million per mile. That would be expensive for a bus line if the system was bus rapid transit in the non-rapid form BRT too often takes. But Mettis will be a new breed, so much like a tramway that it will be hard to differentiate its vehicles and alignment from that of a rail service.

Metz Mettis Busway Rendering

Bus or tramway?

Mettis’ two lines will use 79-foot hybrid buses (that, I remind you, is quite a bit longer than an American streetcar) specially constructed by Van Hool. They will feature four large doors and provide complete low-floor service to the platforms being planned for the large stations, as rendered above. The system is being built to accomodate future electrification through energy transfer at stops, though that technology is not yet fully developed.

86% of the Mettis corridor will operate within its own right-of-way and vehicles will get transit signal priority. Certain journeys are expected to see reduced travel times of about 40%. No wonder 36,000 riders are eventually expected to use the service daily.

We could take these examples of successful French investments in modern transit systems to lament the high costs and limited utility of too many American rail and even BRT projects (if we need another reminder, Maryland has been discussing spending upwards of $60 million a mile on a BRT line). But there are more positive lessons to learn. If we are planning to spend tens of millions of dollars on a new rail line, is it too much to ask that it be placed in its own right-of-way and be given high quality amenities? Is it reasonable to suggest that an investment in a 1.5-mile line is simply not long enough in itself to actually attract a significant number of commuters? Are there ways to make bus services as appealing as rail lines, at a lower price?

* Note that in this post, I have defined trams on tire as tramways. (These are located in Caen, Clermont, Nancy, and, by the end of this year, outside of Paris). This does not include significantly improved bus systems, such as Metz’s, but does include systems with electric catenary and a fixed guideway.

55 replies on “Commitment to Tramways Makes France a World Model for New Urban Rail”

… rather than deface it, as do some light rail lines traveling on grade-separated track


Sure, but you can screw up any of these schemes. Your phrasing seems to be implying that there’s something particularly horrible about grade separation, and as far as I can see, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Indeed, trams running in the street typically mean a very wide street, and that’s something which is also often very pedestrian unfriendly. Grade-separated rail corridors can be much narrower and easier to bridge etc, and tend to have a much less corrosive effect on the surrounding city than very wide and busy streets (rail-only corridors are often almost “invisible”).

You can screw up any scheme, but some schemes have fundamental properties that shape even the best possible implementation.

Grade separation fundamentally involves crossing grades: otherwise grades would, in fact, not be separated. Grade crossing can be implemented in multiple ways, either a very long ramp difficult to place in active pedestrian use, an expensive and poorly accessible escalator or an expensive and low capacity elevator. Plain old stairs will do, too. Invisibility is absolutely not free, and it’s curious whether a trunk transit line ought to be invisible.

At-grade transport has no such signature property. An at-grade transport does not force a wide and unfriendly street: a fast corridor does, one you would typically try to grade separate anyway. An example of a narrow, tree-lined pedestrian street that yet hosts a high capacity at-grade tram line is Kaiserstrasse in Karlsruhe.

In Nice, they have trams running down the middle of medium-width streets. When there’s not enough width for both the tram tracks and car lanes, there are no car lanes, and the street becomes a transit mall. One of the city’s main commercial avenues is sidewalk-tram-tram-sidewalk because of this space limitation and it works out fine.

But it works slow… Even in transit malls with very high traffic of trams (like Hauptbahnstraße in Zurich), pedestrians tend to invade the space reserved for the trams, unless the tram lanes are fenced out – which is anathema for many misguided urban planners.

That way, you can’t have trams driving like 60km/h in central areas as they would be able to if they were graded separated.

Having high acceleration capabilities, trams end up crawling on narrow streets because of the risks of a pedestrian x tram collision.

Yes, that is a trade-off between transit speed and destination value ~ if most trips are to or from the zone where trams are running slowly, then maintaining the value of the destination is often a higher priority than transit speed through that zone.

However, if in the US one had a tram-train running off a rail corridor through a suburban box store zone, you’d largely fence off the ROW to keep transit speed up.

Taking the tram where the pedestrians are invading it’s zone is still faster than driving or walking…

First, it is the Bahnhofstrasse in Zürich you probably refer to.

This is a full city center street, and it has indeed very little automobile traffic (one exception for the length of maybe 100 m, where the sidewalks are fenced off, but that’s only there. In some other sections, allowed automobile traffic is very local, and manageable.

The Bahnhofstrasse has essentially five tram stops, whereas the middle stop is a major node, where 3 lines turn off and three others turn onto the Bahnhofstrasse. Five stops over about 1.5 km length shows that there is quite adensity, and maximum reachable speeds are not that high (and as far as I remember, the maximum speed is set to 36 km/h anyway).

Interestingly, there are very few accidents with pedestrians in the Bahnhofstrasse. As much as they get onto the tracks, they get off as well… even the tourists…

So, that example may not be the very best one, because it is in a core where every stop has a considerable number of boarding (and quite a few people go just one or two stops; they might walk, but if the tram happens to be here, they take it).


I disagree that grade separations on LA’s Expo Line are ugly. I have visited each of the 3 elevated stations, which in my opinion are nicely decorated and look an order of magnitude better than any freeway overpass. There are shaded places to sit before you go up the escalators. Without the overpasses, north-south auto congestion would be worse and planned time from Santa Monica to LA Downtown would surely be 12-13 minutes longer. Thats important because Metrorail needs to stay above 25 mph avg speed to differentiate from congested freeways.

Equally important, each Metro overpass advertises Metro to thousands of drivers daily. As Metrorail expands and freeway speeds slow, more commuters will switch.

The Expo Line grade separations at LaCienega and LaBrea were required to prevent traffic congestion on two the busiest north-south boulevards in LA. The grade seperations also permit Expo Line to have a faster commute hour time than driving from Culver City to Downtown. Of the many Light Rail implementations I’ve seen across the country, I’d say Expo is one of the best for a big city.

Like American streetcars, these tramways operate at the ground level, usually without grade separation from automobile traffic, making them relatively cheap to build; on the other hand, like American light rail, tramways operate within their own rights-of-way

Don’t these statements contradict each other? Do you mean they have their own ROW that they have to share with automobiles?

The Question I would like to ask about these systems is how old many of them are? Such as in Europe it was very common for Trams to be in full service in the early 1900 and 1910’s before world wars one and two. And I wounder where many of these tram systems rebuilt after the world wars or where they torn up? Or did they get rebuilt?

In that I suspect most of these towns and cities most likely had tram systems running around in them for over a hunderd years in one form or another.

France, like the U.S. and many other countries, had many historic street-running rail lines. However, with the exception of those I named above (Marseille, Lille, and St. Etienne), they were all dismantled. Thus the vast majority of these systems are new, and as I pointed out in the article, most have been built since 2000.

As Yonah stated, with very few exceptions, the old tram networks got torn up in the 50s of the last century (all along with many secondary rural lines, in many cases where for political reasons “autorails” (DMUs) were not acquired.

Lyon which looks pretty successful had quite an extensive tramway network. But in the 70s, they started building a subway network, and replaced (and extended) one or two funiculars with cog rail systems. And then, they jumped on the tramway bandwagon and now have 4 (plus one) successful lines (the plus one is the express tramway between Part Dieu and the airport (Satolas, aka Saint-Exupéry), which is its own operation, but uses the urban tram network.

One part of the success is probably also the vehicles most of those cities use: the Citadis by Alstom, a highly modular and standardized vehicle, but with customization options (such as the front), making them “special” for every city.

I don’t think that the exceptions are so few. There was no streetcar destruction in central/eastern european countries, they kept running for the entire last century and now are in rapid expansion in places like: Germany, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Ukraine, Russia. But I think that the street cars were completely destroyed in many western european countries, like: Portugal (currently has only touristic trams), Spain, France, England.

Sadly the trams were completely aniquilated in South America in the 60s =(

Would Mettis-style buses (which look like Curitiba’s bi-articulated ones to me) be operable in mixed traffic? Extra-long buses aren’t street-legal in the US, and from what I understand they’re mostly limited to the spine in Curitiba as well.

Several cities in Belgium and the Netherlands ahve double-articulated diesel buses.

Three cities in Switzerland (Genève, Zürich, and St.Gallen) operate double articulated Swisstrolley 3 trolley buses, which are 25m long, and operate on the regular city streets, including some pretty tight curves and narrow streets.

I currenetly live in The Netherlands and rarely I see such aberrations in the streets here. They only operate, on large scale, on two busways.

US costs are bedevilled by legal cases – there is a very large anti-tram lobby who obstruct, require ballots, instigate court cases, and do everything they can to prevent any light rail systems being built. This massively increases costs, as even if no ballots are required or court cases occur, the money has been provided and it will be spent – somewhere!

US so-called light rail is more like a cheap suburban railway, with near absolute segregation, needing large compulsory purchases – again not endearing them to householders or shopkeepers. San Diego had one of the cheapest build costs, but even so had to pay $18 Million for the route – an old railway.

Christchurch was constructing at $5000 per m single track = $10M per km. This is undoubtedly at the low end, but the new Auckland tramway, and the recent Adelaide extensions were nowhere up to US costs.

France seems to have decided, rather than buy up property, remove the cars which clutter up the street and replace by a tramway which more than doubles the street passenger throughput. A much better way of doing things.

Great summary of the progress in France! The relative standardization of the French systems, particularly in vehicles, is also important to note as a cost saver. Despite that, each system has a very distinct visual identity, achieved with low-cost customization of the ends caps and liveries of the trams. Such efforts may also help explain the general patronage increases in systems with trams – the positive visual impression of the tram system helps lift the image of the whole operation, buses included.

Note that extra long (24 m/80-foot) buses are in operation in mixed traffic in Hamburg, Germany as well as in the form of electric trolleybuses in several Swiss cities (Zurich, Geneva, St Gallen, Luzern). They are far more city-friendly than the giant trucks that North American authorities permit.

Sorry, I typed before reading all the comments; and thanks for reminding that Luzern also has double-articulated trolley buses.

I think there is much hype about any effects of customization of trams or what else.

First, painting a vehicle mask is easy in any case you think.

Second, passengers that use trams for transportation more than “downtown joyrides” are unlikely to be drawn or deterred to/from use trams because of “local visual identity”.

Many North America light-rail systems have “positive visual identity” yet their patronage is extremely low for other reasons (low frequency, routes that serve no large-scale aggregated mobility demand, last-mile problems etc).

You underestimate the identification which builds up between the population and their tram system. And just this customization makes the tram “belong to us”, leading to a more positive attitude towards it. Note that this is compared to a “standard” design/livery, and not compared to “no tram”.

Another aspect of the identification with the tram is shown in the number of all advertising livery. The closer the identification, the fewer full advertising liveries you find (even nowadays, where the extra income would be more than welcome).

Max, it’s not as though Zurich’s trams regularly cruise the streets of Paris and Amsterdam. Unless the trams were butt ugly people would begin to identify with them. It wouldn’t matter too much how customized they are. Paint them so there is some relation to the city or it’s transit system.

No, the Züri trams very barely (in other words, never) cruise in Paris and Amsterdam (because they are meter gauge, and Paris and Amsterdam’s networks are standard gauge)… However, the current Amsterdam livery is not thaaaat far away from the Züri livery…

… and no Zürcher could be fooled in the Bourne Identity movie with a blue-white Tatra car in Prague; OTOH, Espion lève-toi was filmed in Zürich…

We may have to ask people from Melbourne how well they identify with their trams… but then, it is not worthwile fighting about taste…

Anyway, just that little touch of customization does get noticed and grows on the people (such as the front of the Citadis in Reims reminding of a champagne flute, or the front of the Marseille trams reminding of an ocean liner (of course, all within the safety and ergonomy standards.

Americans across the continent loved their PCCs. Ya seen one PCC, ya seen ’em all. Slap a fiberglass cowl on the front if you insist, it won’t matter much in most places.

P.S. Don’t forget to SCROLL DOWN !
It’s a long page with nearly fifty (50) body + livery combinations.

Well, in some ways, the modern modular vehicles (Citadis by Alstom, Variobahn and Tango by Stadler, Flexity by Bombardier or Combino by Siemens) are similar to the PCC car; standardized components, with some choices.

That fronts can be changed has more to do with the way they are produced, which gives more flexibility than bac, at the PCC times.

Here in Morocco, Rabat and Casablanca got their first lines at a year interval. Very early on after the inauguration, how beautiful the Casa tram, and more specifically, how much better looking than Rabat’s tram it was, became a major conversation topic, spilling on internet Forums and Radio shows. That wasn’t a likely outcome just months before when the construction meant major hassle and daily traffic mayhem, drawn over months all across the city, fuelling major complaints and scepticism over the cost, the use etc… How different the cars looked and the customised livery certainly did a lot to win the people over.
The relevant titbit here is that both Rabat and Casa received Citadis cars.

Getting in-depth information on foreign systems can be difficult when technical details and the subtle wording etc of more complex political and costing issues, are only available in French, German etc . But I think I remember reading somewhere that major infrastructure projects (such as new tramways) in France are funded 50% by central Government taxes;40% by regional taxes and 10% by the taxes of the city concerned. This also says something about the pattern of population dispersement in France – in NZ (from where I write) and possibly in the USA, Canada etc there is no way “politically” a region would agree to pay such a large portion, as usually the hub city has 75% or more of the region’s population and of course the primary beneficiary of the tramway system. In contrast France appears to have small cities (under 250,000) acting as primary admin and service centres to relatively small areas, regions, of 1-10 million residents, often linked to that city by excellent regional and commuter rail (people arriving without a car in said city). Another factor appears to be the width of Boulevards, already existing as a norm, through the middle of French cities, making transition to an exclusive bus/tram R.O.W. relatively simple; I don’t think too many NZ city areas have such adaptable “over width” streets. This doesn’t stop me being impressed by French light rail and busway progress, or by the huge amount of research work that has gone into making this simple attractive summary available to all – huge thanks Yonah – but it does suggest contextual factors can make a big difference.

Hello, my name is Etienne and I am a french student in transport planning.

To David: today’s tramway projects are on no account funded 50% by the central government. However, the State launched in the last years two calls for local transport projects (part of the “Grenelle” policies for sustainable development). It then distribued to selected projects subsidies which could stand for up to 25% of a tramway cost (25% for a BRT, 15% for a subway…).

As you said, French cities are small. Urban areas are composed of many municipalities. In most of them, the larger city is then not the authority for public transports. It is in most cases either:
– a public entity gathering the municipalities of the urban area, which is responsible for public transport among other public services
– or a transport authority which stands for itself.
For example in Lyon, SYTRAL is the local transport authority : it covers 65 municipalities around Lyon.

Now the key is that local transport authorities can raise a tax on local businesses with more than 9 employees. In large cities it can go up to 2% of the payroll. This is a major source of investment funds. The rest of the projects’ costs are financed through loans.

About Boulevards : you may have a point. But in many cases modern tramways accomodated of narrower streets. Strasbourg city centre is a good example. It took some political courage to make it happen though as many streets were “simply” closed to car traffic. But the result is worth it!


Comparing is indeed difficult. In France, the “Région” (which contains some Départements) is nowadays responsible for tegional transit. And the Région does get (tax) money for this responsibility. It is the Région which orders a certain level of service on a given rail (and bus) line, and also does the financing. So, it is the political level which pays, and therefore, there is no question that the Région has a high percentage of the contribution.

Also, as Etienne mentioned, the municipalities may be rather small, and transit organizations deal with a relatively high number of them. If I remember correctly, the Monpellier tramway system touches some 25 towns (or so, please correct me if I was wrong).

So what would you say makes French trams so cheap to construct? Is it just the lower standard of construction alone or is there something else they’re doing to make construction so dramatically cheaper?

They usually build more mileage at once, and vehicles don’t have many specification changes required.

Equally important, the process of public hearings and environmental/community assessment are more objective in FRance than in US. Not in the sense of being weak or limited, but they are streamlined and don’t offer much chance for last-minute Hail-Mary legal action by those who disagree with reviews that were approved and greenlighted a project.

This goes also for highway, subway, airport construction etc.

A situation like that of the (in)famous Beverly Hills High School amassing money to fight “in any possible way” in courts to block a subway line out of bizarre concerns is just not going to happen in France altogether. Part of it, though, has to do with the Roman Civil Law systems after which France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgian and Dutch legal systems are organized.

Just to add to what Andre said, the most expensive subway construction in the third world is in India, where costs appear higher than in most of Continental Europe. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that India is the one third-world country on my list that uses common law.

Nikko: French (and German and Czech) high quality trams are cheap to construct because they are basically assembled as standard modules. This is repeated as desired. So between articulations there may be an end module, two seating modules, a door module, another seating module, another door module, two more seating modules and another end module. One complete centre section. This will be repeated for other centre sections, while the driving sections will replace one articulation module with a driver’s cab module. These will be made in standard widths, such as 2.2, 2.4 and 2.65 metres. Also, if you like, high floor, 70% low floor or 100% low floor. All the parts will be exactly to size, so parts do not have to be cut or bent to fit!

Bogies, motors and control gear are pretty well standard too, which also reduces costs.

Also helping to cut costs is that so far 1140 Citadis trams have been built by Alstom over three factories. While not impressive compared to the rate of PCC tram production at its height – either in the US or by Tatra, it is good considering that a few years ago there was almost no demand for new trams in France.

Nikko, you may also like to remember that the PCC trams were also built as standardized modules, so you could, for instance, cut out a seating bay (Washington) or add one (Chicago)while body widths came in three sizes, 100″, 104″ and 108″. This constrasted with the previous method of building in wood, perhaps with steel frames, where things were cut to size on the job.

The data for Portland, sadly, is for track-miles, so you need to double those figures if we’re going to make the comparison accurate (since we generally want to look at route miles). So Portland’s extensions have cost between $24 and $44 million. The Streetcar Loop, currently being built, will cost about $45 million per mile.

More expensive guideways for transit in the US is really just another opportunity cost resulting from Americans’ addiction to high-speed mobility over pedestrian-oriented access. This consequence of higher infrastructure costs only adds insult to the injury of also having lower return on the land uses.

If streets were actually designed as streets, not “stroads,” then lower-cost, semi-exclusive transit would be more competitive with private motorized travel. And obviously, the quality of the built environment would be much better, including its tax base.

So not only does American infrastructure cost more per mile, but we also get less return per mile. But boy, how many miles per hour you can go as you’re passing quickly through our many miles of Anywhere, USA!

Great article about the development in France, thanks.

One detail:

In some cities, like Nice, Bordeaux, and Orléans, vehicles have been designed with batteries that allow them to travel some distance (such as across a historic square) without the need for overhead catenary wire.

Battery power is only used in Nice so far (afaik). In Angers, Bordeaux, and Orléans (new line), the so called APS system is used (“Alimentation par Sol”) for ground-level power supply.

Batteries are expensive and heavy. They have to be replaced at frequent intervals – 2 years? APS is expensive and there was much trouble in Bordeaux before getting it to work successfully. I believe that at one stage the Mayor threatened to give up on it but apparently the snags have now been ironed out.

Better alternatives may be to turn to a modern version of conduit, which could conceivably be more reliable than APS and not so expensive, or to use super-capacitors. The latter should be able to provide sufficient energy for crossing small historic areas, and are very useful for flattening the system’s power demands, which may make them desirable whether or not there is a need for ‘wireless areas’.

There were successful tests with supercapacitors in Heidelberg (although not for bridging non-electrified sections, but to conserve energy), and (if I remember correctly), a dozen vehicles are on order.

Other solutions studied comprise flywheels (successfully tested, and in production for substations; regenerative braking only works if there is a load in the grid which can use the energy, and speeding up a flywheel is an option). Flywheels are also suggested as temporary energy storage for diese-mechanical (or diesel-hydraulical) drives, where it is not possible to use batteries or supercapacitors because there are no electric components.

It depends on the length of the overheadless section and the required power. It would be possible to use a small diesel-electric power unit for streetcars as well, in a similar way as it is used in trolleybusses. However, in such a case, forget feeding airconditioning etc.

At the risk of making this a two horse show, Wikipaedia states:

” In October 2007 Rhein-Neckar Verkehr in Germany ordered 19 light-rail vehicles (LRVs) equipped with EDLCs to store braking energy, using Bombardier MITRAC[40] equipment as tested in Mannheim. The tests in Mannheim had shown savings in energy consumption of 30 percent.[41] In addition, the EDLCs enabled the LRV’s to operate in an area of Heidelberg while not requiring overhead wires. The EDLC equipment cost an additional €270,000 per vehicle, which is expected to be recovered in the first 15 years of operation. In April 2011 Rhein-Neckar Verkehr ordered 11 more LRVs equipped with EDLCs.”

So apparently Rhein-Neckar Verkehr thought the savings with supercapacitors on the trams was a worthwhile investment.


for the context of the quote.

Yep, we are talking of the same; Rhein Neckar Verkehr is the operator of Heidelberg and the interurben between Heidelberg and Mannheim.

On board flywheels are either the large, heavy slow speed ones which I believe are used by the Parry People movers or the small high speed ones trialed by Garrett AirResearch on a pair of New York subway cars. I was given to understand that the trial was a failure in that the energy saved during the day was negated by the need to keep the flywheels spinning all night.

Supercapacitors can be carried on the trams or railway trains, but it may be better to install them at stations instead. Then their mass does not have to be carried around. Further, they could effectively replace sub-stations, being fed by the overhead or third rail. This brings it down to a matter of finance, will the bank of supercapacitors at each station (where the regenerated power must be stored and released) be cheaper than substations sited where there is a convenient feed-in from the local HT network, but not necessarily convenient for accepting or redelivering power?.

Just the other day, Railway Gazette International had an article about developments of flywheels for use in DMUs. One can assume that these may be high-speed units, but we will have to see. Flywheels are also not really long-term storage units, but to store energy from regenerative braking, and feed that energy back when needed. The advantage of stationary flywheels (and also supercapacitors) at substations is that there would always be a consumer to take the energy from regenerative braking.

However, I don’t see how supercapacitors can replace substations. They can support them, and they may allow to get the “next smaller size”, but you will still need the substations to keep the line voltage at the required level.

I hope that Etienne will see fit to provide additional observations – but one highly visible characteristic of the new French tramways: a very large number of very short trips. Congratulations to them, but such markets are much less common in the U.S. than was once true (thanks to urban depopulation, “white flight” and so forth).

At one point, operating data from Montpellier suggested that the “average travel distance” (ATD) was less than 1 km. This I do not believe – but the “likely” ATD carried by Nice tramway Line 1 is in the range of 2-3 km. By contrast, the ATD carried by U.S. LRT systems falls typically in the range of 8-12 km. At one time, the Los Angeles Blue Line ATD exceeded 16 km during peak periods.

One should not have to emphasize that 50,000 passengers / weekday, ATD 2 km, is an altogether different situation than 50,000 passengers / weekday, ATD 15 km.

All these new French tramways, what about Lourdes?
The traffic system there is in need of modernisation; every hour mini-battery buses (yes, battery) seem to spend their time in depot, & streets are blocked by pedestrians! Any info, anybody?

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