Amsterdam Dresden Freight Light Rail Paris Zurich

Opportunities Abound for Transporting Goods by Tram — If Properly Coordinated

» Though a proposal in Amsterdam has been abandoned and freight transport in Zurich and Dresden is limited, Paris considers options for using its new tramways to move goods to stores.

There was a lot of excitement in the transportation press in mid-2007 when Amsterdam signed a deal to allow the transport of local goods by tramway beginning in 2008. In theory, fifty light rail trains operated by a company called CityCargo would move freight from warehouses to local stores without interruption along the city’s existing and extensive passenger tracks, reducing the need for trucks in the city center by half while cutting down on pollution significantly. A network of 600 electric trucks would move the freight minimal distances from the trains to the stores.

Unfortunately, the company fell short of its goal to raise the €150 million necessary to commence operations and the city refused to subsidize the project, so the project died even before the project could come into being.

Needless to say, the concept still has currency in European cities that are looking to reduce traffic and clean the air and which have tramway tracks running through some of their most congested areas. In 2001, VW implemented the CarGo tram between a logistics site and an automobile factory in the center of Dresden, creating a carbon-free mechanism to transport parts along 3 km of passenger lines. Zurich uses CargoTrams — old tramway vehicles, such as those pictured above — to move recycling. Vienna attempted a similar experiment a few years’ back, but never implemented it despite successful results. These projects are of limited scale, so their effects have been similarly small.

A new experiment called TramFret in Paris, however, could transform the way cities think about moving goods from place to place by establishing a regionwide system by which freight like groceries can be moved between distribution facilities and stores by electric tram. Experimentation will begin next month, with full implementation possible by 2014; positive results could show that rail can play an important role in moving freight not just at the intercity scale but also within regions, a market now completely dominated by trucks. But the success of the project will require significant coordination between competing stores and it will need to be carefully planned to as to avoid conflicts with passenger transit routes.

Under Mayor Bertrand Delanöe, the French capital has been a pioneer in all things transport, introducing huge bike-share and car-share networks, building dozens of miles of reserved bus and tram lanes, reducing speed limits to 30 km/h in many neighborhoods, and allowing reverse-direction bike riding on most small streets. But these projects have largely avoided the issue of cargo transport so far, despite the fact that one million daily deliveries are made each day in the Paris region, 90% by road; those trips produce 25% of the region’s carbon dioxide emissions and 50% of particulate releases — as well as consuming 20% of all road space. A successful TramFret could thus improve quality of life significantly.

The Atelier Parisien d’Urbanisme (APUR), the Paris city planning study office, has conducted a study on the project and has led thinking about its implementation, which is increasingly relevant considering recent public policy choices. The Paris region, called Île-de-France, has begun a significant investment in new tramway lines (much like American light rail) and by 2016 expects to have 105 km (65 miles) of them in operation, carrying about 800,000 people a day (there are currently 26 miles of trams in operation, carrying about 350,000 people a day). Unlike metros or commuter rail, which Paris has much more of, the street rights-of-way offered by tram could allow much almost direct small-scale delivery to stores. With so many tram routes, many stores could be linked up for reduced truck deliveries. In addition, the French government plans a pollution tax on tractor trailers beginning in 2012 that should encourage the movement of goods off the road.

APUR suggests beginning with the existing T3 and T2 lines, which roughly run around the southern and western sections of the city. A new distribution facility would be created at the future terminus of the T2 line at Pont de Bezons, to which grocery stores would bring their goods from other facilities throughout the region. The APUR study suggests that within 500 meters of the two tram lines are 128 grocery stores representing the four largest chains in Paris (Casino, Carrefour, Monoprix, and Franprix, along with their subsidiaries). Trains would each carry the equivalent of three to four truckloads of goods, which means there would likely have to be dozens of trains each day to handle the needs of all these stores.

In order for implementation to occur, the tracks of the two lines would have to be connected at Porte de Versailles, but that will require just a few hundred feet of new track. But new sidings for freight trains to stop would have to be built*, not necessarily an easy proposition considering that the tram lines have been built in dense urban areas. In addition, stores would have to acquire small electric trucks to move goods the final few blocks from the trains to stores. [Note: the study suggests that short rail extensions directly to stores be built so this final step is avoided, but it is my (perhaps unfair) presumption that it would be more simple to implement trucking from distribution points along the line than it would be to go through the regulatory process required to build these line extensions.] All this would necessitate a huge degree of logistical coordination to work efficiently, but better web-based mobile tracking of goods could make it possible.

There is some precedent in Paris for using rail lines for intra-regional goods transport. The Monoprix brand uses the RER D passenger rail line to move goods from a suburban distribution location to a facility in Paris, from which trucks move goods to their final destinations during night trips. Over a year’s period, this eliminates 10,000 trips by trucks and reduces the emissions of carbon and NOx by about 50% over previous conditions. These are hardly negligible results.

Experimentation will begin this fall on the T3 line. Empty trams will be placed with normal headways between passenger trains to see how much capacity is available on the route for more trains (it already carries 112,000 daily riders with high frequencies). APUR will follow up with economic studies beginning next year.

There a number of questions to consider: Will there be enough reduction in pollution and congestion within the center city to justify what is likely to be a more complicated distribution procedure? After all, what right now is a relatively simple truck-from-warehouse-to-store process would be replaced with a journey for goods that requires a truck or train from the warehouse to a logistics facility, to a tram, to a local electric truck making the final trip to the store. Even if trams are cheaper than trucks to operate (because they use electricity and can transport more goods per driver), it’s hard to imagine that these tram-freight trips would be cheaper overall, especially since these trains would have to operate around the passenger train system and in coordination with competing stores.

If tram freight is more expensive than truck freight, does it deserve to be subsidized? Under a typical economic model, the answer is up to the externalities freight rail eliminates. If moving goods by tram reduces congestion or pollution by an amount that is larger than the price difference with the trucking status quo, the public has a societal interest in encouraging its use — unless congestion and pollution of those trucks are appropriately taxed, which they are not. But a source of funds would have to be identified to make such subsidies.

There’s the final question of whether improving freight access by rail into the city is more important than encouraging transit-oriented development. A new distribution facility for the rail line will have to be near the rail line. Would it be more environmentally friendly in the long-term to build high-density housing where that facility would be, even if it required goods to be trucked to it?

* Having them stop at passenger stations at night is possible, but doesn’t seem ideal.

Image above: Zurich’s CargoTram, from Flickr user Sven Dowideit (cc)