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"France discovers the modern tramway - a transport planner's perspective" by Graham Whiteley: Edinburgh meeting of 12 November 2014.

With Edinburgh Trams now at last operating Britain's first new system since before Tony Blair came to power, it's time to take stock of how the modern tram movement is developing elsewhere. Graham Whiteley took a look at developments in France, which leads the way on the role of trams in place-making, with city streets delightfully improved by tram lines that even manage to lose their overhead wires where they might spoil the view.

Graham Whiteley is perhaps best known for his achievement when at Dumfries & Galloway Regional Council in reopening the railway stations at Gretna Green and Sanquhar. Subsequently he "worked abroad", commuting daily from his Dumfries home to Cumbria County Council in Carlisle. Now he is busy in retirement, reminding the transport community as to the perspective of South West Scotland and urging planners that they should use transport investment to build better places.

Graham started his presentation off with a look at what we lost, being epitomised by a photo of Edinburgh's Levenhall terminus, closed in 1954 and not replaced by a bus since outwith the city. Edinburgh carried on building trams until 1950, but the system was abandoned in 1956. A comparison between UK, French and German systems shows a divergent pattern of closures and openings:

 Closed pre-45Closed Post-45SurvivorsNew
United Kingdom643819

There was a long encouragement to build light railways in France. For example Limoges had an AC hydro-powered system that limped on until 1949 and wanted to continue but the department preferred to pave the roads. While Germany preferred to retain trams as part of postwar reconstruction, France replaced many tram lines with trolley buses - 3 trolley networks survive, including Limoges.

Marseilles, Lille and St Etienne were the three tram survivors while the Pompidou administration favoured road-building. However in 1971 a payroll tax was imposed on firms employing over 9 people in Paris, rolling out to cities over 300k population in 1974, 100k in 1982, and it was this that provided funding. In 1975 transport secretary Marcel Cavaille wrote to the 8 largest cities demanding studies maximising use of existing road space but minimal tunnelling.

Consultants offered the expensive rubber-tyred driverless VAL, and Nantes not on original list changed from metro to tram. President Mitterrand wanted to devolve power to city-regions, and passed a 1982 law on allocation of costs, conditions and responsibilities, relationship with operators and planning with emphasis on total quality.

Largest cities that opted initially for metros retained trams as complementary, and the tram movement spread from the largest cities to the smallest. No metros are now planned, and the trams seek social inclusion to prevent disaffection that led to rioting. One or two new systems were opening each year until the 2014 rise of the Right which has checked progress.

Nantes closed its last trams 1958, but in the late 1970s highways were rejected, and tram lines opened 1985, 1992, 2000 plus busway, two tram-trains. There has been a 16% reduction in city-centre traffic, and the tram was soon accepted as part of street scene.

Graham Whiteley (left) being presented with an engraved glass by Dounlas Norris.d

Graham Whiteley (left) being presented with an engraved glass by Dounlas Norris.

© John Fender, 2014

Strasbourg is France's ninth largest city. In 1960 its tramway closed, but a 1989 election posed the choice of VAL or tram and the city went for the latter now having 6 lines with 40 route-km. Some trams were built in Derby and York. The network has grassed tracks and artistic shelters, and sometimes occupies the full width of shopping streets.

Bordeaux closed 1958, and abandoned VAL due to ground conditions and lobbying. Alain Juppe elected pro-tram mayor, and adopted wireless third-rail operation in environmentally sensitive streets. There are no duplicate buses, and the tram lines are very much part of a mature environment.

Montpellier closed 1949, but the population doubled from the 1970s. In 1990s there was a VAL proposal but the city decided to build tramways, however the new mayor has paused Line 5.

Paris closed 1937, being well served by metro within boulevard peripherique but difficult to serve rest of region. Difficult to get consensus, but there are now 8 lines including tram-train and busway. Line 1 is Bobigny-St Denis. Line 2 took over an isolated third-rail heavy route from La Defense. Line 3 follows the old city wall, running in two separate sections and passing under the disused Petite Ceinture. All lines have their own fleet and depot planned in seeming isolation.

From a low survival rate France has therefore found its own way in tram development. The process has been driven by centralised political forces while seeking goals of environmental quality and social inclusion that place the tram at the heart of urban renaissance.

Following the question and answer session, the Scottish Regional Officer, Douglas Norris, presented Graham with a Scottish Region engraved glass as a memento of the evening.

Report by John Yellowlees.


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