INTRO: Urban rail projects in France are again the focus of interest in the wake of last year’s municipal elections. Gordon Wiseman finds that smaller cities are investing strongly in light rail

TWO YEARS after the launch of light rail in Rouen and Strasbourg, the next round of activity is under way in France. Progress on urban transport schemes is often linked to the timing of municipal elections, and mayors and other influential politicians have noted the success of tramways in Nantes and Grenoble. Re-election prospects can rise significantly if a tram scheme is successfully developed.

With last year’s elections out of the way, progress is being made with light rail plans in Valenciennes, Orléans, Montpellier and Paris. Construction of extensions is under way in Strasbourg and Rouen, and plans are firming up for a third line in Nantes.

Ten of France’s 25 largest conurbations share the five metro and eight light rail networks now in service. Plans for various forms of guided transport exist in another ten, and standing at number 26 is Mulhouse, the most recent city to launch a light rail scheme.

Mediterranean trams

Among the new projects, Montpellier, close to the Mediterranean coast, has progressed the furthest. A Declaration of Public Utility is expected this month, with preliminary work scheduled to start soon after Easter.

As the administrative capital of Languedoc-Roussillon, the city is the ninth largest in France, and Montpellier District has a population approaching 300000. Over 800000 journeys a day are made in the area, with buses carrying 17%.

Mayor Georges Frêche, who is President of the District, has championed the light rail project, and his enthusiasm mirrors that of Catherine Trautmann in Strasbourg, who was instrumental in getting that city’s light rail scheme off the ground. All being well, the first trams will carry passengers through the streets of Montpellier in September 2000.

Engineering design is in the hands of the Gitram consortium of Semaly, Beceom and Beterem. The 15 km standard gauge route will run from La Paillade to Le Millénaire with 28 stations at an average spacing of 560m.

Land take has been set at 7m for plain double track sections, widening to 12m at stops. The alignment will be designed to allow trams to run at 4min intervals from 05.00 to 01.00 at a commercial speed of 20 km/h. Bids have been invited for 28 low-floor cars.

In common with other French light rail projects, the route has been chosen to ensure that public transport truly serves the community. Montpellier’s tramway will pass all the main hospitals, as well as college and university sites attended by 75000 students.

The District’s tramway planning office (SMTU) estimates that 75000 people live within 5min walking distance of the corridor, and it predicts that 60000 to 65000 passengers a day will ride the trams. This would double the traffic now using buses on the same corridor, where priority measures and road realignment are already in place as a prelude to the tramway.

Much effort will be devoted to ensuring easy connections between modes; no less than half of the 28 stations will have bus interchange, and 11 will offer park-and-ride. There will be cycle stands at all stops, co-ordinated with the city’s programme to create 100 km of cycleways by 2002.

The depot site at La Paillade will house the control centre, stores and maintenance workshops for trams and buses. Project management of the maintenance centre is in the hands of a consortium of Cusy & Maraval, Nebout, Olives, Recalde, Trouvin Ingénierie and Agence TER under a contract let on October 11. The first tram should arrive for testing towards the end of 1998.

Montpellier’s authorities have promised to keep residents fully informed, with open meetings planned three months before the start of work. As with other French schemes, a co-ordinating ’follow me’ animal will be used throughout - this time the Pink Panther.


Progress in the small city of Orléans is hardly less remarkable. An enquiry leading to a Declaration of Public Utility for an 18 km tram route opened on December 16.

The city already enjoys a very efficient public transport network, which the light rail scheme launched in November 1995 can only enhance. The project will address traffic problems exacerbated by inconvenient main line stations and a cramped city centre, which is cut by the wide River Loire.

Expansion has been concentrated on a fairly narrow north-south axis, and residents of new suburbs have relatively long journeys to the centre. Railway planners in the 19th century saw fit to bypass the city’s original stub terminus, with express trains calling only at Les Aubrais (map). However, some regional trains serve only the terminus.

The tramway will eliminate a double change for travellers from Paris by linking both stations to the city centre and the three most populous areas of greater Orléans - Olivet and La Source in the south and Les Aubrais itself. The route also takes in the exhibition centre, university and regional hospital at its southern end.

The 18 km line planned to open in 2000 will serve 22% of residents, 29% of work places and 70% of the city’s further education sites. Of 23 stations, 15 will also be served by bus, and park-and-ride will be available at six.

A fleet of 21 low-floor cars each able to carry 170 passengers will run at 6min intervals in peak periods, reducing to 10min at other times. As in Montpellier, there will be a network of cycle routes and racks at stations, but cyclists will also be able to take their bikes on the trams.

Finance will come from the versement transport levy on employers, which generated Fr155m in 1996. The levy will rise this year to help pay for the trams, along with departmental and regional funds. A minimum contribution of Fr340m will come from central government.

In the long term a second line is planned to run on an east-west axis from St Jean de la Ruelle to St Jean de Braye. This would run over some disused SNCF track.


In the industrial northern city of Valenciennes the pace of development is rather slower, and some sections of the city’s initial light rail route have yet to be finalised, particularly in the centre. Dubbed Transvilles, the network will be partly interurban, linking former mining towns.

First to open will be lines running south to University, east to Place Poterne and west to St Waast. The St Waast route will take over the trackbed of a disused industrial railway, and this will later be extended to Denain. When finished, the tramway will offer a shorter journey than the present SNCF line between Valenciennes and Denain.

Plans call for the eastern route to be extended to Rocard Est, a terminus on the ring motorway in St Saulve. When complete, the network will be 21·5 km long with 34 stations, on average 650m apart. Work is expected to start in 1998 for opening in 2001. Five ’P