Rolling through the heart of the city

From the hills of San Francisco to the boulevards of Melbourne, the tram mixes traditional appeal with modern green credentials, writes Chris Milton


Freeing up road space and developing a flexible transport management system are vital to providing sustainable travel options in growing urban environments.

However, trams hold a key place in the development of cities’ wider transport infrastructure, according to David Carter, a market director at transportation specialists MVA Consultancy. “Trams are very good at getting large numbers of people into city centres,” he says. “And there’s something about trams which is more attractive to people.”

As an example, he points to the new Birmingham City Centre Extension. This will allow Midland Metro to bring passengers into the heart of the city and provide an unbroken link with the main railway hub at New Street station, as well as regional centres like Wolverhampton.

Outside the city centre, trams have the advantage of being able to use existing rail infrastructure. In the Netherlands a class of tram has been developed which can travel on the same lines as long-distance trains.

Many tram networks have reused existing railway infrastructure once it has reached its end of life

In addition, many tram networks have reused existing railway infrastructure once it has reached its end of life. The line between Manchester, Oldham and Rochdale was used in this way when the local authority decided to redevelop it as an extension to the Manchester Metrolink. This provided a more frequent service for a lower overall cost than recommissioning the railway.

Many iconic cities have been greatly enhanced by tram systems, from the hill views of San Francisco and wide boulevards of Melbourne, to the Baroque architecture of Vienna and futuristic skyscrapers of Hong Kong.

However, there have been objections to tramline overhead power cables on aesthetic grounds. In Bordeaux they were frowned upon because they obscured historic buildings. So a revolutionary “moving rail” was developed, which is only electrified when a tram is over it and is now being rolled out in other French cities.

Similarly, plans to extend Munich’s system led to concerns that cables would spoil the atmosphere of the city’s main park. So a battery-operated tram has been developed, with a prototype that travelled nearly ten miles without recharging, setting a world record which could change tram travel forever.

These innovations aside, most trams need a constant supply of electricity to operate, offering ideal opportunities for decarbonising transport infrastructure in a number of ways.

For example, rolling stock manufacturer Bombardier has developed trains with components up to 30 per cent lighter than previously and which generate up to 30 per cent of the electricity consumed using energy-recovery systems in their brakes. The company expects savings from its trams to be even higher. “We’re also making it easier to get people on and off, making acceleration faster and improving signalling,” says Richard French, Bombardier’s division lead for research and development. “All of which will increase capacity by enabling trains to pass through the system more quickly.”

Another difficulty many metropolitan districts face, says Mr Carter, is having areas physically cut off from one another, often with barriers, such as major roads or industrial zones, interposed between them.

Other transport methods, such as bicycle networks, come to a halt when faced with these barriers, leading to a fragmented network and loose regional cohesion. In these circumstances, trams can open up new transport corridors and areas for economic development.

When this is combined with their ability to get into the heart of city centres, attractiveness to the general public and potential to reuse railway lines, trams are fast becoming a favoured form of transport to bring together metropolitan areas and deliver passengers between key urban centres.