InTramCities with Gordon Stewart   

Infrastructure, Architecture and Environment along streets with trams : A major photography project.

The 1980s saw the start of a remarkable renaissance of tramways : InTramCities photos help show many of the issues involved

Analysis by Gordon Stewart

The idea means of transport for any particular individual is a personal vehicle which can go to any chosen destination by any chosen route.  That means of transport is the motor car for rsnge, potential speed and degree of comfort.. The objections to uncontolled motor car usage are well known, from a broad environmental perspective and from the lack of universal car ownership. There are many ways to resolve this problem, each with its costs and the degree of compromise regarding speed, comfort, convenience and cost. Modes can range from car-sharing and private hire taxis at one end of convenience to heavy rail solutions which are only convenient for those whose journeys start and end close to linked stations. Public service buses and tramways fit broadly in the middle of the spectrum of transport options, with tramways being closer to railways. In major cities there would usually be a judicious mix of heavy railways, metros or tramways and buses to complement private modes. In rural areas, potential traffic might only justify an infrequent bus service and in many cases nothing at all apart from privately-arranged transportation.

Trams generally provide good value where passenger numbers are too high for even an intensive bus service to move efficiently but too few to justify the cost of a metro. Despite the initial capital costs, trams may be suitable as part of the transport network in many cities, but the ultimate decision is generally a political one.     .   

To build a tramway - or not ?

InTramCities' photos include a number of entirely new tramway systems built since the 1980s. Most are in places which once had tramways but had previously closed their systems. Others are in places operating tramways for the first time. The photo above shows the first new line in the Italian city of Firenze (Florence) in 2016. The historic "Renaissance City" closed the last line of its first generation system in January 1958 and opened the first of its new lines in February 2010. Firenze has taken to tramways in an enthusiastic way with new lines built and planned although not in the narrow streets of the historic city centre which are unsuitable for modern tram operations.
In most cities, the reintoduction of trams is hotly debated. The arguments for and against are numerous. The investment required is substantial and the benefits not always evenly distributed. This is particularly true in the early stages where there might only be one line rather than a comprehensive network covering much of the city. Many cities have judged that the wider community's gains outweigh the financial or other losses felt by those who might have to contribute but not directly benefit. The introduction of a tramway often leads to the reorganisation of bus services in the transit corridor served : again, something where the greater good might outweigh specific losses. Many new projects have been realised, but in 2020 a referendum of the citizens of Wiesbaden in Germany voted against a tramway through the city linking a local railway and the tramway of the neighbouring city of Mainz. It is for each case to be decided on its merits by those involved.

Tram and Bus : Competition or Cooperation ?

Trams had an early advantage over buses. Steel rails made it easier to haul a carriage compared with a dirt track of a road. As well as a smoother ride, fewer horses were required to do the job. Electric power gave tramways a further advantage. Improved streets and the development of the internal combustion engine then eroded those advantages. When the time came to reinvest heavily in new track, overhead and rolling stock, tramway owners, mostly municipally owned after the expiry of the concessions given to the original private developers, faced a tough decision. Could the investment be justified ? Was the tram the most suitable mode ? Many smaller tramways were sacrificed in the 1930s as a result. For many larger operations, hasty post-war reconstruction shifted the big decisions to the 1950s. In many places, the pendulum swung in favour of buses. Cheaper to buy and not requiring special infrastructure, their routes could be flexible and services planned at will. Good for passengers, taxpayers and, increasingly crucially, motorists who would have more street space, it seemed. In the UK and France especially, closures were almost universal in this period and by the early 1960s virtually nothing survived.

The renaissance of tramways, beginning in the 1980s, was largely due to concerns about increasing road congestion and later, with the prevailing impracticality of environmentally clean fuels for buses, concerns about air pollution and climate change.  The UK city of Edinburgh was one such city which completed closure of an extensive tramway system in 1956 and had a large  bus network. After much controvery, Edinburgh reintroduced trams with a new, albeit truncated, line in 2014. It was a case of adding a tram line with few other changes. On the city's main street, Princes Street, there was limited traffic calming, no reduction in the heavy bus traffic
and none of the "beautification" measures associated with most new tramways, notably in French cities. The photo above, taken in 2016, shows the less than ideal result. One way to reduce bus traffic in the city centre would have been to rearrange services to feed passengers into the tramway along its length. Good for crush loadings and economic operation of the trams, but with one major disadvantage for passengers. Those not directly served by the line would require a change between bus and tram with the uncertainty, inconvenience and possible discomfort of making such connections and with no guarantee of a comfortable seat on the connecting service. Frequent, regular and closely co-ordinated connections are likely to be essential for the success of any tram route.

Generally speaking and with all other things being equal, trams are a realistic consideration where traffic flows are too high to be handled comfortably by buses but insufficient to justify a metro.

Environmentally friendly fuels for buses (battery electric and green hydrogen) have become increasingly feasible in terms of cost and practicality. With buses and their acknowledged flexibilities now eroding the tram's advantage on environmental issues, what now for the tramway renaissance ? Trams retain many advantages but are they enough to justify the capital outlay ? Cost-Benefit Analysis, as widely used by planning authorities, is never an exact science and is often based on highly subjective data but is the generally favoured process with which to make a judgement. What is undisputed is that buses, even if not its main backbone, will continue to provide much of a city's public transport provision.    

Surface or Tunnel ?

Whilst trams are essentially an alternative to buses on surface transport corridors, they are also more suited to "upgrading". This is normally to offer a higher quality of service. but especially from the 1960s, it was seen as a possible way of achieving, at least in part, the benefits of an urban metro or underground system. Fully-fledged metros as found in major cities such as London, Paris and New York are extremely expensive to build and take many years of construction. Many smaller cities anticipated growth both in terms of population and traffic and had ideas of clearing streets for the use of private cars and, in city centres, for pedestrian precincts. Ambitious cities might also regard having a metro as having arrived in the "big league" of cities. This concept took particular hold in West Germany. The major urban conglomeration around the Ruhr river in Nordrhein-Westfalen was one such area where an integrated "Stadtbahn" concept was developed for the major cities including Dortmund, Bochum, Essen and Dusseldorf. Whilst a fully-fledged metro was the ambition, it became seen as unrealistic to achieve except in numerous small steps. One element was in the construction of tunnels under the city centres for the use of trams pending the practicality of converting the whole retained network to "metro" standards. The city of Dortmund made rapid steps in this regard. Two routes running from the north to the south of the city were moved into tunnels under the central area. The third main axis, running west to east followed. In the photo above at Heinrichstrasse, taken in 2002, the third tunnel is almost complete and the surface tracks had little time left.

Dortmund's third tunnel represents a bit of a change in the fortunes of the Stadtbahn concept as originally conceived. Not only had thoughts of a fully-segregated metro been abandoned, but the east west line was retained as tramway albeit with the central tunnel. The advent of low-floor trams meant that expensive and potentially obtrusive high-platforms were no longer required for level-boarding accessibility. Dortmund's third line has emerged as remarkably different from its first two, with low-floor trams providing the service. This concept has also been used for Dusseldorf's Wehrhahn Line, contrary to original plans. Even the tunnels themselves have not always been the benefit they were expected to be. The enormous cost of construction notwithstanding, they have been found to be expensive to maintain, clean and illuminate.  The German town of Ludwigshafen has already taken some of its tunnels out of service and there have also been discussions about the same in Mulheim.

Traffic flows have not always justified the expenditure and surface trams in city centres have also experienced something of a renaissance. 
Cities have often favoured removing trams from streets not just for perceived safety reasons but also to allow them to be converted to fully pedestrianised precincts.  Some of the expected practical advantages have not been as significant as expected. Whilst line speeds of trams have generally been quicker, the number of stopping places has generally been reduced and the benefit of faster services has usually been offset by longer walking distances to stations and time lost accessing the underground platforms themselves. The rush to force trams underground has ended. 

High Platforms or Low Floors ?

The ideal has always been for the passenger to be able to step into a tram and to their seat with the minimum of effort and inconvenience. Level-boarding from street level was always impractical and such access to the passenger compartment impossible. The floor of the tram had to be above wheel or at least axle level and leave sufficient space for the electric motors and associated equipment to be stowed beneath. The development of longer trams and trams with longer wheelbases enabled loading platforms to be lowered at front and back and in many designs in the 1920s and 1930s, also in the middle of the tram between the axles. With passengers loading from street level this still required a step up and then further steps into the passenger compartments. The benefits of these arrangements were marginal and new trams generally featured steep steps, often three, for every passenger - an arrangement totally unsatisfactory for the infirm, those carrying heavy packages and especially those with baby carriages. The problem seemed impossible to solve and legislation demanding a solution still lay far in the future.

Those major cities contemplating upgrading their tramways with the ambition of eventually having a metro-like system found a solution. High platforms built to a level to match as close as possible the height of their trams' floors. Such platforms are expensive to build and require extra space for steps and ramps up to the platform. They are also highly noticeable features - suitable for stations away from streets on reserved alignments but not necessarily so in a cramped urban setting. Cities which embarked on upgrades in the 1970s such as Stuttgart and Hannover in West Germany chose to follow this method and had to find solutions for fitting tram stops into sensitive environments. The major problems were mostly avoided by having city centre stops in tunnels, again at great capital cost. One city which has failed to solve this problem is the British city of Manchester. Having earlier removed its street tramway, Manchester decided to reintroduce trams by taking over a number of local railway lines and linking them into a network via street-level tracks through the city centre. With the railway stations used for the new "Metrolink" having standard British high platforms, Manchester was constrained into ordering high-floor trams, despite the recent emergence of new low-floor vehicles, and building stations with appropriately high platforms in the city centre streets
(see photo above at Exchange Square). Had Manchester had a low-floor system, level access would have been possible from pavement level. One stop was equipped with a "profiled platform" which sloped up to allow step-free access to the centre doors only - a compromise solution in an area of restricted space. This platform was later removed and the stopping place eliminated.

The 1980s was to herald a technological change which was to be the major impetus to the renaissance of tramways which began in earnest in that decade. A way was found to incorporate a low loading platform of sufficient and increasing size to allow a limited amount of priority seating and baby carriage space. Existing trams were increasingly retro-fitted with additional low-floor sections and technology eventually allowed tram floors to be reduced throughout the length of the vehicle. Direct street loading became one modest step only and where trams could run into platforms, these could be built at kerb level and be unobtrusive in the urban envirnoment, thus allowing totally-level access. Tramway systems could be modernised and new systems built without the enormous cost of high-level platforms and without courting the controversy that such platforms cause. This posed a dilemma for the "early adopters" of level-boarding access tramways. The German cities of Cologne and Frankfurt-am-Main have ended up with separate high-floor and low-floor networks : not an ideal situation, but a pragmatic one.

Trams and Pedestrians

Tunnel-digging for a metro or underground tramway was one way that busy city centre streets could be turned over to pedestrians whilst public transport brought people to stations directly below. With low-floor trams and simple platforms it was possible to bring people to these pedestrianised areas directly without public transport being relegated to side streets and fit in neatly and relatively unobtrusively. It meant that public transport could be highly visible and accessible and available exactly where people wished to be. In this respect, trams have a major advantage over buses. Whilst buses might be able to weave through traffic, a tram's advantage is that its path is entirely predictable. In a busy pedestrian area buses might be able to hold a predictable path, but this is not guaranteed and leaves a seed of doubt in the minds of those around. The tram follows the rails and its course is clear. An element of overhang must be reckoned with, but differentiated colours in the paving around the tracks are often used to identify a tram's "swept path", the maximum extent to which a tram will encroach as it passes. For this reason, trams appear better suited to mingling with pedestrians as shown above in Berlin's Alexanderplatz in 2016 where trams have been reintroduced to pedestrianised areas of the city centre despite underground lines below and local and regional railways above (and behind the camera).

Reserved Track

Those whose hopes of having a metro metro system were not to be realised might have to compromise with their tramways as much as possible on reserved track. Space permitting, the central reservation of wide highways, either in place already or created through the converssion of existing road space, can give trams a free run past congested areas of roadway. The number of junctions with existing roads can also be restricted to allow faster journey times. Extensive areas of segregation have also allowed tramways, including new systems, to be "heavier" than might otherwise being the case, with wider trams resembling light railways running on railway-style track mounted on sleepers. Systems such as that in Utrecht (see photo above) which opened in December 1983 was dubbed Sneltram (ie Fast Tram) and resembled a metro as much as a traditional street tramway. Irrespective of the "heaviness" of the tramway system, reserved track is generally seen as a desirable part of any tramway system so long as the tram stops are relatively easy to access. Utrecht's Sneltram was built shortly before low-floor trams became widely available, so featured high-level platforms at its stations. With such infrastructure being costly, a major extension to Utrecht's tram system which opened in 2020, was built with low platforms and operated by low-floor trams. As the plan was to link the old and the new lines, the existing Sneltram line was re-equipped with new low-floor trams and the station platforms rebuilt accordingly, but the large amount of reserved track will continue to allow the trams to offer rapid journey times to tempt car users to leave their vehicles at home and use public transport.

Wireless Power

One objection to tramways, especially in urban environments of great beauty and historical importance, is the presence of overhead wiring. Good design can minimise the intrusiveness of the wiring and the necessary support infrastructure. For example, live wires can be supported by wires attached to brackets on line-side buildings or to existing lighting stanchions and complicated railway-style catenary is rarely necessary, at least where there are low line speeds. On several new tramways, the issue has been eliminated altogether by using alternative ways of powering its trams, at least in the more visually sensitive parts of the cities they serve.  This is nothing new. Most the methods currently being considered were experimented with in the early days of electric traction but with little long-lasting success. Overhead wiring remains the standard for current collection and other methods still have their drawbacks despite ever-improving technologies.

A number of systems, particularly in France, are using the ground-based Alimentation Par Sol (APS) current collection system. Unlike earlier systems which collected current from an underground conduit accessed through an open slot between the rails, the APS system uses surface collection with each short section of power rail only activated when the tram is directly above.  Relatively long stretches of track in Bordeaux use the APS system, but capital cost is the main reason why it is not used more widely. In the photo taken in Bordeaux in 2008, the vista of the grand buildings along the city's river front is not interrupted by wires. Even the tram stop in this sensitive area has been designed as minimalist for the same aesthetic reason. InTramCities photos show the APS system in Bordeaux, Reims and Angers

Currently a number of tramways are using on-board battery technology to bridge relatively short gaps in the wiring and hydrogen fuel-cell power is being researched as a potential power source.  The Spanish city of Seville inaugurated its first five-stop second-generation tram line with wires throughout with the intention of removing them along Avenida de la Constitucion once suitably equipped trams arrived to replace the light-metro stock used to open the service. This took place in two stages, initially between Puerto Nova and Archivo de Indias, but later extended to Puerta de Jerez, with overhead charging rails located at the intermediate stop at Archivo de Indias for power collection whilst the tram is stationary. An on-board power source adds to the weight of a tram, so as well as the added capital costs, there are also the extra running costs and implications for the design of any overhead used elsewhere on the network. InTramCities photos show
battery operation in Nice and Sevilla.

Single or Double-ended Trams ?

One major consideration in the design of tramways is whether the trams will be single or double-ended. In the earliest of designs, trams were double ended. At the end of the line, drivers just had to move to the back of the car, readjust the power collection trolley and continue on their way. Gradually, single-ended trams became the norm. This required the trams to be turned at every terminus and this generally meant the line continuing in a loop. Although this meant that space was required to construct the loop, it also eliminated the need for the various actions at the terminus. Single-ended trams found favour because of their cheaper costs and higher passenger capacities. There was no need to duplicate the expensive controller mechanisms and doors were only required at one side of the tram. Eliminating both allowed for more space for passengers and reduced costs of maintenance.  In the photo above a modern single-ended Munich articulated tram calls at Sendlinger Tor in 2012

The trend in modern tramways has now increasingly favoured double-ended trams which allow services to terminate without the need to construct loops and requiring only a simple track cross-over and with the use of pantographs for power collection, no adjustment is needed. This also allows trams to reverse to the nearest cross-over in the case of a blockage of the route ahead.


Tram-Train has become a much talked-about concept. The selling point is that trains on existing rail networks can be diverted on to street tracks to serve city centres and numerous central tram stops rather than depositing passengers at a limited number of stations, often reasonably remote from where they need to be. The problem is the compatibility of railway and tramway systems, both technically and operationally, often with differing legal codes. Unlike Manchester, for example, where under-used railway lines were closed and converted for Metrolink operation, other cities have sought a solution where tramways run along railway tracks alongside railway vehicles. Karlsruhe in Germany was the leading developer of a regional tram-train system and its extensive network soon became known as the Karlsruhe-Model. Each country is different in the rules applying to trams and trains and the technical aspects of their construction. This has been clearly exemplified in the United Kingdom where many years of investigation and trials extending one of Sheffield's tram lines over rail tracks to Rotherham highlighted numerous problems. Tram-Train is not the relatively simple solution to city region mobility that it seemed it might be. The Danish city of Aarhus has, from 2017, created a light rail network by integrating two distinct local railways with a tramway link. One of the routes uses the same trams as the link and the new urban tramway. The other uses separate tram-trsina and just the link route to reach the city's main railway station. In the photo above, a tram-train of Stadler Tango design runs along a short new stretch of tramway from its former terminus, seen in the background to the junction with the new urban tramway whose alingment is shared as far as the main station.
Tramway on Tyres

Is it a tram or is it not ? Ever since city streets became smooth enough to run on once the petrol engine had been developed, buses became increasingly popular for public transport as the expenditure on track and overhead was not required and the buses could weave in and out of traffic. Electric buses had their supporters and trolleybuses with overhead wires were a suitable compromise solution, especially for places contemplating the need to renew tramway tracks and their relatively expensive tram cars. In western Europe the drawbacks of trolleybuses meant that most systems eventually gave way to motor buses but with the renewed interest in trams, segregated rights of way and emission-free vehicles, thoughts were turned to possible ways of having a "tramway" but at cheaper capital cost. Two maufacturers in France, home of the pneumatic tyre maker Michelin, promoted guided buses powered by overhead wires. The French capital city region has adopted the Translohr technology for a number of its developments in the suburbs outside Paris. Line T5 in the city of St Denis (see photo above) is one such line. It  has been reasonably successful, but the cities of Caen and Nancy which adopted the so-called "Tramway on Tyres" eventually decided that their experiment was a failure, closed their lines and replaced them with a traditional tramway.
Their advantages over a traditional tramway seemed to be limited to initial capital cost alone. Irrespective of reliability issues regarding the guidance system, trams on tyres have their disadvantages : their roadbeds are subject to degradation and regular repair, their tyres wear emitting noxious particulate matter into the atmosphere and in terms of energy usage, the "rolling resistance" of rubber tyres on concrete track far exceeds that of steel wheel on steel rail. It appears that any future for such systems will be limited.

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