September 02, 2014

Low-cost light rail: what can we learn from Besançon?

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THE inauguration of the light rail network in Besançon on August 30 was notable not only because it brings trams back to this French city of 115,000 inhabitants for the first time in 62 years but also because it shines a spotlight on what it costs to build a tram network, and most importantly, how smaller cities can do the job for less.

Besançon built its 14.5km 31-station line for just €254m, or €17.5m per km, which compares with an average of €25-30m per-km for a typical light rail line in France. From the outset, the municipal government focussed on minimising costs in all aspects of construction with emphasis on standardisation and simplification. This ethos applied to everything from civil engineering to stations and vehicles.

The city cut the cost of its fleet of 19 LRVs to €35.2m by opening the request for proposals to seven bidders, when most French cities would allow no more than three or four. The winner of the tender was CAF and Besançon specified a standard Urbos vehicle with little in the way of extras that would drive the unit price up.

The result, while not visually unattractive, looks quite different from other recent French light rail systems. Trams are rightly regarded as part of the urban aesthetic in France and considerable effort goes into ensuring that the new transport system complements the built environment. Stations and vehicles are styled to reflect the architecture and traditions of the city, in some cases with shortlisted designs being put to a public ballot before being finalised.

The increasing use of catenary-free technologies such as onboard capacitors and Alstom's APS ground power supply demonstrates that cities are willing to spend more – in some cases much more – on technology to avoid the environmental impact of threading overhead wires between historic buildings. Often the cost of doing away with wires is considered preferential to a long and potentially bitter debate about the aesthetics of electrification.

One of the most visually striking light rail systems in France is Tours, inaugurated a year to the day before Besançon. At 14.3km with 29 stations the network is almost identical in size to Besançon and with capacity for about 45,000 passengers per day is built to accommodate similar levels of traffic. But the final bill for the Tours light rail network was €433m, €179m more than the cost of the Besançon project.

Of course, comparing the costs of such projects is never an exact science and Tours got a lot of things Besançon didn't, with its architecturally distinctive stations and trams and a catenary-free section in the city centre. Nonetheless, it illustrates two very different answers to what is essentially the same question.

With the amount of central government funding for light rail projects likely to fall over the next few years, it is conceivable that some French light rail projects will only become a reality if municipal governments are willing to accept compromises on specification.

Shared procurement is one way of cutting costs and French municipalities are already taking advantage of the economies of scale this offers. Dijon and Brest jointly procured their tram fleets and Amiens and Caen have gone down the same path with the aim of cutting procurement costs by up to 20%.

Besançon demonstrates that a standardised and disciplined approach to design and robust project management can deliver a modern, high-capacity and attractive public transport system at a reasonable cost. In a post-recession world where cities face increasing pressure on their finances, this looks like a winning formula for others to follow.

Keith Barrow

Keith Barrow joined IRJ as News Editor in 2006 and was promoted to Associate Editor in 2008. He was previously editor of employee publications for the Welsh Assembly Government, G4S, and Thomsonfly, and has written for a range of other publications including the Derby Telegraph. He graduated from Lincoln University in 2002 with a degree in journalism.

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