LRTA logo Light Rail Transit Association
Light Rail for better public transport

Nantes expansion

City tram now a mature network

C. J. Wansbeek reports from France's seventh largest city:

The balmy, sunny Monday 28 August 2000 was memorable. At 05.30, a major extension of tram route 1 became operational in this city, 400 km west of Paris. On the same day, a new tram route 3 opened for revenue service. The two events added up to 9 km of new double track. It brought the length of the Nantes tramway system to 36 km, the largest in France. Shortly before that, in June 2000, another milestone was reached when the first Incentro was delivered by ADtranz, a new generation of 100% low-floor trams, of which Nantes is the launch customer. Popular festivities followed during the weekend of 2-3 September.

Fifteen years ago, Nantes opened France's first modern tramway. It was an instant success, and ever since the tramway has been growing. A visitor to Nantes, standing on the Place du Commerce, is treated by the sight of hardworking trams flowing in four directions, on three different routes. One feels overwhelmed by the quality of French transport planning, of which Nantes has become the epitome. City growth and tramway development go hand in hand.

With a population of 550 000, Nantes makes up the seventh largest conurbation of France. It boasts a big port, with harbour activities concentrated in the area west of the city, to accommodate deep ocean-going vessels. The old docklands in the city centre are redeveloped to office and residential areas. Nantes has a big university. For the average tourist, the inner city offers attractive tree-lined avenues and romantic alleys. Damage was inflicted by World War Two air raids, but hundreds of historic mansions remain in full glory. In a wide circle around the inner city lies a swathe of 20th century suburbs. These include the futuristic apartment buildings by architect Le Corbusier, whose created a spacious suburb, called 'cité radieuse'. It can be reached by tram line 2, in the neighbourhood of Rezé.

Streets are wide, trams ride fast and almost noiseless. A smooth tram ride is standard quality at Nantes. Trams run every four or five minutes during peak periods. They appear on time, with electronic route displays at all stops. Most of the 72 tram stops are wide, glass-covered stations, all equipped with ticket-vending machines. Trams have doors on both sides, many stops have median platform islands. One sees members of all classes and both sexes in the tram at Nantes, which is socially safe. There is no graffiti, and all upholstered seats are neat and clean. In short, Nantes is a real tram city.

The August 2000 extension of tram route 1 covers the 5.3 km from Bellevue to a new terminus at François Mitterrand. Included are seven new stops. Construction has cost FRF 387 million. The extension expects to attract 5000 new passengers daily, on top of the pre August average of 65 000. The new terminus lies in Saint Herblain, a self-governing community west of the circular express motorway, at a point where the city ends, and there are unspoilt rolling hills.

Recently, much of green field area has been occupied by IKEA and a few oversized supermarkets, all within easy walking distance from route 1. This area is the first in Nantes, and possibly France, to start with a tram line first, and then, in a second phase, encourage development near the tracks. The tram as the backbone should guide modern city development.

On its way to Saint Herblain, the tram serves a densely built-up residential area near Square Mendès-France, for which line 1 was relaid in a wide semi-circle, replacing the former straight-lined alignment near Bellevue. Disused tracks are being kept intact, as a strategic reserve. The advantage of this semi-circle, although it means a detour for all passengers on their way to Saint Herblain, is that an entire area can be served by one single through tram service. The new tracks of line 1 are laid in landscaped grassed lawns. This contrasts with the functional eastern segment of line 1, opened in 1985, built as a classic railway-like line on reservation (with level crossings), with railway rails on wooden sleepers.

The new 4.2-km long route 3 runs from HôtelDieu to Plaisance, in the neighbourhood of Orvault, in north-west Nantes. At Hôtel-Dieu, route 3 trams reverse on the centre track, while route 2 trams pass by in both directions. This is a temporary terminus, as the 3 will soon be extended further to the south. From this point to the north, route 3 shares tracks with route 2 over a length of one km. It crosses Place du Commerce (interchange with route 1), then branches off to continue to Plaisance, a collection of villas and supermarkets, in a remote corner of the suburb of Orvault. route 3 is distinctly urban in character, with short distances between stops. One must wait and see whether it has been a wise thing to allow motor cars over certain stretches of line 3, due to lack of space. Limited in length, the 10-stop route 3, entirely on reservation, serves no less than 25% of the local population. Some 25 000 daily passengers are expected. Building costs were FRF 866 million. The number of passengers will rise after the already-approved next extension of route 3 further to the northwest, to Sillon de Bretagne.

Before the August 2000 inaugurations, tram traffic already accounted for 40% of all public transport at Nantes. North-south route 2 is now the leader with 95 000 daily passengers, many of them students on their way to and from the huge university campus, well served by the tram. The three tram routes together carry 175 000 tram passengers per day (65 000, 95 000 and 25 000 respectively for routes 1, 2, 3). The market share of the tram will rise further, and public transport as a whole will be strengthened.

In April 1997, Nantes was the first city to order the Incentro a 33-tonne vehicle based on know-how acquired with the six hundred 100% low-floor cars already sold at that date by ADtranz to customers in Germany and France (Strasbourg). The Incentro is a modular design, made up of cab, powered and suspended sections. For Nantes, five passenger body sections will accommodate 256 passengers (65 seated) in a length of 36.4 m, with three double doors each side. The Incentro will first be used on route 3, but should latter run throughout the network.

ADtranz proved unable to deliver the Incentro on schedule. On the opening day of line 3, no Incentro was running. Three of them had been delivered, but they were not ready for revenue service. Monsieur Boeswillwald, the managing director of TAN, the transport undertaking, underlines that he wishes to continue close links with ADtranz, and solve problems together.

The first day of service of new route 3, 28 August 2000, saw much finishing work still in progress at Plaisance, and all service worked by Alstom cars. C. J. Wansbeek

TAN is now putting its fleet of 46 Alstom-built double-articulated 8-axle trams to an endurance test. All but one are constantly in use to provide service for all three lines. There is a daily peak run-out of 45 trams, and these are all loaded. Fortunately, Monsieur Boeswillwald notes, the summer holidays had not come to an end, university courses would resume only in midOctober, so there was some leeway. TAN could only hope that ADtranz would soon commission the missing trams, of which it has placed firm orders for 24 units (not 39, as reported previously). The last of the 24 should reach Nantes in March 2001. With further tramway extensions in the pipeline, TAN will soon need more.

Nantes. Incentro LRV 351 on trial on Route 1. TAN
Nantes. Incentro LRV 351 on trial on Route 1. TAN

The first Incentro, built at ADtranz at Nürnberg, Germany, arrived on 16 June 2000, by rail, after an 700-km delivery trip. Dispatching the Incentro by railway flatcar means that TAN receives a complete tram that had undergone full testing at the factory. All will arrive by train. Unloading is at Haluchère, near the terminus of tram line 1, where there is a rail link between SNCF and the tramway. The Incentro is of a striking design, underlining the uniqueness of the Nantes LRV. The cab was designed by Avant-Première of Lyon, a design house.

Alstom trams and the Incentro have a length of 38 and 36.4 metres respectively. Longer trams are not needed, although, according to the 'cahier des charges' (tendering specifications), it is technically feasible to fit an additional section to the Incentro, which then might reach a length of some 40 metres. But Nantes is in no hurry. The situation is different at Strasbourg, where super-long trams have a length of 44 m. 'We don't want that', says Monsieur Boeswillwald, who prefers more trams in service, should demand increase further. Shorter headways, not longer trams.

It is only 20 years ago, when Nantes decided to launch a counter-offensive to then established transportation policies. The motor car had taken possession of the entire city. Old mansions were torn down to make room for cars. Plans were to replace the quays along the Erdre River by a six- lane urban express motorway. This caused an outcry. The citizens demanded more public transport instead. The leaders reacted with a plan to promote bus transport. Rejected. Then came the idea of a trolleybus network. Limited capacity. Then the leaders wanted a metro. Too expensive for Nantes. Finally, a certain LRTA member, then heading-up TAN, proposed the tram.

Trams occupy less space, run fast, and have a superior capacity. This idea was in line with the government's policy. After the 1973 oil crisis, local governments were encouraged to build tramways, with a state subsidy of 50%. Nantes was the first city to enhance the idea, only a few years after it had closed all its tram lines (in 1958). At that time, France was a country with very few tramlines left. According to regional council chairman Monsieur Chenard, 'un pari fou' (crazy gamble). The tramway was built. After Nantes, seven other cities in France built new tramways. Nantes led the way.

The first 5.8-km tram line at Nantes was opened in 1985, between Commerce and Haluchère. This is now the eastern section of route 1. After tram line 1 followed line 2, another commercial triumph, since its opening in 1992 (originally between Commerce and Trocadière). The second line runs north-south, it has been extended step-by-step. In 1993, it reached the university campus, in 1994 it was extended further north to Orvault Grand Val. It crosses line 1 on the Place du Commerce, in the city centre. It also crosses the broad Loire river on its own bridge, and on to the suburb of Rezé.

As the tramway network grew, the Nantes leaders discovered that there is a wider impact. Trams make it possible to 'retricoter la ville' - to re-knit the urban fabric, according to Monsieur Chenard. With trams, you can upgrade your city, make it more functional. Trams help prevent urban decay. With trams, quality returns. To cite two examples. Within 10 years, the tram lines at Nantes brought an increase of 20% of the number of clients of city-centre shops. The share of shoppers who travel to the city centre by public transport rose from 30 to 50%.

Hallmark of the Nantes system was the 6-axle tramcar of a robust design. A no-frills Alstom built tram, the oldest units now nearing the midlife age, and still performing very well. Everyone was hopeful that the Nantes tram type would soon become the new national standard for France. However, only months after the Nantes tram opened, Grenoble stole the show, with a different low-floor tram of a striking design. The Grenoble tram heralded the breakthrough of the European low-floor LRV.

Grenoble had set its mind on a tram with low floor entrance, to give new mobility to those with mobility problems. Within months, the low-floor tram became 'bon ton'. The low-floor comfort has become the tram's unique selling point. The pragmatic leaders of Nantes did not wait long before they ordered new low-floor centre sections to be fitted to all trams, which thereby became double-articulated. All trams delivered after 1992 have the low-floor centre section as a standard feature. The original idea of multiple unit operation was dropped after a short period, and all couplers of the first batch of trams for Nantes have been removed.

The growth of the tramway system has been accompanied by a gradual reduction of the role for the 45 TAN-operated city bus routes (with 109 articulated and 174 standard buses). Buses have become feeder lines for the tramway system. At many points along the three tram lines there are convenient interchange stations between buses and trams. Several glass-roofed tram stations, such as Mendes France and François Mitterand, have buses sharing reserved lanes with the trams.

At nine different points, spread all over Nantes, there are 'parking-relais' (park-and-ride facilities). Reduced fares of tram tickets are offered to car drivers who use the park and ride facilities. Park and ride sites along line 1 are found at both termini, Haluchère and François Mitterand (with 230 and 200 parking places respectively). Along line 2, there are four park and ride sites with a total capacity of 750 cars. At the Plaisance terminus of line 3, there is a 73-car park and ride site.

The image of the tram is strong. The city wants to expand, and rail lines should be the backbone of further growth. The authorities have identified a total of 85 km of rail lines in and around Nantes. These include existing tram lines, SNCF passenger lines, and freight lines. Together, they make up the 'étoile ferroviaire' (railway star). Involved is the State railways, SNCF, which is lobbying for a 'tram-train', as the French say, with Karlsruhe-style throughgoing services by dual-voltage vehicles over tram and railway tracks. Take the alignment of tram line 1 near Haluchère, where there is a level crossing between the tram and a SNCF line. What would be simpler than just to extend the tram from here to the north over railway tracks?

La Haluchère, near the terminus of line 1 in NE Nantes, is a level crossing with an SNCF freight railway line. The SNCF would like to use this point as a future track connectionbetween urban trams and regional railway, but so far it has been unable to convince TAN, the local transport undertaking of Nantes to cooperate in this scheme. TAN

Since 1992, blueprints circulate for a dual voltage North-South operation, with a length of some 20 km, to reach the northern town of Sucé-sur-Erdre, mainly over SNCF tracks, from the level crossing at Haluchère. The plan for this Karlsruhe-style line was called REDD, or Reseau Express Districal et Departemental. However, REDD will remain on the shelf, says Monsieur Boeswillwald. He says that the SNCF tracks within the 'étoile ferroviaire' are mainly in low traffic-density areas. REDD does not coincide with actual traffic patterns. Apart from that, integration of tram and train is always cumbersome. Who will be in charge? TAN or SNCF?

Monsieur Boeswillwald does not believe in the 'tram-train' solution. He prefers a stronger city tramway. He sees no need for complicated infrastructure, like tram tunnels or viaducts (there are none at Nantes). Several tramway extensions are now in the pipeline, all simple in outlay and classic in style. By 2010, a fourth tram line may see the light, to serve the Island, the 4-km long stretch of land between the north and the south banks of the Loire river. This former docklands area is now being re-developed, and a fourth tram line might be needed.

SNCF has decided to focus on improving its 10-km commuter line from the Nantes main railway station to the southeastern suburb of Vertou. Since January 2000, there exists full fare integration of the Vertou line and the TAN urban transit system. But this Vertou line will not be connected with the TAN system, though the distance between the railway terminus and tram line 2 is a mere 50 metres.

Plans for several other lines within the proposed 'étoile ferroviaire' have been frozen. Scrapped is the scheme to build a passenger carrying rail line to Nantes Atlantique airport, 15 km west of the city centre. In front of the arrival hall, one sees a SNCF freight rail line. But the hourly TAN-operated airport bus can cope with all passenger traffic. A nice bonus is that the airport bus ticket entitles passengers to a free transfer to all city lines. The bus stops at Hôtel-Dicu, near the terminus of line 3 and a stop of line 2.

The future tramway extensions will give an even fuller coverage of the urban area. Route 1 has now reached its final form, no further extensions are foreseen. Routes 2 and 3 will both go further south, to the south-west and the southeast respectively. Route 3 will go further north as well. The following projects are serious:

map of system with additions planned by 2005
A map showing transit projects in Nantes, including the phase 2 extension of route 3 to Sillon de Bretagne in the north and Lion d'Or in the South, and the proposed extension of route 2 south-west to Neustrie. Shown as dotted lines are the possible extension of route 3 to Vertou and the SNCF extension to Gare Vertou.

TAN, the short title for SEMITAN, the local transport undertaking, works under the auspices of a regional transit authority. It is a private company, with 1225 employees on the payroll. The company is partially owned by TRANSDEV, one of France's leading transport groups. Within TRANSDEV are tram-operating undertakings in cities such as Grenoble, Strasbourg, Montpellier and Orleans. There is a vivid exchange of technical tram-related knowhow between these companies. The tram drivers for Montpellier were trained at Nantes. Several former Nantes tram officials are now tramway executives in other cities of France.

The author would like to thank Monsieur Alain Boeswillwald, managing director of TAN, for his kind assistance with the preparation of this article.

Left: Sold from ticket-vending machines at all tram stops, but also from tobacconists and other retail shops is the 21 FF ride-at-will ticket valid 24 hours, when used for the first time it must be validated by a ticket validating machine inside the tram. This real bargain covers the entire length of the three-route tramway
Right: Nantes public transport Director-General Alain Boeswillwald. TAN
Nantes public transport Director-General Alain Boeswillwald. TAN

Nantes: top