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Geneva: Ten years of solid expansion

The ordering of new trams is evidence of large scale urban transport development in this major Swiss city. By C. J. Wansbeek

Back to the tram. This is the transport vision of Geneva, where the metre-gauge tramway is growing into a significant network. Forty 40-m long double-ended low-floor trams are about to be ordered from one of the major manufacturers. The new trams will be delivered in batches in the period up to 2010. The new trams are needed for future tram lines, some of which may cross the border with France, following the pattern of routes closed half a century ago.

Carouge, now a Geneva suburb, dates from the 18th Century, when built by the King of Sardinia to rival the adjacent city of Geneva; architects from Turin supllied the Piedmontese charm. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Carouge was annexed to the Canton of Geneva, and is now a Swiss National Landmark. Trams are a perfect balance for the historic narrow streets. (C. J. Wansbeek

"Sécheron tram": this is the name of Geneva's tram extension currently under construction. Work is in progress to extend existing tram route 13 from the Cornavin railway station by 2.2 km to Nations, the monumental tree-lined square on which the United Nations and other prestigeous offices are located. Plans for the "Sécheron tram" had been in the making for a number of years; it is regarded as a break-through in long-term Geneva tram expansion. Moreover, technical studies have been prepared for the future 8.6-km extension of tram route 16, from Cornavin to CERN, the birthplace of the Internet.

The Swiss Transport ministry has agreed the funding of the extension of the tram, in a 5-km long semi-circle, from the southern terminus at Palettes, via the neighbourhoods of Grand-Lancy and Acacias, to the inner city, where it will link up with existing routes. In the meantime, French local leaders are pressing for a 10-km cross-border tramlink to be built from Bachet-de-Pesay to St Julien, south of Geneva.

Click on map for larger image

The time table is as follows:

Geneva is growing in importance as a transport hub. By 2006, the super-fast TGV will bring Geneva within 3 hours by train from Paris against four hours today. Milano is three hours away; Lyon less than two hours. With 414 000 inhabitants, the Canton (province) of Geneva forms the second-largest urban area of Switzerland, after Zürich. It is a booming area, with 250 000 jobs in the Canton, and further expansion is forecast.

The city lies at the shores of Lac Léman, a big lake. On a clear day, snow-capped Alps are visible. Headquartered at Geneva are 60 major organisations, including the Red Cross, the United Nations and the Commission for Refugees. Some 1000 banks have offices in this city, whose first language is French, but where English, German and Italian are just as likely to be heard.

The city, spread out over flat land, is cut in two. In the northern part lies the Cointrin airport, as well as the Cornavin main railway station and the international offices. On the south bank are the shopping malls, and, in a swathe around it, hundreds of high-rise apartment buildings amid villas and farms. Bridges between the two parts of the city are full with cars at all times, with never-ending traffic jams. The river-crossing trams (routes 13 and 16) both use the Coulouvrenière Bridge, where tram tracks are on reservation, so the tram delivers better reliability than the bus or the car.

There is no passenger railway service between the north and the south. Vague 1970s-style plans to build an automated metro line came to nothing. The city is too small, the lake is too deep, the traffic flows too scattered for a heavy métro. Like all other Swiss cities, Geneva dislikes the idea of a metro. Even an automatic mini-métro of the VAL type (seen at Rennes, Lille, Toulouse) could not convince the Geneva authorities, when they made a rigorous comparison between transport modes, as they did in the mid-1990s.

Geneva tram routes, 2002
12Bachet-de-Pesay - Carouge - Plainpalais - Bel-Air - Rive - Moillesluaz (9.1 km)
13Palettes - Bachet-de-Pesay - Carouge - Plainpalais - Cornavin (5.8 km)
16Cornavin (railway station) - Bel-Air - Rive - Moillesulaz (6.2 km)
Tram routes planned (2002-2010)
15Bachet-de-Pesay - Palettes - Lancy (Pont-Rouge) - Plainpalais - Cornavin - Meyrin Cité - Graviere (about 12 km)
16(extension) Cornavin - Meyrin Cité - CERN (about 9 km)
17Lancy (Pont Rouge) - Chêne-Bourg (about 9 km)
Geneva trolleybus routes, 2002
2Genève Plage - Bel-Air - Petit-Lancy - Onex - Bernex (10.2 km)
3Petit-Saconnex - Cornavin - Bel-Air - Crêsts-de-Champel (6.7 km)
6Pré Naville - Rive - Cornavin (railway station) - Châtelaine - Vernier
7Rive - Bel-Air - Délices - Lignon (6.8 km)
10Airport - Cornavin - Cité-Nouvelle (10.5 km)
19Bernex - Petit-Lancy - Bel-Air - Cornavin (railway station) - Châtelaine - Vernier

Plans are ready for a daring solution, a north-south standard-gauge rail link, in German S-Bahn style, starting from Cornavin in the North, over an existing freight line, to the railway yards at La Praille, near Bachet-de-Pesay (terminus of existing tram route 12). From La Praille, a new connecting 8.5 km section of track, almost entirely in tunnel, will be built at an estimated cost of CHF 1 000 million, some 50% of it to be funded by the Swiss State. It will reach the existing stub railway terminus of Eaux-Vives in south-east Geneva. The new line will pursue its course over the existing alignment from Eaux-Vives to the French city of Annemasse, further to the east. The segment on Swiss territory will be relaid in a cut-and-cover tunnel.

Scheduled to open in 2009, this new international line will strengthen the cohesion of the area, and forge new bonds between French-speaking Geneva and the French territory which lies around Geneva in an almost complete circle. It is planned that it will be used every 30 minutes by a S-Bahn-style regional train, and every hour by long-distance trains, to Lausanne and beyond. Earlier plans submitted by TPG to introduce tram-style vehicles over the new line to Annemasse were discarded a few years ago. In 1912, a Swiss-French treaty had been concluded to build a passenger rail line between Cornavin and Annemasse. After a century, a promise will come true.

Should this new connecting rail line Cornavin - Bachet - Eaux-Vives - Annemasse see the light in 2009, then it means the replacement of earlier plans to introduce metre-gauge Geneva trams over the railway line between Eaux-Vives in Switzerland and Annemasse in France. This rail line is owned by the Canton (regional government) and is operated by SNCF, the French railways.

Geneva has one of the highest levels of car ownership in Europe. Some 70 000 cars enter the inner city each day. Strangely enough, finding a parking place is easy, as central Geneva offers 63 public parking places per hectare, against 56 at Lausanne, 23 at Zürich and 20 at Basel. Geneva has 472 cars per 1 000 inhabitants, against 456 at Lausanne and 380 at Zürich. Despite its pro-car approach, Geneva offers a near-perfect public transportation, which covers the entire urban area. There are three tram routes (46 trams), six trolleybus routes (73 trolleybuses, all articulated), and 42 bus routes (219 buses, of which 139 articulated). This system carries 343 000 passengers daily, which almost equals one ride per inhabitant. 81 300 passengers/day on average use the three tram routes.

Geneva's clean trams, buses and trolleybuses all run according to the time tables, which are displayed at every stop. At Geneva, as is the case elsewhere in Switzerland, the public simply expects that trams and buses are reliable as Swiss watches. Trams are supposed to run on time, and they do. Tram and bus movements are monitored by the central traffic control. Destination blinds are always set correctly, this is meticulous Geneva, not chaotic Amsterdam.

A tram set on route 12 sets down P+R passengers at Bachet-de-Pesay, with the head office/depot complex in the background. (C. J. Wansbeek

Geneva trams occasionally reach speeds of 50 km/h, but only so in the outskirts of town. Through the inner-city streets, speeds hover around 20 km/h. However, the tram enjoys traffic light priority, combined with the advantage of having much track on reservation. So trams move on unhindered, offering a smooth and relaxing ride. Commercial speeds over the full length of the service attained by tram lines 12, 13 and 16 respectively are 14.8 km/h, 14.5 km/h and 14.8 km/h (measurements dating from 2000). These figures are proof of the quality of the Geneva tram. Good speed performance, despite the fact that all three tram lines must cope with narrow inner-city streets.

A few cracks are appearing in the paradise. Geneva is still a safe city; in 1999 there were only six serious violent incidents in trams and buses in which the police had to intervene. But TPG takes this very seriously, and is working hard to prevent any escalation. However, vandalism is on the rise. Customers can be rude, there is verbal aggression, drugs and alcohol are openly consumed aboard TPG's vehicles. TPG has hired a specialised psychologist to assist tram and bus drivers in overcoming traumas after confrontations with aggressive passengers. Between 21.00 and 01.00, plain-clothes policeman ride trams and buses, by way of prevention. Graffiti is appearing everywhere, as are "tags", caused by "griffeurs", whose background stems from the subculture of hip-hop and rap. There is damage inflicted by cutting into the windows of the trams, a practice known as "incruster". A number of passengers are even smoking while riding the trams of Geneva.

Trams and buses are confronted with avalanches of motor cars. Car drivers refuse to lower speed in order to allow buses to merge with other traffic. New "giratoires" (rotundas) and the creation of sixteen urban zones (seven more zones to follow soon) with all-over 30 km/h speed-limits all sharply reduce average bus speeds. Yet, the public expects unbroken punctuality. Tensions culminated on 25 April 2002, when there was a system-wide strike, as a warning from bus drivers that the official schedules can no longer be met. Drivers protested against the fact that all their rest time at termini is eaten away by the effects of lower speeds. There irritations may benefit rail transport. Trams simply perform better, if well organised. TPG confirms that the commercial speeds of buses is reducing, whereas the trams manage to maintain their average speed.

A reminder of the past in the tram siding at Moillesulaz terminus (with France over the hedge in the background). Bogie tram 70 was built by Herbrand in Germany in 1901, but heavily rebuilt by CGTE (TPG's predecessor) in the 1930s. This tram is owned and operated by the Association du Tram 70, and has a federal permit to run over the tracks of the publicly-owned tramway. (C. J. Wansbeek

When this magazine described Geneva, in its issue of July 1997, a pro-tram attitude was displayed by Mr. Christoph Stucki, Director-General of TGP, the transport operator. He pointed at the pioneering role played by Geneva, one of the first cities to embrace the low-floor concept. The 46 Vevey-Duewag-ABB-built six-axle articulated trams (cars 801-827; 831-849) which entered service by 1985 still have a stepped entrance, since the possibility of raising stop pavements to match the floor height was not pursued at Geneva. It was left to nearby Grenoble if France, to take this ultimate step, which made Grenoble the birthplace of the modern-low floor tram, which, in turn, convinced many cities that they should build their own new tramway systems. The names of Le Mans, Valenciennes, Paris, Rouen, Bordeaux, Lyon, Montpellier come to the mind.

By 1995, trams 831-849 were stretched by adding a new low-floor centre section resting on a Bern-type wheelset, so these are now eight-axle trams. This coincided with the inauguration in May 1995 of new route 13, the first new tramway of Geneva since 1909. The north-south route 13 linked the Cornavin railway station with the surviving tram route 12, which is entirely on the south bank. For 30 years, line 12 had been Geneva's only surviving tram route.

This involved the creation of three km of new double track. In June 1997, route 13 at its southern extremity was extended 1.4 km over new tracks, beyond the Bachet terminus Palettes. In March 1998, came line 16, sharing tracks with 13 and 12 respectively. In August 2001, two more trams were extended to become 8-axle cars, in the light of growing traffic demand.

Progress may seem to have halted, but behind the scenes, Mr. Stucki and his colleagues were busy. Gradually, the Conseil d'Etat (regional government) changed its views, and is now backing tram extensions. There is no other choice. Between now and 2020, car use will grow by 34% in Geneva, whereas traffic by public transport should grow by 65%. In other words there is no choice but to achieve tram and bus passenger growth at twice the rate of growth in car use. The trend is positive: between 1994 and 1998, the number of Geneva tram passengers rose 40%.

Since September 2001, work is in progress to extend route 13 by six stops and 2.2 km from Cornavin railway station along Rue de Lausanne to Place des Nations. This CHF 86 million project is very complex, streets are completely rebuilt to make room for the tram reservation and near the Sécheron electrical factory, an entirely new tram bridge is being built over the Geneva-to-Lausanne main railway line, after it had been discovered that the existing road bridge could not withstand the weight of trams. Near this bridge, a regional railway station will be built, for easy interchange between train and tram. At the same point, a large 800-car P+R facility will be created as well. In a recent interview with this magazine, Mr. Stucki admits that the extension to Nations is delayed; it seems all Geneva projects take more time to come to fruition than initial planning.

A big leap forward will be the construction of an express tram service ("tram rapide") from Cornavin (railway station), entirely on reservation, in an almost straight line, to CERN, in the western part of the city. CERN is the cradle of the Internet, which was standardized in 1981, almost in passing, as a by-product of CERN's core activities. Situated near the French border, CERN or Conseil Européen pour le Recherche Nucléaire, is a leading institute, in which the UK and a dozen other countries co-operate in efforts to unravel the secrets of atoms. It employs hundreds of scientists and other staff members.

The metre-gauge, double-track tramline from Cornavin to CERN will have length of about 9 km; it will include 16 stops, and estimated construction costs of CHF 300 million. At present, bus routes 9/29, despite very short headways, are nearing saturation levels. The upgrading to tram service will double the passenger-carrying capacity, and it will also lead to a marked increase in riding comfort. A few kilometres before reaching the CERN terminus, at a point called Vaudagne, the tramline will split in two, the main line continuing by three stops to reach CERN, and a one-stop branch going orth in the direction of Gravière, a part of the city lying west of the airport runway. This latter stretch will be used by line 15, which then will have its northern terminus at Gravière.

The CERN tram project was defined in 2001, all details including the alignment are now final. The project includes a 535-m traffic tunnel underneath the centre of Meyrin, a suburb of Geneva, near the above-mentioned Vaudagne tram junction. To be built by cut-and-cover methods, the Meyrin tunnel will segregate the trams from the car traffic, at a crossroads used by 21 000 cars per day. At its other end, near Cornavin railway station, there will be a track connection with existing tram routes. The CERN line will also mean that a new depot, for stabling at least 40 trams, will have to built at Blandonnet, near Meyrin; it will become Geneva's second tram depot; the other one is at Bachet-de-Pesay.

Plans are being worked up to extend the CERN tramline further west, over the border, into France, to the suburbs of Ferney and Saint-Genis, which means leaving the neutral territory of Switzerland and entering the EU area. This would benefit thousands of commuters, who have their jobs in "expensive" Geneva and live in nearby "affordable" France. But there are practical hurdles. There is a real border control, even daily commuters must carry passports, and the border police can be tough; controls may be time-consuming.

Another interesting proposal is to build a branch tramway, starting at Bachet-de-Pesay, served by tram lines 12 and 13. From this point, tracks could be built to the neighbourhoods of Plan-les-Ouates and Perly, and then cross the border, to reach Saint-Julien-en-Genevois, some 7 km to the south, where the tram, as was the case before 1939, should link up with the SNCF, the French railways.

Strategically situated near Autoroute A40, a major French motor way, Saint-Julien is known as the southern gateway to Geneva. 60 years ago, this tram link was abandoned. Now, time has come now to re-introduce trams, according to many Saint-Julien commuters, supported by their new left-wing pro-tram local council. Perly, a booming industrial area with 7 000 inhabitants, halfway along this proposed extension, says it simply needs the tram in order to cope with traffic demand.

Then there is Onex, a western suburb of Geneva, some four km west of Bachet-de-Pesay. The local council of Onex (16 000 inhabitants) is lobbying to have the tram back, hopefully by 2010, 50 years since the last tram service to Onex was abandoned.

TPG boss Stucki is critical of the wait-and-see attitude of the Government of Switzerland. He feels that new transport projects are unnecessarily delayed. For this reason, he pleads in favour of a clear division of tasks. The Swiss State should define targets which must be met by individual transport operators, such as TPG. This list of targets should be accompanied by an appropriate "enveloppe" of money. This is what you are supposed to deliver, and here are the Swiss Francs to do it. Moreover, the Swiss State should in all cases see to it that the roads and the land are adapted in order to accommodate the transport lines. At present, Mr. Stucki feels, the State is often unaware of the time-consuming complexities behind the building of new tram lines and other infrastructure. This result in almost endless delay.

In 1997, in this magazine, Mr. Stucki explained that TPG sells its services actively. Each month, 90 000 unlimited-ride season tickets are sold, and one in four Genevois is a frequent public transport user. This favourable position has been maintained and refined. In July 2001, day passes were included as part of a scheme called Unireso, the tariff community within the Canton (province) of Geneva, operated jointly by SBB (railways), SMGN (the lake boats operator) and TPG (Geneva's public transport operator). The network is split into tariff zones, with zone number 11 for the city centre, zone 12 for the outskirts and four suburban zones, numbered 21, 22, 31, and 41. Zones 51, 61, and 71 concern French territory and are not included in Unireso, but many TPG buses cross the Swiss-French border, as may several future tramlines radiating out from Geneva.

At the airport or at the railway station, from the ticket window or from the vending machine, one simply buys a CHF 6 ride-at-will pass valid one day, covering zones 11 and 12, within which all tramlines are locted. Included are three scheduled boat services numbered M1, M2 and M3, to destinations on the Lac Léman. These SMGN-operated boats are called Mouettes (=Gulls). The Unireso pass is also valid on the train from the airport to the city, as well as on the light-rail style train to La Plaine, west of Geneva, and on the SBB train to Céligny (North-East of Geneva). To complicate matters, the light-rail style operation was extended from La Plaine, Switzerland, to Bellegarde, France, over an existing railway line, but Unireso does not reach beyond La Plaine, despite the fact that the same trains continue their journeys to Bellegarde. Apart from day passes, there is a wide choice of Unireso passes, each with their own validity and territorial scope

The author thanks Mr. Christoph Stucki, Managing Director of TPG, for his kind assistance with the preparation of this article.

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