Tram makers hit curve as markets adjust

Financial Times London

Published: April 8 2011 15:43

By Robert Wright

The segregated track that carries smart Citadis trams alongside the
Aegean in Voula on the outskirts of Athens could scarcely form a more
marked contrast with the tram line that snakes down the narrow, cobbled streets of the St Gilles district in Brussels.

The Athens tram was purpose-built ahead of the 2004 Olympics according
to the needs of the latest tram designs, which have low floors to make
boarding easier but struggle to cope with sharp bends.

The tracks through St Gilles are a legacy of the 19th century, when
tram lines were often built through areas that would be regarded as
entirely unsuitable for them now.

Yet, after years when tram makers’ most lucrative business was
supplying southern European cities with versions of their standard
trams for new, urban light-rail lines, the industry suddenly faces a
far less appealing prospect.

For the foreseeable future, many of the orders likely to come in will
be for the types of rugged, idiosyncratic vehicles needed in places
such as St Gilles, rather than the standard designs suitable for Athens.

The question is whether the tram industry, which has spent years
developing standard platforms for vehicles to cut costs and complexity, can fit the new, more awkward orders into its strict templates while maintaining profitability.

“We have to cope with a global market that has very diverse
requirements,” says Pierre Gosset, platform director for the Citadis,
Alstom Transport’s standard light rail vehicle.

“That requires the industry to have some very reliable products and
some agility to deal with those different performance and technical

The reason for the shift lies in the drying up of the stream of public
funding that enabled many municipalities in Europe to invest in
light-rail systems in the past decade.

The large tram makers were able to supply cities such as Valenciennes
and Nimes in France, Barcelona and Malaga in Spain, Dublin in Ireland
and Porto in Portugal with trams designed to the latest technical
standards and based around standard designs — or platforms — that
barely needed to be changed from system to system.

According to Germar Wacker, president for light rail at Canada’s
Bombardier Transportation, the budget crisis in many eurozone countries — allied with the most financially troubled countries’
disproportionate enthusiasm for ordering light- rail systems — means
that contracts for new systems will be in short supply in the immediate future.

“There’s a higher proportion of the market volume in Europe coming from the more old-established systems, for example the German-speaking
markets,” he says.

The shift means that tram makers that want to win the new orders on
offer will have to be prepared to supply relatively small numbers of
vehicles tailored to meet the eccentricities of systems that have grown up over 130 years. Because most systems were built in isolation, nearly every parameter — from the tightness of curves and the placing of the pantograph to the track gauge and maximum vehicle weight — may vary from order to order.

Yet the change in emphasis is forcing tram operators to change — and
their suppliers too.

Bernard von Wullerstorff, head of railway systems for Unife, the
European railway industry association, says suppliers recognise it
makes no sense to try to rebuild a historic city such as Zagreb, the
Croatian capital. It uses trams with a non-standard track gauge of a
metre, so that vehicles can negotiate the many tight bends and narrow

But there are circumstances where operators, rather than the
manufacturers, recognise the need for adjustments.

“Sometimes, it does make sense to to change the radius of a curve on an existing system, rather than adapting 50 to 100 trams,” Mr von
Wullerstorff says.

Alain Flausch, chief executive of STIB, the Brussels public transport
company, who is also president of UITP, the international public
transport organisation, illustrates how operator attitudes are changing.

“We told them we wanted something that would meet our needs,” Mr
Flausch says of his initial conversation with suppliers over the
replacement of much of his company’s tram fleet. “They said, ‘If you
want it that way, it will cost more’.”

The chief engineer insisted the specification must not change. But he
left and was replaced by others who realised the nature of the
trade-offs involved.

“The new ones say: ‘If we want to pay only EUR2.5m [$3.5m] for a big
tram, we’re willing to standardise’,” Mr Flausch says.

STIB is now the largest single operator of Bombardier’s Flexity family
of trams, with 250 vehicles.

“I don’t hear a lot of complaints about it from the operating side,” Mr Flausch says.

The process under way is far more complicated than a move away from the standardisation of one-size-fits-all new tram systems back to the
near-chaos of technical non-standardisation, according to Mr von

Different systems will continue to have unique requirements. Many of
the new tram systems likely to be ordered may be in regions such as the Gulf, where vehicles will have to cope with temperatures of more than 400C.

Some of the replacement orders are likely to come from parts of the
former Soviet Union where tracks are in poor condition and temperatures can fall as low as minus 400C.

However, there remains considerable scope to standardise at lease some
parts of light rail systems.

“There are some opportunities for further standardisation,” Mr von
Wullerstorff says. “But it cannot be forced.”


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