top of page
  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Bombardier Transportation - No More Trams

John Woodman

Industry news is announcing a merger/takeover by Alstom of the Bombardier Transportation business. France's long endorsement of its market leader in trains, trams and much more has seen the French light rail market grow exponentially - both for the domestic market as well as diverse customers for its very successful 'Citadis' design since inception by then Alstom company How this impacts on current orders and business strategy of Bombardier as far as its role in light rail is concerned remains to be seen. The company has of course been successful in contracting to build replacement fleet for the Toronto (CLRV) operation with initial cars already in service complete with trolleypoles.

Below : One of the initial fleet of new trams for Paris and the Bobigny service approaching a station stop

Its ironic that a French company has pole position in the design and development (and sale) of light rail vehicles - supplanting German primacy in the postwar era. France gave up on trams in the 1930s with Paris like London endorsing a pro bus policy favoured by the road lobby alongside rubber, oil and petrochemical interests. Only one French tram builder (Satramo) embarked on modern tram design with very limited success before 1939. The LIlle interurban services also managed to sustain light rail operation with introduction of very smart bogie cars that were supplemented with postwar versions.

One of Lille's interurban cars preserved seen alongside a Glasgow Standard car in the former St Mande Museum. The Glasgow car has been returned to the UK and undergone major overhaul for heritage use.

However the French government's focus on modern tram potential only emerged hesitantly with Nantes and Grenoble building new lines followed by Paris and an initial phase of connecting termini of that city's underground network by light rail services starting with the Bobigny link in the 1980s. Government endorsement of a move by urban transport systems from diesel to electric power has seen continuing new tram operation emerging throughout France over the past two decades. Parallel political support for home grown tram design and build supplying the expanding domestic market gave Alstom their head in developing the 'Citadis' model - now accepted from Dublin to Algiers. With resulting employment and new skills training at the company's main production site at La Rochelle which boasts multi gauge test tracks.

Whilst the UK has so far managed to implement new light rail operation in Nottingham, Sheffield, Edinburgh, West Midlands, Manchester, Croydon and of course upgrade at Blackpool; France has proceeded by leaps and bounds in introducing 'Citadis' trams back in over twenty urban centres, as well as marketing the same design in North African spheres of influence. Paris is already seeing tram operation being steadily extended around the capital's conurbation in a strategic development policy with great merit. London on the other hand has stumbled time and time again in forward planning for tramway expansion with only the Croydon network managing to accrue further development attention. At the same time air quality levels along the city's main transport arteries have been condemned by knowledgeable professionals in healthcare - to the extent that drastic reduction in traffic volumes now need penalising tariffs on individual vehicles.

No question British transport gurus need to be exposed to the lessons learned in urban France (not to mention The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Spain) where electric powered public transport has priority for capital investment. Half hearted amateurish transport policy making in London is no longer fit for purpose. The rot began with the Royal Commission of 1931 which favoured replacement of trams by petrol powered buses across the UK. Initially London's tram replacement schemes favoured use of trolleybuses but postwar planning was geared to the road industry lobby exclusively and the electric trolleybus went the same way as the trams (at least in the UK). Britain's tram design build expertise (in the north) lapsed as a consequence, although ironically the final all British tram emerged from a partnership between Blackpool Council and a Blackburn firm - East Lancashire Coachbuilders.

The upgrade and installation of every British light rail system thus far has had to source new equipment from the Continent. German, Spanish and Austrian workforces have laboured on new tram construction contracts negotiated with the dwindling handful of European suppliers - now about to reduce even further with the merger of Bombardier's Transportation activities with those of Alstom. Ever more ironically Alstom until recently was the lessee of the former English Electric tram and rail assembly plant on Strand Road, Preston. The very same plant being involved with Blackpool's great modernisation programme of the 1930s - still standing today (at least one large part of the original trambuilding site). When will UK politicians and industry leaders grasp the relevance of light rail design and development on a national scale like their French counterparts? PS : One modest illuminating initative (again with northern origins) rests on efforts of Trampower Ltd to launch an all British tram design for the 21st Century - in partnership with Preston Council and Lancashire County Council support. There is a chance of this wheel turning full circle a century (or two) later.

STOP PRESS December 4 : Preston City Council approve the construction of a demonstration track along part of what will be the initial route of Preston Tram after extended discussions during the past year. The promoters have also provided outline plans for new extensions to the 'Guild Line' which have support of developers in several parts of the city which the tram will serve. The Preston Tram prototype unit remains stored at Rigby Road Depot under arrangements with Blackpool Transport.


Featured Posts
bottom of page