A Short History of Modern Tram

Co-authored with D. Malcolm Johnston



The same movement that saw the end of tram service in Vancouver and the rest of North America was active in Europe in the middle of the last century. Parties were held in towns all over France to celebrate the ‘End of Tram’. In Bordeaux in 1958 the mayor of the day, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, rode the last trip next to the driver in a tram draped in the tricoleur. In Strasbourg a bonfire was lit to burn the last wooden cars before the rails were covered over with asphalt. Having ridden the Heritage Railway here in Vancouver I can attest that the ride on wooden trams rolling on railroad trucks is bumpy. In the middle of the twentieth century perhaps progress was asserting its toll.

Stuttgart Tram Map


Yet, the mood began to change almost immediately. By the 1960s Germany started experimenting with the U2 Stadtbahn (‘city trains’). Stadtbahn is a light rail system (LRT) operating on-grade like the Portland MAX. The city trains rode on the street within city limits mixing with vehicular traffic and pedestrians. Outside the city, the trains ran on railway ROWs providing direct service to the suburbs. Transfers were not necessary. When I visited Islinghton in 1982 commuters were driving their BMWs to the suburban stations in the morning, parking their cars on gravel lots, and riding Stadtbahn into Stuttgart. Very similar things were happening in Copenhagen where the Danes were riding in subways outfitted with space to carry bicycles. Many of the Stadtbahn lines had replaced earlier steam hauled and older electric services operating on grade. Stadtbahn was Europe’s first step towards a Modern Tram revolution.



GERMAN U2 STADTBAHN ‘CITY TRAIN’ (began service in the 1960s)


The Stadtbahn Advantage

The vehicles introduced in the 1960s were the articulated Duwag – U2 Statdbahn. They achieved comparative levels of service to subways, carrying equivalent numbers of passengers per hour per direction. However, Statdbann knocked a zero off the price of construction and operations when compared to subways. This was due to the mere fact that Statdbahn was riding on the street—in the open air—requiring no stations and no tunnels.

Other advantages of the ‘city trains’ included:

  • Platform access times eliminated saving some 10 minutes per trip compared to either subway or skytrain.
  • Riding the main trunks to the suburbs the problem of holding up traffic at level crossings is mitigated in Europe where fewer roads cross the railways.
  • When more capacity is needed trains add more cars. The trackage is built to accommodate heavy axel loads.


German Tram


The comparative advantages of Stadtbahn made it the leading choice for an idea we hear echoed in North America today: using transit to relieve automobile congestion. Stadtbahn set the standard for North America. Between 1978 and 1981 systems modelled on the Stadtbahn were built in Edmonton (1978), Calgary (1981) and San Diego (1981).


San Diego Trolley



However, these few LRT implementations were the exception. In most major North American cities ‘building transit’ still means ‘building subway’ or metro. In spite of the greater costs involved the same held true in Europe. Many German cities built subways beginning in the 1960s only to see their transit authorities pushed to near bankruptcy as higher operating costs wiped out revenues. In Germany the subways also experienced an inverse effect. Building subways freed-up road space for cars with the unwanted consequence of inviting people to return to their automobiles, thereby pushing transit ridership back down again. 

Then, as the 1970s drew to a close something remarkable was about to happen in Europe.





THE LIGHT RAIL RENAISSANCE: The Modular Low-Floor Modern Tram

The decades of the 1980s and 1990s saw the introduction of modular low-floor trams in Europe. This design revolutionized public transportation. Low-floor trams made it easy to get on and off transit reducing ‘dwell times’ at the station and thus shortening trip times. The new design made using modern tram as easy as rolling down the sidewalk. Overnight the mobility challenged, parents with strollers, and people with shopping carts gained unimpeded access to transit. The lower floor architecture also meant that the vehicles could be designed with dramatically larger windows creating an airier and brighter interior. Also revolutionary was the ability of modern tram to mix with traffic just like buses and trams of old. Modern Tram is lighter riding on road bed 33% smaller than required for Stadtbahn and heavy rail. Because the modern tram could ride on streets designed for cars, trucks and busses, using conventional traffic signals and bus stops took another zero off the cost of transit projects.

Thus, the Light Rail Renaissance was born.

In France, the decision to build Modern Tram was also premised on the notion of dealing with climbing numbers of motor cars in urban places. Congestion had reached intolerable levels in the 1970s confronting officials with a hard decision: either build new highway lanes, or build more transit. Understanding that highways would destroy much of the urban fabric in French towns governments opted to build modular low-floor tram instead.


No Discussion on Land Price Lift Effects

We note here that our sources tell the story of the rebirth of tram without referencing property values. Given the experience in Vancouver over the last 32 years—the Great Housing Crisis that has been riding the rails of the Skytrain to threaten our very social existence—we wonder how building more transit affected property values throughout Europe. We know they are through the roof in London where the new Elizabeth subway line has recently gone into service. Property in the UK is typically lease-hold, owned by the Crown or by family estates for centuries. Are the effects the same with freehold land ownership?

Mitigating ‘congestion’ in Ile-de-France, the region of Paris with a population of 12 million, and curbing the ‘loss of urban fabric’ appear to carry political overtones. On the one hand, freeing up highway space just attracts more cars, and freeways can be built that do not cut through the towns. In hub-and-spoke urbanism there is a role for transit carrying commuters to the city centre, for example. As in Islington, in Bavaria, the cars can stay out of the city center parked on the commuter lots. In western Canada, on the other, there is not much hub-and-spoke urbanism to talk about. Our concern is that regional planning policy may be setting up hub-and-spoke urbanism where it did not exist before in order to manufacture transit demand. Or out of some irrational dread of the automobile and antipathy toward the tram.

The grand travaux of Georges Haussmann in Paris (1845 – 1871) tore up the urban fabric of the previous two or three centuries. It also built on the privatization of land in Paris dating to the revolution and regicide of 1789. Up until then most of Paris was owned either by the crown, or by the church. Of course, the wealth effects on private owners bought out by the Haussmann administration to make way for new boulevards and hi-density maisonettes is as famous as the urban innovations. Was this urban revitalization—as some suggest—the work of a proto-fascist regime under Napoleon III? The Haussmannian urbanism caught fire all over Europe from Madrid to St. Petersburg. In Vienna under Emperor Franz Joseph the Parisian model built out with heavy overtones of neo-classicism. It came under strong criticism from the likes of Camillo Sitte the Austrian leader of a fledgling movement of humanist urbanism in western Europe.


Lille single rail

 NEW TRAMWAY IN LILLE (2015) — T6 and T8 Lines running single rail Modular Trams on rubber tires. The ride shakes a little bit more that when steel wheels are used, but the higher friction achieved by the rubber tires help the trams climb the more hilly coastal terrains. Below: GOOGLE MAP: T1 LILLE-TOURCOING-ROUBAIX. Bottom: T1 tram runs on railroad right-of-way from Lille to Tourcoing.

Lille Tramway Map

T1 Lille


The Modular Low-Floor Modern Tram in Lille and Paris

One of the first low-floor tram implementations in Europe was in Lille, located 220 km north of Paris and just south of Calais and Dunkirk. Lille is the hub of TGV bullet train service between London, Brussels and Paris. The city had been building the French VAL-skytrain until costs became prohibitive. French transportation planning in Lille now presents the new Modern Tram technologies as the most effective way to handle suburban transportation demand and present their strategy in a hierarchical transit pyramid:

(1) Modern Tram trains running on dedicated ROWs.

(2) Modern Tram as streetcar mixing with street traffic and pedestrians.

(3) BRT (bus rapid transit) on street with signal and lane priority.

(4) Conventional buses and trolleys.


T1 Avenue de Flandres, Villa Carvois

AVENUE DE FLANDRES, Villa Cavrois approaching Roubaix. The T1 runs in the boulevard between a double row of trees (Google Streetview, top and bottom). The massive residential development adjacent to the village scale urbanism poses the same old question: are public investments in transit mega-projects combining with private investments in mega-projects to spike the price of land?

T1 Villa Cavrois approaching Robaux


Lille Officials in 2010 identified:

‘… no more plans for new metro lines [with] the priority shifting to developing the buses, urban trams and the tram-train network’.

Modern Tram first came to Lille as an enhancement to a tram system that had taken just four years to complete. Concept planning for the T1 Tramway de Lille began in February 1981, and the line opened on January 1985. The Tramway connects two suburban centers: Tourcoing (16 km NE of Lille) and Roubaix (5 km south of Tourcoing) in a 17 km network. The line runs on dedicated right-of-way (ROW) for most of the route. In 1991 and 1994 new modular low-floor Modern Trams were first put in service. An underground terminus was added in Lille under Gare de Lille Flandres where transfers can be made between the two lines, the VAL and TGV.

Yet, when Lille Tramways T6 and T7 were inaugurated in 2016, newspapers reported locals calling the T1 “the most rotten [service]” in France. That in itself is a measure of just how dramatic the changes in transit technology been over the past 35 years. Those are the same years of Skytrain implementation here in Vancouver.




Over the past 10 years Paris has added four Modern Tram lines. French transit authorities reasoned that since Modern Tram could deliver the same capacity as light metro—at a ten times reduction in costs—they could attract more ridership simply by building more route. The extended reach of Modern Trams would serve a larger population thus increasing ridership. However, building Modern Tram in the capital came at a premium over the suburbs. Construction costs were found to be 3x cheaper in Lille (2015) compared to Paris (2012). The higher values for land in Paris are cited as the principal cause for the increased costs.





In Germany, modular low-floor Modern Tram was received with the same enthusiasm as had welcomed the Stadtbahn decades earlier. Modern Tram is lighter and cheaper and fits better on the local streets. German planners realized savings from choosing modern tram over the heavier Stadtbahn:

  • Slab track construction not required; 
  • Underground services need no relocation; 
  • Modern Tram using localized signalling (trips intersections switches and crosswalks);
  • Costly heavy block railway signalling, barriers, etc. are no longer required.

Modern Tram rides on the street mixing with traffic and pedestrians. No railway barriers come down when Modern Trams pass by. Use of light track on a concrete roadbed  just 10-foot wide (3.3 m) and 1-foot deep (0.3 m) means construction for Modern Tram leaves underground utilities in place saving the costs of relocation associated with the Stadtbahn. Construction is very fast and much less disruptive. It can typically be contained to blocking just one lane of traffic at a time.

Other Modern TRAM advantages over Stadtbahn include:

  • New low-floor design significantly improves ‘dwell times’ (the time stopped taking or leaving passengers).
  • 15 second dwell times have become standard. On a 10 km trip dwell times will total of 5 minutes for 20 stops.
  • Faster service is better service.
  • Stops spacing every 500m to 600m (6 to 8 minute walking distance apart); 
  • Platform access times eliminated;
  • Slower commercial speeds;
  • Greatly reduced construction and maintenance costs. 


Blackpool UK



Over email Stephen Rees offered some insights on how the Light Rail Renaissance crossed the Channel to the UK. English transit planners recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for transit: ‘Horses for Courses’ is their preferred approach.

The quaint English phrase suggests that race horses run best on race courses; beasts of burden in fields; Clydesdaless on street; etc. However, he cautioned, even a quaint and simple phrase will not do away with negative public reaction to giving up road space to transit, bikes and even pedestrians. The ‘right-of-way’ is dominated by cars. In our region the drivers and the traffic engineers band together to form a formidable lobby against all ‘improvements’, transit included.

Here are the key take-aways from my exchange with Stephen:

  • Count apples to apples. In transportation we count pphpd (people per hour per direction) for transit and vehicles per day for cars.
  • Pphpd numbers for cars and transit would put the analysis on an even keel.
  • The assumption is that all cars are single occupancy. Thus, one lane of traffic carries about 10,000 vehicles per direction per day.
  • Modern Tram running as tram-trains achieve 45,000 people per direction per hour. Canada Line and Skytrain operate at capacities of 15,000 ppdph.
  • Surface reconstruction, paint, curbs, medians, trees and bollards are cheaper than building elevated guideways and subterranean tunnels.
  • The same savings accrue to station construction. Modern tram stops are just bus stops. Simple and cheap. Stations up in the air or deep below ground cost a lot more to build, staff and maintain.
  • In fact, bus rapid transit (BRT) with signal and lane priority (HOV lanes and the ability to turn traffic signals green for BRT) can match the service of modern tram on lower demand routes. BRT can be built as convertible to rail, as a first step anticipating growing demand in future years.
  • Perhaps the most overlooked measurement of transit performance is platform access time for passengers. In either skytrain or subway, getting to the platform to wait for the train can take 5 minutes or more.  The same ‘delay’ is encountered upon leaving the system. Thus, 10 minutes of trip time are saved by surface service systems such as BRT or Modern Tram.


Portland MAX

Portland Streetcar (10)





Since the 1990s Portland has been operating MAX light rail, Stadtbahn-like trains and low-floor single-car Streetcars. The two systems run on the same power service (750 Vdc) and the same gauge rail. But that’s where the similarities end. While the Streetcar can use MAX infrastructure—it crosses the Milwaukie OR bridge on the MAX line—MAX is too heavy for streetcar roadbeds. MAX train sets couple two units either 88 or 95 feet long (27 – 29 m). The Streetcar is a single vehicle 66 feet (20 m) in length. MAX trains run 55 mph on dedicated ROWs (90 km/h) while the Streetcar’s top speed is 40 mph (64 km/h) in mixed traffic. Routing on city streets is one of the principal cost advantages of Streetcar since it eliminates the need to acquire private property to build ROW. Streetcars are narrower and can negotiate tighter turns. Weekday average ridership for the Streetcar was 12,000 persons (2012) with a single line in operation. That is more or less on par with a single lane of car traffic.

The Portland transit authority is administered by an elected regional government. When it came time to plan and implement the next Max extension, the regional council asked for proposals from the surrounding suburban municipalities. The project was awarded to Tigard on the merits of their proposal: Transit implementation would be used to revitalize the local highway strip into a neighborhood urban spine. But the project ran into funding roadblocks. Ten years later the MAX line is expected to extend along the ‘South Corridor’ for 12 miles travelling at an average speed of 24 mph (40 km/h) carrying 43,000 daily passengers and by-passing downtown Tigard. That is the equivalent capacity of a four lane street, not even a highway. One worries about how much Portland gave away (in density) to achieve such modest levels of service. Also puzzling is why the choice was the antiquated and much more costly MAX, rather than using the streetcar which is Modern Tram.

Portland, Oregon built the Max by diverting highway dollars to transit projects. Funding for the Streetcar included a 28.5 million city bond backed by future parking revenues collected by increasing street parking by 20 cents per hour. A Local Improvement Tax (LID) was approved by property owners raising $10 million. Tax Increment Financing contributed an additional 7.5 million. While a mix of other sources added 11 million for a grand total of 57 million in local financing. We wonder how much of the 11 million was in the form of density bonusing (governments giving away density). The number of really tall new towers in downtown Portland is not extreme, but to our eyes towers are not necessary. The streetcar triggered redevelopment of obsolete industrial brown field. 15 acres of industrial land near the Portland Railroad station, the Pearl District, were redeveloped as a mixed use, hi-rise neighborhood during the initial phase of Streetcar. Of course, we also question the need for the ‘hi-rise’. Street oriented human-scale urbanism would have made a better Pearl District. The proof is north and west of the Pearl District where Portland’s distinctive late 19th century urbanism achieved almost full build out.

The Tigard extension proposed in 2006 would reach a 31 acre Central District industrial brown field. However, even at this gentler pace of intensification, hi-rise construction in Portland is setting troubling precedents.

During the 2000 to 2005 period housing prices in Portland increased by 50%. Home prices reached the same level again ten years later, increasing by  11.1% in 2015. Rents went up 13.7% in the same period while wages are reported as ‘not having kept pace’. Mortgages are getting cheaper; cash offers are prevalent; bidding wars have skyrocketed; inventory is tight; developers are flipping properties; hi-rise is on the rise; traffic is getting worse—these tell-tale signs of a land market heating up are all too familiar to Vancouverites in British Columbia. People are reported being terrified of Portland turning into San Francisco.

  *    *    *    *

Summarizing this ‘Short History’ of Modern Tram in Europe we identify the following key points:

In the post-World War II era electric tram was ripped out of cities in North American and Europe, to be replaced with rubber tire buses.

A come-back for rail transit took hold in Germany in the 1960s where three or four generations of backpackers will attest the trains run like clock-work.

The comparison between Statdbahn and subway could not be more decisive. The ‘city trains’ knocked a zero and more from subway construction costs. Running open air on the street proved so much more affordable.

However, Stadtbahn were running on the railroad ROW. When it mixed with traffic on the city streets the perception was of a mis-match in the scale. And the heavy rail aspect of Stadtbahn still inflated construction costs.

A much lighter modular low-floor tram did away with the problem. Other features, such as achieving 15 second ‘dwell times’ (the length of the stop at a station) created significant reductions in overall trip times.

Finally, there is the issue that ‘city trains’ run on city streets where they must be a positive element contributing to the beautification of urban space as well as supporting higher levels of social functioning. The Modern Tram does both.

By not abandoning street space to go underground or overhead Modern Tram prevents the ‘triple convergence effect’ that sees traffic grow to fill available space on public ROWs.

By providing easy to use service Modern Trams extend the walking range of local residents encouraging a wider footprint of use along a new ‘neighborhood spine’.

Finally, it remains an open question whether tram implementation will triggering hyper-densities and lift the price of urban land.


  *    *    *    *



We have alluded to earlier that there may be ideological reasons why in Vancouver we are not building Modern Tram on the street. Governments have opted for ‘driver-less technology’ capped at 15,000 ppdph (Skytrain) and a hamstrung LRT which cannot lengthen trains sets by running multiple units in one set (Canada Line). We have shown how in each case the underground or elevated technologies attain the levels of service of single-car Modern Trams, but at 100x the cost.

For an outside assessment of this issue I quite at length from “TransLink Plans Should Change With New Circumstances”   (2016, emphasis mine) by transportation engineer and Professor Emeritus, Civil Engineering, University of Alberta, J. Bakker:

Light Rail is not a Cancer

It almost seems that the City of Vancouver views Light Rail technology as a cancer that must be eliminated. In 2010 the City and the Administrators of Granville Island invested $8.5 million for associated upgrades to the infrastructure to upgrade a Heritage Line. The two month operation used two Light Rail Vehicles (Bombardiers Flexity) from Brussels for the operation. The City considered the streetcar demonstration “a tremendous success”, with over 550,000 boardings during the two months of the experiment.[8] Bombardier received an award for “Exceptional Performance and Outstanding Achievement” at the 2010 CUTA awards, recognizing its operation of over 13,000 one-way trips with zero equipment failures, zero station delays and zero injuries. Mayor Robertson tried to purchase the Brussels streetcars, but was unsuccessful.
It is astonishing that the City is now destroying this investment. It has removed the overhead wire and is about to remove the tracks. This vandalism shows little respect for the taxpayers’ dollars and it should be questioned if Vancouver really deserves any transit infrastructure investment with this attitude.
The excuse is a housing development. Using air rights it is possible, to have both development and to maintain the tracks. However there has to be a will to preserve this path. Unfortunately the city seems to have a will to block any possible Light Rail path.

Light Rail is more Cost Effective

Light Rail will give more rail transit per dollar spend. At this point in time there is a great backlog as to where Rail Transit could be used. Rail Transit has a lower coefficient of friction between wheel and rail, than buses have been rubber and asphalt. Because Rail Transit is electrified it will have fewer emissions than diesel buses. Furthermore because of the rail guidance, productivity can be enhanced by coupling units, particularly in peak hours. To spend billions of dollars because some do not want to see transit and put it underground is waste of scarce dollars at this time. Many opponents seem to be unaware what landscaping can do to improve the visual impact of surface Light Rail Transit.

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