The French city of Nantes extended its light rail system by 50% in August 2000 to 27km. Nantes claims to be the city which invented public transport when, in 1826, it saw the first public hackney cab.

Trams, however, have not been as well supported as hoped and future public developments may be based on the much cheaper guided bus.

Since then, however, the city has become a thriving port, its prosperity built mainly on massive traffic in timber imports. Like many other cities, it eventually adopted the tram, but then abandoned them quickly in the 1950s when the bus was seen as a more flexible alternative.

In the ensuing half-century, growing road traffic has seen this view proved a fallacy and in the early 1980s Nantes signalled a return to trams – although this time in their new-generation form.

A five-year plan for the development of the transport network was drawn up in 1989, covering restructuring of the city’s buses to act as feeders for the light rail system. A decade later, over 50% of bus routes serve at least one tram stop.

The project

When SEMITAN took delivery of 20 new trams for the revitalised service in 1985, they were the first such vehicles delivered in the country for 25 years. They proved so successful that eight more trams were ordered and a second line built. It was seen as an important factor in developing areas most in need of regeneration.

August 2000 was an important month for the network, with the opening of the westward extension of Line 1 from Bellevue to Francois Mitterrand and the inauguration of the first phase of Line 3, between Hotel Dieu to Beausejour, these two openings extending the network by 50% to 27km.

Line 3 runs from Beausejour to Lion d’Or, and serves three major satellite communities which are expected to generate up to 30,000 journeys per day on the network.

Rolling stock

By 2000, Nantes was operating a fleet of 46 eight-axle light rail vehicles on its two lines. But, two years earlier it decided to update its fleet and ordered 23 new full low-floor vehicles, based on the Incentro design from worldwide train builder Bombardier, with an option for 16 more. This is the first time an order for rolling stock has gone to a non-domestic French builder, such as Bombardier and not Alstom. However, Bombardier will build the units on Frech soil.

The first of the new tranche of vehicles was delivered in August 2000 to coincide with the extension to Line 1 and opening of Line 3 described above.

The Nantes Incentro is a five-section, 100% low-floor vehicle, seating 76 passengers with space for a further 184 standees.

New lightweight design technology means the units will weigh one-third less than existing vehicles. The vehicles have two powered and one trailing bogies with all four wheels on an independently driven, powered bogie. Drive units are nose-suspended asynchronous three-phase motors, delivering a nominal 45kW.

The bodyshell of welded stainless steel is similar to the Bombardier Eurotram design which has proved so successful in Strasbourg. Vehicles are fully air-conditioned, have ergonomically-designed seats and a 350mm floor height throughout.

Signalling and communications

Nantes’ trams are governed by twin-aspect colour-light signals which, in the street-level city centre sections, are integrated with road traffic signals. Drivers also receive audible warnings on approaching signals, whose tone varies according to the aspect displayed.

The future

It was mistakenly hoped that the trams would prompt a further shift away from private road transport in a city where past improvements to the light rail system have all attracted more passengers out of their cars.

Nantes is being closely watched by other European cities and is particularly seen as a model for the light rail system planned for Nottingham, UK – the two cities are of almost identical size and have seen similar growth in population and transport needs in the latter part of the 20th century.

Consideration has been given to further extending Line 1 by constructing a link with the currently under-used main line railway at the north of the city. This follows the pioneering concept of Karlsruhe (Germany), whereby trams can run longer distances over ‘heavy’ tracks, saving on duplicated major infrastructure investment. Extensions to Line 3 are also being discussed.