Tram and urban light-rail projects are booming as cities turn their backs on car culture. Bombardier is the global leader in the field and provides stock to such places as Stockholm, Geneva and Brussels. We met its president, Walter Grawenhoff, to discover the future of urban travel.
Walter Grawenhoff, president of the light rail business at Bombardier, looks out the window of the company’s Berlin offices and smiles as a tram clatters past on an elevated rail. Long after the Berlin Wall fell, this once famously divided city has in many ways pieced itself back together but the city’s three urban rail networks are still working to reconnect the broken transport links between east and west – a fitting metaphor for the discussion we’re about to begin over the future of light rail and public transport.
Around the world, cities that tore up tram tracks to make room for cars after the Second World War are now having regrets. From Paris to London and New York, officials are looking for ways to ensure the mobility of their citizens and reduce the impact of our mobile lifestyles on the environment.
Grawenhoff tells Monocle there is just one word to describe what’s happening in the light-rail business today: renaissance. He says he’s been through a lot of ups and downs in this business, but at the moment the upside is all he can see.
Monocle: What conditions are needed for progressive public transport programmes?
Walter Grawenhoff: You need a government with the will to provide mobility for society. We need this political will because public transport cannot support itself. That’s one part of it. The other part is that you can only have optimal public transport if the trains are full and running all of the day. So that means it’s the big cities which all began early, around 1890, to lay underground rail tunnels, buses and trams. You can say that in these cities, you can reach any destination in the city 20 hours a day. Small towns and cities cannot do this because after 09.00 their buses and trams would be empty. So, it’s the big cities that started to develop these systems early. And that is the problem that the mega-cities in Asia are facing as they try to catch up. The infrastructure is so fixed, no one can begin to lay tunnels, say, for an underground rail system now – and there is also no money to do so. It’s extremely difficult unless you have the fortune of hosting an Olympics.
M: Does that mean that the late-starters will opt for above-ground trams or buses?
WG: There are several options. Because there is no money available for the right solution, people in this case consider public buses because the streets are already there. It’s not as good a system in terms of mass transit and comfort, but in such cities it’s viable to create bus lanes.
M: Is there a single, model city that all should follow?
WG: That’s hard to say because you can’t simply transfer a system in one city to another because the situations aren’t comparable. But it is my view that cities such as Paris, London or Berlin have created an optimal situation.
M: What’s the future of tram systems? Many have been torn up.
WG: After the Second World War, part of Europe dismantled its trams. Britain, France, Spain and also North America started doing this even a bit earlier. In 1960 there were 160 tram transport systems worldwide, and that declined to between 80 and 90 by 1980. But since 1990, we’ve been growing again. We’re not yet at the level of 1960, but today we’ve got 120 tram networks. We are experiencing a renaissance of the tram and urban rail systems.
M: What’s driving this renaissance?
WG: It’s in the news: the Kyoto Protocol, global warming, overcrowding in the inner cities. Public transport is indispensable. Whether it’s a bus, tram, or a full-fledged metro is a question of money and the capacity of the system. A bus line can transport around 8,000 passengers an hour, a tram can carry 20,000 to 25,000 people and a metro line can transport 30,000 to 40,000. The main thing is that you separate the tram from street traffic by giving it its own lane or putting it underground. You can add carriages to a train or tram, which you can’t do to the same degree with a bus.
M: How will public transport be financed in the future?
WG: Personally, I don’t believe the public-private partnership will really work in this area. Why not? For one, the ticket price is determined by political factors. The operator cannot freely set the ticket price based on his own calculations. And, secondly, passenger numbers. What do I do if I have a good route and someone comes along and establishes a bus route next to me? However, if the city guarantees a certain level of income for the operator, then public-private partnership can work.
M: Is a city-wide transport system only something you can find in Europe?
WG: Well, if you look at long-distance rail you can see that some countries are clinging to railway structures that evolved under state ownership. There was no state-owned railway in America and that’s why you don’t have universal service. In England, British Rail was broken up and now there are privately owned services, with the result that there are now places where transport is good and others where it’s not so good. It’s not oriented towards the need but rather towards profitability.
M: How important is sustainability for the cities that are buying your products?
WG: Today we don’t have to discuss the issue of whether or not public transport needs to be built. It is important and is being built. If the tram and underground systems are utilised to even about 25 per cent of their capacity there is a clear energy advantage over the car or bus.
M: Do you see places such as London or New York becoming tram cities?
WG: You can be happy if you already have an underground – whether it was well maintained over the years is another question. But at least you have a base from which you can now add additional lines above ground. Paris has now built a second tram, London is building a tram and in New York there are considerations to branch out with a tram system. On the one hand you have to see it from a cost perspective. A tram is 10 times less expensive than an underground. And then there are those who say humans aren’t moles and shouldn’t ride underground.
M: Who are your challengers? Hitachi? The Koreans?
WG: This is an industry with a lot of ups and downs, which makes it very difficult to plan. We’re still number one in the world and the big players are the same as always: Bombardier, Siemens and Alstom.