Saturday 20th Apr, 2019

From the mag: How a small French city helped inspire Sydney’s light rail transformation

Reims tramway. Photo: Oliver Probert
Photo: Oliver Probert

Walking down the main street of Reims, the compact city in France’s historic Champagne region, you could be forgiven for not realising its tramway even exists.

Opened in 2011, Tramway de Reims moves passengers from place to place while barely interrupting the signature French lifestyle going on around it.

Quiet, aesthetic trams roll gently down the Cours Jean-Baptiste Langlet, past the railway station and towards the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, where generations of French Kings were crowned. They round the bend to Rue de Vesle, which hosts the Seventeenth Century town centre, fine art galleries, boutique retail outlets, and bars where tourists sip the sparkling white wine bottled just minutes down the road.

Of course, the tram line is not just there for tourists. At one end is the northern neighbourhood of Orgeval. At the other, the neighbourhood of Croix-Rouge and a general hospital. Between the two termini is the city centre.

Given a city footprint of just 47 square kilometres, Reims’ population comes in at a relatively dense 221,000. The opening of a TGV high speed line between Paris and Reims in 2007 – connecting the two cities in 45 minutes – drove a transformation of Reims’ economy from champagne and textiles to manufacturing, services and retail. In the five years up to 2011, 4000 new jobs were created.

Launching its first studies into a potential light rail line in 2003, public transport authority Reims Métropole had several problems to solve. An extensive bus network already served more than 100,000 trips a day, and clogged the main streets, severely detracting from the historic facades lining them. A light rail network would need to be able to handle the passenger base, while providing a cleaner, better-looking alternative to buses. Most important, it needed to be financially viable.

The solution was to form what is commonly referred to as a public-private partnership, something rather unique to France at that time. Through a contract signed in 2006, the authority delegated the entire management, and a substantial portion of financing, for the construction and operation of a light rail line, to a private concessionary consortium.

Known as MARS, the private consortium consisted of Alstom Transport, to provide rollingstock, systems, infrastructure works and maintenance; Bouygues, to provide civil works, buildings, roads and pavements; engineering firm SNC-Lavalin; operator Transdev; financial advisors and lenders Natixis and Caisse d’Epargne Lorraine Champagne-Ardenne; and long term investor CdC Infrastructure.

Reims Métropole provided €174 million (A$287 million in 2006 dollars) to the MARS consortium, made up of €75 million in a grant from the city, €45 million in a grant from the state, and €54 million in a 1.8% transport tax billed to companies in the region with more than eight employees.

The consortium’s financial partners, meanwhile, forked out €239 million (A$394 million) for the project, bringing the total value to €413 million (A$681 million).

Transdev took over as bus network operator at the start of 2008, as part of a plan to create an integrated transport network in the city. Construction on the light rail line began in May that year. The first tram arrived in March 2010, making way for testing and commissioning of the line in September 2010.

The network opened commercially in April 2011, with an opening ceremony which drew thousands of spectators; locals who had come to experience their town’s new asset. In 2014, the new line was put on the international stage, when the Tour de France cycle race went through Reims.

Alstom sees a lot of Reims in Sydney project

Two of the key consortium members in the Sydney CBD and South East Light Rail project are shared with the Reims project. Rollingstock, rail infrastructure and maintenance provider Alstom Transport is once again joined by operations specialist Transdev on the Sydney project, as part of the ALTRAC consortium.

It’s clear that in planning its pitch as part of the consortium in Sydney, Alstom and Transdev looked to leverage their experience in Reims. An Alstom representative confirmed to Rail Express that the French manufacturer learned a lot from, and drew comparisons to its work in Reims during the bidding process for Sydney.

Like in Reims, Alstom will install its catenary-free technology, which it calls Aesthetic Power Supply (APS), on certain sections of the Sydney network. APS features a ‘third rail’, which runs down the middle of the tramway, parallel to the main rails, providing power to the rollingstock through the ground, thus eliminating the need for overhead power.

More expensive to install than a traditional catenary system, APS is designed for instances like those down George Street in Sydney, and the Cours Jean-Baptiste Langlet and Rue de Vesle in Reims, where the goal is to provide a solution which complements the surrounding aesthetic, often historic architecture, the catenary-free solution is preferred.

Alstom says its APS is currently installed on 42km of track around the globe. As a tram passes over the ‘third rail’, power is supplied to its conductive segments via coded radio dialogue between the tram and the ground. This is designed to ensure power is not supplied to uncovered sections of track.

APS is therefore designed to be safe in all weather situations, including rain, snow, and heat. In Reims, grass surfaces 60% of the line, and this grass is watered from ground-based sprinklers – which spray directly onto the APS power line. It is thought natural grass won’t be practical in the Australian climate, so the same grass covering probably won’t be seen in Sydney, but it’s certainly an indication of Alstom’s confidence in the safety of the APS technology.

“The safety of the APS system has been proven through dedicated studies and confirmed by five certifying authorities,” Alstom reiterates on its website.

Aside from the need for catenary-free infrastructure, the Sydney project also shares a number of logistical similarities with Reims: A main road, clogged with buses, will be closed to traffic and passenger flows will be taken up by light rail. The project will be financed through a PPP. It will link tourist sites, utilities, and living areas, with the greater transport network.

Sydney’s new line will feature Alstom’s Citadis X05 trams, the latest evolution of the Citadis trams which already feature in Reims. Like in Reims – where Alstom’s designers created a suitable ‘champagne flute’ shaped front for the rollingstock – Sydney will receive its own unique outer design, as specified by Transport for NSW.

Local presence with global reach

The use of a global network of projects and experience, combined with a localised approach, is key to Alstom’s business strategy, according to the company’s new chief executive officer, Henri Poupart-Lafarge.

Poupart-Lafarge joined Alstom as in 1998. In 2004, when he was 35, he became chief financial officer. He moved to the role of president of Alstom Transport in 2011. With the ‘other half’ of Alstom, its Power Generation and Grid business, now sold to General Electric, Poupart-Lafarge will has taken up the role of chief executive of Alstom Group.

Rail Express spoke with Poupart-Lafarge, then in charge of Alstom Transport, in June at the UITP World Congress and Exhibition in Milan, Italy.

As is demonstrated through the Sydney light rail project, he said Alstom was focused on providing localised solutions to transport projects, based on the company’s globally-successful, tried and tested range of products.

“The winning formula – if you can manage it – in transport, is to try to combine localisation … with engineering products and solutions,” he told Rail Express. “We need solutions which are tailor-made for the customer.

“Why? Because the customer wants to have answers, and they also want to change things. They don’t want to have somebody 10,000 kilometres away, taking too long to answer.”

Proximity, he pointed out, is also important at times for political reasons: “A number of countries are asking for some kind of localisation,” he asserted.

“But at the same time, for example, our product for a metro, is a metro. So our product in Sydney [Metro] will be similar to our metros elsewhere in the world. You want to pursue a common technological platform, and common processes, so the way to manufacture is similar in one place to another.

“So that’s the formula: to be close to the customer, to answer to their needs, but at the same time, to benefit from the global coverage, through a common technological platform, common processes, and a common supply chain. That’s what we try to pursue.

“And so far, so good. I think the move that we have implemented in our organisation, which we just started a few years ago, has brought a lot of dynamism and momentum, and commercial momentum.”

The 46-year-old, who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), replaced former Alstom CEO Patrick Kron when the sale of Alstom’s energy business to GE was finalised at the end of 2015.

Poupart-Lafarge said the new Alstom will be able to provide a more focused solution for the transport sector. He said the sale of the non-transport business units would benefit Alstom “in two ways”.

He said: “The first way is, I strongly believe by being re-focused on transport, by having all Alstom around the same type of activity, same markets, same world, same jargon, it will create much more cohesion, dynamism and momentum in the company, and people are waiting for that. It will simplify our processes, and make us much more agile.

“The second way is, through the disposal of all the energy-related businesses, we will strengthen our balance sheet, and this will enable us to participate in the consolidation of the industry, which you can see around the world.”

Poupart-Lafarge is interested in the urban sector in Australia.

“[South East Asia and Australasia] is a booming region,” he said. “Australia, as you know, has a number of projects going on, particularly in the urban area.

“We have in Australia some mining and freight activities, although we do have to see how the macroeconomics will work out for mining and freight … but the urban market is moving quite well.”

Oliver Probert visited the Reims tramway courtesy of Alstom Group.

This article originally appeared in the AusRAIL 2015 print edition of Rail Express. To read the full magazine, click here.

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