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Toulouse: Three rail concepts in total harmony

Posted: 19 September 2005 | Howard Johnston, Transport Writer | No comments yet

From a virtual standing start just ten years ago, Toulouse is developing a vast urban transport network that is fully in keeping with its status as one of Europe’s fastest-growing cities.

The congestion-busting formula is a ‘horses for courses’ blend of high-frequency commuter rail, rubber-tyred VAL metro in tunnel, and steel-wheel surface tramway, all taking maximum advantage of existing infrastructure constraints. However, the worrying recent loss of central government support means that the financial burden for expansion now rests on local taxation, not an altogether popular move locally.

From a virtual standing start just ten years ago, Toulouse is developing a vast urban transport network that is fully in keeping with its status as one of Europe’s fastest-growing cities.The congestion-busting formula is a ‘horses for courses’ blend of high-frequency commuter rail, rubber-tyred VAL metro in tunnel, and steel-wheel surface tramway, all taking maximum advantage of existing infrastructure constraints. However, the worrying recent loss of central government support means that the financial burden for expansion now rests on local taxation, not an altogether popular move locally.

From a virtual standing start just ten years ago, Toulouse is developing a vast urban transport network that is fully in keeping with its status as one of Europe’s fastest-growing cities.

The congestion-busting formula is a ‘horses for courses’ blend of high-frequency commuter rail, rubber-tyred VAL metro in tunnel, and steel-wheel surface tramway, all taking maximum advantage of existing infrastructure constraints. However, the worrying recent loss of central government support means that the financial burden for expansion now rests on local taxation, not an altogether popular move locally.

Major economic success for Toulouse in aerospace and technology industries has seen the southern French city climb to fourth place in the population league, eclipsing Lille and now only behind Paris, Lyon and Marseille. The problem now is persuading all its residents moving to new areas not to solve their immediate transport problems simply by purchasing more motor cars.

Semaly, the project leader for the new light rail line scheduled to open in the second half of 2009, has been awarded the contract for the pioneer scheme using this technology, It is known as Line E, an 11km surface route from the city centre to the growing A380 Airbus construction centre, across regenerated wastelands, and residential development at Blagnac.

The desire for a major shift in transport habits is happening at a time of privatisation, a move forced after the 2001 local elections that shifted political power to the right. A direct consequence on January 1 this year was the appointment of Connex as charge-hand for the bus and VAL systems. Its short-term contract has rendered redundant the incumbent public-private operator SEMVAT, which had been responsible since 1973. Left wing campaigners hoping to regain political control in 2009 cling on to the hope that SEMVAT can be resurrected to quickly take over the 2006-12 contract from the two current contenders, Connex and Keolis.

All this is an admitted worry for Benoit Pavageau, Deputy Managing Director of SMAT (the Toulouse transportation authority), who has told us that he is concerned that extensions to the hybrid system may be stifled by this political infighting. In any case, the authority is having to enforce its powers to generate funding from an increase of VT (Versement Transport). This is a variable local tax levied on all businesses with a minimum of nine employees in all French cities, and can be between 1% and 2% of a person’s wages.

There is already heavy reliance on the goodwill of the European Investment Bank (EIB), which has agreed to underpin the urban transport plan devised for the Greater Toulouse area. This continues to evolve, but broadly lays down the guidelines for traffic and transport policy up to 2015.

Line A

It was not until 1985 that the authority in overall charge of the city’s public transport, the Syndicat Mixte des Transport en Commun (SMTC – marketed as Tisséo since 2002), approved the building construction of the 10 km Line A, which is mainly underground but has some sections on viaduct.

The VAL (Véhicule Automatique Léger) concept was chosen, comprising driverless (automatic) rubber-tyred vehicles, using technology devised by Professor Robert Gabillard for Matra’s new metro in Lille which opened in April 1983. Platforms are separated from the passengers by a glass partition, to prevent them falling or straying, while doors embedded in these see-through barriers open in synchrony with train doors. Although popular across France (there are now similar systems in Paris, Lyon and Rennes), VAL’s worldwide applications are in Taipei, Turin, and at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

Line A, which opened on June 26 1993, originally ran from Basso Cambo in the south, and through the city centre to Jolimont, serving a total of 15 stations, all individually designed with a work of art on display. Line A runs mostly underground except for a short stretch at its southern end, and between Bagatelle and Mirail-Université where it crosses the ring motorway on a viaduct. The initial northern terminus at Jolimont is partly on the surface.

A 2.3km extension, north to Balma-Gramont with two more intermediate stations, was opened on December 20 2003.

Trains on Line A operate from 0530 until 0030, with services at two, four and six minutes intervals depending on the time of day. Two-car units capable of accommodating 150-200 passengers are currently employed, although there is operational scope for up to nine-coach formations. The two designs, VAL206 and the more recent VAL208, are built to climb 7 per cent gradients, and can reach 60 km/h. With simple interiors because passengers are not aboard for many minutes, the cars all have internal displays which announce the name of the next stopping place.

Park-and-ride is actively encouraged with free spaces at several stations for Metro users, and buses from the suburbs are not in competition because do not enter the city centre areas served by the VAL. Their last stop is the metro, where the previously validated ticket may be used for a Metro journey provided the transfer is within 40-minutes.

Line B

The immediate success of Line A prompted early moves for a second VAL route, which should open in 2009. The alignment is entirely underground from Ramonville-Saint-Agne, at roughly 5pm on the clockface, interchanging with the original line at Jean-Jaurés station, which is undergoing a comprehensive rebuild. The terminus is Borderouge in the north limits of the urban area. Work on the 15.8km line and its 19 stations started in 2002, but because of its complex engineering nature is to open in two stages, from Borderouge to Jean-Jaurés in December 2006, with the southern section in August 2007. The project is on schedule to meet both these targets.

Line B has been underpinned by an initial loan of EUR100 million agreed on 15 June 2001 with the European Investment Bank. This loan also supports expansion of Line A, and acquisition of eight train sets.

In the future, there is scope to extend Line B outside the city boundary to Castanet.

Lines C and D

The pressing needs of the eastern side of Toulouse for a quick transport solution have been conveniently met by SNCF importing the ideas of Paris’ high-frequency, high-capacity RER to upgrade an existing 7km heavy rail line into the city centre. The result is to an intensive commuter service between seven stations. Since September 1 2003, the dormitory suburb of Colomiers has enjoyed a journey time of less than 30 minutes into central Toulouse, interchanging with metro Line A at St Cyprien-Arènes. This main central station is still managed by SNCF, having been rebuilt with funding from Région Midi-Pyrénées regional council and SEMVAT/Tisseo, with the converted Metro platforms a frustrating walk away.

Midi-Pyrenées has shared the EUR32 million cost of Line C, following the transfer of many transport powers from central Government from the beginning of 2002. This is the suburban section of SNCF’s Toulouse-Auch route, where the new service is supplemented by an hourly train to L’Isle-Jourdain and regional services to Auch. Local stations have been completely rebuilt and double track installed to Colomiers, with new signalling and a 500m section in cutting to replace a level crossing. Three new stations serve as-yet largely undeveloped suburban areas.

Fares are part of the Toulouse tariff structure, but passengers with single tickets must exchange them at St Cyprien-Arènes for onward travel by bus or metro. Further RER expansion is a new Line D to the southern township of Muret, making greater use of the present SNCF line from Marengo station (an interchange with VAL line A) and crossing Line B at the SNCF’s Saint Agne station.

Line E

The complete absence of a tramway in Toulouse – remarkable considering that much smaller French cities now have large systems – should end in 2009 with the planning opening of the first of what could be several light rail routes.

The 11.8km Line E, costing EUR 200 million, will start at Les Arenes Metro station and head north west through densely populated housing areas and some important public buildings – notably the Zénith cultural centre, Purpan University Hospital Centre – and into Blagnac which is the home of AéroConstellation (the A380 Airbus Industries plant). Five construction sectors are anticipated.

The awarding by SMAT of the EUR6 million development contract to Semaly in June 2005 is a major feather in the cap of the company, which has established an international reputation with such schemes as the Dublin Luas network (opened last year), Grenoble (LRT Lines 1 and 2), London Underground Jubilee Line Extension, Lyon LRT Lines T1 and T2 and Metro Line B), Montpellier – (LRT Lines 1 and 2), Nantes (LRT Line 3 and Line 1 extension), Porto (LRT system), and Strasbourg (LRT Lines 1 and 2).

Semaly has formed a consortium with architect Garcia-Diaz, infrastructure expert Sud Ouest Infra, and design company Urbanismes Et Acoustiques.

A daily ridership of 35,000 passengers is anticipated on Line E (not enough to justify a full metro), and will avoid the need for some expensive road construction. Tenders have been issued for trams, with a decision expected in the opening weeks of 2006. Siemens, Bombardier and Alstom are all in the frame with what could be off-the-shelf products.

The future

The medium-term public transport blueprint for Toulouse is under review again – expect a revised agenda sometime in 2006 – but it is already clear that expansion of RER, VAL and light rail are all likely.

Line F is also SNCF-inspired to upgrade the Esqualquens route into the south east.

Line G is a cross-city corridor from Ponts Jumeaux to Montandran using part of VAL Line B; as previously stated, Line B could also be extended south from Ramonville to Castanet. Another proposal, so far without a line designation, is from Balma Gramont, the current northern limit of Line A, skirting the current right-hand edge of the Toulouse urban area, to Saint Orens.

Gerard Bonneau, Semaly’s Chief Project Manager and SMAT’s Beniot Pavageau are united in their desire to see these projects proceed – but it’s a question of politics and cash.

Acknowledgment

The assistance of Carine Maddaluno of Semaly is acknowledged in the preparation of this article.

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