Streetcars are making a comeback in the United States, with at least a dozen cities turning these transportation relics into modern innovations. The French company Alstom, which designs streetcars, is helping lead the streetcar charge internationally. The company's systems have been implemented in Barcelona, Dublin, Dubai and other cities.
I spoke recently with Stephanie Brun-Brunet, Alstom's vice president for turnkey and infrastructure systems, about the importance of transit design, a faster way to lay streetcar track and other trends in transit. Below are excerpts from our interview.
Many of our public transit systems wouldn't be considered beautiful, but the way they're designed is critically important. Why?
A transport system for a city is a sustainable action and investment. It's not a design for five minutes, for one year, but over 40 or 50 years. It'll be part of the growth of the city. The design has to serve the mission of the city and the country toward the next 20, 30, 40 years. What is the vision for my city? Transportation is a means for sustainability. It has to be totally planned at the beginning and defined by how the city wants to grow from a social and economical standpoint. From an economical standpoint, where can I bring investment in my city? What are the motives of the people that will invest in my city? From a social standpoint, what service am I offering? What am I bringing to the city? In that sense, public transportation is under development. It's shaping. The car has been the majority means of transportation up to now. Now, congestion, costs of the [gas] and the environmental constraints [mean a move] toward new transportation means.
Design from the beginning of a transit project is important to forecast it on the long-term. You need to design your project where you have a real need. This is the basis for your success. Is it a social need? Is it an economical need? Or is it both of them? Then you come to the solution, the technology and the aesthetics of the system. From the beginning, you need to well-shape what you're going to do. It's more than a transportation system. The technology you're bringing provides faster speed, less congestion, less energy consumption, less CO2 emissions and better aesthetic integration into the city. You need to design it to fulfill your needs, but also to mitigate the cost -- the capital cost investment and the cost of the life-cycle of the project. How can we afford over the next 30 or 40 years to sustain the system?
Aesthetics attract people. You know when you have to go in the subway and you're downstairs and in the dark? This is not a pleasant way to travel. In order to decongest the situation, you need to not only have a system that is suited to the demand, but also you need to make sure you'll attract people. You need to bring them a safe, reliable service, but also pleasant travel.
How would you describe the Alstom streetcar -- or is each system unique to its city?
The principle of the streetcar Alstom is producing is based 90 percent on a standard product. That means the technological elements are proven. They're using technology that's safe and reliable. We construct and maintain the systems over 30 years.
We have customization of the vehicle to allow the customer to shape a personality to a streetcar. It gets its own identity that's totally customized. We have flexibility on the width of the vehicle, the length of the vehicle, the interior seating capacity and the layout. Some customers prefer more standing people, some prefer more sitting people. It depends on the age of your population and the service you want to bring.
Talk about the streetcars in Dubai. What's special about them?
Dubai is out of nowhere. Out of the desert, they have shaped something brand new. It's the city of tomorrow. They wanted to have a transit system that would connect all the main places. It's a state-of-the-art design. The image they wanted to give of Dubai was the diamond. We worked around the diamond concept.
Off-wire operations, for Dubai and many other places, gives better passenger system integration into the city without any visible pollution. The off-wire is a decision from the city to say we have the highest standard in terms of environmental and urban integration. They decided that the project would be totally off-wire. Alstom has developed a proprietary solution, which is an underground power supply system connected to the vehicle through a power collector. The vehicle will get energy each time it's running on the track. As soon as the vehicle has moved, there is no more power on the track.
Describe some of the aesthetic choices that can be made in the streetcars.
It depends on the vision of the stakeholder. It's different from one city to another. There are some projects where is three to five miles distance. That means the passenger wouldn't stay in the vehicle long. They want more standing capacity. For longer lines, such as Dubai and Dublin, there are two kinds of service. There is the city-center service and the connection to the suburbs. When you go to the suburbs, you have a longer journey. The customers are looking forward to a higher level of comfort, so there will be more sitting capacity. All our tramways are made for disability compliance. There are no steps inside the vehicle. It's good for aging people or people with limited mobility. We can work with different colors, different materials.
One of the hassles of a new streetcar project is the disruption caused by laying track. How does your system deal with that?
The Appitrack is a proprietary solution developed for track laying. It's only for a flat track. This track-laying machine has more than seven times the productivity of conventional track laying solutions. When you need to lay one mile of track, you might need five to six weeks. If you've got the section available [and use Appitrack], you would need only three to four days. It's good for a project in a congested, urban center. When you start a streetcar project, it can be a huge disturbance. We decided to develop that solution to accelerate our planning and minimize the nuisance.
Other than the recent reemergence of the streetcar, what other trends are you seeing in transit?
It's not that the car becomes old-fashioned. It's that the congestion becomes so huge we need another solution. The streetcar is one thing. The other train I'm seeing -- and this is true for North America, South America, India and parts of Asia -- is the regional connection. Regional connections are missing. This is a connection from one city to another that's not too far away. It's connecting Dallas with Houston, connecting Miami with Orlando. I see that as a trend. It has been difficult to develop that type of solution in the U.S. because of freight. Freight is so developed and so profitable that there is no route for the passenger. This would create new lines of connection between two neighbor cities. It's something that goes from 100 to 125 miles per hour. It's not high-speed. They're thinking about doing it between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. There is a huge demand. It's connecting one city of about one million to another city of about one million. It's in between a streetcar and a high-speed train.
Photo, top: Stephanie Brun-Brunet
Image, bottom: 3-D rendering of Dubai streetcar / Courtesy of Alstom