From: Sam Cage, Associated Press
Published December 16, 2004 12:00 AM

New Tram Line in Geneva is Part of Global Rebirth of Light-Rail Networks

GENEVA — The old-fashioned streetcar, which had nearly clanged into oblivion by the end of the 20th century, has been making a sleek comeback with new lines opening from Sydney to Paris, Buenos Aires to Houston.


Now Geneva is laying the latest tracks in the trend.


The city on Wednesday opened a new tram line, part of an ambitious project to rebuild a network that only nine years ago had dwindled to just one route.


Passengers will be able to hop on a streetcar in the suburbs and arrive at the main train station 10 minutes later. A journey from one side of the city to the other will be almost halved to just 20 minutes.


More than 35 cities around the world have introduced new tram systems in the last 25 years, and many more have expanded their existing networks to try to solve congestion problems while curbing inner-city pollution.


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"It's very symptomatic of a general trend to introduce more sustainable modes of transport," said Laurent Dauby, light-rail chief for the Brussels-based public transport think tank UITP. "I think that increasingly cities are challenged to provide quality of living in urban areas."


UITP estimates that the length of light-rail track around the world will increase 40 percent by 2020.


In the European Union alone, 35 cities are expanding tram networks -- including Brussels, London, Madrid and Paris -- while a further 18 are introducing entirely new systems.


Cities across the United States -- such as Houston, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City -- have also built from scratch, while Washington, D.C., has just started construction on a light-rail system.


There are some problems associated with construction of rail systems.


Cities have to meet the upfront costs of laying tracks. And a single tram costs about $2.7 million, compared with just $400,000 for a new extended-length bus.


"It lacks some flexibility," Dauby said. "Road works, disruption -- if the system is congested or blocked, there is no way to reroute."


But trams carry more people than buses and are about 10 times cheaper to build than conventional metro systems -- making light rail an ideal solution for medium-sized cities such as Geneva.


Swiss public transport group LITRA estimates that one multi-car tram can carry as many passengers as 200 cars -- the equivalent of a .75-mile long traffic jam.


And because light rail runs on electricity -- unlike most buses -- there are no fumes to pollute the city streets.


"It's energy efficient. It doesn't necessarily rely on fossil fuels," Dauby said. "It has zero emissions on the spot."


Trams began to disappear from the world's streets with the advent of cars because their tracks clogged roads. The United States led the way in dismantling its networks, and Europe soon followed suit.


"After World War II virtually all (mid-sized) and large European cities had extensive tram networks, and they destroyed them," Dauby said. "Thirty years later they have to rebuild. It's much more expensive."


Geneva was a pioneer in the development of trams in the 19th century.


In 1925, this city had 78 miles of tram track, but by 1969 streetcars had been replaced by buses and just one six-mile tram route remained in operation.


But as light-rail technology advanced, making rides smoother and quieter, Geneva decided to reconstruct at least part of its network to take the pressure off the buses.


With almost one car for every two inhabitants, Geneva's streets are clogged with traffic, and city authorities are trying to tempt traffic off the roads by rebuilding the light-rail network -- possibly all the way to nearby towns in France.


Source: Associated Press


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