Un Tramway Nommé Désir Streetcars Make a Comeback in Paris

The last Paris tram ground to a halt 60 years ago. Now a new tram line is being introduced with lots of fanfare. France hopes this return to the past will ring in a new era of urban mobility. The tram is quiet, fast and comfortable -- a perfect remedy for traffic jams.

First all you hear is a high-pitched bell -- "Dong-dong" -- then a multi-car motor coach approaches almost silently on rails mounted within a neat strip of trimmed lawn. Whenever the tram reaches a crossing, the traffic light automatically changes to green, prompting mildly irritated looks from pedestrians and drivers.

"It's excellent," says 39-year-old Olivier Rampnoux, who steers the high-tech train from inside his conductor's compartment. He was a bus driver before being re-trained for the tram -- and after 14 years behind the wheel, he very much enjoys his new workplace. "No ticket sales, no questions from anxious passengers, no stress," he says in praise of the closed-off cockpit. The only thing that took some getting used to was the longer braking distance of the tram, which travels mostly on its own exclusive grassy route. "It comes down to less stress, but more foresight," Rampnoux says with a grin. "It's different from a bus -- you can't swerve out of the way."

The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Champs Élysées were never the only attractions the French capital had to offer. The Paris subway, the métro, always featured among the city's (perhaps less-spectacular) attractions. But now that legendary train has competition: This weekend, to much fanfare, Paris will celebrate the opening of its first latter-day tram line, the "T3," which will let visitors travel to the very edge of the capital -- on surface streets, and in style.

Light-rail rennaissance

Some 60 years after Paris' last traditional tram made its final journey, rusty and squeaking, the new tram signals a change of direction in French public transportation policy -- not just in Paris -- and it may even represent a shift in urban-planning ideas around the world.

There are, of course, already tram lines in Paris' suburbs -- the T1 and T2 routes -- but not in the city itself. Now the plan is to supplement the star-shaped métro network and the meandering bus routes with a circular tram line -- starting with the T3, which will cut through the city's southwest, from Pont Gariglino to Porte d'Ivry, 7.9 kilometers (4.9 miles) long.

Arriving every four minutes, the tram will move along the so-called Maréchaux, boulevards named after famous generals that gird Paris like a belt -- or strangle it, as residents suffering from excessive car traffic, pollution and noise complain.

The tram is meant to offer relief. The elegant green and white cars will carry almost twice as many commuters every day as local buses -- some 100,000 people. The strips of grass and the reduction in car traffic should improve the quality of life for residents.

The new system, expected to cost some €311 million ($411 million), is financed by the city, the regional government, the French national government, and by its operating company, the RATP. It's more than just another kind of public transportation. For Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoe and his Green Party coalition partner, the T3 is a profession of faith, a symbol of their commitment to ecological values.

Broad walkways and bicycle routes, parks with thousands of specially planted trees, and city-commissioned art works all belong to the package. They help turn the new tram line into a showcase for urban progress. "Here we've converted a main artery of automobile traffic to a place of life and a promenade," one of the mayor's assistants explains. And designer in chief Yo Kaminagai, who developed the overall concept for the T3, sees the new vehicle as a "a symbol of the future -- just like the subway was a century ago."

"Tram fever"

Paris isn't the first French city to rediscover the merits of an electric street-rail system. Strasbourg, Nantes and Bourdeaux have had modern tram systems for some time, and the cities of Valenciennes, Mulhouse and Saint-Étienne all joined them this year. Next year, Nice, Marseille, Grenoble and Le Mans will introduce more tram lines. It's "a record," according to the French weeklyJournal de Dimanche, which describes the country as suffering from "tram fever."

The beginnings of this new trend in metropolitan traffic policy can be traced to the oil crisis in the early 1980s. At the time, trams had been written off as obsolete -- despite the fact that French cities had used trams or their forerunners as early as 1853. But the vehicles crawling through Paris then were little more than horse-drawn carts moving on metal tracks. Authentic horsepower was later replaced by the steam engine. After the 1881 World's Fair in Berlin, technology provided by the German company Siemens began to be used more widely. At the dawn of the 20th century, the electric tram became a symbol of progress -- a means of transportation at once economic, speedy and efficient.

Most trams were dismantled in the 1930s. But the real end of the first tram era came after World War II. Non-collective forms of transportation took off during the period of post-war reconstruction, when cities were rebuilt to suit car traffic. Arterial roads connected the suburbs; bus and subway systems replaced the time-worn surface rails. During this era the romantic quays along the Seine became express highways. President Georges Pompidou, who created an urban monument to himself with these policies, was still full of faith in the future in 1971, when he declared that "the city must adapt to the car."

Ecologically correct

The return to collective forms of urban transportation started with rising energy costs and with the car-traffic crisis in inner cities. Eight French cities participated in a government project aimed at bringing new, modern transportation technology to the city centers. After Nantes, it's mainly Strasbourg that has begun to expand its tram network as part of a larger urban vision. The windowed, streamlined coaches, which not only hold plenty of passengers but are also quiet and comfortable, have become a showcase for up-to-date and ecologically correct transportation policies.

The tram has gained ground ever since. Montpellier, Nice and Nantes have bet on the clean traffic solution, while Caen and Nancy will go with the cheaper option of trolley buses. The Bordeaux city council even decided to upgrade the town's picturesque center with a tram line that receives part of its electricity from a third rail on the ground -- thereby avoiding the need for ugly overhead contact wires. There was one embarrassing blooper though: When the Bordeaux tram was inaugurated in the presence of President Jacques Chirac, the high-tech vehicle ground to a halt after abruptly losing power.

Despite these early difficulties, the tram is now a thoroughly popular means of transportation. "The tram is a grand tool for urban renewal projects," says Michel Duchêne, the vice mayor of Bordeaux. A tram line requires a smaller initial investment than a subway line. That and its average speed of 20 kilometers an hour (12 mph) make it an attractive alternative -- albeit it one motorists tend to see as a liability.

That's certainly the case in Paris. Car traffic along the peripheral roads on the southern edge of town was blocked for a long time by construction of the tram tracks. And since those tracks are set in their own strip of lush grass, drivers have had to sacrifice a traffic lane. Traffic lights have also been set to give the tram a constant right of way. "We're the ones who've had to put up with the consequences of these measures," rails one embittered cab driver. "First there were traffic jams for months, and now the boulevards have turned into crawlways."

Public transportation gets the green light

That's quite clearly part of the plan. If the city council has its way, part of the 35 million car trips undertaken in greater Paris every day will be replaced by trips on public transportation. It's mainly commuters who are responsible for the daily traffic jams in the relatively small capital city. With an area of 105 square kilometers (40.5 square miles), Paris is considerably smaller than Berlin (889 square kilometers or 343 square miles), for example. More than half the French capital's residents no longer own a car; only about 28 percent of those living around Paris own one. Not buying a car seems an obvious choice for the capital's 2,1 million downtown inhabitants, given that the average speed of cars travelling through the downtown streets is 15.9 kilometers an hour (9.9 mph).

So the 25-year strategy behind the urban planning concept known as "Greater Paris" envisions several concentric circles of public transportation within and around the French capital. That would allow those 20 percent of residents who travel from one suburb to another to travel along the city's periphery rather than through its center -- as they are forced to do today.

Local traffic, bicycles and pedestrians have the right of way -- that's the motto. Some in the city council are already thinking of a downtown toll for cars, in order to further cut down traffic. "Everyone who participates in the traffic network will still keep their place in the public arena," Ghislaine Geffroy emphasizes. She's the member of the city council responsible for planning the new tram system. "There's room for everyone," she says, "including motorists."

Store and restaurant owners along the route already expect better sales thanks to their neighborhood's aesthetic upgrade. Truck and cab drivers, on the other hand, have found a clever nickname for the T3 -- they call Paris' new tram a "constantly closing sliding door."