Alstom’s Light Rail Advances Ripe for North American Market

Posted on May 17, 2012 by Janna Starcic, Executive Editor

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While Europe, most notably France, was the proving ground for Alstom’s light rail product platform, the company has since expanded internationally to cities in North Africa, South America and the Middle East as well as throughout Europe.

Evolution of light rail
When discussing the evolution of these products, Guillaume Mehlman, president of Alstom Transportation in North America says, the European market very quickly became partial to city center-type circulator services with short lines of a few miles running through densely populated historical city centers. These smaller gauge vehicles were more comparable to what the American market calls the “streetcar,” he says.

The need for full low-floor vehicles for accessibility was also recognized early on in this market, as was the need to connect to residential areas in the suburbs, which led to the evolution of the product range from a streetcar to a light rail vehicle with increasing speed.

“So the speed, size and capacity of the vehicle increased,” says Mehlman. “The most recent models that have been delivered in the last five years have bridged the gap between intercity type service and a commuter type service.”

Trend forecast
Full low-floor accessibility and increasing speed are standout trends from global light rail projects that Mehlman foresees coming to the North American market.

“The transit service has to be for diverse users, particularly people with disabilities, or senior or younger riders,” Mehlman says. The development of full low-floor light rail vehicles, of which Alstom has sold more than 1,500 units, is a growing trend, which he believes will soon come to the U.S.

Speed is another crucial factor for light rail applications. “To be successful, light rail services need to achieve a certain level of speed to get out of the city center to go to the suburbs,” says Mehlman. “So, you’ve got to reach 65 miles per hour.”

With this type of service, he adds, cities can find the best compromise between ridership and level of service and capital dollars.

In addition to accessibility and speed, the third trend in light rail technology is off-wire or wireless capabilities. This technology utilizes ground-level power supply systems, doing away with overhead catenary lines. Alstom’s APS (Alimentation Par le Sol) — as the off-wire system is known — allows the light rail vehicle to operate “wire free” over journeys of any distance.

“These types of systems are pretty widespread throughout the world,” says Mehlman. “We see it in historical city centers, where the city governments or planners find that it’s important to preserve the historical character and the aesthetics of those landmark type areas.”

Partial or full off-wire applications are also used in light rail planning to help navigate complicated routes, which may include intersections with overpasses, viaducts or power utilities. “For such areas, often an off-wire solution will be much cheaper to implement rather than to relocate utilities or get around massive structures,” he says.

The French city of Bordeaux (Communauté Urbaine de Bordeaux) was the first in the world to have opted for this completely new technology on nine miles of its 27-mile-long tram network, which has been in service since 2003.

Alstom’s Dubai tramway project in the United Arab Emirates, currently under construction, is another example of a wireless project featuring a ground-level power supply system.

Sustainable aspects of the light rail applications are also a growing factor. With more and more transit systems placing greater emphasis on sustainable policies, Mehlman says the company is seeing many current procurements where the one key criterion for an award is the level of energy consumption.  

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