The TVR - 'tram' of the future or expensive mistake?The latter part of the 20th Century saw a massive revival in the fortunes of tramways in France, with systems being built in several major cities and more on the way. However, the construction of a tramway is a massive and expensive undertaking, so in the 1980s, studies began to establish a way of producing a vehicle which had the crowd-shifting capacity of a tram while being simpler and cheaper to install.
Bombardier designed prototypes of the TVR - 'Transport Routier sur Voie Reservée' (in English the GLT - 'Guided Light Transit') in the 1980s. The vehicle can probably best be described as a 'guided trolleybus' - It runs on rubber tyres and is powered by electricity (although a diesel engine is also fitted). While the vehicle doesn't actually run on rails, it is guided by a single steel rail followed by guide wheels under the vehicle. The vehicles themselves are single-ended three section vehicles with four axles, with a guide wheel for the first and third axles in order that the whole vehicle follows the guide rail.
The idea is to offer an entirely flexible mode of transport that is cheaper to install than the tramway. Since the guide rail bears no weight (and there's only one rail) it is of a lighter construction than typical tramway rail. The vehicle can also operate away from the rail and the wires, steered by a conventional steering wheel and powered by its diesel engine, so extensions and off-route diversions are easier to achieve and construction of depot facilities is quicker and easier.
CGFTE (STAN), Nancy no. 5 (359 YM 54) - September 2001
This is a Bombardier TVR. Or, if you're the city of Nancy, it's a tram, despite the fact that it doesn't actually run on rails. When I visited Nancy the 'tram' was still under test - this vehicle was found away from the wires and guide rails operating on diesel power for driver training purposes.
CGFTE (STAN), Nancy no. 5 (359 YM 54) - September 2001The first French city to show an interest in the GLT was Caen. Caen, like many cities, is too small to fully justify the costs of a full tramway system, however the GLT seemed a more realistic proposition. Caen began studies in the late-1980s and by the mid-1990s had settled upon the GLT as their favoured solution to the problems of traffic congestion in the town. A full scale mock-up of the GLT was produced and remained stationed outside the CTAC depot for some while.
No. 5 again, showing the great length of these vehicles. Note also the faired-in wheels to give a tramcar-like appearance and general tram-like styling.
However, the first of the new vehicles into service were not in Caen, but in Nancy. Nancy was already notable as having been the only city in France in modern times to build a trolleybus system. The system, which opened in 1982, was operated by a fleet of Renault PER180H articulated diesel-trolleybuses. It served several important suburbs and a major hospital at the top of a steep hill. By the late-1990s the PER180Hs were getting towards the end of their useful lives and were in urgent need of replacement.
Nancy wished to provide a heavy-duty transport solution for this important route, but it was felt that conventional trams would find it very difficult to climb the steep gradients on the route in all weathers (and even if they did, would not be able to do so without generating significant amounts of noise and disturbance to local residents). Clearly, Nancy wished to retain the use of the expensive electrical installations put in place for the trolleybus, so an electrically-powered mode of transport was desirable. The TVR seemed the ideal solution. Major works were carried out to install guide rails and stations and reorganise traffic flows in the city, and the system was scheduled to open in December 2000. Nancy chose to market the TVR as a 'Tram' presumably to cash in on the marketing value of trams elsewhere.
CGFTE (STAN), Nancy no. 22 (3351 YN 54) - September 2001Things did not quite go according to plan. The opening of the system was delayed until late-January due to electrical supply problems. Teething problems with the vehicles meant that few were available for service in the early weeks. Then, in March, a TVR set entering the terminus at Mouzimpré partially lost contact with its guide rail. The third section of the set struck part of the structure supporting the overhead wiring and there were a number of minor injuries. The TVR sets were all withdrawn for safety checks. Driver error was blamed and after some minor alterations to the controls in the vehicle cab all the sets went back into service. However, the following day an identical incident occurred. Clearly there was a more serious problem, and the whole fleet was withdrawn indefinitely for tests to be carried out. In the meantime, a large new fleet of Heuliez GX417GNV buses, intended to upgrade other bus routes in the wake of the introduction of the Tram, ended up being used on a replacement bus service. CGFTE was also forced to scour the country for spare buses with other Connex subsidiaries that it could lease in order to plug the gap while the TVRs were out of use.
Another TVR on test, this time operating under the wires and on the guide rail.
CGFTE (STAN), Nancy no. 5 (359 YM 54) - September 2001
The TVR from the rear. The diesel engine is installed at the rear of the vehicle.
Testing restarted in August 2001. However, things were getting worse in Nancy. An oversight had meant that the TVR was not certified to operate in trolleybus mode away from the guide rail, which since there was no guide rail up the hill to Brabois hospital meant that it had previously been operating without official sanction. Meanwhile, the Ansaldo-Breda trolleybuses delivered to Nancy for one trolleybus route which was not being converted to TVR, could not go into service as the trolley poles fitted to them were too short. They had apparently been produced according to the specification laid down by the city of Nancy, but someone had made a mistake... A row ensued as to who was responsible for remedying the problem, and in 2004 the five trolleybuses STILL have not entered service. Back on the TVR front, an official report claimed that the TVR could not be operated in unguided mode with satisfactory levels of safety, which (as 20% of the route mileage lacked a guide rail) posed something of a problem. These claims were vigorously opposed by both Bombardier, Connex and the city of Nancy.
Finally, in March 2002 and after several modifications, the Nancy TVR went back into service. The problems have not entirely disappeared though - there have been more 'derailments', problems with excessive tyre wear, problems with wear of the guide rail, running-back on hills and cracks appearing in axles. In the meantime, the Caen system finally went into operation in 2002. The Caen vehicles are almost the same as those in Nancy, apart from the fact that they have a pantograph mounted on the middle section of the vehicle rather than the trolley poles found on the Nancy vehicles. The early days of the Caen system were, as with Nancy, marred by reliability problems and two derailments.
The TVR is not the only high-tech rubber-tyred transit system being tried on the French market. Lohr of Strasbourg are developing a similar system (the Translohr) which is scheduled for introduction in Clermont Ferrand. Irisbus and Matra meanwhile have been developing an optically-guided machine known as the Civis which is guided by lines painted on the road. Prototypes have been tried in Clermont Ferrand and in Rouen, but plans to purchase more for Rouen seem to have been shelved. In the meantime, Irisbus are producing Civis' for operation in Las Vegas.
Clearly the TVR has had a troubled beginning. It remains to be seen whether the problems can be sorted out and the vehicles made reliable, and indeed whether Bombardier ever manage to secure further orders for this innovative but problematic machine.
CGFTE (STAN), Nancy no. 22 (3351 YN 54) - September 2001
No. 22 again, crossing the railway bridge at Nancy station on a test run. It's on the guide rail but is operating under diesel power.