Back to the Future: Why Werner von Siemens Was an Architect of Megacity Transport in 1881

by Sep 2, 2013Smart Cities

Simon Johnston

Simon comes from a background of transport and technology journalism dating back almost 15 years, contributing to newspapers, magazines, periodicals and websites across the globe on a wide range of topics. Currently the Editor of Tramways & Urban Transit – the world’s leading light and urban rail title that dates back to 1937 – and organiser of the Global Light Rail Awards, he is well-versed in all the arguments for sustainable transport. He currently lives in Peterborough (UK), but has travelled all over the world on transport assignments.

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[colored_box bgColor=”#ededed” textColor=”#666666″]Photo, above: New York City–The development of rapid transit – the first train on the Gilbert Elevated Railroad passing through Sixth Avenue, near the Jefferson Market Police Court, April 29th. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.[/colored_box]

Starting with an oft-quoted statistic, by 2050 seven out of ten people in the world will live in a city or wider city region. Yet as the global population increases and the urbanisation and influence of the megacity and metroplex increases, a series of dramatic forces come into play that could jeopardise the very foundation of these societies and eventually lead to their gridlock and decline.

With inefficient mobility and sustainable transportation solutions, for which we need to plan now, demand will far outstrip the capacity for people to navigate themselves effectively around these cities – ceasing their ability to function. The economic and wider social effects of such gridlock could be devastating.

The myriad benefits of LRT far outweigh the initial construction costs, so the question becomes not ‘can we afford a LRT system?’, but ‘how can we afford not to implement an LRT system?And while the comicbooks and more adventurous futurists would have you believe that the future of urban transport is rocketpacks, vacuum tubes or hoverboards; a viable solution is right in front of us today. In fact it’s been right in front of us for over a century – and it runs on rails.

Taking many forms, and using varying nomenclature depending on who you are speaking to and whereabouts they lie in the world, light and urban rail systems are the only viable solutions for the future if cities are to prosper.

Even in an era of austerity, and actually especially relevant due to the challenging economic climate, the need to invest in sustainable transport to support economic growth should be key to all forward-thinking nations. Yet while 80 of the world’s 100 largest cities already have mass transit solutions, most of them very effective, the other 20 are largely in ‘emerging’ nations with the highest percentage of growing populations. These are arguably the ones in the most need if they are to prosper and realise their potential.

Why electric cars aren’t the answer

Electric and hybridised private transport (cars and motorcycles in the main) – possibly alongside driverless vehicles – offer a solution to address many of the environmental aspects for cleaning up our urban spaces. But these are still largely only viable for the developed economies where private individuals can afford them and the next generation smart grids can support them.

Yet the obvious physical constraints of city layouts and increasingly precious space in the urban realm, allied to the inefficiency of private mobility as a concept, show that this is not the answer. If we are not prepared to succumb to unreasonable and unsustainable urban sprawl, then the true solution comes through efficient mass transit. And the technology already exists to implement it – it just takes a little faith, combined with the stark realisation that not to spend now will ultimately condemn the prospects of urban centres in the future.

But let’s take a step back. The London Underground – 150 years old this year, the world’s oldest underground rail system – transported 4.4m passengers per day during the 2012 Olympics. Looking back even further, in 1807 the Swansea and Mumbles Railway became the world’s first passenger railway in the form of an early tramway. Powered by traction technologies both medieval and modern – horse, sail, steam and eventually electricity – it lasted for over 150 years until closure 1960.

So from horses in the 1860s to electric traction in the 1900s (Werner von Siemens is credited with demonstrating the first electric tram in the Berlin suburb of Lichterfelde 130 years ago this year), the base technology of the tramway hasn’t moved forward very far in the last century. It hasn’t needed to. The basic principle is for a steel-bodied (or wooden- in rare cases) vehicle with a capacity for 100-plus passengers that runs on rails within an urban environment and is powered by electricity either from an overhead wire strung up in the street or an electrified third rail. There are some very clever innovations that will drive forward the mode (to be covered later in this blog), but fundamentally the idea is the same.

At the other extreme, to move hundreds of thousands – or even millions – of passengers per day, you need a metro like the London Underground (or NY Subway, or Toronto Subway, or Paris Metro). And while metros have blossomed as a form of mass transit, they are expensive to construct as they are largely underground and have their own limitations as closed access systems.

Although popular across the globe in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the tramway slowly succumbed to the motor bus as a measure of ‘modernity’. But rising like the proverbial phoenix, the last 30 years have seen the mode enjoying somewhat of a renaissance, and on every continent.

Luckily, I get to experience this renaissance first-hand as the editor of a light and urban rail magazine, and in the last five years alone the growth I have seen has been phenomenal.

Modern air-conditioned trams, which offer 100% low-floor boarding to cater for all sections of society, now transport passengers swiftly and in comfort, beating the traffic jams, immune from the smog.

Their efficiency is proven. For example, Jerusalem’s Red Line LRT network, opened in 2011, now carries 130 000 passengers per day. Plans have just been approved to double the line through the city with the ambition of carrying a quarter a million passengers per day by 2016. Similar lines in France, Spain, Germany, Canada, the UK, and the US are running at near capacity and are looking at extensions and renewals as they extend into areas in need of regeneration and prepare for the future.

300 passengers for every 13 cars

Looking at the physical footprints of respective modes, the case starts to become obvious. A four or five-car tram (or LRV or streetcar, the terminology and implementation varies as suggested, but the principles remain the same) as seen in many European and North American cities can carry up to 300 passengers. It varies in length from 25-50m in length and 2.65m wide.

The average family car is 4m-plus in length and if you take a rough global average of peak single occupancy automobile journeys, you will find a figure of around 70%. The other 30% are mostly carrying two occupants. So, with some back of a beermat maths, for every ten cars travelling in our cities in peak hours you will find 13 people in the same roadspace occupied by a tram. Compare that with a capacity to carry up to 300…in air-conditioned comfort…increasingly with Wi-Fi capability.

The social aspect of mass transit is another vital component that helps to knit together societies as I personally love that the trams in Manchester, Amsterdam and Paris carry everyone from cleaners to barristers – mass transit in this form is the great social leveller.

Now of course not all trams are full all of the time, but if the alignment has been chosen effectively to serve population centres and key economic areas, annual ridership figures well into the millions are easily achievable, even in a small-ish city. As there are around 450 cities in the world with a population of over a million, 200 of which have a population over two million and 70 with a population of five million, it all starts to fit together.

For megacities, a major mass transit system will cope with the peak loadings of millions, but tramways have a crucial role as part of the mix for surface corridors where the complexity or cost of metro construction or passenger loadings cannot be justified.

So much more than just transport

Yet beyond just the sheer need for such LRT systems, ask any city that has one and you’ll hear stories of urban regeneration, increased civic pride and cleaning up of the urban realm that comes with fixed infrastructure.

Vehicle and service customisation options are almost limitless – witness platform doors in Dubai, air-conditioned stops in Phoenix and 4G connectivity in San Jose. The myriad benefits far outweigh the initial construction costs, and the question becomes not ‘can we afford a LRT system?’, but ‘how can we afford not to implement an LRT system?’

And while the basics haven’t changed in over a century, some of the technological advancements within the LRT and MRT industries offer exciting innovation for the future.

In terms of infrastructure construction, automated processes such as those used in Reims (France), Nottingham (UK), London Underground (UK), see prefabricated sections of rail sleepers or slab track with rail clips ready to lay in sections with just the rails to lay. Laser-guided placement of the sections ensures a perfect alignment, and such advances have lead to hundreds of metres of track laid in a single day.

Additional benefits of this approach include reduced disruption and road closures, better safety for workers, less capital outlay and reduced environmental impact during construction and commissioning.

Living life without the wires

In terms of the LRVs themselves, advances in composite materials have seen the reduction in overall vehicle weights. Clever packaging means more passengers can travel, and in greater comfort. Low-floor bogies and air suspension systems mean level-access for all, speeding boarding and alighting and giving a smoother ride.

In terms of motive power, traction systems are getting ever more sophisticated, offering greater efficiency. Avoiding the visual intrusion of overhead wires in areas of historic or cultural significance, supercapacitors, next-generation batteries and flywheel technology lifted directly from Formula One racing should ensure vehicles can run off-wire for longer periods.

Traction substations – a vital component of the electrical grid for any electric transport system – are also developing, with regenerative systems that save power and can also feed power back into the system to be put to use in other areas of the system like powering real-time information systems at stops, signals or HVAC units, or even back into the power grid.

In one of the most exciting developments – admittedly a few years into the future – BAE is merging battery chemistry with composite material development to create ‘structural batteries’. Already tested on a small-scale, and now undergoing development in the motorsport world, these new materials will allow the bodyshells of future vehicles themselves to hold the electric charge and provide the power source.

Why leaders love the tram

Ten to 15 new tramways are opening each year, with around 150 more in the planning, detailed design, construction or commissioning phases in cities on every continent. Future technologies will bring the costs of systems down and deliver even more efficient modes for the cities of the future.

Of course many will argue that at the source, electricity has to come from somewhere and that electrified public transport is largely powered by fossil-fuelled power stations. This, they would argue, is merely transferring the ‘carbon debt’ back up the chain. But then you look at LRT systems like the UK’s Manchester Metrolink that derives much of its power from wind power – trams in Melbourne operate similarly.

So, for a truly ‘green’ transport solution, the answer is to look back to the past. Horse powered trams generated waste of another kind that became unacceptable in our streets, but Mr von Siemens may just have been onto something…

Taking a proactive rather than reactive approach will ensure that the cities of the future don’t grind to a standstill in a haze of choking vehicle-generated emissions. In short, the time for electrified mass transit is now. The era of crystal ball-gazing is over and solutions for modern mobility need to be adopted before it is too late.

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1 Comment

  1. Great article and I concur that tram is far more cost-effective than LRT or BRT.
    I saw low floor clean TRAMS operating in Brussels during my recent visit to Belgium. It is a great solution if you have moderate traffic and plenty of lane space on city roads. It needs to be moved to elevated structures if you have a sea of pedestrians and cyclists. This is a common scene in many megaciities of developing countries, such as Sao Paulo, Jakarta, Dacca, Karachi, etc.
    See my related blogposts.

    For such crowded megacities it is important to implement intermodal integration of transit bus, metro, trams, and elevated monorail.


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