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Challenges of the past, present and future

UITP Secretary General Mohamed Mezghani reflects on the history of tramways and light rail, while also looking to a bright future for their role in city transport.

It is my great pleasure to contribute to this special issue of Tramways & Urban Transit as you celebrate 1000 editions.

You may not know it, but UITP was born in 1885 as the Association of Tramways. At that time, tramways were tracked by horses and their development had been a very important trend in urban mobility for several decades.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, many countries dismantled their tramlines to provide additional road space for cars. A few cities modernised and upgraded their networks with newer vehicles and, partly, segregated tracks – Light Rail Transit (LRT) was born!

Since the mid-1980s, street rail systems have enjoyed a strong revival. Many cities, where tramways had disappeared, started to build new LRT schemes. This was seen primarily in North America and Europe, but since the beginning of the new millennium they have also been introduced in the Middle East, Asia-Pacific, and more recently in South America and Africa.

As a result, light rail can now be found in around 60 countries and on every continent, moving 50 million people every day in 400 cities. The future prospects are also very promising, as around 80 cities are building or planning their first LRT line.

Recognising the benefits

The success of modern tramways and LRT systems lies in the many benefits they deliver for both people and cities.

They have demonstrated the ability to offer passengers a positive travel experience, even amongst car drivers, because of their good capacity to investment ratio, and their high level of segregation and priority at junctions that lead to high commercial speed and regularity of service. Modern vehicles, allied to well-designed and maintained tracks, ensure a smooth and comfortable ride. Statistical evidence also shows that LRT is six times safer than car travel.

The mode has established itself as a popular investment for cities because it can offer further benefits that contribute to an overall enhancement in the quality of urban life. Modern trams and LRVs consume, on average, seven times less energy per passenger than the private car; they also produce no emissions at street
level in sensitive areas, therefore contributing significantly to local air quality improvement.

LRT is also very flexible. It can operate in both urban and suburban environments, on the street in mixed traffic, or preferably on segregated rights-of way – these are ideally at ground level, but can be underground or elevated if necessary.

The role of education and information

We are fortunate in public transport to have many publications dedicated to providing readers with news, research, interviews, and developments on what is happening within our sector. This is needed now, more than ever before.

By providing regular insight and updates, publications such as TAUT allow us to develop a wider interest in our sector, and for those working within transport to expand their thinking and their networks.

In recent years, the public transport sector has experienced a special time for light rail and tramway development and as we use this special anniversary to look back, I know that we are all also spending time looking forward.

Similar to many sectors, public transport is living through change. It is difficult to discuss the ebb and flow of light rail and tram systems in recent decades without addressing what is currently the major issue for us all: COVID-19. The global coronavirus pandemic has impacted passenger numbers significantly, but with a strong evolution within light rail transit before these restrictions, I know its success will continue. Public transport is essential to city life and light rail and trams play a large part in this.

Thinking big

However in order for systems to continue to thrive they must receive the necessary support of decision-makers in recognising their role in tackling air quality, reducing emissions, and making city living better as a clean, quiet, and space-efficient mode of transport.

We are all working hard to make sure that public transport has a bright future beyond the current circumstances and light rail and trams can play a major role: the ‘small’ railway does not have to play a ‘small’ role in the sustainable future of our cities.

So congratulations once again on reaching your 1000th edition. By raising the profile of trams and light rail, you are contributing to improving the quality of life in our cities. Here’s to many more achievements!    

Mohamed Mezghani became UITP Secretary General in January 2018. With over 30 years’ public transport experience, he previously held the role of Deputy Secretary General (since 2014), and before that was the organisation’s Knowledge Director. Holding Tunisian/French nationality, Mohamed graduated with a degree in Industrial Engineering from Ecole Nationale d’Ingénieurs de Tunis in 1987, and holds a Masters in Transport from the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris.


Article appeared originally in TAUT 1000 (April 2021)