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Crossing boundaries in Alsace

Place de la République in central Mulhouse. Tram-train TT27 bound for the station crosses Solea 25 on tram route 1 for Chataignier.

Alsace on France’s eastern border has a complex and interesting history. Although now firmly French, as part of the Grande Est region it has at various times been closely associated with German and Swiss territories and still retains Germanic and Swiss influences in its culture, place-names, buildings and cuisine. So perhaps it is not surprising that its tramway networks include three examples of services crossing boundaries that distinguish it from the rest of the country.

One of these is the Mulhouse tram-train line, arguably the only true tram-train route in France. This owes its existence to the willingness of different organisations to work together across borders between different forms of rail operation.

The other two are among the world’s few tram routes to cross national borders: Strasbourg tramline D (which crosses the River Rhein (Rhine) to terminate in the German town of Kehl); and Basel tramline 3 (which crosses the city boundary to terminate in the neighbouring French municipality of St Louis). Both reflect international co-operation; but in reviewing the context and operation of these three lines, it is worth noting specific issues that have arisen in their realisation.

Mulhouse tram-train

The city of Mulhouse has at various times been part of what are now France, Germany and Switzerland. A part of France since 1918, it retains an international feel: where else in the country would you find restaurants termed ‘winstubs’ with choucroute (sauerkraut) and rostis (grated fried potatoes) on the menu?

Mulhouse’s city tram network, opened in 2006, is small: its two lines total about 16km (ten miles). Line 1 runs northwards from the main station around the city centre, and out to the modern high-rise suburb of Chataignier. Line 2 runs between Nouveau Bassin northeast of the centre and the modern suburb of Coteaux to the southwest, passing through the university area. The two cross at the junction of Porte Jeune, a square on the north side of the city centre. Operated by Solea, it is electrified at 750v DC and run by a fleet of yellow Alstom Citadis 302s.

The tram-train line, which adds an additional 16km (ten miles), was developed in parallel with the tramway. The urban tramway design allowed for this: at 2.65m wide it accommodates the SNCF tram-trains as well as the city trams. Almost all other French tramways have 2.4m tramcars. The trackwork design allows for SNCF wheel flange depths.

Planning for the tram-train required close co-operation between SNCF, regional and city authorities, Solea and different regulatory bodies. The first part of the route involves a separate line parallel to the main line from Daguerre to the station of Lutterbach. This is electrified at 750V dc, and is part single-track, with simple colour light signals. Beyond Lutterbach the route continues northwest to Thann – the entrance to the Thur Valley – then along the branch line up through the Thur valley to Kruth in the Vosges mountains. This section is single-track, electrified at 25kv ac, and signalled under SNCF regulations.

The tram-train service begins from the stop just in front of the main railway station, runs to the junction stop at Porte Jeune and then follows line 2 west to Daguerre, where it branches off round a tight loop to continue along the section to Lutterbach. This section serves lower density residential areas, and also, at Musées, the Cité du Train (the national railway museum) and Electropoles (electricity museum).

At Lutterbach the tramway island platform is parallel to the main SNCF station. Just to the north of this, the tram-train line merges with the Kruth line as it branches off the main line and continues northwest, the main line veering north. There are crossing points at the intermediate stations of Wittelsheim-Graffenweld and Cernay, both serving small towns. In Thann, the tram-train serves five stations: two in Vieux Thann (industry and residential); Thann Gare, the former main station, near the town centre, still a typical French country station; and two new stops just beyond, Thann Centre with a single platform face, and Thann St Jacques with an island platform where the tram-train terminates in a bay. Here the town narrows into the Thur valley, up which the branch line continues to Kruth.

The tram-train service runs between Mulhouse Gare and Thann St Jacques every 30 minutes, all day from Monday to Saturday, serving all tramstops and branch line stations. In between the route is served to Lutterbach by a half-hourly tram service, line 3, giving a tram every 15 minutes. On Sundays both run every hour. Beyond Thann the non-electrified section to Kruth is served by an SNCF TER train running from Mulhouse station over the railway line to Lutterbach, and along the branch through Thann. This runs hourly: a very frequent service by SNCF branch standards.

With the tram-train the Thann district has a very good service providing access into the heart of the city and, via interchanges, to much of the conurbation. Traffic has grown steadily and appears to include some trips along parts of the line and into Mulhouse.

The tram-train service, opened in 2010, is operated by a batch of Siemens Avanto vehicles, equipped to operate from both 750V dc and 25kv ac. Within the city these serve all stops, functioning as part of the tramway system. Although SNCF stock, they are driven by a combination of SNCF and Solea drivers and are maintained at Solea’s depot. Announcements onboard and at tram-train stations reflect the usual SNCF principle of naming every single station, with urban tram stop names all preceded by ‘Mulhouse’.

Solea urban tickets are valid on the tram-trains (and T3) as far as Lutterbach. The areas beyond this point are included in new outer zones for Mulhouse travel. Appropriate SNCF TER tickets, validated before boarding, may also be used. No doubt many regular users hold period or multiple tickets for their journey. The one difficulty in travelling on to Thann via Lutterbach when using an urban day ticket is that the only ticket machine and validator lies at the far end of the station building, reached by an underpass from the tram-train platform.

Strasbourg tramline D

From its initial 9km (5.6 miles) opened in 1994, Strasbourg’s tramway has grown into a substantial and still expanding network. It is a complex one, with a close network of several routes covering the more densely occupied area of the city. This is exemplified by the almost continual procession of trams passing through triangular junctions such as Landsberg on the eastern side. Services are run with three generations of trams: the original Eurotrams built in Derby; and two successive batches of Alstom Citadis 403 designed to look like the Eurotram.

Strasbourg’s history includes close and sometimes complex links with the German town of Kehl in the State of Baden, just across the Rhine on the eastern bank. France and Germany are members of both the European Union and the Schengen Area, so there is total freedom of movement across their borders. Kehl functions in part as a valued catchment area for Strasbourg, and in turn benefits from the employment and facilities of its large neighbour. This is recognised in the formal Eurodistrict Strasbourg-Ortenau, fully established in 2010, with the recognition of French and German Governments. This represents Kehl and two other German towns together with the Eurométropole de Strasbourg (the city region since 2015, formerly the Communauté Urbaine de Strasbourg, CUS); it aims to develop close bonds between authorities, institutions and individuals on both sides of the border. The population is over 900 000: Kehl with 35 000 and the Strasbourg Metropole 500 000, of which Strasbourg city has 280 000.

Regular bus and local train services have long provided links across the Rhine. Latterly the bus route has operated between Kehl station and the tramstop at Aristide Briand, former terminal of line D from western and central Strasbourg. With continual growth in movement over the river, linking Kehl fully into Strasbourg’s city transport system was always potentially valuable, on a similar basis to links with similar adjacent municipalities in its French catchment. Indeed, the risk of congestion offered by the single bridge made the creation of a quality transit link even more important.

The decision to extend tramline D across the Rhine to Kehl Bahnhof was made by the CUS in 2009, and supported by Kehl council in 2011. An additional aim was to support development on vacant land around Strasbourg’s port. The extension, 2.9km (1.8 miles) long and opened in 2017. Strasbourg funded the portion to the mid-Rhine, while the cost of the section beyond was split between the various partners. Further extension south to Kehl Rathaus (town hall) was subsequently agreed, funded by the German authorities; construction of this short section is now nearing completion.

The section to Kehl Bahnhof runs from Aristide-Briand for some distance through the Strasbourg port area, with an intermediate bowstring bridge over an arm of the Rhine. Two stops in the port area are planned when development takes place around them. Major development, mostly residential, has now been built around the new stop of Port-du-Rhin near the river. Beyond here the line climbs to a spectacular 290m double bowstring bridge over the Rhine. At 16m wide, this carries two tram tracks plus a pedestrian and cycleway. There is a reversing siding before the bridge. On the German side the line runs forward a short way to terminate (currently) in front of Kehl railway station.

Line D services run every 7.5 minutes during the main part of the day, but alternative trams terminate at Port-du-Rhin so that the service to Kehl runs every 15 minutes. It forms part of the CTS network and normal CTS tariffs apply.

Basel tramline 3

The city of Basel forms one of Switzerland’s major centres in terms of commerce,
industry and population, and is a key transport hub at the south end of the Rhine. Lying on the borders with both France and Germany, adjacent towns in these countries have become as much part of the metropolitan region as its own suburbs. This is recognised in the formal Trinational Eurodistrict Basel (TEB) of 62 suburban communes, which includes municipalities in neighbouring countries and which has a population of over 830 000. The Swiss municipalities within this have a population of over 540 000, the city itself 200 000.

The French part of the TEB includes St Louis, a small commune of 20 000 people but forming the focus of a group of districts (agglomération) with a total population of 70 000. Within it an area west of the main Basel to Mulhouse railway line is largely undeveloped at present, but is designated as the location for major development (Euro3Lys) under the 2013 strategic plan (SCOT) for St Louis. Euro3Lys will include a Technopark, a commercial and leisure centre (Trois Pays) and a large residential area (Quartier de Lys). Just to the northwest, within French territory, is the EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg, a very unusual airport that is divided, in principle at least, into separate French and Swiss sections.

Switzerland is a member of the Schengen Area, like France and Germany, and thus does not maintain barriers to movement of people across borders with them. But it is not a member of the European Union and so maintains a customs border to check and tax goods. In practice this means only the occasional check, rather than tight controls on vehicles crossing the border points.

Basel’s metre-gauge tramway dates back to 1895. Continual development and extension created a dense network by the 1950s, which forms the basis of today’s modern system, run on the whole by BVB. On the north side the tramway lines extend up to the borders with France and Germany. By the new millennium, planning was in hand to extend lines across the borders into adjacent urban areas. The first extension approved and constructed was of BVB line 8, extended in 2014 into the adjacent German town of Weil-am-Rhein east of the river.

In the area adjoining France, two lines terminated at the border with St Louis: line 11 at St Louis Grenze, just south of the built-up part of St Louis town; and line 3 at Burgfelden Grenze, some way southwest. Extending line 11 would have linked straight into the contiguous urban area (as did the through-line from Basel that opened in 1910, when St Louis was the German town of Sankt Ludwig, and closed in 1950). But the decision was taken to extend line 3 instead, following an alignment serving parts of the new Euro3Lys development. Construction went ahead and the line was opened through to its terminus at St Louis railway station in December 2017. It is 3.4km (2.1 miles) long, running for 2.6km (1.6 miles) on the French side.

From Waldighofferstrasse stop, near the previous terminus, the extension runs between allotments on one side and open land on the other. The border point has a customs shed and office, with tram stops incorporated either side, named Burgfelderhof. There is a turning loop for trams not going on to St Louis; this briefly crosses the border line into French territory. Just beyond, the line runs down a hill between a sports field and light industry in French territory and goes through the western edge of St Louis, where three stops are located. Finally it runs between fields forming the future Quartier de Lys. It terminates on the west side of St Louis station, in a bus/tram/car set-down area with multi-storey car park. An underpass leads to the station booking office on the east side; the town centre lies beyond that.

The daytime frequency to Burgfelderhof is eight trams per hour, but every second service turns there, giving four trams per hour through to St Louis. Services are operated by new single-ended Bombardier Flexity 2 trams. The extension is not covered by standard Basel tickets; specific tickets are needed to cross the border either way. Separate (Euro) tickets are available for travel within the French section. Through trams pause at Burgfelderhof for a short while, presumably to allow customs checks if required.

A wider reach?

The last 30 years have seen phenomenal expansion of tramways in France as an effective transport tool in its city development strategies. This reflects the widespread economic and social connectivity tramways create, their low environmental impacts and effective use of resources, and role underpinning sustainable development.

The examples reviewed in this article indicate that these effects can be achieved across even wider boundaries. Perhaps this is attributable to the history of Alsace as a border territory where co-operation between different groups of people and organisations has long been the norm. It offers a valuable lesson to us all.

Article originally appeared in TAUT 973 (January 2019).