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Florence T2: A modern masterpiece

On inauguration day, two T2 trams in the section common to T1 alongside Santa Maria Novella station. Image courtesy of G. Mantovani

Florence’s long-awaited T2 tramline was initially expected to open alongside the extension to T1 in July 2018 (see TAUT 970), but a series of delays meant that the new 5.3km (3.3-mile) Santa Maria Novella – airport route opened on 11 February this year. Public service followed a formal opening ceremony at the airport attended by the Italian President, Sergio Mattarella, and other national and local authorities.

The line, on a fully reserved and paved right-of-way, features ten intermediate stops as well as one that is currently not activated, plus two termini. The end-to-end journey time is 22 minutes. Trams run every four minutes and 20 seconds for most of the day, with 15 days of free travel following the opening. Several bus routes in the area have been reorganised as feeder services.

A route through the city

The Piazza dell’Unità terminus is located beside the Santa Maria Novella church; the original plans to continue the line through the historic centre, serving Duomo and San Marco squares, were curtailed following a 2009 decision to pedestrianise the area surrounding the Duomo.

The tramstop here is equipped with shock absorbers mounted on a low wall built for this purpose. No other terminus on the system is equipped with such heavy equipment, probably intended to protect the narrower street in front from possible runaways: either way this wall makes a visual statement that no tram can trespass into the city’s historic centre.

A delta junction connects to T1, including a road intersection with another immediately after the delta, making this a critical location for both tram and road traffic. T1 and T2 share 370m of tracks, including the Alamanni Stazione stop; this point sees a tram every 130 seconds in each direction, considered to be the maximum flow supported by the line.

Shortly after leaving the junction with T1, T2 enters an area formerly occupied by railway maintenance facilities, with a spectacular passage through the Mazzoni building – a notable example of rationalistic architecture from the early 20th Century that is being restored to its original appearance.

The line then passes through the construction site of the new underground station for high-speed rail services. A tramstop is already in place, waiting for the completion of this highly controversial project for which it is difficult to predict an opening date – and even the kind of service it will host.

The next notable location is the 230m San Donato viaduct that allows passage for the tramway across the Mugnone River and an important roundabout as well as introducing two bicycle and pedestrian lanes. These lanes, as well as the covering of the bridge’s steel structure with a metal shell, remained incomplete on inauguration day. The San Donato – Università stop serves an important commercial centre, the University’s social science campus, a new development including housing and a park, and, slightly further away, the new city courts.

On its way to the airport, three other stops serve the densely-populated Novoli area. After passing under the railway line to Pisa, the tramway heads underground in a 500m cut-and-cover tunnel, including the
Guidoni stop, serving a large park-and-ride facility that should remove tourist bus and car traffic coming into the city. A new stop on the railway is planned, connected by a pedestrian bridge.

Just beyond the airport terminus is a short twin-track area, although it is not clear whether this would be used for the planned extension to Sesto due to a possible conflict with other plans for a new runway for the growing airport.

T2 has taken on the nickname ‘Vespucci’ – celebrating the ancient explorer and navigator after whom the airport is also named – while the extended T1 line is known locally as ‘Leonardo’ in honour of famed artist and inventor Leonardo Da Vinci. It does not seem that these nicknames have entered common use, however.

Looking to the future

The current two-line network serves only a fraction of the important west and north-west suburban regions of the city, and no service is offered to the central, east and south areas.

Yet the success of the current network has increased expectations from fiorentini excluded from the tramway’s coverage and new lines, and extensions are already at an advanced stage of design. The first three of these could see the start of works before the end of 2019.

T2 to San Marco

The decision to truncate T2 at the edge of the city’s historic centre has left the main tourist attractions some distance from any tramstop. In an attempt to recover some service without laying tracks close to the Duomo, a U-shaped branch will link the railway station to Piazza San Marco – 100m from the gallery hosting Michelangelo’s world-famous ‘David’.

The 1.7km (1.05-mile) extension will start from a delta junction that is already partially installed along T1, close to the Fortezza stop, reaching Piazza della Libertà by a median reservation on the large Lavagnini boulevard; it will then turn back into the centre for a loop in the historic square.

The last section from Piazza della Libertà to Piazza San Marco will be in two parallel roads for the up and down lines. It is not yet clear which service would be operated on this branch, most likely an extension of T2 with the abandonment of the new Unità terminus. In any case, this will further extend the critically saturated section operated by both lines and include two new intermediate stops.

T4: Le Piagge, San Donnino and Campi

The scarcely-used railway tracks that leave Leopolda (the first station in Florence, terminus of the line to Pisa that opened in 1848 and host to a railway workshop less than 20 years ago, now an exhibition centre) have inspired proposals for T4. The T3 designation was used for the line to Careggi before its opening as an extension of T1. This 6.2km (3.8-mile) route would feature 12 intermediate stops, and for the initial 3.5km (5.6 miles) run on a conversion of the railway alignment that is currently used by a few local services to Empoli each day.

The line will then pass under the railway to join a parallel reservation, serving the Le Piagge residential area and access to a new depot. Due to the peculiarity of the route, the line will have just four road intersections.

At Leopolda, the tracks would connect to T1 but T4 will stop here with transfers to T1 necessary to penetrate the city further. This is considered important in reducing tramway congestion at the main railway station. There are, however, concerns about the transfer at Leopolda from the already-crowded trams coming from Scandicci. Contradictory concerns regard the expected patronage: the alignment is lateral, and a bit detached, from the extensively-built area of Via Baracca, which is not far from the newly-opened T2.

The line is planned to be eventually extended from Le Piagge by another 6km (3.7 miles) to serve San Donnino and Campi Bisenzio; the latter is the centre of a municipality of almost 50 000 residents, until now with no rail connection.

T2 to Sesto Fiorentino

Building on the latest line, T2 will continue to the University’s scientific campus close to Sesto Fiorentino. As this municipality of 50 000 residents is already covered by regional train services, it is believed that most ridership will be generated by the university.Some therefore question whether there will be enough patronage to justify the new line, but it can be expected that such a link will revitalise the campus that until now has suffered from isolation due to its distance from the other University sites. The extension will feature eight stops over 6km (3.7 miles).

Lines to Bagno a Ripoli and Rovezzano

Possibly the most significant development will be the realisation of two lines in the east of the city to serve densely-populated areas and business districts. Furthermore, these lines will at last provide diametrical tram routes, although, probably, without direct services. Technical and economic studies have already been completed and state funding identified under the framework of the recent call for the evaluation of tram and metro projects. Partial European funding is also available through the Tuscany Region.

Both lines would originate in Piazza della Libertà, with connections to T2. The first, approximately 7km (4.3 miles) long, will run on the eastern part of the historic ring boulevards and along the Arno River to the existing Giovanni da Verrazzano bridge. A new bridge will be built for diverted car traffic. On the other river bank the line will continue along Viale Giannotti and Viale Europa to the border of Florence. There it will enter Bagno a Ripoli, a municipality of about 25 000, where both the terminus and a new depot will be located. An existing but scarcely-used park-and-ride would be revitalised, taking car traffic away from the Chianti region and motorway traffic from the south.

The route along the ring boulevards has raised concerns about a supposed loss of capacity for road traffic as all other tramway lines in Florence run on reserved lanes. Another challenge from the Monument and Fine Arts Office has voiced concerns about tree preservation, so it is very likely that the boulevards section will be constructed without overhead line equipment.

The second 6km (3.7-mile) line will run along Viale Don Minzoni, crossing the railway belt at Le Cure and continuing along Viale dei Mille to reach the present football ground (a new one is foreseen in a different location) and other sport facilities, as well as Campo di Marte railway station. This route would serve another densely-populated district, terminating at Rovezzano railway station.

The city centre issue

The extension of T2 to Piazza San Marco cannot by itself satisfactorily serve the city centre – the area inside the ring avenues larger than 3km2 (1.2 square miles). Transfers to small buses, already serving some areas of the inner city, would not be satisfactory either due to the excessive number of vehicles required to provide an acceptable service. It would also require another change of mode.

The best option would therefore be a barycentric tram route and it must be pointed out that good public transport is key to avoid a negative urban drift, whereby residents and businesses leave the centre, expelled by tourism – a phenomenon that has become more and more pressing for Florence.

The original T2 alignment traversed the centre, from the main railway station to Piazza Beccaria, splitting into two tracks after passing the Duomo; a perfect diametrical alignment which was unfortunately incompatible with some very narrow roads.

In the first years of this century a variant was defined, turning to the left before the Duomo and running on Via Martelli to Piazza San Marco and then onto Via Cavour to the terminus in Piazza della Libertà. No overhead line and interlaced tracks were foreseen for a 300m section near the Duomo. The loss of patronage from the abandoned eastern part was compensated by the branch towards the north, and a stop near the Duomo was at an acceptable walking distance from many main locations of the historic area. This variant gained approval, but in 2009 the new municipal administration cancelled the central section, justifying this as a consequence of a wide pedestrianisation zone around the Duomo. One must deduce they were not aware of the full compatibility of trams with pedestrian areas seen in so many European cities.

For a time, an underground crossing was seen as a answer but it soon became clear this wasn’t the right solution due to the many buildings of historic significance and geotechnical factors that would require a route deep below the surface. The tunnel would also have to be about 4km (2.5 miles) long in order to reach areas where the entrances could be placed – this would have meant high construction and operation costs, unjustifiable for a single tram line. Moreover, accessibility would have been poor. It seems, sadly, very difficult to find a solution that ticks all the boxes.

As an aside, a side-effect of the lack of a transverse link through the centre is that the planned new lines to the east will force a change of vehicle at Piazza della Libertà to reach the main railway station, since the congested section between Fortezza and Alamanni will be at capacity. The overall travel time would easily be greater than the time taken by the direct bus routes ten years ago, with a potential reduction in attractiveness.

One must hope that the passage alongside the Duomo will be reconsidered, to finally connect tracks in Piazza dell’Unità and Piazza San Marco in the not too distant future.

Article appeared originally in TAUT 977 (May 2019).