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The Danish light rail renaissance

LRT systems are seen as a catalyst for development in Denmark; pictured in September 2014 is the construction project for a bridge for the new Aarhus LRT system alongside a new multimedia complex which is due to open in 2015. (Image: Aarhus Letbane)

When the new LRT line in Aarhus opens for business in 2017, it will be the first tram the city has seen in over 45 years. A mode of transport which was killed off by the rise of the motorcar and motorbus has been reincarnated by a country which wants to reduce the negative impacts of road traffic, while enabling towns to grow and develop.

Aarhus is the first modern scheme in Denmark, but more will follow. Authorities are working on tender documents for a 14.7km (9.1-mile) network for Odense, Copenhagen is planning an outer light rail ring to link outlying municipalities to the city centre, and in Aalborg a light rail solution is under consideration to help aid growth in the city.

There are several reasons why LRT is a tempting solution for some of Denmark’s cities right now: growing populations, congestion, and the political will to reduce carbon emissions and noise pollution. Aarhus, for instance, which had a population of 259 754 in 2014, expects a 25% increase by 2030 with the number of jobs expected to rise by 28% over the same period.

With existing train and bus systems reaching capacity in Danish inner city areas, trams are seen as a good answer since some municipalities see LRT as the key to more sustainable, energy-efficient cities.

Odense, to which SYSTRA, with its Danish partner COWI, is technical consultant, has a vision of a compact city, defined by squares and urban spaces with access to the developments provided by its new tramway. Its environmental policy sets out goals to increase public transport use by 40% by 2015 and by 200% by 2025, aided by the new tramway.

Because LRT systems provide more reliable modal connections and more efficient delivery of passengers to destinations along the line, they have the potential to encourage development at targeted locations. In Aarhus the light rail corridor runs through two major developments along the harbour front, to Aarhus University which has ambitious expansion plans and to the new University Hospital, due to open in 2019. The LRT system will ensure adequate capacity and encourage sustainable growth along its corridors.

Another important factor which makes trams an obvious choice in Denmark is the moderate size of its major cities outside the capital, which are ideal for trams. Copenhagen is the exception of course, as here the outer ring system will encourage development and inward investment in the municipalities investing in the scheme, forming a key part of the overall regional development plan as they shape their city for the future.

A long history

The story of trams in Denmark begins over 150 years ago. The country was the first in Europe to open a horse-drawn service, in Copenhagen in 1863, and in 1899 the first electric tram was also commissioned.

Three of the four cities now planning or considering modern systems previously had trams: Copenhagen, Aarhus and Odense.

The mode’s popularity gradually declined due to competition from other modes, particularly private vehicles.

Despite this heritage, the lag between Denmark’s first-generation systems closing and new ones opening means that Denmark is practically starting from scratch in terms of expertise and technology.

Cold winter weather can offer major challenges for trams: ice on the catenary systems and rails can create operational difficulties; snow and ice can build up on the carriage roofs; damp and humidity inside the carriages can be an issue; and door mechanisms can be affected by ice.

Also linked to Denmark’s winter weather is the need to have vehicles that can cope with the salts put down on the road to prevent ice forming, which has caused problems in other European cities. In Aarhus the situation is compounded by a stretch of line that runs along the seafront in a heavily saline environment.

Rolling stock manufacturers must therefore consider options to protect the underside of the carriages with stainless steel, a special coating, or other solutions. The trams are cleaned regularly using an automatic trainwash, but the impact of damaging salts requires that underframe washing equipment is also provided.

Other technical issues come from the need to make new light rail systems work within the existing fabric of an already-developed city, forming part of an integrated network.

While all new public transport systems must provide efficient and hassle-free interchanges with other modes, in Denmark there is one particular form of transport which needs special thought at the design stage: bicycles. Tram carriages are not big enough to accommodate more than a few bikes; this means that stops need high-quality bicycle parking facilities with secure shelters and efficient signage.

Bicycles must also be considered when planning crossing points. Cyclists need a clear line of vision to see approaching trams, and crossings must be perpendicular to the rails to ensure that bike wheels don’t get caught in the grooves, causing accidents.

The other challenges of weaving a new light rail system among existing buildings and transport vary from city to city. Some have spacious boulevards outside the old city areas allowing the LRT to be isolated from road traffic and reducing disruption during construction. For Copenhagen’s Ring 3, where SYSTRA is working on the package covering bridges, tunnels and utility diversions, only a limited section near Lyngby involves mixed traffic and this both improves safety and limits traffic delays.

It is important to limit the visual intrusion from a new LRT system by making the design as sensitive as it can be; ensuring all catenary poles are aligned, or attaching wires to buildings where possible, which helps limit the impact.

Because LRT systems are, in effect, brand new to Denmark, there is a huge challenge in terms of regulations and standards: they need to be written. A joint group of clients, representing all the municipalities looking at light rail, is working together to develop the rules and regulations needed. Aarhus is leading the way in some areas, for example safety reviews, but generally this joined-up approach should lead to a uniform approach for all of the nation’s LRT projects.

Effective funding

In Denmark, the development of LRT projects requires contributions from national, regional and municipal government, whilst operation and maintenance is funded from regional and municipal sources; a system of funding that appears to work well.

There is competition between the Danish cities, both in terms of encouraging inward investment and attracting national government funding. Once one region has significant funding committed to infrastructure spending, there is pressure for others to seek similar contributions.

A bright future for LRT

Denmark has truly re-embraced trams as an effective form of public transport. There are plans for further phases for both Aarhus and Odense and feasibility studies for the proposed system at Aalborg are underway.

When Denmark’s first new tram runs in Aarhus in 2017, the city will be the European Capital of Culture. Aarhus’s choice of theme for the celebration year is ‘rethink’. An LRT system that encourages a move away from cars and stimulates urban regeneration is a fitting part of that theme.

From a feature originally published in Tramways & Urban Transit –  May 2015 issue (928)