French Tramways

From the expanding network of the late 19th century, French Tramways all but disappeared in the post Second World War years in favour of buses, but in recent decades there has been renewed interest and a resurgence in popularity and usage. Since the beginning of the 21st century, France has become one of the leading countries in tramway construction and development with 16 town/city networks built since the year 2000 and many others in construction or planned.

History of French Tramways

French Tramway networks

French tramways can be traced back to the mid-19th century when a steam powered line was built to connect Montrond-les-Bains to Montbrison in Loire, Rhône-Alpes. Steam, and horses, continued to be used to power trams until the late 19th century when electricity took over encouraging a proliferation of networks in towns and cities across France. With the rapid development, in the early years of the 20th century, of the internal combustion engine it was inevitable that road vehicles/buses would eventually take over as the public transport system for towns and cities. During the 1930s to the 50s the tram networks closed giving way to buses with their obvious flexibility to adapt and change to new routes. Only two French tramways networks have operated continuously since the late 19th century in Lille and Saint-Étienne, Loire. The tram network in Marseille ran until 2004 when the system was closed for 3 years to rebuild and modernise it to modern standards. The new dawn of French tramways began in Nantes in 1985, followed by Grenoble 1987, and in 2016 more than 20 city and town networks across France. Today’s technology allows modern trams to be quiet, fast, smooth, efficient, easy to use and a pleasure to ride, a far cry from its humble beginnings in Montrond-les-Bains.

Although electrification was probably the most important evolutionary step in the history of French tramways there were many difficulties and challenges along the way that needed to be overcome or solved.


Early rail was made of cast iron laid on timber and in its early years could only be made in short lengths which often resulted in an uncomfortable. Through the early years of French tramways engineering advances allowed longer lengths to be made but due to the brittle nature of cast iron, it often snapped and pushed up through into carriages. The solution came in 1857 with the production of the first steel rails by Robert Forester Mushet (laid at Derby station in England) and over the following years slowly replaced cast rails with their superior strength and length. In the early years of tramway development, raised rails were fast becoming a hazard to pedestrians and other vehicles however the problem was solved by Alphonse Loubat, a French inventor, who designed a rail with a groove allowing its top surface to be laid level with the road or grass surface it was laid in.

Horse, compressed air and steam power

Horse powered trams were in operation in several cities in France, including Paris, Marseilles and Strasbourg, up until the end of the 19th century. There were however a number of disadvantages using horses apart from leaving droppings on the track. Transit was slow, climbing and descending gradients were precarious especially when conditions were wet, each coach would need several teams of horses per day to continue operating and carriages were limited in size according to what the horses could pull.

Louis Mekarski invented an alternative means of propulsion in the 1870s, by means of compressed air. Compressed air was used to drive a piston which in turn drove the wheels. However, there was an inherent problem, as the air exits the piston chamber and rapidly expands, caused the air to cool resulting in ice forming on and in the cylinders. To overcome this problem Mekarski added a boiler and hot water tank to the system so the compressed air had to first pass through the hot water of the tank before entering the piston chamber thus preventing freezing. The heating of the air through the hot water also added the benefit of water vapour boosting the engine’s output. Although there were obvious benefits of using compressed air regarding pollution and safety, over steam, it took almost 4 times the fuel to generate the compressed air than a steam powered tram would use in normal service. Compressed air propulsion was first used in Nantes in 1879, Paris in 1887, then Vichy (1895), Aix-les-Bains (1897), Saint-Quentin (1899) and La Rochelle (1901).

Steam powered trams also had a relatively short life span, like compressed air, less than 2 decades and in some cases only a few years. Their service life spans the last 2 decades of the 19th century, most notably the opening of a steam driven tram system in 1889 between Versailles and Saint-Cyr-l’École. Besides the dangers of an open coal fed boiler system to feed the engine, they were polluting and relatively dirty. Around the world trams networks were proliferating in many large towns and cities, many trying various fuel systems including horse drawn, compressed air, gas and petrol engines and some using cable systems. However most were rendered obsolete once electrification was introduced.

Electrification of the French tramways

Initial experiments with battery driven trams were not particularly successful so when the German Werner von Siemens developed a functional and practical dynamo that could feed power into the system from a fixed position, electrification quickly replaced most network’s forms of power. The first public services using electric trams were in Berlin and Paris in 1881. Electric power was not however without its problems. Initially current was fed through the running rails but this system was not suitable for street use so a safer solution had to be found. Several systems were trialed but the favoured method that eventually dominated was the overhead cable system. Transferring the current from the cables to the tram took several years to find the right solution. Initially a trolley pole system was used but wasn’t the most practical solution. Siemens developed the bow collector as an alternative and this eventually led to the pantograph system seen on most overhead trams and railways around the world.

The decline of the French tramways

Through a combination of circumstances between the 1930s to the 1950s the tram networks of the world fell into steep decline. Existing systems were needing major overhauls and refurbishments. The internal combustion engine had got to a point where mass car production had started and motor buses were becoming more reliable. It was far cheaper to create a bus feeder system to extend tram lines than it was to build new extensions but this just hastened the trams demise. In the end, the competition all but rendered the tramways of the world extinct, including France’s. The only networks to survive the closures, although they all were reduced in size, were in Lille, Marseille and Saint-Étienne.

By the 1960s, public transport in general had suffered huge cutbacks. With the increasing use and belief that the motor car was the answer for those who could afford them, buses, and the metro, in some large cities around the world, were there for those who couldn’t. Planners believed that towns and cities could be adapted to cope with the increase in road traffic. However, as we now realise in the 21st century, it was a short sighted and naive prediction.


Modern developments and the tram’s resurgence

Gothenburg in Sweden started the resurgence when it overhauled its existing tram system, extended lines into its suburbs and replaced its rolling stock with modern high performance trams. Gothenburg introduced traffic restrictions giving trams priority in central town and city areas. Besides, it was considerably cheaper to develop, create and modernise tram systems than it was to build or extend underground public transport. The new development of the 1990s saw the design of low floor trams, just 35cm about track level, allowing kerbs/platforms to be built up to provide step free entrance on and off the tram. New technology and innovative design has given full access to passengers with physical disabilities and wheel chair users.

Many southern European countries that had abandoned their tramway heritage like Britain, France, Spain and Italy were now, in the 1990s, returning after realising its inherent potential to move large numbers of passengers with quiet efficiency. The new trams were a far cry from the yesteryear technology of the 50s with quiet, smooth and comfortable transit moving large numbers with relative ease. Many towns and cities have had to reconfigure their centres to give full access to the new tram systems, providing parking areas outside town limits, in the suburbs, easing the traffic burden and thus reducing inner city pollution. Nantes was first to reintroduce trams in 1985 followed by Grenoble in 1987 but since 2000, France has led the way in reintroducing tramway transport systems back into large town and cities. The new tram networks are proving to be more popular than predictions and many towns are already extending their lines and buying more rolling stock.

Bordeaux and APS

Overhead power supply is the system most towns and cities in France have utilised but some have opted for the newly developed system that provides power from ground level. When Bordeaux was designing its new tram system, in the late 1990s, it didn’t want to ruin its beautiful inner city architecture with overhead power lines so a new power system was developed and implemented called APS (Alimentation par le Sol – feeding from the ground). Of course conventional ground level supply would have been too dangerous to use so the new system had to make sure the additional live rails were safe for pedestrians and vehicles alike. Bordeaux solved the problem by building the middle live rails in sections, alternating between live and neutral sections, and only allowing them to be live when a tram is directly above them. They achieved this by

Tram manufacturers

Since the trams resurgence, the design and development of the rolling stock has grasped modernity and revolutionised the look and functionality of trams. Modern manufacturing techniques and design has shaped and crafted trams to fit in with each town and cities requirements, allowing subtle design differences and a multitude of stunning paint designs. Alstom was, until fairly recently, the main tram manufacturer and supplier for the majority of French tram networks. However, recently some French transport management authorities have been looking elsewhere and trams from German (Siemens) and Canadian (Bombardier) companies have been used.

Alstom and Lohr are the two major tram design and manufacturers in France.

 List of French towns and cities with tramways

 Region  Department Town Date (launched)
 Alsace  Haut-Rhin  Mulhouse  13th May 2006
 Alsace  Bas-Rhin  Strasbourg  25th November 1994
 Aquitaine  Gironde  Bordeaux  23rd December 2003
 Bourgogne  Côte-d’Or  Dijon  September 2012
 Bretagne  Finistère  Brest  23rd June 2012
 Centre-Val de Loire  Loiret  Orléans  20th November 2000
 Centre-Val de Loire  Indre-et-Loire  Tours  31st August 2013
 Champagne-Ardenne  Marne  Reims  16th April 2011
 Franche-Comté  Doubs  Besançon  30th August 2013
 Haute-Normandie  Seine-Maritime  Le Havre  12th December 2012
 Haute-Normandie  Seine-Maritime  Rouen  17th December 1994
 Île-de-France  Paris  Paris  6th July 1992
 Languedoc-Roussillon  Hérault  Montpellier  1st July 2000
 Midi-Pyrénées  Haute-Garonne  Toulouse  11th December 2010
 Nord-Pas-de-Calais  Nord  Lille  4th December 1909
 Nord-Pas-de-Calais  Nord  Valenciennes  3rd July 2006
 Pays de la Loire  Maine-et-Loire  Angers  25th June 2011
 Pays de la Loire  Sarthe  Le Mans  17th November 2007
 Pays de la Loire  Loire-Atlantique  Nantes  7th January 1985
 Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur  Bouches-du-Rhône  Marseille  1900
 Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur  Alpes-Maritimes  Nice  24th November 2007
 Rhône-Alpes  Isère  Grenoble  5th September 1987
 Rhône-Alpes  Rhône  Lyon  23rd December 2000
 Rhône-Alpes  Loire  Saint-Etienne  17th April 1897


How to use the tramways in France

Many of the outlying tram stations will offer a park and ride facility so you can leave you car in a relatively secure car park and not have to battle the traffic of the inner city. Buying a park and ride ticket is includes the tram ride allowing all occupants of the vehicle to travel as one. Ticket dispensing machines are located at all stations and one must be purchased before boarding the tram. Once on the tram you must insert your ticket in the validating machine or you will be in breech of the conditions of the ticket. If you fail to validate your ticket you could face a fine of around 30€ and if you fail to purchase one the fine is around 90€.

At each of the stations there will be a message board informing you when the next tram is due. Once on board another message board will show the name of the next stop.