The world’s two largest tram companies are jostling for market share in China, but a small-scale competitor may have already won the race. Alstom and Bombardier have more rolling stock on the world’s rails than any other company, but French upstart Lohr Industrie has the first trams running in mainland China.
The firm’s Translohr trams running in Shanghai and Tianjin are the first of what it hopes will be a string of deals here, says Florian Springer, vice-GM of the firm’s China operations. He says Chinese mayors, battling chronic traffic jams, are looking at trams as a cheaper, quicker-to-build alternative to underground subways.
Moving silently along an 8.8 kilometre Dongting Lu in the Tianjin Economic Development Area, the Translohr is not your average tram: It operates along a single guide-rail rather than the normal twin tracks. The single rail means there’s less digging: a standard tram needs a one-metre-deep base while the Translohr’s foundation is only 20 centimetres below ground, explains Lohr’s Springer. Like normal trams, an overhead electrical cable propels the Translohr, which can go as fast as 70 kilometres an hour.
Cheap and easy
Springer points to advantages aside from the shorter construction time: The Translohr is up to 50 percent cheaper than conventional trams like Alstom’s Citadis. Costing EUR2.14 million each, eight three-car Lohr trains sold to Binhai Mass Transit Authority (BMTA), a Tianjin government entity, carry a maximum 150-passenger load.
Less noisy and polluting than buses, the Translohr works best in an integrated transport system, shifting pedestrians efficiently between bus and rail options. The Tianjin tramline currently connects to an elevated light rail line in an industrial area. City authorities have termed the Dongting Lu route a test line and may expand the tram.
Vision of the future
The Translohr line in downtown Shanghai is carrying full-capacity loads. The Shanghai line suggests tram sales in China can be about image as much as environment: Shanghai bought the tram as a sleek and shiny transport solution which could be built in time to flaunt during this year’s Expo. However, trams are also practical solutions to traffic woes, as studies across Europe have shown drivers are more likely to park their vehicles to ride a tram than board a bus.
Given its giant megalopolises, Asia could be the world’s largest market for trams, which have been enjoying a comeback in Europe and the US. Cities there are reinstalling trams, which fell prey in the last-century to pressure on municipalities by oil and car industry lobbies. Andre Navarri, president of Bombardier Transportation, recently attributed the renaissance to the global rise in population and urbanisation. His firm’s Flexity tram model has fared well in European markets.
Alstom, which has similarly sold trains in China, is hoping its tram Citadis tram will find favour here. In scale, Alstom is a giant: There are 1,400 models running worldwide, compared to 100 of the Translohr. Yet Lohr may be holding the ace: BMTA is not only a customer but also a partner in a new factory assembling the Translohr for Chinese customers.
Local mayors are much more likely to buy something made in China, explains Springer. BMTA has also been good at using local connections to push sales. Delegations from cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou have come to Tianjin to ride the new tram and are now close to buying their own, says Springer.
Lohr has starter’s advantage in China’s tram market, but larger firms are still trying to get in on the action. "Two years ago there wasn’t really a tram market in China, but now every time we bid in a municipal tender in China we see bids from Alstom and Bombardier, too," says Springer. "But we are cheaper and we were here first."