September 26, 2021

To revive local rail, ultralight rail is gaining ground

“More than a hundred meters. We are at 0.45, 0.47… It’s over! 0.47 euro cent, world record broken! “ Like a sports commentator, Jean-Philippe Mangeot, the founder of Urbanloop, vibrates on this sunny Friday May 28 at Nancy aerodrome. Its two-seater capsule has just broken the record for energy efficiency for a rail vehicle, ie 0.47 euro cent of electricity spent in one kilometer. In front of him, a crowd of local elected officials and the Minister for Transport, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, let out applause and cheers.

Well. The prototype is still a bit noisy and rattling. And he did not fail to arouse an avalanche of gibes on Twitter, when Mr. Djebbari made a test ride in front of the cameras. “They are on the verge of inventing the tram”, said one of the scoffers. “The innovation is already taken”, mock another, posting a photo of a fun fair caterpillar.

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However, on paper, the idea has strengths. Originally a project of students from eleven engineering schools of the University of Lorraine, including the Ecole des mines de Nancy, its principle consists of putting, on a loop of a few kilometers (ten km, at most), a network of capsules managed by algorithms, allowing electric transport available twenty-four hours a day, without waiting at the dock and without stopping to destination. Everything is ultrafrugal: energy expenditure is minimal, the light infrastructure is pre-assembled in the factory.

Urbanloop, which has just been incorporated as a simplified joint-stock company (the University of Lorraine is its main shareholder), has caught the attention of the Ministry of Transport, which is in the process of proceeding with its safety approval.

Maintain a low-cost rail service

Light rail projects are one of the avenues put forward by the government to revitalize local rail public transport, and in particular the small SNCF lines which are in the process of being abandoned.

Today, 4,000 kilometers of railway lines risk, in the long term, closure in France, out of the 12,000 kilometers of regional railway lines. And this infrastructure is sometimes directly available: 700 kilometers of very small freight tracks, called “capillaries”, no longer accommodate any train.

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“For a certain number of lines of local interest, we are open to innovative operating methods, indicated Mr. Djebbari, in Nancy. Management is in the process of being delegated to the regions, but the State can act on its side to facilitate the development of Urbanloop-type projects. “ The minister has also started to federate a light rail sector, even ultralight. At the start of the year, it brought together the players, including the traditional manufacturers Alstom and CAF, who have trains and tram-trains weighing around fifty tonnes (200 tonnes for a traditional TER) in their catalog.

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