It was once thought the city of Bergen in Norway was too small for a light rail network, however, the finished construction works have proven that the network has reached capacity while the final stages are still being finished. Thomas Potter, Senior Engineer from Norconsult AS in Norway describes the Bybanen Bergen Light Rail Project, and what needs to happen for the line to thrive in the future.
Like many other cities in the world, the City of Bergen closed its tram system in the 1960s (1965) which originally opened in 1897. In 2000, Bergen decided to build a new light rail system. After 20 years of heated discussion, a determined search for resources, visits to many other successful light rail and tram projects, planning and finally construction, the first phase of the project, a 9,8 kilometer section with 15 stops, opened in June 2010. It was officially opened by the Norwegian Queen Sonja and was accompanied by a great celebration.
The first extension to the system, from the terminal in Nesttun to the regional shopping centre Lagunen, an additional 3,6 km and 5 new stops, opened in June 2013. A second extension to the Bergen airport at Flesland is now under construction and is expected to open in 2016.
Many of the fears concerning lack of riders, cost overruns and delays in construction have proved to be unfounded. Ridership has far exceeded expectations with 35.000 passengers on weekdays compared to an estimate of approximately 24.000. Construction and operating costs have been as predicted. The first phase was built about 8 per cent under budget; the second phase was approximately 15 per cent under budget. Both phases were delivered on-time. Other concerns such as a slow operating speed, noise and safety have also proved to be without merit. The system is fast, quiet, reliable and safe.
The many years of discussion and uncertainty connected to the project have disappeared. In their place has come a great deal of impatience to get extensions built to all areas of the city. There is now broad public and political acceptance for a policy in Bergen for continuous expansion of the system to serve all areas of the Bergen region including neighboring municipalities. There is also a concerted effort to localize new development, both housing and commercial, along the existing and planned light rail alignment. The Bergen Light Rail is viewed as a tool for sustainable city planning and development as much as a transport system.
Service on the Bergen Light Rail system is provided by 2.65 meter wide, 32 meter long Stadler Variobahn vehicles. The fleet has increased from 12 for the opening of the first phase to 20 later this year. This will allow a headway of 4 minutes on the 13.4 km line. An order for additional vehicles and the extension of the ordered 20 vehicles to 42 meters has been. These longer vehicles will be in place for the extension to the airport in 2016.
A new workshop and depot will also be constructed near the airport to provide space for the complete system (up to 50 vehicles) and allow for the modification (addition of two modules) and maintenance of longer vehicles of 42 meters.
Operating headway has improved from 6 minutes during rush hours in 2010 to 5 minutes in 2011. The 5 minute service is also operated on Saturdays. The system operates all night on Friday and Saturdays, including major bus feeder lines.
Variety of alignments
The various alignments used by the system demonstrate the flexibility of light rail systems. The line operates as a tram system and shares the track with buses in the centre of the city. It operates on a separate alignment in a city street to the former boundary of the city at Wergeland – the site of the old tram loop. From here it operates on a completely segregated right-of-way and includes four tunnels to Nesttun. Through the town centre of Nesttun the line operates through the pedestrian area of the town center and with a stop at the top of the area. It serves the Fana Culture Centre and the main shopping and commercial area of Nesttun. Speed will be limited here to 15 km/hr to insure safe and quiet operations. The line drops into a 450 meter tunnel with a 6% grade to cross under a road tunnel (the floor of which was reinforced two years ago in anticipation of the rail tunnel) and then back up a 6% grade to the second new stop at Skjoldsskiftet.
From here, the alignment parallels a major road which has been completely rebuilt. The track alignment is mostly grass track and includes two stops at Mårdalen and Skjold with a tunnel of 380 meters between the two stops.
Only one signalized road crossing has been maintained on the entire extension and it is located next to the new stop at Skjold. A number of pedestrian bridges have also been built over the alignment.
Finally the line curves away from the main road to the terminal station at the major regional shopping center of Lagunen. The terminus is built as a two-level station with the light rail stop on an elevated section crossing the main road. A new bus terminal has been constructed at ground level.
The light rail system will not completely replace all bus lines in the corridor; a number of express lines will operate to and from the city center from the Lagunen terminal via a major four-lane highway. In many cases, the express bus will provide a faster service to the city center mainly due to few stops. The light rail line has 20 stops; the bus service will only have six.
A major parking lot for commuters has also been built at this stop. Parking is reserved for passengers with monthly tickets. The shopping center has installed parking barriers for their own parking areas to prevent commuters from filling up the space; payment must be made for parking more than 2 hours. All stops provide parking for bicycles.
The third phase, a 7,8 kilometer extension to the Bergen airport at Flesland is now under detail design. Construction will begin as soon after the opening of phase 2, and will open concurrently with a new airport terminal in 2016-2017. The line will have 6 tunnels with a total length of 2800 meters, four bridges with a total length of 340 meters and 7 new stops. The bridges and tunnels are necessary to allow higher operating speeds.
The completed line from the city center to the airport with then be 21,2 kilometers long with 27 stops. It will be a tram system for the first five kilometers, operating in streets but segregated from other traffic. For the next fifteen kilometers it is mainly on a reserved track and will be able to operate at higher speeds, with the exception of the pedestrian area in Nesttun.
The station at the airport will be integrated in the lower level of a new terminal building with convenient access.
An alignment and Environmental Impact Assessment have recently been completed for phase 4, an extension of the line from the city center to the northern suburban areas of Bergen. There is a major on-going discussion concerning the alignment through the city centre, particularly near the historic wharf area known as Bryggen, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
A fifth phase, a new line from the city center to the main regional hospital and western areas of Bergen, will be addressed in the near future.
Ten years ago, the discussion in Bergen was whether the City was big enough for a light rail system. The discussion today is more whether light rail provides enough capacity to meet the goal of being the backbone for public transportation in the region. Bybanen Bergen Light Rail builds on the strengths and successes of many of the other new light rail systems throughout the world who have graciously shared their knowledge and experience with us over the years.
About the author:
Thomas J. Potter was the Chief Engineer for Bybanen, the Bergen Light Rail project, from 2001 until March 2012 and has been involved in the project since 1988. A native of the USA, he was educated at MIT and the University of Pennsylvania. He was responsible for the technical specifications of the entire system and has been the project manager for the 100% low-floor Variobahn vehicles delivered by Stadler Pankow GmbH in Berlin. He is now a Senior Transportation Engineer with Norconsult AS, is still based in Bergen and is currently working on the alignment study and environmental impact assessment of the extension of Bybanen to the northern suburbs of Åsane (about 10 km) as well as other light rail projects in Scandinavia.
Thomas will also be a guest speaker at the Light Rail 2014 conference that is being held in Melbourne next month. His presentation will focus on the resurgence of light rail in Europe. For more details, please visit www.informa.com.au/lightrail14