Innovation VGF


Innovative developments in established rail systems

Innovation and light rail and tramways – does that really go together?

Yes, it does. Although rail-bound local public transport may seem a bit outdated today, it was still all the rage in February 1884 when the Frankfurt-Offenbacher-Trambahn-Gesellschaft (FOTG) was the first company to use “proper” trams to transport passengers between the two neighbouring cities. “Proper” means: with overhead lines. The first horse-drawn omnibus line on the Main existed in 1839 with the commissioning of the “Taunusbahn” to Höchst, the first horse-drawn tram ran in Frankfurt on 19 May 1872, and steam-powered trams chugged through the city in Kassel from 1877. There was also an electrically powered railway that ran to the “Kadettenanstalt” cadet corps in Berlin-Lichterfelde. But since there was no contact wire in place, both rails were electrified. In order to protect people and animals, the track had to be fenced in, so this system was not suitable as a “street” rail system. With the awarding of the concession to the city, Frankfurt received the first three lines of an “electric” tram on 20 January 1899, meaning that it had finally arrived in the tram era.

Since then, the tram has continued its triumphant march unperturbed. Although not quite unswervingly, given that when the “rail-free inner city” was propagated in Frankfurt in the 1980s and public transport was to be completely banished below the surface in the form of an underground railway, it faltered somewhat. At that time, people wanted to create more space “above” for the car-oriented city. Fortunately, this plan was quickly discarded, and today the tram is once again appreciated for what it is: an indispensable part of modern urban mobility and the wider transport revolution.

While trams – in and of themselves – may not be considered particularly innovative, individual developments in their history certainly were. For example, the first large-capacity tram that travelled through Frankfurt in 1956 as the “L” train from Duewag, or the low-floor technology that was used for the first time in Germany in the “R” types from Siemens. They were introduced in Frankfurt in two series between 1993 and 1997.

In March 2022, the first streetcar car of the new type “T” was delivered to the VGF. This series, too – with 34 of a total of 58 new streetcars – comes up with an innovation, at least as far as the Frankfurt streetcar system is concerned: With a central section, part of the fleet will be 40 meters long. Until now, 30 meters was the Frankfurt standard. There is also innovation “under the hood”: a new generation of permanent magnet motors, which manufacturer Alstom calls “IPM motors.” They deliver the same power to the rails as conventional drives, but in a smaller size, which in turn means weight savings. VGF had originally ordered 45 “T” cars, 23 as 31.5-meter-long three-part cars and 22 as four-part 40-meter cars. In March 2022 – and against the backdrop of the expansion of public transport in Frankfurt – the VGF used its option to order 13 more streetcars, twelve of them as long four-section units.

The first new car has been in passenger service since the 2022 timetable change.

The underground in Frankfurt was also highly innovative when its first section opened in October 1968. Strictly speaking, the Frankfurt system is not an underground but a light rail system that runs underground on inner-city sections and has crossings with streets and roads on the outer sections – something that is not the case for Germany’s only four “real” underground systems in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Nuremberg. With these examples, the “U” actually stands for “unconstrained” (in German: “unabhängig” or “independent”).

What Frankfurt introduced in 1968 was a successful model that still works very effectively today in cities like Cologne, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart and Hanover. In Frankfurt, it has since been expanded to nine lines with almost 65 kilometres of service and 84 stations, 27 of which are underground. Speaking of “expansion”: For the extension of the U5 line to the “Europaviertel”, VGF used a tunnel boring machine for the first time. Although this is common practice worldwide, it has not yet been used in Frankfurt for the construction of the underground.

In July 2021, VGF unveiled the first of its 23 new center sections for the “U5” subway types currently in service. The 25-meter-long units do not have regular driver’s cabs, but only two “emergency driver’s cabs” to enable them to be moved around depots. The center sections can be installed in existing train sets, extending them to 75 or 100 meters. This will result in the longest full-length light rail vehicles in Germany. The advantage is, on the one hand, an increase in capacity with the same number of trains in service and, on the other hand, the fact that no costly expansion of the stationary infrastructure or signaling technology is required.

The first “U5-100” went into passenger service on the U4 line at the timetable change in December 2021. The other vehicles will be delivered and then deployed in 75-meter and 100-meter trainsets.