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European Light Rail Congress: 18-19 May, Zaragoza

Blog lead image-EULR22

Against the backdrop of a local heatwave, participants from across Europe gathered in the magnificent Spanish city of Zaragoza for this year’s European Light Rail Congress on 18-19 May.

The unseasonable weather was significant as many of the debates at this year’s event surrounded sustainability and how the mobility sector continues to provide exceptional customer service and enhanced intermodal connectivity, while at the same time increasing its cost efficiency and reducing its ecological footprint. Examples in this regard were given from Vienna, Tenerife, Malaga and Granada, as well as the host city of Zaragoza.

Expecting authorities to ‘do more with less’ is a common refrain. However, innovations from every discipline – planning design, construction, operations, customer service, data and maintenance – were presented, showing how the sector has never been more ready, or able, to step up to the challenge. Of course, this requires significant collaboration and political will, and many of the cities and partners in attendance showed that this is certainly the case.

Local event partners Tranvía de Zaragoza and Mobility City demonstrated this in practice, with the city’s Mayor Jorge Azcón commenting: “Zaragoza has taken on the challenge of becoming a climate-neutral city in terms of emissions by 2030. For this, public transport by tram and bus will play a fundamental role. We like to anticipate the future and this is what we are doing with everything related to mobility.”

With the other ever-present issue being our collective emergence from the COVID-19 pandemic, it was encouraging to hear that ridership is steadily getting back to 2019 numbers – with many reporting a 75-80% return. A return to the office for many workers is helping to drive these figures, although there are notable variations by region as some cities are also experiencing a rebalancing of demand to more leisure travel in the evenings and at weekends at the expense of the peak.

Continuing growth

How we encourage further growth and modal shift away from the private car was explored across the event’s two days, with delegates highlighting a considerable shift in attitudes and perceptions. With automobile ownership once seen as a rite of passage that indicated freedom and independence, today’s younger generation have new lifestyles and an increasing battle with rising living costs which are pointing to public transport and new mobility options are becoming the ‘new’ freedom. These viewpoints were played out in a fascinating panel debate, with operators from Vienna, Luxembourg and Tenerife taking the stage and sharing their experiences.

The consensus from this interactive debate showed that public transport has a bright future, but that continued investment and political support were vital to this continuing, allied to wider city, regional and national policies that consider how we want our communities to look in the future.

Driving innovation

Technology is helping to drive this change, with greater options for smart ticketing offering flexibility for passengers. A further panel debate saw industry suppliers discussing the game-changing initiatives shaping the sector, including new technologies in electrification, data collection and integration and Artificial Intelligence. The importance of collaboration was also explored in detail, and the need to form cross-industry partnerships as ‘no matter how fast we are running, the automotive and aerospace sectors are running faster’.

Underpinning these technologies are advancements in communications and automation, also employed for a range of digital systems used for real-time monitoring of infrastructure and vehicles to maintain optimum service reliability. Many of these were showcased in Zaragoza from the industry’s leading suppliers – technologies which are also giving authorities and operators oversight and insight into their networks’ performance in a way which was never possible before.

Another key pillar of successful public transport operation – safety – was also a key focus of this year’s event with insightful presentations on topics such as the cyclist interface, materials technology, sustainable construction and driver assistance systems. While such innovations are valuable, one speaker offered, the vital human element cannot be overlooked: “Please do not assume that anyone is immune from inattention and no amount of training or experience can change this,” explained Ian Rowe of UK-based consultancy IRAL.

The importance of collaboration

While the main conference schedule and exhibition inevitably drew the interest during the two days, key additional activities came from the event’s unrivalled networking opportunities and first-hand experiences. As well as tours of Tranvía de Zaragoza’s state-of-the-art digital deport at Valdespartera, delegates also saw behind the scenes at CAF’s manufacturing facility. Here guests were invited to see the latest trams and LRVs for Antwerp, Gothenburg, Jerusalem, Oslo, Stockholm and Baden-Württemberg’s unique Schönbuchbahn.

The networking further continued at the spectacular Aura Restaurante, overlooking the River Ebro in the heart of the city, giving guests the opportunity to continue their discussion late into the evening.

As a leading event for the light rail sector, the 2022 running of the European Light Rail Congress offered much food for thought, forging many long-lasting relationships between colleagues from across the continent.

Looking forward to 2023

The dates for the 2023 European Light Rail Congress have already been confirmed – 22-23 March. The venue is the La Laguna Gran Hotel, located in the heart of the historic centre of San Cristóbal de La Laguna, Tenerife.

Commenting on next year’s congress, Metrotenerife Chairman and Vice-President of the Government of Tenerife, Enrique Arriaga said: “The change and improvement of mobility in the city is a priority. As the most important annual meeting in Europe on light rail and urban tramways, in 2023 we will present our model of sustainable mobility and the innovation, technology, strategic solutions and design keys to the present and future of public transport and mobility.”

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