The press was allowed to ride the tram on October 20. Photo: DUB

The Uithoflijn tram will actually run in December, and DUB got to join the test run

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Slowly, the tram pulls up, smoothly running from P+R Science Park, past the hospital, to the Heidelberglaan. It’s Sunday morning, and there’s barely anyone around, which helps this tram ride for the Utrecht press run extra smoothly. After years of delay, the tram is actually going to run in December.

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The tram (line 22) will run six times an hour between the Central Station and Utrecht Science Park (as well as vice versa) starting Monday, December 16. As this won’t be enough to transport all passengers during rush hour, there’ll still be a bus along that route as well. That won’t be the extra-long bus 12, but a new, temporary line 26. “As soon as the tram can run ten times an hour, the extra bus won’t be necessary anymore,” says Uithoflijn employee Henrike de Jonge on Sunday, October 20, on the day the regional press was invited for a daytime test run.

The big difference with the current daytime test runs and the moment line 22 will actually be put into service, is that the test runs are conducted with one single tram car. The trams that will run from December 16 on will each consist of two cars. Each of those long trams will be large enough to fit between eight and nine hundred passengers. In the beginning, however, the tram will run only six times an hour in both directions, a bus is needed in order to be able to transport the large number of passengers. This bus will get its own number. The reason for that is that the bus will run a different route than line 12. “Line 26 will depart from the Central Station at the same location as the tram, and will run straight to Galgenwaard Stadium. After that, the bus will stop at the same stops as the tram,” De Jonge says.

The extra bus won’t be needed anymore when the tram starts running ten times an hour each way during rush hour. De Jonge: “We’re testing that now, but we’re not sure whether that’ll succeed before December 16.” The technical issues the tram is still facing, come down to so-called axle counters. These are detection points on the route that detect when a tram is incoming, to which traffic lights, switches, and barriers react. “These were set too sensitive, which meant it detected other types of traffic as well,” says Martijn Donders, who’s in charge of the infrastructure technology, among other things.

Luxurious ride
De Jonge and Donders, as well as a number of other colleagues, spoke to the regional press during the ride on Sunday morning. The tram slides smoothly down the tracks from P+R Science Park to the Central Station. Shortly before the tram’s stops, announcements can be heard, telling passengers the name of the upcoming stop, and within twenty comfortable minutes, the end of the line emerges. There are no sharp turns you need to brace yourself for, and the driver doesn’t make any sudden stops. But that doesn’t mean a full tram will feel quite as luxurious as today’s ride does. Still, Donders says, it’ll be more comfortable than a full bus.

He says the Uithoflijn tram is special for a tram. “The Uithoflijn is really a cross between a tram and a subway. It’s colloquially known as an express tram; we call it a light rail.” On some parts of the track, the tram can run 70 kilometres an hour, and the stops are far apart, like they are on subway tracks. This is the case between the Galgenwaard stadium and the Central Station. The tram can’t go faster than 70 kilometres an hour, due to a speed limitation device.

In De Uithof, the line has the true character of a tram, Donders says. Lots of stops, and low speed. The tram’s speed is lowest at the Heidelberg- and Padualaan, right through the heart of the university campus. That part of the track is special, he says. “Because there are a lot of intersections right after each other.” Here, the tram won’t exceed 30 kilometres an hour.

“Usually, however, we’ll go slower there,” says Sjaak Breewijk, today’s tram driver. He’s worked as a bus driver for years, and as such, he’s familiar with the headstrong pedestrians of Utrecht University and Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, crossing the road when they want to. “As a tram driver, you have to stay focused at all times, and anticipate. Sound the horn when you think someone doesn’t notice the tram. That usually wakes them up.”

Recently, a number of traffic lights at the Heidelberg- and Padualaan were replaced. At the locations where pedestrians and the tram cross each other, the traffic lights for public transport – the so-called nine eyes – have been replaced by warning lights. This was done so pedestrians won’t have to needlessly wait at the pedestrian crossings. “They’ve been in use for a month now, and the number of complaints has already dropped. We hope this will be well accepted,” says Henrike de Jonge.

Contact with passengers
Breewijk, today’s tram driver, or ‘tram steerer’ in Dutch– “kind of the wrong word, really, as I’m not steering” – can’t wait to drive the tram with passengers in it. “It’s so great to drive the tram. Especially when the tram can run all the way to Nieuwegein. That’s a beautiful route.”

Breewijk is pleased as punch with all the technological gadgets the tram has. He effectively drives the tram with a stick, with which he accelerates (‘traction’) and brakes. The stick also monitors whether Breewijk remains awake. “I have to tap my thumb on the top of the stick every fifteen seconds. If I don’t, I’ll hear a loud beep, and I have to tap the stick with my thumb – and if I don’t do that, the tram will stop.”

There won’t be any contact with passengers. The driver is seated in a closed cabin, and can keep an eye on the passengers entering and leaving via cameras. If a passenger becomes unwell, or needs assistance, there’s an option of contacting the driver. There’s a red button next to each door, which activates a camera and intercom when pressed. It’s important to have that option, because when the tram runs with a double set of cars, there won’t be any tram personnel present in the back car, Breewijk says.

In the meantime, the tram zooms back to the P+R in De Uithof. With only a handful of people on board, the tram feels like a luxury, but how will it be when everyone’s packed like sardines? “You can stand comfortably with four people per each square metre,” says technology expert Donders. “But it can fit 6.6 people per square metre, although that’s really packed body to body.”

Tram facts

 

With the new operating times of public transportation in the province, line 22 will run six times an hour in both directions. The tram will not run on the weekends, nor will it run after 10 pm. After the evening rush, the tram will run four times an hour.

Checking in and out is done on the platform. Once the tram starts running for real, passengers will be notified of this by public transport employees. In the early days, passengers will also be informed of the bus service making additional runs to P+R Science Park, and back to the station. Currently, around 25,000 people travel to and from De Uithof by bus 12.

The track is 8 kilometres long, and includes 9 stops.

The tram currently takes 19 minutes, but this is planned to be shortened to 17 minutes. This is planned to be accomplished before 2020. It will be possible to do so because by then, the track won’t be used by the extra bus, and everyone will be more used to the tram.

There are two types of tram cars: one that consists of five ‘blocks’, which is 33 metres long, and one that has seven blocks and is 41 metres long. A block is the piece of tram between two harmonica elements. Including the coupler between the cars, a tram is 75 metres long. The smaller tram car fit around 216 passengers; the larger 250.

There are 27 33-metre trams, and 22 41-metre ones. With these, the tram will be able to run 16 times an hour in both directions during rush hour. That will likely be the case in late 2020, when the number of daily passengers increases to 34,000.

The maximum capacity between Central Station and the USP is calculated at 20 times an hour in both directions. If that turns out to be necessary, additional trams will have to be bought.

The Uithoflijn tram is the most expensive tram in the world. So far, the total cost has been over 500 million euros. 

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