Electric trams in French cities

Electric trams in French cities

  • Rue de Nice. Tram.

    GILLETTA Jean (1856 - 1933)

  • Lyon. General view of Place Carnot.

    GILLETTA Jean (1856 - 1933)

  • Lyon. General view from rue de la République towards Croix-Rousse.

    GILLETTA Jean (1856 - 1933)

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Lyon. General view of Place Carnot.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais

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Title: Lyon. General view from rue de la République towards Croix-Rousse.

Author : GILLETTA Jean (1856 - 1933)

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Storage location: Photo archive website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palaissite web

Picture reference: GLT219P and GLT219F

Lyon. General view from rue de la République towards Croix-Rousse.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

For a long time, the city was small and most of the travel was done on foot. Despite the hostility it sometimes triggers in the name of a struggle to preserve the aesthetic qualities of the city, the process which combines cables, catenaries and trolleys is the most common. In some town centers, the method of electrical transmission by underground gutter, more expensive, is however adopted.

Image Analysis

The animation of this street in Nice, long the winter capital of wealthy tourists, illustrates the diversity of modes of transport: from handcarts to cars and bicycles, including the electric tram. Between the two rails on which the tram runs, the gutter which is used for the electricity supply is clearly visible. Should this be seen as a concern to preserve the image of a city that the British aristocrats made the success of? In London, in fact, the installation of overhead wires had sparked a veritable smear campaign. In Lyon, and this is also the case in Paris, power is supplied by overhead wires in the outlying districts while, in the city center, electricity circulates in an underground gutter. This is clearly visible on rue de la République, a street pierced by order of the prefect Vaïsse, a contemporary of Haussmann, in the center of what the Lyonnais call "the peninsula". To the south of the peninsula, at Place Carnot, the electric current circulates in overhead cables. In this square, like Rue de la République, horse-drawn traction has not disappeared, but it is now confined to the transport of goods.
The streets that accommodate the electric trams are streets of significant width, corresponding to the openings or straight streets traced in the nineteenth century. The oldest urban fabrics cannot accommodate the new mode of transport: this is the case in old Nice or old Lyon, but also in many other cities.


The difference between the horse-drawn tram and the electric tram relates to both the number of passengers and the speed. The latter increases from 25 to 50%, making it possible to multiply the number of rotations of the same vehicle. In addition, the number of passengers is increasing, and this makes it possible to reduce transport costs. This cost reduction varies from network to network, but overall it is 30-40%. In 1911 France, the electric tram network reached its peak: with one exception, all towns with more than 35,000 inhabitants were equipped, but the First World War was fatal to many networks.
The development of electric trams marks a turning point in the organization of the city. The fall in costs has allowed a sharp increase in the daily mobility of city dwellers, and from this period date the sprawl of the city and the rapid development of the suburbs. Among many other consequences, the electrification of streetcars has caused the gradual disappearance of horses in urban space.

  • railway
  • electricity
  • innovation
  • Lyon
  • Nice
  • tram
  • town planning
  • city


John McKAY Tramways and Trolleys, The Rise of the Urban Mass Transport in Europe Princeton University Press, 1976. Jean-Luc PINOL The World of Cities in the 19th Century Paris, Hachette, 1991.D. LARROQUE "The electrification of urban transport" in Maurice Levy-Leboyer and Henri Morsel (eds.), History of electricity in France volume II, “1919-1946”, Paris, Fayard, 1994, p.1121-1149.

To cite this article

Jean-Luc PINOL, "Electric tramways in French cities"

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