Like most French cities, Bordeaux had an efficient tramway system for over three-quarters of a century — from 1880, when the first horse-drawn trams were installed, to 1958, when the last of the 38 electric tram lines fell victim to automania.
For the next 45 years Bordeaux was dominated by cars, hundreds of thousands of them, supplemented only by a few shabby bus lines for the poor.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st century that the city finally started building three modern tramway lines, which went into operation in 2003 and 2004. As in other French cities, the new tramway was accompanied by a comprehensive program of urban renewal, including the restoration of the main monuments, the redevelopment of the river banks and a complete overhaul of the road network in favor of pedestrians and cyclists.
Bordeaux was the first city to power some sections of its tramways using a new system called APS, meaning Alimentation Par Sol = power supply from the ground. This system is rather complex and had huge teething problems when it was first installed in Bordeaux in the early noughties, but now it seems to be working smoothly and has been adopted by three other French cities, Reims, Angers and Orléans, for part of their tramway networks.
The APS system makes it possible for the trams to get their electricity from an electric rail in the middle of the track. At first sight I found this rather alarming, since I was reminded of the ‘third rail’ that I used to see on the Chicago elevated system when I was a child, a high-voltage electrified rail which brought instant death to anyone who touched it or stepped on it. But it turns out that the new APS system is not a danger to pedestrians because it is divided into eight- or ten-meter segments which carry electricity only when they are completely covered by the tram.
The reason for using the APS system is to prevent the city center from being cluttered up by overhead wires. So you can still take photos of the cathedral and the opera house without any wires getting in the way.
Outside the city center, some sections of the tramway still use overhead wires, as this tram is doing as it approaches the railway station Gare Saint-Jean. These conventional overhead wires are not aesthetically pleasing, but apparently they are cheaper to install, operate and maintain than the new APS system.
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: Public transport in Lyon.