Like most French cities, Nancy had a well-functioning system of tramways, on metal tracks, for over three-quarters of a century, in this case from 1874 to 1958. In the 1950s the trams were phased out in favor of cars, which were very much in fashion at the time, supplemented only by a few shabby bus lines for the poor.
In 1980 the city introduced three lines of trolleybuses, in an attempt to reduce the problem of traffic congestion without an increase in air pollution. Trolleybuses were never very common in France, but are still used today in several Swiss cities. They are electric buses which get their power from a pair of overhead wires — the second wire being needed to complete the electrical circuit.
Then in the year 2000 Nancy ‘upgraded’ one of its trolleybus lines to what was called a ‘tram on tires’, a then-new technology from the Bombardier company which used a center guide rail to steer the trolleybus along its own dedicated right-of-way. This is now the main east-west transit line of Nancy and vicinity (Grand Nancy), running at five-minute intervals during the rush hours (ten minutes otherwise).
One advantage of using a center guide rail to steer the trolleybuses is that they can be very close together when they pass each other — much closer than if they were being steered by human drivers. On the other hand, the center guide rails have turned out to be quite sensitive and are frequently in need of repair or replacement. Also, they tend to get clogged up with mud or snow, depending on the time of year.
Another problem is that the special trolleybuses used on line 1 are unusually expensive because they can be operated in three different modes. They can be steered by hand if no center guide rail is available or functioning, and they can be run for short distances by a diesel-electric motor if no overhead wires are available.
Besides Nancy, the only city to adopt Bombardier’s ‘tram on tires’ technology was Caen in the Normandie.
(I’ve never actually been to Caen, but I went through on the train last summer on my way to the French port city of Cherbourg, to see where my father embarked as an emigrant in 1928, and where he returned on a business trip a mere three years later.)
Caen inaugurated its ‘tram on tires’ system in 2002, but had technical problems with it from the start. The Caen system ceased operation at the end of 2017, and has since been replaced by a conventional tramway system with metal tracks.
Nancy, however, wanted to keep its ‘tram on tires’ system running for another five years, while they decided on a replacement system. Unfortunately, the Bombardier company was no longer supporting the failed technology and could no longer supply replacement parts. So in 2019 Nancy ‘bought’ twelve of Caen’s old trolleybuses for one Euro each, for the sole purpose of cannibalizing them for spare parts. Part of the deal was that Nancy had to pay the considerable cost of transporting the twelve vehicles from Caen, a distance of over 600 km.
In January 2022, according to French media reports, the Métropole du Grand Nancy announced that their ‘tram on tires’ system would be replaced by a conventional trolleybus line using 24-meter double-articulated trolleybuses from the Swiss company Hess. These unusually long trolleybuses are already in use in cities such as Lyon, Nantes, Luzern and Geneva, where they have proved to be efficient and dependable — Nancy is no longer interested in being a pioneer for an unproven technology.
In 2015 I rode the Stanway line 1 out to its eastern terminus at Essey Mouzimpré and back, and found it to be a pleasant form of transportation. At some point along the way (I believe at the city limit of Nancy) the center guide rail came to an end, so the driver had to steer the trolleybus with a normal steering wheel for the rest of the route.
The acronym “Stan” in “Stanway” stands for Service de transport de l’agglomération nancéienne (service of transport of the agglomeration of Nancy), but this is actually a ‘retroacronym’, meaning that the abbreviation existed first (lots of things in Nancy are called Stan-something after Stanislas Leszczyński) and the name to match the abbreviation was invented afterwards.
By the way, the word agglomération does not have negative connotations in French as it does in English. I have explained this in my post The Dilettante of Avignon.
In 2019, the Stanway line 1 was renamed ‘Tempo 1’, or T1 for short.
My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2022.
See also: Stanway line 2 aka Tempo 2.