Thursday, May 14, 2015


As I had lived in Barcelona for 12 years (1989-2001) and come back to this city many times since, I have never really "explored" its system as I would in other cities where I might be visiting maybe just once in a lifetime. So while on other occasions I mostly came to catch up with old friends and see new or refurbished stations, this time I stayed for several days to do some real work for my forthcoming "Metro & Tram Atlas Spain" due for release later this year. For some impressions gathered at the end of 2012, click here.

     Barcelona is probably the most exciting city in Spain for urban rail enthusiasts because it offers such a variety of different modes, including several funicular railways and aerial cable cars. In the Metro field, I decided to ride on all lines because there is always something new to discover. Many stations have been refurbished in recent years, some in a sober way, some very pleasantly. I was quite surprised when a saw the colourful design of Bellvitge station on L1, for example. I also like the bright panelling at Joanic or Alfons X on L4 or Sants Estació on L3, especially when compared to the cheap panelling used in earlier refurbishments like at Urquinaona (L1 & L4) or Lesseps (L3). At the latter, however, I was surprised to find a huge new entrance built in provision for the now mothballed section of L9, although the stairs down to the narrow platforms are still a bottleneck. Most stations have meanwhile been retrofitted with lifts, which must have been quite a challenge, not only due to the depth of some stations, but due to narrow platforms and fare gates that require multiple lifts.

     What I still don't like in many stations in Barcelona, however, is the often ugly wall behind the tracks in those stations with a middle supporting wall, a problem Barcelona shares with cities like Vienna. Budapest's refurbished M2 showed clearly what a difference it makes! Another more technical problem in Barcelona is the lack of ventilation in the stations while all trains are air-conditioned and therefore discharge the heat in the stations creating a kind of oven, while inside the train it is like a fridge! Just the new L9/L10 is an exception, while especially the stations in the city centre can get unbearable, and not only in the summer.

     Being a Mediterranean city with life continuing late into the night even on weekdays, I find it strange that the Metro closes at midnight. I think it should at least run until 1 a.m. During my 12-year stay in Barcelona it used to close at 23:00! Now it runs all night on Saturdays.

     This time I also took a ride out to L11, the cute line of the system, with semi-automatic 2-car trains shuttling deep below ground. When I was there some 10 years ago, it was still operated manually, but now four of the five stations have platform screen doors, and the trains run driverless, although not completely. For a reason I do not quite understand, the driver on board takes over in ATO mode between Casa de l'Aigua and Trinitat Nova, where L11 terminates on the opposite side of L4 sharing the same island platform. I wouldn't see a reason why platform screen doors could not be added here, too. Anyway, this way the train looks a bit less spooky with an attendant on board. The line was fairly used during late morning hours, so it seems to provide the right level of service it was supposed to provide. Due to the tight schedule on L4 and with only one track available here to reverse (drivers skip one train to be able to walk from end to end!), connections are not guaranteed and often it may be frustrating to see an L4 train leave just when L11 arrives. Although I had done it before, I was quite surprised that from the L4/L11 platform you need to go down some 4-5! levels to reach the L3 platform, which in return was not very busy.

     I took a full day to explore the FGC lines departing from Plaça Catalunya towards the Vallès area and found it sad that the term "Metro del Vallès" is hardly visible nowadays. It was a catchy brand (and I was told that locals and students of the Universitat Autònoma actually use it!) and quite adequate as lines S1 and S2, reinforced by S5 and S55 run as often as every 6 minutes to Sant Cugat, where they split. Along the line there are many old station buildings giving nice photo motifs. There are many new trains from CAF with a rather posh interior, but unfortunately, once again, what look like ergonomic seats, did not fit my back bones! Instead I get into my shoulder blades what other people may use as a head rest! When will those designers ever learn that there is no ergonomic seat for everyone? Otherwise FGC seems to be a very good railway operating company, all stations are in good condition, and it is always fascinating watching trains arrive at and leave from Pl. Catalunya, a 5-track terminal station. In Terrassa I had a look where the future underground stations will be located, but I'll have to wait for next time to see them from the inside.

     FGC's other terminal at Plaça Espanya is similarly busy, but a bit more chaotic! This is due to many tourists getting a train there to Montserrat and the rather confusing line numbering on that bundle of lines departing from here. What is shown on metro maps as L8 hardly exists as such, because all trains except a few peak expresses stop at all stations up to Molí Nou anyway, so the L8 rather denotes that this is zone 1 of the overall fare system. Previously, most regional services used to skip some of the inner stations, but now all trains serve all stations, probably because due to the dense intervals they can't really save time. But a simplification of the line numbering is urgently required here! Actually L'Hospitalet station has four tracks which would allow overtaking, but maybe the platforms are to short to accommodate double trainsets on the outer tracks.

On the ADIF/Renfe network I was positively surprised to find a nicely refurbished and much enlarged access to Passeig de Gràcia underground station, also improving transfers to L3. Rodalies trains now run either in old typical red/white Cercanías livery or in the new local Rodalies variant in orange/white, often in mixed trainsets. Although the newer Civia rolling stock has at least a centre doors matching the platform height, I find it rather pathetic how you have to climb into the train at the other doors, even worse than on the older trains. With Alstom's Coradia Nordic in Stockholm or the many Stadler Flirt trains having been around for many years for similar platform heights, I guess that even CAF would be able to produce something similar, as they have always kept up with the latest trends and often in the end came up with better products than their competitors.

     Barcelona's tram system has not changed much in recent years, it still consists of two isolated networks, and with the central portion of Avinguda Diagonal recently having been restyled with bicycle lanes, there is little hope that anything will happen in the foreseeable future. 

The Trambaix is, however, quite well used, with a tram every 4 minutes on its inner section shared by three lines. The negative point here is the existence of some single-track sections, notably the end of T2, which give the impression of a rather slow journey. The Trambesòs is a bit weird in that T5 and T6 run infrequently approx. every 20 minutes and constrained by a single-track section east of Glòries where they terminate, but without a reversing facility they have to change direction on the tracks more frequently served by line T4, which itself terminates somewhere where a tram should not terminate.... So, an extension into the city centre of these lines is urgently needed, and the single-track bottleneck needs to be eliminated somehow, because it does not make sense to have a grade-separated section following over three stations (a kind of tunnel with daylight coming in from the northern side where a motorway runs in a trench) if after that trams are halted because of a late-running tram in the opposite direction. So I was not surprised to see the tram I took from Besòs to Glòries almost empty, and the covered stations largely deserted! A nice feature of Barcelona's Citadis trams is their generous width, 2.65m instead of the more typical 2.40m!

     As for the fare system, Barcelona probably has the best of all Spanish cities. Just single tickets are issued by individual operators without any transfer options, but anything above that starting from 10-ride tickets is fully integrated included Metro, buses, FGC trains and also Renfe Rodalia, allowing several transfers with one fare. Besides day passes available for the already very large zone 1, easy-to-use day passes are also available for up to six zones reaching far into the hinterland. To explore all FGC routes from Pl. Catalunya, or from Pl. Espanya to Martorell, a 3-zone day pass is enough. Targeted at tourists, but available to anyone from any metro ticket machine, passes for zone 1 are also available for multiple days. Strangely, both Renfe and FGC use a slightly different fare zone system for their own exclusive tickets which is a bit confusing when looking at their own maps! If you travel to Barcelona on an AVE or other long-distance train, you may be eligible for a free onward ticket on Rodalies trains (there was an announcement on my train from Valencia about this), check with Renfe staff.

     My next visit to Barcelona will hopefully be in early 2016 (February?), when L9 from Zona Universitària to the Airport is currently scheduled to open. Some stations along this section promise to be quite interesting in design, notably Fira.


TMB (Metro and buses)

FGC (Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat de Catalunya)

Barcelona at UrbanRail.Net


The last stop on my April/May 2015 tour through Eastern Spain took me to Zaragoza, where a new tramway opened in 2011. Quite rightly, it is considered the most successful in Spain and during my short stay I saw many trams packed and almost overcrowded, so the only real thing I would dare to criticise is that they should have thought on how to increase capacity on the central section. Running mostly every five minutes except between 10:00 and 13:00, when a 7-minute service is provided, the offer is already quite good, but not enough considering the popularity of the tram. Like in Marseille, they should have extended the tram vehicles by now, from 5 to 7 modules, which would add some extra capacity, or reduce headways on the central section, with every other tram turning back at García Abril in the north where an easy loop could be built as the tracks up to this point are on parallel streets. The section beyond that point is less busy, as a large urban development apparently planned in 1998-2001 as a huge sign still indicates did not materialise around the Juslibol stop. At the southern end, trams remain rather busy up to the terminus at Mago de Oz (The Wizard of Oz) in the new district of Valdespartera where all streets carry names of film classics, so it's quite funny to hear 'Next Stop: Singing in the Rain'.
     Otherwise, the tram has a very French-style alignment, completely on a dedicated lane, partly marked off and partly on a lawnbed, I think just between Plaza de España and César Augusto, some vehicles may invade the route to access local shops etc. Between Plaza Aragón and Emperador Carlos V, as well as at Los Olvidados, there is a sort of Rambla (promenade) between the tracks. To reduce the visual impact of overhead lines, the city centre and the Ebro River are crossed in battery mode: 

Traffic-light preemption seems to work fine, so there are generally no annoying delays at road intersections, but a continuous journey with an acceptable speed. There are no unnecessary curves, and the CAF trams are generally better in curves anyway than the Citadis. To achieve this, however, the area inside the trams occupied by the bogies looks rather bulky, with only two face-to-face seats on each side mounted in this area. But otherwise the trams appear wide and spacious, and the wooden seats were quite o.k. for my back, despite their ergonomic shape (must be someone else then suffering with a different body shape...). 

     The stops all have a similar modern style, with a ticket machine and an information panel, plus an electronic next-tram indicator. The ticket machine only issues single tickets (€1.35) and allows recharging of the Tarjeta Bus, which unfortunately can only be bought for €2 at limited outlets, which can be a challenge for visitors, when they could be sold at kiosks or hotels as they initially carry €5 of stored value. While single tickets are just for one tram ride, the Tarjeta Bus allows transfers within one hour for just €0.74 per ride. And as the system cannot tell the difference, you can actually get on and off the tram for photos without paying another fare, but make sure you hold it against the card reader each time you board!

     There have been plans for a second line, running east west and actually sharing tracks with L1 on a short section between Plaza de España and César Augusto. While two branches are planned for the eastern end, I'm quite worried why they don't consider a branch going to the new railway station Delicias, which is a bit out of the way, although linked by some buses. But it must be the taxi lobby that is strong on keeping public transport away from a major public transport hub. Another reason could be that some think that the existing Cercanías line is enough to take long-distance travellers further into the city centre. But with virtually no metropolitan region outside the city proper, this line runs very irregularly, at times only once an hour! I'm not quite sure, because I didn't check it either, but I think that broad-gauge trains now have only one track in the city tunnel, while the other track was rebuilt for passing standard-gauge AVE (high-speed) trains. Please leave a comment if I'm wrong on this question!

     So with the first line so successful, let's hope that the second line will soon be built now that the country is slowly recuperating from the 'crisis', and that it will be done to the same good standard as the first line, clearly taking away road space from car drivers, but adding to what is a surprisingly lovely city.

     Bus maps were available at several outlets, but too small to be legible. The map also shows the tram line, but without any stop names. While tram maps are posted at stops, I haven't seen a place where I could ask for one.


Zaragoza Tram at UrbanRail.Net

Thursday, April 30, 2015


I already posted my impressions on Valencia and Alicante back in early 2013, so this blog is just to update a few things I have observed during my recent visit at the end of April 2015.

In Valencia, I checked the latest extension, the newly introduced L9 from Rosas to Riba-roja de Túria. The line surfaces shortly after diverging from the shared airport line (L3/5) and after the first stop La Cova becomes single-track. The two intermediate stations also have passing loops, but apparently only the northern track is used at all times, because the southern (theoretically the inbound) platform doesn't even have any signs or ticket machines, etc. The terminus at Riba-roja is also double track (two stub tracks) but here also only the northern side is used. This sort of temporary station is really the weak point of the entire extension, as it is not at the location of the former Cercanías station (the metro basically replaced an old railway line), but almost a 15-minute walk from the town centre. In fact, they built a paved path along the old rail formation as walking along the main road would require a hill down and up again. I understand that the initial idea was to put the line underground through this town and continue to Vilamarxant, but then the cheaper version was finished. The service runs only every 30 minutes, so more an S-Bahn than a metro, and although the train I took was fairly occupied, the intermediate stations were hardly used. La Presa actually has a large park&ride facility, but only 3 cars were parked there that day! The train was a bit slow on the out-of-town section, but otherwise the ride was quite o.k.

Interesting to see when I read my earlier blog entry that in some cases they seem to have listened to what I had criticised... With the opening of L9, the entire line numbering system was changed to disentangle the network a bit, a looks much cleaner now with a different number for each routing, and the old line 2 is back on the map! They also added accoustic annoucements to warn passengers about the train's destination before a junction (for example "Este tren finaliza su trayecto en Marítim-Serreria"), also line numbers are now shown on train fronts and on next-train indicators! Apparently as I was told, there were lots of errors and mistakes in signage when the new numbers were introduced, some so severe from what I saw on photos that hopefully the responsible person was sacked, but good news is that within quite a short period they seem to have it all fixed.

The rest of the afternoon I spent revisiting the long interurban southern L1 to Villanueva de Castellón I had first travelled on in 2000. As I missed one train at Àngel Guimerà I had to spend 40 minutes before the next train would go out there, so I had time to take a few pictures at Sant Isidre where they had built a new railway station for some regional lines that are currently unable to reach Valencia Nord (they will soon return there but running via Fuente San Luís and backing up into Valencia Nord!). Anyway, eventually I got on my L1 train, quite full, so thought they could really run more often at least to Picassent. I was using a stored-value ticket and as Riba-roja was the last point where I had checked in, and that was already a while ago, I was worried whether the ticket inspectors who came on at Torrent would accept my ticket, but they did. I got off at L'Alcúdia to see at least one of these villages the line serves, but that was just a sleepy almost empty place, so I had to wait another 40 minutes to carry on. While other stations have those Check-in/Check-out machines on all platforms, here I actually had to search for one, placed inside the station building only! When I eventually got to Villanueva, I couldn't bother to hang around there and quickly checked out and in again to return on the same train. I could have taken the risk and not check my ticket, but although that is in zone D, fares are pretty low in Valencia anyway. I was positively surprised that the track on that line, apparently renovated not too long ago as some still-standing signs said, was quite good and the train actually ran faster than on the new L9, but unfortunately the seats in these new trains are simply too hard and uncomfortable, especially on such long journeys! While most stations have standard updated signs, two stops seem to have missed this round of modernisation, Benimodo, which shows signs dating from 1988, and Col.legi El Vedat, which has no signs at all, and is only used by young students from a nearby school (unfortunately they just left for home when I was travelling past...).

In Alicante I basically checked out the new line 2 to Sant Vicent del Raspeig, which had been completed years ago but only opened several months after my previous visit. This line is a typical modern tramway, all on reserved right-of-way through a very urban environment, but it is pretty slow and only runs every 15 minutes. So my major complaint about the Alicante system are the long headways, which at 30 minutes are even worse on L3 and L4 (but there restricted by a single-track section). But L2 could really run more often as it does become quite busy. I was surprised to see one tram operating as a 2-car unit, but that doesn't help much, if such a compound only appears every now and then (I think the students' travelling habits are not so predictable!). The shared tunnel section does not seem to be close to capacity yet.

Another negative issue in Alicante is the lack of an easy-to-use day ticket, especially being a tourist destination! So, as I didn't really need a 10-ride ticket, I had to buy a single ticket (1.45€) before/upon each boarding. I wonder whether this is the only city in Spain with ticket machines inside the trams? And it seems they have a problem with fare evasion, because at one point a brigade of at least 10 ticket inspectors invaded the tram, supported by some security people!

Later I had a look whether the old 4L branch from Sangueta to Puerta del Mar was still in place or disconnected or even dismantled, but it is still there, even the tram signals were still working, just the huge train indicator at Puerta del Mar looked rather abandoned. 

Read my previous blog posts on Valencia & Alicante

Monday, April 27, 2015

PALMA (Mallorca) Metro

This has been my second visit to Palma, the first was in January 2009, not too long after the Metro had opened in 2007. I have come back now to take a few more pictures for my forthcoming "Metro & Tram Atlas Spain" due to be released later this year.

Palma is actually a very nice city, but the Metro is close to useless for the city, in fact it is probably the most useless metro system in Europe and possibly in the world. It is only good to transport students from the city centre to the university campus located some 7 km outside of town. Although this would normally be enough reason for such a rail line it seems that Palma's students prefer other options for some reasons. Frequencies are rather those of typical S-Bahn systems, with a train every 15 minutes during busier times, and only every 30 minutes during other times, with no service at all on Saturday afternoon and Sundays. Like any university campus, this one is spread out but the metro station is not located somewhere in the middle but on the fringe of the campus requiring long walks from some areas. So, you could call it the Metro where your seat is guaranteed.

I'm now talking about the original metro line, which is now officially M1. This metro line was also the most unexpected to be built and probably the fastest to be put into service (although it had to be closed for several months shortly after opening because one of the underground stations was flooded and apparently this possibility had not been taken into account during the hurried planning. About 80% of the line is underground, although it doesn't go through any densely built-up areas, instead it only runs through an industrial estate where the visual impact of some sort of surface line wouldn't have caused any problems. Also the university terminus is underground, although it lies on the edge of the campus and a surface station wouldn't have disturbed anyone. So, all in all, a lot of money was wasted for something that was not really a necessity. Everyone knows that I'm a devoted metro enthusiast, but for Palma, I think, some sort of light rail within a larger context would have been a much better choice.

The line ends at Pl. Espanya, which is the city's major interchange point. But as there is no proper fare integration, of course, noone would use the metro for just 1-2 stops to change to a bus at Pl. Espanya paying another full fare, and there are plenty of buses available along the same route. So, finding some kind of deal for a common fare system is urgently required. Talking about fares, like in most Spanish cities, these are relatively low, but in the case of Palma rather unpractical, as there is no multiple-ride ticket or day pass, so you need to buy a single ticket each time you want to enter the system, as stored-value cards are only available for people living in Mallorca! So each time you enter the system, you have to get a paper ticket for 1.60€, and quite uncommonly, these tickets carry a QR code you have to hold against a reader to open the doors. But at least in 50% of all my entries, I had problems with these readers and had to try various times. As you have to do the same procedure on exiting due to additional fare zones on the regional lines, this would normally lead to some overcrowding at the exit gates. So I don't really understand why they chose such a system not used anywhere else I have been to, it's more what you'll find at theme parks or so. Probably most riders are regular riders who use a smartcard instead.

Line M1 is not badly built, though. The short 2-car trains offer a smooth ride, track seems to be properly laid (it certainly helped that the metro line is actually part of a larger railway system), and even the stations are rather pleasant. The city terminus at Pl. Espanya was generously/excessively laid out with 10! terminal tracks (FGC handles much denser traffic with only five tracks at its Pl. Catalunya terminus in Barcelona!), and although the platforms lie deep enough on level -2, the location of the escalators would not allow an easy extension into the city centre proper, but such far-sighted issues were probably irrelevant during the speedy planning. Another flaw of this huge terminus is the lack of an underground walkway to the old town area, instead people have to cross a 6-8 lane main road on the surface. This underground hub also includes a bus terminal for regional buses, but apparently, some of these have to take a long detour to actually get in there... Those buses are part of the TIB system which also includes the regional rail lines to Manacor and Sa Pobla via Inca. That the ever-changing Balearic governments are not too good at planning can also be seen in the frustrated project for a "tram-train" from Manacor to Artà in the east of the island. An old railway alignment was prepared for this and even some partly low-floor trams were purchased from Vossloh, but the next government simply cancelled the advanced project and now they have six Citylink trams noone wants and needs. So to give them some reason to be, they operate three morning express trains between Inca and Palma, for which a low-floor platform extension had to be built into the tunnel at Pl. Espanya.

In 2013, line M2 was invented, but this did not require any construction, but was rather a rebranding and service modification for local services now running between Palma and Marratxí serving some villages that have grown to become suburbs. Initially started with new EMUs acquired for the regional services, M2 is now served by metro rolling stock not needed on line M1. As a result, many of the new EMUs are waiting in the depot, as electrification of the outer stretches of the regional lines has been delayed. Compared to the acceptable stations on line M1, those on M2 are simple, if not primitive stops, and the route reminded me a bit of the outer sections of the Valencia Metro, as at some stops you can see an old station building at a lower level and a high platform built next to it. Serving proper villages, the line has some decent ridership throughout the day. At Marratxí, ideally line M2 should terminate on a track between the continuing tracks served by regional trains, but instead they use a bay track on the northern side sharing an island platform with inbound regional trains, which offer convenient connections, with M2 leaving shortly after the regional trains come through. But to change trains in the outbound direction, passengers have to change platforms via an underpass and waiting times for connecting trains are longer. It would probably be advisable to make M2 trains switch to the proper metro tracks as they enter the tunnel, so M1 and M2 would share the same platforms at Son Costa/Son Fortesa and J. Verdaguer and thus offer an improved service at these stations, whereas now it is not clearly signposted which platform will have the next train towards Pl. Espanya.
Next-train indicators are located on the platforms, but many of them did not work. And when they work, they show the next five trains, but who cares about further trains, generally the next two should be enough. In fact, even the second train is irrelevant in Palma, although this is sometimes useful on busy metros where one might skip an overcrowding train knowing the next is following shortly. But as said before, overcrowding is certainly not a problem in Palma...

Besides the basic M2 stations, the image of the Metro is also suffering from many of the trains covered with graffiti. Inside they usually looked o.k. although some litter was lying around. The stations are generally tidy and graffiti-free. Illumination of the underground stations is o.k. but could be slightly brighter. From the train, all stations look rather dim due to the dark windows.

So what could be done to give this metro more sense? Probably rebuilding the entire M1 into a low-floor light rail system and connect it to a city-wide tram system would be the best choice. They could ask their colleagues in Cologne who have enough experience in changing high platforms to low platforms with destroying the platforms, simply by raising the ballast trackbed in the stations. The size and layout of Palma are quite ideal for a good tram system, with several branches radiating from a circular Avenidas route, plus an old town route now served by many bus lines. But a first step really has to be proper fare integration with easy-to-use day tickets for occasional riders and tourists.

Tranvía de Sóller

Visiting Palma, an urban rail enthusiast has to visit the heritage tram in Sóller, too, no doubt. Although the 4 km line is used also by some locals, it is primarily a tourist attraction, and a very popular one. Even in late April many trains (they are made of up to four cars!) are completely full, and at 5.50€ for a single ride, this must be quite a good business. But riding old trams with wooden benches on worn-out track has never been my favourite pastime, but I did, of course go on a full round trip and took lots of photos, too.


Palma Metro at UrbanRail.Net

Sunday, February 8, 2015


During my recent winter escape holiday on the island of Tenerife at the end of January 2015 I had the chance to explore its small tram system, el Tranvía de Tenerife, and thus do the necessary research for my forthcoming 'Metro & Tram Atlas Spain' due to be released later this year.

All in all, the modest 2-line tram system has a very French feel to it, not just because of the Alstom Citadis trams used with their 5-colour scheme (I prefer the blue end to the green one), but especially for the alignment chosen. The routes are on reserved right-of-way throughout, and pretty well integrated into the urban environment which with the arrival of the tram certainly experienced an improvement. I was surprised that the decision-makers at the time were strong enough to really reduce space for cars, be it by taking away car lanes or parking spaces, in favour of a reserved route even through the older parts of town where hardly good alternatives for car traffic exist. So, all in all, travelling on the tram is quite fluid, and traffic lights seem well-adjusted so that there are no annoying waiting periods. There are, however, numerous roundabouts which the trams pass through the middle, and having done the entire route also twice driving in a car, I'm not convinced about this solution. When trams pass through, cars actually, or at least, get a red light, but this is somehow contradictory to a roundabout philosophy (I observed, however, that in Tenerife, many roundabouts are illogical, and that suddenly you get a red light to allow pedestrians to cross or even worse, that suddenly you get a 'give way' sign in the roundabout!). Anyway, I would think that these roundabouts are too often the cause of accidents between trams and cars, although I don't know what Tenerife's record is and I did not experience any 'almost hit' situation, in fact, I observed that the locals drive rather cautiously and slowly.

Many track sections are covered by lawn, even on the central section between La Paz and Weyler, which is unusual, as in many other cities such sections would rather be paved to allow emergency vehicles to use the reservation. Between Weyler and Fundación, the tracks are embedded in the roadway, although very limited access is allowed for vehicles. I think that grooved rail was used on all sections when actually Vignol tracks are normally more pleasant to ride on and some sections would certainly have allowed that.

What is pretty fascinating about Tenerife's first line is that on its 12.5 km route it rises from sea level in the capital Santa Cruz up to some 550 m in La Laguna, the old capital and university city of the isle. Thus from some points you get an nice view of the harbour and Santa Cruz. This difference in altitude also explains the somewhat detour the tram takes between the two termini. In Santa Cruz, the two stops Weyler and Teatro Guimerá serve the city centre proper, whereas the trams continue down to the Intercambiador, which is a huge bus station. Unfortunately, the tram is not directly integrated into the complex, so transferring passengers need to walk a bit between buses and trams. Before the big economic crisis, a train line was planned south to Tenerife Sur airport and Los Cristianos, I guess the terminus for that line would also be part of this hub.

So while L1 links the two centres of what is an agglomeration with some 400,000 inhabitants, the layout of the 3.5 km L2 is not really convincing. L1 runs about every 5 minutes on weekdays, whereas L2 has a tram only every 10 minutes or so. It really feels like a second-class annex, requiring a transfer to L1 for almost everybody. And these transfer options are not too convenient, because they are also related to the least convincing sections of the route alignment: both junctions were put below street level – a good thing a such, because it avoids conflicts with cars at two roundabouts – but these underpasses are not well built (a bit like the flaws on Madrid's Metro Ligero): the Citadis, not too good in curves anyway, have to crawl through them at minimum speed! So passengers from the Tíncer end of this line who want to get into Santa Cruz, need to crawl through one of these underpasses twice and change trams at El Cardonal next to the tram depot. So, people who would board L2 at San Jerónimo would probably be faster walking to Taco station and get L1 there directly. And to add to the inconvenience, the two stops shared by both lines have side platforms instead of the otherwise prevalent island platforms (despite of these being the majority, an announcement is heard at these: 'parada con andén central'), so it is not surprising that L2 trams run half empty compared to the well-patronised L1 trams.

The stops all have a standard design, simple, but well done, each with two multilingual ticket machines and an information panel with a map and tram frequencies. As said before, most have island platforms, but some have side platforms. In the case of Príncipes de España, the island platform is actually part of a central Rambla (esplanade). The island platforms are generally accessible via ramps at both ends. The platform height matches exactly the tram floor. So, full accessibility has been achieved, although the steepness of some stops, notably Conservatorio, may be a challenge for wheelchair users. What I appreciate is that the name of the stop is written in big letters on flag-like panels, so they are easily identifiable even for car drivers and thus serve for orientation. The M-logo, however, is not so convincing.

With an average distance between stops of more than 600 m on L1, I think there should be a couple of more stops to give better coverage, notably between Puente Zurita and Cruz del Señor (830 m) in a densely built-up area with a significant gradient, an additional stop inside the big roundabout halfway between these two stops is recommendable. And Las Mantecas stop should really be relocated some 250 m further south just after the ramp to give service to existing housing estates, whereas now it is in the middle of nowhere on a steep gradient. If the area further up towards Campus Guajara gets developed, an additional stop could be added. Similarly, there could be an additional stop between San Jerónimo and the terminus Tíncer (850 m) as the latter is up on a steep hill and noone wants to climb up the hill to catch a tram.

The 26 (or so) Citadis trams are standard Citadis vehicles, with an acceptable interior distribution (especially enough space in the modules with doors), although the single-leaf door at the front leads to some congestion especially as everybody boarding needs to validate their ticket somehow (see below). But I have never been happy with the Citadis' behaviour in curves, luckily, except those described in the underpasses, there aren't any that I would have classified as ridiculous or horrible, as the overall alignment and track layout is quite satisfying, no unnecessary turns or deviations from what is a rather straight-forward route.

There have been several proposals for extensions, notably from the La Laguna end to the northern (more domestic) airport, from Tíncer southwest to La Gallega, the only area available for urban expansion in Santa Cruz, and a second cross-city route that would connect to L1 at Intercambiador, serving the newer parts of the city before turning into the old centre, intersection with L1 at Weyler and heading northeast along Méndez Núñez street towards the north pier of the harbour. It will be interesting to see how the later route will be laid out, as the street in question, besides the Rambla, is one of only a few that actually allow some fluid car traffic, so restricting access for cars here too would be quite a brave decision. But certainly, the tram route would be useful, as it would serve the new landmark Auditorio and the Congress Center. Many areas of Santa Cruz will still be left without tram service, impossible to implement as most streets are too narrow and too steep, although a direct tram line from La Cuesta down into the Santa Cruz centre along the historic route could be feasible if desired.

Unfortunately, like so often in Spain, the positive French influence did not affect the fare system and integration with the local bus company TITSA, although there are several fare options which allow transfer between tram and buses in the metropolitan area (TITSA serves the entire island). Single fares on the tram without transfer to buses are just 1.35 EUR, and a day pass for the tram only is 4.50 EUR: although the ticket might suggest 'guagua' (Canarian Spanish for bus) + tranvía, it is only valid on the tram! So, this ticket seems to be made for tram fans only, for anybody else a multi-ride ticket (5 trips for 6 EUR) or a BonoVía (a money value card sold at 15 or 25 EUR that deducts 1.05 EUR per tram ride plus a small transfer fee if changing to a bus) is a better deal. Even the day pass needs to be validated upon each boarding (each time the machine stamps a car code on the reverse of the ticket so inspectors would see immediately if you forgot to validate it). Many of the locals, especially the younger ones, use their smartphones which they hold against a QR code posted all through the trams (Vía-Móvil system). TITSA operates urban buses with varying headways, they do have a timetable booklet, but are unwilling to produce a map it seems. When I asked why they didn't have one, the lady at the Intercambiador counter answered that there were too many lines to show on a map. I asked her how she thought that proper cities like Paris or Madrid were able to produce bus maps? Unfortunately, I have noticed repeatedly that when a company is in charge of an entire region, they neglect the service they are supposed to provide in the urban area. So, the local population would probably be better served if there was a single transport operator for trams and buses for the metropolitan area, and a different company for regional buses serving the rest of the island.


Metropolitano de Tenerife (Tram operator)

Tenerife Tram at UrbanRail.Net

Monday, October 20, 2014

SAN JUAN Tren Urbano

Coming from Miami, Puerto Rico was my last stop on this 1-month tour through the U.S., in preparpation for my forthcoming book 'Subways & Light Rail in the U.S.A. - Vol 3:Midwest & South', due to be released in December 2014. Hot Puerto Rico was, of course, also a nice final stopover before going back to autumn temperatures in Berlin.

San Juan has a single urban rail line, referred to as 'Tren Urbano' rather than the more universal 'Metro', although it is actually a real metro. Let's start with its two major flaws – too long headways between trains and what is without doubt it's most significant problem, it ends short of the city centre and therefore operates far below its potential. Otherwise my impression was quite positive.

The current line runs from Sagrado Corazón to Bayamón, but Sagrado Corazón is by no means a natural end of a metro line at all. The initial project included two underground stations further northwest, which are urgently needed to give the entire line a real reason to be. A further extension towards Old San Juan is, of course, very recommended too. Sagrado Corazón lies in a badly developed area, probably not a very nice place to wait for a bus at nighttime, especially as the bus system is the worst I have ever seen in any developed country (after all, this is part of the U.S. and people insist that the U.S. is a developed country....). Unless you already know which bus goes where, there is no real way to find out. Bus stops have a bus stop sign, but that's it, no line numbers, no timetables, no maps, so you completely rely on locals' information, and like my hotel receptionist, some of them have no idea either. Most buses are, however, new and air-conditioned, and riding them is cheap. They are operated by the British company First, and their mother company should be ashamed of the service provided over here. But it is probably not their fault, but a problem of who is actually responsible for proper passenger information? ATI (the government transit department nicely standing for 'Alternativa de Transporte Integrado' – but alternativa of what??), or is it AMA, the bus company, or First, the contracted operator? Anyway, you cannot buy day passes on buses, just at metro stations, so once you find out which bus may take you to the metro, you have to pay 75 cents for the bus, at the metro station you get a day pass for $5.00 which is also valid on buses... But watch out, the day pass doesn't let you get back into a station for a period of approx. 20 minutes, so popping out to take a picture and getting back in again to jump on the next train is impossible, so this can be very time-consuming. Although even with normal strip cards, you sometimes have to try twice as the machine doesn't read them correctly. Ticket vending machines are quite easy to handle, you can buy single fares for $1.50 or put any value on the card and the fare will be deducted on entry. Tickets also have to be swiped when leaving the station. So, all in all, the integrated fare system has only been implemented half-heartedly. I find it extremely bad that not even the big bus station in the Old Town has ticket machines or ticket windows. That there are no maps available, is no surprise. Inside the trains there are some system maps, but they are so small, it is impossible to read them. While other pathetic bus systems in the U.S. have at least some online services, AMA has no information at all, not even a classic list of bus routes, and no trip planner, of course. So this is certainly not first-world standard.

Let's get back to the Tren Urbano – except for the bad headways (a train every 15 minutes) and the city-side end in the middle of nowhere, it is actually quite good. The stations are all big structures, most of them elevated, two underground and some at grade, all very spacious and equipped with all sorts of lifts, escalators and stairs. Most stations are completely covered, in some part of the platform is uncovered, which is not so much a problem now as only 4- instead of 6-car trains are in service and they normally stop at the covered section. Unfortunately all stations appear rather grey, not even the purple line colour adds a little touch as it is too dark. At most stations, there is some work of art somewhere, but at platform level this is only well-visible at Jardines. Some have sculptures outside the station, or murals a decorated ceilings in the entrance areas:

Generally, all stations have pleasant entrances, mostly below the viaduct, and for the stations in a cutting like Martínez Nadal, Centro Médico or Jardines, with a free-standing surface building. 

In the case of Río Piedras, the two entrances are integrated into buildings which apparently replaced buildings previously demolished to allow for the construction of the access shafts to the system's only station built by mining techniques:

The other underground station, at Universidad, however, was built by cut-and-cover, it features one 'headhouse' and one simple entrance. Only a few stations, like Martínez Nadal or Bayamón, have shops like Subway, whereas most shop facilities for example at Sagrado Corazón remain empty and unused (adding to the deserted atmosphere at the terminus). What is missing in most stations are a larger number of benches, and as many young people take the metro, you see lots of people sitting on the floor. I guess with a 15-minute headway more benches should be provided. All stations are staffed with a security person sitting next to the entrance at most times. Only busier stations have two exits, but an emergency exit which looks almost like a full-size exit is visible in some. At Jardines, a proper eastern exit is planned, but has not been finished as the development on that side of the line has not progressed as planned. Unlike most American rapid rail stations, those of the Tren Urbano are quite well integrated into their respective neighbourhoods, and distances between them are more European-style than American, with less than 1 km between them in most cases.

Again, the issue of the next-train indicators is badly solved. At one or two locations in the middle of the platform there is a running indicator saying 'The next train to Bayamón arrives in 4 minute(s)' 'El próximo tren hacia Bayamón llegará en 4 minuto(s)', which means you don't get the information when you look at the indicator, but only when the indicator happens to display it. This is one of the few announcements made in English, too. Accoustic announcements on the train are made in Spanish only. Written info is certainly given in both languages.

San Juan's metro uses a proper logo, visible on trains and also on a pole outside the stations. It is made of various colours and suggests that the 'TU' also stands for the possessive pronoun in Spanish, meaning 'your'. And what is always very welcome, the logo with an arrow is also located at many road intersections or freeway exits, so finding a station is not so difficult. So why can't the people who designed this be recruited to develop a good bus information system too?

The trains are in good condition after 10 years of service, maintenance seems to be adequate, the wheels run smoothly and the track is also properly maintained. The trains don't run too fast, though, and get a bit louder in curves, but nothing too bad. Normally 4-car trains are in service during the week, although platforms are laid out for 6 cars, and on weekends, only 2-car trains are used. The cars are wide enough and feel spacious, the seats are o.k. You can choose between forward, backward or longitudinal seating, so all options are available. I don't know about peak hours, but off-peak there is always a seat left, although the system is quite well patronised for what it is. Although most trains show a TU logo, the original colour stripes on the sides have disappeared and the trains appear an plain stainless steel, emphasizing the overall colourless appearance of the system.

So the overall impression is good, but with a sense of pity that it has not been properly finished and extended to make it a really successful story, but the foundations are laid. Let's hope for the sake of San Juan's people that they will soon get some competent politicians who are strong enough to bring a good project to a good end. As said before, the Santurce two-station extension to Minillas is a must, then the previously suggested leg to the airport and the branch to Carolina, for which tunnel stubs were built just south of Río Piedras station, should follow as well. And another 2 stations towards Old San Juan, the historic city centre, should be added, too. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to ride the AcuaExpress, a ferry service between Hato Rey metro station and Old San Juan, because it was out of service after some accident at the Hato Rey pier.

But the whole system can only be successful if finally someone organises a good complementary bus system too, many stations were laid out for this. But if commuters cannot be sure that a bus will be there at a fixed time to take them to their work or back home, they will not really be willing to switch from their beloved cars to public transport, i.e. there won't be an 'Alternativa de Transporte Integrado'.

Last stop on this tour! Return to first stop: Chicago


Tren Urbano (Official Website)

Tren Urbano at UrbanRail.Net

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

MIAMI Metrorail/Metromover

Sitting at Miami Airport waiting for my flight to San Juan in Puerto Rico, I'm looking back on my 1-day exploration of the Miami urban rail system, which consists of the Metromover and Metrorail, the latter with just one line basically, so it is easy to do in just one day.

Officially, since the Airport branch opened, there are two colour-coded Metrorail lines, and that's also implemented, there is a colour board in the front window, which also says 'Orange Line' or 'Green Line' in letters for those who cannot clearly distinguish colours. It is also announced by the drivers continuously so you can always be sure you're on the right train. On the platforms, however, an automatic voice only says 'a northbound train is approaching', so it seems this system has not been upgraded since the branch was added. There are next-train indicators, like TV screens, again not too well placed, but with a split screen left for southbound and right for northbound, and trains have a colour dot next to them. And this is the first system in the U.S. that I remember has waiting times with seconds, not just minutes. They display the next trains almost steadily, although short messages are mixed in, too, but for adverts, etc, a separate parallel screen is in charge. All in all, the service is o.k., trains run every 5 minutes on the shared section, except during midday off-peak, they run only every 7.5 minutes, which means every 15 minutes on the northern branches. During off-peak, the system is not really busy, you can always get a seat if you wish. I did, although I didn't like those soft worn-out plastic seats. What's nice, you can sit at the very front of the train and have a great look outside the front window to watch the route. And you can observe the driver, to see whether the train is operated manually or in ATO mode. While the latter is well-tuned and runs quite smoothly, the manual operation I observed on some rides was a bit unpleasant as it seems the driver cannot adjust the speed gradually, but has to select set speed steps, so he continously has to change 'gear' (I just detect myself referring to the driver as 'he', but in Miami I indeed just saw male drivers!). The worst part of the Metrorail system is that it is dated and needs some overhaul. The track is a bit worn-out, but especially the train wheels are below acceptable. I guess that they stopped maintaining them when they ordered new cars in 2012. But having ordered them from Ansaldobreda (who knows why?) the old trains may remain in service much longer than expected... (sorry, but Ansaldobreda's record is fairly bad, except for the automatic metro system they designed for Copenhagen, Milan M5 and Brescia). On the train fronts I missed the original 'M' logo they used to have, now it's just black, but the logo made them distinctive Miami (the same trains are also in operation in Baltimore).

The Metrorail stations are o.k., no exciting architecture or artwork and rather uniform, but generally in a good shape. Like in Atlanta, you need your ticket to get out of the system despite the flat fare system. The only one I remember with a bit of arty decoration is Palmetto, the only station on the first extension of the system:

 The Airport station is quite impressive with its huge vault, the Tri-Rail/Amtrak station next to it still hasn't opened. The weak point here is that everybody has to transfer to the people mover to actually get to the airport. While this is often a good solution when the people mover delivers passengers to different terminals, in Miami the MIA Mover drops everybody at a single station at the airport, and from there you still have to walk a while to get to your terminal. And while at the rail station, exiting and boarding people mover passengers were wisely separated, at the terminal station hords of waiting passengers with luggage obstruct the path for those getting of the train. So, wouldn't it have been wiser to extend Metrorail directly into the airport. Sure, the people mover also serves as a link between the terminal and the rental car station, which is in fact a really huge vestibule, much larger than most train or metro stations in the U.S., and that says a lot about the Americans' travel preferences! So, although the journey from downtown to the Airport is just 15 minutes and thus even shorter than in Atlanta, you need to add at least 10 minutes to walk to and ride the people mover and then walk to the terminal, whereas in Atlanta the rail station is next to the main terminal.

The only major interchange station, that at Government Center where the Metromover runs two levels below Metrorail, is not ideally laid out. There are some escalators missing so they switch the direction according to the main flux of passengers. While this is a logical thing to do, the alternative route is via a hidden lift or rather steep stairs. This interchange was laid out for a second Metrorail line that would cross on the intermediate level. At least part of its platforms plus concrete sleepers are visible on that level, rather ugly and useless anyway, so why don't they use that space for something else? There is no talk about using it for a transit line in the foreseeable future. It really lies there like a ghost station.

I bought a one-day pass for $5.65, but actually paid $7.65 because I purchased an EASY smartcard. Later I found out that like for single tickets you can also get a 1-day pass on a single-use paper smartcard! Anyway, I have started collecting these smartcards now. Otherwise the ticket vending machines were easy to handle and there were plenty of them available. On buses you can still pay cash also.

The downtown Metromover was actually a positive experience, especially after the ridiculous system in Jacksonville. The trains run pretty frequently and are heavily used. Certainly the fact that riding them is free helps to increase ridership. While the Inner Loop line always ran with two cars, the branches vary. I think the southern Brickell loop always had a single car, whereas the northern Omni Loop had one or two cars, without any obvious logic behind that. I think this branch should always have two cars as it does get very busy with people changing to and from buses at the Adrienne Arsht Center stop. But even the southern leg to the Financial Center was well used during late morning hours when you would expect all these office workers to be in their towers. The ride between the junction down that leg is pretty spectacular as the trains climb up steeply to Fifth Street station which lies high above the canal, feels like being on the 6th or 8th floor of a building, and then steep down again. The trains move swiftly, but station dwelling is sometimes a bit too long. It was surprising to see that the new trains have only two seats per car, which says a lot about its popularity, although I think they should add a few more and run double sets instead.

The Metromover stations are proper stations, some high above street level, and unfortunately often only with one escalator, so if this doesn't run in the direction you want, you may have to climb rather steep steps up or down. All stations are equipped with lifts, though. I liked the vaulted roof in some, whose structure reminded me of the Washington DC Metro, though in short, of course.

This morning, however, the Metromover let me down when I wanted to take it to travel towards the airport, as the entire system was closed down, no idea why. So I had to walk across downtown to take Metrorail at Government Center.

In Miami, I was successful in getting a full system map, a Metromover leaflet and a Metrorail timetable! At the Airport they have a staffed office, as well as at Government Center, which is very positive, because this is where one would look for it first. At other stations, there are bus timetables at the entrance, and often with a security guard sitting there, one of them also handed out a full system map they have in cupboards. On the platforms, full system maps and a downtown extract is also displayed, but I didn't see any neighbourhood maps.

Miami-Dade Transit's online trip planner is complete crap. For once, I wanted to prepare a trip properly, knowing that at the busstop it might be difficult to find out where which bus goes, so I did it before on my netbook. I entered two clearly defined addresses to get an answer that no connections were available! Then I clicked on the busstop icon in Google Maps and found out that bus 119 runs frequently from North Beach (where I had to drop my car) to downtown Miami. The Tranist website even showed me a timetable for this line. But when I was out there, the busstops didn't show a bus 119. Instead there was line S going downtown, they must have changed that recently. Anyway, this bus actually runs past my hotel! So why was the system not able to calculate a 1-seat ride? Absolutely useless! Even if it required 3 transfers, the system should be able to provide that information. Unfortunately many transit agencies use only Google Transit, which is a nice service, but too many errors, and if you tell them, they can't change it, because apparently on the transit agencies can make changes. And transit agencies employ lots of incompetent people, unfortunately...

Next stop: San Juan


Miami at UrbanRail.Net