Friday, August 21, 2015

Urban Rail in WARSAW

Pesa Swing on Aleje Jerozolimskie in front of city skyline, with the WKD terminus on the left, and the city's main railway station behind the tram

It took me 12 years until I finally returned to Warsaw, although it is just a five and a half hour train journey from Berlin. After my previous and first visit in 2003 I actually wrote the first trip report which I published on my website. I read it again just before leaving and was quite surprised what impression the city had left. If you're interested you can still read it online here.

I always said to myself, I will go back to Warsaw as soon as Metro line 2 is open. There were some delays, and I meant to go there just after its opening which was then pushed back again and again, and when it finally opened in March 2015, I decided to leave my visit for later, as the weather was still quite horrible and I wanted to do some tram exploring, too. Eventually a gap appeared in my travel agenda so I booked a trip at short notice with the weather report already quite reliable, I mean, with a lot of sunshine guaranteed. So during the last four days, 16-19 August 2015, I managed to get loads of blue-sky tram pictures.

Exploring the Warsaw rail and transport system is quite easy, they have got a proper "Verkehrsverbund", i.e. all transport within the city is fully integrated, so on each day I got a 24-hour ticket for zone 1 for 15 Zloty, which is just under 4 EUR. This covers the entire city, which is fairly large with over 500 km2. There is also a 24-hour ticket for zones 1+2, if you want to get beyond the city boundaries, sold at 26 Zl., but watch out, it is NOT valid on the WKD local railway beyond Opacz! But the tickets are valid on all red (S-Bahn type services) and green KM regional trains, so even the airport lies within zone 1. Make sure to validate the ticket on the first ride, after that it is only needed to pass the barriers at metro stations, on buses and trams and trains just hop on and wait for the occasional ticket inspection. The tickets are of the small Paris/Madrid type and can be bought in advance from ticket machines at metro stations, but there are also machines inside trams (not sure about buses). So in the ticket/fares part, Warsaw gets a clear "very good", it's easy and cheap!

Suburban Rail

Back in 2003, I wrote very positively about the Metro, but was shocked by the local rail service then still operated by PKP. Well, fortunately this service has improved a lot. A lot has been done since the regional government of Mazovia (Mazowsze) county took over and introduced the SKM as a kind of S-Bahn service with completely new trains. What was especially shocking in 2003 was the look of the two central stations, the Centralna mainline station and the adjacent Sródmiescie suburban station (they should really carry the same name!). Both have been significantly improved, mostly just by changing the illumination, so they still preserve their particular style of the period when they were built, but in good light. Even the connecting corridor between them doesn't look that scary any more. The Centralna is still undergoing refurbishment and upgrading, especially in the main hall. Unfortunately there is still no direct connection to the Metro station Centrum. 

Improved lighting on Warszawa Centralna platform

Improved lighting inside Warszawa Sródmiescie (suburban station) 

Stadion station was also rebuilt for the European football championship in 2012, and it actually matches the design of the stadium. Warszawa Wschodnia (East Station) is in quite a good shape, too, while Zachodnia (West Station) is currently being rebuilt. Powisle could do with some modernisation, but it didn't look as desolate as in 2003, probably Ochota is the least appealing now of the city centre stations. I only rode the SKM line between Wschodnia and the airport, of the semicircular line S9 I only saw W-wa Gdanska, which was quite modern and this one indeed provides a convenient interchange with M1, something which is announced on M1 trains at Centrum, but there is nothing convenient here. At Stadion the new M2 Stadion Narodowy station is quite conveniently located next to the PKP station, but there don't seem to be too many people transferring there yet. W-wa Wilenska had not changed much, it is still hidden behind the shopping mall and has nothing which could be of architectural interest. The underground airport station is not bad, although a bit of a walk from the check-in area, but compared to other airports quite reasonable: 

Lotnisko (Airport) station with S3 train ready to depart

Of all the SKM lines, however, I would only classify S2 as an S-Bahn as it offers a regular 30-minute headway. Line S1 is a bit confusing as it is actually made of two overlapping lines, and with an absurdly irregular headway. S3 only runs every hour and uses the mainline tracks through the city, so it does not stop at Ochota, Powisle and Stadion. And S9 has a rather irregular timetable, too. All routes are complemented with some regional services which may also call at all local stations. But I think that Warsaw has a good potential for a proper S-Bahn system. This would, of course, need some investment around Zachodnia station, but then all S lines should be bundled along the local tracks, thus creating a sort of east-west trunk route with trains every few minutes between Zachodnia and Wschodnia which people will perceive like a third metro axis. Additionally they should really create a ring line, although this would require the most investment at Zachodnia, and a couple of additional stations on the existing route, for example in Targówek in the east. Unfortunately, despite the new trains, the SKM service suffers from a lack of standardised platform heights. Often you have to step down into the train, and there is always quite a big gap. But for the airport, I can certainly recommend it, as there is a train departing every 15 minutes for the city centre.


All in all, the tram system is in quite a good shape. I did not manage to ride on the entire system, but about 75% of what was available, as some routes were closed for upgrading during the summer. I was especially pleased with the newer PESA low-floor trams, both the numerous vehicles of the Swing type and the latest Jazz trams. Both run very smoothly and swiftly on what are certainly not always new routes, they can go around curves without getting too slow, and generally speed up quite well. Here it is actually the older Konstal high-floor trams that make more noise and overall offer a much less comfortable ride. So while trams travel fast, the system's major problem seems to be the huge road intersections, where they are often held waiting too long: 

Major intersection in the city centre: Aleje Jerozolimskie & Marszalkowska, as seen from the Palac Kultury tower

Maybe a faster traffic light cycle would help, because if you have trams coming from various sides, traffic light preemption would not help much either. But I felt that traffic lights stay on green too long, although often no more cars were actually passing, also annoying for pedestrians waiting to cross the street. In most cases, the respective stops are located before the intersection, so doors can remain open until just before the green light comes.
The largest parts of the system are on dedicated rights-of-way, often even with a ballast trackbed, which on the one had prevents people from crossing the tracks, but on the other hand may be perceived too much as a dividing element. Only a few older sections have street-running or marked-off lanes, and almost all stops have platforms. However, even the newest platforms don't fully match the tram floor height, there is always a 5 cm step and a small gap. A few stops are left with street-boarding, some in Kolo, and one which struck me particularly, the one at Stare Miasto. This one is really dangerous, as many tourists not familiar with this situation get on and off there, too. And what was most surprising, buses also stop in the middle of the street. Luckily, Polish drivers are used to that and respect the situation by stopping behind the trams. Apparently, as I was told, the problem is known and a solution is being sought, and I have to admit that I don't have an instant proposal either. Because besides the tram stop, there is also a pedestrian crossing without traffic lights next to it, so chances are very high that a tram, bus or car may run you over...

Street-boarding into Pesa Swing tram at Stare Miasto

 All stops have timetables with a list of all stops served by that line, but there are no network maps. Some stops have electronic next-tram indicators.
In one aspect, the Warsaw tram system is still typically "Eastern", i.e. the large number of different lines, with generally several lines sharing the same terminus (they mostly have a separate loop track), from where they head in different directions through the city:

Typical line up at outer terminus, here Os. Gorczewska

The online tram map shows the trunk routes in the city centre in different colours, plus a fifth colour for all lines which can't be clearly assigned to one such corridor. But generally the lines tend to travel across the centre in a straight and logical direction and turn onto a different route in the outer parts, so it is pretty easy to understand after a while. Line numbers seem to change quite regularly, so at major junctions where underpasses connect the different stop positions, no line numbers are shown, but just the district where trams go to from that platform, so you need to be familiar with the city's geography a bit. Also, inside metro stations, there is a map showing all urban rail services, even with all stop names for the trams, but without any line numbers! At the moment, they have a line 79 which serves a stretch isolated from the rest of the network on Aleje Krakowska, using bidirectional trams as there is no loop at the northern temporary terminus Hale Balacha:

Newest tram type, Jazz, bidirectional providing shuttle service on the temporary line 79

Although Warsaw generally is a city with very good signage, both street signs with large letters and also direction signs for pedestrians outside the central area, e.g. to metro stations, the signage at the major tram termini is insufficient. At Mlociny, for example, there is a huge new tram station, but it is very difficult to find out where which tram departs or accepts passengers. A metro-style guidance system is needed there. At many other, more basic loops with several lines starting, there should be a screen announcing when which tram is leaving as any of them may be going to the place the passengers is heading for. Now you'd have to walk from one platform to the other to compare the small timetables. Most lines are served every 12 minutes during off-peak, which is o.k. considering that almost all branches are served by two or more lines.

Tram route on the lower deck of Most Gdanski

An interesting tram route is the crossing of the Wistula River on the lower deck of Most Gdanski, with a stop at either end. And the trams run through a tunnel next to the Old Town, just west of the Stare Miasto stop.
The drivers' cabs are particularly transparent on the old trams, and I often observed that a driver had a smartphone on his/her lap and earphones plugged in. Given the distraction of such devices, I think it should be strictly forbidden to use them on duty. I was also rather surprised to see a driver smoke inside the cabin at one of the loops!


As I said at the beginning, a primary motivation of this visit was to see the new Metro line M2. I had already seen many photos and I liked the design concept, so I was curious to see what it looks like in real life. I still think that it is great, I generally like colours and especially if each station has its own distinctive colour. And it is the only metro line I know, where the station's colour is even reflected in the station's entrances! 

Entrance to the "green" M2 station: Stadion Narodowy

Besides the metro logo, I think the entrances should also clearly show the name of the station, maybe in a similar way Madrid adds the name to the logo. Of all new metro lines opened recently, it is probably the one with the strongest personality, I mean, from any photo you will always be able to tell immediately that this is Warsaw's M2, quite a relief after the global uniform station design of recent decades, using just glass, stainless steel and bare concrete! I was, however, a bit disappointed by the feeling of spaciousness in some stations. While the more shallow stations Rondo Daszynskiego, Rondo ONZ and Dworzec Wilenski are fine, with the stairs almost at the end of the platform and just one row of columns, especially the deep-level stations, from Swietokrzyska to Centrum Nauki Kopernik feel a bit too small, with two rows of columns and the stairs and escalators interrupting the view of the platform. The colour purple found in Nowy Swiat-Uniwersytet station may appear a bit too much, but maybe this fact actually makes it great, and being a devoted Deep Purple fan, I like it, of course, although my favourites are probably Rondo Daszynskiego and Rondo ONZ:

Homage to Deep Purple: Nowy Swiat-Uniwersytet

Current western terminus: Rondo Daszynskiego

Swietokrzyska provides interchange with line M1, but I think the two lines are not very conveniently connected for a system which was actually planned from scratch. On the M2 platform, the corridor towards M1 is at the very western end, hidden behind the western exit shaft:

Narrow gateway leading to M2>M1 interchange at Swietokrzyska

Once there you will find a narrow gateway not even 2 m wide leading to a slightly larger kind of vestibule, from where a lift and a 2 m wide staircase leads up to an intermediate level, from where, finally, three sets of escalators lead up to the southern end of the M1 platform. No problem during off-peak when I was there, but I dare predict that this interchange will cause real traffic jams during peak and when M2 has been extended at both ends. So I wonder why, when all other accesses to M2 were built quite generously, this primary interchange was designed at such a low scale. Because besides being too narrow, the absence of escalators on the lower part will create more jams as people have different speeds when climbing stairs. So some interchange traffic may have to be diverted via the upper mezzanine instead...
The second station designed as a future interchange is unfortunately a complete nonsense, a missed opportunity, for whatever reason! I'm talking about Stadion Narodowy, of course. The present layout is that of two separate lines with two individual stations which happen to be located side by side. So any transferring passengers would always have to change lines going one level up and then one level down again when it would have been so easy to design a perfect future-proof interchange here with cross-platform interchange as the station was built in a totally empty terrain where space restrictions could not be taken as an excuse. Although the eastern leg of what would become line 3 to Goclaw seems to be quite a good alignment, I never understood the route M3 was supposed to take into the city centre, and looking at the priorities being presented by official sources, only the Goclaw branch is high up on the list. With a "proper" junction at Stadion, this branch could have been operated also as an M2 branch, and if not, at least with convenient cross-platform interchange to continue the journey, although then the train reversing problem would come up. So, ideally, I guess, M2 should be using the outer tracks, and M3 the inner ones. But as I heard, even locally, M3's route across the Wistula River is under review, so the M3 part of this station may never be used anyway (welcome to Berlin!). Given all these uncertainties, I also find it impossible to understand why the M3 part of the station was fully furnished? A lot of money was wasted not only in tiles and cladding, but a lot of money will still be wasted to maintain the station, especially as it is clearly visible to everyone. Why didn't they just leave it as a shell hidden behind some temporary wall? 

Appealing station design with useless but fully furnished island platform in the background at Stadion Narodowy

Certainly, the main design feature of the station, those tree-like supports in the middle, would not be properly visible then. So has the architect's vanity won over pragmatism?
Talking of M3, for me the more "natural" alignment for a third line would be from Goclaw to the Eastern Railway Station as planned, then to Dworzec Wilenksi (M2), then west under the river to serve the Old Town (Stare Miasto), intersect with M1 either at Ratusz or the missing Muranów station, then turn south via Rondo ONZ to the Central Station and south from there wherever needed.

When I visited last in 2003, the first metro line (now labelled M1) had only reached Ratusz-Arsenal in the city centre, so the northern part of this line was also new to me now. Although not as impressive as M2, all the stations have some interesting features, more or less visible at first sight. Plac Wilsona, of course, strikes most with its elliptical ceiling above the southern exit area. Of the four northern ones, with their side platforms I probably prefer Slodowiec because it has a more distinctive wall pattern: 

Slodowiec: subsurface stations with side platforms were built along the northern stretch of M1

Lying just below street level, they all feature an interesting entrance building with tickets gates separated for each direction. It would have been nice if they had left some openings in the station roof to allow daylight to fall into the station, a feature already quite popular in other cities during that period. All stations on M1, also those on the older southern part, are in a very good shape, very clean and well maintained. Just the logo outside sometimes looks faded through the sun and needs replacement.
The M1 stations I like least are a few in the central area, Politechnika, Ratusz-Arsenal and above all, Swietokrzyska. While the first two are simply too simple, lacking any appeal in their simplicity, the latter is really a shame, as it looks like a very cheap station, with the walls simply painted in a dark green, not a very appealing colour anyway, and the pillars clad in tiles found at a marked-down price in the local do-it-yourself store. The station appears even more unattractive when you change from the brilliant yellow M2 station below. So hopefully, this station will deserve a major restyling soon to bring it up to the standard of the rest of the line: 

Cheap finishings at M1 Swietokrzyska station

My favourite on M1 is probably Pole Mokotowskie, because of its clear layout, the stairs at the very ends of the platform, nothing obstructing the view over the platform, a nicely repainted vaulted ceiling and the red colour used cautiously on the walls and suspended lights:

Pole Mokotowskie: plain though elegant station design

The stations further south beyond Wilanowska (which is certainly a nice station with its galleries) make me think of Munich's U-Bahn, although unfortunately the wall pattern is often a bit too dark, maybe some sort of indirect lighting would help here.
The Metro, especially M1 has one funny feature I have never seen anywhere else: with a small photo symbol, the next-train indicator even announces which type of train will arrive next! Certainly this is not a feature particularly provided for urban rail enthusiasts, but rather for passengers in wheelchairs, for example, as the older Russian-type trains require a higher step into the train, whereas with the newer Alstom Metropolis and Siemens Inspiro boarding is stepfree. On a hot summer day this information may also be useful for other passengers, as the old trains don't have air-conditioning, although even on the new ones, it may get quite warm inside if the train is packed (and they are during rush hour!): 

Metropolis train arriving next!

So, on M1, you can now see four different types of trains, although the older two are basically the same, but the second series can be identified easily by a more modern front (which made me believe that they are refurbished first-series trains...). Announcements are very good and clear to understand.
When Siemens presented the Inspiro at Berlin's Innotrans a few years ago, I was quite disappointed. After having delivered excellent trains to Vienna or Oslo, what was supposed to become a new standard metro train looked cheap and ugly. But having seen them in real service now, I think they are not that bad after all. Even the strange train front looks good, especially on the modern M2, and inside they are quite pleasant, although a bit low. But fortunately, they got rid of the monitors which on the prototype were mounted on the centre poles, obstructing the view through the train. There are now two monitors, one mounted on each side next to the doors, much better. The noise level is acceptable, especially as the wheel-rail noise is overshadowed by the noise from the air-conditioning system (which was, however, very appreciated - and I missed it yesterday when I had to use the U-Bahn in Berlin...).
Ticket inspections may also occur on metro trains, despite the access gates, but for whatever reason, in many stations one of the emergency gates is always open, certainly seducing people to avoid the ticket gates. I guess, most people use a season ticket anyway as Warsaw is said to have a rather high share of public transport users (there are still lots of cars, too!).


I didn't see much of the WKD system, the local railway that runs from Warsaw to some villages to the southwest of the city. As the central portion was closed for some track work, I only rode it from Zachodnia to Aleje Jerozolimskie. As said before, combined zone 1 tickets are only valid up to Opacz, actually the first stop outside Warsaw, but zone 1+2 passes are not valid on the rest of the line, you'll need to get a special WKD ticket! The two more urban stations, Ochota and Sródmescie, have not changed at all in the last 12 years, and honestly, look quite pathetic. Hopefully some real modernisation will happen soon. At Centralna the corridors leading to the WKD terminus Sródmescie are currently being refurbished, so a restyling of the WKD platform would be much appreciated, too. 

Temporary WKD terminus at W-wa Zachodnia (West Station)

Not too long ago, they purchased new trains with low-floor access, but looking at what is available elsewhere for this type of regional light rail (e.g. Badner Bahn in Vienna), those trains look clumsy and heavy. In fact, I would suggest to convert this line into a proper tram-train using lighter vehicles and connect them to the urban tram system, for example, by looping around the city centre, and thus improving access significantly while at the same time making the other urban stations like Reduta Ordona, which lies next to a huge shopping complex, more attractive from the Warsaw end, too. I see that up until the 1970s, the line actually entered the city like a tramway.

So, all in all, the Warsaw urban rail system is developing quite nicely, the tram system is being upgraded and hopefully the last high-floor trams will be withdrawn soon, the extension of M2 in both directions with three new stations on each side is underway, with contracts expected to be awarded before the end of the year, and hopefully, the SKM system will be expanded and upgraded into a real S-Bahn system, too.


ZTM (Warsaw public transport)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Transport in LONDON

Like probably any urban rail enthusiast, I have been to London many times, so with this post, instead of trying to give an overview, I'm just writing down a few impressions I gained during my most recent visit a couple of weeks ago, from 11 to 17 July 2015.

- Fares
First of all, and most urgently, I need to discourage anybody wishing to explore London's rail systems to use an Oyster Card! This "smart" card is not really intelligent enough to understand rail enthusiasts' weird travel patterns! I got one the first day because I thought that with the daily capping it offers I might have to pay less compared to a traditional travelcard. But although I tried to check in and out as requested, the system gets completely confused when you do that too often, so in the end on one single day I had accumulated five or more "unresolved journeys"! And for each of them, they deduct 5.70 GBP. When I started wondering what had happened to all that money I had put on the card in the morning, I went to see a young lady who assisted passengers at North Greenwich station, and she was also quite surprised. But as I explained things in a plausible way, she refunded one of those misdeductions, but she said that they were only able to do one directly, for anything else, I'd have to ring the Oyster hotline. A local friend helped me with that in the evening, as I feared that it would ruin me even more if I called with my foreign phone, being kept in the waiting loop forever. We did get through quite quickly, though, but they said, I need to call back in the morning because they cannot deal with "unresolved journeys" before the day is over. So I did that using my phone the next morning, luckily no wait at all, and all pretty easy, apparently they are used to that kind of thing, maybe not to the extreme of my misdeductions. But to get the money back on the card, I would actually have to use it again, and I had to specify a Tube station where I would use it. As on the last day I was planning to take the Piccadilly Line anyway to Heathrow, I chose Earl's Court where I was staying. But to avoid any more trouble of that kind, on the following days, I purchased an old-fashioned One-Day Travelcard, just as I did 15 or 20 years ago, and had no more trouble walking in and out of stations whenever I wanted to. Theoretically, you could get the money on the Oyster Card back, if you fancy standing in the queue at Heathrow for half an hour. This way, I got credit for my next visit, some 26 GBP! But the sad thing about this issue is that I'm not the only one with this problem, in fact it seems to be very common - funnily, the Evening Standard, which is freely distributed on trains, had a story (I think it was on 14 July) that TfL actually makes millions of extra money because of this problem, as many people do not realise it or do not bother to claim the money back! So apparently it is part of the system. A real rip-off!
In many places, the Oyster Card system is indeed absurd and stupid. If such a system is implemented, then it should be done properly, i.e. anywhere you cross a fare border, you should be obliged to check your card by means of barriers, but in London there is an excessive number of situations where it is not really clear what you need to do, especially as not all railway stations have ticket gates, not even all Tube stations! Wimbledon is one of those weird stations, with tram, train and Tube within one station complex, ticket gates for people coming from outside, but quite unclear whether you need to check out when coming from the tram and changing to District Line etc...
So, all in all, I would classify the Oyster Card system as badly implemented, too complex, and if they want an electronic system, they should simply reduce the price of the day passes, so that you can load a travelcard for zones 1-2, for example, off-peak, for a reasonable price, say 6-7 GBP instead of 12 for the whole 6 zones normal visitors would not really need.

Well, London is generally completely overpriced, but fares are too. I don't really understand the point why very occasional Tube riders in zones 1 and 2 are punished with having to pay 4.80 GBP, which is 6.80 EUR!!, the price of a day pass in "normal" European cities. I think it is o.k. to charge a slightly higher price to encourage people to use passes, but not to that extreme! And I doubt that this policy helps to reduce overcrowding in zone 1! It just helps to get a negative opinion of a transport system.

- Tube Stations & Lines
This leads us to the next point: overcrowding! The London Underground is always a great means of transport to explore, but more than in any other city I'm always happy I don't have to use it on a daily basis. Sure, London invented urban underground trains, but I still think that building those small-profile deep level tube lines was the most erroneous decision ever taken in the history of urban rail in the last 150 years! (Maybe the tiny VAL trains in France are the second...) No doubt, this is history and can't be changed much now, although I also cannot understand why the Victoria Line was built to that same standard, and why they didn't finally break this tradition with the Jubilee Line?? The Victoria Line is, however, quite fascinating. The new trains are slightly better, I mean, in respect of room inside the train, but still not really a relief for a tall person and considering the overcrowding it suffers most of the day on the central section. It is, however, probably the most frequently running metro line in Western Europe, and probably the fastest! Often, you can already see the next train approaching while the previous is leaving the station. The Jubilee Line is also quite swift and frequent, in fact while "waiting" at North Greenwich in the evening, I actually thought that it runs too often! And most trains run through to Stanmore! Generally, I sometimes had the impression that on some sections trains run too frequently, like to Epping, way out of the city with the trains even travelling through open countryside, where a train every 15 minutes or so would probably be enough. So, all in all, I could imagine more trains on the central sections and fewer travelling through to the ends of a line during off-peak hours. Although the Tube generally feels safe, it feels a bit weird if you're the only passenger on such a branch.

- Circle Line
It's a pity the Circle Line is no longer a circular line! And what is quite surprising is that at Edgware Road the current set-up hasn't actually eliminated any track conflict as just west of that station, only two tracks are available, so a Circle Line train departing from Edgware Road via Victoria will run over the same section again after finishing a full loop and heading towards Hammersmith. So, I'm not quite sure I understand why the Circle Line ceased to be a ring line.... Anyway, although I prefer the subsurface lines to the deep-level tube lines for the extra space they offer, the interlaced service with all these flat junctions is not really what a typical modern metro should be like. But I guess there is not much that can be done to change the situation, possibly east of Earl's Court there would be room enough to rebuild the junction, which might allow trains to proceed much faster from Earl's Court whereas now they are often held there for several minutes queuing to pass that junction.

- Tube trains
I really enjoyed the new S stock now in service on most subsurface lines, except on the District where there are still some older D stock trains. The new trains are very spacious, have pleasant air-conditioning and overall offer a comfortable ride. So for me, they have even increased the gap in comfort between the subsurface lines and the deep-level tube lines. The only thing I'd dare to criticise is the type of pattern on the seats...

- Trams
Doing preparation work for my forthcoming Tram Atlas Britain & Ireland, I revisited, of course, the Croydon Tramlink. Well, now officially called London Tramlink, nothing has been achieved in creating a larger network, which is quite surprising as the tram is really popular and quite a good service. Using several old railway routes, it is one of the fastest tramways in Europe, I think, even the "Downtown Croydon" portion is travelled through at reasonable speed. Unlike some other British tramways, the track is properly laid, both on the street-running sections and the light-rail style routes, with no excessively slow segments in curves or at junctions. 

So it is really a pity that no other lines have been built since, and that not even the existing system has been extended as often proposed. Interestingly, Tramlink is the only tram system in the U.K. to use route numbers, but, very half-heartedly! Funnily, the number is visible on the front display of the trams, but not on maps! See official map here

- Docklands Light Railway
Always fun to ride those driverless trains, but again, typically British, a very confusing and entangled system of routes not properly depicted anywhere. Like on Overground and National Rail (see below) I consider the introduction of route numbers very urgent! Here they could be prefixed with a D (although the District Line could also do with some numbering!), e.g. D1 Bank - Lewisham, D2 Bank - Beckton (oh, this route doesn't exist? Well, how would one know from the current Tube map?? At least, the DLR-only map depicts different routings with separate strokes, altough no differentiated with line colours)

- London Overground
The London Overground is without doubt one of the greatest achievements in London transport history for many decades. Living in Berlin and close to the S-Bahn ring line, I had always missed something similar in London, where you had to make all trips via the overcrowded city centre. Although on many sections, the implementation of Overground was just a rebranding, I was sure from the start that this would be successful, and the fact that they keep extending the train length is the best sign that it has been successful. In fact, I did not really understand why they didn't start with long trains from the beginning! What I don't like, however, is this British obsession (sorry!) NOT to use line numbering. By now, the Overground system has developed into a large network of different services, but like on DLR, impossible to find out which routings trains normally take, although there seem to be more or less regular types of services which should really be distinguished by line numbers, preferably S1, S2, etc... (ha ha) and different colours at least on Overground exclusive maps. My conviction is that line numbers do not hurt those who don't like line numbers, but they help those who like them!

It is a pity, however, that what appears to be a circular line, is split into three different lines. So, to take a full circle, one would have to change trains twice. As it was new to me, I spent some time at Clapham Junction to observe the service there, but unfortunately passengers lose a lot of time there because the Overground trains from both direction enter and leave the station more or less simultaneously, but then stay in the station for some 10 minutes. So anybody using Overground to "circle" around the southwestern part of London, e.g. from Shepherd's Bush to Clapham High Street, will need to hang around Clapham Junction for a while. I'm aware that designing a perfect timetable in this complex rail system (after all, Overground mixes too much with other services, especially in South London), a staggered timetable would be the better option here, I mean that on a 15-minute headway, the trains should enter and leave the station with 7 1/2 minutes between them, this would be time enough to change trains with the necessary buffer in case of delays and make the rest of the waiting time much shorter. Talking about the South London service, there are really two stations missing, one at Brixton (or do they fear the Victoria Line may get even more overcrowded?) and one at the intersection with Thameslink at Loughborough Junction where you can see the Thameslink station right below the Overground route! No doubt, it would cost a lot, but the network effect would improve significantly.

The two new routes added to Overground in May, to Enfield/Chesthunt and Chingford have been restyled, both trains and stations. I only rode the line to Chingford and the train was not really busy, actually more so on the outer section with lots of people joining at Walthamstow Central coming from the Victoria Line. Contrary to the older Overground lines, the Chingford train skips some stations which are only served by the Enfield/Chesthunt trains. I think one of the characteristics of a good urban S-Bahn system should remain that trains stop at every station for simplicity's sake!

TfL Rail
The rebranded service to Shenfield is indeed very busy, and considering that large crowds join at Stratford changing from the Central Line, taking these trains, which already run every 10 minutes, directly into the city centre via Crossrail was a very good decision. Not only will this provide a direct one-seat ride for East Londoners, but also relieve the central part of the Central Line significantly. I'm looking forward to 2019 or so, when London will finally offer the first proper RER-style service! But they should do something about Shenfield station to bring it into the zonal system to avoid confusion. I don't know why, but Epping on the Central Line is in zone 6, lying beyond the M25, and Shenfield, just a few miles further out, would be in zone 10, and Brentford, almost the same distance from Central London as Epping is classified as zone 9! What kind of lobbying does Epping have and those places along TfL Rail don't?

- Thameslink
Talking of RER-style service, certainly Thameslink has some touch of RER, too, but a bit like Paris' line C, slow and difficult to understand. Again, very confusing which train stops where, although on their timetable leaflets, Thameslink actually uses line numbers!!! Hurrah! When I wanted to travel just from St. Pancras International to Kentish Town, however, there was no way to find out which train would stop there, so I just had to wait until Kentish Town appeared in the list of calling points (which is quite a good feature at British railway stations and should be copied in other countries!). But all in all, Thameslink feels more like a typical National Rail regional service which may also be helpful for journeys within London. Hopefully it will be perceived more of an urban service when some more northern routes are linked at St. Pancras, increasing the number of trains running across London. The new Blackfriars station looks quite nice and spacious!

- National Rail
So while Crossrail was an excellent idea, not only Crossrail 2 should be built soon, but also Crossrail 3 and 4 and maybe 5! Well, Paris has 5 RER routes now (though line E is missing its western part, and lines B and D have to share their tracks between Châtelet and Gare du Nord) and London's major problem with overcrowding on the Tube lines certainly lies in the excessive number of passengers those National Rail services, whatever fancy colours their trains may currently be carrying, virtually spill into the Underground stations, most notably at Victoria and Waterloo, but at all the other termini, too. At Waterloo, a potential tunnel ramp with a low-level platform could actually be built where the International trains used to stop as this area has been lying idle for many years now! Trains could dive under the River Thames, provide interchange with Thameslink and several Tube lines at Blackfriars and St. Paul's before being connected, for example, at Moorgate and Liverpool Street to existing routes, at the latter ideally linking up with the new Overground services to Enfield/Chesthunt and Chingford. But given the extensive suburban and regional services in and around London, I guess there would be plenty of different options those consulting companies would be happy to study in detail. In the meantime, I would be happy if the existing services radiating from those termini were presented in a more structured way, again, introducing some sort of line numbering and proper maps, at least for each of those subnetworks. Starting with local services, all the "lines" departing from Waterloo, for example, could be labelled W1, W2, etc. with W1, for example, serving the Hounslow loop. And there should be a clear difference between trains serving Greater London and stopping at all stations, and trains going all the way down to the coast, which only serve major stations in Greater London. These stopping patterns may be quite clear for those passengers using the trains every day, but are completely confusing for anybody else. The most confusing are actually those shown in green and blue in the Southeast, well, those trains operated by Southeastern and Southern, an area also invaded by some Thameslink services. For the official London all-rail map click here

- Buses
As I labelled this post "Transport in London", I need to say a few words about the bus service too: without doubt the best in the U.K.! I know, many people in other British cities have tried to explain their bad bus services with deregulation etc., which luckily has not affected London (so wasn't it about time to discuss whether deregulation in the rest of Britain should be maintained?). Anyway, in London I always find it easy to catch a bus as there is sufficient information at the stops, and especially when exiting a Tube station, you will always find a map with all bus options, so I did use a few to ride between outer rail branches. 
Also, the new 'Boris' buses are quite nice, modern and at the same time iconic. And what also distinguishes London buses from the rest of the country is their second (or even third) door - I never really understood the concept of having just a single door next to the driver! Sure, a few more seats, better control of who's getting on, etc. But on busy lines, the change of passengers simply takes too long. What is a bit confusing in London, though, is to know on which buses you have to get on at the front and on which you can jump on at the rear, too. Also, the fact that you cannot buy a ticket on the bus makes it difficult for ocasional riders. I assume that they assume that by now every Londoner carries a pay-as-you-go Oyster Card with some credit on.

- Other fun rides
Besides the proper urban rail systems, I also got a chance to ride two more transport vehicles:

1) the Emirates Air Line, an aerial cable car in the Docklands area, special fare applies, but worth the fun as it offers a great view, including the DLR!

2) Ruislip Lido Railway: Andrew, a friend involved in the operation of this miniature railway, took me there and showed me around, located about 2 km north of Ruislip station on the Metropolitan Line. Find out more here!

So these were just a few thoughts that crossed my mind during my last visit. Feel free to clarify, contradict or confirm my statements, that's what the comment field below is for!


London at UrbanRail.Net

Saturday, July 18, 2015


 Central Park - impressive structure for a little used station on the line from Victoria to Rochdale via Oldham

Staying from 3 to 9 July 2015, I had enough time to explore the large Metrolink system, the most extensive of its kind in the U.K., so it deserves a closer look. I used Manchester also as a base for day trips to Blackpool, Liverpool and Sheffield, which will be dealt with in separate blog posts.

Unfortunately I could not experience the Metrolink system in its normal form, as the network has been split into two parts since 28 June to allow for the reconstruction of the central St. Peter's Square stop and its connection to the second city crossing, now finally under construction. This division will last all summer and after that, service will still be restricted through St. Peter's Square until 2016.

Deansgate-Castlefield - during the temporary closure of the city centre route probably the busiest station on the network, now enhanced with three tracks

To start with, Metrolink is not bad, but in many aspects far from perfect, too. For British standards, it has been expanded so massively and so rapidly that the critical observer might easily get suspicious. So let's have a closer look. And the look of the system has also changed drastically within only a few years: the complete rolling stock has been replaced, all original Ansaldo trams are out of service, although I saw a few still in the yard at Old Trafford, and all stops restyled in yellow. The overall appearance of the system is very good, all pretty clean, no graffiti at all, no litter or signs of vandalism, maybe the old stations on the original lines could do with some facelifting regarding platform surfaces. Electronic next-tram displays worked fine at all times, and delays were within the normal. Ticket machines also worked whenever I needed them and are pretty easy to handle. No problem paying with a German debit card, and they issue proper receipts, good for my tax office. The tickets they issue, however, don't have a magnetic strip which is required to go through the gates at railway stations, so you'll need to show your ticket to an agent there who will open the gates for you. I'm not sure about the older lines, but the newer sections are all fully accessible, mostly via ramps, while some stops have lifts. Boarding the train is completely level, and on the platform surface there is a mark indicating where people in wheelchairs or with prams or strollers should get on to find the area reserved for them. Therefore even single trams always stop at the very front of the platform, in fact the tram's front is beyond the platform end, as the platforms are just long enough to accommodate 2-car sets. The new Bombardier Flexity Swift trams are quite nice, not too clumsy or bulky for street running, and the seats are certainly much better than those in the Cologne sister cars, where they have cheap plastic seats. They run as single or double units, the latter being shown on the next-tram indicators as 'dbl', so people can prepare themselves to use the whole length of the platform.

Let's start with the older legs, which I had visited ten years ago, when I was preparing my book 'Metros in Britain' (no longer available). At that time I was quite shocked by the hopping and shaking (hunting) of the Ansaldo trams on the old railway routes to Bury and Altrincham. Apparently, these lines were taken over from former British Rail without doing much track upgrading and remained so for a long time. I would assume that in the meantime there has been some track replacement, but still, even the new Bombardier Flexity Swift trams start hunting at some higher speed, but at least the up-and-down hopping has disappeared, making for a more comfortable ride. As said before, the stations have all been restyled in the new yellow corporate design, which is quite nice, although I didn't really see the necessity for such a drastic change, the turquoise used before was quite nice too and could have become typical of Manchester. Interestingly the colour change took place at the time when RATP Dev took over operation, and RATP has used a similar turquoise for many decades. Let's hope that the new livery stays, as this often becomes part of a city's identity. Many stations on these original lines preserve some old buildings, unfortunately not always in use, though, like at Trafford Bar, but mothballed. While most of the newer legs are only served every 12 minutes, the Bury and Altrincham lines normally have a tram every six minutes. I was quite surprised to find out that the Altrincham line is not signalled like a railway line despite its alignment and history, just the short single-track section around Navigation Road, where the second track is still used by mainline trains has railway signals, otherwise it's all 'line-of-sight' operation. The Bury line, however, uses proper signalling north of Queen's Road, where the second depot is located. Just tramway signals are also used on later built or converted lines.

The Bury and Altrincham lines were first linked via a surface route through the city centre, with a branch going to Piccadilly railway station. This was certainly the cheaper option and the tram got integrated into the urban environment, but I still think that Manchester would have deserved some kind of Liverpool-style underground solution. I do recognise that the current solution has some advantages, the crawling speed is compensated by the easy accessibility of the surface stops, but the enormous and ever increasing amounts of trams passing through Piccadilly Gardens is quite horrible, if not dangerous. I guess the second city crossing will only partly alleviate this situation. Piccadilly Gardens could be quite a nice place, but I find it rather unpleasant. While the garden part is separated from the transport part by an ugly concrete wall, buses and trams seem to run over pedestrians any second, and strange that this does not occur more often. And this time I only saw the reduced version as normally the trams come from all sides (trams from Market Street towards Piccadilly Gardens additionally use a by-pass track, making things even less clear for pedestrians!). Further down, next to the Piccadilly 'tunnel' portal there is a huge field marked on the roadway to remain clear for trams to pass, which is hardly possible during rush hour traffic, so it is quite amazing that the trams can make their way through this point without much problem. All in all, priority at traffic lights works well around the system, although it could be faster by a few seconds so that the trams don't almost come to a halt and then have to accelerate again. But I hadn't observed any annoying waits caused by road traffic turning first or so.

Victoria station - new cityside access with complicated track layout

The Metrolink's Victoria station layout has been completely rebuilt recently, but the result is one of the least convincing elements of the whole system. The new track arrangement includes the junction for the future second city crossing plus a three track station with two island platforms, so the middle track can be used in either direction, and all that laid out in a curve, resulting in a weird approach via numerous points and winding tracks. I will be curious to see this area in full operation in 2017.

MediaCityUK - on weekends served by Eccles-bound trams

The next branch to open was the Eccles line, which offers nice views of the Salford Quays, but technically speaking, it is Manchester's weakest line, as it virtually crawls through this former docklands area at minimum speed until you get to Harbour City where a single-track branch diverges to MediaCityUK. I was there at the weekend, when this branch is served by trams running through to Eccles, so they have to reverse here. But this situation seemed rather confusing, not just for me. Noone seemed to know which side platform is for which direction, as the next-tram indicator on the southern platform showed both directions, and that on the northern didn't show anything. I assume they always use the same platform for either direction, so it should clearly be signed. During the week, when the stub is served directly, probably just one platform is enough anyway. For passengers travelling on towards Eccles, the detour via MediaCityUK certainly adds several minutes to their journey. Once the trams reach Broadway, they can continue at reasonable speed, despite the street-running, but as the stops are offset from the roadway, traffic lights hold back road traffic so the trams can proceed without obstacles (may not always be the case during rush hour traffic, though). At Eccles, some buses unload their passengers directly at the Metrolink platform, otherwise the bus station is just a short walk west.

Chorlton - typical station on line to East Didsbury

All the other branches were opened as part of the big-bang expansion during recent years. The South Manchester Line that terminates at East Disbury is probably the best of all. It diverges from the Altrincham line in a grade-separated junction with quite steep ramps and then runs fairly straight along an old railway corridor to its final stop, so it offers a good speed, and despite using a railway corridor, its stations seem to be close enough to the adjacent housing estates. The latest addition to the system diverges from the East Didsbury branch, and boasts everything from light rail-style interurban routes to street-running. Again, the street-running sections seem to work fine by holding back road traffic before the trams enter those sections. The branch, however, has several very tight curves which are negotiated at minimum speed, not really up to state-of-the-art tramways - interestingly, the latest edition of "Tramways & Urban Transit" has an in-depth article about this issue, which seems to be related that too many tramway engineers come from mainline railways and don't quite understand the design differences, so this is not just my non-expert observation. The worst such curve is actually off-street, just south of the Shadowmoss stop before the final run towards the airport. I think that actually what is known as the Airport Line would deserve being called South Manchester Line, and the South Manchester Line could be called the Didsbury Line instead, as although the airport is its final destination, it is certainly not the preferred option to go to the airport, with a ride to the city centre taking some 50 minutes every 12 minutes, while direct trains run every few minutes and just take some 15 minutes to Piccadilly. On the Airport Line there is certainly one stop missing along the long street-running section between Martinscroft and Benchill, but obviously they couldn't find a location where neighbours would give up some parking spaces in front of their houses.

Airport Line - street-running section near Benchill

The East Manchester Line connects to the former stub at Piccadilly. It is a mix of grade separated light rail with two underpasses, and an old-fashioned tramway with street-running through Droylsden, maybe the most conflictive of this type as far as interference with road traffic goes, as the trams may even have to stop for buses stopping along the same road. In fact, quite weird that a bus line (216) is maintained basically all the way from Piccadilly to Ashton parallel to the tram line. The outer section is on a separate right-of-way, but this doesn't really help to get higher speeds as it crawls through a large roundabout and then to the terminus.

Tram approaching Ashton-under-Lyne terminus in the background

Like the early Bury and Altrincham lines, the Rochdale Line again is mostly a converted and rebuilt railway line, but unlike the older lines, the trackbed was completely renewed. It features Manchester's most outstanding light rail station at Central Park, a quiet business park, with its cable-stayed roof structure. The flyover that crosses the Leeds main line is a massive structure with a think wall in the middle, similar to what you can see on the Bury Line on its way across the M60 motorway.
Just before getting to Oldham, the trams leave the old railway alignment in a sharp curve to serve Oldham town centre, however not what would be the town's main street, but parallel to eat, so when you get off, you get to see the ugly back side of a major shopping centre, while the real High Street is a pedestrianised street on the other side. The street-running Oldham section terminates as the line rejoins the old railway corridor east of Oldham Mumps. The trams actually have to negotiate a steep ramp, as the old railway used to cross that point on a viaduct, now demolished, though. The ride then is pretty fast north to the point where the Leeds main line has to be crossed again, this time the flyover is only single-track as is the adjoining ramp down to Rochdale railway station. It is not really convincing why the tram stop is located across the street from the railway station and not right next to it, I would think that space could have been made available to allow for a 2-track full-length stop there. This way, passengers would not need to cross a busy street to change from tram to train, and many do, as trains from there to Victoria station are frequent and much faster than the tram. 

Change from single-track to double-track near the Rochdale Town Centre terminus

From the railway station, the trams wind down towards Rochdale town centre, the last section being single-track for no obvious reason, maybe to avoid a scissors-crossover in what is a large curve. Anyway, as the traffic lights seem to work fine, this should not be a bottleneck.

Construction for second city-crossing in full swing between Victoria and Exchange Square

The second city crossing is now under construction, at least around St. Peter's Square and between Victoria Station and Exchange Square, which is actually the only stop on this new link. I would have preferred a second stop close to Albert Square. Interestingly, St. Peter's Square was initially one of those stops with only a short high-level platform and the rest as a ramp or low-level, all to reduce the "visual impact" in this urban environment. It was later rebuilt to become a proper full-length high-level, and now it is even expanded and will have two full-length high-level island platforms and four tracks.

Farewise, Manchester is not too bad, maybe the range of available tickets is almost too large. You have to choose between daytickets covering just one type of transport or two or three, i.e. train, tram and/or bus. The area covered is the entire Greater Manchester region, all the way to Wigan, for example, so the prices are not too excessive. But being raised with the concept of integrated transport, I do not really understand why one should choose different types of transport, when one "journey" should normally be able to be done using all different types to get from A to B. So, the differentiation should rather be done by area than by mode. In many cases, people will not have the choice whether to use tram rather than train, or depend on an additional bus, and as the fares for individual day passes and those for combined modes are not too different, I think a simple unitarian cover-all-modes pass would simplify the whole fare structure. Single fares are valid for a single operator, anyway, Metrolink's fares start from 1.20 for a trip in the central area to 4.70. for the longest possible journey. There are frequent inspections on the trams! Those who can't resist can also get electronic tickets, but after my recent negative experience in London with the Oystercard, I cannot recommend any of these for real urban rail explorers!

As the system has grown so much in recent years, I think it was about time to introduce some line numbering system. Unlike the Docklands Light Railway, for example, Metrolink lines are at least shown in different colours on the network maps, but these colours are not used to actually name the lines, so they wouldn't say the "Blue Line", instead it is always something like the "Bury-Altrincham service"! I have never understood the British reluctance to using line numbers, as this is nothing that hurts, it just helps! Funnily, on the Croydon Tramlink, the trams display a route number, but this is not reflected on their maps! I bet the old first-generation tram systems must have used line numbers, or didn't they either?


Metrolink at TfGM

Metrolink at UrbanRail.Net