Wednesday, 16 May 2018

HELSINKI - Metro, Rail & Tram 2018

So here I am again leaving Helsinki five years after my last visit and my last comments posted here in2013. So before I put down my thoughts about the latest developments, most notably the Airport Ring Line and the first stage of the Länsimetro to Espoo, I want to add some updates to the earlier post.

The tram network has been rearranged a few months ago, so some issues I mentioned in 2013 have luckily be solved. The funny letters that accompanied line 3 have disappeared, now the lines are quite intelligible. One minor issue is still that maps don't mention the fact that lines 2, 3 and 7 are virtually one single line. Of course, it shouldn't be shown as such, but it should be shown that these lines actually continue as a different line from their terminus or even termini. A tram may start as line 3 at Meilahti (empty, because there is no boarding platform on the Kuusitie loop!), run through the city and then become line 2 at Olympiaterminaali. Line 2 then runs up to Länsi-Pasila where it becomes line 7 (there may be a longer layover here, though!), and finally line 7 runs back through the city to terminate at Länsiterminaali T2. So if it's cold outside and you have nowhere to go, this is your line. But the last couple of days it was not cold, rather the contrary, and as we're talking about the tram system, I like the new Artic trams quite well, they runs smoothly and behave well in curves, of which there are plenty, so all in all a solid car:

I was surprised that Helsinki didn't opt for longer trams, but this would probably restrict them to certain routes where platforms would have to be lengthened. Because all stops (I think) in Helsinki have proper platforms, very good. No street boarding. Most stops also have shelters and, though often tiny and hidden in the upper corner of the shelter, an electronic next-tram display:

I did miss such a monitor at some termini where it might be useful to know how much time is left before the waiting tram actually departs. Normal headways on weekdays are 10 minutes, and 12 on Sundays. The new Artic trams as well as the refurbished older ones have air-conditioning which mostly works fine, but I did find a few almost unbearably warm. And as is the European trend, no windows to let the nice spring air come in. I wonder why decent air-conditioning is so hard to install in Europe (I hate Berlin's buses in the summer, and the S-Bahn without air-conditioning is often more pleasant). For the new line 3, a link was built between Auroran sairaala and Töölön tulli, which created quite a long stretch without any stop. I hope one will be added as the road along the new track was still being rearranged. The Katajanokan terminaali is now only served by line 5 which runs very rarely, but this is not visible from the map, so you may wait for this tram in vain. Reading the posted timetables at tram and bus stops is almost impossible for me in Helsinki, again a very unconventional way for European standards (although the Americans use something similar): basically all lines are shown in one list, i.e. a list of departure times with the line added to it, instead of a more typical easy-to-read chart for each line.
Besides the major projects (the Jokeri semi-circular light rail line and the "Bridge Line" to Laajasalo to relieve the Metro between the city centre and Herttoniemi, there are some smaller tram projects, but I haven't seen any which seem most apparent to me:
1) a short 600m extension from the Käpylä loop to the railway station of the same name
2) a 1.4km extension for the Line 10 terminus at Pikku Huopalahti to Huopalahti railway station, which could be done jointly with the Jokeri project.
These two extensions would significantly improve the network effect of the tram and suburban rail system. For many people, especially in the northwest, this would make travelling, for example, to the airport much easier.

The fare system is still the same, slightly increased fares (9 € for a Helsinki-only day pass), but I have seen some hints that the zonal system may be reformed shortly. Nowadays the distinction between Helsinki and not Helsinki is a bit strange as the municipal territory extends a long way east but not west, so for the same distance on the metro you may have to pay more just because you live in Espoo and not in the far eastern suburbs. I guess a semi-circular farezone system would be more appropriate.

Not much has improved on the S-Bahn network as far as the points I mentioned in 2013 are concerned. Still no special branding, although many new trains now carry a purple livery, whereas outer suburban trains are green and white like all other VR trains. The mess of line letters has not been sorted, actually with the opening of the Airport line it got worse. These service are labelled (P) for clockwise and (I) for anti-clockwise. I hope that these letters mean something for the local population because otherwise I'd call them inappropriate. (I) when written isolatedly doesn't really have a distinctive character, and (P) on blue background and within a circle is mostly associated with a car park. From my experience, also by writing about these systems, a combination of a letter (for the system) and a number for the route is the best option, and therefore it seems natural that even Germany's neighbouring countries like Poland, Czechia and Belgium have adopted the S1, S3 style for suburban trains. This type of designation has actually gone global, via Italy all the way to China, where new lines built as part of the metro system but reaching rather remote areas are labelled S1, S2, etc in most cities. Whereas previously, different routes had already been shown on some maps in different colours, they are now all purple. And I guess what's most confusing about these letters is that there is no distinction between regular and rush-hour services. I find it too tiring to figure out what the difference between N, K and T is and I wonder if it makes that much difference to skip a few stations or whether it would be better just to have a regular all-day 10-minute service on the section to Kerava and drop a few letters instead. In fact, with a train at least every 5 minutes between Helsinki and Hiekkaharju, I bet that an all-stopping service at all times would be more reliable. And this is just about the northeastern leg, the mess on the western leg is similar. I can't think of any other city in the world that operates such a confusing stopping pattern, even Tokyo's private suburban railways seemed to be easier to understand. Some may say, this is a foreign visitor's problem, but although it may be no issue for regular users, I am sure it prevents many occasional users from taking these trains and they choose their car instead.
But all in all, the suburban service is very good as for trains and frequencies, with the airport served every ten minutes from either direction, with a train every five minutes on some shared sections. The Stadler Flirt trains are very nice, smoothly running and with well-working air-conditioning. They do have steps though between carriages, probably ramps as seen on other Flirts may be too steep for the low floor at the doors to perfectly match the platform height. This morning I noticed again the long distance at Helsinki station you have to walk from Metro or tram to reach these trains, made more difficult as you walk against the flow of arriving commuters.

Now let's have a brief look at the relatively new Airport Ring Line. It is not a proper ring, of course, more a bubble (or if I remember correctly, in the early days it was compared to a strawberry...), with trains starting from either extreme side of Helsinki's main station, (I) trains start on track 1 or 2 at the eastern side, and (P) trains depart from tracks 18 or 19 at the western side (actually not quite sure, and the HSL timetable doesn't indicate the track number, but shows it on the map!). No-one would transfer between these two routes, as they would be able to do that at Pasila. Taking the route anti-clockwise as I did, the eastern suburban line is shared with frequent K or N services, so at almost all stations up to Hiekkaharju there is a train about every 5 minutes. Tikkurila is a major station in the city of Vantaa and here is where airport passengers change from long-distance trains to the airport train. Local passengers can do this more conveniently at Hiekkaharju where "around-the-corner" transfers can be done on the same platform. After serving Leinelä in a growing suburb, the train goes underground and reaches the airport after some 30 minutes. Taking the P train from the other side of the Helsinki station would take almost the same time, so it doesn't really matter which one you take.
I certainly took my first I train after arriving from Berlin on Friday. Finding the station was easy as large train symbols are depicted everywhere:

Getting a ticket may be more difficult if you haven't prepared yourself before as there is no-one to help you. Just a few machines, some for VR trains and some for HSL tickets. But as I was prepared well, I got my 4-day region ticket (35 €) rather easily. I didn't really need it but didn't want to bother with different zones for each day, and in the end buying a region tickets for several days may actually be cheaper than buying a day ticket for each day, and choosing the different zones. For Vantaa and the airport as well as the metro extension to Espoo, a region ticket is required in any case. The tram system is entirely within Helsinki, though.
Back to the airport station, once you got your ticket follow the signs towards the platforms, it's a bit of a walk with two escalators (one rather long) until you reach the huge cavern built for the station. Once on the platform, you could take any train on either side to go into Helsinki, but if you need to take a long-distance train make sure the screen also mentions Tikkurila. The same is true in the other direction if you need to go towards Espoo and beyond, make sure the screen says Huopalahti:

On the side walls, a metro-style strip map shows all the stations served from this platform side and how many minutes it will take you to get there (the metro doesn't offer this service! See below!):

On Friday morning after rush hour, only single units operated the line, so the station, prepared for 3-unit trains looks very large. On Monday morning, a 2-unit train took me back to the airport. Unfortunately along the middle of the wide platform, there are many structures, one actually has a ramp going downwards, no idea what for, maybe a sort of emergency exit? So the view over the entire platform is rather obstructed. On parts of the vaulted outer walls there is an artwork to embellish the otherwise sober design. Aviapolis station is basically identical. Heading east, the train takes up speed (the current speed is actually displayed on the screen, showing 115 km/h or more at times) and returns to the surface. The train then reaches Kivistö, a covered subsurface station in an area which is seeing a lot of housing construction:

After this detour northwest, the train eventually gets aligned southwards heading for Helsinki. It stops at Vekhala, a station in the middle of nowhere, there is just a Fashion Center and a park&ride car park visible from the platform. A few hundred metres further south, but after crossing a motorway (Kehä III - 3rd ring), is Vantaankoski, the former and now rebuilt terminus. Serving all stations on what used to be the M train through Martinlaakso, the I train returns to Helsinki station after a journey approximately one hour long.
So, despite the "calling all stations" service, I generally like such an airport service and prefer it to an express train which may be faster but only runs every 30 minutes (and often requires a special fares - see Vienna's CAT, or the Arlanda Express in Stockholm or Flytoget in Oslo). The trains are large enough for people with luggage without disturbing the regular local passengers. I find it much more relaxed to show up at the railway station without looking at timetables and just take the next train which is always leaving in a few minutes.

And now let's take a look at the long-awaited, long-delayed western metro extension from Ruoholahti to Matinkylä [For a full set of photos of each station visit my dedicated gallery here]. I had long planned to revisit Helsinki when this route opens, meant to go in the winter to enjoy a few days of real northern darkness, but when the "Länsimetro" finally opened without much prior announcement back in November 2017, I suddenly got ill and had to cancel my spontaneously booked trip (well, Finnair didn't have mercy on me, so I lost the money...). In the end I waited until they announced real good weather (20 degrees in May!) to decide for another spontaneous trip, now using easyJet who had recently taken over those slots from what used to be AirBerlin.
I have thoroughly looked at all eight new stations, took the escalators up and walked outside to see how the Metro is changing the areas its serves, and a lot is going on. Not so much at Lauttasaari and Koivusaari, both still on Helsinki territory, the first lying withing an already built-up area, and the latter at the western edge of the same island, so probably good to get off here for a nice stroll along the island's coastal paths. But there is no room form much development, so the station seems a bit of a waste of money! It's a pity that the entire extension was built deep underground, because a surface or elevated alignment would have provided nice views. Instead the tunnel was blasted rather deep under the seabed.
I explored the route on a Saturday morning, so I didn't see the regular passenger movements. This is most apparent at Keilaniemi, where there are some new office blocks in a waterfront development around the station, but no-one there but a bored security guard.

Aalto Yliopisto (University) doesn't get very busy on Saturdays either, I took the eastern exit where some bus connections were shown, but ended up in a construction site for a huge university building. I walked around it hoping to find the western entrance in this wide-spread university campus, and luckily I headed more or less in the right direction until I found a small signpost indicating the entrance. I probably wouldn't have seen the entrance from that distance, especially as there was no logo pole visible. Once in front of the entrance I discovered one, but I think these should be placed to be spotted from a distance rather than just a sign at the entrance. And Helsinki does have a very nice and large logo recognisable from the distance!
All the stations have a rather distinctive ceiling decoration, stylish lamps in most cases, but Aalto University has a ceiling made of brown panels, creating a rather dark space. This becomes even more striking as you reach the following station Tapiola which is extremely bright and pleasant compared to Aalto University. Tapiola, somehow the eastern centre of Espoo with a lot of shops, is the terminus for every other train arriving from the east, but as for now, only the western exit is open, I guess due to construction work continuing on the surface and for an underground bus station. 

Getting out at Tapiola is extremely weird, several flights of escalators, for the last bit you can also opt for a lift (of course, you can take lifts at all stations, but it's not always faster, sometimes you need two lifts to reach the surface) or even climb a long set of stairs in the open-air. On the way back I discovered another route which makes you walk through the underground car park of a shopping mall. Tapiola not only has stylish hugh lamps hanging from the high ceiling, but also a cute huge girl with paint on her fingers, so she must have left those colour strokes visible along some walls as you access the station.

The distinction between line M1 and M2 is hardly visible anywhere, not on maps or screens, just on the electronic distination board inside trains which say e.g. "M1 Matinkylä" for those trains continuing beyond Tapiola.

Urheilupuisto surprises with a high ceiling which continues the floating tiles used on the walls above the platforms, one of my favourites. Around this station as well as the following Niittykumpu, there is a lot of construction going on. 

Niittykumpu is different from the rest as the wall cladding features some proper colours, whereas in the other stations shades of black and white dominate. The entrance is directly integrated into a smaller shopping centre and somewhat hidden as not much orange is visible outside. Again, a logo pole placed on the street corner would help to identify the station entrance from some distance. The current terminus at Matinkylä is certainly one of the highlights of this line, with its wide and barely obstructed platform covered by a swung white ceiling with a decent moving light effect. The station is integrated into a huge shopping mall and underground bus station (which may get less busy once the line is extended to Kivenlahti). Matinkylä only has an exit at the eastern end of the platform, although an emergency exit is available at the other end, too.

From Matinkylä, I took buses 143 and 147 to explore the area of the forthcoming extension to Kivenlahti, which is also being built completely underground, though it partly runs through sparsely populated area. I could see several construction sites (easily recognisable by orange fences!), except at Espoolahti on the way back on bus 543, but maybe I looked in the wrong place there.
So, all in all I enjoyed the new extension despite some negative points: 1) deep alignment resulting in long accesses; 2) full underground alignment with no views, so for this the older eastern Metro is nicer; 3) contrary to a global convention, the strip map on the respective wall shows the entire line and not just the section served by the train from that platform. Most metros show the section not served by this train in a faded grey:

As I visited on a Saturday morning, I'm not able to confirm complaints I heard about overcrowding due to the fact that the new extension was only built with platforms long enough for 4-car trains instead of six on the older sections. This decision was taken in view of driverless running, a project cancelled during construction. It was certainly a huge mistake not to make provisions for platform lengthening! In many modern metros, planners thought that driverless operation would allow to reduce the scale of the stations, but many have regretted it, see Copenhagen or Lille. The slightest disruption may lead to extreme overcrowding of stations and trains, obstruction of doors and thus a complete collapse of the system. Helsinki is lucky to have probably the world's widest metro cars (3.2m!), so a 4-car train may carry as many people as an 8-car trains on Berlin's narrow lines U1-U4. The lack of provisions for longer platforms is the more incomprehensible as the stations seem to be built very generously, if not oversized, so the stations box or cavern would not really need more volume, just a different arrangement of the escalator and lift shafts, which now occupy the full width of the platform.
Compared to the shiny new stations, the old stations in the city centre appear rather dated. All stations have received new signage (and as if they were following my advice in my 2013 blog, Swedish now appears in normal font, while Finnish is in bold, and English if used, in italics!), but nothing else seems to have been done for many years. Ex-Kaisaniemi, now Helsingin Yliopisto would have deserved a major clean up with the station renaming, but also Rautatientori and Kamppi look rather worn-down and could do with a bit of modernisation.

The HSL information office is a bit hidden in one corner of the metro mezzanine at Rautatientori, I had to ask although I was standing some 20m away from it (though closed on Sundays!). On Monday morning I managed to pick up some maps, the large Helsinki fold-out edition has a geographical map with buses and railways on one side, and on the other a city centre enlargement plus a tram network diagram, a railway diagram including the cross-region buses 550 and 560 and the metro strip map. All these and more can also be downloaded here!

I'm looking forward to my next visit to Finland, the next occasion would be the new tram in Tampere, followed probably by the Jokeri tangential light rail line and the next five stations of the Länsimetro in Helsinki.


Helsinki at UrbanRail.Net (feat. West Metro Gallery)

HSL for timetables and maps etc.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018


I had visited Granada in spring 2015 in preparation for my "Metro & Tram Atlas Spain" which was released later that year, but Granada's tram was not yet working then. Large parts of the single line were then already finished, especially along the northern section, but the section between Caleta and the tram tunnel had been delayed due to unresolved issues around the railway station where the tram now actually cuts through what used to be stub tracks (the rebuilt railway station, due to open soon for AVE services, was thus pushed a bit back although I think the platforms remain more or less in the same place). As everything seemed finished along the northern section where also the depot is located, I then assumed that this section might be brought into service around 2016, but it didn't. It seemed logical to open it, as also all the CAF trams had already been delivered and a temporary city terminus at Caleta would have made sense: from there, a special bus (LAC - Línea de Alta Capacidad) continues into the city centre proper where the tram doesn't go anyway. But as we have seen with other projects in Andalusia, the overall process of bringing new systems into service has not been prepared well, so drivers were recruited at a rather late stage, just like in Málaga. So in the end, more delays were accumulated until the line finally opened completely from end to end in September of 2017. I think it has been busy from the beginning.

Typical surface stop

I explored the line on a normal workday, first going to Albolote on the northern section, which was reasonably used in the late morning, so an off-peak headway of 10 minutes seemed appropriate. As I worked my way south the trams got very packed around lunchtime (e.g. around 2pm in Spain), and a denser headway seemed necessary. The southern section seemed much busier anyway as it not only serves some university faculties, but also a huge new shopping mall "Nevada" which generates a lot of ridership. So I felt that maybe at certain times a reinforcement line should be established, maybe between Estación de Autobuses and Sierra Nevada to operate a 5-minute headway on the central stretch. But I fear (but have no idea) that the operating contract with Avanza does not really consider any option to increase the service frequency, just like in Zaragoza where they also became victim of their own success and I think they still haven't increased the number of trams in operation.

What they call "Metropolitano de Granada" is, of course, a typical modern tram, which includes three underground stations. In fact, the term 'metropolitano' initially appeared because the line not only serves the city of Granada but also some towns outside, which belong to the metropolitan area, such as Armilla, Maracena and Albolote, with others already asking for the tram to be extended, so the project was presented as "Tranvía metropolitano".

Lowering pantograph just west of Fernando de los Ríos

Basically the Granada tram follows all the parameters we know from modern French tramways, i.e. a separate right-of-way or at least a marked-off road alignment throughout, no mixed operation, not even with buses. The line is double-track throughout, except for a short section at the southern end in Armilla, which certainly limits possible denser headways. There are quite a large number of crossovers so trams can turn back in case of disruptions. The single-track section in Armilla as well as two other short sections (Hípica – Andrés Segovia; Villarejo – Caleta) were built without overhead wires and the trams draw energy from supercapacitors like in Sevilla and Zaragoza. But here I think it was more of a capricho than a necessity, the section in Armilla is through a pedestrianised street but which I didn't really find as nice as to protect it from ugly wires, the same is true for the wireless section in Granada. 

Catenary-free section in Armilla

While travel speed is reasonable on most sections and traffic-light priority works fine, the section between Sierra Nevada and Fernando de los Ríos has to be operated a maximum speed of just 20 km/h as the trams run through a narrow street and cars may occasionally invade the tram reservation.

Generally the chosen alignment covers important parts of the city, but what surprises at first sight is that it does not run through what one would consider the most logical axis through the city centre (Avenida de la Constitución, Gran Vía de Colón, Calle Reyes Católicos, Acera del Darro – served by the LAC bus), and instead runs on a more peripherical western route (Camino de Ronda). And being underground on this "Old Town Bypass", an average tourist will probably not even notice that Granada now has a tram system. So if the line does not run through the Old Town, did it really need a tunnel? Camino de Ronda used to be the major north-south road to get through the city, but this has meanwhile been pushed further west to motorway A-44 (which itself is getting a relief motorway even further west...), so I'd say, that a surface route was also have been possible here. But planning was carried out at a time when money seemed to flow endlessly in Spain and many, still unfinished, infrastructure projects were launched. 

Luckily, Granada's was eventually finished, while its neighbour Jaén still struggles with finding an operating scheme before opening its 5 km tram line which has lain idle and ready to operate since 2011!! (there are hopes, though...).

All the surface stops follow a standard pattern, which looks plain but attractive. There is a ticket machine on each platform, and a board with a map and some information about fares. Although operating hours are listed, there is no hint about the tram's scheduled frequency. There are electronic next-tram indicators which worked fine while I was there, in fact, when the countdown shows "2 min.", the tram is about to arrive at the stop. Except for the two termini and the underground stations, all the stops have side platforms, which at 60m would be long enough for double sets. The stop's name is visible in various ways, one of them vertically on a totem which is crowned by a nice M-Logo.

I would classify the three underground stations as sober, functional with a stylish touch. In fact these are simple cut-and-cover boxes with a mezzanine at either end and an island platform on level -2, although at Méndez Núñez and Alcázar Genil, only the southern access is currently open, the northern serving as an emergency exit. From the street, there are several covered entrances leading to the mezzanine, at least with up-going escalators. Of course, also lifts are available, but lift-users have to change lifts on mezzanine level to walk through the tickets gates. 

Alcázar Genil is somewhat different as it features some remains of an ancient water deposit (albercón), but this is only recognisable if you know about it (there is an information panel explaining it), otherwise it looks like a station left unfinished in bare concrete. What makes the underground stations look somewhat stylish is the backlit station name on the raw piles which were driven into the ground to create the outer walls. For the rest the platform level is sober and somewhat dark, there are some stone benches which seem to store Granada's morning cold, but will probably be pleasant to sit on in hot summer. 

The trams travel at considerable speed between the underground stations, while the northern ramp, which follows a sharp curve in tunnel, is negotiated at low speed. Especially in the underground stations, a 10-minute headway feels a bit too long. Recogidas is the most centrally located station, but also Mendez Nunez gets busy with a large Corte Inglés department store nearby. All in all, however, the chosen route also has its share of passengers, including the many students at Universidad and in the future also the railway station (Estación de Ferrocarril). But with a tunnel already decided, I would have included Hípica station on the underground route as the ramp is somewhat intrusive in a narrow street, while roads become rather wide a bit further down the line. On the other hand, the city layout would suggest a branch leading east from Hípica and that would certainly be easier on the surface, In Tenerife, however, exactly those junctions were put underground to avoid any delays at road intersections. In fact, the intersection in question was the only one where I had the feeling that the tram cannot ask for priority but has to wait for the general traffic-light cycle to give it a 'go' sign. One major issue, though not specific to Granada, are the countless roundabouts the trams have to traverse, though luckily cars are stopped by special traffic lights. Having also used a car in Granada, I consider this extremely dangerous as roundabouts are always a certain challenge if busy and multi-lane, and then suddenly while in it, you may be stopped by a red light. I guess there have been a few crashes. I wonder if it is a good idea to combine trams with roundabouts. I imagine that this may create quite some traffic chaos as soon as the frequency is increased. Now with a tram only every 10 minutes in each direction it seems to work fine, though.

The CAF Urbos trams are pretty much the same as those in Málaga, except for some red at the doors instead of green, and decorated on the outside with local themes. Luckily they decided for the wide 2.65 m version which makes them look quite spacious inside although they do get packed easily. The interior is quite plain but bright. The seats are maybe a bit hard although the trams run quite smoonthly despite the grooved rail. The interior features all sorts of info devices including a strip map above the doors with illuminated stops. So, nothing to complain on this side, well, besides the Bombardier Flexity, the CAF Urbos is my favourite tram anyway...

Although the big Spanish cities have long had quite a good integrated transport system when it comes to fares, Andalusia is only learning slowly about this. So like in Sevilla and Málaga, the tram initially has its own fares, but free transfer to buses within a certain time will fortunately be introduced soon as I could learn from the local papers. Most local people use an electronic card which either carries a season ticket or stored value, so pretty everyone needs to tap in as they enter the tram. Single or return tickets are issued on a credit-card style paper ticket which also incorporates a chip, so you need to validate it on boarding. The same is true for a day pass called Turista (basically useful for tram enthusiasts only, I guess...), it shows the day of validity printed on the back side, but as I wasn't sure, I tapped in each time, too, so other passengers may not think I travel without paying... A day pass, which is valid just for this single line, costs 4.50€, quite a price considering that with a stored-value ticket (targeta monedero) you just pay 82 cents. Single tickets carry a surcarge for the electronic one-use ticket, so the total comes to 1.65€, still cheap for most European cities, but expensive for Spain. On the buses you can buy a single ticket from the driver for 1.40€ allowing you to transfer to other buses within 90 minutes. 


At underground stations the tickets have to be hold against the reader on entry and on exit, the latter probably a way to avoid fare evasion with people getting on the tram on the surface, so they wouldn't get outside in one of the central stations, although jumping the barriers would be quite easy. There are some security people around, but not too many, and they didn't say anything when they saw me taking photos (I mention this because people have reported problems in Málaga and some Spanish security staff sometimes get too serious, but usually just tell you that taking photos is not allowed, no US-style detentions to be feared!).

So, all in all, a good system which certainly will become very successful, maybe too successful. But looking at the city map, I hope more lines will be added soon and frequencies on the first line will be increased at least at busier times.


Metropolitano de Granada (Oficial website)

Monday, 20 February 2017

PRAGUE - Metro & Tram

Newest tram type in Prague, a ForCity from Skoda

Postponed again and again, I finally returned to Prague in early December 2016 after 15 years! My last trip to Prague was also the last trip I made without a digital camera, we are talking about 2001. I had travelled the Czech Republic extensively and intensively during the last summer in preparation for my forthcoming Tram Atlas Central Europe, a bit delayed but now hopefully out on sale in March 2017. I left Prague for a separate trip to finish off these journeys, but ever since September I had been waiting for a nice weather forecast, but it was not until December, already in winter, that a few mild days with a bit of sun were annouced. So I got on an EC train directly from Berlin to Prague, a calm journey of 4 1/2 hours. I stayed in Prague from 8 to 11 Dec 2016.

The purpose of the trip was mainly to get a good selection of metro station photos, as tram photos are much easier to get from other people. In the end, in three days I managed to take photos in all the stations, so my files are filled for the next decades [Visit my Praha Metro Gallery at UrbanRail.Net]. Though not the usual harvest, I still got a few nice tram shots, too, and with early sundown, some useable night shots, of course:

Older tram type, a Tatra T3

Let's start with tickets, a very easy and cheap issue in Prague. A day pass (24 hours in fact) is just 110 Czech crowns, which is something like €3.50, a 72-hours pass is 310 CZK. As the Metro is an open system, you just stamp it the first time and then pack it away until some ticket inspection happens, which I didn't have in three day, though I once saw a couple checking tickets inside a metro train.

Generally, the Prague Metro is a very relaxed system, everybody seems to behave pretty well, no loud people, no vandalism (visible) and hardly any security people around which made me think they are not needed (in Berlin you hardly see any but people believe we should have more!). No one hassles you when taking pictures, neither staff nor passengers. Just the concourse level at Muzeum seems to be a dodgy place with weird people hanging around. There are signs like "Beware of pickpockets" which is not surprising with the amount of tourists Prague gets at any time of the year. Now with Christmas markets all around, the city was packed, of course.

The Prague Metro is also a rather tidy place, not as polished as Moscow's, but quite clean. The platform level is usually a rather pleasant space, but some entrance areas appear a bit too dark. In some stations on line C, the lights and ceilings were renewed, making a much brighter space as some of the older stations tend to be a bit dark. I'm glad they kept some of the really fast escalators, though you have to watch out if you are not used to these. Where they have been renewed they tend to be slower. One morning I found one of the two up escalators at the A-to-C interchange at Muzeum out of service, but a few hours later when I went to catch my train back home it had already been fixed, despite being a Sunday. Some of the deep-level tube stations in the centre have already been equipped with lifts, but for those depending on lifts, it may still be a challenge to use the Metro. Of course, these lifts may be hidden somewhere on the surface, but there are signs indicating their location.

Talking about signs, what I do miss in Prague is a nice metro logo. They do use two kinds of symbols, but none is used on what would be an easily spottable totem pole in the street. Often the metro sign is only identifiable once you are at the stairs leading down underground, like at Námestí Míru, where the entrances are somewhat hidden behind the church at the eastern end of the square, so unless you know, you will not be able to see the entrances. Some entrances are covered and are thus more visible. Interchanges with tram lines are generally good, and inside the stations there are signs indicating which exit to take for which tram direction - they don't show line numbers as these have changed again and again.

Prague's Metro has always had its own style, especially in those early years, when the Soviets helped to build the Metro but did not impose a Moscow-style station design. Instead, Prague chose a very specific 1970s look, standardised though in varied colours on line A, and with a bit more variety on line B:


Line C, however, looks rather plain as it was originally designed as a subsurface tram, and most of the older cut-and-cover stations are not worth mentioning. 

Hlavni nadrazi on Line C, a subsurface station with wide side platforms

One may not like the colours and shapes used on the newer sections of lines A and C so much, somehow they appear a bit tacky, but seeing them in real life, I found all of them very pleasant spaces, and each with an individual note:


Strizkov is, of course, a different thing altogether, not for its plain platform level, but for its huge spanned roof structure. I guess the Metro wanted to build something nice in an otherwise dull neighbourhood, but from a budget point of view, it seems almost too much:

And the terminus at Letnany, though a lovely station, is in the middle of nowhere, still after some years of being open. Even the huge bus interchange seemed quite deserted when I was there on Friday afternoon compared to, e.g., Cerny Most or Zlicin. Looking on the Google satellite image, I would say that the line is short by one station as a large housing estate is just about one km further north. And if those people need to take a bus anyway to catch the metro they should rather go to Strizkov or even Ladví, both at a similar distance.

The new stations on the western line A extension have similar designs except the terminus Nemocnice Motol, of course, which is only half underground and serves one of the biggest hospital complexes in the city. During day time, every second train turns back at Petriny, but I think this is not so much to save a train, but due to the fact that Nemocnice Motol was not meant to remain the terminus for a long time as the line was supposed to be extended to the airport in a next phase. But this was shelved and a rail link is to be built there instead. But construction on this link which should be done together with a major upgrade of the Kladno rail line, has not started yet. So, Nemocnice Motol only has two sidings beyond the station, and one was occupied by a stabled train, leaving just one track for reversing: 

Refurbished Russian train reversing at Nemocnice Motol on Line A

At the other end, these trains turn around at Skalka instead of going the short distance to the terminus built inside Depo Hostivar, a rather plain encased station, though I was actually positively surprised after having seen pictures of it before; also surprised how many people were actually using it on a Sunday morning.

The trains are generally also in good shape, the newer CKD/Siemens trains on line C still look quite modern with their large front window. What makes them appear old-style is the fact that you cannot walk from car to car:

Prague started quite early to refurbish all older Russian trains which now run on lines A and B. Among all different modernised versions around Russian and other cities, I have always found the Prague version the best achieved.Giving trains a new front or livery often results in ugly distorted vehicles (see Cologne's modernised B cars or Frankfurt's ex U2 cars in latest livery), but in the case of Prague, the new front seems to fit. Also the interior looks pleasant, although I find the seats to be a bit too L-shaped, i.e. not really comfortable for me:

As with all Russian-style metros, the accoustic announcements are quite good, I mean well-timed when the car noise is the lowest. The "Ukoncite vystup a nastup, dvere se zaviraji" message could be a bit shorter, so that doors could close faster. Here the problem is like on the Berlin S-Bahn that people still jump on the train because they know it still takes a while until the doors really close. I prefer those metros where a simple yelling signal is enough and doors close. It may save a few seconds, but above all, it gives you a feeling of high speed of travel. But generally, station dwelling time is reasonable in Prague. On some trains the doors opened autmatically, while on others you had to push the button. Or does that depend on the station? Or on the driver? Train frequencies are quite adequate for the demand, every few minutes during rush hours and every 10 minutes on a Sunday morning (although for a few platform photographs, 10 minutes seemed sometimes long that morning...).

Signage in the stations is o.k. but not abundant. From the train, station signs are hard to read. On the outer walls, they are in large metal letters, which looks nice. On the platform itself, there are a few signs in the line's colour, but not as many as in other metros. What I observed repeately is that many people had problems reading the line diagram and which platform was the one they needed:

Badly visible arrows next to "Staromestska"

 In other cities you would find the strip map divided with clear arrows indicating the platform edge. Here those arrows are now quite clear. So in this case, Prague should follow the global design and have standing strip maps on the side walls as you come down the escalators. On the platforms there are information windows with fares and a large nice geograhic map with trams and buses, but I did not see any neighbourhood maps. Various generations of ticket machines can be found in entrance areas, older ones just take coins, but newer ones also accept international bank cards. Some stations also have manned ticket windows.

A few words about Prague's tram system, which is among the largest in Europe and for tourists, also an excellent way of exploring the city especially when you're tired after doing long walks. Several lines take you across one of the many bridges and always provide an excellent view, always from a different angle depending on the line you take. With 24 lines, the system may appear a bit complicated for outsiders as there are no clear trunk routes. But to find your way round, leaflets called "Prague Transport in 10 Languages" are available in many metro stations and include a good metro/tram map. Like the Metro, trams get very packed in the central area, and punctuality can vary as especially in the centre there are some sections where trams share space with cars and do get stuck. Tram drivers are, however, always rather offensive people, and I was surprised that I didn't witness any accidents, particularly as many tourists may never have seen trams in their own hometowns. They drive rather fast even in narrow streets and pedestrians are not given priority at zebra crossings. I don't know whether this is the rule, at least it is the reality. So, as a pedestrian or a car driver, always watch out for trams!

Many of the routes have been upgraded in recent years, but they lack the modern stop equipment you would expect from a modern tramway. There is the old-style sign with a timetable sheet and that's it. Next-tram indicators are very scarce, modern ones can only be found on the relatively new route to Barrandov, older ones on the route to Repy and in very few other places. The important stops in the city centre don't have any kind of next-tram indicators:


Most stops have some sort of platform, although a few still require boarding from street level. What I appreciate a lot in Prague is that not only the next stop is announced, but also the following. In fact when the tram arrives at the stop, they just say the name of the stop and then "pristi stanice" (next stop) plus the name of the next stop. On new trams, the next stop is even displayed on the outside of the tram next to the tram's destination, also a useful detail, although I only discovered this on my last tram journey! Another little detail that helps passengers is an arrow at the tram stop to indicate whether a line continues straight or turns left or right after that stop.

Refurbished T3 with centre low-floor access

In the tram fleet there are still lots of old Tatra T3 cars. Many people love them, but they are, of course, rather outdated when it comes to accessibility. Prague hasn't modernised too many of them with a low-floor centre access, but fortunately, the new Skoda ForCity trams are becoming very frequent. All in all, these are quite nice, run smoothly as long as the track is good, but despite those heavy bogies they have this uncomfortable lateral kick in curves (in this respect nothing beats the T3s). I think I was not the only one to find the wooden seats in the first batch of ForCity trams a bit too hard because the newer trams now have plastic seats, not too soft either, but better than the wooden ones. Probably determined by the front bogie, which actually sits under the driver's cab, the front looks rather massive for an urban tramway, with many slimmer designs being available in other cities.

Front and rear of newest ForCity generation

All in all, Prague has an excellent urban rail system and shows that metro and tram are two systems that complement each other. Seeing the masses the metro carries every day, it is impossible to imagine that trams alone would be capable of coping as some tramway advocates try to suggest. The trams themselves are quite busy and putting on more trams would just create real tram jams. Prague is also a good example for those who think that parallel metro/tram operation as such is something very bad. Prague has many routes doubled by trams and metro, and both carry enough passengers. Especially for trips across the city centre, of course, the Metro is much faster, but for shorter trips, the tram is certainly the winner as the deep-level stations require some extra time too.

I haven't used the Esko trains, a kind of S-Bahn service. I wonder whether people perceive it as part of the urban rail system or just a rebranded regional rail service. The double-deck trains on major routes look quite o.k., but those diesel units look rather pathetic, especially in combination with the railway stations I saw. At the end of the tram route to Sidliste Repy, there is actually an interchange to the winding S65 at the station called Zlicin, but this was not very inviting, with not even a timetable posted anywhere. A similar impression left the station next to the brand new Nadrazi Veleslavin metro station. I guess Prague could do with the "big solution" by creating a major underground trunk route shared by all lines. The present Masarykovo nadrazi could be replaced by a deep-level underground station which also serves Hlavni nadrazi and then a cross-city tunnel to Smichov with a branch to Vrsovice.


Dopravni Podnik Prahy (Official Website)