Saturday, 19 January 2019

BANGKOK - Urban Rail Impressions


I have just been to Bangkok for two days on a winter escape trip to Southern China and Southeast Asia, areas I haven't been to before. I haven't published any blog posts about the metros in the first three cities of my trip, Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, because our friend Craig M. had contributed his views on the website and there is not much to add really.

Green Line starting its southbound service at Mo Chit

But now in Bangkok, I thought I should write down some thoughts while I'm sitting at Don Mueang Airport waiting for my flight to Kuala Lumpur.

I have to admit that Bangkok did not conquer my heart, neither as a city (loud, polluted, anti-pedestrian, difficult to move from one place to the other and except for some fanastic tourist sites not really a 'beautiful' place). But as usual, I'll limit my observations to the public transport system and especially urban rail.

Riverboat on the Chao Phraya River

Well, to start with, Bangkok doesn't really have a transport "system", it rather has an endless choice of different offers which are as badly integrated as can be. There are two metro operators (well actually three if you count the airport line as metro) which at least announce that at certain stations you can interchange with the other metro. But no sort of integrated ticketing has been achieved yet, not even a single stored-value card which could be used on different modes (apparently the have been working on this, but as of now, it does not exist). 

BTS station Asok, with a hint to interchange with MRT

Either metro system is of limited use for the typical tourist, as none goes into the older part where most tourist attractions are located (this will change finally in 1-2 years with the extension of the Blue Line). If you count shopping malls as tourist attractions, then BTS station Siam serves them well. The rest of the public transport "system" are many buses hard to understand where they go, but that's always a problem in a foreign place, but the worst thing about the buses is that many of them seem like 50 years old and throw out extreme clouds of exhaust fumes. They usually have all windows open, and all doors too. Another airy option are the tuk-tuk taxis and for the brave ones, you can hire a motorbike taxi, which you can recognise by the driver's orange vest waiting at every street corner. Many locals arrive on them at metro stations. And not to forget the riverboats which are a nice way to approach the city centre for the first time with the "Orange Flag" boats starting northwards from Central Piers next to Saphan Taksin BTS station. Try it from here for a seat, because as a standee you won't be able to see anything as they are covered.

Typical bus still frequently seen

BTS

The BTS Skytrain is the older of the two metro systems. As of now, it is entirely elevated and thus provides you with great views of the city, but only if you're lucky - they are either very packed and you have no view through the crowd; they mostly carry full advertising wraps, so the view through the already small windows is restricted; or if you're too tall, even the tiny door windows are too low - so try to ride during off-peak hours and find a seat in an area not covered with adverts, more likely at the ends of the train.

Downtown Bangkok: a shrine next to the bi-level Skytrain (all wrapped in adverts)

So, while the Skytrain is a swift way to travel through the commercial parts of the city, it is certainly a real eyesore, a significant 20th century architectural sin. How can a city allow to have its main roads distorted that badly by this elevated concrete structure, which around Siam, the core of the city, is like a 5-storey building, with its double-deck track viaducts high above the road. And while it is extremely ugly, the Skytrain stations mostly require you to climb rather steep stairs from street level, with only some escalators and lifts being available. In many places, the "mezzanine", floating above the road and under the platform, is accessible directly from adjacent buildings and shopping malls. And along the central section, a skywalk beneath the tracks connects Siam with Chitlom stations.

Elevated walkway flanked by Skytrain at junction west of Siam

Once on mezzanine level, you can buy tickets from machines (coins only) or a ticket window, which also sells a 1-day pass good for just the two BTS lines, but worth it if you want to explore the entire system. Single journey tickets can add up quickly if you use the trains several times. Single tickets also come on a plastic card which like tokens in China have to be tapped at the reader when entering the system, but inserted into a slot on leaving (as it looks nice with a map on it, I got me a 16-baht ticket as a souvenir...). Security control is less strict than in China, but you have to walk through a screen, the security guy looked into my bag only once. Directions are signed well up to the respective platforms (mostly side platforms with views from ends), but on the platforms there are generally no information screens telling you how long it will take for the next train to arrive (I only saw them at Mo Chit). 

Typical side view of an elevated station - here Chong Nonsi, with the BRT in the far background

Busier stations have been retrofitted with half-height platform gates with incorporated screens, but these only show adverts and eventually that the train is arriving. People line up in a Chinese way as marked on the floor, and this works quite fine, but the multiple queues obstruct the island platforms at Siam where cross-platform interchange between the two lines is heavily practised. Here one notices especially those dispatching guards with their whistles getting very nervous when you get too close to the gates as if they could fall down if you lean on them, very annoying indeed. I was thinking of getting a whistle myself and echo their stupid commands to drive them crazy. They did not interfere with photographing, though, so in the end, I tried to be patient with them.

Once inside the train, the ride is smooth, the air-conditioning strong, and the train probably pretty packed. Above the doors, there is a strip map, but not on all trains showing where you are. Somewhere halfway between doors there is a TV screen with adverts, but with the sound put on as if there was a radio playing loud all the time. Very annoying again for us noise-stricken people. Other annoucements are also frequent, but not as continuous as in China.

Kheha - southern terminus of the most recent extension

The lack of information screens is apparent at Samrong station, which acts as the transfer station between trains operating the main line and shuttle trains operating the recently opened southern section every 10 minutes. Some say this is due to rolling stock shortage, but when I rode that line, it was far from busy, so a 10-minute headway seemed adequate out there. So while Kheha trains shuttle from the outbound (eastern) track, the Mo Chit trains reverse on the inbound track, so people just change to the other side of the platform.

A funny situation can be observed, of course, at Saphan Taksin station, which is single-track and cannot be expanded as it is flanked by car ramps leading to the bridge shared by the metro. Built as a temporary terminus it was kept opened when the line was extended across the river, luckily, as otherwise the riverboats would be difficult to reach.

While the BTS trains are quite spacious, the service feels inadquate on the central sections. Altough platforms were built for six cars, still only 4-car trains are used, but hopefully they will be extended one day, or that additional short workings reinforce the headways on the north-south line which will even get busier in a few years when the long northern extension is added too.

View from my hotel room with the Silom Line reversing beyond National Stadium station, the viaduct ends just off the right edge of the photo

The Silom Line has the major flaw that it ends at National Stadium, too far from the old town. At least a 2-station extension in the same brutal way would easily be possible, even fitting under an elevated expressway, but this probably has to wait until the future of the old railway line to Hua Lamphong has been decided upon.

BRT - tiny bus with single door

Actually a part of the BTS system, the Bangkok BRT is yet another travel option (with a special 15 baht flat fare). But luckily the intention to building more such lines was given up as the first line is about the biggest waste of public money one can imagine. As a "real" BRT, it has special buses (with doors on the right side) and high-level platforms), and for most of its length even a dedicated lane, however, towards the western end, buses get stuck in general traffic. The buses, especially built for this line, are especially inadequate, as one would expect from a dedicated busway to offer some high-capacity service and not a bus every 15 minutes with a very limited capacity (despite having high platforms, the room inside the bus is ridiculous, and the the motors seem inadequate for any sort of service. The automatic gear change makes them crawl up to the bridge across the river at 20 km/h, and you just hope they don't come to a stop as they wouldn't be able to proceed again. So why would one build a dedicated infrastructure which in the end carries just some 30 people maximum every 15 minutes. Its integration with the BTS Silom Line at either end is also far from convenient, the signed path at the western end, at Talat Phlu, actually leads to some dirty wasteland under an expressway (better to use the other route via a more southern footbridge).

Huai Khwang - typical underground station on the MRT Blue Line

MRT

The visual impact issue has certainly had an influence on the design of the second metro system, referred to as MRT. Also known as the "Blue Line" (a term I did not see very often, though), the first line was built completely underground following wide streets. Built with platforms ready to take 6-car trains, it still uses only 3-car trains, and honestly, I haven't seen them very busy, so there must be something wrong in this line's alignment. One would expect that any line would become busy straight away in a city which is comparable to Greater London both in size and population and with only the BTS and MRT systems offering a metro service! Although cheap, this lack of usage must be because of its poor fare integration. The MRT no longer has a day pass, instead I got a stored-value card sold at 180 baht with an 80 baht deposit included. The patronage of the Blue Line will hopefully increase when it is finally extended through the southern parts of the old town and under the river out into the western districts. At its northern end it has already been extended to Tao Poon to link up with the Purple Line, with its first elevated station. From here, a long elevated western extension has already been largely completed, so soon it will become a sort of circle line. 

At Hua Lamphong, some columns were specially clad for the King's presence in the opening ceremony

The existing underground stations are hardly worth mentioning regarding their designs, they all look o.k. but without offering any appeal. Later I noticed that each station has a different colour ribbon above the platform screen doors and around columns. Most platforms are quite wide, and given the little patronage the seem oversized. Luckily Thailand Cultural Center station was built extra-large as the future interchange with the orange line, which will run through the vast mezzanine.

Future Orange Line station at Thailand Cultural Center

The newest line is the Purple Line, which is part of the MRT system and has joint ticketing with the Blue Line, with no ticket gates between the two lines at Tao Poon. This line is the most state-of-the-art you can find in Bangkok, with all sorts of visual information you'd expect of a modern system. It has a strong purple branding to it, both outside and inside of trains and on all signage. I do not understand, however, why this line was given the priority to be built. It must be that it mostly runs outside Bangkok proper through Nonthaburi, and they had a special lobby to get it built. Its future central section running parallel to the river on the side of the old town, would probably be much more urgently needed, but will certainly be more difficult to build. Now it runs through changing suburbia offering seats for everyone who wants to ride it (could be different during peak hours)....

Purple Line train at Talat Bang Yai, a shopping area incl. IKEA

AIRPORT LINE

Actually the first train I encountered after landing at the newer of the city's two airports, Suvarnabhumi, is the airport train operated by SRT, Thailand's national railways. There used to be an express service with in-town check-in, but that was discontinued in 2014, apparently noone used it, no wonder as the slightly slower service is extremely cheap, just 45 baht, which is not even 2 €. The special airport express may come back one day as a direct link between the two airports, the second one, Don Mueang in the north, being served soon by the new Dark Red Line (viaducts and stations along the route seem mostly completed). At Suvarnabhumi, the way down to the station is well signed, and you can get your ticket (i.e. a token you swipe on entry and insert into a slot on exit) easily from the counter. The ride is smooth and air-conditioned, but as the short 3-car train provides a suburban service too, it fills up, and arriving at Phraya Thai I saw large crowds waiting to get on. Interchange at that station with BTS is not very convenient, be prepared to carry your luggage down some steep stairs, the BTS station is the easier to access.

LINKS

UrbanRail - Bangkok (incl. more links)



Sunday, 5 August 2018

AMSTERDAM Noord/Zuidlijn





I hadn't been to Amsterdam for some 10 years, and for a good reason, because the next thing I wanted to see was the Noord/Zuidlijn in operation, and that was delayed by many years, difficult to say nowadays by how many, at least 7. In my book "Metros in Holland", published in 2007, I quoted the scheduled opening date as 2013, well, now we know, it took until 2018, but at last, it is open and functioning. So I decided to go for the opening, as it doesn't happen too often nowadays in Europe that entire lines are put into operation.

All in all it's a good line, it will hopefully transform the city's transport network entirely as it is the north-south spine, the kind of route that is usually built as a city's first metro line, but for several reasons, the Oostlijn was built first, and with all the complications occurred in the construction of that line in the 1970s, the city preferred to postpone any more underground construction in the city centre and subsequently just developed the easy-to-build ring line. Eventually the Noord/Zuidlijn came back to the surface as tunnelling with boring machines seemed more feasible now rather than the caisson method used on the Oostlijn's underground stretch. But with Amsterdam's delicate soil even this proved difficult, and the stations were built as cut-and-cover boxes anyway. This caused some problems especially in the Vijzelgracht area leading to those delays.

I have travelled the new line up and down quite thoroughly over three days. On Saturday, July 21st, after the official inauguration, it was free to ride for everybody, and although they had issued special online access tickets, noone care about them and doors were just open (I had registered for three of four slots...). Sunday, 22nd, was full with locals exploring the new line and on both days I didn't see major agglomerations or disruptions, just the next-train indicators did not work, simply saying M52 passes every 6 minutes. Monday, 23rd, was then the first normal day of service, when I also took it to travel from Vijzelgracht, where my hotel was, to Zuid, to catch a train to Utrecht. On this occasion, the train was stopped for several minutes at Europaplein as apparently the single track dedicated to M52 at Zuid was not empty yet. This is probably the major flaw of the whole line - the southern terminus being very basic. And as it seems, the signalling block is far too long, and the train can't leave Europaplein before Zuid is empty, but the distance is quite long between these two stations. Zuid thus also determines the minimum headway, which at 6 minutes is not too frequent for a brand new trunk metro route. As for now, no real project is approved for some kind of extension beyond Zuid. Instead, Sneltram line M51 would be cut into two separate services, in fact the future M51 becoming a sort of ring line continuing to Isolatorweg, while the light rail-style route to Amstelveen and Westwijk would be served by a low-floor tram line which would terminate outside Zuid station. In this way, there would be two tracks available for M52 at Zuid. The discussion about allthese projects, however, is still going on. Personally I have no preferred option, but some sort of southern extension, either to Amstelveen or Schiphol should be built to give the entire line more direct passengers as for now it is actually a rather short line. At the northern end, there are not many options, as the line now terminates at the edge of the built-up area, and two branches as proposed in the old days would require long curves.

Except for the constraints at Zuid and the not yet working next-train indicators, I have not observed any technical flaws. The Alstom trains, which are the same as on the other lines where they have replaced all the older stock since my last visit, are spacious and pleasant. I was hoping strongly that the opening of the Noord/Zuidlijn would be accompanied by a new numbering system. I find M50-M54 quite ridiculous for a metro system, when everywhere in the world metros usually have low numbers or letters or colours. Letters were probably ruled out as this would mean copying Rotterdam's system, and low numbers were not used to avoid confusion with trams. But lots of other cities have a metro line M1 and also a tram line no. 1 and noone gets confused.

The design of the stations does not produce an immediate "wow" effect and compared to recent projects I have visited (Warsaw's M2, Düsseldorf's Wehrhahn tram tunnel and Helsinki's Länsimetro) this was the least exciting. It's not bad, but maybe a bit sober and dark. Someone mentioned to me that the architects argued that they chose those simple (though high-quality) claddings because the colour would be added by the people - what a silly approach... normal commuters often are grey and grumpy and add little colour! Instead, the environment they have to stay in waiting for their train should be pleasant to cheer up their day. That's why Moscow's metro stations were built as palaces from the beginning. Anyway, compared to the older underground stations in Amsterdam, the new ones look very spacious, and most are enhanced with some work of art to improve the overall look. Let's have a look station by station, starting in the north:

NOORD - very pleasant platform level with an overall swung roof and convenient bus bays on either side of the station for onward travellers. Surprisingly, most areas below the platform were not finished yet, not even the GVB office as if noone had believed that this line would ever open. By personal experience (waiting for friends to arrive) I also know that the P+R facility is badly signed especially from urban roads, while from motorway accesses it should be visible. The artwork is on the platform floor in form of birds and other figures engraved in the pavement:


NOORDERPARK - first problem here is that the name is too similar to the terminus, no idea why they didn't keep the Johan van Hasseltweg name as used in the project phase. This surface station is simpler than Noord, and not the entire platform is covered. There is an artwork in the form of ruins beyond the southern end of the platform (thus difficult to take pictures from the platform against the sun!). Also here, a bus bay was built for routes serving the neighbourhoods. Both surface station in the Noord district have been criticised for being too far from where people live, as the line runs in the median of a motorway, but at both stations some construction activity is going on to insert them into a more urban environment:



CENTRAAL STATION - extremely sober platform area contrasting with the cathedral-like area at the southern end. The station lies like a box below the main railway station (built with caissons like the adjoining river crossing). From the northern end of the side platforms, quite direct flights of escalators lead to the northern, more modern concourse, above which the bus station is located and the ferry terminal is just a short walk away. From the southern end of the platforms, separate escalators lead up to the mezzanine from where exits go to the tram stops and the side entrances of the railway station. To change to the old Metro lines, another set of escalators goes up directly to the platform level, you just walk left for some 50 m and there the M51, M53 or M54 train waits for you. So this is a rather convenient interchange. The funny thing is that if the old line is ever extended towards Isolatorweg (and I hope it will), the eastbound track will run through this transfer corridor (which would then become narrower), whereas the westbound track would require a bridge structure through the columns of the "cathedral". I don't know up to which level this has been prepared, at least the position of the pillars should make this possible. So, maybe in 10 years we can see a Sneltram train crossing the Noord/Zuidlijn station in an encased bridge, just like tram 306 does at Bochum's Rathaus Süd station.


ROKIN - actually a plain station with island platform but for the waiting passengers probably the most interesting station on the line as the walls are full with diverse motives that ought to be related to the houses above, so a paintbrush may be a hint that there is (or used to be) a painter's shop, for example. As all underground stations, it has exits at either end:


VIJZELGRACHT - very deep plain island platform, while the artwork is more of the contemplative type above the southern sets of escalators. This is dedicated to local artist Ramses Shaffy and shows the different stages in his life in the form of metro lines, which are gradually illuminated and eventually show his face. So, a nice light installation which will cause some people to stop for a while to observe how it develops as it takes several minutes to complete:


DE PIJP - the most noteworthy thing here is the fact that the platforms are located on top of each other, making the entire station rather narrow, with entrances placed into new buildings. There is some sort of artwork along the mezzanine wall, but not too apparent:


EUROPAPLEIN - has side platforms with widened end sections to cope with larger crowds during events at the exhibition centre it serves. Here some visual extra is added in the form of a pinkish film and some large-scale images on the walls:


ZUID - as stated before, is a very basic and probably ever since the first trains stopped here, a rather temporary station. Even for the railway, it is more like a 4-track stop, a few shops in the passageway under the tracks but not really a proper station. It is supposed to become a major station, but that was already the plan 10 years ago and nothing much has happened since. The so-called "Zuidas" project would see the parallel motorway in tunnel and the entire station rebuilt (plus an M52 extension or not), but even if this goes ahead, it will take many years to finish. Now from the arriving M52 you can change to a westbound M50 or a southbound M51 just across the platform. M52 trains could go to some sidings further west, but they would have to cross the southbound M51 track at grade:


So let's hope that Amsterdamers and tourists will benfit from the new line so that some proposals for more lines may be rediscovered. Luckily, the closure of the gap between Isolatorweg and Centraal is one of the options, and for me the most urgent to create a proper network. Amsterdam's trams are a lot of fun, of course, but they are not really fast, despite their drivers going pretty fast. On the occasion of the opening of the Noord/Zuidlijn, the tram network was restructured although the number of trams serving the Centraal Station has not really diminished. Three lines now serve the semi-circular route along Weteringschans via Weesperplein and Vijzelgracht. Line 16 was cancelled, thus leaving some sections without passenger service, no idea whether this is for good, or just temporary as there was some road construction starting along its route. Otherwise on the tram front, nothing much had changed since my last visit, the new CAF trams are expected next year to replace some of those old high-floor trams still in use today. 


While the new R-Net livery looks quite o.k. on the new metro trains and even on the repainted CAF Sneltram stock, I hope that the tram will be delivered in the classic blue/white livery. The R-Net branding is also visible on the new metro logo, but after talking to some local people I came to the conclusion that this sort of rebranding is completely useless. Noone knows what R-Net stands for and why all cities in the Randstad should use it. A typical case of some manager's decision to leave his stamp on something entirely meaningless. I'm sure that by the time it is implemented more or less around the region some other guy will come up and invent a new brand.

What has been implemented completely since my last visit, when only Rotterdam Metro had started, is the nationwide OV-Chipkaart. In this respect, the Netherlands are certainly a world leader. This means you just use the same plastic card for any kind of transport in the entire country. As a visitor, of course, you need to get one first for 7.50 €, then you add any amount of money and travel as you please. While this is excellent and really easy for the occasional traveller, it has some disadvantages, of course, as you need to check in and out everywhere, even on city buses. You always pay a distance-based fare (and 4 € if you forget to check out on urban transport vehicles). This procedure can be quite slow on trams and buses when there are a lot of people. You can use the card also on NS trains, but if you get to an area where a train of a different company stops at the same platform you first need to check out from NS and then check in at the private operator's pole (usually located side-by-side). This is also the case at the shared Amstel NS/metro station, where there is cross-platform interchange but no gates on the platform. 



If you want to travel within Amsterdam by tram and metro, a GVB day pass or for various days is probably the better option, but it is not valid on NS trains or other buses (funnily those in R-Net livery...). Besides the Netherlands, only Japan offers a similar one-card-for-all payment system although not implemented everywhere there.

In the early 2000s, Amsterdam started a metromorphose programme which as a pilot project saw a completely rebuilt Ganzenhoef station. But later only small changes were made to the existing surface stations, mostly those concrete walls were removed from the platforms and replaced by transparent glass wind-protection walls. They could have used some striking colours to paint the metal supports. Currently all the underground stations are under refurbishment, with all ceilings having been removed and in some, new tiling was visible, quite a pleasant style:



Inside the metro and tram cars there is quite a nice diagram map called Railkaart (PDF), which is also available at the GVB website. Unfortunately, their employees know nothing about it and it is not available to take away. Neither were there any giveaways on opening day, just a small brochure about Art on the Metro and some photocopied sheets about connecting bus routes. GVB had an updated version of their geographical map (PDF), though, but unfortunately, this has not improved in the last 10+ years. I find it rather impossible to read, especially for visitors, and I will never understand why the stops are not shown with a name tag. Unfortunately this kind of map is still also visible in other Dutch cities, although also Den Haag has a nice diagrammatic tram map.

I may be back to Amsterdam next year for a short visit, but I will certainly visit the other Dutch cities with trams as I'm preparing a "Tram Atlas Benelux" for late 2019. I hope by then also the new line in Utrecht will be ready which I had the pleasure to explore by bicycle with some local experts. All seems to be in place, but some buildings around the railway station which are emerging above the tram tracks seem to delay the final work. But I'm looking forward to the Budapest-style CAF trams in operation:



LINKS


UrbanRail.Net > Amsterdam






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.

LINKS

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

HSL for timetables and maps etc.





Wednesday, 21 February 2018

GRANADA - Tram




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.


LINKS

Metropolitano de Granada (Oficial website)