Tuesday, 5 February 2019

SINGAPORE MRT

As I'm leaving Singapore, the last stop on my 3-week Asian tour, I want to write down a few notes about its quite excellent urban rail system. But as Craig M. has provided a very extensive report in 2017, I will use that as a starting point and simply add my comments where necessary.

I did not ride the entire system, but almost, as I stayed for 5 days, which besides the typical tourist visits gave me enough time to explore the rail system, too.

Unfortunately, my first impression of Singapore was rather negative, in fact it kind of ruined my first day, because I was very annoyed about how they receive visitors. Landing at T1 of the huge Changi Airport, I made my way down to the MRT station, which is a quite long walk and requires a people mover. Once at the station, the frustration began. The manned ticket office's window was full with posters saying "The Singapore Tourist Pass is not sold here. Go to T2 etc...", next to it another unfriendly paper saying "Single tickets are only sold at vending machines". As I thought it is too much hassle to make my way to T2 and search for that single outlet, I wanted to buy a single ticket to get to my hotel, but confronted with the machine I found more of these posters "Cash only!" But as a recently landed tourist who has just drawn cash from a machine, the only cash I had were 50-dollar notes, which the machines wouldn't accept, of course. So after all I started walking to T2, up the wrong escalator to Departures, down again, and up another escalator to Arrivals, where I found one of these booths saying "Travel cards". After some minutes wait, I was told that the normal Tourist Pass is not sold there, just the Tourist Pass Plus, and they wouldn't know where the other one was sold. So desperate, I got this 3-day pass for SG$ 38.00 (some 26€) because I couldn't be bothered any longer to search for a simple day pass. By the way, the Tourist Pass Plus which is supposed to give you special deals, is a complete rip off, wasn't useful anywhere. But at last I could get on the train and ride towards the city - well, just for two stops, because then you have to change trains at Tanah Merah. At least it is an easy transfer, as the airport shuttle pulls in between the two regular trains, so cross-platform interchange is possible in either direction, but being pissed off by the ticket troubles, I only thought that this is another way of non-appreciation of visitors, why can't they have every 3rd or 4th train run directly to the city centre? They will have their reasons why they discontinued the through trains after just one year of opening the airport branch, but if other cities build metro lines specifically to serve the airport, why does Singapore offer this type of service, which by the way, is not too clear on the East West Line - on all platforms the destination (3) for Changi Airport is shown although there will never be a train for that destination. Printed maps now have a little note, but I missed this on the maps posted in stations.

Later I noticed on my photos that there is a little hint on the signs that a change of trains is required to get to the airport.

Now let's start with Craig's report from March 2017 and you will find my comments added as [Robert:....]

Singapore is a small densely-populated city-state, having a land area of only 719km², and a population of 5.6m (2016). It has achieved strong economic growth over many years due to its role as a major financial/services hub and centre for high value manufacturing – the rising affluence bringing increased demand for available land and greater mobility. With finite space, the Singaporean Government is alleviating these pressures through the implementation of a long-term, overarching transport policy, led by the Land Transport Authority (LTA). The LTA is responsible for the planning, development and management of the entire land transport system in Singapore and so, with regard to the MRT, a broad overview and strategic policy direction has been implemented through a three-pronged integration approach:

The integration of land use and transport planning. The LTA has intensified land use across the island by decentralising commercial activities along rail corridors, integrating MRT stations into commercial facilities, and creating transport hubs which act as a focus of housing developments. Intensifying development around main MRT stations reduces the need for travel and increases the utilisation of the MRT, enabling the rail network to develop routes that serve the most densely populated areas and corridors, linking the population to the main commercial, business and industrial areas and trip generating points.

Network integration
The MRT is the backbone of the transport system in Singapore and has a hierarchical role, with LRT and bus services planned around MRT services. MRT and LRT stations are physically integrated to main bus stations which provide feeder routes. These routes are planned so that the duplication of services is limited and there is improved utilisation of transport resources and more effective coverage. The co-ordination of services also involves timetable integration, an integrated fare system (EZ-link card - distance-based contactless smart card), and integrated travel information via an impressive GPS/RTI electronic travel guide with full journey planning and fare information, or hard copy information (TransitLink guide). All this is achieved despite different ownership.

Almost perfect integration between the two metro companies, but this sign only shows SMRT lines.

Standard integration
Service standards and performance are set and rigourously monitored by the LTA and the quality of provision is an essential ingredient. Supplementary provision such as pedestrian linkways to housing and adjacent commercial buildings, cycling and taxi facilities, intermediate and end-point commercial amenities, customer service centres, uniform station information and wayfinding, and safety (barriers/CCTV etc.) are all at forefront of design, construction and operation. Capturing performance is made easier because the government has managed transport competition. Essentially, two multi-modal operators exist – SMRT, which mainly operates trains and a small bus network and one LRT; whilst SBS mainly operates buses as well as two metro lines and accompanying LRT lines. This structure provides the benefits of competition in terms of peer benchmarking in service standards and cost efficiencies, but enables easier service and policy integration.

This approach provides the population with high quality mobility options and a spectrum of seamless transport choices to accommodate varying travel needs. The harmonisation of services, brand and information makes travel by public transport efficient and effective. Whilst this approach is common in Europe, it is not the case in Asia, where mobility is often based on sheer volume than any planning protocols. This makes the Singapore experience all the more impressive and successful, supported in many ways by a dominant government and relatively obedient population.

The System
The MRT is operated by two companies (SMRT-129.8km) / (SBS-40.1km) and is currently 169.9km in length with elevated (68.7km) and underground (101.2km) alignments. There is a total of 103 stations.
[Robert: 7.5 km for the Tuas Link extension and 21 km of the eastern leg of the DTL have to be added after opening later in 2017]

SMRT Lines
The original 1987 line now forms part of the arc-shaped North-South Line (NS) which is 44.7km (12.3km underground) and has 26 stations (11 underground). It runs from the western industrial area of Jurong on viaduct, initially travelling north through less densely populated areas and connecting to the parallel Bukit Panjang LRT at Chao Chu Kang [Robert: a connection not announced accoustically on the train I came in from Woodlands!]. At its northernmost, the line travails large satellite towns around Woodlands (where views of the city of Johor Bahru in Malaysia can be seen), and then moves south down the central north-south spine of the island. Here it runs past the huge stabling facilities at Bishan. The stations on the viaduct section are large, concrete, angular structures with island platforms [Robert: some have gable roofs], half screens and large ceiling fans. There are smart platform information boards with line maps and system maps, some seating and RTI information screens. South of Bishan (the only grade station on the system), the line runs underground passing the main commercial corridors around Orchard Road and through the city centre. These stations have island platforms, with full platform screens and good quality passenger information [Robert: on these older lines with their long platforms I often found that there are not enough next-train indicators, I think only one along a 160m platform!]. The infrastructure is clean and efficiently designed with ample stairs, lifts and bi-directional escalators, although the design is pretty standard, and the stations are very much of the 1980s [Robert: some like Newton or Toa Payoh have a real German U-Bahn 80s style with their orange and yellow panels!]. Services run from 0530 to 0030 with a base headway of 4/5mins and three of every four trains terminate at Marina Bay with only 4 services per hour heading onward to Marina South Pier [Robert: I went down there during afternoon peak and quite a lot of trains continued to the end and still carried some passengers, but when I got off, that most of these, mainly clever women, rushed across the platform to grab a free seat in an empty departing train; otherwise the huge station complex was pretty void of passengers!]. The entire journey takes 63mins.

Info outside station at Marina Bay


At the most central stations of City Hall and Raffles Place, there is cross-platform transfer with the East-West Line (EW) depending on which direction you wish to travel; the tunnels here dive, rise and twist between the two stations to ensure all transfer possibilities are met effectively. The EW line is of a similar standard to the NS line. It is 49.7km (13.4km underground) and includes a branch from Tanah Merah to Changi Airport (6.4km). Including the branch there are 31 stations (8 underground). From the large eastern satellite towns around Tampines, the line runs above the busy New Changi Road/Sims Avenue where there are some nice views of the dense urban environment. The stations on this section have vaulted ceilings, supported by arch pillars. The island platform areas are very similar to those on the NS line. The airport branch involves a change of service at Tanah Merah, a two island/threeline station, with the middle line for the airport line shuttle supporting cross-platform transfer, regardless of direction. This branch runs at 5min base headways on its 9min journey and after the modern Expo station, it heads underground to the large and architecturally stylish station at the airport. Continuing on the main line, after Kallang the line heads below ground through the centre (cross-platform transfer with the NS line) in a southwesterly direction before a sharp bend north-westward (and lots of flange noise) at Tanjong Pagor. After Tiong Bahru, the line again emerges to viaduct above Commonwealth Avenue. These stations are more angular and have elevated walkways from the pavement areas - these are, perhaps, the least impressive on the system. Cross-platform transfer to the NS line is also possible at Jurong East station, a multi-platform large station with an impressive flying junction and some intensive train movements from the east. Beyond Jurong East the line continues on a viaduct through less dense areas to the western terminus at Joo Koon, from where a 7.5km extension to TUAS West/4 stations will open in 2017 [Robert:... and it did in October of that year - at Gul Circle, the two tracks are one on top of each other, with a huge station prepared for future cross-platform interchange, possibly for the Jurong Region Line or a branch? Every other westbound train terminates at Joo Koon.]. As with the NS line, there are good headways and a peak hour service level of 2min frequencies really pushes the system to capacity, with many trains stopping between stations due to train congestion and bringing some irregularity to headways. This is the longest line on the Singapore system and takes 64mins to traverse.

Info in four languages: English, Chinese, Bahasa & Tamil


The two lines share 6-car stock. These have been built at various times by Siemens (Wien), Kawasaki and a Kawasaki/CSR partnership. There are some differences in external and internal appearance between the various constructions, but all have high levels of cleanliness, information provision (strip maps/audio information) and side seating. In some cases, seats in the middle part of the carriage have been removed and more grab poles added to increase capacity. Strip maps above the door have electric lights to show progression and there is written information provision in English, Simplified Chinese, Bahasa [Robert: Malaysian for non-linguists...], and Hindi (Sanskrit) [Robert: should be Tamil], although audio information on station stops is in English only.
[Robert: some new or newly refurbished trains had TV screens above the doors - making the door height lower so I sometimes banged my head... these screens show all sorts of information, also a station layout with exit locations, escalators etc., but it changes so quickly that it is impossible to read that fast!]

Info screen above doors on newer rolling stock


[Robert: On the two older conventional lines, i.e. those with a driver on board, there seems to be no ATO system supporting their work, as they stop very carefully to match the retrofitted platform screens doors or half-height gates in surface stations. Sometimes you can tell how experienced the driver is, while some seem to hesitate and then slowly push the train forward a few centimetres - reminded me of London's Jubilee Line before ATO was switched on and drivers had to match their side window with a coloured field painted on the platform. According to Wikipedia, both lines have been upgraded even to CBTC recently, then it is either badly programmed or frequently switched off to practice manual driving.]

Although these two MRT lines are the backbone of the system, they are more than ably supported by three fully automated metro lines. The SMRT-operated Circle Line (CC) is 35.4km long with 28 stations and takes 62min to travel. Services run from 0545-0030 and operate at 5min base headways. The fully underground line is currently the longest underground automated line in the world (soon to be surpassed by the Downtown Line) and it covers some of the more peripheral areas of the built-up part of Singapore. Running from the centre at Dhoby Ghaut, the line heads in a semi-circle via Paya Labar and Bishan to the Dover area and down towards HarbourFront.

Service pattern for CCL branch to Marina Bay

At Promenade station (see Downtown Line), the line splits toward Marina Bay (2.1km branch/7mins) with 1 in 4 services operating this leg [Robert: except for peak hours, the Marina Bay branch is now operated as a shuttle from Stadium]. It is a medium capacity line using 3-car Alstom Metropolis sets. This line has several architecturally distinct stations with high atrium-style platform areas providing a very airy environment and space for large art pieces. Platforms have seating, smart information boards, full platform screens and RTI. The highlights on this line, against much competition, are ‘Stadium’ and ‘Bras Basah’, two of the most stylish stations in South East Asia.

SBS Lines
SBS operate the majority of bus services in Singapore and also operate two fully automated metro lines and two LRT lines. The North East Line (NE) [Robert: I have always been irritated by the fact that the NEL is spelt by SBS just like the East West Line and North South Line, where the two separated words show that the lines goes from east to west and from north to south, but the NEL does not run from north to east but towards the northeast - but most of our English friends don't take spelling too strictly either.] is a 19.2km fully underground line heading from the harbour through the western areas of the centre toward the northeastern satellite towns around Punggol (33mins). It has 16 stations and is the only line in Singapore to use overhead power supply for its Alstom Metropolis stock with its quite ugly interior frontages [Robert: I saw at least one which had also a transparent middle window like DTL and CCL trains].

Mind the gap: After listening to it again and again, the first sentence I learned in Malay!

This is a very speedy and smooth ride, operating from 0545-0000 with 4min base headways. The platforms, like those of the CC line have a large atrium style which are located below smart ticket halls, all are island platforms and at certain stations some liberties have been taken with the design to allow for art/individuality to be presented (Kovan/Houghang are good examples). The last two stations in the northeast connect with the SBS LRT lines and this is where most of the footfall in the northeast lies, because of this, Sengkang and Punggol are designed more for capacity than style although they are still impressive. [Robert: But compared to the newer CCL and DTL, the NEL now appears a bit dated especially when looking at passenger information inside trains, there is only a static strip map above the doors with no line progress indicating, and the next station is only shown on an old-fashioned LED indicator in the middle of each car!]

The DTL's eastern terminus dedicated to the metros of the world!

SBS also operates the Downtown Line (DTL). This is the latest addition to Singapore’s urban rail system and, once it reaches its full length out by the airport area, it will be the longest line on the system. Currently, the 20.9km fully underground line (17 stations) [Robert: now 42km with 34 stations!] runs at 4min frequencies from Panjang Hill in the northwest, where there is lengthy, barriered transfer to the Bukit Panjang LRT line via a bridge and ramp, and heads in a southeasterly direction toward the city centre at 4min intervals. There are some examples of fine stations on this line both internally (mainly island platforms) and in the immediate external environment. Stevens has separate side platforms with barriered transfer to the other platform. At Newton the line connects to the NS line and is the only ‘metro to metro’ interchange to involve a barriered transfer (free if re-entering the system within 15mins) [Robert: The only reason for this I can assume is that this way the mezzanine level can be left open as an underpass to cross the street]. In the centre, the DT Line serves the newer tourist/corporate developments around Bayfront (cross-platform transfer to the CC Line) and Downtown [Robert: the station is not really what one would consider the city centre, but serving mostly new office towers, more like a CBD], and at Promenade station (CCL/DTL) there are four separate single platforms located on four different levels with separate escalator access to each platform. The line uses Bombardier Movia stock which offers station information in all four languages and not just English. [Robert: the most distinguishing feature of the DTL has to be added here: this is a line which loops around the city centre and crosses itself, but without a station at that point. So if you are moving just for a few stations within the "downtown" area, you have to look carefully which direction you need to travel as otherwise you might go on an additional 20-minute ride in a quasi circle! I can't remember a similar case on any metro in the world! But all in all the DTL is a great achievement and somehow has been built and opened without much noise, while the much shorter NEL had been in the press worldwide much more, probably because driverless metros were then still something new and exciting. And now in the making is the equally long Thomson-East Coast Line! And the Cross Island Line has been announced.... By the way, on the DTL, the screens on the platforms display how full each car of the arriving train is using traffic light colours (I didn't ride in peak hours to see it in red)!]


DTL: Better take the rear car which is less crowded!

Like the proper metro, LRT services in Singapore are operated by both SMRT and SBS (note that, although branded as LRTs, these can be considered People Movers) [Robert: I absolutely agree that these are long people movers, but have nothing to do with what we otherwise refer to as 'light rail']. The SMRT Bukit Panjang Line (BPLRT) connects to the NS line at Choa Chu Kang where both stations lie parallel to each other. Here, the LRT arrives at a single line/two side platform halt with passengers alighting at one side and boarding from the other platform. It is 7.8km (14 stations) long and runs at a 5min base headway (although the Ten-Mile Junction branch is served only three times per hour [Robert: service to this station discontinued as of early 2019!]), utilising two types of quite ugly Bombardier Innovia stock with rubber tyres. These trains have misted windows so that passengers cannot see into the apartments located next to the elevated line. It takes approximately 30mins to complete the loop with quite basic arch-roofed stations, short side platform and perfunctory barriers with gaps where the train doors open. The line is not that well used at non-peak periods [Robert: it was when I travelled it in late morning] except for the joint stretch between the two metro stations it serves, but the infrastructure is impressive and the views of the dense housing areas is interesting.

The remaining two LRTs are operated by SBS and are run perpendicular to the last two stations on the NE line. The Sengkang LRT (SKLRT) comprises an east and west loop converging at Sengkang. This is a large station located directly above the NE line station. Both loops have a combined length of 10.7km with 14 stations. Sengkang has an island platform with both loops served on either side, dependent on the direction. Trains are single Mitsubishi Crystal Movers although two car sets operate at some peak times. They have no direction boards on trains but their service is identified by the platform screen which stipulate the next train as ‘East’ or ‘West’ Loop. The service on each loop takes approx. 15mins and there are some great views with long straight avenues of dense housing and commercial buildings. The loop stations have island platforms (no platform screens) and quite basic seating and information provision. Like the Sengkang LRT, the two Punggol LRT (PGLRT) loops (10.3km/13 stations) operate independently, although the western loop only operates anti-clockwise at the moment. This particular loop has two unopened stations, although the automated trains stop at these stations momentarily. At the northernmost station, Punggol Point, there are some interesting views across the narrow stretch of water to Malaysia. Punggol itself is a large station with angular roof, housed directly above the NE Line station mezzanine. Services on each platform are identified as ‘East’ or ‘West’ Loop and there are signs to tell you to make sure to get the correct train. The stock is identical to the Sengkang LRT, with busy services at the initial stations of each loop. Both these LRTs have quite short distances between stations and some impressive track infrastructure. They are used for intra town provision but mainly act as feeders to the NE line services. [Robert: there is an uncompleted stub track coming in from the northern side at Punggol, not sure what that was meant for.]

As for using the system, well this is very simple. Station entrances are conspicuous across the city, with many of the underground stations having several entrance points. All have stairs and escalators from street level, whether underground or elevated. [Robert: I think Singapore's MRT logo is a bit too decent, it does not really stand out in the streetscape, neither does it really suggest anything. I'd prefer a real logo along with renaming the whole system from MRT into Metro to join the rest of the world. What I do appreciate, though, are the numerous signs you can find all over the city centre directing you to the different stations!]

Signs like this can be found all over the city!

Ticket machines are easy to use and individual tickets can be re-used. Tap barriers provide access to the system and all stations have information centres where a folded map is available. As most stations on the system have island platforms wayfinding is easy and location maps, beautiful schematic and geographic maps, along with RTI information are plentiful and stylishly designed on platforms and entrance halls. All of this is provided via a very smart brand with a typeface (LTA Identity) designed especially for the system. On the system, stations are identified by name, but also line initials and number (e.g. Khatib NS14) and in addition to staff in the ticket hall, there are smartly dressed staff on platforms to assist passengers. There is surprisingly little advertising on the system. Generally, in Asia, urban rail is used to its full potential for advertising purposes but it has been deliberately kept to decent levels here. [Robert: I do not agree with this statement. I actually found that there is too much advertising and that often it is difficult to filter the real metro signs from all these ads, often even illuminated.] Most promotions relate to the government and encouraging communal values and good citizenship.


Two examples of over-advertising.... though the green advert is an exception!

Tickets are distance based and are less expensive if you have an EZ-Card, moreover, to lessen crush loads at peak times and aid mobility for certain elements of society, MRT services are free before 0730 (you tap your EZ-Card but no fare is deducted). Day tickets are available but these are in the form of a Singapore Tourist Pass with 1,2 or 3 day validities. These can only be purchased from Transitlink Ticket offices (located at main stations only) only and not from SMRT machines (see below).

Beyond SMRT/SBS there are two other little bits of rail provision in the city-state. The Sentosa Express is a straddle beam monorail running from the top of the Vivo Shopping Centre (HarbourFront CC/NE station is located in the basement of this shopping centre) to the tourist island of Sentosa. [Robert: I must have missed some sign and then found it very hard to find in this huge shopping complex.] It is 2.1km long and has 4 stations. The monorail is owned and operated by SDC, and a day ticket costs $4 (although EZ-Cards are valid). [Robert: well, in fact they only charge you when you join the train at this station, the rest is free access; so you could walk across along the Sentosa Boardwalk and jump on the monorail at all other stations, even to come back to the shopping centre.] Hitachi trains run every 5/6mins as a base headway from 0700 to midnight on the 8mins journey. [Robert: unfortunately, this is yet another pathetic monorail! Very little capacity, but huge driver's cabs at either end although the line is operated driverless! why does it need to be streamlined if it travels at low speed anyway. So better avoid at weekends!]


Secondly, at the airport there is a land side and airside people mover system which uses the same Mitsubishi Crystal Movers as the SBS LRTs in 1 and 2 car sets. Known as the Changi Airport Skytrain the series of short lines (air side and land side together accounts for 1.2km of track) connect the three terminals at 2min headways from 0500 to 0230 (outside of which a bus service is provided). The stations are recessed into the terminal building and are well signed, with full screens and RTI. The landside service between T2 and T3 has been closed as the walkway between the two terminals (which includes the MRT station) has made this part of the service redundant.

Overall, the urban rail system in Singapore is fantastic. It is integrated well between the two operators, and the system is pretty seamless with all MRT lines offering transfer to all others. It is a very stylish system in most parts and is well branded and has long been a system at the forefront of innovation and style. With a mix of alignments, high service levels, quality stations, different modes, ease of use and broad coverage this is one of the finest systems in the world. Yet despite this, there are some shortcomings and deficiencies. Firstly, the system is a victim of its own success. The government has produced a splendid system, but with it comes increased passenger demand and some real line capacity problems at peak hour where there can be delays and resulting irregular headways, much to the irritation of the demanding Singaporeans. The other flaw is that the day ticket is operated by EZ-Link and not the transport companies. As such its purchase is limited to specific (and very busy) ticket offices at only a few stations, it is valid from the day of purchase (if you arrive late in the day, as many do in Singapore, then it is of little value), purchase is by cash or Mastercard only (no Visa/Amex) and there is a $10 deposit required. It really is quite an overcomplicated procedure and I wish a basic day ticket/24hr ticket could be offered by SMRT/SBS and be purchased from ticket machines. What makes this all the more frustrating is that it is not really like the rest of the system which operates so seamlessly. [Robert: this completely confirms my own frustration as described at the beginning of this post! It is impossible to understand why a supermodern system like this cannot offer day tickets in an easy way, also showing visitors that they are welcome. Another option, and maybe even easier to implement, would be a daily capping on the EZ-Card the way the London Oyster Card does. About the weird $10 deposit, I can only assume that the card allows you to add extra value like with a normal EZ-Card, so the $10 would be like a real deposit! But then, why can't you just load a day pass onto a normal EZ-Card?]


LINKS

Singapore at UrbanRail.Net (feat. map and many links)

Singapore Line by Line Photo Gallery



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.