Friday, 4 January 2013

ALICANTE


I've spent the last days of the year 2012 in Alicante, a city I hadn't been to since the early 1980s, so as far as urban rail is concerned it was a first-time visit anyway, as my interest in this form of transport was not as developed back then and also, Alicante didn't have any urban rail system in those days. After almost a week here, I have to say that Alicante is not really among my favourite Spanish cities, but it has fantastic beaches nearby, some of which are also easily accessible by tram/train. Unfortunately there are no tourist or railfan-friendly day passes, so you need to buy a new tickets for each ride (you're not even supposed to get off and jump on the next one after taking a photo...). But fares are rather cheap for European standards, 1.40 for a single ride in zone A which takes in all L3 and L4, with a 10-ride ticket even cheaper. A same-day return to Benidorm is 6.15. Although officially a bilingual city like the entire Comunitat Valenciana, station names within Alicante city are predominately shown in Spanish only, whereas in other parts they may also be in Valencian (Catalan). Renfe, the national rail operator, along with ADIF, the rail infrastructure company, however, now use 'Alacant' for their station.

 

The present urban rail system is still rather undeveloped, and it is actually a border case, not sure whether it is really urban, although lines L3 and L4 connect outlying parts of Alicante city and El Campello, which is part of the continuously built-up area, with the city centre. Those areas are separated from the city proper by the Serra Grossa mountain. The 30-minute headway on these two lines doesn't make them too attractive, and at least the area of Playa San Juan served by L4 is also accessible by bus, probably more frequently and faster. The system is complemented by L1, which is more of an interurban tram-train that also runs every 30 minutes to reach Benidorm, 45 km northeast on a very scenic coastal trip. At Benidorm, a diesel train continues hourly as L9 to Dénia, also a very panoramic journey. L1 does not stop at all stops on the inner section which are served by the local L3 instead. The stops most frequently served are La Isleta and Lucentum with six trams an hour. The L1/L3 runs directly along the beach between Costa Blanca and Les Llances stops, so that's a good area for photos and for swimming, too. And then there is still line 4L, a shuttle connecting the main route at Sangueta (located in the middle of nowhere) to Puerta del Mar, right by the harbour promenade. This shuttle also operates every 30 minutes and despite its number links with L1 trains, not L4. It is barely used and will therefore be discontinued soon. A typical case for Alicante's bad planning! Despite the single-track line between Sangueta and Puerta del Mar it would no doubt be possible to operate this shuttle every 15 minutes, even without a second tram, and this would make it much more attractive for local rides, but a wait of 20 minutes or so to connect with L4 is a bit too much! Also, the intermediate stop La Marina, the old railway's original terminus, is not accessible from the beach promenade.

While the initial idea to convert an old narrow-gauge coastal railway into a tram-train was quite good, and L1 seems to be pretty busy (despite the location of Benidorm station far away from the beaches and a rather exhausting climb up the hill from the town centre!), anything else seems to lack a proper public transport concept. Although there are shared tickets between TRAM and buses, the two don't really appear to be integrated properly. If you happen to see a bus map somewhere, it doesn't even show the underground TRAM stops. Building a route underground through the city centre was possibly based rather on 1960s concepts to reserve the surface for vehicle traffic and an excuse to build large underground car parks along with the two underground stations in the centre, Luceros and Mercado. In my opinion, a surface route would have been enough here and it would have helped to actually bring the tram into people's mind, make it visible. But they keep it well hidden, as the entrances to those important stations don't even have a logo to show their location. Until you actually stand in front of them, you don't see them and in two cases at Luceros, you are never quite sure, whether this is an access to the car park or to the station! When you stand in front of the market hall, you can't really see the underground station, as it is one block up and has no signs indicating its existence, just your intuition or the help of a local. Metro logos are not only good for passengers, but also a useful point of orientation for car drivers or pedestrians, therefore in some cities they are actually hung over the road intersection to be visible from some distance. There is a nice logo pole at Puerta del Mar, so why don't they put them also at the other stations, even the surface ones?

 

When I first entered Luceros station, I wasn't quite sure whether this wasn't the car park anyway, as the vestibule features a no-design design, bare plastered walls painted in a vague beige/grey lead your way to a large mezzanine ready to take large amounts of passengers but always quite deserted when I was there. Once you get down to the platform it is a pleasant large and well-lit space with an island platform, with trains reversing in the cul-de-sac already built beyond the station in provision for an extension to the railway station. This extension will probably take many more years as it has to be done together with the new railway station, which is being built in stages, and as they are currently even delayed with building temporary platforms there to bring high-speed trains to Alicante in 2014 or so, it will take at least 5-10 years until the entire station complex is finished, if it is ever finished.
Mercado station lies even deeper than Luceros, and despite its black walls in the mezzanine and platform level has an interesting feel. There is just one thing which I simply cannot understand: if this is the station which serves large parts of the city centre including the Old Town, why did it not deserve escaltors from the mezzanine to street level? Instead the stairs are actually rather steep to climb. Luceros, however, has up and down escalators at two of the four entrances. The third underground station, MARQ is a bit east of the city centre and features a big hole at its eastern access so daylight falls into the station while the western exit requires three flights of escalators to reach the surface. Right after MARQ trains come to the surface and climb onto a viaduct that spans over a large roundabout. This is followed by a grade-separated junction where L2 will diverge (see below).

When the old line was first electrified in 2003, it ran single-track from Puerta del Mar to La Isleta. With the first new section into the city centre, about half the section between Sangueta and La Isleta became double-track, but now with three lines operating every 30 minutes in each direction, this has become a major bottleneck. Instead of doubling only the single-track section with a new tunnel under the Serra Grossa mountain nearby, they chose to build a longer double-track tunnel which will hopefully be completed soon, as digging seems to be finished, but no funds are available to lay the tracks. And given the current financial constraints, it is not quite sure whether there will be more trams once it is operational. My innocent mind makes me wonder anyway, why they didn't dig a tunnel from La Goteta on L2 towards La Isleta?? Probably because it would make the lack of long-term planning even more evident... The original route had nice views, but with most now in tunnels anyway, this advantage is gone, too.

All the surface stops are well-equipped, with maps, almost too huge timetables and electronic next-train indicators (showing the time of predicted departure rather than the minutes remaining). From what I have observed, punctuality was quite good.

 

L2 has probably become the most ridiculous public transport issue in Spain. There are other tough cases, like the now-closed tram in a small town called Vélez-Málaga, the still not opened tram in Jaén or the hardly useful 'metro' in Palma de Mallorca. Like Valencia, Alicante lies in the Comunitat Valenciana, one of Spain's autonomous regions. The regional government is responsible for the construction of metros and trams, and so far, both in Valencia and Alicante, the region-owned company FGV also operates them. Probably because of the many strikes they have at FGV (I also caught some over Christmas!) they wanted to find a private operator for L2, but thought that this would be for cheap. So they couldn't find one! Not even the typical ones like Transdev, Keolis and the likes that participate in all European tenders. So the line is fully built like a modern French tram line, even traffic lights seem to be switched on, trams have done their test runs, but still after two years of completion, it is not in service. This is a real SHAME! How incompetent can a government be! If they received a single eurocent from EU sources to build it, the politicians themselves should be forced to pay all the money back from their private pockets! And L2 would finally make the system worthwhile as it runs through densely populated areas and serves the University too! FGV says they could start service immediately if they were told to do so.

But even when L2 is finally in service, many parts of the city will still lack tram service, notably the western areas. The first proposal that comes to my mind is to extend the soon-to-be-closed branch to Puerta del Mar along the esplanade around the central city to the railway station, where it would intersect with the trunk route and what they call Cercanías. Instead of continuing with an underground route further west as had been proposed, I would bring the trams back to the surface and create several branches. It has been suggested to extend L1 all the way to the airport and possible even to Elche, so this would create a 100 km long regional tram-train route. But unless the country recovers quickly from this financial bottleneck and more capable politicians come into power, we will hardly see much progress in Alicante in the next decade, I'm afraid.

Besides urban rail, a lot of money has also been invested in recent years in this part of Spain in new railway and road infrastructure. I'm not anti-motorway, but from what I could observe driving around the region of Alicante for three days, a lot of money was wasted in dual-carriageways to rather small towns and an excessive number of roundabouts where besides the main road the only exits show 'camí' (camino = farmer's access to fields...). Like with the urban railways, all these motorway-like roads seem to lack an overall concept resulting in a badly-signed labyrinth of roads with confusing road numbers (I reported a few errors even to Google Maps), but that's a different story.

The high-speed rail line from Madrid (which is in service as far as Albacete) is almost completed all the way to Alicante, but the city's terminus is not. The branch to Murcia, which diverges some 15 km before Alicante is also mostly built and roughly follows the old railway line, just like a link between Valencia and Alicante. In these two cases I thought that it would easily have been enough to finally upgrade the old lines. It seems that through the wealthy early 2000s (or presumably wealthy) Spain always went for the big solution, while prior to that and until now nothing much has been done to keep the old lines in good shape. In the case of Alicante, it has never occured to anyone, it seems, to build a short curve of 1-2 km at San Gabriel, where trains that run from Alicante to Murcia have to reverse. While this is probably not so bad for local trains which have a station stop there anyway, long-distance trains like the Talgo from Montpelier to Cartagena thus reverse once at Alicante Terminal station and a few minutes later again at San Gabriel. I wonder if someone remembers what they did in the old days, when the old Murcia terminal in Alicante was still open and many more trains went from Valencia towards Andalusia along this route? I also wonder whether this is the only case in Europe where a long-distance train needs to change direction without actually serving a station?



5 comments:

  1. Alicante is one of those rare cities that combines a rich history with a booming modern outlook.

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  2. Thank you for your informative website and blog! Through your website I was able to find the map of the Singapore metro that I was looking for.

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  3. Good news from Alicante, line 2 to Sant Vicent del Raspeig finally opened on 4 Sept 2013! If you have been on it, tell us your impressions!

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  4. Hi, You have shared very useful information. I am highly impressed. Thanks for sharing it.

    Alicante to benidorm airport transfer

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