Monday, 15 July 2013


In preparation for my forthcoming 'Tram Atlas Northern Europe' I visited the Latvian capital for three days in July 2013 (3-5th).

Like Tallinn, Riga has both a tram and a trolleybus system. Although trolleybuses will also be featured in my atlas, I'll focus on the tram system here, as urban rail is the subject of this blog.


Riga's tram system is the largest in the Baltic States, and Riga is also the largest city in the region. On the map there are 9 tram lines, but this is a bit misleading as two of them do not operate regularly: line 3 offers some 14 journeys a day at no identifiable headway, and line 9 only operates during peak hours. The busiest is line 6, which runs every 7-8 minutes, while line 2 is the least-frequent with a tram every 20 minutes only. On all lines, headways increase notably during peak times and are reduced significantly during daytime off-peak hours. Except for line 5, which runs from a suburb on the west bank of the Daugava River to another on the right bank, all other all-day lines terminate somewhere in the city centre without a proper interchange station between them. Someone coming on line 6 and wishing to continue across the river on lines 2, 4 or 10, needs to walk some 500 m in search for a departing tram, or jump on a line 5 tram for 2-3 stops and then change again. I don't know whether this has always been so, or whether it is due to the restricted use of the new Skoda low-floor trams which only serve line 6, and now partly also line 11. So hopefully, as new trams arrive, lines will be better interconnected to provide improved cross-river service (especially as with the construction of the new National Library on the left bank, this side of the river seems to be gaining importance). In Riga, the introduction of low-floor trams requires an upgrade in the electrical overhead equipment, as older trams use a trolley pole for power collection, while new trams are equipped with a pantograph.

Generally, Riga's tram system is rather old-fashioned, with lots of sections, especially in the more central areas, in mixed traffic with private vehicles and also numerous mini-buses. Trams and trolleybuses only share a short section on line 6 on its way across the railway tracks near Zemitani station. Despite the use of low-floor trams on line 6 and 11, the general concept of boarding platforms seems to be a rather new one in Riga. Only the recently renewed section between 45. vidusskola and the line 6 terminus at Jugla (see photo below) is equipped with proper platforms, the only other stop where I identified platforms was Kurzemes prospekts/Jurmalas gatve on line 4, although the other stops on the outer line 4, which was the last addition to the system in 1984 and has a dedicated right-of-way, as well as other sections on dedicated rights-of-way, have some sort of low platforms too. So, a lot needs to be done to upgrade this system into a modern tramway. The same is true for the track, which requires a complete renewal on most sections, although the Skoda 15Ts cope pretty well and offer quite a smooth ride on worn-out track. Having some sort of bogies between modules, the gangway between two modules occupies almost 2 m leaving only a narrow corridor, too narrow for passengers to stand. With the front bogie placed almost at the extreme of the tram, the driver's cabin is unusually large, and quite luxurious compared to the tiny space available in the older trams.

What I really hated in Riga is the naming convention of stops. In lots of cases the stops in opposite directions carry different names. This is not only a horror for map makers, but must also be confusing when you indicate a stop to someone who may come to visit you. It must also be quite tricky for modern journey planner devices to get this right. There is, for example, a trolleybus terminus called Petersalas iela, where transfer is easy to tram line 5, and while in the inbound direction the tram stop is also called Petersalas iela, in the outbound direction it is Ganibu dambis, whereas the outbound Petersalas iela stop is two stops further west! This is just one of numerous cases, and on the trolleybus and dieselbus network it is the same, of course. For locals, this may have some logic, as the stop name usually refers to the next crossing street, but for the rest of the world it is simply confusing. Even worse, the stops that serve the central railway station and also parts of the old town are sometimes called Stacijas laukums (Station Square) and sometimes Centrala stacija (Central Station), no idea which concept is behind that! Anyway, my proposal is to reorganize the entire Station Square situation by building a road tunnel and establishing a good public transport hub on the surface instead. This would also eliminate the rather unattractive pedestrian tunnels in this area.

Talking about Old Town, Riga's no. 1 tourist attraction: there is simply a stop missing between Nacionala opera and Nacionalias teatris (850 m!!), where the main entrance to the Old Town is located next to the Freedom Monument at Kalku iela/Brivibas bulevar. Older maps even show a stop in this location, and trams often stop there anyway because of a zebra crossing without traffic lights.

All routes are double-track except a short segment at the northeastern end of line 5 and a longer section on the outer line 10, where boarding the tram can become very dangerous, as the stop sign is sometimes actually located on the opposite side of the bidirectional road. A similar life-threatening situation can be found at Tilta iela on line 5, a busy stop, where people change to the trolleybus, but to get off the tram, passengers need to hope that no car is coming from either direction! This type of "stop" should be forbidden by law. If no reserved right-of-way is available, the tram tracks should at least be in the middle to avoid this bizarre and dangerous situation.

What I liked in Riga was the uniform overall appearance of trams and buses, all in a pleasant blue & white colour scheme, only some Skoda trams carry full adverts. What I don't like, though, is that in a Russian tradition, trams, trolleybuses and normal buses (autobus) may carry the same number. Fortunately the mini-buses, a kind of plague in all Baltic cities (a cheap way of organising public transport and keeping many drivers busy, albeit at the cost of immense air pollution!), were assigned 3-digit numbers like 203. Trolleybus lines 9 and 27 operate in diesel mode between the Daugava bridge and the railway station, with the trolley poles lowered, so in the case of line 9 you actually get two different lines 9 crossing the Station Square. Probably most Eastern European passengers have been trained properly to distinguish a diesel bus from a trolleybus, while most westerners would just identify a 'bus'. Unlike St. Petersburg, where trolleybus stops have a special sign, here it is a shared bus sign, where numbers are listed as A 1 2 3 ... for 'autobusi' and T 1 2 3 ... for 'trolejbusi', while 'tramvajs' stops have a different sign showing a tram. Some tram stops, most notably on the renewed Jugla section, have network maps. I didn't see an open customer information office anywhere, so I don't know whether these maps can be picked up. Interestingly, an independently produced diagrammatic map, a bit messy though, with all tram, trolleybus and bus lines was sold at some kiosks. Tram and bus stops are all equipped with timetables, and these are also available in a quite extensive form on the internet.

Riga has also switched to electronic smartcards, but unlike in Tallinn, Vilnius or Kaunas, a 24-hour ticket (1.90 LVL = 2.70 EUR) is available at kiosks in the form of a cardboard one-use ticket (yellow e-talon), while monthly passes or other types can be stored on a blue plastic rechargeable e-talon. Skoda trams are equipped with ticket machines, but they don't issue day tickets, just single tickets or allow the blue card to be recharged.

Besides the tram and trolleybuses, Riga also has an electric suburban rail system, but despite being much more frequent than any other rail service in the Baltics, it is far from being called an S-Bahn or RER. Platforms are hardly higher than the track itself, and the train floor is probably 1.2 m above the top of the rail, which means that even for passengers with unrestricted mobility it can be quite an adventure to climb into the train. Senior passengers are pushed by fellow passengers. Carrying suitcases or prams is reserved for the very sporting guys! Otherwise the modernised RVR 'elektrichkas' are not too bad. The service is pretty busy on the western line to Tukums via Jurmala, the popular beach resort (although there is actually no station called Jurmala, but Majori and Dzintars are close to the town centre and beaches). Besides the bad accessibility of the trains, another criteria that does not allow to call this service an S-Bahn is the lack of a regular headway. Despite being double-track up to Sloka and probably without any considerable freight traffic, the line to Jurmala is not served every 15 or 30 minutes, but at irregular times difficult to memorise. So, to simplify things, trains run about 2-4 times an hour, some to Dubulti, some to Sloka (both in Jurmala) while a few trains continue to Tukums. Other electrified routes radiating from the Central Station towards the south, southeast and north are served less frequently, but also with one train an hour on average. The trains are not included in the urban fare system, although fares a very low by western standards.
Riga Tram (Official Website)
Riga Tram at UrbanRail.Net


  1. When I went to Riga, I loved the tram system. Was cheap, efficient and easy to ride. I also took a suburban train to Majori. :)

  2. Another curiosity of the tram system is the level crossing between a freight rail track and tram line 5 one stop south of its terminus in Milgravis, which can cause delays on Riga's only diametric tram line (or just reduce the driver's break in Milgravis) ...

  3. You have missed to mention the famous "Retro tram" which has a tourist route on line 11. To my knowledge, there is nothing like it in the neighbourhood.


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