Friday, 7 March 2014

MARSEILLE Métro & Tram

During my short holiday in Nice I took one day (6 March 2014) to visit Marseille where I had already been once back in the 1990s. While the metro system hasn't changed much since then, Marseille now also boasts a modern tramway.

All in all, and especially when compared to the similarly sized Lyon metropolitan area and other European cities of that size (i.e. between 1 and 1.5 million inhabitants), the urban rail system in Marseille appears rather modest and insufficient. The metro, like in Lyon, uses short trains, here the 4-car trains only reach 65 m in length, not too bad when compared to the also short trains in Paris, but other European metros designed in the 1970s were laid out for longer rolling stock. This fact makes the stations, which could not take longer trains, look very small; this impression is confirmed especially in the city centre where they are often also very narrow. In recent years, just line 1 has been extended by four stations, and compared to all the older stations, these appear like huge and bright spaces, almost oversized, given the lower patronage compared to the busy stations in the centre. 

Having used tunnel boring machines on most sections, stations end up lying very deep. Mostly they have only one entrance, which unless you know exactly where it is, may be difficult to find. There is a large cube-shaped logo, but being black, it is not properly visible from the distance, some red like in Italy would help.
What is most annoying on the Marseille Métro is the extremely bad design of the two interchanges between lines 1 and 2. The interchange at Saint-Charles stroke me already during my first visit, because what I consider simply a severe planning mistake (otherwise it would be hard to believe), does not make sense at all. Often when I complain about such situations, someone points out one reason or another which may be acceptable for a certain compromise, but I think noone can give a plausible reason why they bothered to drill those tunnels in a way that all tracks lie parallel to each other – a good idea up to here – but in the end placed an island platform between the line 1 tracks in the middle, and side platforms for line 2 on the outer tracks. So there is absolutely no point in having all tracks on the same level from a passenger's point of view, in fact it would be better to have a two-level station instead, T-Centralen in Stockholm would have been a model for this station.

But the second interchange between the two lines, Castellane, is not much better. When two lines intersect perpendicularly, the only option is that one line is on the upper level, and the other below, with one flight of stairs and escalators enough to change trains. This is normally easily done when the two lines are planned and built at the same time, as was the case here more or less. But instead you get a completely inadequate station with narrow side platforms and exits only at one end via stairs only, after an acceptable walk you come to the system's major bottleneck: M1 also has side platforms with exits only at their western ends, but here with upgoing escalators and stairs that are not even one metre wide. It reminded me of some of those super-narrow staircases on the Brussels metro. In a few months, Castellane will also become the terminus of the city's third tram line, so passenger numbers and overcrowding will even increase here.

Otherwise, signage and general operation looks good. The trains, with their Brussels-style orange interior, could have standard poles and rails to hold on to, instead you can hold on to the seats and in the middle of the area next to the doors there is a half-high pole where you can hold on to, but this is somehow actually obstructing people when getting on and off. The trains run on rubber tyres, which I find funny and I like the smell of the tyres, somewhat roasted, but I actually don't see the point, especially as those systems like in Paris actually have normal steel wheels, too. But compared to well-maintained conventional metros like in Berlin, which I'm always surprised how quietly it runs, I don't see the advantages of rubber-tyred metros, especially if there are no significant gradients. Whereas line 1 now seems to have reached its natural length, i.e. the boundaries of the densely built-up area, line 2 is far from reaching its full extension. From the elevated Sainte-Marguerite Dromel terminus you can see huge high-rise neighbourhoods some kilometres away where the metro could go. An extension to St-Loup was high on the agenda some 10 years ago, was later postponed again and again while the tram was given priority. In the north, a 1-station extension is now being built, basically on depot access tracks, but this will simply move the bus/metro interchange a few hundreds metres further north.

In 2007, Marseille joined the general French tramway boom, although it was actually one of only a few cities which had never completely given up its tram system. But the only line, 68, was rather short and played only a minor role in the city's transport system. This line was rebuilt and became part of line 1, which was extended east from the former terminus St-Pierre, thus almost doubling its length. This extension, however, runs through some either undeveloped land or not too dense areas, and given the fact that Marseille still has several high-density districts neither served by metro nor the tram, I started to wonder whether this was really the area with the highest priority for a rail-based system. In the city centre it uses an old tram tunnel and therefore terminates underground at Noailles. Tram line 2 seems to be busier as it actually traverses the city centre and also serves the new developments to the north of it, the Euroméditerranée. The third line, now under construction, will give more coverage to the city centre, as it will run along Rue de Rome, right between the two metro lines, but will not reach any areas still lacking urban rail service.

Marseille's tram was much acclaimed when it opened for its modern design of the vehicles, although I have to admit that without being pointed at it, I would not directly associate the front of the trams with the bow of a vessel as was suggested, but it looks quite good anyway. They also look quite nice inside with a lot of wood used instead of the otherwise typical plastic. But the seats hardly deserve being called seats, the least comfortable I have ever seen on any tram or train. Not because they are hard, that's fine for a ride of limited time, but their shape is simply absurd. I guess that it was one of those incompetent designers who suggested to incompetent decision-makers to use an 'ergonomic' design! Ergonomy is a nice feature, but it only works if you can adjust the seat to the person who sits on it. And being tall and with a long-suffered back problem, I could write books about stupid people who design seats for public transport. I actually feel pity for Bombardier, as they normally deliver acceptable to good seats, but as said before, some incompetent designer must have imposed his/her will here. Aren't regular passengers in Marseille complaining about this? They should come to Nice for a day to see the difference! Another thing I was disappointed about was the quality of ride in curves and over switches. I had long believed that this is mostly a Citadis problem, and had not observed it that much on Flexitys elsewhere, but in Marseille they slow down for curves to 5-10 km/h, so the overall impression of speed is rather modest. Through the city centre, notably around Noailles on line 2, the trams continuously ring their bells as people keep crossing tracks or even walk on them to avoid the crowded pavement. All the stops are well-equipped with all sorts of information you would expect, electronic next-tram indicators, and, what I appreciate, with stop name signs at a height only about half a metre from the platform, which is much easier to read from inside the tram (despite the super-large windows...).

All in all, the public transport system is well integrated, costs only 5 € for 24 hours, and season ticket holders can even use local trains within Marseille. Tickets are all of the contactless smart-card type and are supposed to be validated at each boarding on the tram. For the metro you have to hold them against the reader anyway to open the gates/turnstiles. I was surprised how many manned information points there are, mostly small offices which provide maps and timetables. At the railway station's metro station Saint-Charles, a long escalator down, there is even a proper RTM ticket window, otherwise tickets have to be bought from vending machines. At some stations I observed single vigilants.


Marseille at UrbanRail.Net

RTM (Metro & Tram Operator)


  1. Marseille St. Charles, as described, reminds me of the layout of Milan's Cascina Gobba, also with side plaforms and a central platform. That is the only other such metro station I could think of.

    1. No, these two stations are not comparable at all. Cascina Gobba is basically a junction where two branches of the same line diverge, plus the terminus of short workings, so its layout is quite good for what it was planned for. Only people who transfer from an outer branch towards an outer branch need to change platforms. I guess the inner tracks here are mostly used by terminating trains. I bet there is nothing comparable to Saint-Charles in this world....

  2. The Cascina Gobba arrangement was initially planned to accommodate both the M2 terminal and the Linee Celeri dell'Adda light rail line, which used the left pair of tracks, while M2 trains used the right pair (seen from the city). Convenient Interchange was provided again at Crescenzago and Cimiano above-ground stations, then the metro went underground while the rail line continued surface as an ordinary interurban tram. After only a few years, the light line was upgraded to metro standard and integrated into the M2 as the Gessate branch; at the same time, the Cologno branch was built. Today, at Cascina Gobba all northbound trains use the rightmost track regardless of destination (this also eases access to the San Raffaele shuttle for passengers to the hospital, who are more numerous from the city), while trains going downtown normally used the adjacent track and occasionally one of the central tracks, especially at peak hours. Trains terminating at Cascina Gobba use the central tracks and occasionally the leftmost track.


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