Monday 14 April 2014

BUDAPEST Metro & Tram

I hadn't been to Budapest in more than 15 years. I always told myself that I would go back as soon as the fourth metro line was open, and so I did (2-5 April2014), but 15 years ago, noone would have thought that it might take so long, but now it's open and running and at least it didn't disappoint me and Budapest locals who will have to use it every day, certainly like it, too. One week after its inauguration, many people were still exploring and admiring.

Anyway, let's start from the beginning, as usual, and look at the Metro later. Budapest has, no doubt, a good transport system, and with metro, trams, two types of suburban railways (MAV and HEV), a funicular, trolleybuses, a rack railway, a children's railway and even a chairlift, there is enough to explore for any urban transport enthusiast. To find out what goes where, can be a tricky thing, as only small fold-out maps are available, which are more like an enhanced metro map, i.e they show all tram lines but only with major stops, as well as some trunk bus lines. And these were updated with the new line M4. Some material was also available that shows the changes that have taken place in conjunction with the M4 opening, but these only affect bus routes in the southwestern area, whereas tram lines have remained basically unchanged (quite notable as some lines double the metro on the surface), except that a weekend line 48 was introduced. I was hoping to get a full city map with all lines as are posted in some places, but probably they haven't updated it yet.

When I arrived at Ferihegy Airport, there was a BKV office right next to the exit point in the main arrival hall, easily visible and staffed with an English-speaking lady. They don't accept euros but a cash machine was nearby to get some Forint. I got a 72-hour-ticket, exactly the period I needed for my stay, but there are also 24- and 48-hour tickets, and they give you unlimited travel on almost anything within the Budapest city boundaries (and the city is pretty large), except the funicular up to the Buda castle hill and the Children's Railway. At 4150 Forint (that's some 13 EUR), it is not exceptionally cheap compared to other prices in Hungary, but a good deal. And keep your ticket at hand at all times because you'll need to show it frequently!

Although certainly quite smaller than it used to be, the tram system (Villamos in Hungarian) is still rather large and a useful means of transport also for ordinary tourists. Especially line 2 provides a nice sightseeing tour along the Danube River on the Pest (eastern) side, but also on the right (west/Buda) bank you can ride the tram along the river (19/41). Line 2 is actually close to being a light rail line if it wasn't for the old trams in service not only on this line, as well as the sometimes very basic stops, but otherwise it is mostly fenced off and even has an underground stop at Fövam ter, now integrated into the M4 station complex. On other lines (I didn't ride all of them) the standard was varying a lot from extremely bad track on some sections of line 1 or the northern end of line 3 to recently upgraded sections with new track and proper platforms to match new low-floor trams. As far as I have observed, these (as of now only Siemens extra-long Combinos) are only in service on lines 4/6, which run along the körut, the ring road on the Pest side. There are posters at many stops announcing the introduction of CAF Urbos trams in 2015, but I wonder if they manage to get the track into proper condition, as now even the robust Tatras have problems and need to go very slowly on some sections of line 1, for example. So, the system is in a long process of being modernised. Next-tram indicators are still rather rare and often undergoing testing. In the central area, some announcements like transfers to the Metro are also made in English. Quite unusual for such an old system, all the trams are double-ended and doors often open on the left side. On line 2 at Vigandó ter in the city centre, there was obviously no room for a southbound platform, so you step down onto the northbound track. In general, stops are quite far apart in many cases, which may give you the impression of a higher travel speed, and in fact, they do travel very fast as opposed to many new tram systems. I was surprised how the long Combinos can handle those speeds on not always perfect track. Most of the routes I have seen are on a dedicated lane or right-of-way, which is at least separated from car traffic by concrete „balls“, so cars are unlikely to invade the tram route. A bit like in Vienna, to avoid too long lines, many of them act as feeders to the metro or to other tram lines. But apparently, this approach has changed with line M4, as the surface trams lines were maintained to cater for short trips (a good idea as many M4 stations lie very deep and would require too much time to ride just between two stations).

Budapest now has four METRO lines, and they are all rather different. M1, the oldest underground railway on the European continent, is of course more of a fun ride than a real metro, but it does get busy and trains travel very frequently and make only very brief stops. With only three short carriages making a full train, their capacity is rather limited and the stations are placed at short distances. All in all, more like an underground tram than a metro.
After having been completely refurbished, line M2 now looks like a modern, recently opened line, especially as the new Alstom Metropolis trains are in service here, too. In some places, some marble walls were integrated into the otherwise complete redesign, which I think was done very well. The stations look bright, and, what I found very interesting, the often ugly dirty wall behind the track was also decorated, resulting in a much more pleasant overall look. These images mostly depict scenes from the area where the station lies.

With line M2 refurbished and despite being newer, line M3 looks like the old and dark line. No doubt, the station designs have a certain 1970s Eastern appeal, but something needs to be done to bring it up to the standard of lines M2 and M4. Maybe improved illumination would already do a lot, and maybe a similar approach can be made with the design of the wall behind the tracks. Especially as the ceilings are very low, and there is mostly a row of columns close to the platform edge, this area is very dark and unattractive. The old Moscow-type trains add to the nostalgia feeling of days gone by. The southern terminus at Köbanya-Kispest has already been refurbished and made fully accessible.

And now to the new M4. Wikipedia actually has a list of dates that had been announced in the past for its scheduled opening... Anyway, I was already quite excited when I saw some construction photos and some photos of the finished stations, and I was not disappointed when I saw them in real life. Although like almost anywhere nowadays, bare concrete is also present here, each station has received its individual style, some more interesting than others, but almost all have something to discover. But above all, the stations are very spacious, well illuminated, good signage and good ventilation. Lots of escalators as well as lifts link the different levels, as most of the stations lie rather deep. Interchanges with other modes like trams and railways, but also the other metro lines were well planned and logically laid out. I think in most cases passengers can reach tram stops without crossing any streets. What I am missing, but maybe this is in the making, is a proper logo on a pole outside the stations. Previously, the other lines had a sort of logo, different for each line and not really visible either. A new M-logo is actually used to prefix the line number, similar to the Paris Metro, and I hope they will place it in a strong colour at road intersections etc. to make it visible from the distance.

Back to the station designs, it was funny to get a certain deja-vu experience in some of them: Moricz Zsigmond körter certainly reminds me of Georg-Brauchle-Ring in Munich, the terminus at Kelenföldi with its concrete walls painted in red is also reminiscent of Munich's U2 along its eastern leg where this was a main theme, again in Munich, the entrance bubble at Bikás park is similar to that at St.-Quirin-Platz on line U1. So I wonder if the same architects were involved here. At Kelenföldi, the railway station was rebuilt together with the metro, and from a wide mezzanine which spans the entire station and connects bus terminals at either side, you can reach all the railway platforms directly, making it a perfect hub. So I guess, it was worth the wait and the line is already pretty busy. See photos of all M4 stations here. Let's hope that the once envisaged eastern extension to Bosnyak ter will follow soon.

The Alstom Metropolis trains used on lines M2 and M4 are quite o.k., maybe a bit loud, but not as much as in Warsaw. On the new line they run rather smoothly, although compared to Vienna's U-Bahn the speed is (still) modest. Apparently, they are ready for driverless operation on line M4, but for the initial period a driver is on board and operates them in ATO mode. Inside they had a pleasant temperature and all sorts of announcements, visual and accoustic.
During my stay, there were ticket inspectors at almost all metro entrances, something I did not quite understand. The cost to have at least two people at every entrance must be horrendous. At the same time you don't really catch people without tickets as you would turn back if you don't have a ticket and buy one before trying to get in. I remember that last time I was there, ticket inspectors were waiting at the end of upgoing escalators to catch people without a ticket and fine them, but now they were all placed at entrances. Can anyone explain what the intention of this is?

Today I also got the chance to ride a HEV train to Szentendre, a nice town north of Budapest (with a BKV transport museum next to the station). This line (and I guess the others are similar) reminded me of the Roslagsbana or Saltsjöbana in Stockholm. The trains must be carrying thousands of people every day, but I don't understand why these people don't deserve proper platforms. You need to take a very good step or jump to get into or off the train. Unless they plan to get new low-floor trains soon, they should do something about this. And on some sections the trains really shake too much! Hopefully they will soon connect the northern with the two southern lines, what has been planned for a long time, creating a sort of M5. In a first stage, they should at least bring the southern lines further into the city, for example to the Kalvin ter hub, where people can change to a higher capacity vehicle, whereas now, people coming on busy and long suburban trains need to continue their journey on crowded trams, which has never made sense to me. From the eastern line, people can change to M2 or several tram lines, the same with the northern line that terminates at Batthyany ter. Another option would be to convert them into a sort of tram-train using new vehicles that can also run on the urban tram tracks, most of which are on dedicated lanes anyway.


Budapest Metro & Tram at UrbanRail.Net


  1. The new CAF trams will operate on the lines 1,3,19 and 61. All these lines will be refurbished until 2015 as you could see during your visit on the different sections of tram line 1 and where the refurbishment works have begun. The line 1 will be extended until the Fehérvári út via the Rákóczi Bridge (the southern red one) where it will meet the tram lines 18,41, 47. On the Buda side a new tram line will be built between the Batthyány tér (stop of metro line 2 and terminus the H5 suburban railway) and Margit híd, budai hídfő (stop on the Grand Boulvard lines 4 and 6). Via this new section the tram line 19 and 41 will be extended until the Vörösvári út (until the last Sunday it was the northern terminus of tram line 17), while tram line 61 will redirect here via the Széll Kálmán tér (former Moscow square)

  2. Ticket inspectors have been placed to the entrance, because lot's of people used to travel without ticket, as they knew, that only at busier stations can they expect inspections. In the first days after the introduction of this system, BKV earned 5 million forints (around 20000 euros in that year) extra from ticket sellings. If you count it for 30 days that is much more than the cost of the employees. Although since than inspectors are less effective as in most cases they don't really care about tickets, as they standing there for 15-16 hours a day, and no one can concentrate for so much time. They have been reports in hungarian media about this, and they where able to get in even with a small piece of toilet-paper. Tram tracks are under mass reconstruction, so by the time of the new trams arrival, they can run on mostly new tracks. HÉV lines are poorly connected to the city centers as they where built by private companies around 1900, and they didn't had enough money. For example HÉV line to Ráckeve, which now terminates at Közvágóhíd was originally planed to run to Fővám-tér, but in the first section they decided to build the railway with a temporary terminus at Közvágóhíd. This "temporary" terminus is now more than 120 years old :).

  3. Lo de los inspectores me recuerda a lo que pasó en la ruta 2 en Buenos Aires. Desde que el Gobierno decidió aumentar la cantidad de radares de velocidad y hacer pública su ubicación, se redujeron notablemente los accidentes. El objetivo es el control de la velocidad y no la punición y recaudación de multas.
    Imagino que la presencia de guardas en las entradas de las estaciones persuade a mayor cantidad de gente de pagar su pasaje en comparación con la cantidad de polizones que uno o dos inspectores podían multar en el caso que no tuvieran pasaje.

  4. M4 station designs: perhaps they were inspired by other designs, but all the stations were designed by Hungarian architects.

  5. My wife and I visited Budapest last year, arriving a few days early for a river cruise. I rode at least short stretches of all four Metro lines, including the entire M1. M1 was a special goal because I had seen one of the early cars at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Maine USA. I visited two of the major railway stations and took lots of photos--at no time did anyone pay any attention to my activity. After leaving one of the stations, I went out to see which tram line to ride, and spotted a 1956 vintage tram in regular service on the 6 line. I rode it to the end of the line where I had a choice of tram or Metro to ride. Our hotel was close to the 47-49 tram terminal, and I took my wife for a ride to the far end of the 47--an excellent way to explore the city, including parts where tourists rarely venture. Budapest is a fascinating city and I recommend it to all who visit Central Europe.


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