After many years of delays, Cologne's north-south Stadtbahn route finally opened all its underground stations on 13 Dec 2015, a good reason to visit the city once again to catch up with these significant developments. The opening, however, was still just a partial one, as a gap still exists along this route between Heumarkt and Severinstraße, where the tunnel collapsed in 2009 causing the Stadtarchiv located above to collapse too and with two people dead in a nearby building which also crashed down into a big hole. The accident was supposedly caused by faulty construction of some diaphragm wall in what would have become a chamber housing a cross-over along a pair of single-track tube tunnels. After rescuing what could be rescued from the city's archives (after all, Cologne dates back to the Roman period...), investigation on the cause of the accident is still going on. With apparently no deal possible between the city and the constructor, a complicated procedure is necessary to actually access the point of the defective wall deep below ground, soil had to be frozen, and it will take some years to conclude still. After that, the metro tunnel can be finished, but even the most optimistic sources quote a 2023 completion of the full route. And this takes us directly to the major problem on the route brought into service recently.
The lack of a cross-over in two separate tube tunnels means that trains entering the tunnel from the southern portal have no option to change tracks all the way to Severinstraße, so they have to return on the same track, resulting in quite a chaotic operation from the passenger's point of view, because a train in either direction will arrive on either of the two tracks. And except for Bonner Wall, this kind of information was not yet properly displayed yesterday, so here KVB, the operator, urgently needs to make some rapid improvements.
On weekdays, the trains of the newly introduced line 17 run every 10 minutes (the minimum headway possible with this kind of operation), and every 15 minutes on Sundays. Yesterday, riding this line was free and lots of locals tried it, resulting in quite full trains at all times, and naturally messing up the timetable. I would have expected that KVB would run an "as often as possible" service with more trains to satisfy the people's curiosity. Instead of some unfriendly staff forced to work on a Sunday at the information desks, they should have brought in more drivers to cover a more intensive service.
Now let's take a look at the route and stations. I had already seen the rebuilt Breslauer Platz/Hbf station previously, which forms part of the north-south project. Three years ago, I also got a chance to see the first station on the new route proper, Rathaus, which was opened as a single-track stub for line 5. This station is a real tube station, with rather narrow platforms and accesses.
A year later, i.e. two years ago, this stub was extended to Heumarkt, but at that time I didn't manage to visit Cologne, so this station was also new to me on my recent visit. I had seen many photos, as it is labelled as one of the cathedrals of modern metro station architecture, so my curiosity was naturally very strong. And it didn't disappoint me. But the funny thing here is that the "cathedral" part of the station is actually a fancy provision for an east-west line which may never happen, so for the moment it is just a mezzanine for the north-south line crossing one level deeper, with the two levels forming an X-shaped structure. Although there has been some talk again recently, the east-west route (lines 1, 7 and 9) will remain on the surface for a while still, resulting in quite a walk from the line 5 deep-level platform to the surface platforms. Yesterday evening, these were bursting with people coming from the shopping streets and the adjacent Christmas market, so hopefully the long-planned east-west tunnel will soon get its go-ahead to improve transfers and speed up journeys across the city centre. So while the upper unused platform level features this huge vault, the lower level for line 5 is quite straight-forward, but wide and open enough to provide a good atmosphere. At the western end, besides a lift, there is also a staircase, I think it is some 7 or 8 floors to get to the surface, a good way to skip the daily gym. Otherwise there are lots of escalators up and down.
A walk from Heumarkt to Severinstraße allows a look into the big hole caused by the tunnel collapse. What will be the northern terminus of line 17 for the time being is quite a deep station, too, determined not only by the tube-tunnelling, but also by the fact that it runs below the crossing lines 3 and 4 which, though on the surface, run in a cutting on their approach to Severinsbrücke. At the northern end, 45 m long escalators lead directly from the surface to the platform level, but with the upward escalator failing again and again during the first day, I once walked the stairs, and have to admit that they got me almost out of breath! Alternatively, of course, there are also lifts. Coming from lines 3/4, passengers have to take stairs to reach a mezzanine and then escalators down to platform level. The platform itself is surprisingly wide for being a tube-type station, but here some two thirds of entire station length of the space between the tubes was excavated, with the roof supported by a series of inclined columns, giving a very pleasant and generously laid-out waiting area. The tubes are only perceivable at one end of the platform.
At Kartäuserhof, this is quite different. This is a classical tube station, with cross tunnels only at either end where the escalators and stairs arrive, plus a cross passage in the middle where the direct lift to the surface is located. Design-wise, this station features something I had never seen before: the concrete linings behind the tracks were left bare, which is not unusual, but on the platform side these are also visible, but behind a blue transparent glass wall, a simple idea that results in this special colour touch I have often missed in other bare-concrete architecture. With the line running through a very densely built-up district, the tubes actually lie below the buildings, with not much space on the surface for wide exits, so one side only has a staircase, and the other a pair of escalators and a staircase, all leading to a small mezzanine, from where two sets of escalators and stairs go down to either end of the platforms.
Chlodwigplatz was also designed as a transfer station, although the lines crossing on the surface are more of the tram type. The new platform is again quite wide with flights of escalators either going to a main mezzanine dominated by a number of indirectly illuminated columns, or to a smaller mezzanine and an exit near the old city gate. The most striking element in this station are the two huge painted murals on one side of the escalator shaft, almost like a huge graffiti, but reaching heights where unofficial sprayers may never get to:
The last station down the line is Bonner Wall, which was mostly built by cut-and-cover, although the northern end deliberately shows the end of the tube tunnels. Unfortunately, and for no real obvious reason except possibly the junction following immediately to the south, this station has side platforms, making passenger orientation even more complicated, especially if, like at one time yesterday, one platform doesn't properly show the trains it will serve. An island platform would have allowed a change of sides even in the moment the train actually enters the station. But when the station was designed, noone could foresee that such a complicated operation may be necessary over a long period. Certainly, side platforms allow direct lifts from the platforms to the pavements, whereas a lift from an island platform would be located in the middle of the street above. Again, KVB has a job to do here, as yesterday it was not clear for someone using a lift from the surface which platform they will need to board the next train. I fear that this matter will fill some comments in the local press in the coming weeks. As a cut-and-cover station, it actually gave me the impression of being only partly underground and the ceiling slightly above street level. This illusion is caused by a row of lights just below the ceiling which appear to be windows and daylight coming in. Though separated by glass walls, almost the entire station box can be overlooked from the mezzanines at either end. Otherwise, the concrete/glass design is only disrupted by large red areas where all the information panels are displayed.
Just beyond Bonner Wall, the line splits, with the straight route via a ramp to Marktstraße fully completed but not used yet. Probably the lack of a reversing option at Severinstraße would not allow to introduce a service to this 3-track surface terminus right now. A further extension to Arnoldshöhe has been approved and should be finished at least when the full north-south tunnel is finally open.
Line 17, however, turns east and after some 300 m surfaces to cross a main road at grade before joining the existing route to Bonn which has long been running along the River Rhine. There had been long discussions about how this level crossing would influence operation, and most importantly, road traffic. In the end, some provisions for a road tunnel below the Stadtbahn tracks were made, but this will certainly not be built in the near future. The line 17 shuttle now terminates a few stations further south in Rodenkirchen, with some peak-hour trains continuing to Sürth.
So, all in all, had it not been for the horrible tunnel disaster, I consider the north-south line a well-achieved project, which unfortunately will only show its full strength in some 10 years.
For more photos of each station visit our special gallery!
A few other notes on the Köln light rail system. As may be known by the reader, the network is divided into a low-floor and a high-floor system. While the low-floor lines provide proper level access at all stops, some of the stations belonging to the high-floor system have not yet been rebuilt with high platforms, something I cannot really comprehend. There are not too many left, I think, so really more effort should be made in this respect. The fact that people have to climb into those cars via steps clearly slows down alighting and boarding, and with a new series of light-rail cars recently ordered, at least, like in Hannover, certain lines should be operated exclusively with trains without those silly steps. It is generally understood that light-rail trains without steps are cheaper, need less maintenance and being high-floor allow a much freer distribution of doors and thus also of seats and other elements (something we learned from the U3-type cars in Frankfurt back in the 1980s, and this is 2015!).
Regarding tickets, Cologne is in the upper price range among German cities. With a day ticket mostly costing between 6 and 7 euros, in Cologne it's 8.30€! Compared to neighbouring VRR, the VRS fare system is slightly easier to understand (well, almost any other fare system would beat VRR's in this respect...), the "fare stages" are usually graphically displayed at all stops, for the city of Cologne you need a 1b ticket, 2b if you want to include the smaller neighbouring towns served by some light-rail trains too. To cover the entire Köln/Bonn system, though, a 4-zone ticket is required. As I was actually staying in Düsseldorf (VRR!) I was looking at joint tickets covering Düsseldorf and Cologne for a day pass, but all information is very weird and confusing, so to avoid problems I bought a normal train ticket and then a day pass for Cologne. Probably tickets covering all of NRW (the state of North-Rhine-Westphalia) may be an easier option for some visitors. In any case I would recommend to get such tickets from a staffed ticket office to be sure you get what you need. German ticket inspectors have no mercy and often may not understand all different tickets available in what we call "fare jungle". I would urge the NRW government to properly merge all these areas into one single fare system with one philosophy on how these zonal systems work, but typically German, each area has its own way of doing things, and the more complicated the better to keep occasional riders from using public transport for being too complex and always with a remaining fear that you have got the wrong ticket.