Monday, 22 February 2016

DÜSSELDORF (feat. Wehrhahnlinie)

I had been to Düsseldorf several times before this visit, usually a brief visit to explore its extensive urban rail network, and in fact, I had been here only 2 months ago, in December 2015 when in anticipation of the tunnel's opening the local population was invited to visit two different underground stations on each weekend in December, and as I was coming all the way from Berlin anyway to see the new underground route in nearby Cologne, I managed to see two stations in Düsseldorf in their almost finished state, namely Heinrich-Heine-Allee and Benrather Straße, the two closest to the busy old town. But before we go into a more detailed evaluation of the new underground tram route, I want to write down some thoughts about the Düsseldorf system in general, so these are some accumulated impressions gained from various visits.

Typical first-generation underground station, here the westbound level at Steinstraße/Königsallee

Düsseldorf has always surprised me positively and negatively, as among all the German Stadtbahn cities, it is probably the one with the most extreme features. When I talk about "Stadtbahn" in this context, I mean those systems which from the late 1960s started to build underground sections to full metro standard, and with the final goal to converting these to full metro operation (like a pre-metro). As we know, none of them actually achieved this initial goal, but all gave up sooner or later. So, on the one hand, the Düsseldorf Stadtbahn system, i.e. the U-lines which had existed before the underground tram routes were now also prefixed with a U, is among the most state-of-the-art metros in the country, using LZB, or internationally better known as ATO, for automatic operation, through its tunnel sections. Remember that the classic U-Bahn systems in Berlin and Hamburg use manual driving throughout, and only Munich's and Nuremberg's run under ATO control, the latter even driverless on part of the network. In Düsseldorf, this makes for a very swift operation in the tunnel sections, although the articulated trains with their folding doors, and mostly with just 60 m trainsets, make it appear more like a light rail rather than a metro system. Generous planning and a long-term vision even led to the first tunnel section being built with four tracks, basically combining two trunk routes. So, for a metro enthusiast, it is always fascinating to see two trains entering the station at the same time with both trains leaving simultaneously too. There is no point now in discussing whether this generous alignment was really necessary or whether the ATO operation would have allowed enough capcity with two tracks too. I was also wondering whether two tracks should have been diverted further south to cover more areas in the city centre. But that's what we've got now, and it works fine. With the central railway station located a bit out of the city centre, the 4-station 4-track section between Hauptbahnhof and Heinrich-Heine-Allee does get very busy at times, so probably the generous construction was justified after all.

Viktoriaplatz/Klever Straße - the first refurbished station with a new floor and new ceiling

The metro-style Stadtbahn service on the underground sections, however, switches completely to the other extreme on some routes as soon as the trains come to the surface. The most striking is on the northern leg used by U78 and U79 where drivers switch to manual driving and have to stop in the middle of the street at Golzheimer Platz, where there is not even a platform for passengers to alight or board, instead the trains fold down steps, here with an additional step for street-level boarding. Only two stops further north, the trains reach a proper dedicated right-of-way with proper high-level platforms now typical for all Stadtbahn systems. Similarly U75 runs like an old-fashioned streetcar through Eller or through the western parts towards Neuss. For a long time, Düsseldorf didn't seem to take level access into its vehicles very seriously, compared to Stuttgart or Frankfurt they started rather late to upgrade surface stations with high-level platforms and, although many have been built in recent years, there are too many to do still. This is the more surprising as the city is known for being among the wealthiest in the country, or seen from another angle, they are debt-free because they don't spend money where they would be expected to spend it? So while other cities like Stuttgart and Frankfurt have put a lot of effort into concluding this upgrading programme, Düsseldorf is years from achieving this goal. And what's worse, neighbouring Krefeld, served by Rheinbahn's U76 and peak-hour line U70 has just wasted millions for a new central stop at Rheinstraße without providing a proper platform for the U76 high-floor trains! I wonder how this is politically possible? By the early 2020s, all public transport is required to be fully accessible. Some local authorities and/or transport agencies, however, show a complete lack of respect for their people and try to evade this law wherever they can. In Krefeld they say, people unable to climb the steps into the Stadtbahn trains can take a low-floor tram to Fischeln, where they can change stepfree into a U76 train (so they'd better add an extra hour to their trip, because apparently not all trams to Fischeln are low-floor and then the line out there is rather slow - I took it on the way in in December as U76 was cut back to Dießern because the new Rheinstraße "hub" was not finished yet). I don't know whether Rheinbahn as the operator insisted strongly enough, but in any case, I cannot understand why it was not possible to incorporate a high-floor section into this overlong island platform built at Rheinstraße! Were somebody's feelings hurt by the visual impact this might have had? Anyway, for me an absolute failure, but this negative point goes rather to Krefeld than to Düsseldorf proper as these decisions are usually taken on a political local level. Back in Düsseldorf, luckily the recent line rearrangement cut back U74 at its southern end after it had been extended south to Benrath over tram tracks only a few years ago, also ignoring the fact that the stops are not equipped with high-level platforms, some have no platforms at all, but street-boarding. But still, people from Benrath coming in on U71 or U83 cannot change to U74 or U77 stepfree as there is not even a high platform at Holthausen, nor on the shared stops on the way in. Funnily, transport operators only think of people in wheelchairs or the elderly when deciding these things, but in the end, level access is for everyone, because it speeds up boarding while it reduces costs by avoiding the need for those retractable steps. This economic aspect was one of the main reasons why other cities hurried to get at least some lines fully equipped with proper platforms, so they could order new trains without these steps. So to conclude with the Stadtbahn system, excellent on the one hand, and rather pathetic on the other.

Things with the tram system are similar. On the one hand, Düsseldorf has maintained by far the largest tram system among all Stadtbahn cities. And though quite separate for many years, in recent years tram and Stadtbahn systems have become more interlaced, which in itself is o.k. as long as the standard of each system is guaranteed, for example by providing platforms with two different levels (as seen in some Duisburg underground stations). The difference between modern underground routes and old-fashioned street-running tram operation is now also quite striking on the tram system. At the eastern end, trams leave the tunnel at Wehrhahn S-Bahn station, and proper (island) platforms have recently been built at the Uhlandstraße junction, but just beyond that point, three of the four U-prefixed lines return to street-running stopping without any platforms at Lindemannstraße and Engerstraße. Being quite close to the city centre, I would have expected these stops to be properly upgraded in time for the opening of the tunnel. On outer sections through Gerresheim and towards Ratingen, some effort has been put into providing proper platforms for what they now also promote as "Stadtbahn". The situation is similar at the southern end of the tunnel in Bilk, where trams also return to the street upon leaving the tunnel. Sure, the original project included longer tunnels at either end, but I guess this has long been given up and would probably not be feasible nowadays. Or maybe by maintaining the street-running they want to prove that in the end a tunnel extension is necessary? Let's see.


So given the lack of proper upgrades to the connecting lines, I would describe the newly opened underground route as a "tram tunnel" or "U-Strab" as we tend to call it here. Let's have a closer look at its alignment and, above all, its stations. In the "old" days, Düsseldorf had decided for a standard design for its underground stations, which though rather elegant in its 1970s style, has often been criticised, while other cities had followed the Berlin model with a different design for each station. 


Oberbilk S - the largest of the second-generation underground stations

For the Oberbilk extension, Düsseldorf introduced a different design, though still maintaining the same style for the three underground stations on that extension. Now for what is generally known as the "Wehrhahnlinie", different architects were invited, although there is certain common line for all stations. Though the tunnel was mostly driven with a tunnel boring machine, all stations were built by cut-and-cover and appear rather spacious. The running tunnel was mostly built as a large two-track tube which determined the layout of the stations with side platforms, not an ideal solution for several reasons (double sets of escalators, more lifts, more complex wayfinding systems, etc.) but a two-track tunnel certainly has advantages for operation, as it allows as many cross-overs as needed - if Cologne had adopted the Düsseldorf approach, the tunnel collapse wouldn't have happened, because that occured exactly where a chamber was to be excavated for a cross-over as the running tunnels were built as single-track tunnels. The only station with an island platform is Heinrich-Heine-Allee, because here a section of the tunnel was already built together with the Stadtbahn tunnels, so they had to use it, resulting in a very wide island platform ideal for a major transfer station. At the same time, this provision also made the final construction much more complicated as a section beneath a department store had to be excavated after the soil had been frozen. Using tunnelling machines, also determined a certain depth, which in the case of Heinrich-Heine-Allee was required anyway to pass below the existing lines, and at Schadowstraße, a road tunnel was built at the same time to allow an old elevated road to be demolished instead. For the stations on the southern leg, I wonder if a simple subsurface cut-and-cover tunnel would have been possible too? Because crictics quite rightly point out that although the tram journey may be faster through the tunnel, in the end, people don't save time because they need a while to get down to or up from the deep-level platforms. Anyway, the eastern leg below Schadowstraße will certainly create quite a different street experience (unless they use all the lanes for car traffic), as this is the city's main shopping street with all major department stores and chains. On the southern leg, I have never really seen many pedestrians, it's more of an office area, so probably some measures to give the tram priority or a tram-only street (instead of the separate running through parallel streets) might have achieved some acceleration, too. Anyway, now it's built and open and needless to discuss the advantages of a tunnel.

Inpendent from what one might think about its utility, the stations are really nice. Generally they are very bright (and in fact let the old stations looks extremely dark now!) and each has something exciting about it. They are all whitish in their basic design, but this is enhanced with different elements in each station:


Pempelforter Straße has black geometric patterns, plus some yellow lines taking passengers down to platform level (on the first day, lots of panels were still missing here). From the eastern exits, passengers can transfer easily to tram 704, whereas to the stops for tram line 707, people need to walk a bit (and therefore the initially proposed double name Pempelforter Straße/Jacobistraße was eventually shortened).


Schadowstraße has dark blue walls in the staircases, and a video installation above the western tunnel mouth, which intends to capture movements from the surface and translate them into abstract objects projected on a big screen. Let's hope that this keeps working for a while, as my experience tells me that most installations of that kind sooner or later become dark as noone cares about maintenance. I wonder why they didn't call this station Jan-Wellem-Platz, which was a traditional tram hub, and Schadowstraße actually runs all the way up to Wehrhahn, so Pempelforter Straße station also serves the shops on Schadowstraße.


At Heinrich-Heine-Allee there are art objects hanging from the ceiling as you come down from the upper platforms. The interchange situation is o.k. At the southern end of the upper platforms (remember, it's a four-track route) a flight of stairs is available downwards, and escalators only upwards, but then a corridors runs stepfree to the western end of the lower platform. People who do not want to walk the stairs downwards, can take escalators up to the mezzanine and then another long escalator down to the new platform, or do the same detour using the lifts. Generally, all stations offer quite a large amount of up and down escalators. Otherwise, Heinrich-Heine-Allee is a plain white station, with the panels covering the eastern exit shaped in geometrical reliefs. When I saw this station unfinished in December, the metal-grid ceiling struck me as ugly, but now with the station finished it is not so bad after all.


With the entrances located in side streets, Benrather Straße is actually a T-shaped station box. In the mezzanine, there is another video installation showing our galaxy with different planets appearing and moving over the different screens. Unfortunately this is located in the mezzanine, so you cannot watch it while you're actually waiting for the tram. But the kids were quite excited about it on the first day. Like at most stations, a view from the mezzanine down to platform level is possible through a glass wall, adding to the open-space appearance. If there is any colour, here it would be silver, with some planelling in stainless steel but with Braille dots (I wonder if the graphic patterns mean something, though).


Graf-Adolf-Platz, like Schadowstraße, is kind of Madrid style, with its offset staircases and a sort of balcony-like mezzanine. Here, the walls next to the escalators are green with some abstract painting in black. Unfortunately, transfer to the tram lines crossing on the surface is not ideal, the shortest walk requires climbing stairs or waiting for the lifts, while the escalator exit requires a bit of a detour on the surface. There should really be a direct underground walkway to each of the busy east-west platforms.


Kirchplatz is the smallest of all stations, probably not too busy on a normal day either as there is no transfer option here. The complementary colour orange is only visible on some tubes mounted on all surfaces, which, if you look carefully, include some words, but it's difficult to make sense out of it.

There will be a new surface stop just after leaving the tunnel, Bilk S, but that hasn't been finished yet, apparently they had to wait for the old tracks to be severed to finish those platforms, and that's what they did last night immediately after the end of regular service on the surface routes through the city centre. At the old Kirchplatz loop, many local enthusiats said goodbye to tram lines 703 and 713 last night, using some old Duewag trams to do the final journeys. The new tunnel lines, however, are exclusively operated with the latest type of trams, NF8Us from Siemens, which are actually single-ended, but are coupled end-to-end as kind of permanent pairs. They run quite smoothly and the tracks through the tunnels are well laid, but inside they are not very spacious, maybe a result of the doors on both sides. In fact, the end module has two doors on one side, but just one on the other, and the second module has no doors at all, so on a crowded tram it can be quite a hassle to get to the next door to alight. And the special area for wheelchairs and prams is much too small, today there was always a problem with lots of families exploring the new system. I'm not quite sure whether the trams carry a ramp for those people to get off at one of the numerous stops without any platforms? So again, the new stations are fantastic with lots of escalators and lifts, but the connecting surface routes often rather pathetic with street boarding (at some stops passengers even have to cross two car lanes to get to the tram in the middle of the street. Most, if not all, of these stops are at least safeguarded by special traffic lights, but for car drivers not familiar with such old-fashioned tram routes these lights may easily appear too suddenly (they don't show green when no tram is around).

To finish off, a few words about the fare system. Verkehrsverbund Rhein-Ruhr (VRR) is probably the largest in Germany of these numerous fare systems, by population served it is the most important anyway. But being so large and multi-centred, it is also the most complex to understand for the occasional, but extensive rider. While fare class A always applies for a single city (although in some cities it is not really clear on maps where the city boundaries are) - in the case of Düsseldorf it is relatively clearly shown on their overall maps, which is important as many tram and Stadtbahn lines go beyond the city boundaries into neighbouring cities and to ride these stretches a class B ticket is necessary. This will cover all lines that start in Düsseldorf, and as long as you validate your ticket in the city centre, but it is not really clear how far you can actually travel on a class B day-ticket. You'd need to use the VRR Ticketberater and try around until you eventually get a map that shows where a B day-ticket is valid. During previous visits, my repeated experience was that noone, least those working for VRR, can give you a clear answer. Once they even suggested to buy a C or D ticket to be on the safe side. You can actually get a day ticket for the entire state of NRW, too. The main problem with A and B tickets is that the A day-ticket at 6.70 EUR has a fair price, but a B ticket, which may only be required for a few extra stations, costs the double for one day. So you'd better plan your trips carefully to make the best of the ticket you choose.
Mapwise, Düsseldorf is among the better places in the VRR area, usually famous for its crap maps. I just don't like the way the new underground tram routes are shown, like the Stadtbahn routes in different shades of blue, resulting in a complete blue mess around the Heinrich-Heine-Allee interchange. I think that it would be more helpful to use a different colour as I did on my maps. 


Can anybody show me on a transport map where Mörsenbroich is?

And one thing I had criticised already in December, but the maps still show the same problem: U71 and 708 trams and indicators at stops show a destination "Mörsenbroich", but this name does not exist on any map. So how should a person not so familiar with Düsseldorf know where this tram is going? And I daresay that Düsseldorfers don't know this place either as in all publications issued by Rheinbahn on the event of the line changes, line U71 is described as starting in Düsseltal, and on their own maps, the last stop Heinrichstraße must be in a neighbourhood called Derendorf. So what have we got here? A complete geography puzzle? Anyway, it is usually a thing of small provincial towns to call the destination of a tram something different from what the last stop is called. Or is it Dutch influence in Düsseldorf? So, Rheinbahn, if you want Düsseldorf to be a real city, do as real cities do, just rename Heinrichstraße into Mörsenbroich and put it on the map, Mörsenbroichers will like it! Or delete Mörsenbroich from all indicators. And there are lots of other termini to be renamed too.


By the way, anyone planning to visit Düsseldorf, don't forget to ride the H-Bahn from the airport to the airport railway station, it's free and fun:



LINKS

Rheinbahn (incl. map)

Düsseldorf at UrbanRail.Net (feat. special photo gallery)





3 comments:

  1. Nice report! Was there on the opening day (and finally got my first two "U-Dax" mascots); on that day people could try the new tunnel lines out for free. The trains stayed in the - short - tunnel though; the connection to the surface was opened on Sunday (21 Feb). I like the look of the new stations, but I do not know why most of the stops have two separate platforms. With lots of passengers getting on and off that may make sense, but it looks like a waste of money (double escalators/elevators) to me.

    My pet peeve however is the fact that, while in Cologne the latest line is actually a new connection (especially once it gets completed whenever that will be ...), the Wehrhahn line in Düsseldorf is precisely where the tram connection used to be, except it is two "floors" further below now. Sure, the state and the feds gave most of the money spent there, but still ...

    As for the "Jan-Wellem-Platz" name, the reason why it was given up is that the place does not actually exist any more. :) It will come back once the area around the former elevated street (now a tunnel too) is rebuilt, but its location will be a little different then. Now Schadowstraße (the street, that is) starts at Königsallee and ends at the Karstadt department store. Strictly speaking, none of the Pempelforter Straße station entrances/exits "touches" Schadowstraße. So the new station name makes sense to me.

    Oh, and ... the SkyTrain at the airport is not free to use. See here: https://www.dus.com/en/arrival-and-departure/skytrain You do need a ticket, basically the same as for the S-Bahn, subway, etc. But since various ticket types are accepted, most people will not have to buy an extra one for that short ride.

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  2. Forgot to mention that Heinrichstraße is not in Derendorf (that is further west) but actually in Mörsenbroich - or rather on the Mörsenbroich/Düsseltal "border". ;) What the trains show as the final stop is actually Mörsenbroich Heinrichstraße. See https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/1265378/U71.jpg

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  3. As I am living in the VRR I have the luck to have a D month ticket, which is valid in the whole of VRR. And there actually is a downloadable list, from which tariff zone to which tariff zone is A, B, C or D. But it's hidden on the VRR page http://www.vrr.de/imperia/md/content/service/tarifinformationen/anlage_3a_preisstufenraumbegrenzung.pdf

    I personally don't like Heinrich-Heine-Allee station: The old traditional surface stop was located right where the busy (in the sense of pedestrians) Bölkerstraße crossed Heinrich-Heine-Allee. From the entrance to the new platforms you have to walk like five minutes or so, so I think the surface tram was better and more convenient.

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