I had only just written a blog entry about Barcelona in May 2015, when I visited the city once again in preparation for my book Metro & Tram Atlas Spain (published in Sept. 2015), so this post is just about the newly opened L9 Sud and the three underground stations added in Terrassa on FGC's line S1.
Driverless Alstom Metropolis train behind platform screen doors
I had been following the L9 project ever since it was first presented to the public in the late 1990s when I still lived in Barcelona. These were the "fat years" where anything seemed possible in Spain, Madrid was still expanding its metro system in huge 4-year steps, so Barcelona didn't want to be left behind and designed Europe's longest, deepest, fanciest and, whatever superlative may serve, metro line. They were talking about a German way of financing (something I had not heard about until then), meaning, just spend as much as you can and pay later. With the financial crisis hitting the country sooner or later, the L9 project got into trouble, and there have even been numerous technical problems, partly certainly due to the unusual idea of building a super-tube which can actually accommodate 4 tracks within a single tube, two on an upper and two on a lower level. While this may be an ideal solution in a city with soft soil, it was not perfect in Barcelona and the TBMs got stuck several times causing months of delays until they could continue to excavate.
Anyway, the first sections opened in 2009/2010 in the northern suburbs of the conurbation, Santa Coloma and Badalona, but the central section which serves the upper parts of Barcelona proper as a kind of semicircular line never got properly underway. In the end, the Catalan government, responsible for the success and failure of this project, decided to mothball all construction sites on the central section and concentrate on the completion of the southern section between Zona Universitària and the airport, which has a length of no less than 20 km, now opened on 12 February 2016 with 15 stations. Although the Siemens Trainguard technology had already been tested on the northern sections of L9 and L10, the southern section now actually represents a completely different line and therefore also required quite a lengthy phase of testing. Opening had been announced for February 2016, mainly to meet the goal to provide a direct service between the airport and the exhibition centre during the Mobile World Congress being held here at the moment. As everything had worked out fine, the authorities eventually chose 12 February for an official inauguration and with the following weekend allowing local people to explore the new line. Unfortunately, the Mobile World Congress organisers were not really happy when a strike was announced for 22 and 24 February. And honestly, I cannot understand those trade unions! They will certainly have enough reasons to go on strike, but I think it is irresponsible to do it intentionally on days of major demand during events which in the end benefit the whole city. Fortunately Spanish law allows the authorities to dictate quite a reasonable number of trains to run anyway (servicios mínimos), because after all, millions of people also have a right to go to work, which, of course, may clash with the right to strike. It's just so obvious that people working in the transport field tend to go on strike much faster than others who may have the same reasons to call for work improvements.
Luckily, they were nice enough to announce the strike days in advance, so I could plan accordingly and explored the line thoroughly on 23 February. With the mobile phone congress going on, this was certainly not a typical day, but certainly left the impression that the line is used far below its potential. With congress participants leaving, most stations will return into a slumber, though hopefully a few will eventually get a fair amount of passengers as people get used to the new travel options.
Narrow platform at Aeroport T1 with questionable floor painting
Let's start our ride at Aeroport T1 - although stations are announced in three languages the names as such are not translated into Spanish or English, so this one is "Terminal ooh", to be distinguished from "Terminal dos", they could really provide this information in proper English for all the tourists as "Airport Terminal One"!
Before entering the station, however, some may have been surprised by the ticket price, which is €4.50 for a single ride (including transfer to other metro lines, but nothing else). So if you plan to use public transport on the same day in Barcelona anyway, get a T-Dia or a HolaBCN! Tourist Pass, as these include one entry and one exit at one of the airport stations. The fare is especially unfair for people using a T-10 multiple ride ticket for zone 1 or more zones, which are very popular in Barcelona, as they will have to buy a full €4.50 ticket to leave the airport stations. All in all, although €4.50 is not too excessive in international comparison, the way it is charged is very confusing, and I guess a Madrid-style supplement payable on exiting is more logical.
The station as such is probably the least attractive of all L9 Sud stations, and as I was just coming from Düsseldorf where I inspected the shiny new underground tram stations, I was indeed negatively surprised, especially by the fact that the wall cladding here is made of cheap wood-based conglomerate plates, something TMB had also used in the 1990s to refurbish some old stations, by simply nailing these plates on the old tiles. This station actually has an island platform, although this is not easy to appreciate the way the staircases obstruct the view, so in the end, the passenger is left with the impression of a rather narrow platform with no design features. In this station as well as at Terminal 2, passengers will find some fancy, though rather useless paintings on the floor, something seen in some Asian metros, so copied with good faith, but probably not really properly thought through. The marks on the floor are supposed to keep boarding passengers away from the doors to let people get off first, but at Aeroport T1, passengers get off at one side of the platform, then the trains run into the sidings and come back at the other side of the platform, so there is no programmed collision between alighting and boarding passengers anyway. Or do they sometimes enter and leave from the same platform side? And at Terminal 2, hardly anybody will use the metro to travel from one terminal to the other given its excessive fare and the option of a free bus shuttle. So who had the idea of having these lines painted on the floor?
From T1 to Aeroport T2, the metro takes a long 4-minute curve as it skips an intermediate unfinished station called Terminal de Càrrega [Cargo Terminal]. T2 station is rather plain in its design, too, but much more open-spaced with an illuminated wall on part of the station box.
On the left, metro entrance, with ADIF (Renfe) station in the centre
While Terminal 1 station was quite well integrated into the airport terminal complex, the problem here is that it is a rather long walk away from the nearest check-in desks. Instead of building the station box right outside the original terminal building, it is located next to Renfe's station, which had always been a long way away, accessible via a long footbridge, which had last been refurbished for the 1992 Olympics and now looks frighteningly tatty. Some tourists may wonder whether this is really the correct way to train and metro! Embarrassing indeed. Not sure whether this is AENA or ADIF property, maybe they don't know themselves and that's why it is so neglected. There used to be moving walkways, but these had long been paved over.
1970s elevated walkway from the airport terminal T2 towards railway and metro station
The decision to build the metro station next to Renfe's station must have been inspired by the idea of creating a transfer hub here. But with the current fare situation, interchange is strongly discouraged. People arriving here on a Renfe Rodalies train and requiring transport to Terminal 1 can choose between a free shuttle bus or a swift metro ride for €4.50! With a transfer needed to get into the Barcelona city centre (see below for inconvenient interchange stations), I wonder whether the frequent Aerobús service from Plaça Catalunya has to fear real competition from the metro.
Metro entrance at Mas Blau in partly undeveloped business park
From Mas Blau, L9 Sud becomes a normal metro line with all tickets for zone 1 valid, and thus tickets are not checked at the exits. Mas Blau serves a business park with lots of empty areas around still, but may get its share of passengers during commuting times. The design of the station is similar to other stations in the municipality of El Prat de Llobregat, and features massive pillars between platform and staircases, which are clad in artificial stone, a conglomerate in a different colour in each station, thus providing a certain uniqueness to each station. It doesn't look bad, although the style is more typical of the 1970s/1980s and reminded me of the Bornheim U-Bahn (U4) in Frankfurt. The colour of this station is dark green, although probably a dark blue would have been the more obvious choice given that the name of the station means "Blue Mansion" (I guess it's named after an old farm in the area):
Mas Blau station with green pillars
Parc Nou station with white/grey pillars
The colour of the next station, Parc Nou, could be identified as white, although here there seems to be no artificial colour added to the cement. The station's name, however, is somewhat artificial [New Park] as the area is well known as Sant Cosme, but for many decades had (or still has, I'm not sure) a very bad reputation for social problems, so the El Prat mayor obviously didn't want to see this name on the metro map...
Roof structure covering one entrance at Cèntric on El Prat's Pl. Catalunya
The following station name has also been discussed a lot in forums, as Cèntric doesn't really mean much, just "central something". The station's natural name would probably be "El Prat Centre" as opposed to the following station. During the project development it was usually shown as Plaça Catalunya, but as the main square in Barcelona carries the same name, this was, of course, not an option for the El Prat station. But yesterday, a friend revealed to me that Cèntric actually refers to a nearby civic centre and venue of that name, so in the end it seems to mean something to the local population.
Cèntric station with reddish pillars
Despite being located right in the centre of this town, this station was also hardly used while I was there during late morning hours, although I would have expected that this is the busiest station south of Torrassa. There are quite a few Renfe trains (I think 4 per hour) from El Prat, and they take people directly into the centre of Barcelona. Among the Prat stations, this is the reddish one. All of them are rather spacious and not too deep, a bit similar in size to the typical new Madrid stations. No need to say that all L9 stations are fully accessible with lifts, and also have lots of up and down escalators. As part of the rearranged square above the station, the northern entrance is actually covered, whereas all other stations, as is typical in Barcelona, are simple entrances ("bocas de metro" in Spanish).
Access to El Prat Estació metro station
El Prat Estació is part of a major interchange which besides Rodalies was once also intended to have an AVE station to allow people from further afield to change here to get to the airport. I don't know what happened to the AVE station, at present it is just a Rodalies stop, with trains to/from the airport stopping and two during off-peak hours on the line towards the southern coast. I wonder whether all trains will stop here in the future to allow for a proper access to the airport from the south coast. Although I had been taking this line several times in the past few days as I was staying in Sitges, I found it rather confusing to find out which trains actually stop where, as line R2 is a complete mess with varying service patterns and actually consists of three lines, R2, R2 Nord and R2 Sud... Anyway, the metro station at El Prat Estació is not directly linked to the railway station, instead you need to exit and cross a square to get into the other station. The metro station is pretty plain in its design, basically grey, but some colour has been added in the form of illuminated murals made of photo stripes. One day in the distant future, also L1 should arrive here:
El Prat Estació station
After El Prat Estació the metro turns east and via a long curve south, but on the way it runs through the next unopened station, referred to as La Ribera. It is basically finished, and some say that even the lights are on all the time, but it was not opened because there is nothing around on the surface. From the train you can just see walled-off platform edges, so I don't know whether the platform screen doors have been installed.
Mezzanine at Les Moreres station, with mural inspired by mulberry trees
Les Moreres station
The last station in El Prat, Les Moreres [mulberry trees], lies only about 1 km east from the town centre, but as the metro takes this long detour of about 3 km, it may take longer taking the metro than to walk or take a direct bus. So it was not surprising that this station was pretty empty, too. Design-wise it is similar to El Prat Estació, mostly grey on platform level, but with three illuminated murals, though rather inconspicuous (probably insinuating tree trunks), in the mezzanine. The inclusion of this station added a lot to the line's bad reputation of having too many bends and thus taking forever to get anywhere.
Unclad walls at Mercabarna station
The next two stations are in an area dominated by industry and thus I didn't expect to see many people there during off-peak hours anyway. So I was actually surprised that Mercabarna was quite busy. This station serves Barcelona's wholesale market and this seems to generate enough ridership with workers even in late morning hours. Probably inspired by typical industrial naves, the design of this and the following station is somewhat unfinished, i.e. some surfaces are clad with unpolished metal plates, while others are left uncovered altogether, revealing the bare concrete. I wonder whether people will recognise this as a design element or whether they will just think that the Catalan government ran out of money to finish them properly. I think a thin layer of sprayed concrete would improve the situation.
Narrow platform at Parc Logístic station
Parc Logístic is the smallest of all cut-and-cover stations, which may be because a station for L2 is to be added here in the future. I don't know whether or what sort of provisions have been made. In the tunnel, to the west of the station, you can see how L2 is supposed to merge with L9 on its way to the airport, but apparently, at Parc Logístic, it would have its own platforms. I suppose that they already built the station box on the north side of the L9 station as the mezzanine in this area is also quite huge. But it would also be reasonable if L2 didn't stop here at all, as an interchange will be available at Fira anyway. In fact, seeing how long it takes to ride L9, I would suggest that L2 should be built as a proper express line directly from Fira to Aeroport T2 bypassing all the stops in El Prat.
Superwide mezzanine at Fira station
Fira [Fairgrounds] is without doubt the design highlight of line L9 Sud. It was designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, who was also responsible for the Exhibition Centre and some buildings in the area. The blue bubbles on the walls show historic photographs from the area which not too long ago was mostly rural. The platforms are wider than usual to accommodate large crowds during events at the exhibition centre, but also in provision for an interchange with L2 which is supposed to cross perpendicularly, although I don't know whether any significant provisions have been made here:
Wide platform at Fira station
The next station Europa | Fira provides interchange with L8, i.e. all FGC metre-gauge lines starting from Plaça Espanya. I wonder why the L9 platforms were built one on top of the other here. Somehow I did not really like this station, it is rather dark with blackish metal wall panelling, and to change to L8 you have to take a series of escalators up to a mezzanine (which also acts as a pedestrian passage beneath Gran Via), and from there go down again to the L8 platforms.
Lower (northbound) platform at Europa | Fira station
Large access box at Europa | Fira station, but no direct access to FGC platforms
Considering what a huge box was excavated to accommodate the generous flights of escalators at either end of the metro station, why was it then not possible to drive direct shafts from an intermediate level to access the L8 side platforms? We know that coordinating such works between ADIF (Renfe) and other transport companies tends to be difficult, but here the constructing authority was the Catalan government which also owns and operates FGC! I can only suppose that the road tunnel, only built around 2005 by the Catalan government, was in the way, but then the necessary provisions should have been made then. Unfortunately this is not the last inconvenient interchange on L9 Sud!
Vestibule on level -1 at Can Tries | Gornal station
While the section between the two Fira stations was built by cut-and-cover, the tunnel now becomes the typical L9 super-tube we know from L9 North, i.e. some 12 m in diameter and with two levels inside a single tube. Just before arriving at Can Tries | Gornal you can see the tube for L10 come in from the right, which is already in use to access the depot at Zona Franca. By the way, TMB's preference to use a | stroke to separate double names is quite nice, but unfortunately on station signs it is badly written, resulting in a capital I instead, so people not familiar with this uncommon usage may just read it as "i", which means "and", so maybe a conventional slash would be a clearer option. This station is quite similar to the next two tube stations, with platforms on top of each other (northbound on the lower level), and the ceiling partly clad with corrugated iron panels, which makes it look a bit cheap:
Upper (southbound) platform at Can Tries | Gornal station
Unlike the deep-level stations on L9 Nord and L10, these stations have just two lifts to the mezzanine, and instead an excess of escalators, some 6-7 levels, with four sets of escalators, two up and two down, which makes for some 24+ escalators in each station! I wonder whether maintenance is cheaper compared to 4-6 lifts? In any case, it is certainly not faster to get to the surface. And this will also remain the line's major problem: you really need to travel a longer way to bother to get down so deep. So it was no surprise that this station was barely used, keeping in mind that most passengers would have to change to another line to get anywhere.
Torrassa would be one of those important interchanges, as L1 is the first metro line to take airport passengers into the city centre. Therefore I was quite surprised when I came from the airport myself on Sunday late evening that hardly anyone got off here (most people got off at Collblanc!), so I guess that airport passengers going to Gran Via and Plaça Catalunya continue to use the Aerobús which serves the same route. Like the previous station, Torrassa is far too deep and again you have to go all the way up to the mezzanine and then down again to the L1 platforms. Again my question: Why didn't anyone bother to build a cross-tunnel under the L1 tracks to provide a much more direct interchange route? While someone may say, it would be too costly and complicated to build such a tunnel, no-one could bring up such an argument for the inbound L1 direction as the huge round shaft for L9 was built beside it, so only a few metres of tunnel would have been needed.
Square created above Collblanc station, where several houses had to make way for the metro
After Torrassa, only the lower deck of the bi-level tunnel is used at the moment, apparently there is no other way to change from one level to the other to reverse. This somehow limits the headway provided, and will become more of a bottleneck when L10Sud also opens in the mid-term future. At Collblanc, an entire block of houses was demolished to make room for the construction shaft which now houses the multiple sets of escalators. The interchange situation here is just as unsatisfying as at Torrassa, again all the way up and then down again, although here quite a nice and large mezzanine was built. The problem both at Collblanc and Torrassa is that the old accesses to the L1 and L5 platforms, respectively, are much too narrow anyway, so a separation of transferring and exiting passengers would have helped to avoid congestion, as the respective stations on L1 and L5 are always rather busy.
Distribution level at Collblanc station
The following station, Camp Nou, named after the famous FC Barcelona football stadium, has not been finished yet as the shaft is required when construction on the following section finally is resumed.
Lower level at Zona Universitària, currently the only platform used
The last station, Zona Universitària, is slightly different from the previous tube stations. On platform level the wall has a different shape, though providing fewer seats, and then here, like on L9 Nord, several lifts (7-8) take passengers up to the mezzanine. The mezzanine itself is probably the most appealing design element of the whole line after Fira station, though again what struck me immediately is why is there no direct access to the inbound L3 platform from this mezzanine, which is almost at the same depth, so a gentle ramp down would have done the job. Instead, you need to go up like half a level to the old L3 mezzanine and from there down to the respective platforms.
Upper landing of multiple lifts at Zona Universitària
Connection between L9 mezzanine and L3 station
So, considering that the line is extremely deep, which already is quite inconvenient, all five transfer options are unsatisfactory; and considering that the line acts as a tangential route within Barcelona and L'Hospitalet, most passengers will require a transfer. Therefore I wonder whether in the future people will accept these facts and use it like any other line - Barcelona's metro lines are usually very well patronised! But one week after opening it was more of a ghost train.
Technically it is state-of-the art, nothing much to criticise, the trains run smoothly, the track is laid well, the overall impression of the stations is good. I also like the Metropolis trains, except for the fact that as a tall person it is difficult to look out the front window, which is much too small (in this respect Ansaldo's Copenhagen metro is much better).
Just one more thing which will hopefully have been changed by the time I come back to Barcelona, that's the silly continuous acoustic announcements in three languages, not to provide a better service, but just for the sake of it. During my Barcelona years the language issue was handled more reasonably, important announcements were made in Catalan and Spanish, but if Catalan was easy to understand, the Spanish version was omitted. Another approach was to use different words where possible to show some variety, like "propera estació | próxima estación", but now TMB chooses the same words on purposes, and thus, deliberately or not, tells any Spanish-speaking person, you are too stupid to understand Catalan, so we repeat it for you, resulting in announcements like "pròxima estació | próxima estación | next station: Fira" or "tren direcció a | tren dirección a | train to: Zona Universitària", and never heard on any metro train in Barcelona (and hardly anywhere else) "para a totes les estacions | para en todas las estaciones | stopping at all stations" - funnily, interchange options are ONLY announced in Catalan "enllaç amb línia L8 i altres línies d'FGC". On the other hand, as mentioned above, foreign tourists, and most Spanish visitors either, will not understand what "Terminal U" is (interestingly, when you press a button inside one of the lift, e.g. at Torrassa, they tell you the platform with the final station name also translated, something like "Platform to Airport Terminal One"). Similarly, international places like "Fira" may also deserve a translation, maybe in the form of a subtitle like "Fira (Exhibition Center)". So somebody should dedicate some time to improving these announcements, and reduce them to a minimum as it does get very annoying if something is announced all the time. Actually a simple signal sound plus the station name would do the job.
Badly used information screen: no need to abbreviate Z. Universitària, and overall much too small fonts with a huge white area left!
Also visual announcements are rather poor. When you get to the platform, they are often hard to see, and once you have found them, they are actually too small to read. This is quite strange as most of the screen's surface is left in blank, unused, so bigger letters would not be a problem at all. And the screens should be placed in a position where people automatically see them when coming down the escalators.
New terminus for line S1 at Terrassa Nacions Unides
Mezzanine at Vallparadís Universitat
While I'm still in the area, I took FGC line S1 to Terrassa today to see the three underground stations which were opened on 29 July 2015, shortly after my last visit. All three stations boast a typical early 2000s style with just stainless steel and glass finishings, with some colour panels in the mezzanines. So all three are quite o.k., though nothing exciting either. At Terrassa Estació del Nord, a subterranean passage links the metro and railway stations, so you don't need to cross the street which separates them. Vallparadís Universitat is quite peculiar as it lies next to a deep gorge, with one exit directly from mezzanine level to a park, while lifts take most passengers to the upper street level (well, if you feel sporty you can climb the stairs from the park exit, too).
Access to Rodalies station directly from metro mezzanine level at Terrassa Estació del Nord
I guess that the forthcoming stations in nearby Sabadell on S2 will be similar. They may open in 2017, but who knows, as they were once supposed to open some years ago. The same uncertainty is true for L10 Sud, which may open with some stations and a restricted shuttle service in a year or two, as at least one track is already in operation to access the depot at the end of the line in Zona Franca. But although the locals along Passeig de la Zona Franca are demanding the completion of the L10 leg, I wonder whether they will use it then, as again it will have the same transfer problems as L9 to get anywhere. So they should really push the ever deferred L2 extension ahead, which would significantly improve access into the city centre both from L10 and L9.
TMB (L9 operator)
Barcelona Metro at UrbanRail.Net (feat. special L9 Sud Gallery)