Friday, 4 January 2013


While staying in Alicante, I took a day trip to Murcia, only an hour and a half on an old diesel train they painted in Cercanías colours... (there are also several long-distance and regional services linking the two cities).


Murcia started some years ago with a short trial line, which was then extended into a full-length tram line that links the northern districts to the city centre. The line has the feel of a typical new French tram system, including the Alstom Citadis trams purchased from the excessive Madrid fleet and now repainted in a light but strong green. Also the stops feature the same colour which makes them very visible on the streets. The tram runs every 10 minutes, which is high-frequency when compared to Alicante. The mostly single-track branch to UCAM-Jerónimos is served only every 20 minutes (it is partly prepared for a second track in case the area around the immediate stops gets developed, the road layout for which can already be distinguished). As I was there during holiday season, and the northern end of the western leg loops around the University campus, deserted during my visit, I cannot tell how busy the line gets with students on normal lecture days. The rest was fairly busy, especially on the eastern leg, as close to the northeastern terminus Estadio Nueva Condomina there is probably one of Southern Spain's largest shopping malls.


The problem with Murcia's tram line is that it doesn't really penetrate into the city centre, but its most central stop, Plaza Circular, is at the northern fringes of the central area and almost a 30-minute walk from the railway station which lies on the southern side.


Like in Alicante, there is no railfan-friendly ticket, instead individual tickets have to be purchased each time before boarding, either a 1,05 EUR zone 1 ticket for the stops closer to the centre, or 1.40 EUR for both zones. For trips only in the outer zone, also 1.40 EUR are payable! 14 trips are available at 10 EUR for more intensive exploration. It seems that there are no combined tickets for tram and buses!


I've spent the last days of the year 2012 in Alicante, a city I hadn't been to since the early 1980s, so as far as urban rail is concerned it was a first-time visit anyway, as my interest in this form of transport was not as developed back then and also, Alicante didn't have any urban rail system in those days. After almost a week here, I have to say that Alicante is not really among my favourite Spanish cities, but it has fantastic beaches nearby, some of which are also easily accessible by tram/train. Unfortunately there are no tourist or railfan-friendly day passes, so you need to buy a new tickets for each ride (you're not even supposed to get off and jump on the next one after taking a photo...). But fares are rather cheap for European standards, 1.40 for a single ride in zone A which takes in all L3 and L4, with a 10-ride ticket even cheaper. A same-day return to Benidorm is 6.15. Although officially a bilingual city like the entire Comunitat Valenciana, station names within Alicante city are predominately shown in Spanish only, whereas in other parts they may also be in Valencian (Catalan). Renfe, the national rail operator, along with ADIF, the rail infrastructure company, however, now use 'Alacant' for their station.


The present urban rail system is still rather undeveloped, and it is actually a border case, not sure whether it is really urban, although lines L3 and L4 connect outlying parts of Alicante city and El Campello, which is part of the continuously built-up area, with the city centre. Those areas are separated from the city proper by the Serra Grossa mountain. The 30-minute headway on these two lines doesn't make them too attractive, and at least the area of Playa San Juan served by L4 is also accessible by bus, probably more frequently and faster. The system is complemented by L1, which is more of an interurban tram-train that also runs every 30 minutes to reach Benidorm, 45 km northeast on a very scenic coastal trip. At Benidorm, a diesel train continues hourly as L9 to Dénia, also a very panoramic journey. L1 does not stop at all stops on the inner section which are served by the local L3 instead. The stops most frequently served are La Isleta and Lucentum with six trams an hour. The L1/L3 runs directly along the beach between Costa Blanca and Les Llances stops, so that's a good area for photos and for swimming, too. And then there is still line 4L, a shuttle connecting the main route at Sangueta (located in the middle of nowhere) to Puerta del Mar, right by the harbour promenade. This shuttle also operates every 30 minutes and despite its number links with L1 trains, not L4. It is barely used and will therefore be discontinued soon. A typical case for Alicante's bad planning! Despite the single-track line between Sangueta and Puerta del Mar it would no doubt be possible to operate this shuttle every 15 minutes, even without a second tram, and this would make it much more attractive for local rides, but a wait of 20 minutes or so to connect with L4 is a bit too much! Also, the intermediate stop La Marina, the old railway's original terminus, is not accessible from the beach promenade.

While the initial idea to convert an old narrow-gauge coastal railway into a tram-train was quite good, and L1 seems to be pretty busy (despite the location of Benidorm station far away from the beaches and a rather exhausting climb up the hill from the town centre!), anything else seems to lack a proper public transport concept. Although there are shared tickets between TRAM and buses, the two don't really appear to be integrated properly. If you happen to see a bus map somewhere, it doesn't even show the underground TRAM stops. Building a route underground through the city centre was possibly based rather on 1960s concepts to reserve the surface for vehicle traffic and an excuse to build large underground car parks along with the two underground stations in the centre, Luceros and Mercado. In my opinion, a surface route would have been enough here and it would have helped to actually bring the tram into people's mind, make it visible. But they keep it well hidden, as the entrances to those important stations don't even have a logo to show their location. Until you actually stand in front of them, you don't see them and in two cases at Luceros, you are never quite sure, whether this is an access to the car park or to the station! When you stand in front of the market hall, you can't really see the underground station, as it is one block up and has no signs indicating its existence, just your intuition or the help of a local. Metro logos are not only good for passengers, but also a useful point of orientation for car drivers or pedestrians, therefore in some cities they are actually hung over the road intersection to be visible from some distance. There is a nice logo pole at Puerta del Mar, so why don't they put them also at the other stations, even the surface ones?


When I first entered Luceros station, I wasn't quite sure whether this wasn't the car park anyway, as the vestibule features a no-design design, bare plastered walls painted in a vague beige/grey lead your way to a large mezzanine ready to take large amounts of passengers but always quite deserted when I was there. Once you get down to the platform it is a pleasant large and well-lit space with an island platform, with trains reversing in the cul-de-sac already built beyond the station in provision for an extension to the railway station. This extension will probably take many more years as it has to be done together with the new railway station, which is being built in stages, and as they are currently even delayed with building temporary platforms there to bring high-speed trains to Alicante in 2014 or so, it will take at least 5-10 years until the entire station complex is finished, if it is ever finished.
Mercado station lies even deeper than Luceros, and despite its black walls in the mezzanine and platform level has an interesting feel. There is just one thing which I simply cannot understand: if this is the station which serves large parts of the city centre including the Old Town, why did it not deserve escaltors from the mezzanine to street level? Instead the stairs are actually rather steep to climb. Luceros, however, has up and down escalators at two of the four entrances. The third underground station, MARQ is a bit east of the city centre and features a big hole at its eastern access so daylight falls into the station while the western exit requires three flights of escalators to reach the surface. Right after MARQ trains come to the surface and climb onto a viaduct that spans over a large roundabout. This is followed by a grade-separated junction where L2 will diverge (see below).

When the old line was first electrified in 2003, it ran single-track from Puerta del Mar to La Isleta. With the first new section into the city centre, about half the section between Sangueta and La Isleta became double-track, but now with three lines operating every 30 minutes in each direction, this has become a major bottleneck. Instead of doubling only the single-track section with a new tunnel under the Serra Grossa mountain nearby, they chose to build a longer double-track tunnel which will hopefully be completed soon, as digging seems to be finished, but no funds are available to lay the tracks. And given the current financial constraints, it is not quite sure whether there will be more trams once it is operational. My innocent mind makes me wonder anyway, why they didn't dig a tunnel from La Goteta on L2 towards La Isleta?? Probably because it would make the lack of long-term planning even more evident... The original route had nice views, but with most now in tunnels anyway, this advantage is gone, too.

All the surface stops are well-equipped, with maps, almost too huge timetables and electronic next-train indicators (showing the time of predicted departure rather than the minutes remaining). From what I have observed, punctuality was quite good.


L2 has probably become the most ridiculous public transport issue in Spain. There are other tough cases, like the now-closed tram in a small town called Vélez-Málaga, the still not opened tram in Jaén or the hardly useful 'metro' in Palma de Mallorca. Like Valencia, Alicante lies in the Comunitat Valenciana, one of Spain's autonomous regions. The regional government is responsible for the construction of metros and trams, and so far, both in Valencia and Alicante, the region-owned company FGV also operates them. Probably because of the many strikes they have at FGV (I also caught some over Christmas!) they wanted to find a private operator for L2, but thought that this would be for cheap. So they couldn't find one! Not even the typical ones like Transdev, Keolis and the likes that participate in all European tenders. So the line is fully built like a modern French tram line, even traffic lights seem to be switched on, trams have done their test runs, but still after two years of completion, it is not in service. This is a real SHAME! How incompetent can a government be! If they received a single eurocent from EU sources to build it, the politicians themselves should be forced to pay all the money back from their private pockets! And L2 would finally make the system worthwhile as it runs through densely populated areas and serves the University too! FGV says they could start service immediately if they were told to do so.

But even when L2 is finally in service, many parts of the city will still lack tram service, notably the western areas. The first proposal that comes to my mind is to extend the soon-to-be-closed branch to Puerta del Mar along the esplanade around the central city to the railway station, where it would intersect with the trunk route and what they call Cercanías. Instead of continuing with an underground route further west as had been proposed, I would bring the trams back to the surface and create several branches. It has been suggested to extend L1 all the way to the airport and possible even to Elche, so this would create a 100 km long regional tram-train route. But unless the country recovers quickly from this financial bottleneck and more capable politicians come into power, we will hardly see much progress in Alicante in the next decade, I'm afraid.

Besides urban rail, a lot of money has also been invested in recent years in this part of Spain in new railway and road infrastructure. I'm not anti-motorway, but from what I could observe driving around the region of Alicante for three days, a lot of money was wasted in dual-carriageways to rather small towns and an excessive number of roundabouts where besides the main road the only exits show 'camí' (camino = farmer's access to fields...). Like with the urban railways, all these motorway-like roads seem to lack an overall concept resulting in a badly-signed labyrinth of roads with confusing road numbers (I reported a few errors even to Google Maps), but that's a different story.

The high-speed rail line from Madrid (which is in service as far as Albacete) is almost completed all the way to Alicante, but the city's terminus is not. The branch to Murcia, which diverges some 15 km before Alicante is also mostly built and roughly follows the old railway line, just like a link between Valencia and Alicante. In these two cases I thought that it would easily have been enough to finally upgrade the old lines. It seems that through the wealthy early 2000s (or presumably wealthy) Spain always went for the big solution, while prior to that and until now nothing much has been done to keep the old lines in good shape. In the case of Alicante, it has never occured to anyone, it seems, to build a short curve of 1-2 km at San Gabriel, where trains that run from Alicante to Murcia have to reverse. While this is probably not so bad for local trains which have a station stop there anyway, long-distance trains like the Talgo from Montpelier to Cartagena thus reverse once at Alicante Terminal station and a few minutes later again at San Gabriel. I wonder if someone remembers what they did in the old days, when the old Murcia terminal in Alicante was still open and many more trains went from Valencia towards Andalusia along this route? I also wonder whether this is the only case in Europe where a long-distance train needs to change direction without actually serving a station?


Although I frequently visit Spain, I had not been back to Valencia since the year 2000 when I was preparing my first book 'Metros in Spain'. With the metro construction boom having spread from Madrid to other Spanish cities during the early 2000s, there was enough to catch up with since my last visit.


Although the Metro is operated by FGV and the local buses by EMT, there are also good ticket options for tourists that allow unlimited rides in zones A and B (including the airport which otherwise requires a special fare!). Zone B reaches Torrent and Rafelbunyol, and large parts of the northern L1 branches. These tourist cards are only sold at tourist offices and the likes, for 1, 2 or 3 days (I had a 3-day, i.e. 72-hour ticket for 25 EUR, which includes the typical discounts in museums etc.). There is also a normal daypass for transport only, but just for zone A, which covers Valencia city and the closest municipalities like Mislata, Burjassot and Alboraya.

The problem with the Valencia network is that it is not a system planned from scratch but rather the result of many often short-sighted decisions, although what has been created since the mid-1980s is quite considerable and useful, but not ideal. But this is true for many cities in the world.

Line 1 still has the disadvantage that it somehow misses the city centre. The north-south route was built in the 1980s to connect to previously existing regional narrow-gauge lines to create a cross-city line. While this was a very good idea, it is difficult to understand, why it wasn't built via Estació del Nord (Xàtiva metro station), which is located near the City Hall and not too far from the main shopping area (Colón metro station). Maybe Renfe didn't allow them to enter their terrain, although later a tunnel was built to connect this first underground route with the new east-west route, a tunnel via Bailén that does run beneath Renfe (now ADIF) terrain. So passengers who wish to take Line 1 need to walk a bit more. The problem was later partly solved by using the abovementioned linking tunnel, designed only as a service tunnel, by regular trains to Torrent (L5 southern leg). Originally Line 1 was labelled as lines 1 & 2, a separate number for each of the northern branches. No idea, why this was discontinued, as service patterns are quite regular as far as the southern termini are concerned (I can't remember now which is which, would have to look into a timetable), so two numbers would actually help and not mess up the overall network structure.

The east-west line (L3/L5) was added in the 1990s, first by bringing the old Rafelbunyol line underground into the city centre, later by extending it west and adding a new branch in the east. The designations L3 and L5, the latter with two western branches, one of which is shared with L3 and the other with L1, is a bit confusing, so for the Torrent – Marítim-Serrería service a separate line number would be justified to clear things up. On the other hand, the line numbers are purely theoretical as neither the next-train indicators nor the annoucements on trains actually use them, they use just the destination. So it appears that they don't really believe in their line numbers either. Imagine the case that you want to tell someone how to get from the airport to your home in the east of the city: is it easier to say 'Take a train that says Marítim-Serrería' or 'take an L5 train' (easily translatable into any language)?? There is no accoustic warning on the train at Alameda, Colón or Empalme like 'This train goes to Marítim-Serrería. Change here for Rafelbunyol.' With Colón and Xàtiva, L3 has two stations in the city centre proper.


Lines L1, L3 and L5 are no full-scale metro lines, although the service in the city centre is similar to one, but once outside the tunnels, there are a few level crossings, although many have been eliminated in recent years, and most of those remaining are next to stations. The overall feel is thus similar to the Stadtbahn systems of Frankfurt or Hannover. All three lines run every 15 minutes on urban stretches, with double the frequency during peak hours. From Marítim-Serrería, L5 runs alternatingly to Aeroport and Torrent. The outer stretches on L1 are single-track and only served every 30 minutes, the section south of Torrent every 45 minutes. L3 is also single-track beyond Alboraya-Peris Aragó, but has passing loops at almost all stops.


Line 4 is also the result of the 1980s rebuilding of the old rail infrastructure. It runs basically along old narrow-gauge routes which were converted into a tram line and thus made much more urban. The line was later extended northeast to serve new neighbourhoods and is pretty busy running every 10 minutes. While good as a northern tangential line, L4 pretends to go to the centre but stops short of it by several hundreds of metres, too (700 m to the Cathedral). Strangely, the sort of loop it takes to reach the former railway station Pont de Fusta was built fully double-track (i.e. actually 4-track) when a single-track real loop would just have done the same job. The actual tram stop is about 100 m north of the old station and westbound trams first take the long loop near the old station building before actually reaching the tram stop (with some traffic lights on the way...). A much more ideal solution (and still recommendable today) would be to add a single-track loop across the old river bed with a stop next to Torres de Serrano (where L2 is supposed to get a deep-level underground station).

The short tram line also labelled L5 between Marítim-Serrería and Neptú is another product of accidental planning. As high-level surface platforms were rejected in this part of Valencia, the line was split into a high-floor light rail line L5 and a low-floor tram line L5, another very unconventional and confusing way of naming lines! Apart from that, I did not understand why the terminus Neptú was built about 300 m short of where it should end, and that's near the beach. Public transport users therefore have to walk through an empty area used as a car park to get to the beach promenade! Yet another accidental line is L6. Its northern part was to become the northern section of the planned north-south line L2, for which a tram tunnel is to be built through the heart of the Old Town, but as construction was halted due to the lack of funds, L6 was established to give the finished section some sense. It's probably useful for people from those areas wishing to go to the Politechnical University or to the beach, but to get to the city centre, a bus will be much quicker. There are proposals to extend L6 one day into a circular line.


The abovementioned L2 is mostly finished, tough without catenary, on its southern surface section. The underground section from Alacant (future railway station) was started but no construction is taking place nowadays. Also the deep-level station at Mercat Central in the heart of the city seems to be built as a shell (and with an underground car park above it, of course, what else?....), but the tube tunnel to link the northern and the southern sections has not been started yet. In the current financial situation it is also unclear whether the new railway station along with a north-south railway tunnel will ever be built or whether the temporary high-speed rail station called 'Valencia Joaquín Sorolla' will become permanent. This station is about halfway between (ex-Jesús) J. Sorolla (L1/L5) and Bailén (L5) stations, some 600 m south of the old and still in use Estació del Nord. In the final layout, Bailén (L5) and Alacant (L2) would be connected via the new railway station, which would be located between the present two railway stations, under and integrated into the Parc Central.

The Valencia metro stations mostly have pleasant designs, the older ones on L1 are quite uniform except for a different colour along the tiled ribbon along the lower part of the walls, but compared to my last visit, when they appeared rather dim, they now feature improved lighting and new signage which makes them much more pleasant. Depending on each stage of expansion, the underground stations on L3/L5 feature special designs, the most outstanding being Alameda (by Santiago Calatrava, once a Valencia hero, now critised for moving to Switzerland for tax reasons!) and Avinguda del Cid. The later built stations on the eastern L5 are rather uniform with white panelling, while the stations on the western extension towards the airport feature a typical modern design with mostly stainless steel and glass (in fact I was positively surprised as the plans for this extension were modified so often, from fully surface to fully underground!). The newest underground stations, those on a section put underground in 2011 in Benimàmet, are very nice with decorated glass panels covering the cut-and-cover walls, stylish furniture, and with similar entrance pavillons on the surface – good examples that pleasant stations don't need to be expensive.


The fact that the airport extension was a bit improvised can also be seen in the location of the current airport terminus which is a 2-track stub that did not really allow a further extension. Therefore L5 will diverge just past Rosas station and continue on the surface, mostly single-track to Riba-roja: like the section between Faitanar and Rosas, this section follows the old Renfe line. It was rebuilt for the Metro, is about 95% finished, but as the Valencian regional government didn't pay its bills, the construction companies left, which shows how serious and hopeless the situation is in Valencia. This city and region really deserves better, but in the end they voted for those incompetent politicians.

Punctuality is similar to that provided by Renfe, i.e. they to allow extra time to get to the station. The next-train indicators, which show the estimated time of departure rather than the minutes remaining, usually update their times only a few minutes before the train arrives, which is a bit strange, when the main objective of such a system is to calculate the time from the current position of the train, but here I had the impression that the scheduled time is shown until the train is some 2-3 stations before the station in question and only then the delay is added to the announced time, resulting in permanent frustration of waiting passengers.

Valencia is officially a bilingual city, with Spanish and Valencian (Catalan), but the use of each language on the metro is not very clear, not even within Valencia city itself (although most are in Valencian), and less so in municipalities in the outskirts. And what's worse, in many cases even place names are simply spelt wrongly, although there are quite clear rules in both languages on where accents have to be written, they are often omitted or wrong, for example all signs inside the new Benimàmet station lack the compulsary à, the same is true on many signs at Àngel Guimerà (the last à missing). 'Marítim-Serrería' is a bit confusing to me, as the first is clearly Catalan spelling, while the second part is Spanish with the accent! But this reflects the general mix of languages in Valencia without clear guidelines like those found in Barcelona, and probably for most local people this is not a major issue. But a company like FGV should have a language consultant!


I used to live in Barcelona from 1989 to 2001, so I know its metro and other urban rail systems pretty well from everyday experience, which sometimes makes it more difficult to describe one's overall impression of the system. Since I moved to Berlin in 2001, I have been back in Barcelona regularly almost every year, so in this blog I will just describe my impressions on recent developments.


Although already in service since July 2010, I only got a chance to see the three new stations on L5 on my December 2012 visit. This extension was delayed by a couple of years due to a severe accident during construction in the Carmel area, where some houses collapsed and left a crater in the hilly area. All three stations are extremely deep for Barcelona standards, mostly due to the hilly terrain the line runs through. At El Carmel and most notably at El Coll-La Teixonera, the various entrances are rather difficult to find if you are not too familiar with the area. Long pedestrian tunnels lead into the mountain to a vestibule above the station proper. At the terminus Vall d'Hebron, next to one of Barcelona's largest hospital complexes, the line remains rather deep, probably because between the last two stations, to remain underground, the line actually passes beneath a valley, the name-giving Hebron Valley. So to change from L5 to L3, there are endless flights of escalators, too, and taking the lifts may be much faster.

Another new underground station I visited for the first time was ADIF's Sagrera-Meridiana Cercanías/Rodalies station. Located between metro lines L1 and L5, this has created a major hub with a large mezzanine to change from one line to the other, whereas previously there was only a narrow and always packed corridor to interchange between L1 and L5. The ADIF Cercanías station is rather plain, though, but then most other Rodalies stations in Barcelona are not too pleasant either. The current terminus for L9/L10 is located at the northern end of the station cluster, so people from L1 or Rodalies actually have to walk via the L5 platform. Both on L1 and L5, the former so-called "Spanish" 3-platform solution had been rebuilt into a normal island platform. Some 3-platform stations remain still on L1, though.

Many other stations have been refurbished in recent years, and in most cases in a much more friendly way with enamelled panelling and shiny granite floors rather than the cheap panelling used in the 1990s in stations like Urquinaona or Fontana. On the FGC network, Gràcia station is still undergoing expansion. It used to have rather narrow platforms, so the entire station box was widened on the eastern side so that the outbound island platform could be widened, too. Currently access in the outbound direction is via a temporary (?) entrance on the south side. 

The sad story in Barcelona is of course the middle part of L9/L10 which is currently mothballed and waiting for better times. Instead, the southern legs to the Airport (L9) and Zona Franca (L10) ought to be completed in the next years.



Barcelona at UrbanRail.Net

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