Monday, 5 May 2014

WIEN (Vienna) U-Bahn & Tram

I had been to Vienna on several occasions to explore its excellent public transport system, but I wanted to go back in preparation for the new edition of my 'Tram Atlas Schweiz & Österreich' to check the latest extensions and see how new projects are progressing. So I stopped there for a couple of days (7-10 April 2014).

I actually wanted to visit Vienna last October to see the last U2 extension from Aspernstraße to Seestadt right after its opening, but for some reasons I had to postpone my trip, then I preferred to wait for spring when the weather would be nicer, and it was. This extension was much criticised as it runs virtually through nowhere. There is a project to create a new neighbourhood on what was previously an airfield, but that redevelopment scheme is advancing slower than planned, and so the U-Bahn mostly serves construction workers, I suppose. At Hausfeldstraße, people can transfer to the also extended tram line 26, but at Aspern Nord hardly anyone is visible in the station, although some buses terminate there. The route is mostly elevated, although just east of Hausfeldstraße it is actually at grade for a few hundred metres. The stations are in the style of those on the previous extension to Aspernstraße, which means they are o.k., but nothing exciting. As opposed to line U1, an architecture contest was held for the surface U2 stations, but the result could have been more interesting, as we basically get square boxes without much decoration, and unlike the other lines, also the purple line colour is not as present. But being elevated, the line provides nice views, especially between Donaumarina and Donaustadtbrücke as it crosses the Danube River. From a photographic point-of-view the elevated section is not a perfect shot as the viaduct is flanked by sound-absorbing walls which cover at least half the train. For neighbours along the line, this is, of course, good as you can hardly hear the trains roll by. Let's hope that in the near future, all construction projects in the area will get done so that also this extension gets the ridership it deserves.

Caption should say 'southern side of the station'-Sorry!

Maybe inspired by the criticism received for the eastern U2 (or northern as they say), the city government has recently cancelled or at least postponed the line's southern extension which was planned and even funded to run from Karlsplatz to Gudrunstraße, also serving some new developments which may get finished later than expected. Instead, the money is to be transferred to the long-planned but never realised U5, or at least its first stage, together with a new extension for U2. The plan is to split the present U2 at Rathaus, transfer the original section which was once an underground tram to the new U5 from Karlsplatz to Rathaus and build a new section north towards Altes AKH, now a university campus. Later U5 would head northeast to Hernals. In return, line U2 would get a southwestern route from Rathaus via Neubaugasse (U3), Pilgrimgasse (U4) to Matzleinsdorfer Platz, a major hub with S-Bahn and trams. In a later stage it could continue to Wienerberg, an area with some high-rise office buildings.

Although, like Munich, Vienna had long stuck to its initial metro project which it gradually developed over various decades without many modifications being added along the way, this is now the second major change in such a project. The first was only a few years ago, when the current U1 south extension was modified, when construction had already started. But the change only affects the surface section which was started later anyway. The initial idea was a rather straight route towards the south to Rothneusiedl, where a new football stadium was planned. But as this project was cancelled, an U-Bahn extension wasn't justified either, at least not now, so instead of just shortening the extension, the city decided to bend the route towards the east to Oberlaa, basically replacing the former tram 67 (which was curtailed at Alaudagasse in March 2014 so that construction for the U-Bahn can begin). A branch to Rothneusiedl is an option for the future. Any tram closure in favour of the U-Bahn is, of course, always met with criticism from some people, but in the end, residents in the area will be happy to get a through and fast ride into the city centre instead of having to change from tram to U-Bahn, as they used to do at Reumannplatz, as line 67 has always been just a metro feeder line, and will continue to be one on its western leg. From the beginning of the U1 extension project there has been talk about a new tram 67 route further east via Laaerberg, but the future will show whether this route gets classified with the necessary priority, as other tram extensions are also on the wish list.
With the new U5, a busy corridor will be served by the U-Bahn, and it will certainly speed up journeys on the western tram lines, some of which may then, of course, disappear or be diverted not to double the new U-Bahn line.

Generally what I like about the Vienna U-Bahn is its speediness. Trains seem to accelerate much more than any such system in Germany, and station dwelling time is rather short, too. After having introduced a Berlin-style 'Zurückbleiben, bitte!' only a few years ago, trains now simply have an accoustic signal that doors are closing and off they go (some of the German systems – even the driverless metro in Nuremberg! – have now also understood that this is less dangerous than a stupid long announcement ignored by everyone). The headways are quite good, too, and despite a standard station design, each line has its own character. Normally I prefer individual station designs, but I think that Vienna's original design is still nice today, sort of timeless. This is most visible on line U1, which had seen various extensions but maintained its original design, though slightly modified, and the new stations on the Leopoldau extension still look modern with their 1970s design. U4 and U6, with their old Stadtbahn heritage, have some architectural treasures, especially with their entrance pavillions or buildings designed by Otto Wagner. Line U3, besides U1 the only one built from scratch as an U-Bahn line, has a less appealing basic design, but many of its stations are enhanced with artwork, mostly notably Volkstheater with its gigantic wall mosaic. One thing, however, I don't like about the basic approach in Vienna is the dark wall behind the track. The architects tried to intentionally separate the illuminated space of the platform from the technical side, but now we know from many other cities, like the refurbished stations on line M2 in Budapest, that clad walls behind the tracks improve the overall appearance of a station enormously, whereas with just a few advert boards, the uncovered walls, mostly painted black, produce a rather filthy atmosphere. So Wiener Linien's responsible should go on a day trip to Budapest to see the difference (which is also apparent there between lines M2 and M3!).

Talking about refurbishment, all the underground tram stops along the Gürtel have recently been refurbished. Generally this was a good approach, the stations look much friendlier now, but I heard some people criticise that the walls, now covered in small mosaic tiles which from top to bottom go from white to black, look dirty this way, because these people perceive the black part as dirt. I, personally, did not have that impression, but I can understand their point. My criticism would rather be why they didn't choose a different colour scheme for each station, an approach made by many metro systems, as this helps passengers to identify their station without looking for a name sign. 

One station is and has always been different, the one at Südtiroler Platz, now Hauptbahnhof, only served by line 18. And I was sad seeing it completely refurbished. Having opened in 1958, it was different from those built later. And I think I was not the only one who loved its 1950s design. Its new design is not bad, it blends in with the overall design of the new railway station complex, but I think they should have left some features of its original look, especially the ceiling, however, just the wall mosaic was rescued and placed on a different wall, though well visible.

And talking about name signs, a very confusing issue in Vienna! Several stations use a double name, like Schottentor-Universität or Messe-Prater, but this is not shown like this on station signs, instead each sign only shows one part of the combined name alternatingly, but too far from each other to perceive it as a combined name. So you may look for a sign saying Schottentor, but all you can see is Universität which may lead to some confusion, especially for visitors. The respective tram hub, however, which is geographically actually closer to the university, is just called Schottentor. So, if the station is called Messe-Prater, then all signs should say 'Messe-Prater' (most of these illuminated signs are big enough to include the full name!).

Is this station called Südtiroler Platz or Hauptbahnhof as the next photo would suggest?

Although I didn't like them so much in the beginning, I now enjoy riding the new U-Bahn rolling stock (V stock). Just like their brothers in Oslo, Siemens delivered a good train, and I don't understand why they now offer that crappy Inspiro (probably it's cheaper and thus more affordable for not so wealthy cities). I'm not a fan of the red plastic seats, but they are o.k. Like in Munich, the new trains look especially modern compared to the older stock, which although partly refurbished, looks quite dated now. On line U6 (which some would argue is not a real metro, but for me it fulfills all criteria) the low-floor trains are nice, but a bit loud as you can hear the wheelsets too much. It is always amazing how many passengers this line carries being a tangential line, and one of the reasons given for the decision to build line U5 is to relieve U6 in the area of the AKH, Vienna's largest hospital complex. Unfortunately all the cables and wires necessary to operate this line were placed between the tracks, thus acting as a barrier to prevent people from crossing the tracks, but for train-spotters they prevent us from taking a good shot of the station with a train on the other side. So the best locations for train photos are the surface stations on the southern section, especially Alterlaa where every other train terminates during off-peak times.


Despite many line closures, often to be replaced by the U-Bahn, and despite all complaints from tram enthusiasts, Vienna still ranks among the Top 5 worldwide when it comes to tram network length (after Melbourne, Berlin, St. Petersburg and Moscow, although the latter two cannot be confirmed). And together with the latest U2 extension also the tram network was expanded in the eastern district of Donaustadt, thus giving frustrated tram fans hope for future development, which is likely to happen. Being such a big and old system it is certainly not comparable to a modern French tramway. New sections are mostly built on a dedicated right-of-way, but not necessarily as unlike in Germany funding is also available for street-running sections. Generally, the share of street-running sections is rather high, and so is the share of stops with street-level boarding. Wiener Linien together with Siemens developed ULF, the ultra-low-floor tram with the lowest floor height worldwide, some 19 cm, of which there are now some 300 vehicles, short ones and long ones (35 m). This is compensated by very dense headways, most lines operating every 7-8 minutes. Like the U-Bahn, also trams accelerate fast, and you'd better hold on to a pole on an ULF! From a passenger's point-of-view, I'm not a big fan, I don't like the sections between the modules, and in fact, Siemens did not sell this tram to any other city but Vienna, just a few to Oradea in Romania. As maintenance of these cars is also too expensive, Wiener Linien finally decided to launch a new tendering process to replace the still numerous high-floor trams. So while at many stops boarding is still from street level, several stops now have raised road lanes that act as platforms to allow level boarding. The new line 26 to Hausfeldstraße features full modern tram platforms, of course. On the long viaduct, which takes the tram across a railway and a motorway, there is an elevated station. Apparently it was not allowed or desired to have passengers cross the tracks on this signalled section in case one of the lifts wouldn't work, so an island platform was built and to allow the single-ended trams to open their doors, they need to switch sides on the ramp to that viaduct, similar to what is done in the tram tunnel in Zurich. This is Vienna's first elevated tram stop since the tram viaduct to Alterlaa had been rebuilt for line U6. 

A weak point of Vienna's tram system is the fact that many lines are radial, i.e. all lines coming into the city centre from the western suburbs, except line 2, terminate at the Ring, which forces people to transfer to other lines. Given the long sections of street-running which is likely to produce delays, Wiener Linien prefers to operate short lines instead of long through lines, hence the elevated number of lines, when several of them could be combined to form cross-city lines. The forced transfer is partly compensated by short headways and convenient interchanges also with the U-Bahn system. The transfer spectacle is most visible at Schottentor where no less than five tram lines terminate in the underground loop known as 'Jonas-Reindl' and two more in the surface loop. Passengers can continue their journey on three passing tram lines (1-D-71) or on line U2, or walk into the city centre or take one of the minibuses.

I already mentioned the lack of warning annoucements on the U-Bahn, which I appreciate, but with the introduction of a new speaker they also introduced bad language, when they announce 'Umsteigen zu: 2, 49', for example. This hurts in my ears! What does it cost to say 'Umsteigen zu den Linien: 2, 49'?? Even a pre-recorded system should be able to do that. And even better would be 'Umsteigen zu den Straßenbahnlinien 2 und 49, sowie zu den Buslinen 14 A!' etc. We should not wonder why immigrants speak bad German if this is what they hear on the trains and trams!

As long as you travel within Vienna, the fare system is simple. The entire city is Kernzone of the VOR fare structure, which covers large parts of Niederösterreich (Lower Austria), too. A 24-hour tickets costs 7.10 €, and there are also 48-hour and 72-hour tickets. For frequent visitors to Vienna, there is a stripcard with 8 individial 24-hour tickets. For longer stays, a weekly pass may be an option. This can be bought from any machine, but curiously it is not a 7-day ticket but always runs from Monday to Sunday! Something I hadn't seen for a long time in any other city. But it may still be a good choice for your stay. It was for mine, but on Saturday and Sunday before, when I just needed to go to and from Meidling railway station, I had to buy single tickets. Like in Linz, things get very complicated if not impossible if you want to go on a day excursion outside Vienna and don't want to go just from A to B and back. There is no practical excursion ticket like a day pass for the entire area or for certain zones. So here they should really consider introducing some sort of attractive leisure ticket, easy to use like DB's Schönes-Wochend-Ticket or the different Ländertickets, with which you don't have to bother whether you have chosen the correct ticket. And in Germany these sort of tickets are not just popular with railway enthusiasts. A Munich-style XXL ticket might also be a good addition to the ticket offer.

Maps for the U-Bahn and S-Bahn (by locals mostly referred to as Schnellbahn) are available in one of the numerous Wiener Linien customer centres. But unfortunately there is no tram map. I think it is the only city in the western world with a tram system but with no proper tram map! Whereas in eastern countries it is often difficult to get hold of a printed map, at least they have them posted inside the trams, but Vienna's trams just show the line diagram with connections. If you want to find out where tram service is actually available you'll need to visit my website, buy my atlas or buy VOR's city map for 3 €. It is a nice map, but you have to fold it out fully to be able to read it. The complexity of the network and its length cannot be the reason why there is no tram map, because Berlin also has one, and not a bad one. The one in Melbourne, the world's largest tram system, is more of a simplified diagram which doesn't show all the stops. Vienna has also the only tram system with uncoloured lines, all lines are actually black (which may have been the reason why the underground stops were designed with a black & white colour scheme). A heritage from times gone by, a few lettered lines have survived in Vienna, namely D and O, whereas others disappeared a couple of years ago when the ring lines 1 and 2 were linked with radial routes. In my opinion, the two remaining lettered lines should be renamed to make them coherent with the rest of the network, but apparently along the north D there was much resistence as people identify with their D tram. There is, however, a new red logo outside these underground stations as well as at Gewerbepark Stadlau, the elevated stop on line 26. Some stops like at Kagraner Platz have a new logo for testing using the green H on a yellow circle which you can find at all tram and bus stops in Germany, but also in many Austrian cities.


Vienna at UrbanRail.Net

Friday, 2 May 2014


My Austrian tour in preparation of the new edition of my 'Tram Atlas Schweiz & Österreich' also took me to Linz for a few hours on 15 April 2014 to take some new photos, but there was nothing new to explore as I had visited this city in the summer of 2011, shortly after the extension to Doblerholz had opened.

With this extension, Linz now has a more spider-like network, whereas previously the system had consisted of a north-south trunk route with short branches. Still today, all three lines run along the same corridor through the city centre, which is an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time. The good thing is that all lines go directly into Landstraße, the main shopping street, the bad thing is that the journey through this pedestrianised street is rather slow and that there is no alternative route in case of disruptions. A second more easterly cross-city route has long been planned (even with long underground sections that I would consider a bit exaggerated for a city that size – about 200,000 inhabitants).

So while the journey through the city centre is slow, outer sections are almost always laid on a separate right-of-way with grass-covered track allowing higher speeds. I think all stops have proper platforms and all trams in service are low-floor (two generations of Bombardier's Cityrunner/Flexity Outlook). Like in Graz, the width of the vehicles is rather narrow, and trams do get packed frequently.

The tram tunnel under the railway station has now been in service for 10 years. The underground stop at Hauptbahnhof is well integrated into the railway station complex, one escalator (or lift, of course) brings passengers into the distribution level from where all rail platforms are accessible. The route then continues south serving another fully underground station at Unionkreuzung, followed by an open subsurface station at Herz-Jesu-Kirche. From there, the trams reach the surface via a ramp just north of one of the city's busiest crossroads at Bulgariplatz, where trams need to wait for their turn to cross. I cannot understand why the subsurface route was not extended beneath this crossroads to a ramp south of it, from where a dedicated right-of-way is available. If it was for the money, they could have built a ramp south of Unionkreuzung, a normal stop at Herz-Jesu-Kirche (saving the construction and maintenance of 4! lifts), and then a simple underpass under Bulgariplatz.

The line 3 extension which opened in 2011 includes another tunnel, which diverges just south of Hauptbahnhof station from the loop previously used by line 3 to reverse. This tunnel takes the trams quickly to Gaumberg and then to Harter Plateau, which actually lies in the neighbouring municipality of Leonding (although the centre of that town is a few km away). This tunnel was excavated by mining techniques, and I would have suggested to make it slightly longer to serve the area around Landesnervenklinik Wagner-Jauregg, a psychiatric hospital.

Linz has a very simple fare system, with vending machines basically offering only three types of tickets, Mini (short trip), Midi (single fare) and Maxi (24-hour ticket for 4 EUR). As of now, all tram and also all the trolleybus routes are covered by a Maxi ticket (things may change with the forthcoming line 3 extension to Traun).

But if you want to leave the central area of what is the OÖVV (Upper Austrian fare system), you may be lost. I have seen lots of websites by those transport agencies, but is one of the least useful to find out fares for more complicated journeys. Similar German systems offer an all-included day pass, so you don't have to worry anymore about fares, but OÖVV does not cater at all for daytrippers, it is all designed for commuters only. So here is a lot that needs to be improved. They just need to look around to see how other agencies do it and copy the positive things. It is no surprise then, that Upper Austria is now the only region in Austria that has made no effort to develop its regional rail system into an S-Bahn, a step all other regions have made, although in some cases it has just been a rebranding, but in almost all a very successful one. So all in all, Linz deserves a good mark (although I would prefer a dedicated website independent from other city services), while the rest of Upper Austria just gets a 'suficient'.


Linz Tram at UrbanRail.Net