Tuesday, 29 July 2014


Vitoria-Gasteiz, the least-known of the three Basque provincial capitals is actually the seat of the Basque government and parliament, so in recent years the city seems to have expanded enormously with new neighbourhoods to the north of the city centre, and a lot of new construction also to the east. These northern districts are served by the new tram, which at first sight seems to be a copy of the slightly older Bilbao system, but fortunately it features several improvements. Both systems are operated by Euskotren.

The CAF vehicles in Vitoria-Gasteiz are composed of 5 modules as opposed to just three in Bilbao, and the floor is 100% low-floor whereas in Bilbao the section next to the driver's cabin is raised. A real improvement is the next-tram indicator mounted on top of one of the shelters, so it is visible from the distance. The network is actually made of two lines, although these are not numbered. As the indicator is only able to display one number, it alternates: minutes for city-bound trams are shown in red plus a single dot (for those who cannot see colours properly), two dots and green is for trams to Ibaiondo, while three dots and white numbers annouce trams to Abetxuko. This peculiar system is properly explained at each stop:

Unfortunately trams run only every 15 minutes on each branch, thus every 7.5 minutes on the shared stretch, and they were reasonably busy during my Monday visit. The routes are almost completely on a separate right-of-way along wide avenues, except for the single-track section through the old part of Abetxuko, and a section through the city centre between Parlamento and the terminus (there should actually be another stop on this section!), where cars and buses share the same lanes.

Given the usefulness and acceptance of the initial system it would be a real pity if this system was not expanded to the emerging districts to the east of the city centre. I guess the reason they didn't bother to take the line to the railway station is the fact that a new railway station is planned on the future high-speed line from Madrid to Bordeaux, which will be located near the 'Intermodal' tram stop, which is actually a misleading name, because when the nearby bus station opens in autumn of 2014, tram stop Euskal Herria will be more conveniently located.

As for tickets, single trips cost 1.35 EUR, a day pass just for the tram is available at 4.20 EUR. With the stored-value card BAT, a single journey just costs 0.71 EUR.

In Donostia/San Sebastián, for a few years now, Euskotren has been promoting the traditional 'Topo' as Metro Donostialdea. It is still a long way from becoming a proper metro although several steps have been taken. However, it still gives the impression of a suburban railway rather than a metro.
Many sections close to Donostia have been upgraded and doubled to increase frequencies, allowing a train every 7.5 minutes during peak hours on the central stretch, but a major bottleneck is of course the Amara terminal station where trains need to cross many tracks to reverse and continue their journey:

This problem was about to be solved by the planned city tunnel with a station right in the heart of the city and two more stations in the western districts before joining the existing line at Lugaritz (the new station there actually points in the wrong direction, requiring a long curve back to the west to serve the neighbourhoods of Bentaberri and Antiguo). And although construction contracts had already been awarded, a government change cancelled everything and the new government now came up with a new solution, well, it is basically the old one but includes only one station in the Bentaberri area. But I guess that it is very unlikely that any construction will start soon, as Donostia will be European Capital of Culture in 2016 and I don't think they want to have a huge construction site right next to the beach during that year!
Recently, however, they opened a new station on a new double-track tunnel deep under Intxaurrondo, a station which seems to be a copy of those in Bilbao, just in white instead of bare concrete, and with the stairs from the platforms to the mezzanine put into side spaces like in Madrid in order to keep the full width of the platforms free of stairs. Currently a similar station is under construction at Altza, on a new tunnel which would later be extended to Pasaia and gradually allow the metro-type section to reach Oiartzun (an elevated segment already finished). 

So step by step, Euskotren's line may become a metro similar to what happened in Valencia over the years. Just like in Bilbao, what I cannot approve at all is the use of the same names for completely different stations served by different companies, as is the case for Intxaurrondo and others. Why can't they simply call them differently, like Intxaurrondo Alto (Euskotren) and Intxaurrondo Bajo (for Renfe) or whatever that would be in Basque. Being rather low, Anoeta underground station has a certain 1980s metro feel to it, whereas the newer Lugaritz station is reminiscent of new Madrid metro stations, although train frequencies are still rather low, with a train every 30 minutes to Lasarte at certain times, but with all other trains coming from the west also calling here.
All local services between Lasarte and Hendaia are operated by new trains, which are quite comfortable although they appear to be suburban trains rather than metro trains. The same stock is supposed to serve L3 in Bilbao. In fact, in Donostia, I only saw new stock, whereas in the Bilbao area many older trains were still in service, one set even repainted in the new white livery.
Besides Euskotren, the Donostia – Irun corridor is also served by Renfe Cercanías, although less frequently and with somewhat irregular headways. Both lines run quite parallel, although Renfe stops less often and is faster altogther. People continuing on a French train, may opt for Euskotren, which runs directly to Hendaia, so only one transfer there is needed (Euskotren and SNCF stations lie next to each other).

Ticket-wise, exploring the Euskotren system is not very convenient, in fact, I got quite annoyed, because they actually offer a day pass for 5 EUR which covers the entire Lasarte-Hendaia section, but then I had to find out from some very unfriendly staff at their 'Oficina de atención al cliente' that this ticket is only sold in Hendaia and is meant for French daytrippers only. They have a stored-value card called Mugi, but which has to be bought for no less than 5 EUR, so I had to buy a single ticket for each section I travelled... This costs 1.65 EUR for most stations, and 2.35 for trip to Irun or Hendaia.

When in Donostia, one should, of course, also take a ride on the old Igeldo funicular at the western end of the Concha, a great view from the top is guaranteed.


Vitoria-Gasteiz and Donostia at UrbanRail.Net

BILBAO Metro & Tram

Combining a relaxed summer holiday with some metro & tram exploration (in preparation for a 'Metro & Tram Atlas Spain' planned for 2015) I visited Bilbao as well as the other two Basque cities of Vitoria-Gasteiz and Donostia/San Sebastián during mid-July 2014 (see separate blog post for these two cities).

Previously, I had only been in Bilbao, and that was a long time ago, back in 1998 when I still lived in Barcelona. Bilbao's metro was then only three years old, it had only one line that went from Bolueta to Plentzia. In the meantime it has grown quite a bit, with three more station on its southeastern end to Basauri, but most notably with a second leg, L2, along the left bank of the Ría de Bilbao serving important towns like Barakaldo, Sestao, Portugalete and Santurtzi. But having already seen the standard station type designed by Norman Foster for the original section, L2 did not deliver any surprises, neither postive nor negative. Compared to the outer section of L1, it is almost completely underground, except for a viaduct in the Urbinaga area, a station in the middle of nowhere, actually built as part of an interchange between metro and the two Cercanías lines that split at that point. But although Urbinaga metro station has been in service for many years now, there are no signs of a Cercanías station at this location.

The moment of my visit was quite a good one, although this was not my intention, because the last station on L2, Kabiezes, had opened only a few weeks earlier, so I was able to see the system operated by Metro Bilbao completed. Kabiezes is just like all the other underground stations, but appears to be more illuminated. Interestingly, most other stations are rather dim normally, but illumination is increased as soon as a train enters the station. This can be very tricky when you have actually prepared your camera for a photo and suddenly the light changes. Officially, taking photos for private use is permitted and I was not troubled by anyone, although I try to avoid direct confrontation with vigilants, one of which is mostly present in any station or travelling between two stations.

Generally, the design of the metro stations is great, no doubt, but there are some things I do not appreciate so much. The most important is the lack of escalators between platforms and mezzanines. There are only lifts (with a dedicated ticket barrier at the platform end) and stairs, but these stairs are somehow steep and hard to climb – so if everybody has to climb these stairs, the slowest mark the pace, which means that leaving the platform can become somewhat slow and cause obstruction in busy stations (having visited in July and on weekends, I cannot tell whether this is a serious problem during peak hours).

Having a 3-zone fare system, people need to go through ticket gates also as they exit the station – another possible reason for potential overcrowding. Once on the mezzanine, which is in most cases actually a metal structure suspended in the station cavern, generally at each end, long escalators take passengers to the surface – i.e. almost to the surface, because once again, the last section lacks escalators and has only stairs instead, some of which are covered by the so-called Fosteritos, but some exits are simple 'bocas de metro'. Most of the stations lie in deep rock caverns, resulting in those long escalators which reach the surface in rather distant places and often I found it very hard to actually find an entrance and had to ask several times, like at Peñota. There is, of course, also a lift from the mezzanine to the surface, which due to its vertical shaft ends up in yet another place on the surface. Area maps inside the stations show these points, but it is not clear which of the red dots shown is actually a lift or a normal exit. Bilbao uses a proper logo for its metro (although I would have preferred some sort of variation of the traditional M diamond used in Madrid and Barcelona, which would be clearly recognisable for the many visitors). The three red rings on a high pole that mark station entrances are often only visible when you are actually there, and being two-dimensional you can only see them from two sides, whereas cube-style logos are generally visible from all sides. But what is really needed are frequent signposts towards the stations (although signposting in Spain is always a delicate issue...). Inside the stations, signage is clear and abundant. What I don't like at all, however, is the use of the same names for different stations served by different companies. The worst such case is Lutxana, with the Renfe and Metro stations even being located on different sides of the river. Neither are the two Etxebarri or Ariz stations close to each other, nor the many stations of the same name on lines L2 and C-1 to Santurtzi.

Even 19 years after its inauguration, the metro trains still look modern and timeless and are all in good shape. It is difficult to tell which trainsets are older and which are newer, just the door buttons seem to have changed over the years (and sometimes react too slowly). Although I like the sleek interior design, too, I don't find the seats very comfortable for my burdoned back. The angle of the backrest is just not right, and considering that a full trip to Plentzia takes some 45 minutes, this can be a problem. Otherwise the trains offer a very smooth ride, and have proven that metre-gauge does not mean narrower trains. I guess that metre-gauge together with well-laid track (as is the case!) and good suspension and shock absorbers actually helps to deliver a smooth ride.

Although full fare integration has now long been a reality in other cities, like Barcelona, and almost completely in Madrid, too, Bilbao and its metropolitan region see things differently. Each operator has its own fares, and there is no day ticket for all different means of transports (and there are many different ones). There is a day ticket for 4.50 EUR to explore the metro, a similar one for the tram only!, and I don't know about buses. This is no major issue, I suppose, for local people, as most of them use a Barik smartcard, which can be used on all modes, luckily, and this rechargeable card offers good discounts compared to normal single tickets. But you have to buy it for 3 EUR first. But I think there should be a sort of Tourist Barik or day pass to make things easier. The major problem with this sort of fare system is, however, that it is operator orientated, and not passenger-orientated. A passenger has to travel from A to B, and for this trip he may need just one or several means of transport, generally he cannot choose. So some people may be lucky and be able to go to work on just one bus, others may have to change to the metro and thus have to pay more. Compared to fully integrated transport systems in Central Europe, however, single trips are very cheap in Bilbao just like in most Spanish cities.

The so-called Line 3 has been under construction for many years now, but I wonder what this will be in the end. In the central area, some construction seemed well-advanced in the Matiko area, although the site seemed to lay idle at the moment, similar at Uribarri. And from what I have read in some local newspaper, the new station at Casco Viejo has not even been started. Construction was launched by some previous Basque government and I think they never really knew what this line should be one day. Eventually they decided to have it operated by Euskotren, and in fact the southern 'terminus' of what is shown on project maps at Etxebarri Norte is already a completed surface station on the Euskotren line towards Donostia, trains already run through this unfinished station. From there, they also built the shell for inclined lifts or a sort of funicular to reach the neighbourhoods high above. I understand that this will be a sort of reciprocal, Japan-style service, with all Euskotren regional services redirected through the new tunnel instead of Atxuri via Bolueta, and that these trains would terminate somewhere underground at Casco Viejo. I wonder if these trains would continue to the airport, another line that has been under construction for a while through the Artxanda mountain replacing the current single-track tunnel to Sondika and Lezama. But there was no on-going construction visible anywhere, although the tunnel mouths can been seen from the old train (which indeed is old and in urgent need of upgrading).

So even if L3 is completed in the next years, I think it only makes limited sense. It is probably useful for those people up on the mountain served by Txurinaga and Otxarkoaga stations, but the line will only be really useful if the leg, which was once presented as Line 4, from Matiko to Moyúa was finished, too. Continuing this line to Rekalde and possibly Miribilla would certainly create a good cross-city connection for many people. The central stretch now labelled L3 could carry overlapping regional services. If anybody knows more about the future operation of L3, please use the comment feature of this blog!

For some years now, Bilbao has also had a tram line, but this is more a capricho than a real service. Considering that the only useful place it goes to is the Guggenheim Museum, a 15-minute service during holiday season is simply not enough. Service frequency is also limited by the lengthy single-track section through the heart of the city, with a passing loop only at Arriaga. Once the trams reach the double-track section along the nicely redeveloped river embankment, they can speed up a bit, while in the San Mamés area, despite having mostly a separated right-of-way, trams are slowed down by many traffic lights, and there seems to be no traffic light preemption. The tram is branded 'Euskotran', which sounds a bit strange to my ears and eyes, first it seems to be a misspelt Euskotren, and internationally, one would expect 'Euskotram', but in Spanish and Basque it is 'tranvía/tranbia'... For a modern tram system, the CAF vehicles are rather short, so they didn't really expect to carry many people. They are a bit reminiscent of new U.S. streetcar systems, rather than modern European tramways. So it is nice to see trams in Bilbao, but not really necessary. And the tourist-only approach can also be seen in the relatively high single fares of 1.50 EUR, and 4.20 EUR for a day ticket valid just on this single line. The stops are what you would expect of a modern European tramway, but the next-tram indicator is a bit hard to view. Instead of a sign over the platform, the minutes remaining are displayed on a screen and you actually have to go there to see it.

Rail entusiasts, however, have much more to discover in Bilbao. There are three Renfe Cercanías lines starting from the central Abando station. On lines C-1 and C-2, which mostly parallel metro line L2, although they run closer to the river, several underground stations were built in recent years, San Mamés offering good interchange with the metro and the tram, and Amétzola sharing the station complex with Feve.
From the nice Concordia station next to the central Arenal bridge and a few steps from Abando station, Feve runs a train at least once an hour to Balmaseda, and its underground urban section was recently extended to a new station called Basurto Hospital, in walking distance of the tram.
And last but not least, Euskotren operates a train every 30 minutes on the remaining stretch between Casco Viejo and Lezama (with trains reversing direction at Sondika), and trains meeting at Larrondo. From Atxuri, Euskotren services run to Bermeo and Eibar, and some further on to Donostia, although the trip takes some three hours for 100 km! A good metro/rail interchange was built for these trains at Bolueta, which may become obsolete once L3 opens. At Atxuri, transfer to the tram is easy as trams start from just outside the main entrance. There are proposals to use the present Euskotren tracks to Bolueta for a tram extension once L3 has opened.

Still to discover on Bilbao's interesting transport scene are the Funicular de Artxanda with great views of the city, the old lift to Begoña (it was out of service during my stay, but you can use the nearby metro lift instead), and of course the Puente Colgante (the Hanging Bridge) between Portugalete and Areeta in Getxo, a fascinating and listed monument used by thousands of people everyday to cross the Ría. For 7.50 EUR you can take a lift to the top level and walk across, very recommendable. And if you have time there is still the Funicular de Larreineta, operated by Euskotren a bit further out, accessible by C-2 to Trapagaran and then walk for 20 minutes. It is quite peculiar as the carriage is sort of hooked up instead of the typical tiered cars. It goes up to a small village, but I didn't really see the point of this service nowadays as there would never be enough people to use this service, especially as it is badly connected at its lower station. There are buses serving it, but they didn't seem to connect well with the funicular, which runs every 30 minutes, and they don't run to the railway station anyway.


Bilbao at UrbanRail.Net