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

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