Tuesday, 15 December 2015

KÖLN Nord-Süd-Stadtbahn

After many years of delays, Cologne's north-south Stadtbahn route finally opened all its underground stations on 13 Dec 2015, a good reason to visit the city once again to catch up with these significant developments. The opening, however, was still just a partial one, as a gap still exists along this route between Heumarkt and Severinstraße, where the tunnel collapsed in 2009 causing the Stadtarchiv located above to collapse too and with two people dead in a nearby building which also crashed down into a big hole. The accident was supposedly caused by faulty construction of some diaphragm wall in what would have become a chamber housing a cross-over along a pair of single-track tube tunnels. After rescuing what could be rescued from the city's archives (after all, Cologne dates back to the Roman period...), investigation on the cause of the accident is still going on. With apparently no deal possible between the city and the constructor, a complicated procedure is necessary to actually access the point of the defective wall deep below ground, soil had to be frozen, and it will take some years to conclude still. After that, the metro tunnel can be finished, but even the most optimistic sources quote a 2023 completion of the full route. And this takes us directly to the major problem on the route brought into service recently. 

The lack of a cross-over in two separate tube tunnels means that trains entering the tunnel from the southern portal have no option to change tracks all the way to Severinstraße, so they have to return on the same track, resulting in quite a chaotic operation from the passenger's point of view, because a train in either direction will arrive on either of the two tracks. And except for Bonner Wall, this kind of information was not yet properly displayed yesterday, so here KVB, the operator, urgently needs to make some rapid improvements. 

On weekdays, the trains of the newly introduced line 17 run every 10 minutes (the minimum headway possible with this kind of operation), and every 15 minutes on Sundays. Yesterday, riding this line was free and lots of locals tried it, resulting in quite full trains at all times, and naturally messing up the timetable. I would have expected that KVB would run an "as often as possible" service with more trains to satisfy the people's curiosity. Instead of some unfriendly staff forced to work on a Sunday at the information desks, they should have brought in more drivers to cover a more intensive service.

Now let's take a look at the route and stations. I had already seen the rebuilt Breslauer Platz/Hbf station previously, which forms part of the north-south project. Three years ago, I also got a chance to see the first station on the new route proper, Rathaus, which was opened as a single-track stub for line 5. This station is a real tube station, with rather narrow platforms and accesses. 

A year later, i.e. two years ago, this stub was extended to Heumarkt, but at that time I didn't manage to visit Cologne, so this station was also new to me on my recent visit. I had seen many photos, as it is labelled as one of the cathedrals of modern metro station architecture, so my curiosity was naturally very strong. And it didn't disappoint me. But the funny thing here is that the "cathedral" part of the station is actually a fancy provision for an east-west line which may never happen, so for the moment it is just a mezzanine for the north-south line crossing one level deeper, with the two levels forming an X-shaped structure. Although there has been some talk again recently, the east-west route (lines 1, 7 and 9) will remain on the surface for a while still, resulting in quite a walk from the line 5 deep-level platform to the surface platforms. Yesterday evening, these were bursting with people coming from the shopping streets and the adjacent Christmas market, so hopefully the long-planned east-west tunnel will soon get its go-ahead to improve transfers and speed up journeys across the city centre. So while the upper unused platform level features this huge vault, the lower level for line 5 is quite straight-forward, but wide and open enough to provide a good atmosphere. At the western end, besides a lift, there is also a staircase, I think it is some 7 or 8 floors to get to the surface, a good way to skip the daily gym. Otherwise there are lots of escalators up and down.

A walk from Heumarkt to Severinstraße allows a look into the big hole caused by the tunnel collapse. What will be the northern terminus of line 17 for the time being is quite a deep station, too, determined not only by the tube-tunnelling, but also by the fact that it runs below the crossing lines 3 and 4 which, though on the surface, run in a cutting on their approach to Severinsbrücke. At the northern end, 45 m long escalators lead directly from the surface to the platform level, but with the upward escalator failing again and again during the first day, I once walked the stairs, and have to admit that they got me almost out of breath! Alternatively, of course, there are also lifts. Coming from lines 3/4, passengers have to take stairs to reach a mezzanine and then escalators down to platform level. The platform itself is surprisingly wide for being a tube-type station, but here some two thirds of entire station length of the space between the tubes was excavated, with the roof supported by a series of inclined columns, giving a very pleasant and generously laid-out waiting area. The tubes are only perceivable at one end of the platform.

At Kartäuserhof, this is quite different. This is a classical tube station, with cross tunnels only at either end where the escalators and stairs arrive, plus a cross passage in the middle where the direct lift to the surface is located. Design-wise, this station features something I had never seen before: the concrete linings behind the tracks were left bare, which is not unusual, but on the platform side these are also visible, but behind a blue transparent glass wall, a simple idea that results in this special colour touch I have often missed in other bare-concrete architecture. With the line running through a very densely built-up district, the tubes actually lie below the buildings, with not much space on the surface for wide exits, so one side only has a staircase, and the other a pair of escalators and a staircase, all leading to a small mezzanine, from where two sets of escalators and stairs go down to either end of the platforms.

Chlodwigplatz was also designed as a transfer station, although the lines crossing on the surface are more of the tram type. The new platform is again quite wide with flights of escalators either going to a main mezzanine dominated by a number of indirectly illuminated columns, or to a smaller mezzanine and an exit near the old city gate. The most striking element in this station are the two huge painted murals on one side of the escalator shaft, almost like a huge graffiti, but reaching heights where unofficial sprayers may never get to:

The last station down the line is Bonner Wall, which was mostly built by cut-and-cover, although the northern end deliberately shows the end of the tube tunnels. Unfortunately, and for no real obvious reason except possibly the junction following immediately to the south, this station has side platforms, making passenger orientation even more complicated, especially if, like at one time yesterday, one platform doesn't properly show the trains it will serve. An island platform would have allowed a change of sides even in the moment the train actually enters the station. But when the station was designed, noone could foresee that such a complicated operation may be necessary over a long period. Certainly, side platforms allow direct lifts from the platforms to the pavements, whereas a lift from an island platform would be located in the middle of the street above. Again, KVB has a job to do here, as yesterday it was not clear for someone using a lift from the surface which platform they will need to board the next train. I fear that this matter will fill some comments in the local press in the coming weeks. As a cut-and-cover station, it actually gave me the impression of being only partly underground and the ceiling slightly above street level. This illusion is caused by a row of lights just below the ceiling which appear to be windows and daylight coming in. Though separated by glass walls, almost the entire station box can be overlooked from the mezzanines at either end. Otherwise, the concrete/glass design is only disrupted by large red areas where all the information panels are displayed.

Just beyond Bonner Wall, the line splits, with the straight route via a ramp to Marktstraße fully completed but not used yet. Probably the lack of a reversing option at Severinstraße would not allow to introduce a service to this 3-track surface terminus right now. A further extension to Arnoldshöhe has been approved and should be finished at least when the full north-south tunnel is finally open.
Line 17, however, turns east and after some 300 m surfaces to cross a main road at grade before joining the existing route to Bonn which has long been running along the River Rhine. There had been long discussions about how this level crossing would influence operation, and most importantly, road traffic. In the end, some provisions for a road tunnel below the Stadtbahn tracks were made, but this will certainly not be built in the near future. The line 17 shuttle now terminates a few stations further south in Rodenkirchen, with some peak-hour trains continuing to Sürth.
So, all in all, had it not been for the horrible tunnel disaster, I consider the north-south line a well-achieved project, which unfortunately will only show its full strength in some 10 years.

For more photos of each station visit our special gallery!

A few other notes on the Köln light rail system. As may be known by the reader, the network is divided into a low-floor and a high-floor system. While the low-floor lines provide proper level access at all stops, some of the stations belonging to the high-floor system have not yet been rebuilt with high platforms, something I cannot really comprehend. There are not too many left, I think, so really more effort should be made in this respect. The fact that people have to climb into those cars via steps clearly slows down alighting and boarding, and with a new series of light-rail cars recently ordered, at least, like in Hannover, certain lines should be operated exclusively with trains without those silly steps. It is generally understood that light-rail trains without steps are cheaper, need less maintenance and being high-floor allow a much freer distribution of doors and thus also of seats and other elements (something we learned from the U3-type cars in Frankfurt back in the 1980s, and this is 2015!).

Regarding tickets, Cologne is in the upper price range among German cities. With a day ticket mostly costing between 6 and 7 euros, in Cologne it's 8.30€! Compared to neighbouring VRR, the VRS fare system is slightly easier to understand (well, almost any other fare system would beat VRR's in this respect...), the "fare stages" are usually graphically displayed at all stops, for the city of Cologne you need a 1b ticket, 2b if you want to include the smaller neighbouring towns served by some light-rail trains too. To cover the entire Köln/Bonn system, though, a 4-zone ticket is required. As I was actually staying in Düsseldorf (VRR!) I was looking at joint tickets covering Düsseldorf and Cologne for a day pass, but all information is very weird and confusing, so to avoid problems I bought a normal train ticket and then a day pass for Cologne. Probably tickets covering all of NRW (the state of North-Rhine-Westphalia) may be an easier option for some visitors. In any case I would recommend to get such tickets from a staffed ticket office to be sure you get what you need. German ticket inspectors have no mercy and often may not understand all different tickets available in what we call "fare jungle". I would urge the NRW government to properly merge all these areas into one single fare system with one philosophy on how these zonal systems work, but typically German, each area has its own way of doing things, and the more complicated the better to keep occasional riders from using public transport for being too complex and always with a remaining fear that you have got the wrong ticket.


Monday, 14 September 2015


Inbound CAF Urbos tram at Jewellery Quarter, with the railway station directly to the left

Birmingham, the centre of the West Midlands, was the last stop on this year's extensive visits to all the tram and metro systems in the U.K, in preparation for my forthcoming 'Tram Atlas Britain & Ireland' due to be published towards the end of October 2015. Many years ago, in 1988/89, I actually lived around here, working as a language assistant in Walsall, but at that time the tram, of course, did not exist, and even the suburban rail system, except for the Cross City Line, were considered rather pathetic, and Walsall was rarely served by trains from Birmingham.

In the meantime I had been back several times, but not since the entire fleet of original Ansaldobreda trams had been replaced by the new CAF Urbos trams. The only thing I liked about the Ansaldos was there colourful livery, but as trams they never convinced me, too small, felt too narrow, and well, apparently they had lots of wiring and other problems so that, like in Manchester, they withdrew them long before their actual normal life would have expired.

Now back to Birmingham, first on a day trip from Nottingham on Monday, 7 September, and again a few days later on my way back from the Isle of Man, the first impression when I got onto the new CAF trams was how wide (2.65 m) and spacious they feel. And with an increased length, they certainly offer double the capacity. Their interior purple and green design is nice, and would actually also fit the Nottingham trams (the two lines there are now shown in green and purple). 

Purple & green interior of CAF Urbos trams, though with rather hard seats

When I had seen the first pictures, I was wondering, like many other people did, whether pink was a good option for a modern tramway (not even purple and pink loving France uses that colour on the outside of trams....), but I have to say, they look good, it's a nice pink, not magenta, and it is not used exaggeratedly, in fact the dominating colour is white with some grey and pink. The seats are rather hard though, and the wheelsets not too well spring-suspended, so the ride is o.k. on good railway track, but a bit bumpy when running over points, and probably also on the future street running sections. I just realise, I didn't ride them on the long street-running section between Priestfield and The Royal, because I walked that stretch to take pictures (there should really be an intermediate stop on this section!).

Like Sheffield, the 'Midland Metro' as it is sometimes called, has not really seen any extensions since it first opened in 1999, despite modest plans to add some. With some delays and being built at crawling speed, as it seems, a short city centre extension is finally becoming a reality possibly before the end of the year (although seeing the state of construction right now in mid-September, I would even doubt that!). The original line has always suffered from its somewhat marginal existence. In Birmingham, the terminus has been hidden away inside Snow Hill Station, accessible via a very slow lift or a long flight of stairs (upwards there is an escalator, too). Apparently, the second track there has not been used for a long time, so the line is virtually single-track from Snow Hill to St. Pauls. The platforms are just about long enough to accommodate one of the new CAF trams, so when there are problems (and I saw one tram stuck there because of a door failure), a second tram can come into the station, but passengers need to step down to street level to get off). 

Improvised boarding at Snow Hill during problems with tram in the rear

Leaving Snow Hill, on the right you can see that track laying has just begun on what will become the new Snow Hill stop at the very end of the railway station, but the trackbed where old and new lines should be connected has hardly been prepared yet.

The line gets double-track just before reaching St. Pauls stop, from where the tram continues on an old railway route all the way to Priestfield. This is mostly a grade-separated route, but being an old railway it is badly integrated with the areas it serves. Most stops are in a cutting and rather deserted, so waiting there may not be too pleasant, especially after dark. Except for the major stations along the route, like West Bromwich Central or Bilston Central, which have major bus connections, the intermediate stops have few passengers. At Wednesbury, one of the major towns along the route, both stops are quite a long way outside of the town centre, with none of them being directly served by any buses either.

Birmingham-bound CAF Urbos tram on street-running section between The Royal and Priestfield

The street-running section from Priestfield to the Wolverhampton terminus does not seem to cause many problems, maybe during rush hours, but as said before, there should be an additional stop. It was curious to learn that they have actually reduced the Wolverhampton terminus from two to just one track. As a passenger, I always find it extremely annoying when you have to wait outside the station because the terminus is still occupied by the departing tram. There can be many reasons for that tram to stay there longer than normal, so if the terminus has to be single-track, then there should at least be a secondary platform for people to get off the incoming tram. Anyway, I couldn't see a reason really why they removed the second track:

On the right, removed second track at Wolverhampton terminus

Probably saves them a few pounds in maintenance at the cost of risking their reputation due to more delays. I'm sure it is not because the line may be diverted to the railway station anyway. Who knows whenever or if ever that will happen, as there have been many projects for Wolverhampton and nothing has happened. The current terminus is actually quite well located for the central shopping area, and if the line is extended to the railway station, this situation will in fact get worse, so I'd suggest to keep the current terminus, too, and have every other tram terminate here, and the other go to the railway station instead.

The Birmingham city centre extension, when open, will certainly give the tram a completely new presence in the city, many people who never use the tram will actually see it regularly. The route will, however, be very slow as the trams will run down the busy Corporation Street where pedestrians will cross the tracks at any point. So, in about 20 years, like in Manchester, talks will start about a second city crossing. 

State of construction at Bull Street stop in mid-September 2015

Some preliminary construction has also started on the follow-on extension from New Street Station via Victoria Square (City Hall) to Centenary Square, but I guess this extension will take a few years to be built as it involves a completely new road layout between the latter two, where the once motorway-like inner ring road will be rebuilt to become a more urban space once again. A further extension down Broad Street to Five Ways, which has always been a priority, will be a bit trickier as despite its name, Broad Street is not really a wide street and either shared street running will have to be chosen, or current road traffic will have to be almost completely diverted onto other roads instead.

For many years still, Birmingham will have just a single tram line, although plans have already been published for a branch to the future high-speed rail station and Digbeth. But Birmingham still lacks the big vision, a real 'big bang' Manchester was able to make a reality, and despite being the larger city, in this respect Birmingham is running years behind Manchester. The West Midlands have a dense and rather good bus network with good maps and quite good information, almost at level with Greater London, but the buses are slow and get quite full as I could experience yesterday when I travelled a long way across the county to get from Stourbridge to the Black Country Living Museum and then on to the tram at Wednesbury Parkway.

S-Bahn-style Cross City Line at Selly Oak

The West Midlands are served by various regional railways, most operated by London Midland (among them the funny shuttle train at Stourbridge), with the north-south Cross City Line offering a train every 10 minutes for most of the day within the City of Birmingham. Unfortunately, like all the other routes, the efficiency of this S-Bahn-style service is significantly reduced by the bottleneck at New Street. It seems that trains always have to queue up to enter the station, and then there is quite a long buffer anyway, so for passengers travelling across the city centre, it is a slow service. Starting with this line, they should really separate different services properly, for example by building a dedicated flyover east of New Street and operate this line separately using the southernmost tracks at New Street exclusively or shared by only similar services. This way trains could run without any hassle through New Street station, the way German S-Bahn system do in cities like Frankfurt or Stuttgart (although in those places sometimes too many S-Bahn lines are bundled and they have to queue again...). For whatever reason, the similar, though not as frequent east-west service between Wolverhampton and Coventry seems to be split at New Street, so that many passengers travelling, for example, from Wolverhampton or intermediate stations to the airport will have to change trains, although they can also use long-distance Arriva Wales or Virgin trains. Also, stopping patterns between New Street and the airport station (called Birmingham International) are a bit strange if you want to travel just between two of the intermediate stations, e.g. from Marston Green to Stechford. So, like in all other places in the U.K., I miss a clear distinction between what are local and all-stopping services and regional or long-distance services, although on the other hand I like the fact that tickets are valid on all sorts of trains. Line numbers would be great again, although I have almost given up convincing the British that line numbers are a nice and useful thing. But unfortunately even the well-established term 'Cross City Line' is no longer used officially, they just announce it as 'a London Midland service to Redditch', for example.

Funny diesel-powered people mover on Stourbridge Town Branch Line

If you ask me, the entire project with the new high-speed rail station planned at Curzon Street east of the city centre is completely wrong. I understand that they want to build a new line from London to Birmingham and north, simply to increase capacity, but the potential reduction of travel times will be so insignificant that it is not really worth creating a separate system with a separate terminus. Though not too far from New Street, it is too far to consider it part of the station complex, and what passengers will gain in journey time to London they will lose on their way to the new station. Especially those taking a train into Birmingham to catch a fancy new high-speed train to London will not be on the winning side, instead they have to add at least half an hour to get from one station to the other, no matter how they will do that, walking, or waiting for a tram, which will eventually crawl between the two stations, whereas now they just need to change platforms within a recently upgraded and pleasant station. But given the capacity constraints of New Street Station as described above, why didn't they design a real Birmingham Central Station, instead of just a high-speed terminus and relocate all long-distance services there, plus a full-scale station for all suburban services? At the same time the entire East End of the city could be properly developed. As the eastern approach lines to New Street actually pass close by the future high-speed terminus, I can only hope that in the end a new station will be added adjacent to it, so that all suburban trains can actually serve Curzon Street directly. Another option would have been to build additional platforms in tunnel below the current New Street station, similar to what has been done in Zurich.

Ticketwise, the West Midlands have quite good fare integration, but looking at the booklet about fares and tickets, I would say there are too many different types of tickets, so what we call the 'fare jungle' in Germany, also applies to many British cities. To explore the entire system within the West Midlands boundaries, a Daytripper for 6.40 GBP is the best option, it's valid on all buses, the tram and all trains, but make sure the rail station you're travelling to is still within the area, as those zonal maps are not posted anywhere, so you'd better check beforehand by getting this booklet, for example. On the tram, like in Sheffield, tickets are sold by a conductor, there are no ticket vending-machines on platforms. To explore just the tram line, there is also a cheaper Metro Daytripper ticket (5.60 GBP). On weekdays, Daytripper tickets are valid only after 09:30!


Midland Metro (Official website)

Birmingham at UrbanRail.Net

Wednesday, 9 September 2015


Incentro (left) and Citadis (right) at new Nottingham Station stop

As I'm in the final stage of preparing my "Tram Atlas Britain & Ireland" I wanted to see the new Nottingham extensions as soon as they would open. Though vaguely announced via Twitter and all modern forms of communication for many weeks, a concrete start of regular operation was only announced ONE day prior to the actual start, which was the 25 August 2015. Unable to pack my things and go that spontaneously, I finally got to Nottingham on 4 September, a day that may be recorded as a Black Friday in NET's history books...

After strolling through the city centre to get myself accustomed to the flair of the city (I was only here once on a day trip from Birmingham back in 2005), I started to explore the new lines at the railway station, where a viaduct had been slid in over all the railway tracks, with the tram stop right on top (although this does not mean that the tram stop is directly connected to the train platforms, like for example in Freiburg; instead passengers have to walk around through the main hall and ticket gates to get their connecting trains; or exit via a secondary exit at the north end of the southbound platform, which leads to a footbridge that connects all platforms, in most cases the quicker option as many trains tend to stop at the far east end of the platforms). Anyway, the first tram that arrived was a Toton Lane tram, I got on and took a short ride past the junction where the Clifton Line diverges and reached the next stop Meadows Way West. And that was it, everybody had to get off, no power supply available further down the line, there was a lot of confusion. The tram then continued empty to turn around at the nearby crossover and go back into town. After a while I gave up and walked back to the junction to check out the Clifton Line first, hoping that these problems would be solved. The Clifton Line worked o.k. with some delays, but there seemed to be no communication between trams and next-tram indicators which would announce a tram to be due, but it did not arrive, then the tram disappeared from the screen, but after some five minutes appeared on the track.

Being quite cloudy, I didn't bother to get off at too many places for photos, and after a quick late lunch in the centre, hopped on another Toton Lane tram at the central Old Market Square, and this time I made it as far as ... the railway station, where everything had collapsed, two inbound trams were stuck on the ramp just south of the station. Little by little, the control centre managed to make all trams from the north turn back at the railway station, so at least on the old lines the service was more or less o.k. I grabbed a seat on what would naturally become a completely packed tram to Phoenix Park, from there back to Highbury Vale, where a tram to Hucknell soon arrived although the screen said otherwise. As at Hucknall I didn't jump on the same tram to go back, I waited for quite a while along with many Friday night out-goers for the next tram to arrive. Needless to say that I didn't try to get to Toton Lane that evening.

Let's hope that these are just teething problems and can be sorted out soon. There was another disruption on Sunday morning for some 30 minutes on the Toton Lane branch, but trams just seemed to be back running when I jumped on a bus back into town, which leads us to the fare and ticket issue. A day pass just for the tram is 4.00 GBP, but for an extra 50p you can also use all the buses and trains within Greater Nottingham. So to avoid hassle in the case of disruptions on the tram system, I would recommend to get the 4.50 GBP ticket straight away, and you're on the safe side. A single ticket for the tram is 2.20 GBP, quite a sum if you're just going from your city centre hotel to the railway station.

Viaduct through Queen's Medical Centre area

Things went fine on Saturday morning when I was joined by a friend from Newcastle and together we explored the Toton Lane branch, which besides the viaduct over the railway station features the most important structure of the entire system, an approx. 600 m elevated route through the Queens Medical Centre and over the ring road, and with both of us usually being more fascinated by metros than by trams, this stretch was naturally of special interest. The viaduct is probably higher than needed, but this way it does not feel so much like a visual barrier, leaving enough space and transparency below. The elevated "station" is just another standard tram stop with no metro feel to it. There is a lift, but the stairs down to ground level appear rather simple, more like an emergency exit. Walking along the south side of the tracks, one can reach another lift and staircase leading to the western side of the ring road. While the elevated section certainly speeds up the journey, its eastern approach slows it down as if to compensate. Coming from Gregory Street, to avoid some metallic sheds, the trams have to negotiate a tight S-curve. I guess it should have been possible to purchase and relocate that terrain to achieve a much straighter alignment in that area. 

Eastern ramp to viaduct with Bombardier tram carrying Alstom advert

Once back to ground level heading southwest, the trams get their proper right-of-way after the University stop, but for this they have to switch to the south side of the road. In an ideal world, they would remain on the north side as they actually don't stop anywhere along this section, instead, just after University Blvd stop they need to cross the same main road again to enter the Beeston on-street section. Like all other on-street sections, of which there are a few, mixed traffic doesn't seem to be much of a problem as far as I have observed. But regular users may have other impressions. At Beeston Centre, a good interchange has been built, with buses dropping their passengers directly at the staggered tram platforms. A bit further down the line, the trams finally leave the roadway and, walled in by wooden sound barriers, run on a green strip through a housing estate all the way to the terminus at Toton Lane, in fact, the area before the last stop is pretty empty. I think that the name of the last stop was not a good choice. Once up in the very north near Hucknall I was asked by a confused passenger whether the tram was going into the city centre as it just showed "Toton Lane", which apparently no-one knows where it is (they will eventually learn...), but probably in line with the other three termini, "Chilwell West" or so would have been a better choice. And talking of destinations, in a very mono-centric city like Nottingham, I think it would be better to announce "This tram is for City Centre and Toton Lane", etc. Once in the city centre, it could switch to what it is now "This tram is for Toton Lane".
Back to the terminus at Toton Lane, there is a huge car park, just like at the other termini and even at some intermediate stops, which gives the system a very French feel. And the P+R is well-utilised and free.

Cator Lane: typical tram stop

All in all, the Toton Lane branch, or Beeston branch, will have its share of passengers, as it is rather urban in its alignment. It does, however, feel a bit indirect on its way into town through the detour via NG2, a business park, although on the map it is actually not much further. A bridge was built for this purpose over the railway line to London, but surprisingly, this is a tram-only bridge, no path for pedestrians or bicycles, which would rather be the norm nowadays, and what they did on a bridge on the Clifton line.

Now let's have a look at the Clifton line, which runs quite straight through the areas it is supposed to serve, i.e. Wilford and Clifton. The first section along Queen's Walk, a tree-lined avenue, is very pleasant, followed by an old stone bridge at Meadows Embankment. Wilford is actually served a bit marginally, as the trams use an old railway corridor, though not the old railway formation, which is still visible right next to the tram tracks on the western side and which acts like a sort of sound barrier. But the trackbed uses ballast and railway-type rails and the trams speed up properly on this section. The passage under the ring road, however, just south of the Ruddington Lane stop, is rather done at crawling speed. Trams then run through an open field, where I guess a stop could be added if the area is developed. Back on urban roads, the trams take an S-curve to get onto Clifton's main road Southchurch Drive, from where the run mostly on-street to the terminus at Clifton South, another P+R facility at the edge of the built-up area, although a lot of new housing can also be seen in this area.

Citadis has arrived at Clifton South P+R

So, all in all, the impression of the new extensions is rather positive, and I'm still wondering why these projects are possible in Nottingham and Manchester, but nothing is really happening anywhere else in the country?

Incentro on its way inbound has left Wilkinson Street and changes to right side

A few words about the older routes still, which I had already seen back in 2005. Generally, from the Railway Station up to The Forest, despite running mostly on-street, the trams travel at reasonable speeds. 

Street-running between High School and Nottingham Trent University

The split alignment through Hyson Green, however, is a bit slower and especially coming from the north, very slow. The track layout around the depot access at Wilkinson Street is probably the least convincing part of the entire system, for some 200 m trams actually operate on the right hand! Once past Wilkinson Street, the trams cross the Robin Hood rail line and take a turn right, a curve that feels tighter than it actually is, before getting aligned along the western side of the railway all the way up to Hucknall. Both types of trams run really well at high speed. The line splits at Highbury Vale, where the two respective stops are at some distance from each other, although an electronic sign indicates boarding passengers, which tram will arrive first for the city centre. Each branch is then mostly single-track, the Phoenix branch being rather short does not have a passing loop at the intermediate Cinderhill stop, which is thus the only stop on the system with only one platform face. The Hucknall-bound trams, however, have to switch to the passing loop at all intermediate stops, and here I sometimes had the impression that the points could be more like real trailing junctions, so passengers would not really notice that they are switching from one track to another, which would result in a much more comfortable ride. Unlike Birmingham, fortunately all termini have two tracks, although in the case of Hucknall, this is actually necessary due to the long single-track section to the next stop.
Priority at traffic lights seems to work pretty fine, although there are a few points where I observed trams to stop longer than I would desire. One such point is northbound just after the Old Market Square stop, where they stop just to give way to buses coming down that street and turning right. But I think that this traffic light is linked to the one up the hill just before the Royal Centre stop, so that the trams can always roll across that intersection without stopping on the steep street. Another such point is south of the railway station in the northbound direction. But generally, the impression is that the city government is giving priority to public transport over individual road traffic.

Nottingham now has two generations of trams. Although generally I prefer Bombardier's Flexity (and the Incentro is somehow the mother of the newer Flexity) to Alstom's Citadis, here I would actually choose the Citadis as my favourite. The Incentro, though refurbished, looks a bit dated inside, with dirty corners on the floor, but especially the seats are horrible. They don't have a flat area to sit on, but a somewhat curved, pseudo-ergonomic one, whereas the Citadis, which I had often criticised for their seats in other cities, have acceptable seats, if not perfect (but given that everybody has a different body structure there is no perfect seat really). In some intent to modernise the Incentro trams, they received a new old livery, i.e. in fact only the distribution of the colours was changed, but in my opinion, not really successfully. They lack the elegance of the new Citadis, although generally I have to say that I don't like the colour scheme, with silver/white combined with this dark teal-like green:

Original Incentro livery (at Hucknall in 2005) as opposed to ...

... new livery (on railway-style section between Wilford Village and Wilford Lane)

But many of the Incentro trams now actually carry colourful adverts. As I suggested in my Edinburgh blog entry, in a country where many days in the year are grey and rainy, and the traditional architecture is dominated by dark sandstone or dark red-brick buildings, modern trams should add a colour contrast to brighten up the urban life. But apparently, this dark-green is something traditional in Nottingham, as it can be seen all over the city and even the taxis have this colour. And my usual comment about the Citadis not being able to negotiate curves properly, this statement would not be true here. Either Alstom has improved their vehicles so much in recent years, or Nottingham's routes are indeed very well built. Even the extremely tight curve at Lace Market is passed perfectly without any disturbing sounds while keeping a reasonable speed.

Energy giant e-on adding a little colour touch (at Holy Trinity)


Nottingham at UrbanRail.Net

Friday, 21 August 2015

Urban Rail in WARSAW

Pesa Swing on Aleje Jerozolimskie in front of city skyline, with the WKD terminus on the left, and the city's main railway station behind the tram

It took me 12 years until I finally returned to Warsaw, although it is just a five and a half hour train journey from Berlin. After my previous and first visit in 2003 I actually wrote the first trip report which I published on my website. I read it again just before leaving and was quite surprised what impression the city had left. If you're interested you can still read it online here.

I always said to myself, I will go back to Warsaw as soon as Metro line 2 is open. There were some delays, and I meant to go there just after its opening which was then pushed back again and again, and when it finally opened in March 2015, I decided to leave my visit for later, as the weather was still quite horrible and I wanted to do some tram exploring, too. Eventually a gap appeared in my travel agenda so I booked a trip at short notice with the weather report already quite reliable, I mean, with a lot of sunshine guaranteed. So during the last four days, 16-19 August 2015, I managed to get loads of blue-sky tram pictures.

Exploring the Warsaw rail and transport system is quite easy, they have got a proper "Verkehrsverbund", i.e. all transport within the city is fully integrated, so on each day I got a 24-hour ticket for zone 1 for 15 Zloty, which is just under 4 EUR. This covers the entire city, which is fairly large with over 500 km2. There is also a 24-hour ticket for zones 1+2, if you want to get beyond the city boundaries, sold at 26 Zl., but watch out, it is NOT valid on the WKD local railway beyond Opacz! But the tickets are valid on all red (S-Bahn type services) and green KM regional trains, so even the airport lies within zone 1. Make sure to validate the ticket on the first ride, after that it is only needed to pass the barriers at metro stations, on buses and trams and trains just hop on and wait for the occasional ticket inspection. The tickets are of the small Paris/Madrid type and can be bought in advance from ticket machines at metro stations, but there are also machines inside trams (not sure about buses). So in the ticket/fares part, Warsaw gets a clear "very good", it's easy and cheap!

Suburban Rail

Back in 2003, I wrote very positively about the Metro, but was shocked by the local rail service then still operated by PKP. Well, fortunately this service has improved a lot. A lot has been done since the regional government of Mazovia (Mazowsze) county took over and introduced the SKM as a kind of S-Bahn service with completely new trains. What was especially shocking in 2003 was the look of the two central stations, the Centralna mainline station and the adjacent Sródmiescie suburban station (they should really carry the same name!). Both have been significantly improved, mostly just by changing the illumination, so they still preserve their particular style of the period when they were built, but in good light. Even the connecting corridor between them doesn't look that scary any more. The Centralna is still undergoing refurbishment and upgrading, especially in the main hall. Unfortunately there is still no direct connection to the Metro station Centrum. 

Improved lighting on Warszawa Centralna platform

Improved lighting inside Warszawa Sródmiescie (suburban station) 

Stadion station was also rebuilt for the European football championship in 2012, and it actually matches the design of the stadium. Warszawa Wschodnia (East Station) is in quite a good shape, too, while Zachodnia (West Station) is currently being rebuilt. Powisle could do with some modernisation, but it didn't look as desolate as in 2003, probably Ochota is the least appealing now of the city centre stations. I only rode the SKM line between Wschodnia and the airport, of the semicircular line S9 I only saw W-wa Gdanska, which was quite modern and this one indeed provides a convenient interchange with M1, something which is announced on M1 trains at Centrum, but there is nothing convenient here. At Stadion the new M2 Stadion Narodowy station is quite conveniently located next to the PKP station, but there don't seem to be too many people transferring there yet. W-wa Wilenska had not changed much, it is still hidden behind the shopping mall and has nothing which could be of architectural interest. The underground airport station is not bad, although a bit of a walk from the check-in area, but compared to other airports quite reasonable: 

Lotnisko (Airport) station with S3 train ready to depart

Of all the SKM lines, however, I would only classify S2 as an S-Bahn as it offers a regular 30-minute headway. Line S1 is a bit confusing as it is actually made of two overlapping lines, and with an absurdly irregular headway. S3 only runs every hour and uses the mainline tracks through the city, so it does not stop at Ochota, Powisle and Stadion. And S9 has a rather irregular timetable, too. All routes are complemented with some regional services which may also call at all local stations. But I think that Warsaw has a good potential for a proper S-Bahn system. This would, of course, need some investment around Zachodnia station, but then all S lines should be bundled along the local tracks, thus creating a sort of east-west trunk route with trains every few minutes between Zachodnia and Wschodnia which people will perceive like a third metro axis. Additionally they should really create a ring line, although this would require the most investment at Zachodnia, and a couple of additional stations on the existing route, for example in Targówek in the east. Unfortunately, despite the new trains, the SKM service suffers from a lack of standardised platform heights. Often you have to step down into the train, and there is always quite a big gap. But for the airport, I can certainly recommend it, as there is a train departing every 15 minutes for the city centre.


All in all, the tram system is in quite a good shape. I did not manage to ride on the entire system, but about 75% of what was available, as some routes were closed for upgrading during the summer. I was especially pleased with the newer PESA low-floor trams, both the numerous vehicles of the Swing type and the latest Jazz trams. Both run very smoothly and swiftly on what are certainly not always new routes, they can go around curves without getting too slow, and generally speed up quite well. Here it is actually the older Konstal high-floor trams that make more noise and overall offer a much less comfortable ride. So while trams travel fast, the system's major problem seems to be the huge road intersections, where they are often held waiting too long: 

Major intersection in the city centre: Aleje Jerozolimskie & Marszalkowska, as seen from the Palac Kultury tower

Maybe a faster traffic light cycle would help, because if you have trams coming from various sides, traffic light preemption would not help much either. But I felt that traffic lights stay on green too long, although often no more cars were actually passing, also annoying for pedestrians waiting to cross the street. In most cases, the respective stops are located before the intersection, so doors can remain open until just before the green light comes.
The largest parts of the system are on dedicated rights-of-way, often even with a ballast trackbed, which on the one had prevents people from crossing the tracks, but on the other hand may be perceived too much as a dividing element. Only a few older sections have street-running or marked-off lanes, and almost all stops have platforms. However, even the newest platforms don't fully match the tram floor height, there is always a 5 cm step and a small gap. A few stops are left with street-boarding, some in Kolo, and one which struck me particularly, the one at Stare Miasto. This one is really dangerous, as many tourists not familiar with this situation get on and off there, too. And what was most surprising, buses also stop in the middle of the street. Luckily, Polish drivers are used to that and respect the situation by stopping behind the trams. Apparently, as I was told, the problem is known and a solution is being sought, and I have to admit that I don't have an instant proposal either. Because besides the tram stop, there is also a pedestrian crossing without traffic lights next to it, so chances are very high that a tram, bus or car may run you over...

Street-boarding into Pesa Swing tram at Stare Miasto

 All stops have timetables with a list of all stops served by that line, but there are no network maps. Some stops have electronic next-tram indicators.
In one aspect, the Warsaw tram system is still typically "Eastern", i.e. the large number of different lines, with generally several lines sharing the same terminus (they mostly have a separate loop track), from where they head in different directions through the city:

Typical line up at outer terminus, here Os. Gorczewska

The online tram map shows the trunk routes in the city centre in different colours, plus a fifth colour for all lines which can't be clearly assigned to one such corridor. But generally the lines tend to travel across the centre in a straight and logical direction and turn onto a different route in the outer parts, so it is pretty easy to understand after a while. Line numbers seem to change quite regularly, so at major junctions where underpasses connect the different stop positions, no line numbers are shown, but just the district where trams go to from that platform, so you need to be familiar with the city's geography a bit. Also, inside metro stations, there is a map showing all urban rail services, even with all stop names for the trams, but without any line numbers! At the moment, they have a line 79 which serves a stretch isolated from the rest of the network on Aleje Krakowska, using bidirectional trams as there is no loop at the northern temporary terminus Hale Balacha:

Newest tram type, Jazz, bidirectional providing shuttle service on the temporary line 79

Although Warsaw generally is a city with very good signage, both street signs with large letters and also direction signs for pedestrians outside the central area, e.g. to metro stations, the signage at the major tram termini is insufficient. At Mlociny, for example, there is a huge new tram station, but it is very difficult to find out where which tram departs or accepts passengers. A metro-style guidance system is needed there. At many other, more basic loops with several lines starting, there should be a screen announcing when which tram is leaving as any of them may be going to the place the passengers is heading for. Now you'd have to walk from one platform to the other to compare the small timetables. Most lines are served every 12 minutes during off-peak, which is o.k. considering that almost all branches are served by two or more lines.

Tram route on the lower deck of Most Gdanski

An interesting tram route is the crossing of the Wistula River on the lower deck of Most Gdanski, with a stop at either end. And the trams run through a tunnel next to the Old Town, just west of the Stare Miasto stop.
The drivers' cabs are particularly transparent on the old trams, and I often observed that a driver had a smartphone on his/her lap and earphones plugged in. Given the distraction of such devices, I think it should be strictly forbidden to use them on duty. I was also rather surprised to see a driver smoke inside the cabin at one of the loops!


As I said at the beginning, a primary motivation of this visit was to see the new Metro line M2. I had already seen many photos and I liked the design concept, so I was curious to see what it looks like in real life. I still think that it is great, I generally like colours and especially if each station has its own distinctive colour. And it is the only metro line I know, where the station's colour is even reflected in the station's entrances! 

Entrance to the "green" M2 station: Stadion Narodowy

Besides the metro logo, I think the entrances should also clearly show the name of the station, maybe in a similar way Madrid adds the name to the logo. Of all new metro lines opened recently, it is probably the one with the strongest personality, I mean, from any photo you will always be able to tell immediately that this is Warsaw's M2, quite a relief after the global uniform station design of recent decades, using just glass, stainless steel and bare concrete! I was, however, a bit disappointed by the feeling of spaciousness in some stations. While the more shallow stations Rondo Daszynskiego, Rondo ONZ and Dworzec Wilenski are fine, with the stairs almost at the end of the platform and just one row of columns, especially the deep-level stations, from Swietokrzyska to Centrum Nauki Kopernik feel a bit too small, with two rows of columns and the stairs and escalators interrupting the view of the platform. The colour purple found in Nowy Swiat-Uniwersytet station may appear a bit too much, but maybe this fact actually makes it great, and being a devoted Deep Purple fan, I like it, of course, although my favourites are probably Rondo Daszynskiego and Rondo ONZ:

Homage to Deep Purple: Nowy Swiat-Uniwersytet

Current western terminus: Rondo Daszynskiego

Swietokrzyska provides interchange with line M1, but I think the two lines are not very conveniently connected for a system which was actually planned from scratch. On the M2 platform, the corridor towards M1 is at the very western end, hidden behind the western exit shaft:

Narrow gateway leading to M2>M1 interchange at Swietokrzyska

Once there you will find a narrow gateway not even 2 m wide leading to a slightly larger kind of vestibule, from where a lift and a 2 m wide staircase leads up to an intermediate level, from where, finally, three sets of escalators lead up to the southern end of the M1 platform. No problem during off-peak when I was there, but I dare predict that this interchange will cause real traffic jams during peak and when M2 has been extended at both ends. So I wonder why, when all other accesses to M2 were built quite generously, this primary interchange was designed at such a low scale. Because besides being too narrow, the absence of escalators on the lower part will create more jams as people have different speeds when climbing stairs. So some interchange traffic may have to be diverted via the upper mezzanine instead...
The second station designed as a future interchange is unfortunately a complete nonsense, a missed opportunity, for whatever reason! I'm talking about Stadion Narodowy, of course. The present layout is that of two separate lines with two individual stations which happen to be located side by side. So any transferring passengers would always have to change lines going one level up and then one level down again when it would have been so easy to design a perfect future-proof interchange here with cross-platform interchange as the station was built in a totally empty terrain where space restrictions could not be taken as an excuse. Although the eastern leg of what would become line 3 to Goclaw seems to be quite a good alignment, I never understood the route M3 was supposed to take into the city centre, and looking at the priorities being presented by official sources, only the Goclaw branch is high up on the list. With a "proper" junction at Stadion, this branch could have been operated also as an M2 branch, and if not, at least with convenient cross-platform interchange to continue the journey, although then the train reversing problem would come up. So, ideally, I guess, M2 should be using the outer tracks, and M3 the inner ones. But as I heard, even locally, M3's route across the Wistula River is under review, so the M3 part of this station may never be used anyway (welcome to Berlin!). Given all these uncertainties, I also find it impossible to understand why the M3 part of the station was fully furnished? A lot of money was wasted not only in tiles and cladding, but a lot of money will still be wasted to maintain the station, especially as it is clearly visible to everyone. Why didn't they just leave it as a shell hidden behind some temporary wall? 

Appealing station design with useless but fully furnished island platform in the background at Stadion Narodowy

Certainly, the main design feature of the station, those tree-like supports in the middle, would not be properly visible then. So has the architect's vanity won over pragmatism?
Talking of M3, for me the more "natural" alignment for a third line would be from Goclaw to the Eastern Railway Station as planned, then to Dworzec Wilenksi (M2), then west under the river to serve the Old Town (Stare Miasto), intersect with M1 either at Ratusz or the missing Muranów station, then turn south via Rondo ONZ to the Central Station and south from there wherever needed.

When I visited last in 2003, the first metro line (now labelled M1) had only reached Ratusz-Arsenal in the city centre, so the northern part of this line was also new to me now. Although not as impressive as M2, all the stations have some interesting features, more or less visible at first sight. Plac Wilsona, of course, strikes most with its elliptical ceiling above the southern exit area. Of the four northern ones, with their side platforms I probably prefer Slodowiec because it has a more distinctive wall pattern: 

Slodowiec: subsurface stations with side platforms were built along the northern stretch of M1

Lying just below street level, they all feature an interesting entrance building with tickets gates separated for each direction. It would have been nice if they had left some openings in the station roof to allow daylight to fall into the station, a feature already quite popular in other cities during that period. All stations on M1, also those on the older southern part, are in a very good shape, very clean and well maintained. Just the logo outside sometimes looks faded through the sun and needs replacement.
The M1 stations I like least are a few in the central area, Politechnika, Ratusz-Arsenal and above all, Swietokrzyska. While the first two are simply too simple, lacking any appeal in their simplicity, the latter is really a shame, as it looks like a very cheap station, with the walls simply painted in a dark green, not a very appealing colour anyway, and the pillars clad in tiles found at a marked-down price in the local do-it-yourself store. The station appears even more unattractive when you change from the brilliant yellow M2 station below. So hopefully, this station will deserve a major restyling soon to bring it up to the standard of the rest of the line: 

Cheap finishings at M1 Swietokrzyska station

My favourite on M1 is probably Pole Mokotowskie, because of its clear layout, the stairs at the very ends of the platform, nothing obstructing the view over the platform, a nicely repainted vaulted ceiling and the red colour used cautiously on the walls and suspended lights:

Pole Mokotowskie: plain though elegant station design

The stations further south beyond Wilanowska (which is certainly a nice station with its galleries) make me think of Munich's U-Bahn, although unfortunately the wall pattern is often a bit too dark, maybe some sort of indirect lighting would help here.
The Metro, especially M1 has one funny feature I have never seen anywhere else: with a small photo symbol, the next-train indicator even announces which type of train will arrive next! Certainly this is not a feature particularly provided for urban rail enthusiasts, but rather for passengers in wheelchairs, for example, as the older Russian-type trains require a higher step into the train, whereas with the newer Alstom Metropolis and Siemens Inspiro boarding is stepfree. On a hot summer day this information may also be useful for other passengers, as the old trains don't have air-conditioning, although even on the new ones, it may get quite warm inside if the train is packed (and they are during rush hour!): 

Metropolis train arriving next!

So, on M1, you can now see four different types of trains, although the older two are basically the same, but the second series can be identified easily by a more modern front (which made me believe that they are refurbished first-series trains...). Announcements are very good and clear to understand.
When Siemens presented the Inspiro at Berlin's Innotrans a few years ago, I was quite disappointed. After having delivered excellent trains to Vienna or Oslo, what was supposed to become a new standard metro train looked cheap and ugly. But having seen them in real service now, I think they are not that bad after all. Even the strange train front looks good, especially on the modern M2, and inside they are quite pleasant, although a bit low. But fortunately, they got rid of the monitors which on the prototype were mounted on the centre poles, obstructing the view through the train. There are now two monitors, one mounted on each side next to the doors, much better. The noise level is acceptable, especially as the wheel-rail noise is overshadowed by the noise from the air-conditioning system (which was, however, very appreciated - and I missed it yesterday when I had to use the U-Bahn in Berlin...).
Ticket inspections may also occur on metro trains, despite the access gates, but for whatever reason, in many stations one of the emergency gates is always open, certainly seducing people to avoid the ticket gates. I guess, most people use a season ticket anyway as Warsaw is said to have a rather high share of public transport users (there are still lots of cars, too!).


I didn't see much of the WKD system, the local railway that runs from Warsaw to some villages to the southwest of the city. As the central portion was closed for some track work, I only rode it from Zachodnia to Aleje Jerozolimskie. As said before, combined zone 1 tickets are only valid up to Opacz, actually the first stop outside Warsaw, but zone 1+2 passes are not valid on the rest of the line, you'll need to get a special WKD ticket! The two more urban stations, Ochota and Sródmescie, have not changed at all in the last 12 years, and honestly, look quite pathetic. Hopefully some real modernisation will happen soon. At Centralna the corridors leading to the WKD terminus Sródmescie are currently being refurbished, so a restyling of the WKD platform would be much appreciated, too. 

Temporary WKD terminus at W-wa Zachodnia (West Station)

Not too long ago, they purchased new trains with low-floor access, but looking at what is available elsewhere for this type of regional light rail (e.g. Badner Bahn in Vienna), those trains look clumsy and heavy. In fact, I would suggest to convert this line into a proper tram-train using lighter vehicles and connect them to the urban tram system, for example, by looping around the city centre, and thus improving access significantly while at the same time making the other urban stations like Reduta Ordona, which lies next to a huge shopping complex, more attractive from the Warsaw end, too. I see that up until the 1970s, the line actually entered the city like a tramway.

So, all in all, the Warsaw urban rail system is developing quite nicely, the tram system is being upgraded and hopefully the last high-floor trams will be withdrawn soon, the extension of M2 in both directions with three new stations on each side is underway, with contracts expected to be awarded before the end of the year, and hopefully, the SKM system will be expanded and upgraded into a real S-Bahn system, too.


ZTM (Warsaw public transport)