Monday, 27 April 2015

PALMA (Mallorca) Metro

This has been my second visit to Palma, the first was in January 2009, not too long after the Metro had opened in 2007. I have come back now to take a few more pictures for my forthcoming "Metro & Tram Atlas Spain" due to be released later this year.

Palma is actually a very nice city, but the Metro is close to useless for the city, in fact it is probably the most useless metro system in Europe and possibly in the world. It is only good to transport students from the city centre to the university campus located some 7 km outside of town. Although this would normally be enough reason for such a rail line it seems that Palma's students prefer other options for some reasons. Frequencies are rather those of typical S-Bahn systems, with a train every 15 minutes during busier times, and only every 30 minutes during other times, with no service at all on Saturday afternoon and Sundays. Like any university campus, this one is spread out but the metro station is not located somewhere in the middle but on the fringe of the campus requiring long walks from some areas. So, you could call it the Metro where your seat is guaranteed.

I'm now talking about the original metro line, which is now officially M1. This metro line was also the most unexpected to be built and probably the fastest to be put into service (although it had to be closed for several months shortly after opening because one of the underground stations was flooded and apparently this possibility had not been taken into account during the hurried planning. About 80% of the line is underground, although it doesn't go through any densely built-up areas, instead it only runs through an industrial estate where the visual impact of some sort of surface line wouldn't have caused any problems. Also the university terminus is underground, although it lies on the edge of the campus and a surface station wouldn't have disturbed anyone. So, all in all, a lot of money was wasted for something that was not really a necessity. Everyone knows that I'm a devoted metro enthusiast, but for Palma, I think, some sort of light rail within a larger context would have been a much better choice.

The line ends at Pl. Espanya, which is the city's major interchange point. But as there is no proper fare integration, of course, noone would use the metro for just 1-2 stops to change to a bus at Pl. Espanya paying another full fare, and there are plenty of buses available along the same route. So, finding some kind of deal for a common fare system is urgently required. Talking about fares, like in most Spanish cities, these are relatively low, but in the case of Palma rather unpractical, as there is no multiple-ride ticket or day pass, so you need to buy a single ticket each time you want to enter the system, as stored-value cards are only available for people living in Mallorca! So each time you enter the system, you have to get a paper ticket for 1.60€, and quite uncommonly, these tickets carry a QR code you have to hold against a reader to open the doors. But at least in 50% of all my entries, I had problems with these readers and had to try various times. As you have to do the same procedure on exiting due to additional fare zones on the regional lines, this would normally lead to some overcrowding at the exit gates. So I don't really understand why they chose such a system not used anywhere else I have been to, it's more what you'll find at theme parks or so. Probably most riders are regular riders who use a smartcard instead.

Line M1 is not badly built, though. The short 2-car trains offer a smooth ride, track seems to be properly laid (it certainly helped that the metro line is actually part of a larger railway system), and even the stations are rather pleasant. The city terminus at Pl. Espanya was generously/excessively laid out with 10! terminal tracks (FGC handles much denser traffic with only five tracks at its Pl. Catalunya terminus in Barcelona!), and although the platforms lie deep enough on level -2, the location of the escalators would not allow an easy extension into the city centre proper, but such far-sighted issues were probably irrelevant during the speedy planning. Another flaw of this huge terminus is the lack of an underground walkway to the old town area, instead people have to cross a 6-8 lane main road on the surface. This underground hub also includes a bus terminal for regional buses, but apparently, some of these have to take a long detour to actually get in there... Those buses are part of the TIB system which also includes the regional rail lines to Manacor and Sa Pobla via Inca. That the ever-changing Balearic governments are not too good at planning can also be seen in the frustrated project for a "tram-train" from Manacor to Artà in the east of the island. An old railway alignment was prepared for this and even some partly low-floor trams were purchased from Vossloh, but the next government simply cancelled the advanced project and now they have six Citylink trams noone wants and needs. So to give them some reason to be, they operate three morning express trains between Inca and Palma, for which a low-floor platform extension had to be built into the tunnel at Pl. Espanya.

In 2013, line M2 was invented, but this did not require any construction, but was rather a rebranding and service modification for local services now running between Palma and Marratxí serving some villages that have grown to become suburbs. Initially started with new EMUs acquired for the regional services, M2 is now served by metro rolling stock not needed on line M1. As a result, many of the new EMUs are waiting in the depot, as electrification of the outer stretches of the regional lines has been delayed. Compared to the acceptable stations on line M1, those on M2 are simple, if not primitive stops, and the route reminded me a bit of the outer sections of the Valencia Metro, as at some stops you can see an old station building at a lower level and a high platform built next to it. Serving proper villages, the line has some decent ridership throughout the day. At Marratxí, ideally line M2 should terminate on a track between the continuing tracks served by regional trains, but instead they use a bay track on the northern side sharing an island platform with inbound regional trains, which offer convenient connections, with M2 leaving shortly after the regional trains come through. But to change trains in the outbound direction, passengers have to change platforms via an underpass and waiting times for connecting trains are longer. It would probably be advisable to make M2 trains switch to the proper metro tracks as they enter the tunnel, so M1 and M2 would share the same platforms at Son Costa/Son Fortesa and J. Verdaguer and thus offer an improved service at these stations, whereas now it is not clearly signposted which platform will have the next train towards Pl. Espanya.
Next-train indicators are located on the platforms, but many of them did not work. And when they work, they show the next five trains, but who cares about further trains, generally the next two should be enough. In fact, even the second train is irrelevant in Palma, although this is sometimes useful on busy metros where one might skip an overcrowding train knowing the next is following shortly. But as said before, overcrowding is certainly not a problem in Palma...

Besides the basic M2 stations, the image of the Metro is also suffering from many of the trains covered with graffiti. Inside they usually looked o.k. although some litter was lying around. The stations are generally tidy and graffiti-free. Illumination of the underground stations is o.k. but could be slightly brighter. From the train, all stations look rather dim due to the dark windows.

So what could be done to give this metro more sense? Probably rebuilding the entire M1 into a low-floor light rail system and connect it to a city-wide tram system would be the best choice. They could ask their colleagues in Cologne who have enough experience in changing high platforms to low platforms with destroying the platforms, simply by raising the ballast trackbed in the stations. The size and layout of Palma are quite ideal for a good tram system, with several branches radiating from a circular Avenidas route, plus an old town route now served by many bus lines. But a first step really has to be proper fare integration with easy-to-use day tickets for occasional riders and tourists.

Tranvía de Sóller

Visiting Palma, an urban rail enthusiast has to visit the heritage tram in Sóller, too, no doubt. Although the 4 km line is used also by some locals, it is primarily a tourist attraction, and a very popular one. Even in late April many trains (they are made of up to four cars!) are completely full, and at 5.50€ for a single ride, this must be quite a good business. But riding old trams with wooden benches on worn-out track has never been my favourite pastime, but I did, of course go on a full round trip and took lots of photos, too.


Palma Metro at UrbanRail.Net

1 comment:

  1. Robert, thanks for your detailed report about the Palma metro system. We came back from Mallorca two days ago (our first time on the island). We were living in the old town of Sóller, did quite a lot of hiking and used the tramway to the port several times. For me, this seems to be a system in quite good concition - and I wouldn't even call the tracks "worn out". Same with the old train from Sóller to Palma. They run with old but pretty well maintained material. Both "tourist railways" have the potential to be an everyday mode of transport, if branded like one.
    Back to the metro system: At Son Sardina I had the chance to take pictures of a passing metro train. And between Son Sardina and Pl. Espanya the old train passes directly through crowded parts of the city on street level, but with no intermediate stops. My main question is: Why didn't they transform this stretch to a tramway with some intermediate stops? I think a mixed use of old trains and modern tramways would easily be possible. What's the use of the new tunnel under the industrial zone? Why didn't they prepare an extension to the old town?
    Although I didn't use the metro, I totally agree: An almost completely stupid system (even more the stupid than the U4 in Hamburg). Hopefully they will make the best out of it in the future - a lightrail system using the existing stretches transformed to low-floor stations and being extended on street level, as you propose.


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