Thursday, 14 May 2015


As I had lived in Barcelona for 12 years (1989-2001) and come back to this city many times since, I have never really "explored" its system as I would in other cities where I might be visiting maybe just once in a lifetime. So while on other occasions I mostly came to catch up with old friends and see new or refurbished stations, this time I stayed for several days to do some real work for my forthcoming "Metro & Tram Atlas Spain" due for release later this year. For some impressions gathered at the end of 2012, click here.

     Barcelona is probably the most exciting city in Spain for urban rail enthusiasts because it offers such a variety of different modes, including several funicular railways and aerial cable cars. In the Metro field, I decided to ride on all lines because there is always something new to discover. Many stations have been refurbished in recent years, some in a sober way, some very pleasantly. I was quite surprised when a saw the colourful design of Bellvitge station on L1, for example. I also like the bright panelling at Joanic or Alfons X on L4 or Sants Estació on L3, especially when compared to the cheap panelling used in earlier refurbishments like at Urquinaona (L1 & L4) or Lesseps (L3). At the latter, however, I was surprised to find a huge new entrance built in provision for the now mothballed section of L9, although the stairs down to the narrow platforms are still a bottleneck. Most stations have meanwhile been retrofitted with lifts, which must have been quite a challenge, not only due to the depth of some stations, but due to narrow platforms and fare gates that require multiple lifts.

     What I still don't like in many stations in Barcelona, however, is the often ugly wall behind the tracks in those stations with a middle supporting wall, a problem Barcelona shares with cities like Vienna. Budapest's refurbished M2 showed clearly what a difference it makes! Another more technical problem in Barcelona is the lack of ventilation in the stations while all trains are air-conditioned and therefore discharge the heat in the stations creating a kind of oven, while inside the train it is like a fridge! Just the new L9/L10 is an exception, while especially the stations in the city centre can get unbearable, and not only in the summer.

     Being a Mediterranean city with life continuing late into the night even on weekdays, I find it strange that the Metro closes at midnight. I think it should at least run until 1 a.m. During my 12-year stay in Barcelona it used to close at 23:00! Now it runs all night on Saturdays.

     This time I also took a ride out to L11, the cute line of the system, with semi-automatic 2-car trains shuttling deep below ground. When I was there some 10 years ago, it was still operated manually, but now four of the five stations have platform screen doors, and the trains run driverless, although not completely. For a reason I do not quite understand, the driver on board takes over in ATO mode between Casa de l'Aigua and Trinitat Nova, where L11 terminates on the opposite side of L4 sharing the same island platform. I wouldn't see a reason why platform screen doors could not be added here, too. Anyway, this way the train looks a bit less spooky with an attendant on board. The line was fairly used during late morning hours, so it seems to provide the right level of service it was supposed to provide. Due to the tight schedule on L4 and with only one track available here to reverse (drivers skip one train to be able to walk from end to end!), connections are not guaranteed and often it may be frustrating to see an L4 train leave just when L11 arrives. Although I had done it before, I was quite surprised that from the L4/L11 platform you need to go down some 4-5! levels to reach the L3 platform, which in return was not very busy.

     I took a full day to explore the FGC lines departing from Plaça Catalunya towards the Vallès area and found it sad that the term "Metro del Vallès" is hardly visible nowadays. It was a catchy brand (and I was told that locals and students of the Universitat Autònoma actually use it!) and quite adequate as lines S1 and S2, reinforced by S5 and S55 run as often as every 6 minutes to Sant Cugat, where they split. Along the line there are many old station buildings giving nice photo motifs. There are many new trains from CAF with a rather posh interior, but unfortunately, once again, what look like ergonomic seats, did not fit my back bones! Instead I get into my shoulder blades what other people may use as a head rest! When will those designers ever learn that there is no ergonomic seat for everyone? Otherwise FGC seems to be a very good railway operating company, all stations are in good condition, and it is always fascinating watching trains arrive at and leave from Pl. Catalunya, a 5-track terminal station. In Terrassa I had a look where the future underground stations will be located, but I'll have to wait for next time to see them from the inside.

     FGC's other terminal at Plaça Espanya is similarly busy, but a bit more chaotic! This is due to many tourists getting a train there to Montserrat and the rather confusing line numbering on that bundle of lines departing from here. What is shown on metro maps as L8 hardly exists as such, because all trains except a few peak expresses stop at all stations up to Molí Nou anyway, so the L8 rather denotes that this is zone 1 of the overall fare system. Previously, most regional services used to skip some of the inner stations, but now all trains serve all stations, probably because due to the dense intervals they can't really save time. But a simplification of the line numbering is urgently required here! Actually L'Hospitalet station has four tracks which would allow overtaking, but maybe the platforms are to short to accommodate double trainsets on the outer tracks.

On the ADIF/Renfe network I was positively surprised to find a nicely refurbished and much enlarged access to Passeig de Gràcia underground station, also improving transfers to L3. Rodalies trains now run either in old typical red/white Cercanías livery or in the new local Rodalies variant in orange/white, often in mixed trainsets. Although the newer Civia rolling stock has at least a centre doors matching the platform height, I find it rather pathetic how you have to climb into the train at the other doors, even worse than on the older trains. With Alstom's Coradia Nordic in Stockholm or the many Stadler Flirt trains having been around for many years for similar platform heights, I guess that even CAF would be able to produce something similar, as they have always kept up with the latest trends and often in the end came up with better products than their competitors.

     Barcelona's tram system has not changed much in recent years, it still consists of two isolated networks, and with the central portion of Avinguda Diagonal recently having been restyled with bicycle lanes, there is little hope that anything will happen in the foreseeable future. 

The Trambaix is, however, quite well used, with a tram every 4 minutes on its inner section shared by three lines. The negative point here is the existence of some single-track sections, notably the end of T2, which give the impression of a rather slow journey. The Trambesòs is a bit weird in that T5 and T6 run infrequently approx. every 20 minutes and constrained by a single-track section east of Glòries where they terminate, but without a reversing facility they have to change direction on the tracks more frequently served by line T4, which itself terminates somewhere where a tram should not terminate.... So, an extension into the city centre of these lines is urgently needed, and the single-track bottleneck needs to be eliminated somehow, because it does not make sense to have a grade-separated section following over three stations (a kind of tunnel with daylight coming in from the northern side where a motorway runs in a trench) if after that trams are halted because of a late-running tram in the opposite direction. So I was not surprised to see the tram I took from Besòs to Glòries almost empty, and the covered stations largely deserted! A nice feature of Barcelona's Citadis trams is their generous width, 2.65m instead of the more typical 2.40m!

     As for the fare system, Barcelona probably has the best of all Spanish cities. Just single tickets are issued by individual operators without any transfer options, but anything above that starting from 10-ride tickets is fully integrated included Metro, buses, FGC trains and also Renfe Rodalia, allowing several transfers with one fare. Besides day passes available for the already very large zone 1, easy-to-use day passes are also available for up to six zones reaching far into the hinterland. To explore all FGC routes from Pl. Catalunya, or from Pl. Espanya to Martorell, a 3-zone day pass is enough. Targeted at tourists, but available to anyone from any metro ticket machine, passes for zone 1 are also available for multiple days. Strangely, both Renfe and FGC use a slightly different fare zone system for their own exclusive tickets which is a bit confusing when looking at their own maps! If you travel to Barcelona on an AVE or other long-distance train, you may be eligible for a free onward ticket on Rodalies trains (there was an announcement on my train from Valencia about this), check with Renfe staff.

     My next visit to Barcelona will hopefully be in early 2016 (February?), when L9 from Zona Universitària to the Airport is currently scheduled to open. Some stations along this section promise to be quite interesting in design, notably Fira.


TMB (Metro and buses)

FGC (Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat de Catalunya)

Barcelona at UrbanRail.Net


The last stop on my April/May 2015 tour through Eastern Spain took me to Zaragoza, where a new tramway opened in 2011. Quite rightly, it is considered the most successful in Spain and during my short stay I saw many trams packed and almost overcrowded, so the only real thing I would dare to criticise is that they should have thought on how to increase capacity on the central section. Running mostly every five minutes except between 10:00 and 13:00, when a 7-minute service is provided, the offer is already quite good, but not enough considering the popularity of the tram. Like in Marseille, they should have extended the tram vehicles by now, from 5 to 7 modules, which would add some extra capacity, or reduce headways on the central section, with every other tram turning back at García Abril in the north where an easy loop could be built as the tracks up to this point are on parallel streets. The section beyond that point is less busy, as a large urban development apparently planned in 1998-2001 as a huge sign still indicates did not materialise around the Juslibol stop. At the southern end, trams remain rather busy up to the terminus at Mago de Oz (The Wizard of Oz) in the new district of Valdespartera where all streets carry names of film classics, so it's quite funny to hear 'Next Stop: Singing in the Rain'.
     Otherwise, the tram has a very French-style alignment, completely on a dedicated lane, partly marked off and partly on a lawnbed, I think just between Plaza de España and César Augusto, some vehicles may invade the route to access local shops etc. Between Plaza Aragón and Emperador Carlos V, as well as at Los Olvidados, there is a sort of Rambla (promenade) between the tracks. To reduce the visual impact of overhead lines, the city centre and the Ebro River are crossed in battery mode: 

Traffic-light preemption seems to work fine, so there are generally no annoying delays at road intersections, but a continuous journey with an acceptable speed. There are no unnecessary curves, and the CAF trams are generally better in curves anyway than the Citadis. To achieve this, however, the area inside the trams occupied by the bogies looks rather bulky, with only two face-to-face seats on each side mounted in this area. But otherwise the trams appear wide and spacious, and the wooden seats were quite o.k. for my back, despite their ergonomic shape (must be someone else then suffering with a different body shape...). 

     The stops all have a similar modern style, with a ticket machine and an information panel, plus an electronic next-tram indicator. The ticket machine only issues single tickets (€1.35) and allows recharging of the Tarjeta Bus, which unfortunately can only be bought for €2 at limited outlets, which can be a challenge for visitors, when they could be sold at kiosks or hotels as they initially carry €5 of stored value. While single tickets are just for one tram ride, the Tarjeta Bus allows transfers within one hour for just €0.74 per ride. And as the system cannot tell the difference, you can actually get on and off the tram for photos without paying another fare, but make sure you hold it against the card reader each time you board!

     There have been plans for a second line, running east west and actually sharing tracks with L1 on a short section between Plaza de España and César Augusto. While two branches are planned for the eastern end, I'm quite worried why they don't consider a branch going to the new railway station Delicias, which is a bit out of the way, although linked by some buses. But it must be the taxi lobby that is strong on keeping public transport away from a major public transport hub. Another reason could be that some think that the existing Cercanías line is enough to take long-distance travellers further into the city centre. But with virtually no metropolitan region outside the city proper, this line runs very irregularly, at times only once an hour! I'm not quite sure, because I didn't check it either, but I think that broad-gauge trains now have only one track in the city tunnel, while the other track was rebuilt for passing standard-gauge AVE (high-speed) trains. Please leave a comment if I'm wrong on this question!

     So with the first line so successful, let's hope that the second line will soon be built now that the country is slowly recuperating from the 'crisis', and that it will be done to the same good standard as the first line, clearly taking away road space from car drivers, but adding to what is a surprisingly lovely city.

     Bus maps were available at several outlets, but too small to be legible. The map also shows the tram line, but without any stop names. While tram maps are posted at stops, I haven't seen a place where I could ask for one.


Zaragoza Tram at UrbanRail.Net