Saturday, 27 February 2016


I had only just written a blog entry about Barcelona in May 2015, when I visited the city once again in preparation for my book Metro & Tram Atlas Spain (published in Sept. 2015), so this post is just about the newly opened L9 Sud and the three underground stations added in Terrassa on FGC's line S1.

Driverless Alstom Metropolis train behind platform screen doors

I had been following the L9 project ever since it was first presented to the public in the late 1990s when I still lived in Barcelona. These were the "fat years" where anything seemed possible in Spain, Madrid was still expanding its metro system in huge 4-year steps, so Barcelona didn't want to be left behind and designed Europe's longest, deepest, fanciest and, whatever superlative may serve, metro line. They were talking about a German way of financing (something I had not heard about until then), meaning, just spend as much as you can and pay later. With the financial crisis hitting the country sooner or later, the L9 project got into trouble, and there have even been numerous technical problems, partly certainly due to the unusual idea of building a super-tube which can actually accommodate 4 tracks within a single tube, two on an upper and two on a lower level. While this may be an ideal solution in a city with soft soil, it was not perfect in Barcelona and the TBMs got stuck several times causing months of delays until they could continue to excavate.

Anyway, the first sections opened in 2009/2010 in the northern suburbs of the conurbation, Santa Coloma and Badalona, but the central section which serves the upper parts of Barcelona proper as a kind of semicircular line never got properly underway. In the end, the Catalan government, responsible for the success and failure of this project, decided to mothball all construction sites on the central section and concentrate on the completion of the southern section between Zona Universitària and the airport, which has a length of no less than 20 km, now opened on 12 February 2016 with 15 stations. Although the Siemens Trainguard technology had already been tested on the northern sections of L9 and L10, the southern section now actually represents a completely different line and therefore also required quite a lengthy phase of testing. Opening had been announced for February 2016, mainly to meet the goal to provide a direct service between the airport and the exhibition centre during the Mobile World Congress being held here at the moment. As everything had worked out fine, the authorities eventually chose 12 February for an official inauguration and with the following weekend allowing local people to explore the new line. Unfortunately, the Mobile World Congress organisers were not really happy when a strike was announced for 22 and 24 February. And honestly, I cannot understand those trade unions! They will certainly have enough reasons to go on strike, but I think it is irresponsible to do it intentionally on days of major demand during events which in the end benefit the whole city. Fortunately Spanish law allows the authorities to dictate quite a reasonable number of trains to run anyway (servicios mínimos), because after all, millions of people also have a right to go to work, which, of course, may clash with the right to strike. It's just so obvious that people working in the transport field tend to go on strike much faster than others who may have the same reasons to call for work improvements.

Luckily, they were nice enough to announce the strike days in advance, so I could plan accordingly and explored the line thoroughly on 23 February. With the mobile phone congress going on, this was certainly not a typical day, but certainly left the impression that the line is used far below its potential. With congress participants leaving, most stations will return into a slumber, though hopefully a few will eventually get a fair amount of passengers as people get used to the new travel options.

Narrow platform at Aeroport T1 with questionable floor painting

Let's start our ride at Aeroport T1 - although stations are announced in three languages the names as such are not translated into Spanish or English, so this one is "Terminal ooh", to be distinguished from "Terminal dos", they could really provide this information in proper English for all the tourists as "Airport Terminal One"!

Before entering the station, however, some may have been surprised by the ticket price, which is 4.50 for a single ride (including transfer to other metro lines, but nothing else). So if you plan to use public transport on the same day in Barcelona anyway, get a T-Dia or a HolaBCN! Tourist Pass, as these include one entry and one exit at one of the airport stations. The fare is especially unfair for people using a T-10 multiple ride ticket for zone 1 or more zones, which are very popular in Barcelona, as they will have to buy a full 4.50 ticket to leave the airport stations. All in all, although 4.50 is not too excessive in international comparison, the way it is charged is very confusing, and I guess a Madrid-style supplement payable on exiting is more logical.

The station as such is probably the least attractive of all L9 Sud stations, and as I was just coming from Düsseldorf where I inspected the shiny new underground tram stations, I was indeed negatively surprised, especially by the fact that the wall cladding here is made of cheap wood-based conglomerate plates, something TMB had also used in the 1990s to refurbish some old stations, by simply nailing these plates on the old tiles. This station actually has an island platform, although this is not easy to appreciate the way the staircases obstruct the view, so in the end, the passenger is left with the impression of a rather narrow platform with no design features. In this station as well as at Terminal 2, passengers will find some fancy, though rather useless paintings on the floor, something seen in some Asian metros, so copied with good faith, but probably not really properly thought through. The marks on the floor are supposed to keep boarding passengers away from the doors to let people get off first, but at Aeroport T1, passengers get off at one side of the platform, then the trains run into the sidings and come back at the other side of the platform, so there is no programmed collision between alighting and boarding passengers anyway. Or do they sometimes enter and leave from the same platform side? And at Terminal 2, hardly anybody will use the metro to travel from one terminal to the other given its excessive fare and the option of a free bus shuttle. So who had the idea of having these lines painted on the floor?

From T1 to Aeroport T2, the metro takes a long 4-minute curve as it skips an intermediate unfinished station called Terminal de Càrrega [Cargo Terminal]. T2 station is rather plain in its design, too, but much more open-spaced with an illuminated wall on part of the station box. 

On the left, metro entrance, with ADIF (Renfe) station in the centre

While Terminal 1 station was quite well integrated into the airport terminal complex, the problem here is that it is a rather long walk away from the nearest check-in desks. Instead of building the station box right outside the original terminal building, it is located next to Renfe's station, which had always been a long way away, accessible via a long footbridge, which had last been refurbished for the 1992 Olympics and now looks frighteningly tatty. Some tourists may wonder whether this is really the correct way to train and metro! Embarrassing indeed. Not sure whether this is AENA or ADIF property, maybe they don't know themselves and that's why it is so neglected. There used to be moving walkways, but these had long been paved over. 

1970s elevated walkway from the airport terminal T2 towards railway and metro station

The decision to build the metro station next to Renfe's station must have been inspired by the idea of creating a transfer hub here. But with the current fare situation, interchange is strongly discouraged. People arriving here on a Renfe Rodalies train and requiring transport to Terminal 1 can choose between a free shuttle bus or a swift metro ride for €4.50! With a transfer needed to get into the Barcelona city centre (see below for inconvenient interchange stations), I wonder whether the frequent Aerobús service from Plaça Catalunya has to fear real competition from the metro.

Metro entrance at Mas Blau in partly undeveloped business park

From Mas Blau, L9 Sud becomes a normal metro line with all tickets for zone 1 valid, and thus tickets are not checked at the exits. Mas Blau serves a business park with lots of empty areas around still, but may get its share of passengers during commuting times. The design of the station is similar to other stations in the municipality of El Prat de Llobregat, and features massive pillars between platform and staircases, which are clad in artificial stone, a conglomerate in a different colour in each station, thus providing a certain uniqueness to each station. It doesn't look bad, although the style is more typical of the 1970s/1980s and reminded me of the Bornheim U-Bahn (U4) in Frankfurt. The colour of this station is dark green, although probably a dark blue would have been the more obvious choice given that the name of the station means "Blue Mansion" (I guess it's named after an old farm in the area):

Mas Blau station with green pillars

Parc Nou station with white/grey pillars

The colour of the next station, Parc Nou, could be identified as white, although here there seems to be no artificial colour added to the cement. The station's name, however, is somewhat artificial [New Park] as the area is well known as Sant Cosme, but for many decades had (or still has, I'm not sure) a very bad reputation for social problems, so the El Prat mayor obviously didn't want to see this name on the metro map...

Roof structure covering one entrance at Cèntric on El Prat's Pl. Catalunya

The following station name has also been discussed a lot in forums, as Cèntric doesn't really mean much, just "central something". The station's natural name would probably be "El Prat Centre" as opposed to the following station. During the project development it was usually shown as Plaça Catalunya, but as the main square in Barcelona carries the same name, this was, of course, not an option for the El Prat station. But yesterday, a friend revealed to me that Cèntric actually refers to a nearby civic centre and venue of that name, so in the end it seems to mean something to the local population. 

Cèntric station with reddish pillars

Despite being located right in the centre of this town, this station was also hardly used while I was there during late morning hours, although I would have expected that this is the busiest station south of Torrassa. There are quite a few Renfe trains (I think 4 per hour) from El Prat, and they take people directly into the centre of Barcelona. Among the Prat stations, this is the reddish one. All of them are rather spacious and not too deep, a bit similar in size to the typical new Madrid stations. No need to say that all L9 stations are fully accessible with lifts, and also have lots of up and down escalators. As part of the rearranged square above the station, the northern entrance is actually covered, whereas all other stations, as is typical in Barcelona, are simple entrances ("bocas de metro" in Spanish).

Access to El Prat Estació metro station

El Prat Estació is part of a major interchange which besides Rodalies was once also intended to have an AVE station to allow people from further afield to change here to get to the airport. I don't know what happened to the AVE station, at present it is just a Rodalies stop, with trains to/from the airport stopping and two during off-peak hours on the line towards the southern coast. I wonder whether all trains will stop here in the future to allow for a proper access to the airport from the south coast. Although I had been taking this line several times in the past few days as I was staying in Sitges, I found it rather confusing to find out which trains actually stop where, as line R2 is a complete mess with varying service patterns and actually consists of three lines, R2, R2 Nord and R2 Sud... Anyway, the metro station at El Prat Estació is not directly linked to the railway station, instead you need to exit and cross a square to get into the other station. The metro station is pretty plain in its design, basically grey, but some colour has been added in the form of illuminated murals made of photo stripes. One day in the distant future, also L1 should arrive here:

El Prat Estació station

After El Prat Estació the metro turns east and via a long curve south, but on the way it runs through the next unopened station, referred to as La Ribera. It is basically finished, and some say that even the lights are on all the time, but it was not opened because there is nothing around on the surface. From the train you can just see walled-off platform edges, so I don't know whether the platform screen doors have been installed. 

Mezzanine at Les Moreres station, with mural inspired by mulberry trees

 Les Moreres station

The last station in El Prat, Les Moreres [mulberry trees], lies only about 1 km east from the town centre, but as the metro takes this long detour of about 3 km, it may take longer taking the metro than to walk or take a direct bus. So it was not surprising that this station was pretty empty, too. Design-wise it is similar to El Prat Estació, mostly grey on platform level, but with three illuminated murals, though rather inconspicuous (probably insinuating tree trunks), in the mezzanine. The inclusion of this station added a lot to the line's bad reputation of having too many bends and thus taking forever to get anywhere.

 Unclad walls at Mercabarna station

The next two stations are in an area dominated by industry and thus I didn't expect to see many people there during off-peak hours anyway. So I was actually surprised that Mercabarna was quite busy. This station serves Barcelona's wholesale market and this seems to generate enough ridership with workers even in late morning hours. Probably inspired by typical industrial naves, the design of this and the following station is somewhat unfinished, i.e. some surfaces are clad with unpolished metal plates, while others are left uncovered altogether, revealing the bare concrete. I wonder whether people will recognise this as a design element or whether they will just think that the Catalan government ran out of money to finish them properly. I think a thin layer of sprayed concrete would improve the situation.

Narrow platform at Parc Logístic station

Parc Logístic is the smallest of all cut-and-cover stations, which may be because a station for L2 is to be added here in the future. I don't know whether or what sort of provisions have been made. In the tunnel, to the west of the station, you can see how L2 is supposed to merge with L9 on its way to the airport, but apparently, at Parc Logístic, it would have its own platforms. I suppose that they already built the station box on the north side of the L9 station as the mezzanine in this area is also quite huge. But it would also be reasonable if L2 didn't stop here at all, as an interchange will be available at Fira anyway. In fact, seeing how long it takes to ride L9, I would suggest that L2 should be built as a proper express line directly from Fira to Aeroport T2 bypassing all the stops in El Prat.

 Superwide mezzanine at Fira station

Fira [Fairgrounds] is without doubt the design highlight of line L9 Sud. It was designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, who was also responsible for the Exhibition Centre and some buildings in the area. The blue bubbles on the walls show historic photographs from the area which not too long ago was mostly rural. The platforms are wider than usual to accommodate large crowds during events at the exhibition centre, but also in provision for an interchange with L2 which is supposed to cross perpendicularly, although I don't know whether any significant provisions have been made here:

Wide platform at Fira station

The next station Europa | Fira provides interchange with L8, i.e. all FGC metre-gauge lines starting from Plaça Espanya. I wonder why the L9 platforms were built one on top of the other here. Somehow I did not really like this station, it is rather dark with blackish metal wall panelling, and to change to L8 you have to take a series of escalators up to a mezzanine (which also acts as a pedestrian passage beneath Gran Via), and from there go down again to the L8 platforms. 

Lower (northbound) platform at Europa | Fira station

Large access box at Europa | Fira station, but no direct access to FGC platforms

Considering what a huge box was excavated to accommodate the generous flights of escalators at either end of the metro station, why was it then not possible to drive direct shafts from an intermediate level to access the L8 side platforms? We know that coordinating such works between ADIF (Renfe) and other transport companies tends to be difficult, but here the constructing authority was the Catalan government which also owns and operates FGC! I can only suppose that the road tunnel, only built around 2005 by the Catalan government, was in the way, but then the necessary provisions should have been made then. Unfortunately this is not the last inconvenient interchange on L9 Sud!

Vestibule on level -1 at Can Tries | Gornal station

While the section between the two Fira stations was built by cut-and-cover, the tunnel now becomes the typical L9 super-tube we know from L9 North, i.e. some 12 m in diameter and with two levels inside a single tube. Just before arriving at Can Tries | Gornal you can see the tube for L10 come in from the right, which is already in use to access the depot at Zona Franca. By the way, TMB's preference to use a | stroke to separate double names is quite nice, but unfortunately on station signs it is badly written, resulting in a capital I instead, so people not familiar with this uncommon usage may just read it as "i", which means "and", so maybe a conventional slash would be a clearer option. This station is quite similar to the next two tube stations, with platforms on top of each other (northbound on the lower level), and the ceiling partly clad with corrugated iron panels, which makes it look a bit cheap: 

Upper (southbound) platform at Can Tries | Gornal station

Unlike the deep-level stations on L9 Nord and L10, these stations have just two lifts to the mezzanine, and instead an excess of escalators, some 6-7 levels, with four sets of escalators, two up and two down, which makes for some 24+ escalators in each station! I wonder whether maintenance is cheaper compared to 4-6 lifts? In any case, it is certainly not faster to get to the surface. And this will also remain the line's major problem: you really need to travel a longer way to bother to get down so deep. So it was no surprise that this station was barely used, keeping in mind that most passengers would have to change to another line to get anywhere.

Torrassa would be one of those important interchanges, as L1 is the first metro line to take airport passengers into the city centre. Therefore I was quite surprised when I came from the airport myself on Sunday late evening that hardly anyone got off here (most people got off at Collblanc!), so I guess that airport passengers going to Gran Via and Plaça Catalunya continue to use the Aerobús which serves the same route. Like the previous station, Torrassa is far too deep and again you have to go all the way up to the mezzanine and then down again to the L1 platforms. Again my question: Why didn't anyone bother to build a cross-tunnel under the L1 tracks to provide a much more direct interchange route? While someone may say, it would be too costly and complicated to build such a tunnel, no-one could bring up such an argument for the inbound L1 direction as the huge round shaft for L9 was built beside it, so only a few metres of tunnel would have been needed.

Square created above Collblanc station, where several houses had to make way for the metro

After Torrassa, only the lower deck of the bi-level tunnel is used at the moment, apparently there is no other way to change from one level to the other to reverse. This somehow limits the headway provided, and will become more of a bottleneck when L10Sud also opens in the mid-term future. At Collblanc, an entire block of houses was demolished to make room for the construction shaft which now houses the multiple sets of escalators. The interchange situation here is just as unsatisfying as at Torrassa, again all the way up and then down again, although here quite a nice and large mezzanine was built. The problem both at Collblanc and Torrassa is that the old accesses to the L1 and L5 platforms, respectively, are much too narrow anyway, so a separation of transferring and exiting passengers would have helped to avoid congestion, as the respective stations on L1 and L5 are always rather busy.

Distribution level at Collblanc station

The following station, Camp Nou, named after the famous FC Barcelona football stadium, has not been finished yet as the shaft is required when construction on the following section finally is resumed.

Lower level at Zona Universitària, currently the only platform used

The last station, Zona Universitària, is slightly different from the previous tube stations. On platform level the wall has a different shape, though providing fewer seats, and then here, like on L9 Nord, several lifts (7-8) take passengers up to the mezzanine. The mezzanine itself is probably the most appealing design element of the whole line after Fira station, though again what struck me immediately is why is there no direct access to the inbound L3 platform from this mezzanine, which is almost at the same depth, so a gentle ramp down would have done the job. Instead, you need to go up like half a level to the old L3 mezzanine and from there down to the respective platforms.

Upper landing of multiple lifts at Zona Universitària

Connection between L9 mezzanine and L3 station

So, considering that the line is extremely deep, which already is quite inconvenient, all five transfer options are unsatisfactory; and considering that the line acts as a tangential route within Barcelona and L'Hospitalet, most passengers will require a transfer. Therefore I wonder whether in the future people will accept these facts and use it like any other line - Barcelona's metro lines are usually very well patronised! But one week after opening it was more of a ghost train.

Technically it is state-of-the art, nothing much to criticise, the trains run smoothly, the track is laid well, the overall impression of the stations is good. I also like the Metropolis trains, except for the fact that as a tall person it is difficult to look out the front window, which is much too small (in this respect Ansaldo's Copenhagen metro is much better).

Just one more thing which will hopefully have been changed by the time I come back to Barcelona, that's the silly continuous acoustic announcements in three languages, not to provide a better service, but just for the sake of it. During my Barcelona years the language issue was handled more reasonably, important announcements were made in Catalan and Spanish, but if Catalan was easy to understand, the Spanish version was omitted. Another approach was to use different words where possible to show some variety, like "propera estació | próxima estación", but now TMB chooses the same words on purposes, and thus, deliberately or not, tells any Spanish-speaking person, you are too stupid to understand Catalan, so we repeat it for you, resulting in announcements like "pròxima estació | próxima estación | next station: Fira" or "tren direcció a | tren dirección a | train to: Zona Universitària", and never heard on any metro train in Barcelona (and hardly anywhere else) "para a totes les estacions | para en todas las estaciones | stopping at all stations" - funnily, interchange options are ONLY announced in Catalan "enllaç amb línia L8 i altres línies d'FGC". On the other hand, as mentioned above, foreign tourists, and most Spanish visitors either, will not understand what "Terminal U" is (interestingly, when you press a button inside one of the lift, e.g. at Torrassa, they tell you the platform with the final station name also translated, something like "Platform to Airport Terminal One"). Similarly, international places like "Fira" may also deserve a translation, maybe in the form of a subtitle like "Fira (Exhibition Center)". So somebody should dedicate some time to improving these announcements, and reduce them to a minimum as it does get very annoying if something is announced all the time. Actually a simple signal sound plus the station name would do the job.

Badly used information screen: no need to abbreviate Z. Universitària, and overall much too small fonts with a huge white area left!

Also visual announcements are rather poor. When you get to the platform, they are often hard to see, and once you have found them, they are actually too small to read. This is quite strange as most of the screen's surface is left in blank, unused, so bigger letters would not be a problem at all. And the screens should be placed in a position where people automatically see them when coming down the escalators.

New terminus for line S1 at Terrassa Nacions Unides

Mezzanine at Vallparadís Universitat

While I'm still in the area, I took FGC line S1 to Terrassa today to see the three underground stations which were opened on 29 July 2015, shortly after my last visit. All three stations boast a typical early 2000s style with just stainless steel and glass finishings, with some colour panels in the mezzanines. So all three are quite o.k., though nothing exciting either. At Terrassa Estació del Nord, a subterranean passage links the metro and railway stations, so you don't need to cross the street which separates them. Vallparadís Universitat is quite peculiar as it lies next to a deep gorge, with one exit directly from mezzanine level to a park, while lifts take most passengers to the upper street level (well, if you feel sporty you can climb the stairs from the park exit, too).

Access to Rodalies station directly from metro mezzanine level at Terrassa Estació del Nord

I guess that the forthcoming stations in nearby Sabadell on S2 will be similar. They may open in 2017, but who knows, as they were once supposed to open some years ago. The same uncertainty is true for L10 Sud, which may open with some stations and a restricted shuttle service in a year or two, as at least one track is already in operation to access the depot at the end of the line in Zona Franca. But although the locals along Passeig de la Zona Franca are demanding the completion of the L10 leg, I wonder whether they will use it then, as again it will have the same transfer problems as L9 to get anywhere. So they should really push the ever deferred L2 extension ahead, which would significantly improve access into the city centre both from L10 and L9.


TMB (L9 operator)

Barcelona Metro at UrbanRail.Net (feat. special L9 Sud Gallery)

Monday, 22 February 2016

DÜSSELDORF (feat. Wehrhahnlinie)

I had been to Düsseldorf several times before this visit, usually a brief visit to explore its extensive urban rail network, and in fact, I had been here only 2 months ago, in December 2015 when in anticipation of the tunnel's opening the local population was invited to visit two different underground stations on each weekend in December, and as I was coming all the way from Berlin anyway to see the new underground route in nearby Cologne, I managed to see two stations in Düsseldorf in their almost finished state, namely Heinrich-Heine-Allee and Benrather Straße, the two closest to the busy old town. But before we go into a more detailed evaluation of the new underground tram route, I want to write down some thoughts about the Düsseldorf system in general, so these are some accumulated impressions gained from various visits.

Typical first-generation underground station, here the westbound level at Steinstraße/Königsallee

Düsseldorf has always surprised me positively and negatively, as among all the German Stadtbahn cities, it is probably the one with the most extreme features. When I talk about "Stadtbahn" in this context, I mean those systems which from the late 1960s started to build underground sections to full metro standard, and with the final goal to converting these to full metro operation (like a pre-metro). As we know, none of them actually achieved this initial goal, but all gave up sooner or later. So, on the one hand, the Düsseldorf Stadtbahn system, i.e. the U-lines which had existed before the underground tram routes were now also prefixed with a U, is among the most state-of-the-art metros in the country, using LZB, or internationally better known as ATO, for automatic operation, through its tunnel sections. Remember that the classic U-Bahn systems in Berlin and Hamburg use manual driving throughout, and only Munich's and Nuremberg's run under ATO control, the latter even driverless on part of the network. In Düsseldorf, this makes for a very swift operation in the tunnel sections, although the articulated trains with their folding doors, and mostly with just 60 m trainsets, make it appear more like a light rail rather than a metro system. Generous planning and a long-term vision even led to the first tunnel section being built with four tracks, basically combining two trunk routes. So, for a metro enthusiast, it is always fascinating to see two trains entering the station at the same time with both trains leaving simultaneously too. There is no point now in discussing whether this generous alignment was really necessary or whether the ATO operation would have allowed enough capcity with two tracks too. I was also wondering whether two tracks should have been diverted further south to cover more areas in the city centre. But that's what we've got now, and it works fine. With the central railway station located a bit out of the city centre, the 4-station 4-track section between Hauptbahnhof and Heinrich-Heine-Allee does get very busy at times, so probably the generous construction was justified after all.

Viktoriaplatz/Klever Straße - the first refurbished station with a new floor and new ceiling

The metro-style Stadtbahn service on the underground sections, however, switches completely to the other extreme on some routes as soon as the trains come to the surface. The most striking is on the northern leg used by U78 and U79 where drivers switch to manual driving and have to stop in the middle of the street at Golzheimer Platz, where there is not even a platform for passengers to alight or board, instead the trains fold down steps, here with an additional step for street-level boarding. Only two stops further north, the trains reach a proper dedicated right-of-way with proper high-level platforms now typical for all Stadtbahn systems. Similarly U75 runs like an old-fashioned streetcar through Eller or through the western parts towards Neuss. For a long time, Düsseldorf didn't seem to take level access into its vehicles very seriously, compared to Stuttgart or Frankfurt they started rather late to upgrade surface stations with high-level platforms and, although many have been built in recent years, there are too many to do still. This is the more surprising as the city is known for being among the wealthiest in the country, or seen from another angle, they are debt-free because they don't spend money where they would be expected to spend it? So while other cities like Stuttgart and Frankfurt have put a lot of effort into concluding this upgrading programme, Düsseldorf is years from achieving this goal. And what's worse, neighbouring Krefeld, served by Rheinbahn's U76 and peak-hour line U70 has just wasted millions for a new central stop at Rheinstraße without providing a proper platform for the U76 high-floor trains! I wonder how this is politically possible? By the early 2020s, all public transport is required to be fully accessible. Some local authorities and/or transport agencies, however, show a complete lack of respect for their people and try to evade this law wherever they can. In Krefeld they say, people unable to climb the steps into the Stadtbahn trains can take a low-floor tram to Fischeln, where they can change stepfree into a U76 train (so they'd better add an extra hour to their trip, because apparently not all trams to Fischeln are low-floor and then the line out there is rather slow - I took it on the way in in December as U76 was cut back to Dießern because the new Rheinstraße "hub" was not finished yet). I don't know whether Rheinbahn as the operator insisted strongly enough, but in any case, I cannot understand why it was not possible to incorporate a high-floor section into this overlong island platform built at Rheinstraße! Were somebody's feelings hurt by the visual impact this might have had? Anyway, for me an absolute failure, but this negative point goes rather to Krefeld than to Düsseldorf proper as these decisions are usually taken on a political local level. Back in Düsseldorf, luckily the recent line rearrangement cut back U74 at its southern end after it had been extended south to Benrath over tram tracks only a few years ago, also ignoring the fact that the stops are not equipped with high-level platforms, some have no platforms at all, but street-boarding. But still, people from Benrath coming in on U71 or U83 cannot change to U74 or U77 stepfree as there is not even a high platform at Holthausen, nor on the shared stops on the way in. Funnily, transport operators only think of people in wheelchairs or the elderly when deciding these things, but in the end, level access is for everyone, because it speeds up boarding while it reduces costs by avoiding the need for those retractable steps. This economic aspect was one of the main reasons why other cities hurried to get at least some lines fully equipped with proper platforms, so they could order new trains without these steps. So to conclude with the Stadtbahn system, excellent on the one hand, and rather pathetic on the other.

Things with the tram system are similar. On the one hand, Düsseldorf has maintained by far the largest tram system among all Stadtbahn cities. And though quite separate for many years, in recent years tram and Stadtbahn systems have become more interlaced, which in itself is o.k. as long as the standard of each system is guaranteed, for example by providing platforms with two different levels (as seen in some Duisburg underground stations). The difference between modern underground routes and old-fashioned street-running tram operation is now also quite striking on the tram system. At the eastern end, trams leave the tunnel at Wehrhahn S-Bahn station, and proper (island) platforms have recently been built at the Uhlandstraße junction, but just beyond that point, three of the four U-prefixed lines return to street-running stopping without any platforms at Lindemannstraße and Engerstraße. Being quite close to the city centre, I would have expected these stops to be properly upgraded in time for the opening of the tunnel. On outer sections through Gerresheim and towards Ratingen, some effort has been put into providing proper platforms for what they now also promote as "Stadtbahn". The situation is similar at the southern end of the tunnel in Bilk, where trams also return to the street upon leaving the tunnel. Sure, the original project included longer tunnels at either end, but I guess this has long been given up and would probably not be feasible nowadays. Or maybe by maintaining the street-running they want to prove that in the end a tunnel extension is necessary? Let's see.

So given the lack of proper upgrades to the connecting lines, I would describe the newly opened underground route as a "tram tunnel" or "U-Strab" as we tend to call it here. Let's have a closer look at its alignment and, above all, its stations. In the "old" days, Düsseldorf had decided for a standard design for its underground stations, which though rather elegant in its 1970s style, has often been criticised, while other cities had followed the Berlin model with a different design for each station. 

Oberbilk S - the largest of the second-generation underground stations

For the Oberbilk extension, Düsseldorf introduced a different design, though still maintaining the same style for the three underground stations on that extension. Now for what is generally known as the "Wehrhahnlinie", different architects were invited, although there is certain common line for all stations. Though the tunnel was mostly driven with a tunnel boring machine, all stations were built by cut-and-cover and appear rather spacious. The running tunnel was mostly built as a large two-track tube which determined the layout of the stations with side platforms, not an ideal solution for several reasons (double sets of escalators, more lifts, more complex wayfinding systems, etc.) but a two-track tunnel certainly has advantages for operation, as it allows as many cross-overs as needed - if Cologne had adopted the Düsseldorf approach, the tunnel collapse wouldn't have happened, because that occured exactly where a chamber was to be excavated for a cross-over as the running tunnels were built as single-track tunnels. The only station with an island platform is Heinrich-Heine-Allee, because here a section of the tunnel was already built together with the Stadtbahn tunnels, so they had to use it, resulting in a very wide island platform ideal for a major transfer station. At the same time, this provision also made the final construction much more complicated as a section beneath a department store had to be excavated after the soil had been frozen. Using tunnelling machines, also determined a certain depth, which in the case of Heinrich-Heine-Allee was required anyway to pass below the existing lines, and at Schadowstraße, a road tunnel was built at the same time to allow an old elevated road to be demolished instead. For the stations on the southern leg, I wonder if a simple subsurface cut-and-cover tunnel would have been possible too? Because crictics quite rightly point out that although the tram journey may be faster through the tunnel, in the end, people don't save time because they need a while to get down to or up from the deep-level platforms. Anyway, the eastern leg below Schadowstraße will certainly create quite a different street experience (unless they use all the lanes for car traffic), as this is the city's main shopping street with all major department stores and chains. On the southern leg, I have never really seen many pedestrians, it's more of an office area, so probably some measures to give the tram priority or a tram-only street (instead of the separate running through parallel streets) might have achieved some acceleration, too. Anyway, now it's built and open and needless to discuss the advantages of a tunnel.

Inpendent from what one might think about its utility, the stations are really nice. Generally they are very bright (and in fact let the old stations looks extremely dark now!) and each has something exciting about it. They are all whitish in their basic design, but this is enhanced with different elements in each station:

Pempelforter Straße has black geometric patterns, plus some yellow lines taking passengers down to platform level (on the first day, lots of panels were still missing here). From the eastern exits, passengers can transfer easily to tram 704, whereas to the stops for tram line 707, people need to walk a bit (and therefore the initially proposed double name Pempelforter Straße/Jacobistraße was eventually shortened).

Schadowstraße has dark blue walls in the staircases, and a video installation above the western tunnel mouth, which intends to capture movements from the surface and translate them into abstract objects projected on a big screen. Let's hope that this keeps working for a while, as my experience tells me that most installations of that kind sooner or later become dark as noone cares about maintenance. I wonder why they didn't call this station Jan-Wellem-Platz, which was a traditional tram hub, and Schadowstraße actually runs all the way up to Wehrhahn, so Pempelforter Straße station also serves the shops on Schadowstraße.

At Heinrich-Heine-Allee there are art objects hanging from the ceiling as you come down from the upper platforms. The interchange situation is o.k. At the southern end of the upper platforms (remember, it's a four-track route) a flight of stairs is available downwards, and escalators only upwards, but then a corridors runs stepfree to the western end of the lower platform. People who do not want to walk the stairs downwards, can take escalators up to the mezzanine and then another long escalator down to the new platform, or do the same detour using the lifts. Generally, all stations offer quite a large amount of up and down escalators. Otherwise, Heinrich-Heine-Allee is a plain white station, with the panels covering the eastern exit shaped in geometrical reliefs. When I saw this station unfinished in December, the metal-grid ceiling struck me as ugly, but now with the station finished it is not so bad after all.

With the entrances located in side streets, Benrather Straße is actually a T-shaped station box. In the mezzanine, there is another video installation showing our galaxy with different planets appearing and moving over the different screens. Unfortunately this is located in the mezzanine, so you cannot watch it while you're actually waiting for the tram. But the kids were quite excited about it on the first day. Like at most stations, a view from the mezzanine down to platform level is possible through a glass wall, adding to the open-space appearance. If there is any colour, here it would be silver, with some planelling in stainless steel but with Braille dots (I wonder if the graphic patterns mean something, though).

Graf-Adolf-Platz, like Schadowstraße, is kind of Madrid style, with its offset staircases and a sort of balcony-like mezzanine. Here, the walls next to the escalators are green with some abstract painting in black. Unfortunately, transfer to the tram lines crossing on the surface is not ideal, the shortest walk requires climbing stairs or waiting for the lifts, while the escalator exit requires a bit of a detour on the surface. There should really be a direct underground walkway to each of the busy east-west platforms.

Kirchplatz is the smallest of all stations, probably not too busy on a normal day either as there is no transfer option here. The complementary colour orange is only visible on some tubes mounted on all surfaces, which, if you look carefully, include some words, but it's difficult to make sense out of it.

There will be a new surface stop just after leaving the tunnel, Bilk S, but that hasn't been finished yet, apparently they had to wait for the old tracks to be severed to finish those platforms, and that's what they did last night immediately after the end of regular service on the surface routes through the city centre. At the old Kirchplatz loop, many local enthusiats said goodbye to tram lines 703 and 713 last night, using some old Duewag trams to do the final journeys. The new tunnel lines, however, are exclusively operated with the latest type of trams, NF8Us from Siemens, which are actually single-ended, but are coupled end-to-end as kind of permanent pairs. They run quite smoothly and the tracks through the tunnels are well laid, but inside they are not very spacious, maybe a result of the doors on both sides. In fact, the end module has two doors on one side, but just one on the other, and the second module has no doors at all, so on a crowded tram it can be quite a hassle to get to the next door to alight. And the special area for wheelchairs and prams is much too small, today there was always a problem with lots of families exploring the new system. I'm not quite sure whether the trams carry a ramp for those people to get off at one of the numerous stops without any platforms? So again, the new stations are fantastic with lots of escalators and lifts, but the connecting surface routes often rather pathetic with street boarding (at some stops passengers even have to cross two car lanes to get to the tram in the middle of the street. Most, if not all, of these stops are at least safeguarded by special traffic lights, but for car drivers not familiar with such old-fashioned tram routes these lights may easily appear too suddenly (they don't show green when no tram is around).

To finish off, a few words about the fare system. Verkehrsverbund Rhein-Ruhr (VRR) is probably the largest in Germany of these numerous fare systems, by population served it is the most important anyway. But being so large and multi-centred, it is also the most complex to understand for the occasional, but extensive rider. While fare class A always applies for a single city (although in some cities it is not really clear on maps where the city boundaries are) - in the case of Düsseldorf it is relatively clearly shown on their overall maps, which is important as many tram and Stadtbahn lines go beyond the city boundaries into neighbouring cities and to ride these stretches a class B ticket is necessary. This will cover all lines that start in Düsseldorf, and as long as you validate your ticket in the city centre, but it is not really clear how far you can actually travel on a class B day-ticket. You'd need to use the VRR Ticketberater and try around until you eventually get a map that shows where a B day-ticket is valid. During previous visits, my repeated experience was that noone, least those working for VRR, can give you a clear answer. Once they even suggested to buy a C or D ticket to be on the safe side. You can actually get a day ticket for the entire state of NRW, too. The main problem with A and B tickets is that the A day-ticket at 6.70 EUR has a fair price, but a B ticket, which may only be required for a few extra stations, costs the double for one day. So you'd better plan your trips carefully to make the best of the ticket you choose.
Mapwise, Düsseldorf is among the better places in the VRR area, usually famous for its crap maps. I just don't like the way the new underground tram routes are shown, like the Stadtbahn routes in different shades of blue, resulting in a complete blue mess around the Heinrich-Heine-Allee interchange. I think that it would be more helpful to use a different colour as I did on my maps. 

Can anybody show me on a transport map where Mörsenbroich is?

And one thing I had criticised already in December, but the maps still show the same problem: U71 and 708 trams and indicators at stops show a destination "Mörsenbroich", but this name does not exist on any map. So how should a person not so familiar with Düsseldorf know where this tram is going? And I daresay that Düsseldorfers don't know this place either as in all publications issued by Rheinbahn on the event of the line changes, line U71 is described as starting in Düsseltal, and on their own maps, the last stop Heinrichstraße must be in a neighbourhood called Derendorf. So what have we got here? A complete geography puzzle? Anyway, it is usually a thing of small provincial towns to call the destination of a tram something different from what the last stop is called. Or is it Dutch influence in Düsseldorf? So, Rheinbahn, if you want Düsseldorf to be a real city, do as real cities do, just rename Heinrichstraße into Mörsenbroich and put it on the map, Mörsenbroichers will like it! Or delete Mörsenbroich from all indicators. And there are lots of other termini to be renamed too.

By the way, anyone planning to visit Düsseldorf, don't forget to ride the H-Bahn from the airport to the airport railway station, it's free and fun:


Rheinbahn (incl. map)

Düsseldorf at UrbanRail.Net (feat. special photo gallery)