Sunday, 5 August 2018

AMSTERDAM Noord/Zuidlijn

I hadn't been to Amsterdam for some 10 years, and for a good reason, because the next thing I wanted to see was the Noord/Zuidlijn in operation, and that was delayed by many years, difficult to say nowadays by how many, at least 7. In my book "Metros in Holland", published in 2007, I quoted the scheduled opening date as 2013, well, now we know, it took until 2018, but at last, it is open and functioning. So I decided to go for the opening, as it doesn't happen too often nowadays in Europe that entire lines are put into operation.

All in all it's a good line, it will hopefully transform the city's transport network entirely as it is the north-south spine, the kind of route that is usually built as a city's first metro line, but for several reasons, the Oostlijn was built first, and with all the complications occurred in the construction of that line in the 1970s, the city preferred to postpone any more underground construction in the city centre and subsequently just developed the easy-to-build ring line. Eventually the Noord/Zuidlijn came back to the surface as tunnelling with boring machines seemed more feasible now rather than the caisson method used on the Oostlijn's underground stretch. But with Amsterdam's delicate soil even this proved difficult, and the stations were built as cut-and-cover boxes anyway. This caused some problems especially in the Vijzelgracht area leading to those delays.

I have travelled the new line up and down quite thoroughly over three days. On Saturday, July 21st, after the official inauguration, it was free to ride for everybody, and although they had issued special online access tickets, noone care about them and doors were just open (I had registered for three of four slots...). Sunday, 22nd, was full with locals exploring the new line and on both days I didn't see major agglomerations or disruptions, just the next-train indicators did not work, simply saying M52 passes every 6 minutes. Monday, 23rd, was then the first normal day of service, when I also took it to travel from Vijzelgracht, where my hotel was, to Zuid, to catch a train to Utrecht. On this occasion, the train was stopped for several minutes at Europaplein as apparently the single track dedicated to M52 at Zuid was not empty yet. This is probably the major flaw of the whole line - the southern terminus being very basic. And as it seems, the signalling block is far too long, and the train can't leave Europaplein before Zuid is empty, but the distance is quite long between these two stations. Zuid thus also determines the minimum headway, which at 6 minutes is not too frequent for a brand new trunk metro route. As for now, no real project is approved for some kind of extension beyond Zuid. Instead, Sneltram line M51 would be cut into two separate services, in fact the future M51 becoming a sort of ring line continuing to Isolatorweg, while the light rail-style route to Amstelveen and Westwijk would be served by a low-floor tram line which would terminate outside Zuid station. In this way, there would be two tracks available for M52 at Zuid. The discussion about allthese projects, however, is still going on. Personally I have no preferred option, but some sort of southern extension, either to Amstelveen or Schiphol should be built to give the entire line more direct passengers as for now it is actually a rather short line. At the northern end, there are not many options, as the line now terminates at the edge of the built-up area, and two branches as proposed in the old days would require long curves.

Except for the constraints at Zuid and the not yet working next-train indicators, I have not observed any technical flaws. The Alstom trains, which are the same as on the other lines where they have replaced all the older stock since my last visit, are spacious and pleasant. I was hoping strongly that the opening of the Noord/Zuidlijn would be accompanied by a new numbering system. I find M50-M54 quite ridiculous for a metro system, when everywhere in the world metros usually have low numbers or letters or colours. Letters were probably ruled out as this would mean copying Rotterdam's system, and low numbers were not used to avoid confusion with trams. But lots of other cities have a metro line M1 and also a tram line no. 1 and noone gets confused.

The design of the stations does not produce an immediate "wow" effect and compared to recent projects I have visited (Warsaw's M2, Düsseldorf's Wehrhahn tram tunnel and Helsinki's Länsimetro) this was the least exciting. It's not bad, but maybe a bit sober and dark. Someone mentioned to me that the architects argued that they chose those simple (though high-quality) claddings because the colour would be added by the people - what a silly approach... normal commuters often are grey and grumpy and add little colour! Instead, the environment they have to stay in waiting for their train should be pleasant to cheer up their day. That's why Moscow's metro stations were built as palaces from the beginning. Anyway, compared to the older underground stations in Amsterdam, the new ones look very spacious, and most are enhanced with some work of art to improve the overall look. Let's have a look station by station, starting in the north:

NOORD - very pleasant platform level with an overall swung roof and convenient bus bays on either side of the station for onward travellers. Surprisingly, most areas below the platform were not finished yet, not even the GVB office as if noone had believed that this line would ever open. By personal experience (waiting for friends to arrive) I also know that the P+R facility is badly signed especially from urban roads, while from motorway accesses it should be visible. The artwork is on the platform floor in form of birds and other figures engraved in the pavement:

NOORDERPARK - first problem here is that the name is too similar to the terminus, no idea why they didn't keep the Johan van Hasseltweg name as used in the project phase. This surface station is simpler than Noord, and not the entire platform is covered. There is an artwork in the form of ruins beyond the southern end of the platform (thus difficult to take pictures from the platform against the sun!). Also here, a bus bay was built for routes serving the neighbourhoods. Both surface station in the Noord district have been criticised for being too far from where people live, as the line runs in the median of a motorway, but at both stations some construction activity is going on to insert them into a more urban environment:

CENTRAAL STATION - extremely sober platform area contrasting with the cathedral-like area at the southern end. The station lies like a box below the main railway station (built with caissons like the adjoining river crossing). From the northern end of the side platforms, quite direct flights of escalators lead to the northern, more modern concourse, above which the bus station is located and the ferry terminal is just a short walk away. From the southern end of the platforms, separate escalators lead up to the mezzanine from where exits go to the tram stops and the side entrances of the railway station. To change to the old Metro lines, another set of escalators goes up directly to the platform level, you just walk left for some 50 m and there the M51, M53 or M54 train waits for you. So this is a rather convenient interchange. The funny thing is that if the old line is ever extended towards Isolatorweg (and I hope it will), the eastbound track will run through this transfer corridor (which would then become narrower), whereas the westbound track would require a bridge structure through the columns of the "cathedral". I don't know up to which level this has been prepared, at least the position of the pillars should make this possible. So, maybe in 10 years we can see a Sneltram train crossing the Noord/Zuidlijn station in an encased bridge, just like tram 306 does at Bochum's Rathaus Süd station.

ROKIN - actually a plain station with island platform but for the waiting passengers probably the most interesting station on the line as the walls are full with diverse motives that ought to be related to the houses above, so a paintbrush may be a hint that there is (or used to be) a painter's shop, for example. As all underground stations, it has exits at either end:

VIJZELGRACHT - very deep plain island platform, while the artwork is more of the contemplative type above the southern sets of escalators. This is dedicated to local artist Ramses Shaffy and shows the different stages in his life in the form of metro lines, which are gradually illuminated and eventually show his face. So, a nice light installation which will cause some people to stop for a while to observe how it develops as it takes several minutes to complete:

DE PIJP - the most noteworthy thing here is the fact that the platforms are located on top of each other, making the entire station rather narrow, with entrances placed into new buildings. There is some sort of artwork along the mezzanine wall, but not too apparent:

EUROPAPLEIN - has side platforms with widened end sections to cope with larger crowds during events at the exhibition centre it serves. Here some visual extra is added in the form of a pinkish film and some large-scale images on the walls:

ZUID - as stated before, is a very basic and probably ever since the first trains stopped here, a rather temporary station. Even for the railway, it is more like a 4-track stop, a few shops in the passageway under the tracks but not really a proper station. It is supposed to become a major station, but that was already the plan 10 years ago and nothing much has happened since. The so-called "Zuidas" project would see the parallel motorway in tunnel and the entire station rebuilt (plus an M52 extension or not), but even if this goes ahead, it will take many years to finish. Now from the arriving M52 you can change to a westbound M50 or a southbound M51 just across the platform. M52 trains could go to some sidings further west, but they would have to cross the southbound M51 track at grade:

So let's hope that Amsterdamers and tourists will benfit from the new line so that some proposals for more lines may be rediscovered. Luckily, the closure of the gap between Isolatorweg and Centraal is one of the options, and for me the most urgent to create a proper network. Amsterdam's trams are a lot of fun, of course, but they are not really fast, despite their drivers going pretty fast. On the occasion of the opening of the Noord/Zuidlijn, the tram network was restructured although the number of trams serving the Centraal Station has not really diminished. Three lines now serve the semi-circular route along Weteringschans via Weesperplein and Vijzelgracht. Line 16 was cancelled, thus leaving some sections without passenger service, no idea whether this is for good, or just temporary as there was some road construction starting along its route. Otherwise on the tram front, nothing much had changed since my last visit, the new CAF trams are expected next year to replace some of those old high-floor trams still in use today. 

While the new R-Net livery looks quite o.k. on the new metro trains and even on the repainted CAF Sneltram stock, I hope that the tram will be delivered in the classic blue/white livery. The R-Net branding is also visible on the new metro logo, but after talking to some local people I came to the conclusion that this sort of rebranding is completely useless. Noone knows what R-Net stands for and why all cities in the Randstad should use it. A typical case of some manager's decision to leave his stamp on something entirely meaningless. I'm sure that by the time it is implemented more or less around the region some other guy will come up and invent a new brand.

What has been implemented completely since my last visit, when only Rotterdam Metro had started, is the nationwide OV-Chipkaart. In this respect, the Netherlands are certainly a world leader. This means you just use the same plastic card for any kind of transport in the entire country. As a visitor, of course, you need to get one first for 7.50 €, then you add any amount of money and travel as you please. While this is excellent and really easy for the occasional traveller, it has some disadvantages, of course, as you need to check in and out everywhere, even on city buses. You always pay a distance-based fare (and 4 € if you forget to check out on urban transport vehicles). This procedure can be quite slow on trams and buses when there are a lot of people. You can use the card also on NS trains, but if you get to an area where a train of a different company stops at the same platform you first need to check out from NS and then check in at the private operator's pole (usually located side-by-side). This is also the case at the shared Amstel NS/metro station, where there is cross-platform interchange but no gates on the platform. 

If you want to travel within Amsterdam by tram and metro, a GVB day pass or for various days is probably the better option, but it is not valid on NS trains or other buses (funnily those in R-Net livery...). Besides the Netherlands, only Japan offers a similar one-card-for-all payment system although not implemented everywhere there.

In the early 2000s, Amsterdam started a metromorphose programme which as a pilot project saw a completely rebuilt Ganzenhoef station. But later only small changes were made to the existing surface stations, mostly those concrete walls were removed from the platforms and replaced by transparent glass wind-protection walls. They could have used some striking colours to paint the metal supports. Currently all the underground stations are under refurbishment, with all ceilings having been removed and in some, new tiling was visible, quite a pleasant style:

Inside the metro and tram cars there is quite a nice diagram map called Railkaart (PDF), which is also available at the GVB website. Unfortunately, their employees know nothing about it and it is not available to take away. Neither were there any giveaways on opening day, just a small brochure about Art on the Metro and some photocopied sheets about connecting bus routes. GVB had an updated version of their geographical map (PDF), though, but unfortunately, this has not improved in the last 10+ years. I find it rather impossible to read, especially for visitors, and I will never understand why the stops are not shown with a name tag. Unfortunately this kind of map is still also visible in other Dutch cities, although also Den Haag has a nice diagrammatic tram map.

I may be back to Amsterdam next year for a short visit, but I will certainly visit the other Dutch cities with trams as I'm preparing a "Tram Atlas Benelux" for late 2019. I hope by then also the new line in Utrecht will be ready which I had the pleasure to explore by bicycle with some local experts. All seems to be in place, but some buildings around the railway station which are emerging above the tram tracks seem to delay the final work. But I'm looking forward to the Budapest-style CAF trams in operation:


UrbanRail.Net > Amsterdam