Saturday, July 18, 2015

MANCHESTER Metrolink



  
 Central Park - impressive structure for a little used station on the line from Victoria to Rochdale via Oldham

Staying from 3 to 9 July 2015, I had enough time to explore the large Metrolink system, the most extensive of its kind in the U.K., so it deserves a closer look. I used Manchester also as a base for day trips to Blackpool, Liverpool and Sheffield, which will be dealt with in separate blog posts.

Unfortunately I could not experience the Metrolink system in its normal form, as the network has been split into two parts since 28 June to allow for the reconstruction of the central St. Peter's Square stop and its connection to the second city crossing, now finally under construction. This division will last all summer and after that, service will still be restricted through St. Peter's Square until 2016.

Deansgate-Castlefield - during the temporary closure of the city centre route probably the busiest station on the network, now enhanced with three tracks

To start with, Metrolink is not bad, but in many aspects far from perfect, too. For British standards, it has been expanded so massively and so rapidly that the critical observer might easily get suspicious. So let's have a closer look. And the look of the system has also changed drastically within only a few years: the complete rolling stock has been replaced, all original Ansaldo trams are out of service, although I saw a few still in the yard at Old Trafford, and all stops restyled in yellow. The overall appearance of the system is very good, all pretty clean, no graffiti at all, no litter or signs of vandalism, maybe the old stations on the original lines could do with some facelifting regarding platform surfaces. Electronic next-tram displays worked fine at all times, and delays were within the normal. Ticket machines also worked whenever I needed them and are pretty easy to handle. No problem paying with a German debit card, and they issue proper receipts, good for my tax office. The tickets they issue, however, don't have a magnetic strip which is required to go through the gates at railway stations, so you'll need to show your ticket to an agent there who will open the gates for you. I'm not sure about the older lines, but the newer sections are all fully accessible, mostly via ramps, while some stops have lifts. Boarding the train is completely level, and on the platform surface there is a mark indicating where people in wheelchairs or with prams or strollers should get on to find the area reserved for them. Therefore even single trams always stop at the very front of the platform, in fact the tram's front is beyond the platform end, as the platforms are just long enough to accommodate 2-car sets. The new Bombardier Flexity Swift trams are quite nice, not too clumsy or bulky for street running, and the seats are certainly much better than those in the Cologne sister cars, where they have cheap plastic seats. They run as single or double units, the latter being shown on the next-tram indicators as 'dbl', so people can prepare themselves to use the whole length of the platform.

Let's start with the older legs, which I had visited ten years ago, when I was preparing my book 'Metros in Britain' (no longer available). At that time I was quite shocked by the hopping and shaking (hunting) of the Ansaldo trams on the old railway routes to Bury and Altrincham. Apparently, these lines were taken over from former British Rail without doing much track upgrading and remained so for a long time. I would assume that in the meantime there has been some track replacement, but still, even the new Bombardier Flexity Swift trams start hunting at some higher speed, but at least the up-and-down hopping has disappeared, making for a more comfortable ride. As said before, the stations have all been restyled in the new yellow corporate design, which is quite nice, although I didn't really see the necessity for such a drastic change, the turquoise used before was quite nice too and could have become typical of Manchester. Interestingly the colour change took place at the time when RATP Dev took over operation, and RATP has used a similar turquoise for many decades. Let's hope that the new livery stays, as this often becomes part of a city's identity. Many stations on these original lines preserve some old buildings, unfortunately not always in use, though, like at Trafford Bar, but mothballed. While most of the newer legs are only served every 12 minutes, the Bury and Altrincham lines normally have a tram every six minutes. I was quite surprised to find out that the Altrincham line is not signalled like a railway line despite its alignment and history, just the short single-track section around Navigation Road, where the second track is still used by mainline trains has railway signals, otherwise it's all 'line-of-sight' operation. The Bury line, however, uses proper signalling north of Queen's Road, where the second depot is located. Just tramway signals are also used on later built or converted lines.

The Bury and Altrincham lines were first linked via a surface route through the city centre, with a branch going to Piccadilly railway station. This was certainly the cheaper option and the tram got integrated into the urban environment, but I still think that Manchester would have deserved some kind of Liverpool-style underground solution. I do recognise that the current solution has some advantages, the crawling speed is compensated by the easy accessibility of the surface stops, but the enormous and ever increasing amounts of trams passing through Piccadilly Gardens is quite horrible, if not dangerous. I guess the second city crossing will only partly alleviate this situation. Piccadilly Gardens could be quite a nice place, but I find it rather unpleasant. While the garden part is separated from the transport part by an ugly concrete wall, buses and trams seem to run over pedestrians any second, and strange that this does not occur more often. And this time I only saw the reduced version as normally the trams come from all sides (trams from Market Street towards Piccadilly Gardens additionally use a by-pass track, making things even less clear for pedestrians!). Further down, next to the Piccadilly 'tunnel' portal there is a huge field marked on the roadway to remain clear for trams to pass, which is hardly possible during rush hour traffic, so it is quite amazing that the trams can make their way through this point without much problem. All in all, priority at traffic lights works well around the system, although it could be faster by a few seconds so that the trams don't almost come to a halt and then have to accelerate again. But I hadn't observed any annoying waits caused by road traffic turning first or so.

Victoria station - new cityside access with complicated track layout

The Metrolink's Victoria station layout has been completely rebuilt recently, but the result is one of the least convincing elements of the whole system. The new track arrangement includes the junction for the future second city crossing plus a three track station with two island platforms, so the middle track can be used in either direction, and all that laid out in a curve, resulting in a weird approach via numerous points and winding tracks. I will be curious to see this area in full operation in 2017.

MediaCityUK - on weekends served by Eccles-bound trams

The next branch to open was the Eccles line, which offers nice views of the Salford Quays, but technically speaking, it is Manchester's weakest line, as it virtually crawls through this former docklands area at minimum speed until you get to Harbour City where a single-track branch diverges to MediaCityUK. I was there at the weekend, when this branch is served by trams running through to Eccles, so they have to reverse here. But this situation seemed rather confusing, not just for me. Noone seemed to know which side platform is for which direction, as the next-tram indicator on the southern platform showed both directions, and that on the northern didn't show anything. I assume they always use the same platform for either direction, so it should clearly be signed. During the week, when the stub is served directly, probably just one platform is enough anyway. For passengers travelling on towards Eccles, the detour via MediaCityUK certainly adds several minutes to their journey. Once the trams reach Broadway, they can continue at reasonable speed, despite the street-running, but as the stops are offset from the roadway, traffic lights hold back road traffic so the trams can proceed without obstacles (may not always be the case during rush hour traffic, though). At Eccles, some buses unload their passengers directly at the Metrolink platform, otherwise the bus station is just a short walk west.

Chorlton - typical station on line to East Didsbury

All the other branches were opened as part of the big-bang expansion during recent years. The South Manchester Line that terminates at East Disbury is probably the best of all. It diverges from the Altrincham line in a grade-separated junction with quite steep ramps and then runs fairly straight along an old railway corridor to its final stop, so it offers a good speed, and despite using a railway corridor, its stations seem to be close enough to the adjacent housing estates. The latest addition to the system diverges from the East Didsbury branch, and boasts everything from light rail-style interurban routes to street-running. Again, the street-running sections seem to work fine by holding back road traffic before the trams enter those sections. The branch, however, has several very tight curves which are negotiated at minimum speed, not really up to state-of-the-art tramways - interestingly, the latest edition of "Tramways & Urban Transit" has an in-depth article about this issue, which seems to be related that too many tramway engineers come from mainline railways and don't quite understand the design differences, so this is not just my non-expert observation. The worst such curve is actually off-street, just south of the Shadowmoss stop before the final run towards the airport. I think that actually what is known as the Airport Line would deserve being called South Manchester Line, and the South Manchester Line could be called the Didsbury Line instead, as although the airport is its final destination, it is certainly not the preferred option to go to the airport, with a ride to the city centre taking some 50 minutes every 12 minutes, while direct trains run every few minutes and just take some 15 minutes to Piccadilly. On the Airport Line there is certainly one stop missing along the long street-running section between Martinscroft and Benchill, but obviously they couldn't find a location where neighbours would give up some parking spaces in front of their houses.

Airport Line - street-running section near Benchill

The East Manchester Line connects to the former stub at Piccadilly. It is a mix of grade separated light rail with two underpasses, and an old-fashioned tramway with street-running through Droylsden, maybe the most conflictive of this type as far as interference with road traffic goes, as the trams may even have to stop for buses stopping along the same road. In fact, quite weird that a bus line (216) is maintained basically all the way from Piccadilly to Ashton parallel to the tram line. The outer section is on a separate right-of-way, but this doesn't really help to get higher speeds as it crawls through a large roundabout and then to the terminus.

Tram approaching Ashton-under-Lyne terminus in the background

Like the early Bury and Altrincham lines, the Rochdale Line again is mostly a converted and rebuilt railway line, but unlike the older lines, the trackbed was completely renewed. It features Manchester's most outstanding light rail station at Central Park, a quiet business park, with its cable-stayed roof structure. The flyover that crosses the Leeds main line is a massive structure with a think wall in the middle, similar to what you can see on the Bury Line on its way across the M60 motorway.
Just before getting to Oldham, the trams leave the old railway alignment in a sharp curve to serve Oldham town centre, however not what would be the town's main street, but parallel to eat, so when you get off, you get to see the ugly back side of a major shopping centre, while the real High Street is a pedestrianised street on the other side. The street-running Oldham section terminates as the line rejoins the old railway corridor east of Oldham Mumps. The trams actually have to negotiate a steep ramp, as the old railway used to cross that point on a viaduct, now demolished, though. The ride then is pretty fast north to the point where the Leeds main line has to be crossed again, this time the flyover is only single-track as is the adjoining ramp down to Rochdale railway station. It is not really convincing why the tram stop is located across the street from the railway station and not right next to it, I would think that space could have been made available to allow for a 2-track full-length stop there. This way, passengers would not need to cross a busy street to change from tram to train, and many do, as trains from there to Victoria station are frequent and much faster than the tram. 

Change from single-track to double-track near the Rochdale Town Centre terminus

From the railway station, the trams wind down towards Rochdale town centre, the last section being single-track for no obvious reason, maybe to avoid a scissors-crossover in what is a large curve. Anyway, as the traffic lights seem to work fine, this should not be a bottleneck.

Construction for second city-crossing in full swing between Victoria and Exchange Square

The second city crossing is now under construction, at least around St. Peter's Square and between Victoria Station and Exchange Square, which is actually the only stop on this new link. I would have preferred a second stop close to Albert Square. Interestingly, St. Peter's Square was initially one of those stops with only a short high-level platform and the rest as a ramp or low-level, all to reduce the "visual impact" in this urban environment. It was later rebuilt to become a proper full-length high-level, and now it is even expanded and will have two full-length high-level island platforms and four tracks.

Farewise, Manchester is not too bad, maybe the range of available tickets is almost too large. You have to choose between daytickets covering just one type of transport or two or three, i.e. train, tram and/or bus. The area covered is the entire Greater Manchester region, all the way to Wigan, for example, so the prices are not too excessive. But being raised with the concept of integrated transport, I do not really understand why one should choose different types of transport, when one "journey" should normally be able to be done using all different types to get from A to B. So, the differentiation should rather be done by area than by mode. In many cases, people will not have the choice whether to use tram rather than train, or depend on an additional bus, and as the fares for individual day passes and those for combined modes are not too different, I think a simple unitarian cover-all-modes pass would simplify the whole fare structure. Single fares are valid for a single operator, anyway, Metrolink's fares start from 1.20 for a trip in the central area to 4.70. for the longest possible journey. There are frequent inspections on the trams! Those who can't resist can also get electronic tickets, but after my recent negative experience in London with the Oystercard, I cannot recommend any of these for real urban rail explorers!

As the system has grown so much in recent years, I think it was about time to introduce some line numbering system. Unlike the Docklands Light Railway, for example, Metrolink lines are at least shown in different colours on the network maps, but these colours are not used to actually name the lines, so they wouldn't say the "Blue Line", instead it is always something like the "Bury-Altrincham service"! I have never understood the British reluctance to using line numbers, as this is nothing that hurts, it just helps! Funnily, on the Croydon Tramlink, the trams display a route number, but this is not reflected on their maps! I bet the old first-generation tram systems must have used line numbers, or didn't they either?

LINKS

Metrolink at TfGM


Metrolink at UrbanRail.Net


LIVERPOOL Merseyrail



 
 Liverpool South Parkway station, opened in 2006

While staying in Manchester, I took a day trip to Liverpool on Tuesday, 7 July 2015, to refresh my impressions of the Merseyrail system and see how the city has developed since my last visit 10 years ago, and I was actually positively surprised. Merseyrail hasn't changed much, so there was not really anything new to see except the interchange at South Parkway, where I got off the train from Manchester. A very spacious, though not too busy station which provides bus shuttles to John Lennon Airport. As the weather was not so bright in the morning and I wanted to take some pictures of the refreshed livery of the trains, I first travelled into the city and went for a walk down the redeveloped waterfront.

James Street inbound platform - typical look of all refurbished stations

Getting off at Liverpool Central, I was already surprised how this station had been refurbished and looked a bit nicer than before, although the horrible cladding on the walls is still there. Later I went over to the Wirral side and the sun came out, so I got the shots I wanted to be featured in my forthcoming "Tram Atlas Britain & Ireland". While the surface stations still looked pretty much the same as I remembered them, almost all underground stations have recently been refurbished. The 1970s brown cladding was replaced with friendly white panels, while maintaining the overall look of the tube stations. Currently the Moorfields tube station on the Wirral loop is out of service for refurbishment, which leaves just the Moorfields platforms on the Northern Line for upgrading, which is planned to be done soon. 

Moorfields - Northern Line inbound platform - still in its original appearance

Rather by chance, I happened to see the Water Street exit from James Street station, which is only open during peak hours. It is quite a long and inclined foot tunnel leading to an exit at Water Street/Drury Lane used by many office workers in that area. The tunnel is illuminated with the colour of the light changing continuously:

  

 Unfortunately, step-free access into the trains will have to wait until a new generation of trains arrives, mostly it is quite a big step up for boarding. The current trains have partly been refurbished once again in the inside, while on the outside all have received a new "livery", although this is just a film with different themes that is covering the sides of the train, like you would do with adverts, I guess. So, everything looks refreshed.


On the outside, the trains now carry several different liveries

In some aspects, the system reminds me a lot of the Berlin S-Bahn, not least the sound of the electric trains, which is similar to our old 477s or the still-in-use 485s. And then there's the third-rail power supply, of course. On the other hand, operation is more like the New York Subway, with a train guard on every train travelling in the rear cabin. I find it funny anyway to hear a manual bell ring through the train and the driver who rings back, confirming he has understood the "ready to go" message, feels like an old tramway. While during the day, a 15-minute service is maintained despite the trains not really getting that busy, the same headway is operated during peak hours, and then platforms get very full, I saw quite some congestion at Moorfields, especially with trains going to three different destinations there are many people waiting for one of the following trains. The long Southport - Hunts Cross route is then operated with double trainsets, i.e. 6-car trains. So, all in all, I like Merseyrail and it's a pity other British cities of a similar size don't have a similar S-Bahn-type service, as most regional services are part of larger franchises. It is also a pity, Liverpool could not get its way with the tram project, which would have made this city an even more attractive destination for urban rail enthusiasts.


As for tickets, I actually planned to get a day pass, covering all of Merseyrail plus all buses in Merseyside, but in the end just got a day pass for Merseyrail proper, which at 4.90 GBP was quite cheap and enough for that day. Eventually I returned to Manchester Victoria on the world's first passenger railway, which finally, after more than 150 years, was electrified. Luckily, cheap day return tickets betweens these two cities can be used on any of the routes linking them.

LINKS

Merseyrail (Official Site)

Merseyrail at UrbanRail.Net


SHEFFIELD Supertram


Like Liverpool and Blackpool, I visited Sheffield on a day trip from Manchester during my stay there in early July 2015. On Monday, 6th, I met up with a good friend there and together we wanted to explore the system, altough for me there was actually nothing new to see since my visit in 2005, except for the new livery introduced shortly after that visit.

Supertram at Cathedral - with their red front, the trams still look colourful on rainy days!
 
Unfortunately, the weather was not too good, so I only managed to get a few good shots for my "Tram Atlas Britain & Ireland", now due for publication in October 2015. But anyway, we rode the sections we could, because this year, in different phases, many sections are closed for track renewal, so we had to do the section between the railway station and Gleadless Towend on a replacement bus, and unfortunately we got one with a more direct route and only found out later that there was another one which runs mostly along the tram route. Anyway, it was still interesting to ride on the Supertram again, and I eventually came to the conclusion that technically-speaking, it is probably the best system in Britain. The good old Duewag cars do a really good job, provide a smooth ride and take all curves and bends at good speed without making strange noises, so I would rate it "best tram track in the UK"! Also, the comfortable seats are worth mentioning, similar to what you find on Germany's most luxurious light rail system in Stuttgart.

Comfortable seating like in Stuttgart

Operated by Stagecoach, they offer a cheap day pass for just 3.90 GBP also valid on buses, but as we had to find out later, only valid on Stagecoach buses, not on First buses, which also run on urban routes, so that was a bit weird, as if there was a two-class transport service, one first-class offering trams and buses, and another second-class with just First buses. There are also more global day passes covering all trams, trains and buses in South Yorkshire. Tickets are sold and checked by conductors on the trams. With trams every 10 minutes on all lines, the service is particularly good on the western leg towards Hillsborough where there is thus a tram every 5 minutes.
Sheffield is the only city in the UK to use proper colour-coding for its lines, whereas in Manchester colours are just used on maps for each routing but you would nowhere find the words "Yellow Line" or "Yellow Route" as you would in Sheffield.

At Gleadless Townend, we had to change from tram to bus

The curious thing about the Sheffield Supertram is the fact that it was built and opened within a short period of time, but since its "completion" in 1995, it has not seen a single extension added to it! Being quite successful and popular, one might expect that more routes would have been built in the meantime.

Supertram approaching the terminus at Malin Bridge, only a short branch off the main Hillsborough route


Sheffield is currently building the UK's first tram-train route, with a branch from Meadowhall South to Rotherham. I'm not quite sure whether this was the most obvious route for such a pilot project. I guess the tram-trains will not be able to compete with the travel time offered by normal regional trains, the only advantage is that passengers will be taken directly into the city centre in Sheffield, although the main railway station is not that far from it anyway, and connected by trams. Otherwise, the new route doesn't really serve any important areas, and the Parkgate station at the namesake shopping mall in Rotherham could just be built as a normal train station, too.

LINKS

Supertram (Official Stagecoach site)

Supertram at UrbanRail.Net



Sunday, July 5, 2015

BLACKPOOL Tram


 Flexity near Manchester Square south of the Tower

Revisiting several urban rail systems in England's North West in preparation for my forthcoming 'Tram Atlas Britain & Ireland' I returned to Blackpool on Saturday, 4 July 2015, approximately 10 years after my first visit. This popular seaside resort hasn't changed much, but its tram line has completely.
For many decades, this coastal line had been operating exclusively with heritage tram cars, though offering a service not only designed for visitors, but also for the locals. A few years ago, they decided to upgrade the line and create a modern tram line as part of an urban transport system, and make the heritage service a separate business.

Two Flexitys at the southern terminus Starr Gate

The result of the line that reopened in 2012 is quite nice, and on this mostly sunny summer Saturday it was quite busy. When it gets quite busy, I wonder whether the onboard conductors are the most efficient way to sell tickets. It is certainly nice, especially for visitors, to buy a ticket from a person rather than a machine, but when the trams get very crowded, it is difficult for the conductors to keep control. The whole procedure reminded me of those female conductors I saw on Russian trams. There are mostly two conductors, so each one has one half of the vehicle to check, and in fact on each of my numerous boardings, except one, they came up and checked my day pass, which I bought from the first conductor I met: a paper ticket for 4.50 GBP which would also allow me to use the city buses. This shabby paper ticket shows a huge logo, when for the frequent ticket checks it would be more helpful to have the day of validity printed in large letters instead! Anyway, quite a good deal for people like us. For single rides they have fares according to distance, and since the line has been upgraded the stops are clearly visible and named, although the company still doesn't have a real map on their website, just a list of names (and for many years with an error: Bispham Sandhurst Avenue are two different stops!). So, while this fare integration with the bus service is very welcomed, I cannot understand why bus #1 serves exactly the same route as the tram? Is it for those locals who do not want to mix with the tourists? Is it because they don't trust the reliability of the trams (I have read that there have been problems...). Is the bus faster?

Flexity at the northern terminus Fleetwood Ferry

During upgrading all the stops were equipped with proper platforms and shelters, there is also an information board including timetables etc. Unfortunately those old shelters have disappeared. But what is surely missing for a state-of-the-art tramway are the electronic next-tram indicators. Especially along the section between North Pier and South Pier, many people hop on the tram for a relatively short ride, and in this case, a real-time indicator would be useful, because often people will rather walk instead of waiting too long, particularly when there is a delay. Normally, the trams run every 10 minutes.

Tram leaving the loop at the northern terminus Fleetwood Ferry

Fenced-off section between Little Bispham and Anchorsholme Lane

The ride as such is rather slow, mostly due to the fact that the trams run along the Promenade and people cross the tracks anywhere, but even on the northern, partly even fenced-off section, the trams are not too fast. On the paved Promenade section with grooved rails, the wheels can be rather loud. Luckily, the line doesn't have any significant curves, just the one south of the Anchorsholme Lane stop seemed a bit tight and noisy. The only street-running section at the northern end in Fleetwood is passed at reasonable speed.

Flexity - spacious interior, 2.65 m wide

I congratulate Blackpool for their decision to go for 2.65 m wide Flexity trams, they are much more comfortable than the typical 2.40 m wide trams mostly found on new tram systems, too. The seats are quite pleasant for my back. Inside the have visual and accoustic next-stop and destination announcements, a line panel is also mounted above the doors. The trams have no air-conditioning, but that is not really necessary as even on a very sunny day you get quite a breeze from the sea to keep you cool.

Open "boat car"


While I appreciate the modern tram service, those coming to Blackpool for the heritage trams will be very disappointed. Last Saturday, only two old trams were running! One 'boat' and one ex-Bolton double-decker, so not much to take pictures of. In 2005 I got to see more than 10 different ones. Now they operate them only in excursion mode doing round-trips between North Pier and Pleasure Beach. [Edit: So if you want to see more, be sure you check the annual schedule to know which days have more vehicles in service!]
    My proposal would be to add more of the old trams between Bispham or Little Bispham and Pleasure Beach to reinforce the modern trams on busy days, and to offer a normal day pass and a day pass+ which includes heritage trams too, or charge an extra pound for each boarding, so that people will use them again as a normal means of transport not like the many horse carriages you can also see along the Promenade, while at the same time visitors will enjoy simply looking at the variety of different cars Blackpool has to offer and which makes the town unique not only in Britain. It could be Europe's San Francisco once again!

ex-Bolton car #66 (1901)


LINKS






Saturday, June 20, 2015

MADRID Metro & Tram


Madrid's newest metro station, opened on 25 March 2015, with a large mural dedicated to famous guitarist Paco de Lucía

Since the 1980s I have been to Madrid several times, and especially towards the end of the 1990s, when metro construction was booming and I was living in Barcelona, I came regularly and on some occasions had the chance to even visit some construction sites. I have always had a warm welcome, so it is hard to criticise things, but I'll try to be fair... This time I stayed for a full week to explore not only the Metro system, but also some of the outer areas, like the tram in Parla, or the mountain railway C-9 in the Sierra – but the main purpose of this visit was to get lots of new photos for my forthcoming "Metro & Tram Atlas Spain", now set for publication in September 2015.

All in all, I would say, Madrid has one of the best transport systems in the world thanks to the amazing effort made between 1995 and 2011 when the Metro network was expanded significantly now covering almost every neighbourhood, plus a rather good Cercanías system which can be classified as S-Bahn/RER and on some sections offers a metro-like service. While fare integration has been quite good for season-ticket holders for many years, unfortunately it does not exist for occasional riders. Typical of Spain, single rides using multiple-ride tickets are rather cheap, so this may not be perceived as such an inconvenience, but again, it is somehow unfair for someone who needs to catch the Metro and a bus to be obliged to pay two fares, whereas someone who needs to take three metro lines to get to his destination, only has to pay one fare. While anything within the city of Madrid is included in fare zone A, some legs of the Metro extend beyond this zone and then the fare structure even for the Metro gets a bit funny. As long as you have a season ticket, the outer fare zones apply (B1 and B2), but if you need to get a single ticket, you'll need to know which outer leg you're on as each has a different fare and a different combined ticket with the zone A metro network. This results from the fact that these outer stretches of L7, L9 and L10 plus the entire L12 (MetroSur) have a special concession – but who cares? It is not the passenger's duty to know who the operator is, so at least the fares should be the same and easy to understand and to present in a list of fares, but Madrid's metro fares have become a special case. And stupidly, on L11, also the last station lies outside zone A. A nice voice reminds passengers that they need the respective ticket to exit from those stations. As the stations in the central area don't have exit control, these special fares are also checked in quite an excessive number of different ways, especially as the fare boundary does not necessarily coincide with the 'change of train' required on some lines. 

Ticket gates on the platform at Tres Olivos between L10's northern and main sections

While on L7 and L10 (Las Tablas and Puerta del Sur) there are gates on the platforms, at Puerta de Arganda on L9 there are none (I wonder if they have some sporadic ticket checks there, because otherwise people coming from Arganda or Rives could use the entire metro network with a ticket just for the outer L9 (which passengers need to know is "TFM"!).

Ticket gates at Puerta de Sur between L10 and L12, with large landscape mural


And I think Madrid's tickets are too small! Like the original Metro, the size of the tickets was also copied from Paris, and I was always afraid that I might lose mine. Although I had bought a tourist pass for the entire region (called zone T) for seven days (€70.80), it stopped working properly on the second day when I was out of town exploring the Metro Ligero and trying to return into the city from Aravaca on a Renfe Cercanías train. As Renfe just accepts this ticket but doesn't sell it, they couldn't do anything about it, but they opened the gate for me. So I had to go to Atocha and find a Metro employee who exchanged it, obviously it happens regularly. For regular users they already have creditcard-sized contactless cards which will ultimately replace the tiny magnetic tickets.
Well', let's leave the chaotic fare system (we'll come back to it later when talking about the Metro Ligero) and have a closer look at the Metro as such.

TFM section of L9, with stork nests on the overhead poles at Rivas-Vaciamadrid

Surprisingly, or fortunately, the Madrid Metro is one of the cleanest I know, probably only beaten by the super-polished Russian metros. There is no graffiti or scratching, and there are numerous vigilants. Generally, the stations are much better ventilated than in Barcelona, although some of the older stations in the city centre had a strange smell as if there was a problem with sewers nearby. All in all, Madrid's Metro feels rather safe, people behave properly and service is quite adequate with the last trains running around 1:30, although no night service on weekends as of yet. On the busier (mostly older) lines, headways could be shorter, especially on weekends, when most lines operate every 7 minutes or so.


I like Madrid's Metro logo, it is very emblematic and traditional, and even including the word "Metro". I also like the way it is placed at most stations, sitting on a kind of arch on top of the stairs that lead down into the Metro. Many of the newer stations, however, have an encased entrance and the logo is only mounted on the wall, not floating in the air. 


At several places I have seen a signpost showing the way to the Metro, sometimes saying '200 m', for example, but unfortunately this sign does not say to which station it will take you. This would not only be useful for Metro passengers, but also for pedestrians or car drivers lost in the big city. With the same goal, I would also welcome a Metro logo at some road intersections, as it would be better visible from some distance whereas the logo at the entrances is often hidden if you look for an entrance from further away.


What I appreciate most are the generous spaces of the newer stations, which is, however, contrasted by the rather narrow platforms of the older stations, modelled after the Paris Metro with their vaults and initially just 60 m long platforms. Whereas these have later been extended on L1 and L3, they are still that short on L2 and L4. And while I enjoy the simple, though elegant design of the new stations, I wonder whether it was really necessary to restyle many of the older stations in the same way, resulting in a somewhat uniform look of the Metro. 

Typical refurbished station on one of the older lines, with the station name actually meaning 'narrow' - a hint at the platform width?

And while I appreciate the use of different colours for individual stations, there is no real logic behind the choice of colours, so it is hard to associate a certain colour with an individual station. I think there was an initial idea of using white for interchange stations, but this idea was already dropped when Mar de Cristal opened in red in 1998. Already back in the 1920s, Grenander had developed a returning sequence of colours for the Berlin U-Bahn, so people would know that blue always follows white, for example, but nothing like this is recognisable in Madrid, the colours seem to be used at random and the same colour may even appear in two adjacent stations. In fact, on L6, where most stations are interchanges, the predominant colour of the refurbished stations seems to be white. With many of the older stations, now refurbished, having lost a lot of their original charm, it is good to have Chamberí on L1 now as a museum. This station was closed in the 1960s when the platforms in the other stations were extended. Some stations on L4 still look quite original although with their huge advertising boards the tiling is hardly visible.

Another weak point of the Madrid Metro is the often long walk between two lines. In a user-friendly way, this situation is even shown on metro maps. The walk is especially long between L6 and its intersection lines, as the L6 stations are not only at some distance from the respective interchange station, but also at a considerable depth, and unlike on newer intersections, the corridors and escalator shafts are much smaller and therefore less pleasant compared to the open-space, almost excessive escalators at Chamartín. This station is the most Berlinesque, not in style, but in generous provision for future lines that might never happen... There are six platforms all in all, so if the future lines are built, cross-platform interchange will be possible between two lines on each level in one (opposite) direction (similar to Pinar de Chamartín L1/L4), other transfers will be done via a huge intermediate level between the two platform levels. The future lines in questions are L11 which should one day reach Chamartín from the south via the east, and L14, which would take over the northern part of L10, while L10 would be extended north through the redevelopment area of the northern Castellana.

Future-proof station design at Chamartín, waiting for L11 parallel to L1

Open-space escalators between L1 (level -4) and L10 (level -2) at Chamartín 

The network layout is what it is, the result of a long history, so it is certainly not ideal, but a lot has been done to optimise it, especially by creating the long north-south axis L10, but many of the busiest sections still correspond to the old and small-profile lines L1-L5, while the newer lines, especially L7 and L9 seem oversized. Certainly the huge circular line L12 (Metrosur) has also remained far behind expectations, still running with 3-car trains on a 7 1/2-minute headway. The odd line, and each city has one, is certainly L11, only a short and sad stub of a huge project. It is fairly patronised, though, but very badly linked to the rest of the network, just at Pl. Eliptica to L6 via long corridor, and as L6 is circular, many passengers will have to change a second time to get into the city centre, and two transfers on L6 will increase journey times significantly. So, in my opinion, extending L11 to Atocha Renfe should have the highest priority now, and then I wouldn't take it to the eastern districts which already have L9 as some sort of tangential line, but directly north to Nuevos Ministerios to link it to L8, which has a very unnatural terminus there. In this way, L11 would be linked to several other lines and airport passengers would get a direct ride into the city centre and the AVE hub at Atocha, too. Now, many passengers change to L4 at Mar de Cristal which takes a while to get into the centre, and then many people will have to change again to get to Sol, which can be inconvenient with luggage as many of the older stations don't have lifts.

Line panels inside the trains in the style of the now-banned metro map can still be seen on L8 and L11 trains

Madrid's fun line is, of course, the Ramal (R) from Príncipe Pío to Ópera, which certainly provides an important service, a bit like the Waterloo & City Line in London. Unfortunately its Ópera station now also appears in boring white, whereas previously it boasted red and white tiles. 

Ópera Ramal station before and after refurbishment

Another major weak point of the system is its high number of stations that have only one exit, or at least only one exit from the platform, which is not only inconvenient as many passengers will have to walk long detours, but can also be a bit claustrophobic when you have long and often narrow side platforms with an 'escape' only at one end. This may be an issue in case of fire or other technical problems, but also in case of crime, although as said before, the system looks safe from this point of view and video cameras are everywhere and the next vigilant probably not far away (often having a chat with the ticket clerk upstairs... yes, all stations are manned with a Metro employee mostly sitting in an open box near the entrance gates to help people with ticket machines and other problems, although security staff seems to be moving between stations). But in conjunction with a necessary retrofitting of lifts, a second exit should really be taken into consideration where structurally feasible.  

All the stations built after 1995 usually have wide platforms and wide staircases plus up and down escalators in addition to lifts, and as the huge staircase is mostly located in the middle of the station, offset from the platform itself, this kind of claustrophobic impression is never given. 

Typical offset set of stairs and escalators in most of the newer stations, leaving a wide platform throughout

In Madrid, side platforms really dominate, although generally it is much cheaper to maintain stations with island platforms, fewer lifts, fewer escalators. The older stations of the Paris type have side platforms, I think, because this is what they learned in Paris, and it keeps the tracks straight. Modern metros often have island platforms because the running tunnels are excavated with TBMs as single-track tubes, resulting in a natural island platform. But in Madrid, the Metro company insisted on double-track tubes for their own good reasons (for example in case of a train failure, passengers can be evacuated easily by a parallel train), and this preference also resulted in natural side platforms, otherwise the station box would have to be about twice the length. 

Many stations have some kind of mural, like Ronda de la Comunicación on L10

The only section built with single-track tubes was between Mar de Cristal and Aeropuerto on L8, thus resulting in an island platform at Campo de las Naciones. While at Príncipe Pío full cross-platform interchange is provided between L6 and L10 (L10 on the outside with single-track approach tubes), Casa de Campo station also has an interesting layout. In fact, L5 theoretically uses the two tracks in the middle, and L10 the outer two, but as L5 terminates here, one track was covered, so people can change across the platform in all directions. Like at many other termini, the train actually remains in the station, mostly using the theoretical departure platform, and except during off-peak times, there is a flying change of drivers, i.e., while the arriving driver gets off, a new driver gets on at the other end and so the train leaves the station shortly after having arrived. The arriving driver now has enough time to walk to the other end of the platform to pick up the next arriving train. But unlike in New York, where the trains also mostly turn around in the stations, Madrid does have reversing sidings beyond the stations at all termini, if I recall correctly, except line R, L2 Cuatro Caminos and L4 Argüelles.

3-platform layout on some L6 stations, although with rather narrow island and side platforms

The circular L6 is certainly one of the strong lines in Madrid and despite its deep-lying stations very busy, and often overcrowded. Some stations features a 3-platform layout, but the initial idea of alighting on the central island platform and boarding from the side platforms is generally ignored, just the escalators use this rule, so even the island platform, which is a bit too narrow anyway, does get very crowded. What I don't like on L6 is the way the direction is signed as 'Andén 1' and 'Andén 2', as I never remember which is which, even the Inner/Outer Circle in Glasgow makes more sense to me. I would prefer, at least as some additional information to have major points listed, which could be Príncipe Pío, Cuatro Caminos, Nuevos Ministerios, Av. de América, Pacífico, Pl. Elíptica. Any sign could say 'Andén 1 > Príncipe Pío & Cuatro Caminos, for example, although I also like clockwise and anticlockwise, but that would be too clumsy in Spanish. But don't get me wrong, there are plenty of panels showing the entire circle and which 'andén' you should get for which station, but certainly not on all signs in these long corridors.

I do not really like the way the outer sections of L7, L9 and L10 are shown on maps. Operationally they are completely different and separate lines, so I think they deserve their own line numbers. The northern part of L10, also known as MetroNorte, could already be called L14 (in fact, early signs at station entrances already had a [14] sign), the outer L7 would could be L17 and the TFM section of L9 possibly L19. This way it would be clear from the start that people need to change trains. Although the necessity of a change of trains is depicted on the maps, still I observed passengers wondering when they got to the transfer point.

Confusing station names: Sierra de Guadalupe for the Metro, and Vallecas for Cercanías, although it is a single station complex

Another thing I need to criticise is the naming of interchange stations serving the Metro and Cercanías. While on MetroSur they found a satisfactory solution by naming all interchanges 'xxx Central' (e.g. Getafe Central) and Atocha Renfe has been fine for a long time, there are some where the names are misleading. On L9 there is a station called Vicálvaro, but two stations down the line, right under the Cercanías station called Vicálvaro is Metro station Puerta de Arganda. Similarly, Vallecas station for Cercanías corresponds with Sierra de Guadalupe Metro station, while Villa de Vallecas is the following station. Luckily in Coslada they have used the MetroSur pattern and called the Metro station Coslada Central. I wonder which name ADIF/Renfe will choose for the Cercanías station under construction right next to the new Paco de Lucía terminus on L9.

Generally signage is pretty good, I also like the dominant blue with the line colour ribbon. And also the blue and white livery of the trains. This colour scheme fits even the old 2000 and 5000 trains much better than what they originally had, which often is not the case when a new livery is introduced. Sometimes, when you arrive at a platform, there is no confirmation that you have arrived at the correct platform, if the electronic display is just showing something else. So, on the line ribbon, where it says 'Andén 1' or 'Andén 2' it should also indicate the final destination for trains on this platform - all trains go to the end of the line at all times (except for the usual start and end of service trains to and form the depot). Although the countdown in minutes for the next train is mostly quite o.k., the message that the next train is about to enter the station is pathetic. In Barcelona and Sevilla, there would just be a message saying "ENTRA", which even tourists can understand without knowing Spanish. In Madrid, however, they take the long way with a small, three-line message saying something like "El próximo tren efectuará su entrada en la estación"! It's good that the following train is normally also shown, so if one arrives over-crowded you can calculate whether it is worth to wait for the next, which might be backing up behind. But apparently the system only works from the moment the train starts from the first station, so on L4, for example, at San Bernardo you will not know when the next train for Pinar de Chamartín arrives until 1 minute before it does as it starts from the previous station. Especially when longer headways are operated, the signs should display the scheduled time for the next train.

The rolling stock is quite new and diverse. Like in Berlin, the small-profile trains on L1-L5 are a bit too narrow, especially as these are the busier lines. The older 2000 trains which don't allow you to walk from one car to another are all concentrated on L1 and L5, the latter has all the 'Burbujas', the bubble trains with that round glass front. L2, L3 and L4 plus R are exclusively served by the walk-through class 3000, so of these there are 4-car sets as well as 6-car sets. On the the large-profile network (L6-L12) there are also several types of trains, with the Ansaldo class 7000/9000 on L9 (mixed with old 5000s) and L7 and especially on L10. Although I don't like their streamlined front (I think metro trains can have more of a box shape...), what is especially ugly is the fact that the mostly run with the couplers uncovered, although the coupler is really only needed for special manoeuvres. 

Many of the Ansaldo trains always run with open couplers which makes them quite ugly!

The outer L7 and L10 are served with 3-car trains of this type. Although the seats don't match my back and the blue both inside and outside is slightly different from the Metro's colour, they offer quite a nice ride. Often, however I observed that when leaving a station they need like two attempts so as if the ATO doesn't get the train in motion at the first try. The older 5000s with married pairs, but no walk-through option, remain on L6 and mostly on L9. L6 is now primarily served by the newest class 8000 built by CAF, whereas older and shorter versions delivered by Alstom are in service on L8, L11 and L12. These could be extended to 6 cars if necessary. Although the cars are generally assigned to a certain line, inside they display stickers with a line panel for several different lines which may be a bit confusing. I guess the line they actually travel on should be enough and if they are switched to another line it won't be that expensive to change those stickers. Luckily a proper global-style network diagram has returned after several years of this horrible square-looking map designed by some friends of ex-presidenta Esperanza Aguirre!

Talking about maps, this Metro network diagram map is easily available to grab at most stations, but all other maps published by the Consorcio de Transportes, like that including Cercanías lines or the huge bus map for Madrid or for the entire region, these seem to be available only at the headoffice of the Consorcio, not even their information centre at Moncloa had some. The tourist office, however, still hands out a version dating from Dec. 2013! So, the Consorcio could really be more active in this field and establish more information points also in the central area, as most of these huge bus hubs are in areas further out.

Wider platform on underground section of ML1

In the suburbs, Madrid also has four tram or light rail lines. Three of them are called "Metro Ligero", and luckily, they stopped building more of them. Normally, the idea of having feeder lines with less capacity on some outer sections is not bad, but these lines around Madrid are really badly designed. At first sight, they appear to be proper light rail lines, but later you have to discover that they are old-style tramways with excessively tight curves which requires too many stretches where the trams crawl. And what's especially annoying is the fact that these curves are found in places where even non-experts would think, why the hell didn't they lay a straight track here or create a gentle curve? There are several underground stretches, but instead of what should be expected from a light rail system, the tunnels were not built to metro standards with wide curves, they resemble old-fashioned underground tram routes, like those found in Boston, Philadelphia or Vienna. Another technical issue is the fact that, if I recall correctly, the entire system is built with grooved rails embedded in concrete. I would consider grooved rail on interurban routes completely unnecessary, as Vignol track always provides a much more comfortable ride! And having the track embedded in concrete makes it difficult and expensive to adjust badly-laid track! The weirdest track configuration can actually be found at the depot entrance which reminded me a lot of the pathetic depot access in Edinburgh.

Narrow platform at Somosaguas Sur on ML2

While ML1 in the north is not too bad as a feeder line, as it connects to the Metro system at both ends and is pretty short anyway, the western lines ML2 and ML3 are quite long, but their feeder function is rather limited as they travel too slow and too far, and connections can only be made at Colonia Jardín to L10, which during peak hours is pretty busy anyway, and at Aravaca for Cercanías. Especially for passengers starting their journeys at Boadilla, a bus is much faster as it goes nonstop to Moncloa. Interestingly, the two underground stations on ML2 have no ticket gates, but those on ML1 have them, actually down on the platform. 

Colonia Jardín, starting point for ML3 (on the left) and ML3 on the right - each line becomes double-track just outside the tunnel station

While ML1 is within fare zone A, the western lines are mostly in zone B, just Colonia Jardín is in zone A, and to change from ML2 to ML3, you have to pay an additional fare! Even if you have a day pass or monthly pass, you are supposed to validate inside the trams. I guess this is just to get proper passenger numbers, but as for the older magnetic cards, I think they cannot store your validation, and ticket inspectors actually on look at what is stamped on your ticket. To get on the tram at Colonia Jardín, you need to validate at the gates anyway.

Tram/Cercanías interchange at Parla Centro - here the trams open their doors on both sides!

The fourth tram line in the region is the Tranvía de Parla, a suburb some 20 km south of Madrid. There is a Cercanías C-4 train going there about every 10 minutes. This tramway is more of a 'normal', less pretentious system doing the job it was designed for, which is distributing passengers arriving from Madrid on a circular route via the town centre and the new residential areas in the east. Apparently, more houses were planned, so it runs through some empty parts, too. And unfortunately, an additional station on C-4 has not happened, this would have provided a much faster connection for those residents in Parla Este. What I found a bit irritating was the long break at Estrella Polar or Venus to keep the timetable. As the line is not very long, and it is entirely on its own right-of-way and thus likely to accumulate big delays caused by other traffic, I think it should be enough to pause at the railway station and then do the loop without any breaks, as these breaks are very inconvenient for passengers getting on at the stops before the break point or getting off just after them. What is also a bit weird for me is that the stops on the eastern segment, where the line uses parallel streets for each direction, carry 'Norte' and 'Sur' to distinguish them, when my sense of orientation would clearly suggest 'Este' and 'Oeste'!

LINKS

Metro de Madrid (incl. ML1)




Madrid Metro etc. at UrbanRail.Net (with more links)