Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Vitoria-Gasteiz, the least-known of the three Basque provincial capitals is actually the seat of the Basque government and parliament, so in recent years the city seems to have expanded enormously with new neighbourhoods to the north of the city centre, and a lot of new construction also to the east. These northern districts are served by the new tram, which at first sight seems to be a copy of the slightly older Bilbao system, but fortunately it features several improvements. Both systems are operated by Euskotren.

The CAF vehicles in Vitoria-Gasteiz are composed of 5 modules as opposed to just three in Bilbao, and the floor is 100% low-floor whereas in Bilbao the section next to the driver's cabin is raised. A real improvement is the next-tram indicator mounted on top of one of the shelters, so it is visible from the distance. The network is actually made of two lines, although these are not numbered. As the indicator is only able to display one number, it alternates: minutes for city-bound trams are shown in red plus a single dot (for those who cannot see colours properly), two dots and green is for trams to Ibaiondo, while three dots and white numbers annouce trams to Abetxuko. This peculiar system is properly explained at each stop:

Unfortunately trams run only every 15 minutes on each branch, thus every 7.5 minutes on the shared stretch, and they were reasonably busy during my Monday visit. The routes are almost completely on a separate right-of-way along wide avenues, except for the single-track section through the old part of Abetxuko, and a section through the city centre between Parlamento and the terminus (there should actually be another stop on this section!), where cars and buses share the same lanes.

Given the usefulness and acceptance of the initial system it would be a real pity if this system was not expanded to the emerging districts to the east of the city centre.

In Donostia/San Sebastián, for a few years now, Euskotren has been promoting the traditional 'Topo' as Metro Donostialdea. It is still a long way from becoming a proper metro although several steps have been taken. However, it still gives the impression of a suburban railway rather than a metro.
Many sections close to Donostia have been upgraded and doubled to increase frequencies, allowing a train every 7.5 minutes during peak hours on the central stretch, but a major bottleneck is of course the Amara terminal station where trains need to cross many tracks to reverse and continue their journey:

This problem was about to be solved by the planned city tunnel with a station right in the heart of the city and two more stations in the western districts before joining the existing line at Lugaritz (the new station there actually points in the wrong direction, requiring a long curve back to the west to serve the neighbourhoods of Bentaberri and Antiguo). And although construction contracts had already been awarded, a government change cancelled everything and the new government now came up with a new solution, well, it is basically the old one but includes only one station in the Bentaberri area. But I guess that it is very unlikely that any construction will start soon, as Donostia will be European Capital of Culture in 2016 and I don't think they want to have a huge construction site right next to the beach during that year!
Recently, however, they opened a new station on a new double-track tunnel deep under Intxaurrondo, a station which seems to be a copy of those in Bilbao, just in white instead of bare conrete, and with the stairs from the platforms to the mezzanine put into side spaces like in Madrid in order to keep the full width of the platforms free of stairs. Currently a similar station is under construction at Altza, on a new tunnel which would later be extended to Pasaia and gradually allow the metro-type section to reach Oiartzun (an elevated segment already finished). 

So step by step, Euskotren's line may become a metro similar to what happened in Valencia over the years. Just like in Bilbao, what I cannot approve at all is the use of the same names for completely different stations served by different companies, as is the case for Intxaurrondo and others. Why can't they simply call them differently, like Intxaurrondo Alto (Euskotren) and Intxaurrondo Bajo (for Renfe) or whatever that would be in Basque. Being rather low, Anoeta underground station has a certain 1980s metro feel to it, whereas the newer Lugaritz station is reminiscent of new Madrid metro stations, although train frequencies are still rather low, with a train every 30 minutes to Lasarte at certain times, but with all other trains coming from the west also calling here.
All local services between Lasarte and Hendaia are operated by new trains, which are quite comfortable although they appear to be suburban trains rather than metro trains. The same stock is supposed to serve L3 in Bilbao. In fact, in Donostia, I only saw new stock, whereas in the Bilbao area many older trains were still in service, one set even repainted in the new white livery.
Besides Euskotren, the Donostia – Irun corridor is also served by Renfe Cercanías, although less frequently and with somewhat irregular headways. Both lines run quite parallel, although Renfe stops less often and is faster altogther. People continuing on a French train, may opt for Euskotren, which runs directly to Hendaia, so only one transfer there is needed (Euskotren and SNCF stations lie next to each other).

When in Donostia, one should, of course, also take a ride on the old Igeldo funicular at the western end of the Concha, a great view from the top is guaranteed.


Vitoria-Gasteiz and Donostia at UrbanRail.Net

BILBAO Metro & Tram

Combining a relaxed summer holiday with some metro & tram exploration (in preparation for a 'Metro & Tram Atlas Spain' planned for 2015) I visited Bilbao as well as the other two Basque cities of Vitoria-Gasteiz and Donostia/San Sebastián during mid-July 2014 (see separate blog post for these two cities).

Previously, I had only been in Bilbao, and that was a long time ago, back in 1998 when I still lived in Barcelona. Bilbao's metro was then only three years old, it had only one line that went from Bolueta to Plentzia. In the meantime it has grown quite a bit, with three more station on its southeastern end to Basauri, but most notably with a second leg, L2, along the left bank of the Ría de Bilbao serving important towns like Barakaldo, Sestao, Portugalete and Santurtzi. But having already seen the standard station type designed by Norman Foster for the original section, L2 did not deliver any surprises, neither postive nor negative. Compared to the outer section of L1, it is almost completely underground, except for a viaduct in the Urbinaga area, a station in the middle of nowhere, actually built as part of an interchange between metro and the two Cercanías lines that split at that point. But although Urbinaga metro station has been in service for many years now, there are no signs of a Cercanías station at this location.

The moment of my visit was quite a good one, although this was not my intention, because the last station on L2, Kabiezes, had opened only a few weeks earlier, so I was able to see the system operated by Metro Bilbao completed. Kabiezes is just like all the other underground stations, but appears to be more illuminated. Interestingly, most other stations are rather dim normally, but illumination is increased as soon as a train enters the station. This can be very tricky when you have actually prepared your camera for a photo and suddenly the light changes. Officially, taking photos for private use is permitted and I was not troubled by anyone, although I try to avoid direct confrontation with vigilants, one of which is mostly present in any station or travelling between two stations.

Generally, the design of the metro stations is great, no doubt, but there are some things I do not appreciate so much. The most important is the lack of escalators between platforms and mezzanines. There are only lifts (with a dedicated ticket barrier at the platform end) and stairs, but these stairs are somehow steep and hard to climb – so if everybody has to climb these stairs, the slowest mark the pace, which means that leaving the platform can become somewhat slow and cause obstruction in busy stations (having visited in July and on weekends, I cannot tell whether this is a serious problem during peak hours).

Having a 3-zone fare system, people need to go through ticket gates also as they exit the station – another possible reason for potential overcrowding. Once on the mezzanine, which is in most cases actually a metal structure suspended in the station cavern, generally at each end, long escalators take passengers to the surface – i.e. almost to the surface, because once again, the last section lacks escalators and has only stairs instead, some of which are covered by the so-called Fosteritos, but some exits are simple 'bocas de metro'. Most of the stations lie in deep rock caverns, resulting in those long escalators which reach the surface in rather distant places and often I found it very hard to actually find an entrance and had to ask several times, like at Peñota. There is, of course, also a lift from the mezzanine to the surface, which due to its vertical shaft ends up in yet another place on the surface. Area maps inside the stations show these points, but it is not clear which of the red dots shown is actually a lift or a normal exit. Bilbao uses a proper logo for its metro (although I would have preferred some sort of variation of the traditional M diamond used in Madrid and Barcelona, which would be clearly recognisable for the many visitors). The three red rings on a high pole that mark station entrances are often only visible when you are actually there, and being two-dimensional you can only see them from two sides, whereas cube-style logos are generally visible from all sides. But what is really needed are frequent signposts towards the stations (although signposting in Spain is always a delicate issue...). Inside the stations, signage is clear and abundant. What I don't like at all, however, is the use of the same names for different stations served by different companies. The worst such case is Lutxana, with the Renfe and Metro stations even being located on different sides of the river. Neither are the two Etxebarri or Ariz stations close to each other, nor the many stations of the same name on lines L2 and C-1 to Santurtzi.

Even 19 years after its inauguration, the metro trains still look modern and timeless and are all in good shape. It is difficult to tell which trainsets are older and which are newer, just the door buttons seem to have changed over the years (and sometimes react too slowly). Although I like the sleek interior design, too, I don't find the seats very comfortable for my burdoned back. The angle of the backrest is just not right, and considering that a full trip to Plentzia takes some 45 minutes, this can be a problem. Otherwise the trains offer a very smooth ride, and have proven that metre-gauge does not mean narrower trains. I guess that metre-gauge together with well-laid track (as is the case!) and good suspension and shock absorbers actually helps to deliver a smooth ride.

Although full fare integration has now long been a reality in other cities, like Barcelona, and almost completely in Madrid, too, Bilbao and its metropolitan region see things differently. Each operator has its own fares, and there is no day ticket for all different means of transports (and there are many different ones). There is a day ticket for 4.50 EUR to explore the metro, a similar one for the tram only!, and I don't know about buses. This is no major issue, I suppose, for local people, as most of them use a Barik smartcard, which can be used on all modes, luckily, and this rechargeable card offers good discounts compared to normal single tickets. But you have to buy it for 3 EUR first. But I think there should be a sort of Tourist Barik or day pass to make things easier. The major problem with this sort of fare system is, however, that it is operator orientated, and not passenger-orientated. A passenger has to travel from A to B, and for this trip he may need just one or several means of transport, generally he cannot choose. So some people may be lucky and be able to go to work on just one bus, others may have to change to the metro and thus have to pay more. Compared to fully integrated transport systems in Central Europe, however, single trips are very cheap in Bilbao just like in most Spanish cities.

The so-called Line 3 has been under construction for many years now, but I wonder what this will be in the end. In the central area, some construction seemed well-advanced in the Matiko area, although the site seemed to lay idle at the moment, similar at Uribarri. And from what I have read in some local newspaper, the new station at Casco Viejo has not even been started. Construction was launched by some previous Basque government and I think they never really knew what this line should be one day. Eventually they decided to have it operated by Euskotren, and in fact the southern 'terminus' of what is shown on project maps at Etxebarri Norte is already a completed surface station on the Euskotren line towards Donostia, trains already run through this unfinished station. From there, they also built the shell for inclined lifts or a sort of funicular to reach the neighbourhoods high above. I understand that this will be a sort of reciprocal, Japan-style service, with all Euskotren regional services redirected through the new tunnel instead of Atxuri via Bolueta, and that these trains would terminate somewhere underground at Casco Viejo. I wonder if these trains would continue to the airport, another line that has been under construction for a while through the Artxanda mountain replacing the current single-track tunnel to Sondika and Lezama. But there was no on-going construction visible anywhere, although the tunnel mouths can been seen from the old train (which indeed is old and in urgent need of upgrading).

So even if L3 is completed in the next years, I think it only makes limited sense. It is probably useful for those people up on the mountain served by Txurinaga and Otxarkoaga stations, but the line will only be really useful if the leg, which was once presented as Line 4, from Matiko to Moyúa was finished, too. Continuing this line to Rekalde and possibly Miribilla would certainly create a good cross-city connection for many people. The central stretch now labelled L3 could carry overlapping regional services. If anybody knows more about the future operation of L3, please use the comment feature of this blog!

For some years now, Bilbao has also had a tram line, but this is more a capricho than a real service. Considering that the only useful place it goes to is the Guggenheim Museum, a 15-minute service during holiday season is simply not enough. Service frequency is also limited by the lengthy single-track section through the heart of the city, with a passing loop only at Arriaga. Once the trams reach the double-track section along the nicely redeveloped river embankment, they can speed up a bit, while in the San Mamés area, despite having mostly a separated right-of-way, trams are slowed down by many traffic lights, and there seems to be no traffic light preemption. The tram is branded 'Euskotran', which sounds a bit strange to my ears and eyes, first it seems to be a misspelt Euskotren, and internationally, one would expect 'Euskotram', but in Spanish and Basque it is 'tranvía/tranbia'... For a modern tram system, the CAF vehicles are rather short, so they didn't really expect to carry many people. They are a bit reminiscent of new U.S. streetcar systems, rather than modern European tramways. So it is nice to see trams in Bilbao, but not really necessary. And the tourist-only approach can also be seen in the relatively high single fares of 1.50 EUR, and 4.20 EUR for a day ticket valid just on this single line. The stops are what you would expect of a modern European tramway, but the next-tram indicator is a bit hard to view. Instead of a sign over the platform, the minutes remaining are displayed on a screen and you actually have to go there to see it.

Rail entusiasts, however, have much more to discover in Bilbao. There are three Renfe Cercanías lines starting from the central Abando station. On lines C-1 and C-2, which mostly parallel metro line L2, although they run closer to the river, several underground stations were built in recent years, San Mamés offering good interchange with the metro and the tram, and Amétzola sharing the station complex with Feve.
From the nice Concordia station next to the central Arenal bridge and a few steps from Abando station, Feve runs a train at least once an hour to Balmaseda, and its underground urban section was recently extended to a new station called Basurto Hospital, in walking distance of the tram.
And last but not least, Euskotren operates a train every 30 minutes on the remaining stretch between Casco Viejo and Lezama (with trains reversing direction at Sondika), and trains meeting at Larrondo. From Atxuri, Euskotren services run to Bermeo and Eibar, and some further on to Donostia, although the trip takes some three hours for 100 km! A good metro/rail interchange was built for these trains at Bolueta, which may become obsolete once L3 opens. At Atxuri, transfer to the tram is easy as trams start from just outside the main entrance. There are proposals to use the present Euskotren tracks to Bolueta for a tram extension once L3 has opened.

Still to discover on Bilbao's interesting transport scene are the Funicular de Artxanda with great views of the city, the old lift to Begoña (it was out of service during my stay, but you can use the nearby metro lift instead), and of course the Puente Colgante (the Hanging Bridge) between Portugalete and Areeta in Getxo, a fascinating and listed monument used by thousands of people everyday to cross the Ría. For 7.50 EUR you can take a lift to the top level and walk across, very recommendable. And if you have time there is still the Funicular de Larreineta, operated by Euskotren a bit further out, accessible by C-2 to Trapagaran and then walk for 20 minutes. It is quite peculiar as the carriage is sort of hooked up instead of the typical tiered cars. It goes up to a small village, but I didn't really see the point of this service nowadays as there would never be enough people to use this service, especially as it is badly connected at its lower station. There are buses serving it, but they didn't seem to connect well with the funicular, which runs every 30 minutes, and they don't run to the railway station anyway.


Bilbao at UrbanRail.Net

Monday, June 2, 2014


For some unknown reason I felt I should go to Edinburgh as soon as the long awaited tram opens, and as I could fit it into my spring schedule, I did book a flight as soon as the beginning of operation was finally announced a few weeks ago. For several months the official Edinburgh Trams website had stated that operation would start in May, so to keep that promise, I guess, they picked May 31 and not one day earlier. This day happened to be a Saturday, usually a good day for an opening, to fix teething problems before regular commuters would get on the following Monday.

I don't want to list all the problems that had led to the long delayed conclusion of the works (see the respective Wikipedia article), but the general impression reading the news in all sorts of tram magazines over the last years was that this tram might never open as it was often close to being cancelled altogether.

With these delays and the enormous (though actually quite common) cost overruns, I was getting excited to find out whether the result was worth all the wait. So following are my personal impressions gained on the first two days of operation, which means that some initial problems may have been solved and can be filed under normal teething problems. Some, or maybe too many, problems, however, will either need another large amount of money to be fixed, or people will have to bear with them forever.

Generally, the 14 km line that connects the city centre to the airport, is 'o.k.'. The CAF trams are nice, run smoothly and have rather comfortable seating. As the line goes to the airport, luggage racks are provided, too. A positive thing, at first sight, but once you look through the 7-section tram, you'll find out that there are five such racks, each about 2 m wide and with three shelves. An approximate calculation resulted in a capacity of some 60 typical suitcases to be stored, a number I would consider very excessive for a tram that runs every 10 minutes and with the airport buses continuing service on a similar route. My guess is that eventually, if a little money is available, some of these (probably mostly empty) racks will be withdrawn to increase the number of seats. After all, the tram is meant to provide an urban service and not just an airport service. If the airport had been the primary purpose to build the tram, then certainly a railway branch would have been a cheaper and more recommendable solution. In fact, there was a project to build a rail access, which would have been useful for people from other Scottish regions, too, whereas the tram is only good really to go from the airport into Edinburgh itself, although there is also convenient interchange at Edinburgh Park station for local trains west.

Otherwise the CAF trams feature most things one would expect of a new tram, screens announcing the next stop, acoustic announcements, etc. but no air-conditioning, and as it appeared, no proper ventilation either. Unexpectedly, the first day of operation, 31 May 2014, turned out to be a very warm day, and with the trams packed with curious passengers, the air inside the trams got quite unbearable despite some open windows.

The opening as such was quite disappointing, as there was actually no opening ceremony at all. The toughest fans (not me) gathered at 5 in the morning at Gyle Centre, where the first regular tram coming from the nearby depot entered service. An eye-witness told me the first tram was overcrowded and some people couldn't even get on. Unlike other grand tram openings like those in France in recent years, Edinburgh Trams did not organise any kind of popular festival around it, and they did not hand out free try-out tickets to residents along the line. Instead they made everybody pay a full fare from the very beginning. Loudspeakers at stops continuously announced that all passengers must purchase a ticket and that inspectors (well, they call them something milder) will be on board to check tickets, and they did. So all that left a bad taste in my mouth, especially as service was getting very irregular during late morning, when they even switched off the next-tram indicators, and just announced that trams would arrive every 10 minutes. In reality, waiting times became much longer, and often two trams came one shortly after the other. But it seemed they gave up checking tickets in the afternoon. So Edinburgh Trams as the operator somehow missed this unique opportunity to get the public opinion on their side from the first day.

A single ride costs 1.50 GBP, quite reasonable, and a day ticket for 3.50 GBP including all Lothian Buses is actually a very good deal. So, compared to the really bad fare system in Glasgow, Edinburgh at least has good integration of buses and trams, although local trains are left out as of yet.

The initial tram line, which was supposed to continue northeast to Leith but was curtailed due to the cost overruns, actually consists of two rather different sections. The eastern part, between York Place and Haymarket railway station, is a typical tram with a high share of on-street running, just the easternmost 300 m before the York Place terminus is on a central reservation. Other parts are shared by private cars and mostly by hundreds of buses which run along Princes Street, so that could cause mutual obstruction. Otherwise my major objection to this stretch is the lack of a stop near Edinburgh's main railway station Waverley. So, people with suitcases arriving in Edinburgh and not familiar with the surroundings of the station, will have problems finding the nearest stop. For St. Andrew Square stop (which on maps shows 'for Waverley') they will have to walk a couple of hundreds of metres, the Princes Street stop is a bit further away, but might be the better choice if going westwards. Princes Street is one of the city's main shopping streets, but funnily, it is here where you find the longest distance between stops. The next stop west lies some 800 m away, a distance more typical for metros, but even for those not recommendable in the city centre, where generally more stops are necessary to spread people out a bit. The island platform at Princes Street will soon get problems with overcrowding, never a good thing in the middle of a 4-lane road. I assume that even shop owners (who suffered most during construction) realised that the stop called Princes Street is so far east and that passengers might not bother to walk back west to their shops. As a result the next western stop, initially marked as 'Shandwick Place', was renamed 'West End-Princes Street' although Princes Street actually only begins some 250 m further east!! So my advice is, move the present 'Princes Street' stop further east towards the Waverley Bridge, and add another stop, maybe called 'Princes Street West' somewhere in between. The last stop of the tram-like section, at Haymarket, is conveniently located just outside the railway station of that name, busy with commuters, but long-distance trains often just serve Waverley.

The entire section west of Haymarket can be classified as 'light rail', completely on its own right-of-way, with only a few level crossings (the only major one just south of Gyle Centre), and with some sections allowing speeds of up to 70 km/h. Around Bankhead/Saughton the tram took over an existing busway alignment, which already had dedicated bridges to avoid level crossings. To reach this busway alignment, however, two viaducts had to be built to take the tram to the south side of the mainline railway which it parallels between Haymarket and Edinburgh Park station. So, here the big question remains, whether this alignment was really necessary or whether another one or two stations for local trains would have done the job, while the tram could have stayed in a more urban environment. But that's done now. After Edinburgh Park the line runs through nice lawns between office buildings in this business park, and most likely a lot of new buildings will be built in this area soon. Beyond Gyle Centre, once the depot has been passed, the line continues through farmland, just serving a Royal Bank of Scotland business park at Gogarburn and the free Ingliston car park. Between these two stops, two level crossings as well as a ghost stop can be seen amidst a huge meadow, so this area may also change in the future. Another ghost stop is visible just east of the depot which may provide interchange to a still-to-be-built railway station, though likely requiring a long walk if I got the local situation right.

Ingliston P+R is the last stop within the normal fare zone, for the Airport a special fare of 5 GBP is required (9 GBP for a day ticket). The Airport terminus, unlike York Place, which has only one track, features two stub tracks with a scissors crossover before it. I don't know whether this stop is the property of the Airport, but it was surprising that it had no signs at all, no name signs and no next-tram indicators. There are several ticket machines, and there was an assistant on the first day, but there is no information office in the airport. Many passengers will therefore rather take the bus because there is a manned ticket booth and also drivers available for information.

So, it might seem that the fast light-rail section would compensate for the naturally slower urban tram section, but this optimism is soon erased by the fact that too many curves along this section are so badly built that trams have to reduce speed drastically. Funnily, there is a speed restriction of 10 km/h at the depot entrance, but not for trams going into the depot, but for trams staying on the running tracks. Was this a planning mistake?? On other curves, most notably just west of the Ingliston stop, tracks were laid on concrete (honestly, no idea why!), and obviously badly laid, because these curves cause noises I have never heard before in my long tram-watching life! A similar flaw, though not as loud, can be found just west of Gogarburn, where the trams take an S-curve through empty grassland. Like at Ingliston, the immediate question comes up, why did they have to align the platforms parallel to the nearby road, and why didn't they build them some 45 degrees to the northwest to avoid the need of such tight curves? Another not-approvable section can be found around Murrayfield Stadium where trams wind their way around a train yard, requiring speed limits of 25 km/h. I would say that on a new light rail line a continuous speed of 45-50 km/h should always be allowed, otherwise the respective engineers should be sacked, in the case of Ingliston even taken to jail. I wonder if the original planners are responsible for that or whether it was German construction company Bilfinger Berger? In any case, they should have refused to build such bad trackbeds even if the local supervisors had insisted. I have not been on Manchester's latest extensions, but on U.S. light rail systems which have very similar alignments, I have never observed such a series of construction flaws.

The tram stops all have a uniform design, St. Andrew Square, Princes Street, West End-Princes Street and Airport with island platforms, the rest with side platforms. There are small shelters, ticket machines, an information poster, next-tram indicators and proper station name signs. The latter are better than elsewhere, and repeated along the platform, at least twice. I would have preferred an inverted colour scheme, though, a maroon (or whatever the corporate colour is supposed to be), with white, slightly larger characters. The only stop that is slightly different is Murrayfield Stadium next to the Rugby stadium. It is on an elevated section, with a huge flight of stairs to cater for large crowds, and all in typical Edinburgh sandstone, which brings us to another point. Edinburgh is without doubt an elegant city, but with its uniform sandstone style it is also a very colourless city, especially on a rainy day. And the choice of a very decent colour shared by Lothian Buses and Edinburgh Trams, both now under the Transport for Edinburgh brand, has not added a little colour touch to the city, while it could have been a modern contrast to the otherwise classic urban environment, for example by using a strong but noble red instead. From experience we know, however, that British liveries change at least every five years anyway, so there is hope....

So, if someone asked me, should the system be extended, I would say, I don't know. They should at least build the extension to Leith as initially planned to give the present line more reason to be, as it would serve a busy corridor and could thus replace many of the current buses. But I think it will be hard to convince local residents and politicians to invest further, as the present tram is not even capable of providing a faster journey to the airport. After having been to Leith on a bus instead, I would say, that at least a tram is much more comfortable than the bumpy buses (if it wasn't for the squealing noise in so many curves...). In any case, I'm afraid, we won't see any extensions for a while as the Scottish transport minister said they wouldn't give any more money for the tram. It will also take a while until people realise the advantages of the tram, as the present line actually only serves a very small portion of the population. What would help is a much more frequent hop-on hop-off service in the city centre between York Place and Haymarket (an existing siding between here and Murrayfield Stadium would make this easily possible). Trams would be much more visible and worth to wait for, whereas currently it is mostly faster to walk instead of waiting for the next tram in 'about' 10 minutes. The single-track stub at York Place might limit such aspirations, however. Rolling stock would not be the problem as 27 trams were purchased for the entire line including the Leith extension, while only 17 are now needed for an 8-10 minute service.


Edinburgh Trams (Official Website)

Edinburgh Tram at UrbanRail.Net

Monday, May 5, 2014

WIEN (Vienna) U-Bahn & Tram

I had been to Vienna on several occasions to explore its excellent public transport system, but I wanted to go back in preparation for the new edition of my 'Tram Atlas Schweiz & Österreich' to check the latest extensions and see how new projects are progressing. So I stopped there for a couple of days (7-10 April 2014).

I actually wanted to visit Vienna last October to see the last U2 extension from Aspernstraße to Seestadt right after its opening, but for some reasons I had to postpone my trip, then I preferred to wait for spring when the weather would be nicer, and it was. This extension was much criticised as it runs virtually through nowhere. There is a project to create a new neighbourhood on what was previously an airfield, but that redevelopment scheme is advancing slower than planned, and so the U-Bahn mostly serves construction workers, I suppose. At Hausfeldstraße, people can transfer to the also extended tram line 26, but at Aspern Nord hardly anyone is visible in the station, although some buses terminate there. The route is mostly elevated, although just east of Hausfeldstraße it is actually at grade for a few hundred metres. The stations are in the style of those on the previous extension to Aspernstraße, which means they are o.k., but nothing exciting. As opposed to line U1, an architecture contest was held for the surface U2 stations, but the result could have been more interesting, as we basically get square boxes without much decoration, and unlike the other lines, also the purple line colour is not as present. But being elevated, the line provides nice views, especially between Donaumarina and Donaustadtbrücke as it crosses the Danube River. From a photographic point-of-view the elevated section is not a perfect shot as the viaduct is flanked by sound-absorbing walls which cover at least half the train. For neighbours along the line, this is, of course, good as you can hardly hear the trains roll by. Let's hope that in the near future, all construction projects in the area will get done so that also this extension gets the ridership it deserves.

Caption should say 'southern side of the station'-Sorry!

Maybe inspired by the criticism received for the eastern U2 (or northern as they say), the city government has recently cancelled or at least postponed the line's southern extension which was planned and even funded to run from Karlsplatz to Gudrunstraße, also serving some new developments which may get finished later than expected. Instead, the money is to be transferred to the long-planned but never realised U5, or at least its first stage, together with a new extension for U2. The plan is to split the present U2 at Rathaus, transfer the original section which was once an underground tram to the new U5 from Karlsplatz to Rathaus and build a new section north towards Altes AKH, now a university campus. Later U5 would head northeast to Hernals. In return, line U2 would get a southwestern route from Rathaus via Neubaugasse (U3), Pilgrimgasse (U4) to Matzleinsdorfer Platz, a major hub with S-Bahn and trams. In a later stage it could continue to Wienerberg, an area with some high-rise office buildings.

Although, like Munich, Vienna had long stuck to its initial metro project which it gradually developed over various decades without many modifications being added along the way, this is now the second major change in such a project. The first was only a few years ago, when the current U1 south extension was modified, when construction had already started. But the change only affects the surface section which was started later anyway. The initial idea was a rather straight route towards the south to Rothneusiedl, where a new football stadium was planned. But as this project was cancelled, an U-Bahn extension wasn't justified either, at least not now, so instead of just shortening the extension, the city decided to bend the route towards the east to Oberlaa, basically replacing the former tram 67 (which was curtailed at Alaudagasse in March 2014 so that construction for the U-Bahn can begin). A branch to Rothneusiedl is an option for the future. Any tram closure in favour of the U-Bahn is, of course, always met with criticism from some people, but in the end, residents in the area will be happy to get a through and fast ride into the city centre instead of having to change from tram to U-Bahn, as they used to do at Reumannplatz, as line 67 has always been just a metro feeder line, and will continue to be one on its western leg. From the beginning of the U1 extension project there has been talk about a new tram 67 route further east via Laaerberg, but the future will show whether this route gets classified with the necessary priority, as other tram extensions are also on the wish list.
With the new U5, a busy corridor will be served by the U-Bahn, and it will certainly speed up journeys on the western tram lines, some of which may then, of course, disappear or be diverted not to double the new U-Bahn line.

Generally what I like about the Vienna U-Bahn is its speediness. Trains seem to accelerate much more than any such system in Germany, and station dwelling time is rather short, too. After having introduced a Berlin-style 'Zurückbleiben, bitte!' only a few years ago, trains now simply have an accoustic signal that doors are closing and off they go (some of the German systems – even the driverless metro in Nuremberg! – have now also understood that this is less dangerous than a stupid long announcement ignored by everyone). The headways are quite good, too, and despite a standard station design, each line has its own character. Normally I prefer individual station designs, but I think that Vienna's original design is still nice today, sort of timeless. This is most visible on line U1, which had seen various extensions but maintained its original design, though slightly modified, and the new stations on the Leopoldau extension still look modern with their 1970s design. U4 and U6, with their old Stadtbahn heritage, have some architectural treasures, especially with their entrance pavillions or buildings designed by Otto Wagner. Line U3, besides U1 the only one built from scratch as an U-Bahn line, has a less appealing basic design, but many of its stations are enhanced with artwork, mostly notably Volkstheater with its gigantic wall mosaic. One thing, however, I don't like about the basic approach in Vienna is the dark wall behind the track. The architects tried to intentionally separate the illuminated space of the platform from the technical side, but now we know from many other cities, like the refurbished stations on line M2 in Budapest, that clad walls behind the tracks improve the overall appearance of a station enormously, whereas with just a few advert boards, the uncovered walls, mostly painted black, produce a rather filthy atmosphere. So Wiener Linien's responsible should go on a day trip to Budapest to see the difference (which is also apparent there between lines M2 and M3!).

Talking about refurbishment, all the underground tram stops along the Gürtel have recently been refurbished. Generally this was a good approach, the stations look much friendlier now, but I heard some people criticise that the walls, now covered in small mosaic tiles which from top to bottom go from white to black, look dirty this way, because these people perceive the black part as dirt. I, personally, did not have that impression, but I can understand their point. My criticism would rather be why they didn't choose a different colour scheme for each station, an approach made by many metro systems, as this helps passengers to identify their station without looking for a name sign. 

One station is and has always been different, the one at Südtiroler Platz, now Hauptbahnhof, only served by line 18. And I was sad seeing it completely refurbished. Having opened in 1958, it was different from those built later. And I think I was not the only one who loved its 1950s design. Its new design is not bad, it blends in with the overall design of the new railway station complex, but I think they should have left some features of its original look, especially the ceiling, however, just the wall mosaic was rescued and placed on a different wall, though well visible.

And talking about name signs, a very confusing issue in Vienna! Several stations use a double name, like Schottentor-Universität or Messe-Prater, but this is not shown like this on station signs, instead each sign only shows one part of the combined name alternatingly, but too far from each other to perceive it as a combined name. So you may look for a sign saying Schottentor, but all you can see is Universität which may lead to some confusion, especially for visitors. The respective tram hub, however, which is geographically actually closer to the university, is just called Schottentor. So, if the station is called Messe-Prater, then all signs should say 'Messe-Prater' (most of these illuminated signs are big enough to include the full name!).

Is this station called Südtiroler Platz or Hauptbahnhof as the next photo would suggest?

Although I didn't like them so much in the beginning, I now enjoy riding the new U-Bahn rolling stock (V stock). Just like their brothers in Oslo, Siemens delivered a good train, and I don't understand why they now offer that crappy Inspiro (probably it's cheaper and thus more affordable for not so wealthy cities). I'm not a fan of the red plastic seats, but they are o.k. Like in Munich, the new trains look especially modern compared to the older stock, which although partly refurbished, looks quite dated now. On line U6 (which some would argue is not a real metro, but for me it fulfills all criteria) the low-floor trains are nice, but a bit loud as you can hear the wheelsets too much. It is always amazing how many passengers this line carries being a tangential line, and one of the reasons given for the decision to build line U5 is to relieve U6 in the area of the AKH, Vienna's largest hospital complex. Unfortunately all the cables and wires necessary to operate this line were placed between the tracks, thus acting as a barrier to prevent people from crossing the tracks, but for train-spotters they prevent us from taking a good shot of the station with a train on the other side. So the best locations for train photos are the surface stations on the southern section, especially Alterlaa where every other train terminates during off-peak times.


Despite many line closures, often to be replaced by the U-Bahn, and despite all complaints from tram enthusiasts, Vienna still ranks among the Top 5 worldwide when it comes to tram network length (after Melbourne, Berlin, St. Petersburg and Moscow, although the latter two cannot be confirmed). And together with the latest U2 extension also the tram network was expanded in the eastern district of Donaustadt, thus giving frustrated tram fans hope for future development, which is likely to happen. Being such a big and old system it is certainly not comparable to a modern French tramway. New sections are mostly built on a dedicated right-of-way, but not necessarily as unlike in Germany funding is also available for street-running sections. Generally, the share of street-running sections is rather high, and so is the share of stops with street-level boarding. Wiener Linien together with Siemens developed ULF, the ultra-low-floor tram with the lowest floor height worldwide, some 19 cm, of which there are now some 300 vehicles, short ones and long ones (35 m). This is compensated by very dense headways, most lines operating every 7-8 minutes. Like the U-Bahn, also trams accelerate fast, and you'd better hold on to a pole on an ULF! From a passenger's point-of-view, I'm not a big fan, I don't like the sections between the modules, and in fact, Siemens did not sell this tram to any other city but Vienna, just a few to Oradea in Romania. As maintenance of these cars is also too expensive, Wiener Linien finally decided to launch a new tendering process to replace the still numerous high-floor trams. So while at many stops boarding is still from street level, several stops now have raised road lanes that act as platforms to allow level boarding. The new line 26 to Hausfeldstraße features full modern tram platforms, of course. On the long viaduct, which takes the tram across a railway and a motorway, there is an elevated station. Apparently it was not allowed or desired to have passengers cross the tracks on this signalled section in case one of the lifts wouldn't work, so an island platform was built and to allow the single-ended trams to open their doors, they need to switch sides on the ramp to that viaduct, similar to what is done in the tram tunnel in Zurich. This is Vienna's first elevated tram stop since the tram viaduct to Alterlaa had been rebuilt for line U6. 

A weak point of Vienna's tram system is the fact that many lines are radial, i.e. all lines coming into the city centre from the western suburbs, except line 2, terminate at the Ring, which forces people to transfer to other lines. Given the long sections of street-running which is likely to produce delays, Wiener Linien prefers to operate short lines instead of long through lines, hence the elevated number of lines, when several of them could be combined to form cross-city lines. The forced transfer is partly compensated by short headways and convenient interchanges also with the U-Bahn system. The transfer spectacle is most visible at Schottentor where no less than five tram lines terminate in the underground loop known as 'Jonas-Reindl' and two more in the surface loop. Passengers can continue their journey on three passing tram lines (1-D-71) or on line U2, or walk into the city centre or take one of the minibuses.

I already mentioned the lack of warning annoucements on the U-Bahn, which I appreciate, but with the introduction of a new speaker they also introduced bad language, when they announce 'Umsteigen zu: 2, 49', for example. This hurts in my ears! What does it cost to say 'Umsteigen zu den Linien: 2, 49'?? Even a pre-recorded system should be able to do that. And even better would be 'Umsteigen zu den Straßenbahnlinien 2 und 49, sowie zu den Buslinen 14 A!' etc. We should not wonder why immigrants speak bad German if this is what they hear on the trains and trams!

As long as you travel within Vienna, the fare system is simple. The entire city is Kernzone of the VOR fare structure, which covers large parts of Niederösterreich (Lower Austria), too. A 24-hour tickets costs 7.10 €, and there are also 48-hour and 72-hour tickets. For frequent visitors to Vienna, there is a stripcard with 8 individial 24-hour tickets. For longer stays, a weekly pass may be an option. This can be bought from any machine, but curiously it is not a 7-day ticket but always runs from Monday to Sunday! Something I hadn't seen for a long time in any other city. But it may still be a good choice for your stay. It was for mine, but on Saturday and Sunday before, when I just needed to go to and from Meidling railway station, I had to buy single tickets. Like in Linz, things get very complicated if not impossible if you want to go on a day excursion outside Vienna and don't want to go just from A to B and back. There is no practical excursion ticket like a day pass for the entire area or for certain zones. So here they should really consider introducing some sort of attractive leisure ticket, easy to use like DB's Schönes-Wochend-Ticket or the different Ländertickets, with which you don't have to bother whether you have chosen the correct ticket. And in Germany these sort of tickets are not just popular with railway enthusiasts. A Munich-style XXL ticket might also be a good addition to the ticket offer.

Maps for the U-Bahn and S-Bahn (by locals mostly referred to as Schnellbahn) are available in one of the numerous Wiener Linien customer centres. But unfortunately there is no tram map. I think it is the only city in the western world with a tram system but with no proper tram map! Whereas in eastern countries it is often difficult to get hold of a printed map, at least they have them posted inside the trams, but Vienna's trams just show the line diagram with connections. If you want to find out where tram service is actually available you'll need to visit my website, buy my atlas or buy VOR's city map for 3 €. It is a nice map, but you have to fold it out fully to be able to read it. The complexity of the network and its length cannot be the reason why there is no tram map, because Berlin also has one, and not a bad one. The one in Melbourne, the world's largest tram system, is more of a simplified diagram which doesn't show all the stops. Vienna has also the only tram system with uncoloured lines, all lines are actually black (which may have been the reason why the underground stops were designed with a black & white colour scheme). A heritage from times gone by, a few lettered lines have survived in Vienna, namely D and O, whereas others disappeared a couple of years ago when the ring lines 1 and 2 were linked with radial routes. In my opinion, the two remaining lettered lines should be renamed to make them coherent with the rest of the network, but apparently along the north D there was much resistence as people identify with their D tram. There is, however, a new red logo outside these underground stations as well as at Gewerbepark Stadlau, the elevated stop on line 26. Some stops like at Kagraner Platz have a new logo for testing using the green H on a yellow circle which you can find at all tram and bus stops in Germany, but also in many Austrian cities.


Vienna at UrbanRail.Net

Friday, May 2, 2014


My Austrian tour in preparation of the new edition of my 'Tram Atlas Schweiz & Österreich' also took me to Linz for a few hours on 15 April 2014 to take some new photos, but there was nothing new to explore as I had visited this city in the summer of 2011, shortly after the extension to Doblerholz had opened.

With this extension, Linz now has a more spider-like network, whereas previously the system had consisted of a north-south trunk route with short branches. Still today, all three lines run along the same corridor through the city centre, which is an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time. The good thing is that all lines go directly into Landstraße, the main shopping street, the bad thing is that the journey through this pedestrianised street is rather slow and that there is no alternative route in case of disruptions. A second more easterly cross-city route has long been planned (even with long underground sections that I would consider a bit exaggerated for a city that size – about 200,000 inhabitants).

So while the journey through the city centre is slow, outer sections are almost always laid on a separate right-of-way with grass-covered track allowing higher speeds. I think all stops have proper platforms and all trams in service are low-floor (two generations of Bombardier's Cityrunner/Flexity Outlook). Like in Graz, the width of the vehicles is rather narrow, and trams do get packed frequently.

The tram tunnel under the railway station has now been in service for 10 years. The underground stop at Hauptbahnhof is well integrated into the railway station complex, one escalator (or lift, of course) brings passengers into the distribution level from where all rail platforms are accessible. The route then continues south serving another fully underground station at Unionkreuzung, followed by an open subsurface station at Herz-Jesu-Kirche. From there, the trams reach the surface via a ramp just north of one of the city's busiest crossroads at Bulgariplatz, where trams need to wait for their turn to cross. I cannot understand why the subsurface route was not extended beneath this crossroads to a ramp south of it, from where a dedicated right-of-way is available. If it was for the money, they could have built a ramp south of Unionkreuzung, a normal stop at Herz-Jesu-Kirche (saving the construction and maintenance of 4! lifts), and then a simple underpass under Bulgariplatz.

The line 3 extension which opened in 2011 includes another tunnel, which diverges just south of Hauptbahnhof station from the loop previously used by line 3 to reverse. This tunnel takes the trams quickly to Gaumberg and then to Harter Plateau, which actually lies in the neighbouring municipality of Leonding (although the centre of that town is a few km away). This tunnel was excavated by mining techniques, and I would have suggested to make it slightly longer to serve the area around Landesnervenklinik Wagner-Jauregg, a psychiatric hospital.

Linz has a very simple fare system, with vending machines basically offering only three types of tickets, Mini (short trip), Midi (single fare) and Maxi (24-hour ticket for 4 EUR). As of now, all tram and also all the trolleybus routes are covered by a Maxi ticket (things may change with the forthcoming line 3 extension to Traun).

But if you want to leave the central area of what is the OÖVV (Upper Austrian fare system), you may be lost. I have seen lots of websites by those transport agencies, but www.ooevv.at is one of the least useful to find out fares for more complicated journeys. Similar German systems offer an all-included day pass, so you don't have to worry anymore about fares, but OÖVV does not cater at all for daytrippers, it is all designed for commuters only. So here is a lot that needs to be improved. They just need to look around to see how other agencies do it and copy the positive things. It is no surprise then, that Upper Austria is now the only region in Austria that has made no effort to develop its regional rail system into an S-Bahn, a step all other regions have made, although in some cases it has just been a rebranding, but in almost all a very successful one. So all in all, Linz deserves a good mark (although I would prefer a dedicated website independent from other city services), while the rest of Upper Austria just gets a 'suficient'.


Linz Tram at UrbanRail.Net

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


The final stop on my Austrian tour 2014 in preparation for the new edition of my 'Tram Atlas Schweiz & Österreich' was Innsbruck. I only stayed for one day (21 April 2014), which is more than enough to explore its modest tram network and do a little sightseeing (including the Bergisel ski jump with its funicular-style lift). I had travelled on the entire Stubaitalbahn (STB) already last time in 2010, so this time I only used it from the city up to Sonnenburgerhof, a section included in the Innsbruck day ticket available for 4.50 EUR.

This already takes us to the first point, buying a ticket. At the tram stop outside the railway station, there are two ticket vending machines, but both resisted for a while to accept my banknotes and my debit card, eventually one of them kept the 10-euro note and issued a ticket and the change. So you'd better have some coins ready, especially as at many of the other stops there are only small ticket machines which only accept coins and cards. Single tickets can also be bought from the driver.

The Innsbruck tram system is primarily cute. Its urban sections are mostly in mixed traffic with cars and almost always, even when the track is marked off, buses share the same right-of-way. Even the recently opened extensions on line 3 were laid out this way (in Germany, by current regulations, these extensions wouldn't get any federal money). Having visited on a holiday, I cannot really judge whether car traffic interferes a lot with regular tram traffic on a normal weekday. In the urban area, there are still some stops without proper platforms, although I think that line 3 is now fully accessible, whereas on line 1 even the most central stop (at least for tourists), Maria-Theresien-Straße as well as the two stops east of it, have street-level boarding. This is remarkable as Innsbruck invested a lot of money to replace all older trams with new low-floor Flexity Outlook trams from Bombardier within a very short period of time. The lack of proper platforms is especially noticeable at Fritz-Konzert-Straße, where the boarding area is actually fenced off from road traffic, so laying raised platforms couldn't be easier.

The overall length of the tram system of approx. 38 km may give a wrong impression as a large part of it corresponds to line 6 and, of course, to the STB (18 km), so the proper urban system is still very small and only plays a minor role in the city's urban transport system. This may be the reason why tram lines are not shown in any special way on system maps, although at least the lower numbers are reserved for them, whereas bus lines actually carry letter designations. Line 3 got a new western leg not too long ago, but this only makes sense so far to reach a shopping mall at its western terminus. This was, however, meant as the first segment of a larger extension now under construction to replace bus route O (until a few years ago a trolleybus line) by trams. Line 1 has not changed much over the decades and is not likely to change in the future either. The major flaw with these two urban lines is that interchanges are virtually not available. At Bürgerstraße, the two lines cross, line 1 has a proper stop, but for line 3 only an eastbound stop was added without a platform, and further away from the intersection than necessary, but easily walkable, though. Near the railway station, the two lines actually meet and use the same tracks for some metres, but without an interchange stop. The bad thing here is that even a walk from the nearest stop to the other is a tough thing as you need to cross several streets finding your way across major road intersections and under the mainline railway. In fact this interchange is not even shown as such on the maps. The route of line 1 and its stop locations also makes it very unpractical for those passengers to reach the railway station. There is no easy solution to this, but maybe a completely new line arrangement with the introduction of new lines for the forthcoming extensions may help. Otherwise a city circle line might help, too. On the other hand, many destinations in the city are easily accessible on foot, too, and a change of lines may be nicer between Anichstraße/Rathausgalerien (line 3) and Maria-Theresien-Straße (line 1) with a walk along the pedestrian street.

In most other cities, line 6 would no longer exist. It is what makes the Innsbruck tram system 'cute'. Even on weekdays, the line only runs hourly. It is a relic of times gone by when no cars or buses existed and railways were the best way to reach remote villages on a plateau high above the city, but nowadays the line is more of a fun ride as it does not really serve any places of importance, because those areas with some houses are too far from the respectives stops for today's standards, so buses have to be operated anyway to reach these places. But even on a holiday with weather nice enough for a walk, the single tram required for that service was far from full. One weak point is, of course, its separate operation instead of running a through service into the city centre as part of line 1. In this way it would also be more visible for tourists who will enjoy the ride up the mountain. The line is steep and with many bends, but as has been done in the past, is manageble by normal trams, so maybe a kind of heritage service would attract more passengers (although this may again raise the problem with full accessibility as with the Pöstlingbergbahn in Linz).

The much longer Stubaitalbahn, however, seems to deliver its services as an interurban rural tram line, with half-hourly trains to Kreith and hourly all the way to Fulpmes. Whereas line 6 is completely within the Innsbruck urban fare zone, different fare zones apply for the STB. Certainly, running trains directly into the city centre over tram tracks has contributed to the line's survival.

The Flexity Outlook trams are quite comfortable to ride, and given the steep and winding routes on line 6 and the STB, they do a good job from a passenger's point-of-view, no irritating shaking or wobbling even at reasonable speeds. Also within the city, drivers take curves at relatively high speeds compared to many newly-built tram systems, and the Flexitys perform well there, too. What I don't like so much is the irregular arrangement of the seats, but that may be a result of the intention to place a maximum of seats and may be required by the double-ended trams with doors on either side.

Inside the trams, network maps were readily available. These are large fold-out maps, on one side on a city map and on the other a diagrammatic map. While the first is easy to use, I find the latter rather problematic. As said before, tram lines are shown just like bus lines and the colours used for the trams are pretty difficult to distinguish and identify, with three different shades of malve, basically. The STB has some sort of purple-brown and is therefore hard to tell from the brown of the major east-west bus line O (which may become tram lines 2 and 4). Hardly any bus line acts as a feeder to the tram system and all buses go into the city centre too. As a result, too many lines need to be shown in the central area, making that map even more cramped. So hopefully, the tram lines will be given stronger colours and thicker lines to highlight them on the map, which might deserve a complete redesign anyway.


Innsbruck at UrbanRail.Net