02 October 2011

Metro and underground

Berlin Metro

One of the beauties of Berlin is undoubtedly its vintage-looking underground network. Especially in the Eastern part of the city, tourists will marvel at carriages coming straight from a different era, complete with wood panels and 1950s (or 60s or 70s, depending on the line) décor. Out of all the European cities I’ve visited, it’s certainly the most fascinating.

But. Here comes the but. The well-paid chaps in charge of the Berlin Metro network could do with a week-long study trip anywhere else (but Italy). Or perhaps may look up the word “signpost” (or “Wegweiser”) in the dictionary. Put simply, orientation around the Berlin underground is painfully confusing. Oh…and since we’re at it, they could do with sticking more ticket machines around, because it’s absolutely ridiculous that just yards away from the ultra touristy and super central Brandenburg Gate you have people queuing at the one (one, that’s right, it wasn’t a typo) machine available.

And what’s the score with those very few metro maps on walls?..
Were they on a budget or something? Why do people have to walk from one end of the platform to the other if they want to check if they’re in the right place? It can actually really piss you off when you’re there, especially if you’re knackered after walking around all day, so be warned.

And yet, the people in charge of Berlin are not alone in their ineptitude.

Across to the other side of Northern Germany, for example, the humongous city of Hamburg will knock you senseless with the constant disruptions, delays and appallingly packed carriages on its S-Bahn network. Seriously, intricate and grand though it may be (with a massive river and myriad inlets passing through making the job more complex), the city's HVV network is just supremely unreliable. Especially when weighed against the stereotype of such an efficient and organised country. My arse, I say.

And yet, just take a short trip direction south west and you’ll appreciate what Bremen did with its fantastic tram system (Straßenbahn). Punctual, frequent, easy to navigate and customer-friendly. Just spot-on. An example to follow.

Bilbao Metro

Similar to trains, Spain has done an absolutely amazing job with metros and undergrounds up and down the country. The last twenty-five years saw huge investments in the country’s infrastructures (including roads and airports) and the gamble has certainly paid off.

In my modest opinion the underground in Barcelona is the most perfect I’ve had the chance to experience. Aside from reaching literally every single spot of the city (and surroundings), it’s incredibly easy to navigate, well-signposted, relatively affordable and also comfortable. Unless you’re an absolute plonker, there’s no way you can get the wrong train there.

It’s a similar story everywhere you go. The Bilbao transit system is something to marvel at. Aside from its Norman Foster-designed futuristic stations, the system is superbly planned and straightforward to work out. Not to mention that the city offers access to an overground tram network too. You can literally explore every single corner of Bilbao and surroundings free of headaches and in a relatively short time.

The same again in Valencia, Seville and in all major cities in Spain. Efficient, regular, clean and easy to navigate. Top marks to the Spaniards on this one.

London Underground

The London Underground is an institution. Although the carriages may feel a little too small and claustrophobic to cope with the massive demand, there’s not much anyone can do about it as this is the way the tunnels were built over a century ago.

For sure, the Tube is perfectly signposted and extremely thorough in terms of providing information and serving every single part of the city. Not an easy task if you consider how ginormous and overcrowded London is (as well as the infamous "engineering works", see here).

However, in common with English trains, the problem comes with the fares. The Tube is mentally expensive, especially if you’re not familiar with the system or are not there for a long time. This is because access to the Oyster card (which, as a top-up device for regular travellers, was actually the work of a genius) is of little consolation for tourists and non-residents, meaning that many will have to swallow the harsh reality of eye-poppingly extortionate single or day-only tickets.

After all, it was only four years ago that London’s former Mayor Ken Livingstone candidly admitted that the city has the most expensive transport network in the world.

Beyond the capital, Manchester has done a fantastic job with their Metrolink network. Simple to navigate and easy to access, this overground train links the north, south, east and west ends of the city quickly and efficiently.

It beggars belief, however that the country’s second city, Birmingham, is yet to develop a metro system. Local trains take on some of the burden (as some stops are within the city perimeter), but after decades of talking about it, it’s about time a proper metro or underground system was finally sorted.

Milan Metro

The Milan underground is nothing short of a disgrace. This is the media and financial capital of Italy, one of the world’s top fashion spots and the home to banks, insurance companies and whatever else you can name. Yet, the city’s underground network would struggle to be deemed adequate in a third world country. Again, it really makes you wonder if the word “shame” crosses the administrators’ minds when they nip over to places like Barcelona, Paris or London for a long weekend.

Aside from its patchy coverage and underdeveloped connections, let’s start from the word go. Fresh out of Milan’s central station (so we’re not talking about the arse of nowhere), the obvious thing a visitor may wish to do is grab hold of a ticket. As you go downstairs, however, you end up in a drab, large lobby with nothing but a newsagents’ kiosk and stairs on each corner taking you further down to the platforms.

There are machines on one side, but they only appear to work in conjunction with regular (i.e. monthly) passes while there is zero information for anyone who’s new to the city or simply visiting. The first thought is, what would someone who can’t even speak Italian do?

After looking around and asking hurried passers-by, you decide to walk up to the newspaper vendor. It is there, and only there, that you finally spot a hand-written cardboard sign saying “Qui biglietti Metro”. Unbelievable. Mystery solved. You can finally travel through Milan and enjoy the city’s incredibly dirty and badly kept rickety network.

As for the capital Rome, while accessing tickets doesn’t present such surreal hurdles, the main problem is –again- the spectacularly limited array of lines and connections in such a big city. However, as the residents may explain, at least Rome can hold on to the excuse that each time excavation works begin, they have to grind to a halt courtesy of the million ancient ruins that populate the city’s foundation.


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