Wednesday, 21 February 2018

GRANADA - Tram




I had visited Granada in spring 2015 in preparation for my "Metro & Tram Atlas Spain" which was released later that year, but Granada's tram was not yet working then. Large parts of the single line were then already finished, especially along the northern section, but the section between Caleta and the tram tunnel had been delayed due to unresolved issues around the railway station where the tram now actually cuts through what used to be stub tracks (the rebuilt railway station, due to open soon for AVE services, was thus pushed a bit back although I think the platforms remain more or less in the same place). As everything seemed finished along the northern section where also the depot is located, I then assumed that this section might be brought into service around 2016, but it didn't. It seemed logical to open it, as also all the CAF trams had already been delivered and a temporary city terminus at Caleta would have made sense: from there, a special bus (LAC - Línea de Alta Capacidad) continues into the city centre proper where the tram doesn't go anyway. But as we have seen with other projects in Andalusia, the overall process of bringing new systems into service has not been prepared well, so drivers were recruited at a rather late stage, just like in Málaga. So in the end, more delays were accumulated until the line finally opened completely from end to end in September of 2017. I think it has been busy from the beginning.

Typical surface stop


I explored the line on a normal workday, first going to Albolote on the northern section, which was reasonably used in the late morning, so an off-peak headway of 10 minutes seemed appropriate. As I worked my way south the trams got very packed around lunchtime (e.g. around 2pm in Spain), and a denser headway seemed necessary. The southern section seemed much busier anyway as it not only serves some university faculties, but also a huge new shopping mall "Nevada" which generates a lot of ridership. So I felt that maybe at certain times a reinforcement line should be established, maybe between Estación de Autobuses and Sierra Nevada to operate a 5-minute headway on the central stretch. But I fear (but have no idea) that the operating contract with Avanza does not really consider any option to increase the service frequency, just like in Zaragoza where they also became victim of their own success and I think they still haven't increased the number of trams in operation.

What they call "Metropolitano de Granada" is, of course, a typical modern tram, which includes three underground stations. In fact, the term 'metropolitano' initially appeared because the line not only serves the city of Granada but also some towns outside, which belong to the metropolitan area, such as Armilla, Maracena and Albolote, with others already asking for the tram to be extended, so the project was presented as "Tranvía metropolitano".

Lowering pantograph just west of Fernando de los Ríos

Basically the Granada tram follows all the parameters we know from modern French tramways, i.e. a separate right-of-way or at least a marked-off road alignment throughout, no mixed operation, not even with buses. The line is double-track throughout, except for a short section at the southern end in Armilla, which certainly limits possible denser headways. There are quite a large number of crossovers so trams can turn back in case of disruptions. The single-track section in Armilla as well as two other short sections (Hípica – Andrés Segovia; Villarejo – Caleta) were built without overhead wires and the trams draw energy from supercapacitors like in Sevilla and Zaragoza. But here I think it was more of a capricho than a necessity, the section in Armilla is through a pedestrianised street but which I didn't really find as nice as to protect it from ugly wires, the same is true for the wireless section in Granada. 

Catenary-free section in Armilla

While travel speed is reasonable on most sections and traffic-light priority works fine, the section between Sierra Nevada and Fernando de los Ríos has to be operated a maximum speed of just 20 km/h as the trams run through a narrow street and cars may occasionally invade the tram reservation.

Generally the chosen alignment covers important parts of the city, but what surprises at first sight is that it does not run through what one would consider the most logical axis through the city centre (Avenida de la Constitución, Gran Vía de Colón, Calle Reyes Católicos, Acera del Darro – served by the LAC bus), and instead runs on a more peripherical western route (Camino de Ronda). And being underground on this "Old Town Bypass", an average tourist will probably not even notice that Granada now has a tram system. So if the line does not run through the Old Town, did it really need a tunnel? Camino de Ronda used to be the major north-south road to get through the city, but this has meanwhile been pushed further west to motorway A-44 (which itself is getting a relief motorway even further west...), so I'd say, that a surface route was also have been possible here. But planning was carried out at a time when money seemed to flow endlessly in Spain and many, still unfinished, infrastructure projects were launched. 

Luckily, Granada's was eventually finished, while its neighbour Jaén still struggles with finding an operating scheme before opening its 5 km tram line which has lain idle and ready to operate since 2011!! (there are hopes, though...).


All the surface stops follow a standard pattern, which looks plain but attractive. There is a ticket machine on each platform, and a board with a map and some information about fares. Although operating hours are listed, there is no hint about the tram's scheduled frequency. There are electronic next-tram indicators which worked fine while I was there, in fact, when the countdown shows "2 min.", the tram is about to arrive at the stop. Except for the two termini and the underground stations, all the stops have side platforms, which at 60m would be long enough for double sets. The stop's name is visible in various ways, one of them vertically on a totem which is crowned by a nice M-Logo.


I would classify the three underground stations as sober, functional with a stylish touch. In fact these are simple cut-and-cover boxes with a mezzanine at either end and an island platform on level -2, although at Méndez Núñez and Alcázar Genil, only the southern access is currently open, the northern serving as an emergency exit. From the street, there are several covered entrances leading to the mezzanine, at least with up-going escalators. Of course, also lifts are available, but lift-users have to change lifts on mezzanine level to walk through the tickets gates. 



Alcázar Genil is somewhat different as it features some remains of an ancient water deposit (albercón), but this is only recognisable if you know about it (there is an information panel explaining it), otherwise it looks like a station left unfinished in bare concrete. What makes the underground stations look somewhat stylish is the backlit station name on the raw piles which were driven into the ground to create the outer walls. For the rest the platform level is sober and somewhat dark, there are some stone benches which seem to store Granada's morning cold, but will probably be pleasant to sit on in hot summer. 



The trams travel at considerable speed between the underground stations, while the northern ramp, which follows a sharp curve in tunnel, is negotiated at low speed. Especially in the underground stations, a 10-minute headway feels a bit too long. Recogidas is the most centrally located station, but also Mendez Nunez gets busy with a large Corte Inglés department store nearby. All in all, however, the chosen route also has its share of passengers, including the many students at Universidad and in the future also the railway station (Estación de Ferrocarril). But with a tunnel already decided, I would have included Hípica station on the underground route as the ramp is somewhat intrusive in a narrow street, while roads become rather wide a bit further down the line. On the other hand, the city layout would suggest a branch leading east from Hípica and that would certainly be easier on the surface, In Tenerife, however, exactly those junctions were put underground to avoid any delays at road intersections. In fact, the intersection in question was the only one where I had the feeling that the tram cannot ask for priority but has to wait for the general traffic-light cycle to give it a 'go' sign. One major issue, though not specific to Granada, are the countless roundabouts the trams have to traverse, though luckily cars are stopped by special traffic lights. Having also used a car in Granada, I consider this extremely dangerous as roundabouts are always a certain challenge if busy and multi-lane, and then suddenly while in it, you may be stopped by a red light. I guess there have been a few crashes. I wonder if it is a good idea to combine trams with roundabouts. I imagine that this may create quite some traffic chaos as soon as the frequency is increased. Now with a tram only every 10 minutes in each direction it seems to work fine, though.


The CAF Urbos trams are pretty much the same as those in Málaga, except for some red at the doors instead of green, and decorated on the outside with local themes. Luckily they decided for the wide 2.65 m version which makes them look quite spacious inside although they do get packed easily. The interior is quite plain but bright. The seats are maybe a bit hard although the trams run quite smoonthly despite the grooved rail. The interior features all sorts of info devices including a strip map above the doors with illuminated stops. So, nothing to complain on this side, well, besides the Bombardier Flexity, the CAF Urbos is my favourite tram anyway...


Although the big Spanish cities have long had quite a good integrated transport system when it comes to fares, Andalusia is only learning slowly about this. So like in Sevilla and Málaga, the tram initially has its own fares, but free transfer to buses within a certain time will fortunately be introduced soon as I could learn from the local papers. Most local people use an electronic card which either carries a season ticket or stored value, so pretty everyone needs to tap in as they enter the tram. Single or return tickets are issued on a credit-card style paper ticket which also incorporates a chip, so you need to validate it on boarding. The same is true for a day pass called Turista (basically useful for tram enthusiasts only, I guess...), it shows the day of validity printed on the back side, but as I wasn't sure, I tapped in each time, too, so other passengers may not think I travel without paying... A day pass, which is valid just for this single line, costs 4.50€, quite a price considering that with a stored-value ticket (targeta monedero) you just pay 82 cents. Single tickets carry a surcarge for the electronic one-use ticket, so the total comes to 1.65€, still cheap for most European cities, but expensive for Spain. On the buses you can buy a single ticket from the driver for 1.40€ allowing you to transfer to other buses within 90 minutes. 

 

At underground stations the tickets have to be hold against the reader on entry and on exit, the latter probably a way to avoid fare evasion with people getting on the tram on the surface, so they wouldn't get outside in one of the central stations, although jumping the barriers would be quite easy. There are some security people around, but not too many, and they didn't say anything when they saw me taking photos (I mention this because people have reported problems in Málaga and some Spanish security staff sometimes get too serious, but usually just tell you that taking photos is not allowed, no US-style detentions to be feared!).

So, all in all, a good system which certainly will become very successful, maybe too successful. But looking at the city map, I hope more lines will be added soon and frequencies on the first line will be increased at least at busier times.


LINKS

Metropolitano de Granada (Oficial website)








Monday, 20 February 2017

PRAGUE - Metro & Tram



 
Newest tram type in Prague, a ForCity from Skoda

Postponed again and again, I finally returned to Prague in early December 2016 after 15 years! My last trip to Prague was also the last trip I made without a digital camera, we are talking about 2001. I had travelled the Czech Republic extensively and intensively during the last summer in preparation for my forthcoming Tram Atlas Central Europe, a bit delayed but now hopefully out on sale in March 2017. I left Prague for a separate trip to finish off these journeys, but ever since September I had been waiting for a nice weather forecast, but it was not until December, already in winter, that a few mild days with a bit of sun were annouced. So I got on an EC train directly from Berlin to Prague, a calm journey of 4 1/2 hours. I stayed in Prague from 8 to 11 Dec 2016.

The purpose of the trip was mainly to get a good selection of metro station photos, as tram photos are much easier to get from other people. In the end, in three days I managed to take photos in all the stations, so my files are filled for the next decades [Visit my Praha Metro Gallery at UrbanRail.Net]. Though not the usual harvest, I still got a few nice tram shots, too, and with early sundown, some useable night shots, of course:


Older tram type, a Tatra T3

Let's start with tickets, a very easy and cheap issue in Prague. A day pass (24 hours in fact) is just 110 Czech crowns, which is something like €3.50, a 72-hours pass is 310 CZK. As the Metro is an open system, you just stamp it the first time and then pack it away until some ticket inspection happens, which I didn't have in three day, though I once saw a couple checking tickets inside a metro train.

Generally, the Prague Metro is a very relaxed system, everybody seems to behave pretty well, no loud people, no vandalism (visible) and hardly any security people around which made me think they are not needed (in Berlin you hardly see any but people believe we should have more!). No one hassles you when taking pictures, neither staff nor passengers. Just the concourse level at Muzeum seems to be a dodgy place with weird people hanging around. There are signs like "Beware of pickpockets" which is not surprising with the amount of tourists Prague gets at any time of the year. Now with Christmas markets all around, the city was packed, of course.

The Prague Metro is also a rather tidy place, not as polished as Moscow's, but quite clean. The platform level is usually a rather pleasant space, but some entrance areas appear a bit too dark. In some stations on line C, the lights and ceilings were renewed, making a much brighter space as some of the older stations tend to be a bit dark. I'm glad they kept some of the really fast escalators, though you have to watch out if you are not used to these. Where they have been renewed they tend to be slower. One morning I found one of the two up escalators at the A-to-C interchange at Muzeum out of service, but a few hours later when I went to catch my train back home it had already been fixed, despite being a Sunday. Some of the deep-level tube stations in the centre have already been equipped with lifts, but for those depending on lifts, it may still be a challenge to use the Metro. Of course, these lifts may be hidden somewhere on the surface, but there are signs indicating their location.


Talking about signs, what I do miss in Prague is a nice metro logo. They do use two kinds of symbols, but none is used on what would be an easily spottable totem pole in the street. Often the metro sign is only identifiable once you are at the stairs leading down underground, like at Námestí Míru, where the entrances are somewhat hidden behind the church at the eastern end of the square, so unless you know, you will not be able to see the entrances. Some entrances are covered and are thus more visible. Interchanges with tram lines are generally good, and inside the stations there are signs indicating which exit to take for which tram direction - they don't show line numbers as these have changed again and again.

Prague's Metro has always had its own style, especially in those early years, when the Soviets helped to build the Metro but did not impose a Moscow-style station design. Instead, Prague chose a very specific 1970s look, standardised though in varied colours on line A, and with a bit more variety on line B:

  





Line C, however, looks rather plain as it was originally designed as a subsurface tram, and most of the older cut-and-cover stations are not worth mentioning. 


Hlavni nadrazi on Line C, a subsurface station with wide side platforms

One may not like the colours and shapes used on the newer sections of lines A and C so much, somehow they appear a bit tacky, but seeing them in real life, I found all of them very pleasant spaces, and each with an individual note:

  



Strizkov is, of course, a different thing altogether, not for its plain platform level, but for its huge spanned roof structure. I guess the Metro wanted to build something nice in an otherwise dull neighbourhood, but from a budget point of view, it seems almost too much:


And the terminus at Letnany, though a lovely station, is in the middle of nowhere, still after some years of being open. Even the huge bus interchange seemed quite deserted when I was there on Friday afternoon compared to, e.g., Cerny Most or Zlicin. Looking on the Google satellite image, I would say that the line is short by one station as a large housing estate is just about one km further north. And if those people need to take a bus anyway to catch the metro they should rather go to Strizkov or even Ladví, both at a similar distance.

The new stations on the western line A extension have similar designs except the terminus Nemocnice Motol, of course, which is only half underground and serves one of the biggest hospital complexes in the city. During day time, every second train turns back at Petriny, but I think this is not so much to save a train, but due to the fact that Nemocnice Motol was not meant to remain the terminus for a long time as the line was supposed to be extended to the airport in a next phase. But this was shelved and a rail link is to be built there instead. But construction on this link which should be done together with a major upgrade of the Kladno rail line, has not started yet. So, Nemocnice Motol only has two sidings beyond the station, and one was occupied by a stabled train, leaving just one track for reversing: 


Refurbished Russian train reversing at Nemocnice Motol on Line A

At the other end, these trains turn around at Skalka instead of going the short distance to the terminus built inside Depo Hostivar, a rather plain encased station, though I was actually positively surprised after having seen pictures of it before; also surprised how many people were actually using it on a Sunday morning.

The trains are generally also in good shape, the newer CKD/Siemens trains on line C still look quite modern with their large front window. What makes them appear old-style is the fact that you cannot walk from car to car:




Prague started quite early to refurbish all older Russian trains which now run on lines A and B. Among all different modernised versions around Russian and other cities, I have always found the Prague version the best achieved.Giving trains a new front or livery often results in ugly distorted vehicles (see Cologne's modernised B cars or Frankfurt's ex U2 cars in latest livery), but in the case of Prague, the new front seems to fit. Also the interior looks pleasant, although I find the seats to be a bit too L-shaped, i.e. not really comfortable for me:


As with all Russian-style metros, the accoustic announcements are quite good, I mean well-timed when the car noise is the lowest. The "Ukoncite vystup a nastup, dvere se zaviraji" message could be a bit shorter, so that doors could close faster. Here the problem is like on the Berlin S-Bahn that people still jump on the train because they know it still takes a while until the doors really close. I prefer those metros where a simple yelling signal is enough and doors close. It may save a few seconds, but above all, it gives you a feeling of high speed of travel. But generally, station dwelling time is reasonable in Prague. On some trains the doors opened autmatically, while on others you had to push the button. Or does that depend on the station? Or on the driver? Train frequencies are quite adequate for the demand, every few minutes during rush hours and every 10 minutes on a Sunday morning (although for a few platform photographs, 10 minutes seemed sometimes long that morning...).

Signage in the stations is o.k. but not abundant. From the train, station signs are hard to read. On the outer walls, they are in large metal letters, which looks nice. On the platform itself, there are a few signs in the line's colour, but not as many as in other metros. What I observed repeately is that many people had problems reading the line diagram and which platform was the one they needed:


Badly visible arrows next to "Staromestska"

 In other cities you would find the strip map divided with clear arrows indicating the platform edge. Here those arrows are now quite clear. So in this case, Prague should follow the global design and have standing strip maps on the side walls as you come down the escalators. On the platforms there are information windows with fares and a large nice geograhic map with trams and buses, but I did not see any neighbourhood maps. Various generations of ticket machines can be found in entrance areas, older ones just take coins, but newer ones also accept international bank cards. Some stations also have manned ticket windows.

A few words about Prague's tram system, which is among the largest in Europe and for tourists, also an excellent way of exploring the city especially when you're tired after doing long walks. Several lines take you across one of the many bridges and always provide an excellent view, always from a different angle depending on the line you take. With 24 lines, the system may appear a bit complicated for outsiders as there are no clear trunk routes. But to find your way round, leaflets called "Prague Transport in 10 Languages" are available in many metro stations and include a good metro/tram map. Like the Metro, trams get very packed in the central area, and punctuality can vary as especially in the centre there are some sections where trams share space with cars and do get stuck. Tram drivers are, however, always rather offensive people, and I was surprised that I didn't witness any accidents, particularly as many tourists may never have seen trams in their own hometowns. They drive rather fast even in narrow streets and pedestrians are not given priority at zebra crossings. I don't know whether this is the rule, at least it is the reality. So, as a pedestrian or a car driver, always watch out for trams!

Many of the routes have been upgraded in recent years, but they lack the modern stop equipment you would expect from a modern tramway. There is the old-style sign with a timetable sheet and that's it. Next-tram indicators are very scarce, modern ones can only be found on the relatively new route to Barrandov, older ones on the route to Repy and in very few other places. The important stops in the city centre don't have any kind of next-tram indicators:

 

Most stops have some sort of platform, although a few still require boarding from street level. What I appreciate a lot in Prague is that not only the next stop is announced, but also the following. In fact when the tram arrives at the stop, they just say the name of the stop and then "pristi stanice" (next stop) plus the name of the next stop. On new trams, the next stop is even displayed on the outside of the tram next to the tram's destination, also a useful detail, although I only discovered this on my last tram journey! Another little detail that helps passengers is an arrow at the tram stop to indicate whether a line continues straight or turns left or right after that stop.


Refurbished T3 with centre low-floor access

In the tram fleet there are still lots of old Tatra T3 cars. Many people love them, but they are, of course, rather outdated when it comes to accessibility. Prague hasn't modernised too many of them with a low-floor centre access, but fortunately, the new Skoda ForCity trams are becoming very frequent. All in all, these are quite nice, run smoothly as long as the track is good, but despite those heavy bogies they have this uncomfortable lateral kick in curves (in this respect nothing beats the T3s). I think I was not the only one to find the wooden seats in the first batch of ForCity trams a bit too hard because the newer trams now have plastic seats, not too soft either, but better than the wooden ones. Probably determined by the front bogie, which actually sits under the driver's cab, the front looks rather massive for an urban tramway, with many slimmer designs being available in other cities.


Front and rear of newest ForCity generation

All in all, Prague has an excellent urban rail system and shows that metro and tram are two systems that complement each other. Seeing the masses the metro carries every day, it is impossible to imagine that trams alone would be capable of coping as some tramway advocates try to suggest. The trams themselves are quite busy and putting on more trams would just create real tram jams. Prague is also a good example for those who think that parallel metro/tram operation as such is something very bad. Prague has many routes doubled by trams and metro, and both carry enough passengers. Especially for trips across the city centre, of course, the Metro is much faster, but for shorter trips, the tram is certainly the winner as the deep-level stations require some extra time too.

I haven't used the Esko trains, a kind of S-Bahn service. I wonder whether people perceive it as part of the urban rail system or just a rebranded regional rail service. The double-deck trains on major routes look quite o.k., but those diesel units look rather pathetic, especially in combination with the railway stations I saw. At the end of the tram route to Sidliste Repy, there is actually an interchange to the winding S65 at the station called Zlicin, but this was not very inviting, with not even a timetable posted anywhere. A similar impression left the station next to the brand new Nadrazi Veleslavin metro station. I guess Prague could do with the "big solution" by creating a major underground trunk route shared by all lines. The present Masarykovo nadrazi could be replaced by a deep-level underground station which also serves Hlavni nadrazi and then a cross-city tunnel to Smichov with a branch to Vrsovice.

LINKS

Dopravni Podnik Prahy (Official Website)






Tuesday, 7 June 2016

JAPAN - Conclusions & Travel Tips


JR rail network in Tokyo area

What you may have read in this blog during the past four weeks were just my personal impressions and, by no means, a full analysis. Hardly ever had I had the same feeling of rushing through a country, covering so many metro and metro-like systems in just one month. So while I have dealt with some in more detail, some other posts are just fragments resulting from a hurried visit. Still, I'm happy I have done this trip, and it has long been overdue for a real metro enthusiast, but in the end it was Andrew Phipps' serious proposal for a series of books about Japan which eventually made me decide to finally visit this country myself. And thanks to everybody who has been clicking into this blog and even read bits or everything. I'm glad I managed to get all posts online before being back home, as you can imagine there is still a lot of other things waiting to be done (not least the annual tax declaration).

So, here I am, finally sitting on board a British Airways Boing 777 flying to London Heathrow with a delayed departure of three hours and a missed connecting flight to Berlin.... who could imagine a better return to good old Europe after a month of all trains running exactly on time? Time for a few general conclusions after my trip and the country I have finally known. These conclusions and travel tips may be helpful to those considering a trip to Japan in the future.

Your humble author on the job in Sapporo

SAFETY
Travelling in Japan is probably safer than in any other country in the world, I mean crime-wise. And everybody had confirmed that to me before the trip, as I'm usually worried about which places one can go without risking any problems as an obvious foreigner. Doing metro exploration, I often get to areas other visitors may not get to, and often I feel uncomfortable taking pictures in an environment where I may not be supposed to be. But these places do not exist in Japan, you never feel a strange atmosphere in certain areas, and despite looking different and doing a weird job, no one bothers you. Most people ignored me, some looked a bit curious or astonished, but never really worried. Staff or the few security people I saw also leave you alone. The last few days in Tokyo, there were many announcements on the screens that police were on increased alert and suddenly also more vigilants were visible, but all with the typical Japanese calmness. So from the safety point-of-view, it is a paradise. Even in Berlin, I have to watch out when taking pictures in the U-Bahn stations, because there are a lot of aggressive people around, and drug dealers who don't want you to take pictures on their terrain, of course. Nothing like this occurs in Japan, at least not in their Subways, neither is vandalism or graffiti any issue.

TOILETS
What I had already mentioned in the first blogs (later it became normal) is that Japan is a toilet paradise. An issue one should not underestimate when male and over 50. I guess that there is a law that any station by default has to have proper toilets, just like nowadays it has to be fully accessible or requires a fire protection plan. In this respect in Europe we are third world. In Berlin, I think about none out of 190 U-Bahn stations has a toilet, and if it had one, it would be in a state you wouldn't want to use it. So on a full day of rail exploration, you'd spend several euros just on toilets you may find in major railway stations or department stores, while in Japan they are all free, clean and plenty.

RAIL TRAVEL BETWEEN CITIES
I had a 3-week JR Rail Pass for some 450 EUR and that's just fantastic. You have to buy it at home, well, you order it from some online shop and you get a voucher which in major railway stations in Japan can be exchanged for the real pass. I did that in Fukuoka where I started my first intercity trip and used it all the way up to Sapporo, which with normal tickets would have cost more. But besides the intercity trips it is also good for all JR S-Bahn-type services, as JR only distinguishes between conventional lines (usually signed as "JR Line" at transfer points) and "Shinkansen", the high-speed network. But with a JR Pass you can enter both systems as often as you like, you just show your pass to the person at the manned window next to the ticket gates and walk through. The only restriction is that you can't use Nozomi and Mizuho (I have never encountered the latter category anyway), which are the fastest because they only stop in major cities. But the Nozomis only operate on the Tokyo to Osaka line and maybe beyond, where there are so many other trains to choose from, you may actually find it more relaxed to travel on a Hikari or Sakura or whatever they may be called. In fact, I never took a reserved seat (which you can without paying any extra fare), just showed up and got into the non-reserved cars without any problems (mostly cars 1-3), often they were even half empty. They have plenty of legroom, a bit like U.S. Amtrak trains, because they also turn the seats around so everybody faces forward, which, of course, needs some room, so I could mostly place my big bag next to me and still had place enough to get out of my seat. Between Osaka and Tokyo it seems that the Shinkansen headways are denser than typical Osaka Subway headways! As described in the Kyoto post, sometimes it may even be worthwhile to catch a Shinkansen on short trips as those Rapids which connect these cities on the conventional network do get very crowded at times. Things are a bit different on the Tohoku Shinkansen, north of Tokyo (surprisingly the southern and northern networks are not properly connected at Tokyo Station - maybe there is a track link - but all trains terminate on stub tracks), this route is not served so frequently and without realising I found myself on a train with all cars "reserved", although there were plenty of free seats and the conductor also assigned me a seat without any problems. From Sendai to Shin-Hakodate I took a reservation, as there was a gap of two hours between trains in the morning, and indeed, it was very full and "All-reserved" anyway. After Aomori, however, it also got half empty, on the stretch with had only opened a few weeks earlier. This includes the 53 km Seikan underwater tunnel (well, the undersea section is about half of that), which had already been in service since 1988 by conventional trains, but was now converted to dual-gauge, though no conventional passenger trains run through it anymore. The speed is therefore reduced drastically to some 150 km, but given the endless tunnels all along the Shinkansen routes, this is just another tunnel.

Rather primitive new terminus at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto for the new JR Hokkaido Shinkansen

Talking of which, I would not recommend the Shinkansen to see the countryside. Especially on the southern routes between Fukuoka and Osaka, you can hardly see anything because of the large amount of tunnels, and many other sections have noise barriers. The best views, if you're lucky, are actually between Kyoto and Tokyo, the oldest stretch, which has fewer tunnels and even a Mt. Fuji panorama ready for you (sit on the left side) if the weather is nice. For whatever reason, the windows in the Shinkansen are rather small, you really need a window seat to see anything at all. On the other hand, it would require a lot of time if you want to cover the same distances with conventional trains, including many transfers as these trains only serve certain sections. Generally, the Shinkansen is not faster than what we know in Europe in several countries now, around 250 km/h, but as it is an isolated system, it keeps high speeds even on approaches to most stations, whereas our ICE or the French TGV mix with normal trains at least on their approaches to major stations and thus slow down much earlier. They mostly have an impressive length and even platform egde gates! Like other trains too, they always stop very accurately and station platforms therefore have clear signs indicating where which car is supposed to be.

Super Hokuto Express ready to depart from Hakodate

Except for the Super Hokuto Express from Hakodate to Sapporo (no idea why it deserves the super and express adjectives?) I haven't taken any of these regional trains, so can't say much about them. That train was o.k., as o.k. as diesel-powered trains can be. I actually had taken a reservation, but then sat in a non-reserved car because I could sit on the right side which is nicer along the long coastal route.

RAIL SYSTEMS
The mainline rail network is actually divided into various regional JR companies, but for passenger purposes all these different JR networks appear as a single network, the same is true for the Shinkansen network. No matter whether a train is operated by JR East or JR Central or whatever. In fact, the regional subdivisions are not visible in passenger information, just in Sapporo I heard something like "JR Hokkaido says thank you for travelling with us" or so. There are, however, numerous private railways, and especially in metropolitan areas also "third-sector" companies of which you never understand who is actually behind them, could be a city, a prefecture, a private railway, even JR, but generally a mix of some of these. So, while on the one hand you'll find a very dense rail network, you'll also find that this is very fragmented and something like a European "Verkehrsverbund" or joint fare system is a concept unknown and probably uncomprehended in Japan. In Europe, these fare systems were developed partly because something like the Japanese concept would be considered unfair, as a passenger generally cannot choose which rail line runs near his home and where he has to go for work. So we came up with the idea of "journeys" which can imply multiple means of transport and different operators within a certain area. Of course, it is still not all fair, because most European cities operate a zone-based system, but one could argue that nowadays you can't choose how far you need to travel to your job, so only proper global systems like that in Stockholm get close to "fair" (up there, people riding just short distances don't find this so fair because in the end many people pay a higher fare than what they might have to pay in Japan). Anyway, the Japanese systems are extremely fragmented in this respect, and if you do a bit of travel beyond the daily trip to work and back home again, it gets quite expensive, because even minimum fares of 150 Yen add up quickly. This fragmentation reaches some ridiculous extremes, from the two separate subway systems in Tokyo, to the silly 2-station "subway" in Nagoya (Kami-iida Line" or third-sector company's extensions of what are normal metro extensions in the rest of the world. Resulting from this, day passes available in most places can only be used on a rather limited network, or even just on a single line. There is no city which offers something comparable to a London Travelcard or a German Tageskarte (but don't get me wrong - I'm NOT saying that our zonal systems are ideal, in fact they are the main reason why potential occasional riders do NOT use public transport!).

So, while fares are a complete mess in Japan, paying those fares is easier than anywhere else now. You just have to get a so-called IC Card, add some value to it and you can use the same card in virtually all cities all over Japan. In this respect, we are decades behind Japan. This is especially ideal for occasional riders, because you don't have to worry anymore about fares and tickets. Just tap in and out as you travel and you should be fine. For the intensive metro enthusiat-type of user, the limited day passes are still recommended as they are cheaper in the end and won't cause trouble in case of weird travel behaviour (always remembering how I messed up my Oyster Card account in London, resulting in lots of "unresolved journeys" - in Japan, however, this wouldn't happen too often as the gates are everywhere, so you're unlikely not to tap out accordingly). If you decide to get paper tickets (of the tiny Paris RATP size), instead, and if you want to keep them, exit through a manned gate and ask to have it stamped (validated), otherwise the ticket gate will swallow single tickets. And what's also very good, if you don't understand what fare you should buy, just get the cheapest and pay the rest at the "fare adjustment" machines before you exit at your destination. And in case of problems, almost all metro entrances are staffed with very friendly people willing to assist. I think just in Nagoya I saw a few stations which had certain secondary entrances which were not manned, but this is indicated at surface level.

Standardised ticket machines, here on Hiroshima's Astram Line

Ticket machines generally have an "English" button, just on the Skyrail (the kind of cable car near Hiroshima) and on the Yurikagaoka shuttle in North Chiba I did not find any. Getting day tickets from the machines is usually no hassle, but in some cities like Kyoto they were just available from the ticket window. But as they are used to tourists they will understand easily what you wish (although here you have to say "Subway only" or "Subway and Bus, please"). Generally, the use of ticket machines is easier than in Europe, because all across the country they are very similar, so once you have used one you know how they all work.

LANGUAGE
The language is a problem to some extent. On the one hand, the Japanese have made a strong effort to sign almost anything in the transport environment in English, too, and except for some weird word like "wickets" for ticket barriers in Nagoya, it is generally correct English. I wish in Germany we would provide the same service to our visitors. On the other hand, spoken English is hard to find. Even at hotel receptions, their knowledge is limited to a few sentences learned by heart, and if you ask something you are never sure whether they understand you properly as they will always respond with a smile and probably a "Thank you" or "OK". Station staff generally does not speak any English either, but if you ask for a "map" they usually understand the word and try everything to let you go with something map-like in your hands. The lack of sufficient English knowledge is the more surprising to me as we grew up in the 1970s listening to all sorts of British pop and rock music and so acquired a certain love for that language. And we knew that Japan at that time was a very important destination also for our rock stars and that Japanese kids got crazy in concerts. In fact, I couldn't help having a look at the Budokan which was then one of the major venues where many of our heroes recorded their live albums.

MAPS
Availability of take-away maps very much depends on the city, the best being Tokyo and Fukuoka with plenty of special English material stocked for self-service at ticket gates; a nice brochure with a take-out map, though the text in Japanese only, can be found in most stations in Sapporo; all other cities were rather disappointing. Upon asking you may be given an A4 colour print (Osaka), a pathetic lovely photocopy in b/w in Yokohama, or nothing at all in other cities. I found a few large bus maps which include Subways, too. So it is not exactly a map collector's paradise, but my suitcase got heavy enough with the items I did collect along the way for myself and some co-collectors.

PRICES ETC.
The lack of fluent verbal conversation does not, however, result in a risk of being ripped off when buying things. In fact, they are very correct and always say aloud "I take 10,000 Yen" or so in Japanese (sometimes they do it in English, so that's how I know). and count your change for you very accurately.

This brings us to general price levels: I would say, overall they are similar to those in Germany, which means visiting Japan must be quite cheap for British, Swiss or Skandinavian people. Many things are actually cheaper, like a bottle of Coca Cola from the numerous vending machines on the streets just costs 160 Yen (1.30 EUR). Many of the dishes advertised in full colour and 3D in restaurant windows are below 1000 Yen.

Typical Japanese restaurant window

Hotels in the medium category have a good standard, in fact they are so standardised that rooms are almost identical. In the 70 EUR price segment you generally get a better equipped hotel than in Germany, though without breakfast. Useless to say that for the same room in London you would probably pay 200 EUR. Maybe Tokyo and Osaka are slightly more expensive but usually there is a big choice of similar hotels around railway stations, I just wouldn't go back to the one I had in Hiroshima (Ark Hotel; quality maybe worse due to important tourism) and Nagoya (Toyoko Inn), although they were still much better than what I had for 120 EUR in London Earl's Court last year! For me, who prefers firm beds, the quality of the beds was very good compared to many hotels around the world. Free WiFi works perfectly in all hotels. With a 24-hour convencience store around everywhere you can always get some easy food or make your own breakfast if you (like me) don't fancy Japanese breakfast buffets with their (for us) rather unusual and often unidentifyable delicacies. Rooms always have kettles, though coffee and tea supply is often limited. And major cities also offer quite a few Starbucks or other coffee shops, and French-style bakeries are also quite popular. For those who don't care about hotels, there are many cheaper options too, like the Japanese box hotels, but I didn't try those.


Railway stations and even most metro stations have lockers, for a big suitcase they are 600-700 Yen (5-6 EUR) a day. Normally there seem to be plenty, but in Nagoya I had difficulties finding one as holiday season had just started. Anyone planning a trip in spring should take this into account: The first week of May is Golden Week in Japan, many people are on holiday. This may be good for big cities as overcrowding on urban trains may be less of a problem, but certain tourist destinations may get packed instead. If you go for cherry blossom, forget it, the chances to be in the right place in the right moment are low, you'd have to be in the same place over a longer period, or book last minute when it is clearly predictable how the season will go in that year. And then, I was told, the best places can get quite expensive suddenly. But still, spring and autumn are the best times to visit, and Tokyo was quite summer-like in early May, which was very nice!

Final view from Sapporo's TV Tower looking west along Odori

Final Stop: SAPPORO | Tour start: TOKYO 

Resulting from this trip, our first book will be available from late June 2016: