Prague has a reputation as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe (even if graffiti appears to be everywhere) but arriving in Prague on a long-distance train doesn’t give a good first impression of the Czech Republic’s capital city, especially if doing so at night. The above photo shows the view on a very dimly-lit platform.
Railfuture campaigns to improve the railway (and underground and tram systems) in Britain for passengers and freight. It uses knowledge of best practice adopted around the world to refine its campaigns in Britain aiming to create the best rail systems possible. This is the latest in a series of Go and compare articles looking at how rail-based systems are operated around the world. It is based on a two-day trip by Railfuture director Jerry Alderson on his first visit to Prague in May 2016.
At the Main Station in Prague
The dismal first impression of Prague’s main station (Praha hlavní nádraží) will hopefully not be encountered by visitors in the future as the train shed roof is being completely refurbished, just like St Pancras and King’s Cross stations a few years ago. The ‘before and after’ photo below (click on each photo to enlarge it), which was taken at lunchtime, shows how good it will look in future.
All of the platforms are connected via two underpasses – one at each end. The main underpass is spacious and easily able to cope with a trainload of passengers with luggage and leads to a modern extension to the station that has a massive concourse with a large number of retail outlets, restaurants, car hire and several ticket offices including one for arranging student travel. There are modern accessible toilets (see bottom right-hand corner of photo below), although these need to be paid for (either Czech Koruna or Euro coins – the latter works out more expensive) – perhaps using a contactless payment card will be possible one day. The station extension has multiple levels and the top deck is a car park. A spiral staircase (and lift) takes passengers to the ground floor.
The main station (along with other railway stations in the city) is served by the metro system, which dates back to the 1970s. It can be accessed directly from the concourse without having to leave the station – something that is sometimes not the case in London. However, to get onto a tram it is necessary to first walk through the park at the front of the station. The tram is signed from within the concourse, simply saying go right (as shown below), but there is no further signage at all and the visitor has to just keep walking hoping they are going in the correct direction. They would only know that they had reached the tram stop by a totem. Fortunately trams are frequent and the station is served by three lines. Even so, the only protection from wind and rain is an inadequate bus shelter with seating for just two people.
It’s possible that there was once another tram stop to serve the station as there are some tram lines in the street in front of the station but these have been severed at the road junction.
Other Stations in Prague
There are several other railway stations in Prague but none are as large and disappointingly none of the others can be described as modern. In fact they have probably not changed much since the days of the iron curtain, apart from some modern trains: the double-deck train is known as the City Elefant.
As shown in the photo below, Praha Masarykovo nádraží station looks inviting on the outside but is very basic on the inside and old fashioned in every way. The toilets, which are cheaper than at the main station, are very basic and best avoided. A saving grace is that you can buy refreshments and there is plenty of protection from the rain with canopies along the platforms. Both the metro and tram stops are about five metres outside and there is even a canopy outside on end of the station for those on that side of the street to wait for the tram.
Prague Smíchov station (shown below) has retained its original design features (with communist imagery) and is clean, welcoming and fit for purpose. It has a modern destination screen, plenty of information, several ticket office windows and refreshments. There is a metro station below, so metro-rail interchange does not involve going outside. There are bus stops immediately outside (passengers are protected from the rain) and the tram stop is in the middle of the road outside. The station building viewed from the outside is far less appealing.
The metro covers a large part of the city with the first lines being built in the 1960s although like many European cities the idea for a network was first floated more than a century ago.
The metro map (photo below is from above the inside door of every metro carriage) appears to be perfectly symmetrical with all lines operating from west to east but it is a serious distortion as Line C (in red) is, coincidentally, shaped like a “C” and runs from north east to the centre to the south east. The idea of showing the network map with a smaller geographic map to the right is probably worth copying in other cities.
The Prague metro has been in operation since 1974 but none of the soviet-era trains are still in use. There are now two types running, which although having a different external appearance are not dramatically different for passengers on the inside. Both consist of separate carriages with no ability to walk through them, unlike modern metro trains around the world. The main difference between the old version (left, below) and new (right, below) is the quality of the seating – the newer ones have cushioned seats. Both models are spacious and have plenty of seats. However, whilst being accessible – many of the stations are described as being so on the map – the gap between the platform and train plus the height difference at some stations made it difficult for some wheelchair users to board and alight.
Prague’s metro stations are regarded as some of the most attractive in the world. The photo below shows the surface-level entrance at Hradčanská, which leads down to the below-ground concourse where tickets and refreshments can be bought before taking an escalator down to platform level. There lift entrances are located closer to the platform giving the ability to go directly from ground to platform level. Like Vienna there are virtual rather than physical gates where the ‘penalty fare’ area begins.
The other images in the photos show the spacious platform. Most of the stations have an island platform (Kobylisy – top right) with an exception being the main station (Hlavní nádraží - bottom right), which has exceedingly wide platforms to cope with high patronage at certain times. The stylish array of golden ‘dalek’ blobs is on the wall at Haje station, at the south eastern end of line C.
Of course, appearance is not everything. When descending to platform level at Hradčanská metro station there is a natural instinct at the foot of the escalators to turn left or right onto the platform (which also has a wall of golden and silver ‘dalek’ blobs). Astonishingly there is no information at all (apart from the station name), so the first-time passenger has no idea which platform to use for their destination. They have to leave the platform and continue walking to the very end of the corridor where there is a map on the wall. One just has to assume (correctly as it happens) that the 11 stations on the left of the sign require the platform on the left, and the five on the right require the other platform.
Someone who understands metro systems, and has knowledge of 24/7 systems such as Copenhagen, might assume that the lack of fixed notices is because the metro is bi-directional and during the night one track is closed for maintenance. However, this is not the case – it is closed overnight and trains only operate in one direction on each platform - so there is no explanation or justification for the lack of information.
The trains serving this metro station take current from the overhead wire and there is no third rail. At other stations there is the opposite, and some stations have both.
On every metro platform in Prague there are departure countdown clocks (see above) that are shown to the second – not to the minute like other cities including London. This precision gives confidence to passengers, assuming that the trains really do depart on time. Like several lines on the London Underground, which pioneered the concept of Automatic Train Operation on the Victoria Line, departures can be controlled as the drivers only open and close the doors with the train movement being controlled centrally. At no time were there any announcements that the train was being “regulated” or waiting because of a red signal.
There are just three interchange points between pairs of lines in a triangle all at the centre. Grade separation of tracks – i.e. no cross-platform interchange - requires passengers have to go up or down a level to change between lines. On the London Underground – and many other metro systems – passengers use the same corridor (or tunnel) to walk in both directions and no amount to “keep left” or “keep right” signs or central rails successfully segregate people. On the Prague metro (Florenc station is shown below) passengers are tricked into using different tunnels as they are labelled to line “C” when coming from line “B” and vice versa. Moreover, understanding Czech or English is not necessary.
Wherever you travel in the world there comes a time when you ask the question “what on Earth possessed them to do this?” Like many of the world’s transport systems passengers are subjected to adverts to raise money for the upkeep of the system. Prague is no exception, although emphasising its lack of modernity it uses printed rather than electronic ones. Its metro has adverts on the walls of the escalators, and as some of its lines are very deep there is plenty of opportunity to see them. However, rather than being vertical – i.e. aligned at the same angle as the person on the escalator, they are tilted so that they are perpendicular to the moving escalator rail. This leads to people leaning forward when going down and leaning backwards when going up. At best it is disorientating and at worst dangerous.
As seen by some of the examples above, Prague has got integrated transport between all modes off to a fine art. In the city centre it is between rail, metro and trams. There are no buses – other than tourist buses and coaches bringing visitors from far away. Like Zagreb in Croatia, the buses connect with the metro and trams on the outskirts of the city, not necessarily just at the terminus but where the rail-based systems start to thin out.
As well as avoiding pollution from diesel buses there is a great economic argument for not bringing buses into the city’s centre – they abstract revenue from the rail-based systems, which can become uneconomic at their extremities where loadings are much lower. In fact, in Prague, although the greatest level of interchange is seen at its centre the metro and the trams had high loadings to the end of the line. Equally, with such comprehensive rail-based transport there were surprisingly few cars on the city’s roads.
Depo Hostivař (shown in the photos below) is the terminus of Metro Line A. It is interesting that a metro station has been built within the compound of a metro depot, but the most astonishing thing is how the passenger experience is treated seriously. It requires a 250-metre walk from the metro entrance to the bus interchange, where there is also a car park, kiss and ride and taxi ranks. For the entirety of that walk there is a continuous canopy. It is possible to walk from metro carriage to bus without getting wet at all – sadly something that Britain’s fragmented transport system, where each mode is provided by a different operator, seems to make impossible.
Trams in Prague
Prague has an extensive standard-gauge tram network of 142km, roughly the same size as Brussels, and operates around the clock, albeit with a different service during the night when the metro is not running. All lines converge at Lazarská in the city centre.
Many of the tram stops are in the middle of the road but there is a built up island and pedestrian crossings. Where the island is fairly narrow there is no room for any form of shelter.
Like nearby Vienna and Bratislava along with some other European countries, there is only a driver’s cab at the front end of the tram (allowing space at the rear of the tram to be used by passengers) and there are only doors on the right hand-side, which means that there are seats on the left hand side all the way along the tram. Whilst unidirectional trams maximise productive space and therefore improve the economics of operation it incurs the additional cost of constructing a loop at the end of every line (in order to have a ‘go anywhere’ fleet) and loops along the route for turn-backs in order to get the flexibility needed. Although the use of a loop avoids the lost time of a driver having to switch off the tram, walk the length of the tram and then turn everything back on again, this only matters if a quick turnaround is diagrammed and that only tends to happen on fully segregated systems where journey time is consistent. In Prague short turnarounds are not the case. The terminus loops are long and have multiple tracks so that at least six trams can be stabled there (as shown it the photo below, which features old-style trams along with the new Skoda 15T low-floor trams introduced in 2010). Interestingly the system was not originally designed for unidirectional trams and the loops were added in the 1920s.
The first thing to notice about the tram stops is how old fashioned and unfriendly they appear to be. It is necessary to study a paper timetable stuck on the totem to identify when the tram will be coming. Only a small number of stops - generally towards the end of lines where frequency is not quite ‘turn up and go’ - is there an electronic display. One advantage is that it identifies which trams have low floors (like the screens in Vienna). Unfortunately it is not real-time but works against scheduled time, as evidenced by trams waiting at the stop not being shown because they were a minute or two late and assumed to have already departed.
The older trams consist just of a single-car vehicle with no bending segments. Sometimes another tram of the same size is hooked behind it to increase capacity. Some of these have a driver’s cab but other vehicles are simple trailers. Unlike the old trams in Vienna where the second vehicle is powered from the main vehicle, both vehicles have their own pantograph.
There is also a fleet of slightly more modern trams, still of the same size and operation but with straight rather than rounded edges to the vehicle. Both types are high-floor and require climbing up two steps when entering. They also have a single row of cantilevered seats on each side of the tram, with a wide space in between for standing.
Prague also operates a modern fleet of three-segment low-floor trams, which are fully accessible. These have air conditioning modern information screens and offer Wi-Fi (something that only the Manchester Metrolink and Edinburgh Tram systems offer in Britain). They have 2+1 seating with the single seats on the door side (with a few 2+2 seats at the rear). Some trams have plastic seats but others have wooden ones. In various countries passengers have shown a preference for wood over plastic, although cushioned seats tend to be preferred.
One of the good features of the latest trams is the on-board passenger information screens. They show the current date and time plus a moving list of tram stops on the route, with origin, next stop, 14 stops after that and final destination included. Request stops are clearly identified by a bell symbol. Interchanges with metro stations show the cleverly designed “M” with an arrow symbol. They do not show interchanges with other tram lines and there is no indication of arrival times though. They layout is easy to understand and could be copied by any city’s tram (or bus) service.
This article has identified several areas where Britain’s railway, underground and tram systems could be improved given sufficient time, money and inclination. For example, some people might consider the following to be good things:
- Interchange between modes very close by – as little as five metres away
- Lots of opportunities to buy train tickets from people
- Attractive design at stations (more Dalek blobs!)
- Trams running all night long
- Good quality CIS on trams and trains – far better than anything currently seen in Britain
- Wi-Fi on trams
- Underground station entrances within the railway station – not outside like King’s Cross or round the corner like Marylebone and Fenchurch Street
- Barrier free metro
- Segregated unidirectional tunnels on the underground
- Canopies all the way from one vehicle to the other when interchanging
- Ample car parking at the station close to the concouse
- Departure time precisiuon by the second, not minute
- Rail rather than buses in the centre of cities
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Read previous articles by this writer: Hopping to Catch a Train, Delay Repay Losers, 20 Years Going in Circles, Mountain of Ideas, Sent to Coventry, Fare Rises - RPI vs CPI, New Year, Better Railway, Nine-Days-Rail-Surge, Tube Usage Hits Record, Passenger Growth Future?, Felixstowe Cut-Off, Passenger Priorities , Passenger Frustration, Accessible Travel, Eurostar Snapshot Survey, Stansted Experience, Widening the NET, Lacklustre Busway, Expand Eurocity network, Government backs Wi-Fi, Cheapest fares by law?, Bring Back BR?, Public Sector Franchises, Fare Increase Viewpoint and Tube Staffing.