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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
Dopravni Podnik Prahy (Official Website)