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The beating heart of Barcelona

You know you’re in sunny Barcelona when you find yourself surrounded by exquisite...25 min

You know you’re in sunny Barcelona when you find yourself surrounded by exquisite Modernist architecture, breathtaking Roman Catholic churches, and a strong, briny breeze from the beachfront boulevard. But what links this all together? Quadrant Transport takes you on a trip across the capital of Catalonia to find out more about the true backbone of the city: its expansive transport network

If you’re reading this just after the first issue of Quadrant Transport landed, it’s almost summer in the UK. While that can often be delightfully warm, not all of us have access to a beach to cool off during the hottest days. I wouldn’t blame you for daydreaming about a week-long trip abroad, a chance to get away from your routine and see the city sights elsewhere – and with Spain’s vast sandy beaches and scorching summer temperatures, I would call it the perfect destination.

So let’s take a trip down to Barcelona, Catalonia’s gleaming cosmopolitan capital in the northeast coast of Spain. Flights are cheap – around £100 on budget airlines – but, as with most airports, you land quite far from the city’s bustling core. Thankfully, there is no shortage of options to get to the city centre in time for your check-in: you can board the Renfe R2 train straight to the city centre, alighting at the popular Plaça D’Espanya; go underground to ride the TMB Line 9 metro and later connect with Line 1; or, faster yet, take the A1 Aerobus straight to your hotel door.

By the time all bags have been safely stored away in your suite, it’s more than time to hit the beach: the sun is already shining brilliantly, the city warmly enveloping you in 30-degree heat. To get to Barceloneta – famous for its seaside bars and shops, golden sprawl of sand, and crowded promenade – you are once again pleasantly surprised with choice: it’s between taking the TMB D20 bus, the TMB Line 3 metro (the oldest in the network, opened in 1924), or a mix of tram and bus. The latter might sound unnecessarily expensive, but thanks to the Autoritat del Transport Metropolità (ATM) – think TfL, but for the whole of Barcelona’s metropolitan region – it’s most definitely not: the organisation has an efficient integrated fare structure in place. Tickets allow you to carry out journeys on any mode of transport, from bus and metro to tram and train, using tariff zones to calculate the different price options on offer.

Because of this, you make it to Barceloneta with money left to spare for the beach’s many tapas joints and shopping destinations. The area is teeming with locals and tourists alike, many hellbent on getting their exercise fix from outdoor pull-up bars while others are happy to drink bottles of Estrella by the water. It’s a reinvigorating experience and the perfect way to kick off your summer holiday.

But Barceloneta wasn’t always quite this charming. Far from it, in fact. Before the city’s 1992 Olympics, what is now considered one of the best urban beaches in the world was once a traditionally working-class area, isolated from any leisure activity. It was overtaken by local industries that colonised the seafront with docks and warehouses and squeezed out any potential for entertainment. Thanks to a remarkable influx of domestic and foreign investment before the Games, Barceloneta now has a glamorous, two-mile beachfront lined with shops, bars and houses – attracting the population’s cyclists, runners, swimmers, professional sun-tanners and, of course, an incredible abundance of tourists. It’s hard to believe the seemingly natural beach is in fact covered with sand imported from Egypt, but it’s true: Barcelona’s busy boulevard will be forever known as one of the most significant alterations to the city’s cultural character.

They say that before this time – before they transformed the port area – Barcelona was a city that had its back turned to the sea

“It is a combination of multiple activities in terms of housing, tourism, and leisure that keeps the area really lively, and which transformed what was previously a derelict industrial site,” said Tania Braga, head of legacy at the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Speaking to Quadrant Group, the Games expert recalled how the Olympic Village, for example, situated by Barceloneta in Poblenou, was once an old industrial area that had been abandoned for several decades. The coastal neighbourhood underwent radical surgery to ditch its warehouse past – during which it was considered one of the least attractive areas in the whole city – in favour of a trendier, more modern feel. “Whenever you talk to people in Barcelona, there’s an expression they use,” said Tania. “They say that before this time – before they transformed the port area – Barcelona was a city that had its back turned to the sea.”

The ring road controversy

Transport, of course, was at the heart of this transformation – as it usually is. “Transport plans were about how to connect this part of the city which was going through transformation,” said Dr Braga. “They planned these ring roads that would connect and circle the city, which didn’t exist before. That was the most important transportation accelerated by the Games, and immediately resulted in a 15% traffic reduction in the period of the early 90s.”

The ring roads – Ronda de Dalt and Ronda Litoral, the latter being the coastal travel option – may not be the most sustainable form of transport, but at the time, they provided a straightforward connection between the three different sport areas and the Olympic Village, as well as to Spain’s general motorway and the various metropolitan districts in Barcelona.

According to Tania, Barcelona was one of the first Olympic cities to really reap the benefits of ample investment in order to spur rejuvenation and enhance connectivity. Instead of building just one Olympic Park, the Spanish and Catalan governments chose to position venues in different areas of the city that most needed to be modernised; the Games therefore acted as a catalyst for the city’s infrastructural rebirth. In many ways, they were ahead of the curve in this respect: what Barcelona chose to do 25 years ago has now become standard practice at the IOC. “It was good practice at the time; now it’s becoming the norm,” Dr Braga told me, referencing her organisation’s role in guiding investment into an Olympic host city. “But we cannot forget that all parts, specifically transport, should be related to the long-term needs of the city – and the city is autonomous to make its own decisions. [The IOC] cannot interfere with the autonomy of a city when it comes to its infrastructure. What we can do is have a very intensive dialogue before the city is elected to make sure that their programme is really aligned with what the city wants for its future.”

Not everybody, however, agrees that large-scale investment in ring roads was the wisest choice for Barcelona’s future. Pau Noy, deputy CEO of TMB, the main public transport operator in the city and its vicinity, fully believes that more attention should have been given to the railways during the Olympics. “While the London Olympic Games meant a bet for public transport, Barcelona’s Games were a bet for building ring roads and a new road access to the city,” he told me. “It was an error that has needed, in the past years, a lot of public transport investments in order to be corrected. In terms of mobility as a whole, in the conurbation area private transit was multiplied by two with new road infrastructures. This is not good news for sustainable mobility and for health and energy purposes.”

Transport veteran Pere Calvet, who is both president of the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) and general manager of FGC – another key public transport operator in the region, commanding four metro services and several suburban trains – shares Mr Noy’s environmental concerns. “Due to its climatic conditions, Barcelona is suffering more than other cities from pollution caused by private cars,” he explained. “At the same time, there is a growing demand to make cities more liveable by allocating less space to private cars.

“The main challenge of Barcelona’s rail network, and in fact of the whole Barcelona public transport network, is to provide the capacity to make this required modal shift feasible,” continued Calvet. “In order to provide this increase in capacity, I think there are three main vectors: optimally manage existing infrastructure and public transport corridors and services; facilitate a change of habit that allows us to ‘flatten’ rush hours and distribute demand more broadly; and build new infrastructure to resolve bottlenecks and cope with the increasing demand.”

Álvaro Nicolás Loscos, mobility advisor at Barcelona City Council, personally agrees that they missed the mark during the years of pre-Olympic investment by putting too much focus on roads and not enough on public transport modes. “For some decades, we were, like many other cities – or probably even a bit later than other cities – investing a lot in road infrastructure instead of improving our railways. That definitely had an effect, both at that point and nowadays, on the number of cars that we have accessing and circulating around Barcelona,” Loscos told me. “Back then, there wasn’t a strong consciousness that public transport was necessary to sort out big climate or urban problems. We didn’t have an alibi to defend the public transport side [of the debate].

“What happens with public transport is that, once you’ve built the infrastructure, you still need the public administration to operate some services – and that’s very expensive,” he added. “Of course you still have to maintain road infrastructure once you’ve built it, but at the end of the day, it’s the people themselves who are driving those services. The maintenance is less expensive, and the operation is less expensive. Political priorities were put on that instead of investing in public transport.

“But of course, not everyone has access to a car – you have old people, young people, families with more than four members but only one car… It’s not viable in the long term because it’s not accessible for everyone, and it’s impossible to fit everyone in the city with a car. Once the administration understands that they have to get implicated in the mobility of the people, that they cannot just outsource that, then they gain the consciousness once again that they have to invest in public transport. That’s what has happened in the last 10 or 15 years; before that, this mindset wasn’t popular here,” concluded Loscos.

In an April article for Barcelona Metròpolis, a news website spearheaded by the city council, director of strategic planning agency Barcelona Regional Josep Bohigas also pointed out that, though the ring roads were at first the Olympic Games’ biggest heroic feat, its flaws soon came to the fore. “Time goes by, as it did for the ring roads,” he wrote. “After 25 years of fulfilling the function of an ingenious arterial roadway that surrounds, penetrates and connects areas, the ring roads are at the forefront of a new development, stemming from their own time-lag and the new mobility, environmental, and health-related challenges that demand new adjustments of the relationship we have with private vehicles and call for a new balance with regard to free spaces in the city.”

The complex politics of trams

Never mind that, though: you’re a tourist visiting Barcelona, so naturally, you’ll favour public transport – and by doing so, you can sleep peacefully knowing you’re helping the city breathe better. After a pleasant day at the seaside esplanade – courtesy of the Olympic Games – you decide to head back into the city. You could take the TMB 59 or V15 buses straight there, or even opt for the Line 4 metro, but the sky is much too blue for a ride underground. The urban regeneration of the area means walking downtown takes just a few minutes. You start moving inwards, cutting through Barcelona’s remarkable Gothic Quarter in the Ciutat Vella to reach Plaça de Catalunya, the large square where the old city and the 19th-century Eixample district converge. Amongst other things, the area is famed for La Rambla, a 1.2km-long, tree-lined tourist hotspot whose pedestrianised streets have never seen an empty day. The entire district is rich with history, exemplified by the numerous sculptures and monuments that permeate its length with the lingering spirit of Neo-Classic and Noucentiste eras.

But art isn’t the only thing Plaça Catalunya is known for. The area made history as the first location to receive both steam trams and metros: the former in 1877, at which time steam-powered networks were believed to be the transport of the future, and the latter in 1924, as part of what is now Line 3. The lines that crossed the central square effectively planted the seeds for the successful public transport system that is in place today. (Interestingly, Plaça Catalunya was also just a stone’s throw away from where world-renowned Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí died, run over by a tram no less – but the weather is too nice to think of such morbid curiosities.)

Despite their rich history, the region’s tramways were not always as popular as they are now. Although they evolved quite a bit from their horse-drawn origins to a more developed network that underwent electrification and expansion in the 20th century, this fame was relatively short-lived. By 1971, all but one line had been shut down, replaced instead by buses and the expanding Barcelona Metro; only the Tramvia Blau line was retained as a tourist attraction, with services deploying historic streetcars from 1901 rather than modern rolling stock. For around 30 years, this heritage site was the only surviving memory of Barcelona’s tramway past.

While disappointing, this was part of what is considered a wider trend during that time period. This was partially due to the advent of personal vehicles, of course, but also owed much to motorised bus improvements: post-war buses were considered smoother, quicker, and quieter than older, pre-war trams. According to Oscar Criado Domenech, senior research associate at the Railway and Transport Strategy Centre in Imperial College London (ICL), there were several noise-related concerns back then which, coupled with inflexible routes, made people perceive tramways as a problem rather than a solution.

Any expansion of tramways means – especially in central Barcelona – less space for cars. That’s not very positively viewed in Barcelona

As a result, several governments in Europe and beyond started reallocating tramway investment to bus networks instead, with large amounts of money being ploughed into roads and highways rather than seemingly wasted on maintaining light rail. This is best epitomised by former French president Georges Pompidou’s famous 1971 declaration that “the city must adapt to the car” – an utterly unthinkable concept in this day and age. In just a few years, light-rail networks disappeared almost entirely from countries like France, Ireland, Denmark, Spain, and the UK, as well as from some cities in Australia and North America.

It didn’t take long for governments around the globe to realise this was a mistake: prioritising cars led to an upsurge in traffic congestion, smog, noise pollution, and parking issues, all alongside a deteriorating quality of life for residents. Public authorities scrambled to rewrite their transport policies to factor in both metros and trams, the latter especially in cities whose geography made it impossible to build underground networks. Towards the end of the 1980s, Barcelona started to reconsider the possibility of new light-rail lines and, in 1997, a short test tramway with just two stops was instated.

But the shift in the city’s collective mindset never truly faded. “There’s a clash between tramways and cars now, and any expansion of tramways means – especially in central Barcelona – less space for cars,” said Oscar. “That’s not very positively viewed in Barcelona, where many, many people are using motorcycles and cars to move around the city.”

The future is automated

The Metro, on the other hand, is better received and generally a much less sensitive subject. At Plaça Catalunya, once you’re finished shopping along La Rambla and have a well-deserved glass of sangria, you’re faced with a vast array of rail options through which to continue your journey: TMB operates lines 1 and 3, while FGC controls lines 6 and 7. This, along with suburban services from Rodalies de Catalunya and all Metro del Vallès commuter rail lines, makes it one of the busiest stations in the region.

After an early afternoon of drinking and feasting, you decide it’s time for some more cultured activities and decide to pop over to Parc Güell, a breathtaking stretch of gardens situated on Carmen Hill, in the La Salut neighbourhood. Sure, you’ll get to La Sagrada Família eventually in this trip, but nothing seems more fitting than to spend this lovely day outdoors exploring Gaudí’s naturalist architecture phase. The park, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, was built during the First World War and opened its doors to the public in 1926, the year Gaudí died – welcoming in swathes of art aficionados eager to experience first-hand the intricate works of a Modernist virtuoso.

Favouring a quick 20-minute journey over the bus’s 35-minute option, you take the Line 3 metro straight to Lesseps, a station which sits at the bottom of Parc Güell. The walk up to the park is unexpectedly steep, as is the case with much of this city – but the sights from its highest point, which boasts the most complete panoramic view of Barcelona and the bay, more than make up for the struggle.

On your return to Lesseps, Line 3 is your only rail travel option – but not for much longer. The Catalan Government has finally announced that, by 2023, the core section of lines 9 and 10, both of which are due to stop at Lesseps, will be complete after several years of delay. According to TMB’s Pau Noy, the benefits of the two new lines – which have already been part-built, but currently terminate at Zona Universitària in the west and only start again at La Sagrera in the east – are quite clear. “The Metro Line 9 covers a central area of the city in which there is no rail service. Furthermore, Line 9 will assure a powerful mesh of links with the other rail services,” he told me. “Although Barcelona has the densest metro network in Europe, the new Line 9, once completed, will be one of the longest lines in Europe, with extensions to four surrounding municipalities in the conurbation of the city with two branches in each extreme of the line. The branches are already running, but the central section is still missing.”

Designing and developing such a project is the kind of challenge that defines the true nature of cities

Once finished, Lines 9 and 10 – often referred to simply as the Line 9 project – are set to be the deepest in Barcelona’s network, with some stations due to have platform areas 60 metres beneath the ground (best reached through high-speed lifts.) They will share most of the stops, with Line 10 only breaking off at Gornal in the west and Bon Pastor in the east. In total, the lines are set to carry more than 165 million passengers per year, or a staggering 330,000 commuters every day.

But beyond their record length and depth, the two incomplete lines have already made history for a very different reason: they are the first fully automated metro lines in Spain, and will soon be the longest driverless service in all of Europe. The recent opening of Line 10 South already means that more than 30km of the city’s underground network is operating via Grade of Automation 4 (GoA4), the most advanced form of automation whereby trains run without any staff on board. There are customer-service representatives at stations to help if needed, of course, and they can board trains to assist travellers – but they are not integral to the safe operation of the system itself.

“Automatisation is the future of the metro, since it provides lots of advantages,” said Pau. “It’s more reliable, it has more capacity, employees in these lines are happier because their work is more interesting, it’s safer, it saves energy and money, and it even provides a better atmosphere for passengers waiting on the station platforms. Around 30% of Barcelona’s 125km metro is already automated. TMB also has plans to automate the central section of Line 1, which carries the highest number of passengers, between the stations of La Sagrera and Torrassa. The world trend of the automatisation of metro lines is unstoppable.”

FGC boss Pere Calvet agreed, noting that this trend goes far beyond just transport. “Automated lines all over the world are no longer a novelty, but a consolidated technology for both new and existing metro lines,” he clarified. “But I think that despite the experience and the mature technology, we are still on the learning curve from a management perspective. Automated lines have a high potential to articulate a flexible transport offer that does not fit with traditional service planning schemas.”

According to Calvet, the Line 9 project was a challenge “from all points of view: service, technology, and finance.” “The fact that the public entities involved were able to collaborate into making it a reality is proof of the commitment of Barcelona towards public transport and, at the same time, of the explicit willingness of our public transport managers to make the city a successful example of state-of-the-art public transport solutions,” he celebrated. “Designing and developing such a project is the kind of challenge that defines the true nature of cities and their commitment towards the welfare of their inhabitants by means of public transport.”

Though the lines are yet to achieve their full potential once the central spine opens, the FGC manager argued that they have already brought mass public transport to neighbourhoods which weren’t previously well served. “There has been an impact at both the north and south of Barcelona, in the municipalities of Badalona, Santa Coloma, Hospitalet, and El Prat,” noted Calvet. “But perhaps the most significant change so far is that the metro network has reached the Barcelona airport, adding a public transport alternative for millions of visitors to reach the city’s downtown.”

The 2008 financial crisis: a ripple effect

Of course, as Pere himself admitted, finishing the ambitious scheme has been – and continues to be – a major challenge, exemplified by the fact that it was originally scheduled to open in 2008. A small part of this was due to construction issues – TMB now acknowledges that planners should have started building the lines from the centre and then extending outwards – as well as an infrastructurally innovative approach, given that the mostly-underground line traverses a unique, large single-bore tunnel for both running tracks. But Álvaro Loscos called the deep-rooted issue of money a bigger culprit: according to the city council mobility expert, the way their transport projects are taken forward – using a model akin to public-private partnerships – means that risks lie mainly on the public side rather than being shared equally between all stakeholders. He claimed that if a service isn’t yet operational because there is insufficient money to complete it, contractually the public administration still has to compensate private operators – Loscos put the figure at €250m every year – despite having no new fare income. “We didn’t have the money to continue with this construction because of the economic crisis [in 2008], and now what is happening is that we have to pay for stations that aren’t yet in operation,” he explained. “But the private sector is asking for their money because they’ve done their bit of the contract.”

Oscar Criado from the ICL pointed out that the financial crisis affected other metros in Europe in similar ways, especially in the southern parts of the continent – even those that didn’t have ongoing construction projects at the time. “Many, many metros have had to adapt their services to the new environment,” Oscar said. “This is definitely something that has affected Barcelona, but they have probably coped better than other networks – I don’t think they are in a bad position.”

Certainly, crisis aside, Barcelona is leading the game, with the Metro maintaining good performance and the automation of the two unfinished lines setting the standard for the rest of the world. But many argue it’s time for a new financing model that better suits the city’s nationalised railway structure without unfairly penalising the government for situations often out of its control. Pau Noy warned that the agreements already in place are irreversible, but recommended “not to proceed as the Catalan Government did in the past.” Álvaro went a step further, calling for far better assessment of the risk-sharing element of future contracts so that the public sector doesn’t have to bear the brunt alone while private companies act strictly as economic enablers (and ultimate profiters.) “They are earning money from the construction of the infrastructure, but in the end, if something goes wrong and you don’t manage to have it operational in time, all the expenses fall on the public sector,” he added. “When it works, it’s ok, because the city can have access to infrastructure that it wouldn’t have been able to pay for otherwise. But if something goes wrong, as has happened in the case of the metro lines 9 and 10, then the expenses are not shared by both sides. There should be better assessment and more restrictions to accessing certain kinds of infrastructure financing.”

As far as the future of the metro is concerned, the Catalan Government has sought a €740m loan from the European Investment Bank in order to finally put an end to the stalled project. “Once it’s finished, we will be paying back the same amount of money, but at least we’ll be recovering a little bit more because more people will be using the service,” explained Álvaro. “But we will face a lot of difficulties in making any further investment like this over the coming years. It’s going to be very hard to somehow overcome the financial situation that we’ll end up in with all these expenses. This is something that we’re yet to sort out.”

Barcelona’s transport network is essential not only to its success, but to its daily activity

Money problems extend beyond just the Metro Line 9 project, too. According to Mr Noy, TMB can only achieve its Metro Masterplan – which envisions higher frequencies across all lines – if it buys more rolling stock, and this is even without taking the Line 9 central spine into account. As a whole, TMB needs 112 new trainsets, Pau said; so far, it only has the money for 54. “Our efforts must be focused on purchasing those new trainsets so that TMB can increase by up to 30% the number of its passengers during the peak hour,” he added, noting that this is also a crucial part of the operator’s plans to comply with the Paris Agreement.

The thread that connects us

Perhaps next time you visit Barcelona, you’ll be able to travel through the city’s core in an unattended train, the likes of which you’ve only ever seen on airport links back in London (the DLR is technically considered just GoA3.) But for now, Line 3 will suffice: as the jet lag starts to kick in, you decide it’s time to call it a day and head back to the hotel. The train takes just 20 minutes until your destination, and you’re glad it did: you’ve made it just in time to catch the nine-o’-clock golden-orange sunset behind the pair of Venetian Towers at Plaça D’Espanya.

It’s a sight to behold, as were all the stunning spots you’ve managed to pack into today’s adventure – all thanks to a seamlessly integrated transport system that just seems to work. It’s as Pere Calvet put it: “Barcelona’s transport network is essential not only to its success, but to its daily activity. Frankly, it’s impossible for me to imagine today’s Barcelona without the public transport links that make it possible for the metropolitan area to act as a single entity.”