One element of the far tighter remit set by the Railfuture Board for the European Passenger Group is to benchmark other cities in the area of best rail transport practice. The aim is to help our branches and members strengthen arguments in campaigning for a bigger, better railway in Britain by being able to quote examples of how other people address transport development issues. A good example over the New Year has been on fares where we have been able to quote stark comparisons in media interviews.

Several “Go and Compare” articles have been produced comparing how our cities, notably London, compares with other large world cities such as the “Big Five” - Washington, New York, Moscow and Berlin, and Paris (under preparation). These are written following visits to these cities for other purposes, not funded by Railfuture, where extensive use of the transport network has been necessary. Not being familiar with a particular city is an advantage as it really illustrates potential difficulties particularly in the areas of ticketing, wayfinding and access for people with mobility impairments. There are lessons here as attracting more and more people to use our railways as these barriers need to be overcome.

A popular mind’s eye is that German cities such as Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich have the most developed integrated transport systems with French cities catching up fast, whereas in Britain we still do not have effective regulation except in London (which has retained bus regulation and the reinvented the requirement for strategic planning in the GLA Act).

The popular vision of Italian cities, particularly Rome, is scooters and taxis racing round the Coliseum, parking on every pavement, noise and pollution, even if the reality has moved on somewhat. Rome is a great city to visit.

Milan, the subject of this “Go and Compare” best practice evaluation, is the second largest city in Italy with a population of c1.3m in the most densely populated industrial region of over 6m people. The surprise in using the system quite intensively over 5 days is to find that Milan has one of Europe’s best managed and incredibly well used rail based transport systems when judged from the perspective of the user but also as an instrument of economic, social and environmental policies. Milan was one of Europe’s most polluted and congested cities.

A very early example of integrated transport planning

[Milan]A traditional Milan tram built c1930.   Photo by Ian Brown for Railfuture. A traditional Milan tram built c 1930.

The big expansion of urban transport in Milan was in the 1930s when about 500, now legendary, “Peter Witt” single car high boarding trams were built for the city, with a dense network of lines serving just about everywhere in the city and its suburbs. Most of these have survived the two World Wars and Italy’s obsession with the motor car, and being 80-90 years old would normally be considered as obsolescent. Ridership declined continuously up until c1994. There is a reason for this survival. Milan set up a transport agency in 1931 to coincide with this massive tramway investment the transport network – the “Azienda Transporti Milanesi” or ATM. This organisation, albeit restructured, covers the planning and provision of transport to about 2.5m people, ie reaching out to serve nearly half the geography of the region. This Transport for London style body has turned around the fortunes of the public transport system against a remit to grow the city and focus on sustainable electric transportation.

Towards a modern integrated light rail system

Yes the old Peter Witt cars are obsolescent but instead of closing the system and replacing them with buses they have been gently using this base to develop a modern and highly sustainable transport system for greater Milan. This was clearly a successful strategy and by observation a victim of its own success in terms of ridership and overcrowding.

Whereas many cities have built new light rail lines, Milan has evolved the tram system into a series of light rail routes using modern low floor light rail vehicles, initially as 2 then 3 segment vehicles but more recently delivering large 5 and 7 segment vehicles capable of moving huge numbers of passengers. This has involved route rationalisation and consolidation, with the traditional network increasingly reoriented as feeders into these high capacity routes. Signage is good with both geographic and single line route diagrams at every stop. The trams are all Driver Only Operated and there are no ticket machines at tram stops. The fares structure makes this approach feasible and cost effective given the sheer number of tram stops. All new vehicles and converted routes have level access with low platforms for people with mobility impairments. As with Paris the authorities have found that physical means to prevent cars parking everywhere particularly on footpaths is by using metal posts, considering that yellow paint has no particular relevance to the Italian motorist. This approach works.

One development of relevance to London is that the tram network was originally centred on the main city square in front of the cathedral. This took the form of a massive gyratory tram system. The square is now completely pedestrianised (and served by the newer Metro) and the tram routes have been reorganised into turn back station loops just outside the square giving good access or in some cases running on a parallel street. Observation of this suggests that such a solution is feasible, much more attractive and easier to use than a seething mass of vehicles interfacing with pedestrians in the city’s main meeting and shopping district. Such a solution may well be answer for Oxford Street in London in this case, with buses.

ATM also manages car parks and car park pricing around the city and congestion charging, as well as a new 4 Euro Toxic charge for diesel vehicles to enter the centre. Effective traffic restraint is seen as an important component of providing investment in upgraded rail based transportation.

The Metro

The strategic approach to evolving a sustainable high volume transport system has continued by a Metro train system integrated with the national rail system and the light rail network. There are currently three traditional colour coded Metro Lines, numbered M1, 2 and 3. These are all DOO operated with few if any station staff except for ticket sales. This is a really busy, easy to use system where it is difficult not to know which line you are on. Everything - the corridors, the stations, the interior and the exterior of the trains - is in the line colour. The older trains had a broad line colour down the sides but the new ones are completely covered in the line colour. The other difference which assists station design simplicity and wayfinding is that no more than two lines cross at any station on the Metro network. No Chatelet here (wait for article on Paris to follow), facilitated of course by the fact that the Metro is a relatively new system. A fourth Metro, Line 4 is under construction to and through the City Centre from Linate Airport. Although the temptation must have been strong to build this through the main square - Il Doumo, they are not doing this, they are keeping to the two line rule and providing the City Centre interchange at the other end of the main shopping Street at San Babila. It was evident from a visit that such an approach involves far less colossal earthworks and disruption than attempting to do this in the main square.

Mobility impaired access

The whole Metro network has been built in a way designed to encourage use by people with mobility, hearing and sight impairments. Access to platforms is by steps but quite unusually within a constrained space, single escalators have been provided where there isn’t room for two. These have sensors and go in either direction, largely down to the platform before the train arrives, but highly unusually stopping as the train arrives, then reversing as people alight and approach the sensor, to take people from the platform to the concourse. Lifts are provided for wheelchairs, sometimes directly to street level.

There are Braille maps at every station in similar spots to provide wayfinding for people with sight impairments. These relief plans are clear and for use by all with additional information in Braille.

[Milan]Concourse Braille way-finding sign at the Monumentale metreo station in Milan.  Photo by Ian Brown for Railfuture. Pictures of Braille Metro wayfinding signs.

[Milan]Platform Braille way-finding sign (also raised text in Italian and English) in Milan.   Photo by Ian Brown for Railfuture.

[Milan]Station step handrail showing line colour and directions ti M5 line (with raised text in Italian and English) also in Braille.  Photo by Ian Brown for Railfuture. Picture of Metro station handrail sign with Braille directions.

The light Metro

The City has also recently gone for a light Metro, Line 5, which like the consolidated tram routes feeds into the Metro system. This is lighter in construction, with shorter 4 car trains still with the two way escalators, platform edge doors, level boarding and automatic train operation with no staff on train or on the platform. ATM runs a similar system in Copenhagen using the same AnsaldoBreda automatic trains. It is incredibly popular, especially with families with children.

In the UK we tend to think of light rail or heavy metro systems (such as London Underground) or suburban rail. Milan has gone for this intermediate approach, not as a standalone solution, but in the context of providing value for money Metro system extensions where a full scale Metro would be difficult to justify.

This line serves the city’s Monumental Cemetery. The Braille wayfinding maps, the Braille coloured handrails and the walkway uneven surface markers have been extended from the station right into the Cemetery for visitors including signed seats along the way. Fabulous and considerate.

Night services

As now in London, Night services run on the 3 Metro lines and surface routes on a more restricted centre oriented network.

Fares and Ticketing

The city operates on a flat fare system for a very large central section with station to station fares along the limited sections of routes beyond this. The fares are cheap at 1.5 Euros for a single trip including a single bus to Metro transfer, 24 hours is 4.5 Euros for the whole central zone system and this tapers for 2 days and even more so for a week.

Ticket machines seem to work most of the time and are in Italian and English and take credit cards. Kiosks all over the place also sell tickets so use of the tram and bus network without ticket machines, except at the airport.

Highly unusual, if not unique, you can use parking tickets from parking ticket machines on street for public transport rides.

On the buses and trams there are no conductors but entry and exit barriers are in use on the Metro (exit barriers are suspended at peak flow time to ease congestion) This is pretty standard practice although from observation most passengers seem to hold various job/student based ID cards which are used for travel.

Main Line Rail

Italian Railways, although investing heavily in high speed largely domestic Inter City routes and trains is not known for the splendour of its graffiti covered suburban rail services. There are three principal rail stations in Milan: Central (Main Line terminal), Garibaldi (Regional) and Cardorna on the Ferro Nord network. There is a cross city suburban link but most traffic terminates at these three main stations interchanging with the Metro and light rail network. There is coordination with Trenitalia but like in London, not enough, with huge queues like often seen at Euston to buy onward tickets.

[Milan]Milan Central main line station showing adaption to provide mobility impaired lift from ground level outside the station entrance to the Metro platforms below.  Photo by Ian Brown for Railfuture.

Milan Central station facade. Note the new accessible lift from the Metro station below the concourse.

Trenord, a regional subsidiary of Trenitalia is more interesting operating out of the Cardorna station providing a dense outer suburban system with modern well maintained largely double deck trains with low floors access and ample provision for bikes and wheelchairs (see main picture). The Malpensa Airport rail link operates into Cadorna station.

Overall impression

This must be one of the best run, most passenger friendly transport systems around. We would probably say it is too cheap to use but the pay-off is huge volumes of traffic at all times, with social benefits by being available to mobility impaired people. There are also environmental benefits by the package of measures including traffic restraint and continuous investment in electric public transport, facilitated by retaining the old tram system whilst the modern light rail and the Metro system develops.

It is clear that the lesson for us is that a properly funded transport planning and integrated operation can result in huge benefits to a city, even a medium sized one, particularly if the transport network is seen as there for a purpose.

In this case the purpose is to provide sustainable, economic, social and environmentally friendly transport for the city and its large regional hinterland. It is not perfect with considerable work to go to apply this approach to the whole city region. It does, however have a key ingredient for success. Integrated transport is there for a strategic purpose and is being developed and invested into to achieve this end. Can we say this about many of our cities?