Sunday 2 October 2011

Easy as ABC

This is the last one, I promise.

Unlike most metro systems, Prague's was built all in one go, back in the 1970s.  While London or Berlin or even Liverpool have underground rail networks that were cobbled together - a Victorian line connects into a 1930s extension with remodelled 21st Century stations - Prague's city fathers took the all-or-nothing approach.  Well, actually, they decided to build a tram tunnel, only for their Soviet paymasters to decide that wasn't impressive enough and paid for a fully-blown metro instead.

The result is a network that has all the benefits of forward planning.  The three lines (A, B and C) cross the whole city, intersecting in the centre in a triangle (the classic Communist plan); it means you can get anywhere with only one change.  The stations are bright and airy with themed wall decorations and a unified look.

Ok, if we're being fussy... it's a bit samey.  There are different colours and signs and things but it still looks a bit similar from station to station.  You'll see what I mean.

Staroměstská - A

Right in the city centre, this is your classic Prague Metro station.  Escalators lead down to a central hall, with a platform on either side.  It's a design that the Communists have done really well, but it uses up loads of space.  Really you have to be a dictatorship who's not bothered about knocking people's houses down to build a hole in the ground.

Head onto the platform itself and you see Prague's famous design aesthetic.  The walls are covered with an aluminium design that looks like something out of Austin Powers' living room.  Each station is coloured differently, so you can tell them apart, but they all have this metallic sheen and the roundel design.  It also has this weird optical illusion where if you stare at it for a while, the scooped out circles start looking like bobbles.  We started referring to the walls as being made out of Dalekanium as a result, because we're geeks.
Go on.  Look at the ones on the ceiling compared with the ones on the bottom.  It's a Dalek!
Národní třída - B

The downside of that 1970s construction?  Extremely uninspiring station buildings (where they exist - there's a lot of stations with subway only access).  I know it's being rebuilt, but seriously, not nice.  It's a bit better from the inside, as daylight can penetrate through the glass walls, but it's still not exactly Canary Wharf.  
Still: shiny!  It gets even shinier once you get down to platform level, as Line B doesn't have the Dalekanium walls.  Instead it has a smooth one colour finish which is actually quite classy.  Shame it's brown, really.  What was it with brown in the Seventies?  Seriously, it's like it was the only colour in everyone's swatch pack.  That and orange.  Wasn't it a depressing decade enough already, with the oil crisis and the three day week and stuff?
I suppose brown plastic's not so bad when it's shiny (looks pointedly at Merseyrail's formica nightmare).
Můstek - A B

Like Berlin, the Prague Metro operates on the trust system - buy a ticket, stamp it and that's the last time you'll be checked.  Unless there's an inspector of course.  Unlike Berlin, however, all the stations have a ticket kiosk where a disinterested person can be interrupted from their paper to flog you a day pass.
The wall decoration on Line A at this station is gold, reinforcing the whole Dalekanium thing even more.  Though it does bring back unpleasant memories of that episode with the hybrid human-Dalek on top of the Empire State Building.  Shudder.
Head down to Line B and they've got a nifty little feature to show you it's an interchange station (which for some reason isn't on the A platform).  See the coloured boxes next to the name?  That's a big yellow box, because you're on the B, with little green ones to indicate there is also a Line A service available.  I love that.  So simple but so effective.
Muzeum - A C

The second of the three transfer stations, Muzeum's at the other end of Wenceslas Square (which isn't even a square, more of a boulevard).  As with Můstek there's no street presence, but there's a fairly large underground building, full of dodgy fast food stalls and annoying French tourists pushing their backpack right in your crotch.
Mmm, goldie-bronze.  Head over to Line C and we get our first glimpse of the red's design theme - marble.  When those Commies decided to build a metro, there's no expense spared.  I miss them sometimes.
Náměstí Republiky - B
This station takes full advantage of its position under a public square to spread out.  Look at the space there, in an underground station; it would be unheard of in the West.  There's a second reason for all that space though - Line D, planned on pushing through here sometime in the near future.  
Until then we have the station's funky metallics to look at.  Is it just me, or does that look an awful lot like the tiles in the lift of Willard Whyte's penthouse in Diamonds Are Forever?  Yes, it probably is just me.
Sadly, even though they had all that space to build on, there's no station building at all up top, so I had to pose in front of a billboard.  The shame.

Florenc - B C

The advantage of a three line, three interchange system is that you can have a very simple line diagram as well.  Weirdly, Prague may be one of the few cases where I prefer the in-car diagrams to the actual official map.  This is the network:
Pretty much your standard city metro plan.  However, the in-car diagram takes those three designs, moulds them round a central triangle, and makes them something a bit special:
Good design doesn't have to be showy or glamorous: sometimes it can be in the most humble of places.

Forming the third point of that triangle is Florenc, and can you tell I'm running out of things to say about these stations?
There is nothing wrong with Florenc.  It's a nicely designed interchange station, with plenty of space, lots of lifts, lots of escalators.  It's got a nice bit of business going on at the platforms, with some pretty backdrops.  It's just another Prague station.  I miss the occasional bonkers design of Berlin.  Where is the hallucinogenic monkey?
Still, there are those coloured blocks again.

Hlavní nádraží - C

Back to the main railway station.  You might remember, way back at the dawn of time when you started reading this blog post, that I said the Prague authorities planned a "pre-metro" scheme - a tunnel for the trams under the city, not a proper full-sized underground.  The decision to make it a full blown subway system came very late.  In fact, construction was already underway.  Work on Hlavní nádraží had started, so while the city ran around redrawing its plans, they built the station as it was.  
It means that this station has two side platforms, rather than the central layout in the rest of the network. That rubbish extension to the main building also means that there's masses of room.  Look at the size of those platforms - you could fit an army on there.
Anděl - B

I headed out to this station because of what it used to be.  When it opened in 1985, the station was called Moskevská - Moscow station.  In a symbol of "international friendship", a Moscow station was opened in Prague and a Prague station - Prazhskaya - was opened on the Moscow metro.

In addition to the name, the walls are decorated with bronze friezes celebrating the glories of the Soviet Union.
Which is a bit embarrassing in 2011, let's be honest.
I mean, I love all that Soviet imagery myself.  I wish I'd been able to travel to the East before the Berlin Wall fell.  When I was a kid, I always wanted to be the Russians, not the British, in the war games.  Something about it just appealed to me.
Obviously, it's a lot nicer to be sitting in the West, loving the Soviets, rather than operating under the Communist yoke.  
None of this went down very well after the Velvet Revolution, and Prague changed the name of the station to Anděl, after the local district.  They changed some of the other station names at the same time - Dejvická used to be called Leninova, and Vyšehrad was Gottwaldova, after a former Czech Communist leader.

The downside of this renaming is that the sign isn't completely symmetrical above the escalators.

This is the kind of thing that keeps me awake at nights.

Náměstí Míru - A
Incidentally, I love the Metro logo.  Not only does it incorporate an M, it also forms a little arrow pointing downwards.  Very clever.
This station actually came at the request of the BF.  Yup, he's starting to get the bug.  Náměstí Míru is on top of a hill, so to reach the underground platforms, you have to travel down one of the longest escalators in Europe.
It takes two and a half minutes to get from the booking hall to the platforms.  It'd be even longer if Prague didn't run its escalators at light speed.  Seriously, I nearly lost a leg climbing onto those buggers.      I felt a bit nauseous, I don't mind telling you, and I clung to the handrail for dear life.
Down on the platform we've got some more Dalekanium, but in a tasteful blue.  At least it's not brown.
Bonus Tram Section:

Yup, Prague's got loads of trams as well as a metro.  We rode a few of them, but the one journey that stood out was one we took by accident.  We were heading up to the castle (the BF has a pathological hatred of walking up hills) but we took a tram in the wrong direction.  It meant we ended up on this tram.
It left the city centre and headed out into the suburbs.  Big ugly apartment blocks.  Depressingly tiny bars.  A Tesco the size of Wales.  Prague is a beautiful city, but leaving the historic centre reminded you that it's a diamond set in a Lizzie Duke ring.  It was a miserable journey out to the terminus (the BF insisted that we go all the way to the end) and when we got to Nádraží Hostivař we got to enjoy a windswept, rainy tram stop beneath a flyover.
Feel the joy.

And that was Prague, and, you'll be glad to hear, the last of my holiday snaps.  I'll get back to Merseyrail now, I promise.


Andy Howe said...

Well, that's amazing Scott, Berlin and now Prague now covered, cool that you have not just restricted your blog to Merseyrail. Can't wait to get to Madrid now, I need to do a geek trip along back to the future Line 10, and on the way there the section of line we rarely travel on (well if your from Chester)from Moorfields to L'pool South Parkway :-)

Wish you could get a book on the building of the Merseyrail system, in particular the building of the loop in the 1970's. In regard to Metro systems, Mark Ovenden's 'Metro Maps of the World' is great, but then again your blog is just as interesting...keep it up, good stuff :-)

gottago said...

That tram looks like a tram of death.

I'm always wanted to visit Prague but there's just something about it that scares me a little and I just don't know what!

Gavin Kincade said...

Nifty costume change half way through the blog post, then back again. Are you a superhero?

Scott Willison said...

Obviously I couldn't reveal it if I were a superhero. But I do wear glasses, like a certain Mr Kent...

Prague is definitely worth a visit but it does have its seamier side, much like Amsterdam. The combination of a post Communist rush to make a buck any way they can and an influx of stag nights and backpackers mean there's a fair number of strip joints, street hawkers and dodgy looking blokes hanging around looking professionally dodgy. Stick to the city centre though - which IS incredibly beautiful - and you can't go wrong.

Andy: there's a book called Merseyrail Electrics: The Inside Story by TB Maund which is a fantastic read and goes into detail about the construction of the Link and Loop. It's out of print but I got a copy off eBay, so keep an eye out; I'm sure a library could get hold of it for you too.