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How the Spanish underground helped build a city

  • Written by  Jules Stewart
  • Published in Cities
How the Spanish underground helped build a city
19 Dec
Continental Europe’s most extensive underground rail transport network, the Madrid Metro, has transformed the life of Europe’s third-largest city. This year, the Metro celebrates a century of steady progress and expansion

Spain’s King Alfonso XIII ruled for 45 years, from 1886 until he was deposed in 1931 with the proclamation of the Second Republic. During his reign, the monarch cut the ribbon on some of the most ambitious urban renewal and development projects his capital had ever undergone. The late 19th and early 20th centuries marked a time of unprecedented technological advance for Madrid. The expansion of the electric tram network, which in 1871 had replaced the city’s horse-drawn carriages, went hand-in-glove with the asphalting of more than a hundred dirt and cobbled streets and the installation of the city’s first hydraulic lifts in office blocks and residential buildings. In April 1910, gold-plated pickaxe in hand, the king delivered the first blow to a ramshackle house in the city centre, marking the commencement of the Gran Vía, the buzzing three-quarter-mile-long avenue that opened the city to fast-flowing traffic on an east-west axis. By the time the last building was put up in 1929, nearly 50 streets and more than 350 houses had been demolished to make way for this grand new boulevard. Alfonso XIII also presided over the unveiling of Madrid’s first commercial airport, Barajas, which was opened to traffic in April 1931, the month of the his downfall.

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The city’s game-changer was the inauguration of the Madrid Metro system, which is currently celebrating its centenary. Financing this project initially met with stiff resistance: scepticism was voiced about the logic of building an underground rail network in what was then a small city with little road traffic. It was the king’s personal donation of one million pesetas (roughly £500,000 in current value) that sent persuasive signals to investors. The operating company set up in 1920 was duly christened Compañía Metropolitana Alfonso XIII, now renamed Metro de Madrid.

King Alfonso XIII opens the Madrid MetroKing Alfonso XIII opens the Madrid Metro

The first underground line to enter into service covered a two-mile route between the working-class district of Cuatro Caminos and the Puerta del Sol, the square that marks the starting point for all roads leading out of the city. The king, along with the royal family and attendant entourage, took part in the inaugural Metro journey, stopping at each of the eight stations along the route (now reduced to six) before alighting at Cuatro Caminos, where a lunch was served on the platform.

‘The idea for an underground mass transit system was the brainchild of three electrical engineers, one of whom, Carlos Mendoza, got the inspiration during his daily journey to work along the same route that became the first underground line,’ says Madrid Metro historian Luis María González. ‘Before long, the Metro became the kick-starter of urban development.’ González cites the example of Line 7, which opened in 1974 and remained stagnant for nearly 25 years. In 1998, work began to extend the line in four stages to what was at that time the small township of Pitis on the city’s outskirts. It was not until mid-2019 that all trains on the line ran the full distance to the Pitis terminus, thanks to which plans have been drawn up for extensive commercial and residential expansion in the district. ‘Initiatives such as extending the line to Pitis means that today, no one in Madrid lives more than 300 metres from a Metro station,’ says González.

Madrid Metro CEO, Borja Carabante, points out that the development of the city’s network has placed it among the major underground systems in the world. ‘It is the fifth network in the world in terms of number of stations, behind London, New York, Shanghai and Paris,’ he says, ‘and Madrid ranks eighth in extensions.’ With the latest extensions, Madrid has 293km of track, making it the longest in Continental Europe and only second to London’s 402km network.

METRO MADRIDA Madrid de Metro carriage in the 1960s

The Metro’s expansion continued uninterrupted even during the 1936 to 1939 Spanish Civil War, when Madrid suffered almost three years of siege and daily aerial bombardment. The third line was opened in August 1936, one month after the start of hostilities. The system was kept running throughout the conflict and, like London during the Blitz, the deeper stations served as air raid shelters.

One of the rewards of upgrading the Madrid Metro network has been the discovery of archaeological treasures, of which the most important were unearthed in 2009 at the Ópera station near the Royal Palace. While installing lifts, construction workers came across the 16th century Caños del Peral Fountain, along with a fragment of the Amaniel Aqueduct and bits of the old Arenal Sewer, all of which were linked to the city’s ancient water supply system. The three archaeological relics are displayed underground in a museum within the station, open on weekends and free-of- charge to Metro users. This is one of ten stations offering cultural and historical attractions. Others include the Carpetana station, which has on display a pot pourri of fossils ranging from ancient dinosaurs to giant tortoises; 70 of Francisco de Goya’s paintings are replicated at the station that bears his name, while the vast platform of the Hortaleza station is decorated with nearly 4,000 drawings depicting the work that goes into building a railway tunnel. Some stations have even been utilised as venues for public events, such as the three-day fitness festival held at the vast Nuevos Ministerios station that connects the city centre to Barajas airport.

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The big push forward – one might say ‘southward’ – was the 1995 to 1999 four-year plan, which saw the tenth line extended to largely working-class suburbs south of the city via Metrosur. This circular light railway line provided access to the city centre for some one million people living in what were relatively remote districts. The scheme took into account that the population of central Madrid was growing at a mere 0.9 per cent per year. The increase in suburban areas, due to demographics and lower housing prices, was far in excess of that figure. The population in these neighbourhoods is largely composed of immigrants employed in jobs require a daily commute to and from the city centre, often at early hours of the morning or late at night. All Metro lines operate from 6:00am to 1:30am and nearly one-third of the track length runs outside the inner city boundary.

Madrid MetroLines run direct from the city centre to Madrid Barajas Adolfo Suárez airport

‘The network experienced its most dynamic period of growth between 2003 and 2007,’ says Metro de Madrid spokesperson Sonia Aparicio. ‘In that short period, 80km of track and 90 new stations were built. We have also focused on making journeys more comfortable for passengers and providing step-free access for the disabled.’ Madrid’s Metro has 529 lifts. Put into perspective, that outstrips the 184 installed in the London Underground, which serves a population three times that of Madrid. The same can be said for escalators, with 1,705 in operation compared with 426 for London. The Metro has also set up mobile libraries at 12 stations, with links to the city’s public libraries.

‘This is all part of a €145.7million investment in our 2016-2020 Accessibility Plan,’ says the vice-president of Madrid’s regional government Pedro Rollán. ‘Our aim is to meet the needs of all Madrileños, particularly the 322,000 people with physical disabilities. The Madrid Metro now ranks as the world’s leading underground network in accessibility.’ The plan calls for an additional 89 lifts in 33 stations, which will increase the percentage of accessible stations from 63 to 73 per cent of the system by 2020. Another €89million is earmarked for modernisation work on more than 30 stations.

Madrid MetroAn archaeological exhibition on display at Colombia Station

Rollán says that in carrying out this plan, Metro de Madrid has been especially aware of its carbon footprint. In spite of air conditioning in operation in every train – a complicated engineering feat given that many of the older stations are close to street level – Madrid’s Metro was the first of Spain’s transport systems to set a quota for carbon emission levels. ‘The results of our review give a level of 26.14 grams of CO2 per passenger/kilometre,’ he says. ‘This compares favourably with 113.48 grams for motorbikes and 182.42 for cars. Our Energy Saving Plan has shaved €50million off our energy bill over three years. Also, the recycling of water used to clean and hose down the trains has brought a saving of 20,000 cubic metres of water a year.’

The latest upgrading, announced in July 2019, is the plan to lengthen Line 11, which will reduce commuting time for 800,000 people living in five suburbs. According to Councillor for Transport Rosalía Gonzalo, the €300million investment programme stands as ‘a testimony to our commitment to develop an ever more useful and environmentally network’. Once this comes into service, she says, the extension will take the pressure off Line 6 – the network’s busiest – and offer a new connection to high-speed trains leaving from the Atocha mainline station.

Madrid MetroDigital turnstiles and information display screens are just the tip of new technologies being introduced

Metro de Madrid’s technology centre, Estación 4.0, is also developing new products to enhance security, data processing and to provide passenger information. Initiatives in the pipeline include auto-opening doors speeding up passenger embarking and disembarking times, heat-seeking cameras to locate lost objects, giant screens on station platforms for contacting Metro personnel and an easy-reading mobile phone app with travel information for people with learning difficulties. An innovation designed to facilitate access for the disabled will soon be operational at Gran Vía, one of the Metro’s oldest stations, where 21 digital turnstiles equipped with an information display screen allow passengers to insert and verify their tickets by a system of colours that appear on an LED panel.

One of the visible consequences of these initiatives has been the knock-on effect on civic pride. One would be hard-pressed to spot any graffiti on carriages or station platforms. Discarded newspapers, paper cups or fast food cartons are conspicuous by their absence. On a recent journey, a woman munching on pumpkin seeds, a popular Spanish snack, unintentionally let drop some shells to the floor of the carriage. A few indignant comments from fellow commuters quickly had her scooping up the offending shells. At the official ceremony marking the Metro’s centenary, the regional government’s president Isabel Díaz Ayuso said, ‘We should all feel proud of having a transport system that is the envy of the world.’ This is a view shared today by Madrileños who yes, stand on the right on the escalator.

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