Porto Metro – how to retrofit a light rail system

Using the Porto metro on a recent trip to Portugal was a revelation. The system serves Portugal’s second-largest city, Porto, which has an official population of only 250,000 but which serves a wider urban region of about 1.6 million.

The metro is only 10 years old, with six lines, 67 km of track and 80 stations, and cost about 3.5 billion euros to construct. It was built from scratch though in some places it has used old tram corridors. The core of the system is a spine of shared track running east-west under the centre of the city from Estádio do Dragão, the main football stadium, with five of the lines fanning out westwards from this spine to provide suburban coverage.

One of these lines extends further east from the stadium while the sixth line interchanges with this spine to provide north-south coverage, including a spectacular crossing of the River Douro on the Luiz I Bridge, the upper deck of which was converted for exclusive light rail use. The central part of the system is underground with 15 stations; the rest of the system is at grade, with sections running in street reservations.

The system uses a mixture of 100% low-floor Eurotrams and newer 70% low-floor Flexity Swift tram-trains, both running as coupled sets. The Eurotrams seem more comfortable and roomy but the Flexity Swifts are better suited to high speed running on the longer routes.

The system is very impressive in action. The surface stations are simple but functional while the underground ones are well-designed and easy to access. Services are reasonably frequent (especially in the central spine) and the trams are clean and comfortable.

There are some limitations; for example, the platforms are relatively short, which limits options to extend vehicle length in future. The track sharing through the central spine of the system means that a breakdown in this section can cripple most of the network and could also cause problems with congestion in future. However it seems to be a very cost-effective arrangement for a small to medium-sized city.

Tram leaving São Bento station on the Porto Metro

It is hard not to travel on the Porto metro without thinking about which Australian cities would be candidates for similar systems, or at least where elements of its design could be applied. Certainly those involved in projects such as the Gold Coast rapid transit line currently under construction, the on-again off-again extension of Adelaide’s tram line and the proposed Perth Metro Area Express should all take a good look at Porto – as should those proposing light rail projects in cities like Canberra and Newcastle.

Transport NSW should also consider a study tour to Porto. An extension of the current Sydney light rail network as a new line from Circular Quay to the University of NSW could incorporate many of the Porto system’s planning and design principles, for example combining use of the existing bus corridor with selected underground sections, not to mention an upgrade to new vehicles similar to the Eurotrams.

However the most important lesson from Porto is not so much in what they have done but how they did it. Porto illustrates that the planning and implementation of new networks, particularly light rail, should be done holistically, instead of the haphazard and piecemeal approach which continues to be the norm in many Australian cities.

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