Quick Note: Catalunya Station

Barcelona’s commuter rail network has a few distinct components. In addition to the main through-running sections, there are some captive lines terminating at one of two stations, Espanya and Catalunya. Catalunya is especially notable for its very high throughput: the system feeding it, the Barcelona-Vallès Line, has two running tracks, fanning out onto five station tracks, of which only three are used in regular service. Despite the austere infrastructure, the station turns 32 trains per hour on these tracks. I believe this is the highest turnback rate on a commuter rail network. The Chuo Line in Tokyo turns 28 trains per hour on two rather than three tracks but it’s with the same two running tracks as the Catalunya system, and with considerably less branching.

I bring this up because I was under the impression Catalunya turned 24 rather than 32 trains per hour when writing about how Euston could make do with fewer tracks than planned for High Speed 2. But several people since have corrected me, including Shaul Picker (who looked at the timetables) and planning engineer Joan Bergas Massó (who, I believe, wrote them).

The current situation is that the Vallès Line includes both proper commuter lines and metro, sharing tracks. The commuter part of the system comprises two branches, Terrassa carrying S1 and short-turning trains on S7 and Sabadell carrying S2 and short-turning trains on S6; some trains skip stops, but it’s not a consistent pattern in which S1 and S2 run express and S6 and S7 run local. A branch entirely within the city is signed as a metro line, designated L7. Currently, all L7 trains use track 4, turning 8 trains per hour, while the other lines use tracks 1 and 2, turning 24 trains per hour in total.

I stress that while this is a commuter line – it goes into suburbia and descends from a historic steam train rather than a greenfield metro – it is not connected with the mainline network. So it’s easier to turn trains there than on an intricately branched system; the Chuo Line is not as hermetically sealed but is similar in having little other traffic on it than the rapid trains from Tokyo to its in-prefecture western suburbs. Nonetheless, there are multiple branches and stopping patterns; this is not a metro system where all trains are indistinguishable and passengers only care about the interval between trains rather than about the overall schedule.


  1. Andre Geffen

    To me, this would be less shocking if the only main CBD station were Catalunya, a station with Spanish-solution boarding that has five tracks and long swell times anyways. What makes it really incredible is that they’re able to run this with this frequency through the relatively high-ridership (and correspondingly higher dwell time) Provença station, which simply has one side platform for each running track.

  2. marv

    ….and pen station can turn how many trains per hour necessitation a new multi billion dollar station when two more tracks will come in from NJ .

    Metro North could not turn over any tracks to the LIRR at the massive Grand Central requiring a the costly ESA that take how long to exit since it so far down.

    The US has a lot to learn.

    • Andre Geffen

      In all fairness to Penn station, it serves as many riders in 10 days as Catalunya does in a year. It doesn’t have Spanish-solution boarding either, and has to deal with the effects of being on a mainline rail network. It has few through-running services but trains in three directions and commuter trains in two, essentially making it serve as two terminus stations at once. It could definitely be improved by adding doors to NJT trains especially (as well as Amtrak trains), and Gateway isn’t a particularly cost-effective project, but these stations operate at much different scales. As for Grand Central, it is plagued by many of the same problems as Penn station (while it has 6 Spanish solution tracks, these aren’t enough to compensate for a four track system), and also gets as many passengers in a month as Catalunya gets in a year. Obviously, a lot of this is due to operating inefficiencies and old rolling stock, but these stations do just operate at fundamentally different scales. Grand Central has roughly the same number of passengers per track as Catalunya, and Penn station has far more.

      • Alon Levy

        In all fairness to Penn station, it serves as many riders in 10 days as Catalunya does in a year.

        Barcelona-Vallès has 64 million annual riders, which isn’t much less than the ridership of each of the three New York-area commuter rail systems. To get to order-of-magnitude differences, you need to count Penn Station’s subway ridership and also count both boardings and alightings; that’s the only way those fanciful numbers of 650,000 daily riders at Penn work out – they quadruple-count riders (because a commuter rail to subway connection counts as two trips and then this is multiplied by two for the return trip).

          • Andre Geffen

            That makes sense; I interpreted the urban service to be the TMB service. But that’s still 12.6m riders originating at Catalunya, or using American-style counting, roughly 25m riders at Catalunya, because most riders on the line are using other stations.

          • Alon Levy

            Okay, so the point is that overall boardings are 40,000 a weekday, and at Penn Station it’s around 180,000 mainline. So it’s a difference but not the order of magnitude that you’re portraying. And then Penn has longer platforms, which one-to-one correspond to more room for egress; it doesn’t take longer for passengers to get off a longer train (cf. the Chuo Rapid Line).

            But there’s more to it – those intermediate stations do have rush hour riders and those do need to be taken into account, because when you run that frequently, a short delay imposed by a surge at an intermediate station matters.

          • Andre Geffen

            That’s a completely fair point, and I agree with you. American commuter rail operations are quite inefficient, particularly for the infrastructure many of them have. Dwell times at Penn station are frankly absurd, less so for infrastructure reasons and more because of outmoded operating practices and insufficient doors. And Penn station has more exits than Catalunya, which should help it as well. But Catalunya station is simply a much smaller statjon that operates in a very different way. It’s not like Penn station, concentrating most suburban commuters into a single central station. As you point out in your post, it is not really a mainline rail station. While the line has origins in interurban-style operation, today it operates with more similarities to American post-war metros, with relatively frequent service on a different gauge rail from the mainline network. The Valles line never handles freight service, and the way it’s scheduled (even before December’s simplification) is much closer to a metro line than anything else. It’s a very different experience from the Rodalies (which has terrible schedules that are confusing to new users of the system, and is also a fair bit more unreliable), and feels closer to a metro than anything.

          • Alon Levy

            American operations can at any point choose to undergo the same simplification. East Side Access is arguably there given better operations, and definitely is there given better operations if Queens Interlocking is grade-separated.

          • Andre Geffen

            With the possible exception of LIRR, I doubt that they can, given that Rodalies (which has the added benefit of being operated by Renfe, unlike NJT) still has a lot of the same issues that American operators do. This isn’t to say that they can’t improve — Rodalies still has far better dwell times and usually has better frequencies — but operating on a mainline network adds complexity.

          • Alon Levy

            The LIRR just opened an eight-track, two-level terminal out of belief that a single-level terminal wouldn’t have enough capacity. Fire all of leadership, invite Bergas Massó to chair a search for people to replace them.

          • Andre Geffen

            East Side Access was unequivocally moronic. As a Philadelphian, the knowledge that the Roosevelt Boulevard subway would cost a third as much is maddening. Gateway is slightly less stupid, given the condition of the tunnels, but it’s still not the best use of money. If New York really wanted to improve their transport network, they’d put in TOD overlays and expand cut-and-cover subways further into Queens and Brooklyn, as well as replace the rolling stock on the commuter rail systems, fix their scheduling, and fare-integrate them.

            I’m not trying to disagree with you here; my main point is just that the FGC Valles line is significantly different from mainline commuter rail networks. LIRR barely even counts as one, and probably should be more similar to the FGC, but MNRR and NJT are different.

          • Alon Levy

            New Jersey Transit is more involved, yeah. But Metro-North is not – the Harlem Line is pretty segregated from everything else, and the Hudson Line barely shares track with anything else (the freight goes on the West Shore, Amtrak runs hourly, and the lower line has plenty of capacity for rearranging trains).

      • Richard Mlynarik

        God its so incredibly painful to read all the “yeah well RENFE Rodalies kinda-of sucks compared to FGC so it’s JUST FINE that EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE IN NORTH AMERICA AT ALL TIMES SUCKS AN ENTIRE BOX OF COCKS … because, um, reasons … sure, it’s just fine to kind-of suck, or totaly suck, or, in fact, be the suckiest of all, because not everything in Spain is perfect, so we in the USA-CAN can best even less perfect, go go go USA.”

        What the fuck, you lunatics! Learn from the stuff that works.
        And learn from the stuff that doesn’t work.

        Stop using the stuff that doesn’t work (somewhat, ie “commuter rail” in Spain) as a justification for what doesn’t work, at all, not even remotely, nothing even within two orders of magnitude of functioning (ie the clusterfuck of sub-shit that is “commuter rail” in North America).

        Learn from the good stuff.

  3. Union Tpke

    Another unfortunate error-as I noted in the comments in the other piece, the S6/S7 don’t exist anymore. As of December, stopping patterns were simplified to have S1/S2 trains make all stops. The increase to 24 TPH combined on the S1/S2 was made possible by simplifying the stopping patterns. English Wikipedia is outdated here.

  4. Roger “4freedoms.substack.com” Senserrich (@Egocrata)

    In addition to the really, really dense service, FGC Valles lines pre-COVID were running at 90%+ fare coverage, which is pretty nuts.

    The one thing that helps them compared to other services is that they run fairly short trains. The Chuo Line runs 10-car consists (200 m total); the s115 from FGC are 81 m long. Crush load on a FGC train is 775, on the Chuo you probably can cram twice that amount of people. The Valles line moves a fraction of the passengers they move in Tokyo, of course (180K compared to over 2M).

    They are a great example of how you can stretch what started as an American-style interurban (the original rolling stock, once it became a commuter line, where Brill “center doors” http://www.trenscat.com/metrovalles/brill301_ct.html ) as far as possible in terms of moving people. The infrastructure is pretty much fully maxed out; FGC is looking to add two additional tracks from Catalunya to San Cugat building a new, semi-parallel line. Aligmnent is yet to be defined, but would be fun to see how they run it.

      • Roger “4freedoms.substack.com” Senserrich (@Egocrata)

        Not… much. Right now they are have a couple of crayons. One option is a more direct line from San Cugat to Lesseps, then parallel to the L3, stopping at Gracia and Diagonal. The other option was branching out at Bellaterra and Cerdanyola, and crossing Collserola a bit farther east, with the first stop within the city at Mundet (L3).

        FGC prefers the first option; it requires 12 km of new tunnel, which they budget at around 1.5 to 2 billion. I am not sure that is really the best option, but the idea of running express trains in this line is not absurd. Barcelona-Sabadell and Barcelona-Terrassa take close to an hour, and the train right now is often packed by the time they get to San Cugat. Sabadell and Terrassa prefer Horta, of course.


        • Mikel

          Here‘s the ATM’s shopping list of possible infrastructure projects with their cost-benefit scores (the second Vallès tunnel does not have one yet because it’s in a very early stage of planning).

          I tend to think that the optimal solution would be to:
          -Rebuild Sant Cugat station as a two-level interchange with an island platform on each level, for easy cross-platform transfers;
          -Dig a tunnel from Sant Cugat to the Sagrera/Clot/Glòries, to create connections to Metro/Rodalies/Tram and give a direct link between the Western Vallès and the Besòs side of the city proper;
          -Then turn west to Gràcia and through-run to FGC’s Llobregat network, whose infrastructure is prepared for a relatively painless change of track gauge.

          Given that each of the two tunnels separately would likely have lower frequency than the current one, the trunk section Sant Boi – Glòries would have spare capacity to acommodate as a branch the hypothetical new inland line for the Maresme. And by sending Sabadell trains to Pl. Catalunya and Terrassa trains to the new tunnel, there would be room on both lines for separate local and express service.

  5. Ernest Tufft

    Yes, Barcelona’s mayor has been promoting surface tram expansion, battery bus, metro, commuter, and high speed rail improvements. Several stations are under construction. There are efforts to reduce inner city automobile lanes and parking, while widening pedestrian and cyclist access. Diagonal Rambla has construction to eliminate surface automobile expressway by putting it in a tunnel.

  6. Eric2

    I wonder if they should connect Catalunya to Franca station with a short tunnel for through-running so that this extreme turning is not necessary.

    • Roger “4freedoms.substack.com” Senserrich (@Egocrata)

      As much as I love França, no one really knows what to do with it once Sagrera is done.

      Right now it is used to turn regional and commuter trains to the South that have no room in the heavily capacity-constrained Sants (having two different gauges REALLY messes up operations there). As gorgeous as the station is, it is really tricky to operate, as trains coming in an out of use a flat junction out of the Aragó tunnel, it is built on a tight turn, and it is not really useful to dispatch trains headed north, as it has no standard gauge tracks to use the HSR and commuter trains would only stop at Clot before leaving the city, not serving city center.

      Sagrera will have a TON of room for new services (10 standard gauge, 8 iberian gauge tracks, plus a lot of room to turn trains), so França might be redundant. I would love, love, love if it was switched to standard gauge and used as THE terminal for European trains, but it does not connect with the HSR line at all.

      • Sascha Claus

        I would love, love, love if it was switched to standard gauge and used as THE terminal for European trains, but it does not connect with the HSR line at all.

        It also does not connect to the city centre and the touristic stuff that much, so the ideal point to terminate trains. >:->
        It would be a good place to terminate Iberian-gauge long- and medium-distance trains from the south, if all long- and medium-distance traffic north of Barna is done standard-gauge.

        Or one might use it as coach station, if the coaches wanted to leave the existing station at the old Northern railway station ^^, as market hall, concert hall or turn it over to the zoo next door as giraffe house …

  7. Alex Cat3

    WOW! I didn’t think of Spain as a place with particularly good operations but this is really impressive!
    Meanwhile, NJT said in 2016 that 18-track Hoboken terminal was at capacity at 20 tph! (The article said 40 tph, but I believe they were adding together inbound and outbound trains)

  8. Alex Cat3 (Sean Cunneen)

    I’m surprised they need so much frequency, when Manhattan subways like the 1 train run 20tph or less! The short turning trains don’t make that many stops and none of the buildings look very tall– maybe Spanish buildings are more space-efficient than American ones?

    • Roger “4freedoms.substack.com” Senserrich (@Egocrata)

      Well, FGC trains are short (80 m), but Barcelona is REALLY dense. The city core doesn’t look like it, but it is about as dense as Manhattan. Add to that the fact that every single station in the core and most of the stations in the suburbs are in really walkable neighborhoods with plenty of natural density around (only exceptions are places like Les Planes, which use to be weekend recreation areas) and that the line sees a lot of reverse commuting (both Sabadell and Terrassa are large and have plenty of jobs) and you get a lot of traffic.

      This line is pretty close to ideal conditions for commuter rail, really.

  9. eldomtom2

    This still proves nothing about Euston station. Compare it to other large intercity terminals, instead of solely commuter ones.

    • Alon Levy

      Tokyo Station? At some point the constant cherrypicking about how the comparisons are imperfect has to stop.

      Or Britain can just do what it’s been doing for a generation and not really build infrastructure. That’s also an option.

        • Alon Levy

          No, that would be the Tokyo Station that has four tracks on the Shinkansen going north. The other lines aren’t more relevant to this comparison than the Underground lines are to Euston.

          • eldomtom2

            So that’s ten platforms for 18tph versus four platforms for 14tph. Considering that it is unreasonable to expect tthe same degree of efficiency in turnaround, this is not a particularly egregious case of overbuilding, especially when compared to Continental European high-speed stations.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            What are these “Continental European high-speed [terminal] stations” of which you speak?

            I can only think of examples in Spain — and Spain is becoming infamous for luxuriant over-building and shit non-metro train operations. (China, not Continental European, but perhaps it counts, what with being on the other side of the Channel, likewise on the over-the-top station dimensions.)

            But whatever, just keep on imagining that London is the centre of the universe, just keep writing blank cheques, it’s gotten us exactly where we find outselves today.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Gare De Lyon in Paris is particularly overbuilt as it has 22 platforms for 1 high speed line and maybe 2 TER services an hour.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Sure Gare De Lyon has lots of terminal tracks, not all of which are filled with trains at all times.
            It also wasn’t constructed as a “Continental European high-speed station”.
            It footprint is a steam-era legacy (a super valuable legacy!), just like every other significant European terminal station for intercity trains that I can think of, Iberia aside.

          • Matthew Hutton

            The thing is if HS2 felt 18 platforms wasn’t enough – which is probably not true but isn’t that ridiculous. Then when you’d decided you need to expand going to 23 platforms isn’t particularly excessive.

  10. Tom Parkinson

    Pre-covid (2019) Vancouver’s combined Expo and Millenium lines were turning 39 trains an hour at the 2-track Waterfront Station in the peak, using two tail tracks. Obviously being diverless with Seltrack CBTC helps. The Moscow Metro has several lines with 90 second headways, so there must be some prodigious turnback rates.

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