THE impact of the global economic crisis was particularly profound in Spain, and seven years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, government budgets are still being squeezed hard, forcing public institutions to make economies. The country's public transport operators are among those feeling the pinch as stagnation in ridership and fiscal constraint lead to difficult decisions about where money can and cannot be spent.
After three years of declining ridership, Barcelona's 103km eight-line metro network saw passenger numbers rise 1.6% last year to 375.7 million, and while further growth is anticipated this year as the economy recovers, the system's operator Barcelona Metropolitan Transport (TMB) continues to face budgetary pressures.
"The impact of the crisis in Spain was big, public institutions were nearly bankrupt," explains TMB's metro manager Mr Marc Grau. "Our policy has been to adapt to this situation, and a lack of financial resources has led us to a different approach over the last three or four years. We have tried to remain active in terms of investment, but we are working within our means and trying to innovate."
Grau says TMB is taking a long-term perspective on how technology can make its operations more efficient. "Technology is a big focus for us, especially on the maintenance side," Grau says. "We're looking at the internet of things and how linking devices might improve our operations. Can we link our trains? What benefits might we see from doing this? Technology is a core capability for an organisation like ours and it can give us advantages in terms of our market position if we are able to do it well."
Alongside its emphasis on technology, TMB is focussing on staff development to deliver more efficient operations, and Grau says the company has a philosophy of continuous improvement to help its employees build on their skills. The metro has also created multi-disciplined teams, which gives it more flexibility to respond to incidents or short-term operational changes. "Having multi-disciplined teams with multi-functional people gives good results," Grau says. "We're also working hard to create a matrix structure which combines technical knowledge with the best management approaches to generate better results."
A key area in the drive for greater efficiency is reducing the metro's energy use. "Spain has high energy costs compared with other EU countries, so we are doing a lot of things in terms of purchasing electricity and reducing consumption," Grau says. "Stations are surprisingly big consumers of energy - in Barcelona the figures are similar to those for traction power, so there are potential opportunities in this area."
TMB has installed new energy-saving technologies at Passeig de Grácia station on Metro Line 3 as part of the European Union-funded Seam4us project, which seeks to develop scalable control of power in metro stations with the aim of reducing non-traction energy consumption by at least 5% - the equivalent of the annual power consumption of 700 households. Grau is encouraged by the results from Passeig de Grácia and the technology will be rolled out to five more stations by the end of this year.
In addition to the work on energy usage at stations, TMB is investigating whether operational changes could yield a reduction in its traction power requirement. Measures under consideration include reducing train speeds in certain circumstances, such as empty stock and yard movements.
A key event for TMB in 2016 is the opening of the 20km southern section of Line 9/10 from Zona Universitaria to the city's international airport at El Prat, where it will serve both terminals. €2.86bn has been invested in this stage of the line, which is expcted to boost metro ridership by around 23 million passengers per year. Testing is now underway and commercial operations on the driverless line are due to start in February.
Construction is also at an advanced stage on a branch off this new section, which will link Gornal with the Zona Franca logistics park, which will also operate as part of Line 10.
The initial phase of Line 9 from Sagrera to Can Zam opened in late 2009, while the first section of Line 10 to Gorg was inaugurated in April 2010. The completion of the southern section leaves just the central stretch to be completed, but it is unclear how long residents will have to wait before they will be able to travel the whole length of the 46km line. Construction ceased on the central section in 2012 after 4km of tunnel had been bored and no date has been given for work to restart.
According to Grau, €4.8bn has been spent on Line 9/10 so far and another €1.3bn is required to complete it. With continuing financial pressure on the city and the Catalonian government, other spending priorities look likely to take precedence.
For more than 25 years TMB has supplemented its revenues from bus and metro operations in Barcelona by providing international consultancy and management services for public transport projects around the world. TMB has supported the development of metros in Panama City, Lima, Bogota, and Riyadh and light rail projects in Oran, Algiers, Casablanca, and Seville. TMB Consulting usually bids for this work in partnership with engineering companies in order to meet the requirements of individual projects.
"This is an important strategy for TMB," Grau says. "Over the past few years we have seen growth in the areas where we should naturally being doing business - Spain and South America - but we are also looking at other markets. The difference is that we are not consultants - the people behind this business work in operations and maintenance in Barcelona, and we can export their experience to other parts of the world."
As well as consulting, TMB is moving into operations. Earlier this year Transports Ciutat Comtal (TCC), a joint venture between TMB and Catalonia's largest privately-owned public transport operator Moventia, was awarded a 10-year concession to operate and maintain the light rail and bus networks in Portugal's second city Porto. "We like to work in partnerships, usually as part of a consortium or in a PPP company, as in Porto," Grau says. "We feel our public sector experience is useful in this market."
With ridership growing once more, the imminent opening of the second phase of Line 9, and the expansion of its international activities, Barcelona's metro network appears to be leaving the darkest days of the economic crisis behind it.
Furthermore, with its continuing emphasis on sustainability and efficiency, TMB is making targeted investments in new technology to save money in the future, a strategy that will benefit both operating and financial performance in the long-run.