How to tell which end of the Metro platform to stand on, and other survival tips for the Lisbon subway system

The Metropolitano de Lisboa includes an English-language list of tips for riding the Metro. Here are some more tips that all the locals know, but which no guide book tells you.

In most subway systems, trains outside of peak hours are not full-length but rather fill only part of the station. In the subway systems I'm familiar with in the United States, short trains stop in the center of the platform. But in Lisbon and Madrid, short trains pull forward as far as possible before stopping. Therefore, you should stand on the forward end of the platform. But where is the forward end?

The forward end is the end that has the television monitors or mirrors, because the driver of the train uses them to check that the train doors are clear before pulling away.

Other tips: The vending machines in the Metro stations do not sell multi-day passes. To buy a multi-day pass, go to "the man in the little house", which is the cute phrase a hotel employee used to describe the ticket agent booth. The ticket booth is not manned at night, so plan accordingly.

(Just in case it wasn't clear: I'm not mocking the employee's English. After all, his English was far, far better than my Portuguese! Besides, the man in the little house is probably the phrase I would have used if I had to describe the same thing in Swedish, German, or Chinese.)

You don't need to take your pass out of your wallet or purse. Do like the locals: Place your wallet or purse directly on the sensor (oriented so that the pass is close to the sensor, of course) and hold still. After about one second, the sensor will recognize your pass and open the gate. A common mistake is to rub the pass in circles against the sensor. In my experience, moving the pass around just makes it harder for the sensor to find it.

Your multi-day pass covers all municipal subways, trams, buses, and elevators.

Comments (12)
  1. Chris says:

    Interesting.  Here in Salt Lake, our light-rail trains pull all the way forward on the platform because the wheelchair ramp is at the forward end.  They need to get the front door of the first car lined up with it.  

  2. Gustavo Lopes says:

    You can also memorize the trains always come from the right when facing the line, but I’ll admit that’s probably harder to remember than the television monitors after you’ve been to many cities with different conventions.

  3. James says:

    I was rather baffled to discover in Glasgow that the tickets are slightly cheaper (for precisely the same journey) when purchased from the window rather than the vending machine! The other way round, I could understand – encourage people to use the machine where possible, keeping (more expensive) staff free to deal with enquiries which need a person – but this way? Bizarre!

    (The one explanation I can think of is that the machine can’t make change, so it takes a single coin – one pound – whereas the human can, hence charging 80p instead. Quite odd when so many vending machines manage it OK, though.)

  4. Charlie says:

    You know, in the Japan Rail system, the window of the ticket booth is always green, and the booth itself is called "the green window," even in Japanese (みどりの窓口, midori no madoguchi.)

    I always figured they did it that way to make it as easy as possible for non-native speakers to ask where the ticket booth is.

  5. commnt32.dll says:

    I don’t know what the sensor looks like, but it could be easier to just "bump" into the sensor with the body part where the pocket holding your pass is located.

    I bump my behind into a sensor twice a day at school -_-‘ (if it bleeps it worked).

  6. steveg says:

    I look for the Red or Green signals (traffic lights) — they’re placed so the drivers can see them. Lisbon may not have signals, but I’d expect it does.

    Another, thing you used to have to watch out for in Lisbon was the Slow Change Routine from dishonest station staff. The Escudo used to have really large numbers compared to many currencies. So when you bought your 200 Escudeo ticket and gave the man a 5000 Escudo note, he’d slowly hand back change a note at a time until The Sucker (AKA me) was satisfied.

    When you’re new in the country and don’t speak the language and have no idea how much a ticket costs…

    If I ever see that guy again I’ll scissor his moustaches off. :-p

  7. Sven Groot says:

    Here in Tokyo, at least on the Odakyu line (which is what I use most often) they have a simple system to deal with trains of different lengths. As a rule, express trains are 10 cars and other trains are 6 or 8 cars. At the stations where express trains stop the station is 10 cars long so they fill the station.

    The signs indicating what train comes next also lists how many cars that train has, and there are lines on the floor of the platform that indicate where trains of what length stop (although this is written in Japanese, it uses arabic numerals so it’s easy to recognise even if you don’t read Japanese). When the train arrives it is also announced where it will stop (e.g. "at the 8 car line"), although that part is only in Japanese.

  8. Jack V. says:

    "Just in case it wasn’t clear: I’m not mocking the employee’s English."

    I think this is one of those examples of something that’s funny because it’s such an insightful, apt and elegant work-around. (After all, it might be slightly idiosyncratic, but the main defining feature is that is was extremely good communication: if you don’t know the word for "ticket office" which is pretty arbitrary, then "man in the little house" immediately conveys the idea perfectly.)

    But I want a word that means that. Often I laugh when someone says something incongruous, and try to say "No, it’s funny in a good way", but I have to tell a whole story to explain what I mean.

  9. Miguel Duarte says:

    steveg: The employee behaved incorrectly and instead of cutting his moustache you could have filed a complaint. Most companies (and state departments) are obliged by law to have a complaints book.{5DDB97B9-1FC8-4CBB-98AF-37DC17233E95}

    I’ve filed a few, and trust me, they are put to good use.

    Anyway, do you realize that you gave him enough money to buy 25 (!) tickets? That must have been  a multi day pass or something, single tickets were  much cheaper, around 50 escudos) ? Usually cashiers don’t have that much money at hand and paying with such a large back note probably means you’ve ruined his ability to give change to some future customer that day (the 5000 bill was the 2nd largest bill at the time). Buying something “cheap” with a “large” amount amount of money might be considered insulting.

    I’m sure that you didn’t realize how much money you’re actually giving him, but keep in mind that if you’re going to a foreign country it doesn’t hurt to know how much things cost or how to ask simple stuff, like the price of some good in the local language :-)

  10. steveg says:

    Miguel Duarte: I was in Lisbon in 1999, it was definitely a x000 note. I can’t remember the cost of the ticket, it was a return from a hostel that was a reasonable way out from the centre of town (maybe the end of or near the end of the line), so you’re right it was a pretty big discrepancy between cost and tendered cash.

    I was a foolish young long-haired backpacker with a colonial accent from the outskirts of the former British empire, I probably got what I deserved!

    Part of the joys of travel is finding the ways people [try to] rip you off. They generally make for good stories and are often worth the cost.

    The other very sensible thing done in Lisbon is the high availability of beer vending machines — I can’t recall if they’re on the platform or just outside the station, but they’re quite handy!

  11. Miguel Duarte says:

    steveg: If you bought a single ticket in 1999, the money you gave him was worth about 100 tickets (*) :-) 1999 was also when the Euro was introduced, so that meant he even had less Escudos available for change! Anyway the employee should have asked for less money (even if he didn’t speak English, it’s not that hard to communicate simple stuff with gestures or writing in a paper how much the ticket would cost)

    Yeah, beer is consumed in large amounts in Portugal so the high availability of canned beer is no accident –  I prefer drinking from the keg though! I’m still looking for the best beer in the world, what’s your best bet?

    (*) At the time, regardless if you traveled the full length of the line or just the next station you would have payed the same.  

  12. David Pritchard says:

    The forward end can be deduced from the side of the road that cars drive on in the country in question… except where it can’t. In Madrid, turns out that British engineers built the first parts of the metro and made the trains drive on the left. Hehe.

    [Even with that caveat, it still doesn’t work. The direction also changes depending on whether the platform is outside the tracks or between them. And if it’s a large underground station, it’s not always clear which case you’re in. -Raymond]

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