ALT: 1980s computer

That's how we were, that's how we are now. The computer revolution: from the stencil and the gondola phone to the Y2K, and without a mouse!

103 years ago, when Metro de Madrid began its journey, it is not that computers did not exist, it is just that the closest thing to a computer scientist walking around Madrid was a man with a notebook, a fountain pen (even a pencil) and, if anything, a calculator. A mechanical one, of course, because electronics neither existed nor were expected. It is hard to believe today, but for seven long decades, Metro operated without any computerisation, and when the first computers made their stellar appearance they were not much use either, so they did not spread too quickly. Let's travel back in time and admire these wonders!

It seems as if we have had it for centuries, but the beginnings of computers are very recent and not only in Madrid, because not even NASA had computers when Metro had already been running underground in Madrid for decades. In reality, the starting point was as early as the 1960s and at that time, its space was limited to the academic sphere. In fact, the embryo of what is now the internet was born with the aim of connecting universities, and few companies thought at the time that this new "invention" would be of much use to them.

And what did Metro do? We took a chance. But one step at a time.

The first computer, like Naranjito

Metro's first computer arrived at the same time as Naranjito's World Cup in 1982, and it arrived at the Pacífico Command Post. It was a major breakthrough for what is now known as Centralised Traffic Control (CTC) because, for the first time, it made it possible to see where each train was located. Of course, as Álvaro Prieto, coordinator of applications and systems operation at the Central Post, explains, let's not think of anything like what we know today as a computer: it had an ABCD keyboard and no mouse. It also ran proprietary operating systems such as Digital, IBM and, above all, UNIX. So it was not really intuitive.

The next step was taken in 1986, when the Quevedo cargo office opened, incorporating all the technological advances available at the time, which basically consisted of a Digital PDP 11/44 computer. It was to computing what the "shoe phone" was to mobile phones, but it enabled something as important as remote control of all electrical substations for the first time.

It may not sound like much, but let's get in the mindset of the time (dust off your shoulder pads!): Up to that moment, there were always two people in all electrical substations and any manoeuvre involved at least one phone call to each substation, with the consequent expenditure of time and staff members. This computer, which ran on 200 MB hard disks, made it possible to streamline all tasks and keep the substations unmanned, which opened up the possibility of redeploying these staff members to other departments.

Sol Metro Command Post in 1975

In other words, what Álvaro Prieto describes as "an all-keystroke bulk with a cursor that only allowed you to move up and down, left and right" totally revolutionised the way of working in the whole of Metro's operations.

Request an appointment to send an e-mail

And what was going on in the offices meanwhile? The arrival of computers came a little later, at the end of the 1980s, when the first mainframes were installed in a room where, as Javier Tagarro, head of the Communications and Information Technology department, explains, "from time to time, some gentlemen in suits would come in while some tapes were spinning".

Of course, at that time there was no such thing as a Staff Member Computer or PC and the few computers that were beginning to make their way into the market belonged to an entire department. In reality, they were used to computerise processes with punched cards and to produce paper lists, little more, so they did not arouse passions. No wonder, because who needed such a big, expensive thing when you had typewriters and could send letters by pouch?

The substantial change occurred when personal computers, which could be connected to these mainframe systems, became widespread and arrived at Metro in the early 1990s. That is, when Metro had already been running like clockwork and completely manually for 75 years.

The arrival of these PCs was a major breakthrough, but also a change in the working model that implied making very important decisions. For example, who should have an email account? Everyone? What for? Today, the answer seems obvious but back then it wasn't, so to send an e-mail in those years you had to make an appointment and use the relevant department's account or that of the entire Metro. And that remained the case until 1995! By the way, let us not think that the advent of computers meant the retirement of typewriters: they remained in use until at least 1996.

Tables with papers and gondola phones

Imagine a Metro employee in the 1990s managing, for example, the logistics of a warehouse and having to draw up an inventory: they would work at their desk, where they had their documents, move to the computer room to print out what they needed, return to their desk and from there, manage the necessary shipments using their gondola or herald phone or by sending a small parcel by pouch. The computer, today an indispensable and personal tool, was no more than an auxiliary and shared service.

It was the time of the early MS-DOS, when everything was done in Basic, nothing to do with the current Windows system. The change to personal computers, with a graphical environment similar to the one we all know today, was key, but above all, it was key that these could be connected to systems through DPCs (Data Processing Centres) of railway management or operation. Change was starting and was already unstoppable.

Excel sheets were still a long way from replacing spreadsheets and only timidly did WordPerfect (who remembers it today?) start to replace typewriters in the production of reports. But the first steps had been taken.

Then came the dreaded Y2K bug, which in the end came to nothing, but for which we had to prepare and the 21st century brought the complete revolution that brought us to where we are today, where few tasks can be done without the help of a computer or a mobile phone. Along the way, programmes designed by the Command Post's own professionals to meet constantly changing needs, cassette tapes to broadcast messages over the public address system were left behind... But that's for another chapter in this series, so for the moment we hit enter and... we'll suspend the session. So, until next time!  😉