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The world’s best subways: How these metro networks keep cities on the move

by Staff



CNN
 — 

Crowded, hot, noisy, hectic – subway systems can test the sanity of even the most hardened urbanite, but can you imagine the world’s biggest cities without them? And as millions more of us flock to live in cities every year, efficient mass transit is going to become ever more critical to urban life.

Subways – more commonly known as metros outside North America – are as varied as the cities they serve. They encompass everything from claustrophobic Victorian “tube” tunnels cut by hand to elegant turn-of-the-century steel viaducts and hyper-modern subterranean cathedrals served by fully automatic trains.

What links them all is their incredible engineering and the role they play in the lives of people and cities. Here are a few of our favorites.

The first and still one of the greatest of the world’s metro networks, London’s first subterranean railway line opened in January 1863 – with steam trains running below the streets between Paddington and Farringdon – and the system has since expanded to serve 272 stations on a 250-mile (400-kilometer) network with 11 lines.

More than four million Londoners and visitors use the “Tube” every day, but despite the name more of the system lies above ground (55%) than beneath it. Branches extend far out into the surrounding counties of Essex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

Far more than a transit system, London Underground is a global cultural icon (copies of its red, white and blue roundels can be found all over the world) and has been a world leader in transport architecture and design for more than a century.

Without it, London’s development into one of the world’s great cities would have been impossible.


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Beijing is home to one of the world’s longest and busiest subway systems.

Despite opening more than a century after London’s first Underground line, China’s Beijing Metro has grown rapidly to become one of the world’s longest and busiest systems.

Opened in 1971, it now comprises 27 lines – including one Maglev route – extending for 519 miles across the Chinese capital and surrounding districts with 490 stations handling more than 10 million trips per day before the Covid-19 pandemic (3.84 billion trips in 2018).

Six of the lines are fully automated with driverless trains. Ridership is recovering strongly and, in common with many other Chinese transit systems, it is struggling to meet the demands of a growing city.

Beijing plans to extend its system to more than 620 miles and around 18.5 million trips a day by 2025. In response to chronic traffic congestion, the city is aiming for 60% of trips to be by public transit by 2025 – of those, 62% will involve the metro.

Fares start at just $0.40 for a trip of up to four miles, although kids up to 1.3-meters (4 foot 3 inches) tall, over-65s, police and army veterans, military personnel and disabled citizens travel free. Little wonder the trains are so well used!

It may not be the oldest, the longest or the busiest, but the Danish capital’s automatic Metro trains run 24 hours a day, seven days a week linking 39 spotlessly clean and stylish stations.

Voted the “world’s best metro” on several occasions by international metro rail professionals, it has carried more than a billion passengers since the first section opened in 2002.

As you’d expect from a city which prides itself as the home of cool Scandi design, the system exudes a simple, functional but compelling design philosophy and a calming environment quite unlike older and larger Metro systems elsewhere.

Today, more than 300,000 people a day use the “M” trains on four lines which connect seamlessly with Copenhagen’s bike hubs, buses and overground trains.

Although the trains are short by international standards, they’re incredibly frequent, running every two minutes for most of the day. While there may not be a real driver, kids of all ages can use their imagination to “drive” the trains if they’re lucky enough to bag the front seats!

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The Paris Métro’s art nouveau entrance canopies, designed by Hector Guimard, are known around the world,

With 308 stations on 16 lines packed mostly within the city limits, the Paris Métropolitain – or Métro for short – has been delivering some of the most iconic cityscapes in the world since 1900.

Whether it’s crossing the Seine on the Bir Hakeim Bridge close to the Eiffel Tower or rattling between the rooftops on early 20th century steel structures, the elevated sections of Lines 1, 2, 5 and 6 are the place to head for fleeting glimpses of the city going about its daily life.

Like London’s Underground, the Paris Métro is part of the city’s cultural fabric, linking world-famous landmarks, museums and art galleries.

Hector Guimard’s iconic art nouveau entrance canopies are known around the world, but the architectural interest doesn’t stop there. Subterranean stations such as the Jules Verne steampunk-esque Arts-et-Metiers on Line 11, Line 4’s stylish Cité or the brutalist tropical garden at Gare de Lyon on Line 14 make an appealing contrast to the standard white-tiled tunnels.

Paris is investing billions in new and upgraded automatic Métro lines to improve mobility, but older trains with classic manually-operated doors are still around to surprise and alarm first-time visitors as locals leap out while the wheels are still moving!

B. Tanaka/The Image Bank Unreleased/Getty Images

Tokyo’s Metro runs 24 hours a day.

What comes to mind when you think of Tokyo’s subway? More than likely it’s the white-gloved Oshiya – professional “pushers” employed to cram as many bodies as possible into already-packed metro trains.

Efficient, dependable transit is critical in the world’s largest metropolitan area, which is home to more than 35 million people, around 14 million of whom live in the city itself.

Tokyo’s city transit network is incredibly dense and complex with no fewer than 100 urban rail lines including, somewhat unusually, two separate subway systems – Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway. Together they have 13 lines and 286 stations serving many of the city’s best-known districts.

Despite trains running up to 24 times per hour to precision timetables, many stations are said to operate at well over their intended capacity – some as much as 200% more than they were designed for.

All of this can make using Tokyo’s subways an overwhelming experience for visitors, but great efforts have been made in recent years to reduce that stress by providing multi-lingual signage, colour-coding and numbering of stations. Regular travelers can even identify where they are by the unique jingles played over the PA systems at some stations!

If losing your phone and Wi-Fi connection on the subway fills you with dread, you might want to head for the capital of South Korea to see what is possible.

Befitting the high-tech outlook of this ultra-modern city, Seoul Metro users can continue phone calls and internet browsing uninterrupted while underground or watch TV on screens fitted throughout the trains.

As if that wasn’t luxury enough, the climate-controlled trains even have heated seats to make traveling in winter a little more pleasant.

Spotlessly clean, efficient, safe, reasonably priced and serving most areas of the city, many experts regard Seoul Metro as the world’s best subway.

Since the opening of Line 1 in 1974, it has become a showcase for Korean technology, attracting urban transit planners from all over the world. The nine lines now make up one of the world’s largest metro networks, covering 500 miles (312 kilometers) and 288 stations and carrying almost seven million passengers per day.

Another railway inextricably woven into the social, cultural and economic life of the city it serves is New York City’s world-famous Subway. Like the city itself, the NYC Subway never sleeps, operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

At 665 miles (1,070 kilometers) long, with 25 lines – known locally as “trains” – and 472 stations it is North America’s longest and busiest network by some distance and one of the world’s greatest metro operations.

It carries more than 3.5 million passengers a day and is unusual in running “local” (making all stops) and “express” trains. It serves all five of the city’s boroughs – Manhattan, Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, plus an isolated line on Staten Island.

Despite its name, much of the NYC Subway runs above ground, often on heavily riveted steel bridges straddling roads, familiar from movies such as “The French Connection” and “Saturday Night Fever.”

For even more Subway action, fans should check out the 1974 Walter Matthau movie “The Taking of Pelham 123” (not the 2009 remake), a brilliant fictional account of a subway train hijacking.

When the first Subway line opened back in 1904, a ticket cost just five cents. It’s a little more expensive today at $2.90, but trips are still very reasonably priced by international standards and are usually the quickest and most cost-effective way to get around the Big Apple.

Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg/Alamy Stock Photo

Mexico City’s STC Metro network has been running since 1969.

Mexico City is notorious for its chronic traffic jams and choking pollution, but fortunately citizens and visitors have the option of escaping into an extensive and efficient rapid transit system that enjoys some of the cheapest fares in the world.

Opened in 1969, the STC Metro is now the second largest in North America – after New York City – and has 12 lines, 195 stations (115 underground) and more than 140 miles (225 kilometers) of tracks.

Instead of conventional steel wheels on steel rails, it employs a similar system to many Paris Métro lines with rubber tyres on steel wheels, offering a smoother and quieter ride on Mexico City’s unstable and earthquake-prone terrain.

This decision proved to be a wise one after the system survived a 1985 earthquake intact.

In one of the world’s most populous cities, where rich and poor often lead very separate existences, the STC Metro brings together diverse social classes in a shared space to avoid the congestion, noise and pollution in the streets above. And, with a flat fare of just five pesos (around $0.25c) per trip, there’s no cheaper or quicker way to get around this vast metropolis.

Many of Asia’s great cities have benefited from lessons learned by the early subway builders in Europe and North America. Instead of tiny tunnels and cramped, stuffy trains, commuters in cities such as Singapore enjoy larger profile trains and spacious stations acting as vibrant community hubs.

Despite only opening in 1987, Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) is southeast Asia’s oldest metro network – as well as its busiest. High land values in the densely packed city state also made it the world’s most expensive metro to build, with construction costs reaching $111.5 billion by 2021.

Much of the 140-mile (225 kilometer), six-line, fully-automatic network is elevated, although some of the more recent sections are underground, with some stations designed to double as public air-raid shelters.

Like the city it serves, MRT is famous for being spotlessly clean and efficient. To keep it that way, smoking, drinking and eating are banned at stations and on trains – and that includes the famously stinky durian fruit, a favourite of many locals!

Home to more than 3.7 million people, Germany’s capital enjoys one of the densest urban transit and best integrated networks in the world. The 120 years since the opening of its first U-Bahn (subway) line have also been uniquely turbulent, seeing Berlin at the epicenter of World War II and the Cold War.

First opened in 1902, Berlin’s earliest U-Bahn lines are of similar vintage to those in Paris and New York City and share many characteristics. Bright yellow trains rattle above suburban streets on vintage steel viaducts before diving into small-profile tunnels under the city center. Crossing the iconic Oberbaum Bridge on Line U1 – the oldest part of the network – is an unmissable Berlin experience.

Today, the U-Bahn network consists of nine lines and 174 stations – 90% of which are underground – carrying more than 1.5 million passengers a day.

Complementing the U-Bahn are the classic red and cream S-Bahn trains, providing faster journeys for longer hops across the city.

The 16 S-Bahn routes are Berlin’s major arteries, connecting its most important locations with its wider region. Best known is the elevated Stadtbahn, which has provided an unbeatable sightseeing tour through the city’s best-known sights since the mid-1920s, from Zoologischer Garten in the west via the Tiergarten park and Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main station) to Alexanderplatz, home of the Communism-era Television Tower.

S-Bahn and U-Bahn trains interchange with local buses and trams at well-organized hubs, providing a superb transit network that reaches every corner of this once-divided city.

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Many of the Moscow Metro’s Soviet-era stations were designed as palaces for the people.

One of the greatest engineering feats of the Soviet Union was Moscow’s spectacular Metro network. Best known for its extraordinarily grand underground stations, ornately decorated to celebrate workers, peasants and soldiers, the network was designed to serve a dual function – protecting citizens from nuclear strikes as well as keeping them moving.

While many newer stations and those away from the city center are less ornate, the best Moscow Metro stations have been, in less turbulent times, tourist attractions in their own right, inspired by Tsarist palaces.

A further burst of construction in the 21st century has taken the network to 14 lines radiating from a city centre hub, plus the Koltsevaya (inner circle) and recently-completed 36-mile “Big Circle” line.

Carrying more than 8 million Muscovites a day, the Metro is one of the world’s busiest and most extensive, with 269 miles (432 kilometers) of tracks and 258 stations.

With just one circular line circumnavigating the city center, Glasgow’s Subway struggles to meet the criteria for a metro “system” but its age and quirky features make it deserving of wider recognition.

Opened in 1896, it was the world’s third underground railway – after London and Budapest – and a statement of the Scottish city’s industrial and economic power. Two tiny tunnels running clockwise and counter-clockwise for just over six miles link the city center with communities south and north of the River Clyde that were once world-famous for shipbuilding and heavy engineering.

Originally powered by cables, the unique 4-foot-gauge trains were converted to electric power in 1935 and closed for a complete rebuild to modern standards in 1977-79.

The brightly coloured new trains earned the railway its “Clockwork Orange” nickname, although they are now painted white. New Swiss-built trains are now being introduced and the railway is about to move into its fourth era, which will see it move to fully automatic operation.

If Beijing is China’s political center, then Shanghai is its vibrant creative, commercial and financial heart – and the biggest city in the world’s second-most populous country. Efficient mass transit has been critical to its incredible growth over the last 30 years.

Opened in 1993, Shanghai Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) is expanding at a breakneck pace to become the world’s longest and busiest subway network. It currently has 19 lines serving 14 of the megacity’s 16 districts and a metropolitan area of almost 40 million people.

Vying with Beijing for the title of the world’s longest and busiest metro network, Shanghai currently exceeds 500 miles, but further expansion should take it to 620 miles (about 1,000 kilometers) and 25 lines by 2025. By then, nowhere in central Shanghai will be more than 2,000 feet (600 meters) from a subway station.

With 408 stations, it currently carries more than 10 million passengers per day but its one-day record is an incredible 13.3 million trips, set on March 8, 2019.

Grant Rooney/Alamy Stock Photo

Kyiv’s Metro has doubled as a place of shelter during the war in Ukraine.

In common with other subway systems built by the Soviet Union, the Kyiv Metro serves a dual purpose – a feature that continues to be essential as the city suffers regular Russian missile attacks. Spacious stations feature specialized ventilation and filtration equipment and huge metal blast doors that can be sealed above and below ground.

Plans for an underground railway go back as far as 1884, but the first of Kyiv’s three metro lines did not open until November 1960 – the third Soviet city to gain a metro after Moscow and St Petersburg.

Expansion continued after Ukraine’s independence in 1991, creating a three-line, 42-mile network which serves all 10 city districts.

Since February 2022, Kyiv Metro’s civil protection function has come to the fore, with 47 of the 52 stations designated as public bomb shelters. At 346 feet below ground, Arsenalna station in the city center was famously the deepest in the world – taking five minutes to reach by escalator – until it was surpassed by a station on the Chongqing network in China.

In the early days of the Russian invasion in March 2022 up to 40,000 residents reportedly sought refuge in metro stations and President Volodymyr Zelensky used metro stations to host international news conferences. Despite this, the network continues to operate, providing fast and frequent services around a city fighting to maintain an air of normality under the shadow of war.

With cameos in numerous movies and TV shows including “The Blues Brothers,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “ER” – Chicago’s “L” (short for “elevated”) rapid transit system is a world-famous symbol of the Windy City.

Like many of the economic and industrial powerhouses of the late-19th and early 20th century – including New York, Paris, Hamburg and Liverpool – Chicago chose to run its new electric trains on steel viaducts elevated high above congested city streets. These quickly became one of the city’s defining features and a catalyst for economic growth in the dense downtown district.

In 2005, Chicago Tribune readers voted the “L” as one of the seven wonders of Chicago.

Although the “L is primarily associated with its city center “Loop”, opened in 1897 and featuring exceptionally tight curves between buildings, the network now extends to eight colour-coded lines, 145 stations and 103 miles (166 kilometers) of route, sections of which are at ground level, in tunnels or cuttings.

Along with the New York City Subway and Copenhagen Metro, it is one of just three systems in the world running trains 24 hours a day. More than 100 million trips were made on the “L” in 2022 – around 320,000 per day – making it the second busiest transit system in the United States.

Another relative newcomer to the mass transit scene, Indian capital New Delhi opened its first line in 2002. It was the second city in India after Kolkata to gain a metro but has since expanded rapidly to become the country’s largest and busiest network with more than two billion trips recorded in 2023.

First mooted in the 1960s, the construction of a modern mass transit system became vital as Delhi’s population doubled between 1981 and 1998, creating intolerable congestion and air pollution.

Now boasting 12 high-capacity lines with 288 stations across 250 miles (400 kilometers) of route, Delhi Metro is India’s biggest and busiest mass transit network. By mileage it is the world’s 12th longest system and the 16th busiest for ridership.

Serving Delhi and the nearby cities of Faridabad, Gurgaon, Noiza and Ghadiabad, the Metro’s fast, modern and spacious trains have reportedly helped to reduce private car use and traffic accidents and drastically cut pollution.

India’s Central Road Research Institute estimates that using the metro saves commuters an estimated 66 minutes per day compared to driving!

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Hong Kong’s ever-reliable MTR is the envy of cities around the world.

Transit planners flock to Hong Kong from across the globe to discover how its Mass Transit Railway (MTR) delivers world-class service and reliability to the territory’s 7.4 million citizens.

Densely populated city areas crowded around a deep natural harbour and towns scattered across dozens of islands and mountainous countryside, Hong Kong is not an easy place to build railways, but since 1975 MTR has established an enviable reputation for quality, efficiency and punctuality.

It regularly achieves a 99.9% “on-time” rate – a figure most other railways across the world can only dream of. MTR’s funding model also draws widespread admiration; construction of new lines has opened up new areas of the region for development, helping to fund the expansion of the system. The model was inspired by Tokyo, but has its origins in London’s Metropolitan Railway, which created the iconic ‘Metro-Land’ outer suburbs from the early-20th century.

Ten high-capacity lines link Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories, including the dedicated high-speed Airport Express link to Lantau Island and the Disneyland Resort Line.

Despite the compact geography of the territory, MTR operates more than 150 miles of route and 99 stations, the latter being famously clean and spacious.

MTR’s success at home has encouraged it to expand far beyond Hong Kong, managing projects and operations in mainland China, Sweden, Australia and the UK, where it holds the operating concession for London’s Elizabeth Line.

Hungarian engineers were among the earliest pioneers of electric-powered technology in the late-19th century, not least in the field of railways.

Although London opened the first underground railway (see above), it initially employed conventional steam trains. It fell to Budapest to build the world’s first electrified underground subway system.

Line M1 was completed in 1896 and was a radical leap forward for urban mass transit, introducing electric lighting in stations and train cars, bi-directional cars and the first use of an overhead wire system – rather than a ground level contact rail – to supply electricity to the trains.

Known as the “Small Underground,” M1 runs under Andrássy Avenue on the Pest side of the city from Andrássy Square to Városliget (City Park).

Designed to carry city dwellers to the park without spoiling the elegant streetscape with tramcars and power lines, the line has seen many changes over the last 120 years but its tiny trains still carry around 80,000 riders a day as part of a wider four-line network expanded between 1970 and 2014.

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