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The metro revolution

by DoDo Tue Jun 4th, 2013 at 09:43:09 AM EST

For inhabitants of most major cities of the developed world, metros are familiar legacy systems which expand slowly at great cost. The resurgence of light rail is more visible and popular. Metros and light rail also have an unholy link: in the second half of the previous century, a new subway line was often an excuse to create more lanes for cars by tearing up the tracks of a tram on the road above; and more recently, a lot of politicians treated light rail as a cheaper alternative for metros, ignoring that they aren't for the same use (metros have much higher capacity).

In the rest of the world, however, largely ignored by Western observers, there has been a metro-building frenzy in the last few years, with capital spending that outstrips high-speed rail. This boom can be partly understood as a natural consequence of industrialisation and urbanisation, but positive examples and trends play a role, too. The systems being built are changing the commuting habits of tens if not hundreds of millions of people.

First things first: what is a metro? It is rail transport with the following characteristics:

  • a network of predominantly transit lines in an urban area (as opposed to, say, hub-and-spokes);
  • tracks dedicated to passenger traffic and completely grade-separated;
  • track built for axle loads of 14–16 t (higher than light rail, but lower than mainline rail; possible due to passenger-only traffic again), except for light metros at around 10 t;
  • vehicles dedicated to the network or a single line, with lower longitudinal strength requirements than for mainline rail;
  • high-frequency service where the time between subsequent trains counts more than a fixed schedule;
  • very high capacity (say upwards of 100,000 passengers a day or 10,000 passengers per peak hour per direction for each line).

That may sound nice and clear, but actual transit terminology in different cities is quite confusing, and distinctions are blurred: there are conventional street-level light rail systems with light metro sections, metros connected to suburban rail lines, and even suburban rail systems with every feature of a metro distinguished only by their history and quantitative differences (slightly larger cross section, larger network radius and slightly lower frequency).

With that grounding, now let's review what happens around the world.

Asian Tigers & ASEAN countries

Among the countries and territories situated between and south of economic giants Japan and China, none had a proper metro system in 1970. However, that changed with rapid industrialisation, and most of the high-population-density major cities from Singapore to Seoul began to construct metros by the nineties. This development came to a halt with the 1997 Asian Crisis, but picked up again in the last 5–10 years.

The development of the first system in the region, Seoul Metropolitan Subway (first line: 1974) was particularly spectacular. In the five years up to 2000, network length was boosted by a world record 155 km. This brought the total close to 300 km, on par with Tokyo's, then the world's third longest network. This number, which grew to 325 km by now, only covers the core subway infrastructure (owned by three separate companies). Two of the lines include surface sections (owned by a fourth company: national railway Korail) and there are suburban subways and a segregated surface line, bringing the segregated rapid transit network total to 533.5 km (of which 168 km was added since 2000), already the world's longest. To boot, another subway line is connected to the Korail network also used by other trains (making services a de facto RER system), and there are rapid transit lines serving other cities within the metro area that interchange with the subway lines. This brings the grand total of the network served by rapid transit trains to almost 1,000 km (more than half of which was added since 2000).

Several other cities in the region are constructing 100-km-plus networks. Being all-new and prestige objects, these systems showcase a wide use of new technologies like air-conditioning, platform doors, driver-less trains, electronic ticketing, WiFi, and behind-the-scenes stuff like computerised train control systems and performance-based maintenance. Hong Kong's MTR has proved so efficient at operation that they have been contracted as consultants or even operators on metro systems from Melbourne to Stockholm.

Some cities (like Taipei and Bangkok) started their metro systems with a line using some special elevated rail system. These had all the appearance of a pure prestige project, but traffic picked up eventually, and even though subsequent lines included subways, they established a renaissance of elevated railways.


By 1989, only two cities in the People's Republic of China had metros (Beijing and Tianjin), both of those very simple, with a history of stop-and-go slow construction that was typical in 'communist' countries. Further development ceased because the leadership under Jiang Zemin had a stupid focus on re-creating American car culture. But the latter led to predictable traffic gridlock and smog, thus the leadership changed direction again, and metro construction accelerated from the end of the nineties. With the stimulus packages issued during the Global Financial Crisis, construction speed rose to a level even exceeding Seoul's.

Today, two dozen cities have or are constructing metro systems, most of them planning several lines. Beijing's (456 km, of this more than 300 km added in the last five years) and Shanghai's (439 km) are already the world's two longest self-contained metro networks (exceeding long-time leaders London and New York), with hundreds of kilometres more in the pipeline. The networks of Guanghzhou, Shenzhen and Tianjin are also likely to exceed 300 km by 2020 at the latest. Note that in China, few cities had a proper commuter train system on conventional railways, thus metro networks often have a suburban rail role, too.


India had well-developed commuter rail systems and a climate (monsoons) not too friendly to normal subways, thus it's unsurprising that it was a late-comer in metros. The first line opened in 1984 in Kolkata (Calcutta). However, the biggest and most noteworthy system is the third to start service (in 2002), Delhi's.

In a country notorious for crippling corruption, it was quite spectacular that a state-owned company managed to create a system that was

  1. built on time,
  2. built within budget,
  3. expanded at the same rapid rate as China's networks,
  4. became one of the very few metros in the world that was operated at a profit (with ticket prices covering expenses).

The network grew to 193 km by 2011 and will reach 305 km with what's in construction in the current five-year plan. Most of the network is elevated. More importantly, Delhi set an example that caught on: a dozen other cities in India are now constructing extensive networks, and Delhi Metro is a consultant for almost all of them.

Middle East

The first two metros in the region were built in poorer but more industrialised countries: Cairo (first section opened 1987) and Istanbul (1989). The Gulf states, with their low population density and cheap oil and luxury-accustomed population, seemed even less conductive to public transport projects than the USA (with its "drown it in the bathtub" anti-government-spending propagandists).

However, in the last five years, most major cities in the Gulf states launched metro and other urban rail projects, with massive budgets. The first line of the Dubai Metro opened in 2009 and became a success; Mecca followed a year later.

Meanwhile, Cairo began a massive expansion of its system, which was only held up by the Arab Spring. As for Turkey, five cities built and are extending metro systems, and Istanbul's (which includes both heavy and light metro lines) is to pass 100 km when lines currently in construction are completed. Tehran is also building a large system with several lines, albeit at a slower rate.

Latin America

The only truly old system in Latin America is the famed Buenos Aires metro. Eight other systems were launched in the pre-neo-liberal era between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s, including Mexico City Subway, which grew to a 12-line 177 km network.

In the last 5–10 years, now there is a new metro boom in the region. It's not as spectacular as in Asia, but Santiago de Chile, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Caracas started expansion programmes doubling their networks, and a dozen other cities are joining the metro club with smaller systems of 1–3 lines. The latter include cities in rather poor and/or small countries: Santo Domingo just opened its second line (four years after the first), Panama City will open its first line later this year, and Quito in Ecuador is tendering construction.


The one developing region where the metro revolution had little effect so far is Africa. Other than Cairo (already covered as part of the Middle East), only Algiers built a metro, with the first section opened in 2011. There are now advanced plans for a line in Casablanca.


In the west of the EU, Madrid is the sole example of metro expansion on a speed comparable to Asia's (peaking at over 50 km added in each of three successive 4-year periods, then austerity hit), and there are a couple of examples of all-new systems (like Copenhagen, Sevilla or Turin).

In relative terms and at a regional level, what's happening in the eastern member states in recent years brings more significant change. In absolute terms, it's far behind the Asian scale, but, still: Helsinki, Warsaw, Vienna, Bucharest, Sofia and Athens all built or are building significant expansions for systems that are mostly relatively young anyway. Though, in Athens at least, plans for massive further expansion have been checked by the austerity dictate, which also stretched the construction time-scale for Thessaloniki's future system...

Modal shift?

Even where metros have been built at breakneck speed, they at most held back road traffic growth due to economic and population growth. For example, Beijing still has a severe air pollution problem, and to significantly reduce car traffic, the network would probably have to be doubled again, with lines under every major road. So, in conclusion, I say: let there be an even bigger metro boom. (And not just metro.)

:: :: :: :: ::

Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.

Since I haven't included any pictures in the diary, here is one: the Wikipedia animation showing the history of the Beijing Subway up to the most recent extension in May 2013.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Jun 2nd, 2013 at 03:53:09 PM EST
I updated the numbers and text for Seoul after checking figures. And speaking of the Seoul system and its sqeaky-clean trains and stations: do you recall the one in Psy's hit Gangnam Style?

The filming location wasn't any station in Gangnam district, but International Business District Station, on Incheon Subway Line 1 in the city of Incheon.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Jun 3rd, 2013 at 08:24:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Never been to Incheon, but I've tried the subway in both Seoul and Pusan (it was in the early 1990's): they had contracted the ticketing system and the turnstiles straight out of the Paris subway; the tickets could have been RATP tickets with their central magnetic stripe.
The funny thing was also entire shopping center in subway corridors, sometimes stretching entirely between two stations (Korean winters are very cold).
by Bernard (bernard) on Wed Jun 5th, 2013 at 03:57:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There's a particular type of Seoul subway train that seems to be based on the RER Z 8100 class. (Seoul Metro series numbers just follow the line numbers, so the one I linked is a 3000 series train because it runs on line 3, not because of its design.)
by Gag Halfrunt on Fri Jun 7th, 2013 at 06:14:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Checking the Korean Wikipedia page, the only connection I could find was that Alsthom later merged with/acquired both GEC (the maker of the choppers of the preceding 2000 series train for Seoul) and Franco-Belge (one of the makers of the Z8100).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Jun 7th, 2013 at 11:48:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Most of other city subway stations are less shiny, as wealth separation is just as visible in Seoul as anywhere. But right, Seoul has ample public transportation. I saw grandmas knitting in a subway train last February.
by das monde on Sun Jun 9th, 2013 at 03:42:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Oops. No, Hong Kong's wasn't the first rapid transit system in the Asian Tigers + ASEAN region; now corrected. I also forgot to mention modernity and the Hong Kong operator's international role, now added into the same paragraph.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Jun 4th, 2013 at 09:41:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It seems like one important thing is that the presence of tracks signifies permanence. So an area bordering a light rail line experiences real estate development, higher density housing, and mixed use zoning, while the area bordering a bus line just stays like it is. There's a psychological factor in play there.

For example, the historical sequence in some places was:

  • horse-drawn carriages on dirt roads
  • horse-drawn light rail
  • electrified light rail
  • electrified buses on paved roads
  • diesel buses
  • cars

So to reverse that, the "obvious" thing to do is re-introduce electric buses. You get many of the advantages of buses (run on existing pavement, quick route modification by stringing new wires) and also of light rail (electricity from non-polluting source, no exhaust fumes, quiet). Also you get part of the psychological factor, because while its easy enough to string up new wires, just their presence on a street tells you "this is an important enough place that it deserves a good transit system."

Therefore, one would expect to see more trolley-buses. Where are they?

by asdf on Mon Jun 3rd, 2013 at 12:13:43 PM EST
You get increased maintenance costs without a capacity increase? IMHO as long as fuel doesn't get much more expensive and there is no central government commitment for total decarbonisation, trolley-buses will only prosper where inhabitants put great value in reduced noise and pollution.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Jun 3rd, 2013 at 01:45:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Also they can be part of a battery powered fleet.


The huge capital cost of rail suggests that there is a space in between conventional buses and light rail. It does depend on the cost of energy, though...

by asdf on Mon Jun 3rd, 2013 at 02:20:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
By the way, there is Budapest's trolley-bus network (which the city leadership wanted to replace with buses multiple times but backed off due to protests by locals), which gained new vehicles last year: used NGE 152 M17s of Austrian maker ÖAF Gräf & Stift from Eberswalde, (East) Germany. (I did ride them but have no photo myself.)

Eberswalde got Trollino 18ACs of Polish maker Solaris instead. These  can run five kilometres off the batteries.

Budapest also has the few years older Trollino 12-A model, which can run three kilometres off the batteries. The traffic company thought it was too expensive to call off the options for this order, hence the purchase of used vehicles...

On legacy systems like the above, the battery mode is useful for supply disruptions and temporary diversions.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Jun 3rd, 2013 at 06:18:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I know it is unpopular to say it, but I think this is the future of transportation. Combination of battery and traction. For buses and cars and goods transport.
by asdf on Mon Jun 3rd, 2013 at 10:22:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'd like to see it happen for low-capacity uses. For high-capacity uses, it's insufficient.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Jun 4th, 2013 at 04:48:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... the fantasy of the one size fits all solution represented by US car culture should teach us that one size never actually fits all and is only a very good fit for a relative few.

For instance, one possible combination is a node on a light rail line which is the point on a trolleybus V route, where a low floor trolleybus with the same platform height as the light rail runs onto the light rail corridor to stop directly at the light rail platform, does a loop around the node, presumably a mixed use development, then goes out via the same hybrid section of light rail corridor to the opposite leg of the V. With a trolleybus V on either side, one would have six local lines around the node ~ the two making up the through light rail line and the two pairs of V trolleybus routs.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri Jun 7th, 2013 at 06:02:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]

Cristalis trolley bus in Lyon. I often take one (well actually, I take one when I miss my train.) They are much quicker than trams (they have dedicated lanes, and they make fewer stops, but they seem to accelerate faster too), and they are used on longer-distance express routes from the suburbs. Excellent transit times.

Yes it's a heck of a lot nicer than a noisy, vibrating diesel bus. I guess the logic in Lyon is that as long as you are going to dedicate a bus lane, you might as well add the extra expense of the overhead lines.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Tue Jun 4th, 2013 at 05:51:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The question would be whether adding the overhead lines triggers the psychological idea of "permanence" and then causes changes to the surrounding real estate and business environment...
by asdf on Wed Jun 5th, 2013 at 12:12:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
According to Wikipedia (fr), the system was expanded by several short sections from 1976, so interesting question...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Jun 5th, 2013 at 02:03:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Here's an interesting article I ran across today. I'm posting here partly because this is the latest rail blogging diary and partly because the article mentions light rail--but I think the author is seriously confused about what that term means.

Trinidad, Colorado, is in the south of the state, on the prairie, about half-way between Denver and Albuquerque, New Mexico. It's just north of Raton Pass, an important site in the Great Railroad War and on the Santa Fe Trail. That all might sound romantic, but the town is actually a dry, hot place, without much economic activity and generally pretty run down. There was a flurry of interest in Trinidad in the 1980s when a famous sex-change surgery set up there, but they moved to California a few years ago.

Anyway, the other main point of interest is that there's an Amtrak station in town. It's on the line that goes from Chicago to L.A. This is pretty cool because there aren't a lot of these stations around, and this one is right in the center of town. The old station was moved around a few times and then demolished, but the town is still pretty enthusiastic about trains. So they want to build an intermodal hub that would connect the bus lines to the train line--basically a good idea because there is a lot of bus travel in the Southwest as the migrant laborers (AKA "illegal brown-skinned immigrants") move around. Having a train connection would be good.

Of course they are having some difficulty with the real estate, which is what this article is about, but that is not the interesting thing.
The interesting thing is that they think they are going to be able to tap into the passenger train going south out of Denver, through Colorado Springs and Pueblo, to Trinidad, and then eventually on to Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Which is a tremendous idea! I love it! Can't wait! But, two small problems:

  • Nobody else in Colorado thinks we are even close to getting passenger rail running on the perfectly good main line ROW between Denver and Colorado Springs, let along Pueblo or points south. Colorado Springs is only about 100 km from Denver, and there is quite a bit of highway traffic between the two--probably enough to support a conventional passenger rail, if our politicians were interested. But Pueblo is another 75 or so km further south, and there is much, much less commuting between there and Denver. It's just too far to drive every day, even for pretty hardened commuters. There's hardly any demand, I'm sure, for North-South train travel in this area. The Interstate highway is practically empty.
  • Also, if there were such a train, it would be conventional heavy rail, not the light rail mentioned in the article. Apparently "light rail" now means "passenger rail" to at least part of the public...which it is, compared to freight...
by asdf on Tue Jun 18th, 2013 at 11:53:49 PM EST

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