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
- built on time,
- built within budget,
- expanded at the same rapid rate as China's networks,
- 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.
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.
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...
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.)
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