Home View from Underground Some preliminary thoughts on international subway systems

Some preliminary thoughts on international subway systems

by Benjamin Kabak

So it’s been quite a whirlwind spring and early summer for me. Since early May, as many of you, especially those who follow me on Instagram, know, I’ve been to Berlin, Stockholm, Chicago, Boston and Paris, with my own wedding in between. I’ve ridden high-speed trains through France and Sweden, and I’ve had the opportunity to ride subways or Metros in six different cities including New York. It’s eye-opening to see what other cities are doing that we’re not and what works and what doesn’t.

Over the next week, while also exploring local issues such as the MTA’s trash problems and potential sources of Second Ave. Subway delays, I’d like to offer some observations regarding these other transit networks. I don’t think everything outside of New York is perfect, but there are certain practices the MTA could easily adopt that would improve everyone’s rides. First among those are open gangways — something I wrote about in April. Trains in Berlin, Stockholm and Paris all enjoyed open gangways, and it’s a marked improvement in terms of access and crowding.

The other real revelation concerns integration between various different modes of transit through city centers. In both Berlin and Paris, the more suburban-focused rail lines — the S-Bahn and the RER, respectively — operate essentially as Metros through the city center. They both run on subway-like frequencies, and fare structure for intra-city travel is the same as it would be on the U-Bahn or Paris’ Metro. Such operational practices improve mobility and, again, reduce crowding.

I’ll delve more in depth on these topics later, but needless to say, not everything is perfect. These systems do not run 24 hours a day, and the absence of air conditioning was a major drawback last week in Paris when temperatures outside were hovering at the 100-degree mark. And the routing of Paris’ Metro lines was apparently put to paper by a guy half asleep drawing semi-circles and meandering lines around the city. But again, more on that later. I’m still battling jetlag so I’ll be brief tonight. There’s plenty more to come.

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Eric July 10, 2015 - 5:44 am

“the routing of Paris’ Metro lines was apparently put to paper by a guy half asleep drawing semi-circles and meandering lines around the city”

True, but so was the routing of Lower Manhattan, downtown Brooklyn, and the Queens Plaza area. And in Paris, unlike those places, whenever two lines cross there is a connection between them. The lack of connections is probably the most confusing thing about the NYC subway system.

Benjamin Kabak July 10, 2015 - 8:01 am

Except for a few discrete spots — the IND Crosstown and the L/3 near Livonia — this is an overstated problem. Our system is pretty good at transfers and particularly so when you consider the quasi-dysfunctional history of the three completion entities who built it. Did you have an other spots in mind?

Alon Levy July 10, 2015 - 12:22 pm

Queens Plaza/QBP, and IND/Atlantic-Pacific. The G is especially egregious, because good transfers are especially important for circumferentials, but there’s no excuse for the lack of E/F/M to N/Q transfer or the lack of A/C to anything other than the R transfer.

Dexter July 11, 2015 - 4:35 pm

Have you see what above ground is like at Queens Plaza? A transfer there would be quite a challenge.

Brooklynite July 12, 2015 - 1:31 pm

It would take a bit of civil engineering, but nothing is impossible. An elevated passageway could be constructed under the el structure, level with the QBP mezzanine. It’s 600 feet from the edge of the QBP platform to the corner where there is an elevator to QP.

Eric July 13, 2015 - 5:41 am

Or just make an out-of-system transfer. Seriously.

adirondacker12800 July 13, 2015 - 12:36 pm

anybody who has a 7 or 30 day Metrocard has an out of system transfer.

Eric July 13, 2015 - 2:28 pm

Lots of people don’t have. Lots of people who do have, don’t know that the stations are close enough that walking between them is practical, since no transfer is marked on the map.

AG July 13, 2015 - 5:28 pm

“Lots of people who do have, don’t know that the stations are close enough that walking between them is practical”

While I myself dislike having to go out of the system to transfer (and usually don’t) – a person who doesn’t know where the stations are in relation to each other probably can’t hack it in a city as complex and fast paced as NYC

Bolwerk July 14, 2015 - 9:39 am

Uh, or they’re guilty of not living in that neighborhood or not being as big a subway fan as you.

Seth Rosenblum July 10, 2015 - 1:31 pm

I think there’s also the issue of really poor quality after-the-fact transfers.

The 6 at Bway-Lafayette is a great example of how to do a transfer right. The 1/2/3/L at 14th street, and the M15SBS/L at 2nd avenue are particularly inefficient.

Elvis Delgado July 10, 2015 - 8:23 am


Were you as impressed as I was by the incredibly short headways on the Paris Metro? There always seemed to be a train leaving the station as I was entering, but yet another about to arrive. At least during most hours. How do they do it?

Chet July 10, 2015 - 8:32 am

A number of lines have CBTC- Communications Based Train Control. That means the system knows exactly where a train is- not just a general area between stations like NYC. That gives them the ability to run trains a lot closer together.

Peter July 10, 2015 - 8:52 am

The Paris Metro has no interlining and minimal branching, which makes it easier to maintain consistent short headways. Also Parisian trains and platforms are much smaller than New York’s, necessitating more frequent service to prevent crowding.

Eric July 12, 2015 - 2:30 am

In addition to the above comments, a number of Paris subway lines have rubber tires, which allows faster acceleration/deceleration and thus better headways.


David Alexander July 12, 2015 - 6:25 pm

How do they do it?

No wimpy express tracks, good dispatching discipline, passenger operated doors, good terminals to permit high output, and shorter cars to clear switches and signal blocks faster on lines with classical signalling, and a well planned out CBTC arrangement.

adirondacker12800 July 12, 2015 - 7:30 pm

No express tracks means everybody has to make every stop. And they had to build the RER. Shorter cars means there is more cars wasting more space between cars.

Joey July 14, 2015 - 12:24 am

Making every stop isn’t so awful when the stops aren’t 1/4 mile apart.

adirondacker12800 July 14, 2015 - 1:00 am

like they are in Paris?

Jonah July 14, 2015 - 1:24 pm

Open gangways takes care of your car spacing concern. And you make “had to build the RER” sound like a bad thing…

adirondacker12800 July 14, 2015 - 2:40 pm

The accordion pleated thingies take up space that isn’t taken up on longer cars. they cost a lot to build and maintain.

AG July 13, 2015 - 5:30 pm

what do you have against express tracks?

Chet July 10, 2015 - 8:31 am

I’ve had the chance over the years to use the following subway systems: NYC, Boston, Washington, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, London, Paris, Munich, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Lisbon.
All have their positives and negatives. The two best aspects of our system are express trains and a single price (no zones). Add to that, air conditioning, by far the biggest train cars, 24 hour service, and speed and I believe it outweighs the negatives- dirtier (I was just in Lisbon last week- the system is spotless.), older technology (lack of train arrival clocks on the lettered trains, metrocards, very limited CBTC, limited wifi use, etc.)
I remember riding on the Underground a number of years back. I stood by the end of a car where the door window was open. Someone asked why I didn’t sit down as there were plenty of empty seats. It was quite hot, and the I wanted the breeze. I mentioned the lack of air conditioning. The person was astonished when I told them that the NYC subway had a/c..and that in DC, even the stations have cold air pumped into them.
The single biggest problem with our system compared to the others- mainly in other countries- is the lack of political will to improve and expand the systems.
I would love to know how much it would cost, and how long it would take for the 1920s/30s “Second System” to be built today. Add to that complete CBTC, a modern payment system.

Larry Littlefield July 10, 2015 - 9:30 am

Too much. That’s a problem. Make a commitment, and they double the price. And deliver stuff after a decade that has problems and requires more contracts. Whereas the same companies can roll stuff out quick and well in other countries.

NY construction used to have a mafia issue, and I think it has something like a mafia issue now — but one that does not involve the guys with shovels and jackhammers.

Has anyone noticed that the leaders of the two houses of the NY State legislature are under indictment, with Capone on tax evasion charges? And don’t bother changing your political party, because in NY it’s pretty much both.

Chet July 10, 2015 - 10:05 am

I would love to know in a honest world- in other words, a real price (not the lowballing that we usually get from politicians and contractors) and a real time frame.
I understand all the actual problems.

Larry Littlefield July 10, 2015 - 12:51 pm

There is no such thing. Every time they make an estimate, the industry and unions use it as a minimum and raise their bids from there.

A real price and time frame would be half as much and twice as fast. They aren’t lowballing. Quite the opposite.

Ray July 14, 2015 - 10:57 am

Yes, Paris has had a heatwave during the last few summers. Traditionally Parisian temperatures rarely rise above 75. http://www.paris.climatemps.com as the city’s latitude is 48.8 degrees north (our northern most border with Canada) and rests on the milder side (less extreme) of the Atlantic ocean. One cannot fault the procurement officer at RATP who considered air-conditioning a luxurious option.

Sam July 10, 2015 - 9:31 am

Whatever you might think about the routing of the Paris metro, one of the underlying ideals is that you are never more than 500 meters from a metro station. You might have to transfer several times to get where you want, but you are in the system. And is it any worse than every line goes to Manhattan except the G?
The most impressive part of European public transportation to me is the unified system: S-Bahn (or its equivalent), bus, metro, national rail, all accepting local tickets within urban boundaries.
Enjoy your visit!

Tower18 July 10, 2015 - 12:39 pm

Yup, and 2 transfers in Paris might cost you 5-10 minutes waiting time, off peak. In New York, 2 off-peak transfers might cost you 20-25 or even 30 minutes. Huge difference.

My experience in Paris was initial confusion, but then realizing that from any point A to any point B, there are 2-3 possible routes, depending on how far and in which direction you want to walk, how many transfers, and so on.

Bryan H July 10, 2015 - 9:31 am

You say open gangways, but just how much extra standing room do you garner from it? Maybe room for 4 extra standees? Versus the convenience of being able to unhitch a single car for maintenance? As something to advocate, it seems like a red herring.

JJJJ July 10, 2015 - 9:44 am

You say 4, which I think is understated, but 4*9 = 36 new passengers. In reality, I’d say it’s 8*9=72 new passengers, per train. At ten trains an hour, thats an extra 720 people!

Even more important is the ability to spread out crowding. Its also a safety issue as you can move around the train away from a problem.

Larry Littlefield July 10, 2015 - 9:58 am

Something no one thinks about is this: NYCT has one hell of a lot of spares. That’s one of the things they have done to get MDBF up.

I guess people don’t want to work overnight, and I can’t blame them. And we can’t afford to have them just work a few hours between rush hours to start and stop a maintenance job, particularly with the possibility of stalling and OT.

Car maintenance quality is way up, and car equipment personnel is down, compared with 30 years ago, a big gain in productivity. But there is a price. Lots of full trains — not just cars — are off line during rush hours. How often are the those cars unhitched?

Bryan H July 11, 2015 - 8:57 am

Depends on whether you’re counting the space for the “driver” or not, I suppose. I was looking at the overhang space between the two cars. Having a separate set of controls/control booth for each car is overmuch nowadays.

The safety issue? Well, you now have doors/gangway between each car. Its then a question of whether you can do two lines of people moving from one car to the next.

For 36 or 72 potential passengers, its not worth demanding open gangways. But if you happen to get a bid response with an open gangway design, that’d be fine too.

Chet July 10, 2015 - 10:02 am

I’ve been on two systems with open gangways- Paris and Lisbon. Both systems use cars that are much smaller than NYC and even with that, the connecting area between two cars holds A LOT more than just four people. In Paris there are seats in that area if I remember correctly. Both easily could hold another 7 to ten people. Add in the larger NYC cars, and multiple that by a ten car train and you could be adding close to a 100 more people per train.
Beyond that, it gives the train a huge sense of openness- much nicer to ride in.

Tower18 July 10, 2015 - 1:49 pm

You can’t in practice uncouple 1 car from a train for maintenance anyway on any modern trainset, so I don’t think this is a real consideration.

R2 July 10, 2015 - 9:56 am

If forced to single out one gripe I have with MTA services, it has to be service frequency. Wait times are appalling, even during rush hour.

I’m comparing the systems of cities outside North America that I’ve ridden: London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, and Seoul. Only Buenos Aires was similar to New York frequencies though I could excuse it cuz it was dirt cheap.

Benjamin Kabak July 10, 2015 - 10:11 am

This is a major point I’m going to bring up. The longest I’ve had to wait for a train anywhere over the last few months was in NYC. I think my longest waits in both Paris and Berlin at off-peak/late-night times was 5 minutes and in Stockholm it was 7. Our headways are just horrendous.

John July 10, 2015 - 10:24 am

Wait until you visit DC. 🙂

Benjamin Kabak July 10, 2015 - 10:27 am

Hah. I lived there for a brief period of time a decade ago. That system and the WMATA is a joke.

R2 July 10, 2015 - 11:31 am

Ha!! When the red line single tracks…
When I visit DC (almost always on weekends), I forego the Metro and use Capital Bikeshare.

I’ve purposely left off the North American cities off this list since I found their frequencies on par (or worse than) New York’s though I’ve used Boston, Chicago, DC, Toronto, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles. I could add more cities but the post is focusing on heavy rail services with significant underground portions.

Tower18 July 10, 2015 - 1:11 pm

Chicago is not so bad. The Red Line runs 20 trains during the 8am hour and runs every 8 minutes or less until finally getting to NYC’s 10 minute single-line frequency at 12:44am, before running at 15min all night long. By comparison, many/most MTA lines are running at 10 minute frequencies by 6:30 or 7pm and run every 20-30 min overnight.

The Red Line also runs 10tph Saturdays 10-6, vs. NYCTA’s 6tph on most lines.

The way the MTA is set up, acceptable service is provided to Manhattan Express stations only, and local and borough riders have long waits. Reducing interlining results in probably technially overserving outer areas, but everyone has acceptable wait times.

Fbfree July 10, 2015 - 2:40 pm

The Red and Blue lines receive good service. However, try taking the Green Line to Ashland: 30 minute headways mid-day, evenings and weekends, 20 minutes in the peak. The Pink and Orange lines also have fairly long headways.

Tower18 July 11, 2015 - 11:04 am

Well each branch of the Green Line runs every 20 minutes from 6am to 9pm. It’s not ideal, but each southern branch has very low ridership and each serve only 2 stations, so it’s pretty similar to the A train split, also running every ~15-20 minutes off-peak. The vast majority of Green Line ridership is served every 10 minutes. People on the South Side have preferred the Red Line basically ever since it was built.

Pink line runs every 8-9 min during the peak, every 12 off peak.
Orange every 7 min during peak, every 9 min mid-day and every 10 evening.

Not as frequent as Red/Blue/Brown, but comparable to and occasionally better than some lines in NY.

Alon Levy July 10, 2015 - 12:30 pm

Stockholm has pretty awful headways on weekends and at nights. It branches a lot, so if you’re trying to get to KTH, you face 10-minute off-peak headways and 20-minute nighttime headways.

TimK July 10, 2015 - 4:15 pm

That’s true. The short headways are only on the common sections (Kungsträdgården – Västra skogen, Liljeholmen – Östermalmstorg, Alvik – Gullmarsplan). Headways are longer on the branches. I lived on the Hjulsta branch of the Blue Line (my home station was Duvbo, although Sundbybergs centrum was almost as close), and I never found it terribly problematic, but that was also because since I worked on the system, I knew the timetable.

JJ July 10, 2015 - 6:19 pm

I’ve ridden the London , Paris and Stockholm lines , Paris is awful , clearly the worst of the 3 .
London is quite good , Sweden is well designed but the cars need an uprade

TimK July 10, 2015 - 10:47 pm

When were you in Stockholm, and which cars did you ride? I think the older stock, known as “Cx” (actually something like C7-C15 — I’m not sure what’s still in service), definitely needs to go, but I like the C20 stock that went into service beginning in 1998.

Brooklynite July 10, 2015 - 7:27 pm

Welcome back to NY Ben!

I see that others have gotten to it before me but an in-depth analysis of frequencies in general would be quite interesting. Weekend, midday, and evening headways are inferior here to those in other places, but then again so are rush hour intervals. As I traveled abroad over the last several years I couldn’t help but notice the contrasts.

A more general note: I know that historically delegations from transit systems would visit other subways around the world and learn from their practices. For instance, during the 1980s experts from London worked in the NYC subway and helped develop the intercar springs we see on the modern fleet.

LiamJ July 10, 2015 - 11:04 pm

I remember riding on the London Underground during an overseas class trip. It’s another world from NYC, with it’s open gangways (at least on the District Line), clean stations and trains, service updates every 5 to 10 minutes on all lines, and Oystercards, which I’ll take over Metrocards any day.

Terry Cohen July 11, 2015 - 12:40 pm

NYC TA did run the articulated D-type Triplex with an open walkway from the mid-1020’s to the mid 1960’s on the BMT division. No added space but easy car to car mobility within a 3 car set. Probably some cost savings by having 2 fewer trucks as well as fewer cabs, controls, couplers, etc. Of course, you could not make an 8 or 10 car consist of these.

Duke July 11, 2015 - 1:27 pm

Interlining definitely reduces operational reliability. Notice how the lines that have the least of it always have the fewest problems? Also, riding the subway in cities like Montreal and Toronto is great because there is zero interlining and, accordingly, you never get delayed due to “train traffic ahead of us”.

It’s not something NYC can really avoid, though – the system was designed with lots of branches and such, and the city’s geography would have made it awfully difficult not to. Imagine if each branch in the outer boroughs had to have its own dedicated pair of tracks in Manhattan – unrealistic.

And, to the MTA’s credit, they have over the years taken some steps to simplify operations and eliminate redundant service patters (K train anyone?). A few more opportunities to do something similar remain, although none that have no major drawbacks.

Brooklynite July 12, 2015 - 1:51 pm

Exactly. But it’s easier than you make it sound to have barely any interlining and limited branching. It would take away passenger flexibility and force some transferring, but remember that each trunk line has two tracks in each direction.

Here’s one proposal that has only four instances of interlining that are not branches: the 2/5 in the Bronx, A/C through Cranberry, F/G in Brooklyn, and A/S in Rockaway. That’s it. Everything else is superfluous.


Eric July 13, 2015 - 5:55 am

I like the idea, but your 1 in the Bronx is not too useful (too many stops to Midtown) which would overload the 10 (=Lexington Ave) even more. Also, your 12 to Metropolitan Ave would overload the 14 (=L) too much. Both of these flaws could be fixed by system expansions, but that would be a long way off.

Brooklynite July 14, 2015 - 9:26 pm

Perhaps there could be some 1 service to 168 and some 6 service to 205. The map was just a proof of concept.

And the 10 would not have a Nereid branch, so except for limited Dyre trips all trains would go to the Jerome Line. There would be more service and thus less crowding than today.

Bringing in the orange M significantly complicates matters, especially since the QBL Express all runs down 6th Av. I’m not sure what alternatives there are.

Eric July 15, 2015 - 2:49 am

Here is an estimation of the possible gains in a system with CBTC by removing interlining and branches – not so big.
“If we presume that the SSR signalling upgrade works as planned then you already have 32tph max. There are currently no plans to get any line above 36tph so at most you would get 4tph through expensive elimination of flat junctions.”

AG July 15, 2015 - 5:45 pm

To tell the truth – I wouldn’t care if there was zero increase in trains (though there would be)…. Just the fact that it would make the system more reliable is worth it to me. In the past month – twice per week I was made late to work because “we are experiencing signal trouble”.

Brooklynite July 15, 2015 - 8:50 pm

We’ll see just how well the planned 32tph on an interlining network will work out. And despite London’s maxima, best practices on isolated lines reach (and probably exceed on at least Moscow’s Circle, although I haven’t found reliable info) 40tph.

Furthermore, yes, reliability becomes a major issue. When delays propagate through a system it affects everyone.

Kevdflb July 15, 2015 - 11:25 am

The S-Bahn in Berlin – is a bit like a suburban train, but nothing like Metro North or the LIRR.
Maybe its more like express subway lines that just run independent routes? I’m not sure.
But no matter, because what is really great is that the regional lines that are more akin to Metro North or the LIRR (RB and RE – regibahn and regiexpress) can ALSO be used in berlin for the same exact ticket as the S Bahn, U Bahn, Trams and Buses that work on a zone system.

When the new airport opens you’ll be able to take a RE train from the main train station just north of the center of the city, slop once or twice, and then be at BER airport in like, 20 min. (but you’ll need a A, B, C Zone ticket which is about EUR 3.25.)

Also, you can transfer between all modes as many times as you’d like on the same ticket.

mvv July 18, 2015 - 1:39 pm

Rough analogies:

S-Bahn = DC Metro (City+Suburban services)
U-Bahn = NY Subway

Kevdflb July 15, 2015 - 11:31 am

All German ticketing in cities is within Verkehrsverbunds…
So no matter what service you’re using (and some are city run, some are State run, some like the SBahn are run by Deutsche Bahn) you can just use a single ticket.
It is the best.

You just can’t use them on IC or ICE trains. (Inter City and Inter City Express)

On the Cons Side…. you need an extra Bicycle ticket to bring your bike. But that is about EUR 1.20.


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