JOHN’S JOURNEYS: UNDERGROUND ANORAK
John Burke takes bargain-basement city tours!
London’s goodwill to Berlin © JOHN BURKE
It is easy enough to get lost on the London Underground, especially when changing at stations like Euston and Embankment. Yet I was a lone lad of six when I started going to a school two stations away on the Metropolitan Line. Attending secondary school involved several stops and one change from Picadilly to District, although never in a tunnel.
What with that and travel through more of the 270 stations of the world’s first electric railway (1890) I was already a veteran commuter in my teens, so no urban network abroad has ever fazed me, although most lines have numbers or letters rather than names. The subterranean labyrinths so fascinate me that they are a home from home, although I have been on only 31 of the world’s 160 systems, including the short, single lines in Jaffa and Porto Alegre,
The Métropolitain de Paris (1898) is probably the most daunting system, partly for being among the densest. No less than 16 lines serve 300 stations, many in Art Deco style and mostly underground, including the booking-halls. There seem to be endless passages, with white tiles and shiny black floors, to a variety of platforms and exits through heavy doors.
Five lines meet at Châtelet, but the worst of 62 interchange mazes is at Montparnasse Bienvenue. If alighting for the main line to Brittany (by the way, Rennes also has an underground), do not do an Orpheus in the underworld, but find the nearest SORTIE and brave the traffic.
Metro entrances are usually uniform © JOHN BURKE
A good 30 films, such as Paris, je t’aime and Subway, have been on location in the Métro, but New York’s subway (1904) has featured in many more, ranging from On the Town to Bridge of Spies. Then there was the Broadway musical Subways are For Sleeping with Duke Ellington’s Take the ‘A’ Train. Both systems use two-way tunnels, unlike London, but New York boasts the world’s biggest network with 472 stations on 35 lines extending 850 miles.
Easier than the above three is Berlin’s U-Bahn (1880) despite a history that includes wartime bombing and flooding followed by the Wall that closed sections. Despite recent expansion, it still has only 173 stations served by lines U1 to U9 plus (strangely) U55. Only three meet at central Wittenbergplatz, which sports a London Transport sign. Berlin’s network is not very deep, so there are usually short flights of steps instead of escalators, sometimes down from brick-built booking-halls.
But the Metro de Madrid (1919) has a record 1,698 escalators at 301 stations, while disused Chamberi is a museum of what is one of the world’s longest systems; the 13 lines cover 293 kilometres. Madrid’s logo echoes that of London Transport – a blue oblong, bearing stations’ names, on a white field inside a red diamond, whereas Lisbon (1959) simply uses a white zig-zag nearly forming an M on an orange block. The Metropolitano de Lisboa has 56 stations on lines that use the first four letters of the alphabet.
Buenos Aires has 86 stations © JOHN BURKE
A B C D E … and H, however, identify routes around Buenos Aires (1913) whose Subte sign changes colour accordingly. Sao Paulo’s Metrô-SP (1974) has the same total of lines for its 79 stations, but remains South America’s longest – and most modern – system. Metrô Rio (1979) has only 35 stations along two lines.
The Metro Anfāq al-Qāhirah in Cairo (1987) was begun with French money, French equipment and French rolling-stock, including carriages for ladies only. Mar Girgis, the stop on Line 2 for the Coptic Museum, is one of several of the 61 at street level. Signs are in Roman characters as well as Arabic script.
There were no archaeological surprises when boring under Cairo, but finds caused several delays to the opening of the Metropolitana di Roma (1955), especially in the shafts for Repubblica, one of 73 stations. Building its Athens counterpart (1991) turned out to be a major dig, and several of the 61 stations display some of the 30,000 items turned up.
Artefacts underneath Athens © JOHN BURKE
Yet the world’s longest art gallery is Stockholm’s tunnelbana (1950) which, like the above trio, has three lines, although branches make for 11 terminals. Half of the 100 stations, all hewn out of exposed bedrock, have virtually psychedelic colours and patterns, while others display various artwork.
For architectural splendour, however, nothing beats the deep Московский Meтрополитен (1930), a stalinist creation that, nonetheless, makes each of Moscow’s 197 stations look like a tsarist palace. Half of them can become air-raid shelters, thanks to shutters in the ceiling at the bottom of long escalators. Парк
Победы (yes, all signs are in Cyrillic characters) is 276 feet below ground – one-third deeper than Hampstead on the Northern Line
Soviet influence was so strong on the Prague system (1967) that a few of the 61 stations originally boosted Communism instead of identifying streets – such as Leninova complete with a bust of the Russian revolutionary. The carriages were made by Metrovagonmash that has also supplied six other systems in eastern Europe such as the Budapesti Metró (1896) with 52 stations along four lines. The biggest interchange is at Keleti mainline terminus.
Budapest is not completely subterranean, unlike the 68 stations along four lines of the Métro de Montréal (1966), which sure helps during the long winter. The same applies to most of the 75 stations on Toronto’s subway (1954) which has one lines less, but the carriages do not have rubber-tyres, something Montreal copied from Paris.
Norway gets just as cold as Canada, but 84 stations out of 101 along Oslo’s T-Bane (1912) are on the surface, which is good for sightseeing. The original, electrified track to the ski-ing district of Holmenkoll climbs 1,300 feet with the altitude displayed at each station.
Singapore is squeaky clean © JOHN BURKE
Perhaps the most homely, despite draconian by-laws, are the five lines of Singapore’s MRT (1987) because they are punctuated by such names as Downtown, Redhill, Lakeside, Woodlands, Orchard … . All 119 stations copied the 93 along 11 lines in Hong Kong’s 港鐵 (1974) by installing glass safety screens whose doors open flush with those of the carriages.