Monday, 17 January 2011

Moscow Metro

The following text is actually a report I wrote after returning from my first trip to Moscow in July 2010:

The Moscow Metro is certainly unique in many senses, some of those singularities I perceive as positive, others as negative, so I'll start with what was positively stunning:

- the extremely high number of passengers it carries, but unlike London or NYC, the stations are so large, so they don't get too packed, except when queuing for the escalators, but people are very patient and relaxed.
- the extremely dense headway (90 seconds during peak), but also off-peak you hardly wait for a train
- a very straight-forward network layout, not like the interlaced routes in NYC (although I don't like the long complicated lines, but numbers and colours help)
- everything is rather clean and well-preserved, no paint falling off or so
- no broken escalators which would oblige you to walk up on them (like it often happens in London)
- high travel speed (at least it gives the impression) by long station distances (see below)
- good accoustic announcements on the trains, new Rusich trains also have visual station announcements
- modern smartcard system
- the elegant station architecture, of course, although this didn't surprise me so much as I had seen sooo many photos before - I generally like the simpler stations better, because almost all are elegant anyway, than the very "baroque" ones like Komsomolskaya (L5), which sometimes remind me (too much) of huge Catholic cathedrals in my home country of Austria.... so I prefer the plain Soviet style, as I perceive it as something proper (like Pl. Revolutsii) for this country and its history. Most of the newer stations look quite interesting too, and have more personality than the baroque ones (for me), but Myakinino is really a shock. When you get off the train, you think you have come to a different world, although the basic layout is o.k., it is so badly finished, that you can even smell it - what a shame.

And now for a few negative sides (I guess this list is longer, simply because we tend to see the negative things more easily, so forgive me!):

- the extreme noise in the stations when a train enters and inside the trains themselves - no way of talking to each other. This is certainly worse now during the summer as all windows are open, but having ridden so many other metros, I won't believe it has to be like this. The track makes a very traditional click-clack sound, and the steel tunnels certainly echo the noise even more. But it makes me believe that noise reduction has never been a real issue for Metrogiprotrans.
- the poor signage in the stations. I do understand that it has been improved a lot by adding line numbers and colours, but mostly you still have to search for a sign to find your way, when the global philosophy is that you should automatically see all signs as you walk. I find it especially irritating that you can hardly see in which station you are, as there are no station name signs on the side of the platform, and the names on the outside walls are often even hard to read (not because they are in Cyrillic, but because of fancy letter types or poor contrast) on the outer walls, typically only two or three of them. I think the station names could easily be added to the columns with high-quality panels and thus maintaining the overall elegant style. In the beginning it was also kind of annoying that you have to check the full station list to know which side of the platform you have to take, but slowly I got used to this, as in the end you can just look at the last name, if you're used to go by "destination" signs only. But all in all, I guess there is room for improvements.
- the biggest cultural difference between Moscow/Russian metros and the rest of the world is the fact that different names are used for what in other cities would be a single station (well, forget station naming policies in NYC....). So why not call all three stations in the central cluster "Teatralnaya", the simplest of all names. Surprisingly at the some points, two adjacent stations do carry the same name and it works fine, mostly on the ring line like Prospekt Mira, and at some 3-station clusters, two carry the same name, and one is different..... On the other hand, Arbatskaya or Smolenskaya exist on two lines, but the respective stations are not even connected. On the maps posted inside the trains, it is not always clear which name belongs to which station.
- lack of takeaway maps, instead you have to buy some unofficial map, mostly outdated, in a bookshop, which even carries adverts. So, customer information is not really the metro's strong point.
- lack of day passes, although the one-way fare is rather cheap at 26 rubles, which is about 70 eurocents
- lack of integration with tram/trolleybus/bus network
- long station distances - this certainly increases travel speed - but only once you're on the train, because it definitely requires much more time to reach a station, and due to the deep level alignment of most of them, also requires additional time to get down to the platform (this may seem longer than it actually is, as the longest escalator at Park Pobedy requires exactly 3 minutes) - Madrid's circular line L-6 is only slightly longer than line 5 in Moscow, but has more than double the stations within the circle - so I would say, that Madrid is much better served. Some stations are obviously lacking, like on line 3 to provide interchange to lines 6/7 at Kitai Gorod, an interchange for lines 6/9, the not yet built interchange for lines 6/10. More interchange options would take some pressure from the otherwise very busy interchange stations.
- long foot tunnels between stations > but at least transfer corridors are wider (and nicer) than anywhere else I have been, often separated by direction.

Other things were new to me, but neither positive nor negative:
- the funny "open" entrance gates of the old type: they are always open, and only close if you don't hold your smartcard against the reader.... first I thought that all the gates were open because of a failure, and I wondered why people still pay.... newer gates are of the "global" style. But many young people pass without paying and nobody cares about it.
- extreme number of employees: each flight of escalator has a person watching via video cameras. There are also lots of (mostly very young) security/police people, but rather relaxed, and photographing is no problem at all (well, you should of course avoid taking pictures of them directly). So while in a typical station you would maybe have 10 people working at a time, in Berlin there would be none (zero)!
- second driver to vigilate main driver
- as a result of the different station names at interchanges, the announcements don't say "Transfer to line xxx", but "Transfer to station yyyy"

The Butovskaya Line (L1) is not bad, it is elevated (as one guy said "on a bridge across nothing"), and thus doesn't separate the neighbourhoods, but it is quite noisy, so once again I think the engineers didn't learn all lessons about modern noise reduction.... But the line's biggest mistake is probably its lack of provision to be upgraded to full metro standard by building island platforms, which doesn't really allow the extension of the platforms. Trackwise, the line is actually an extension of L9, and all other parameters are the same, too. So if they had built side platforms, which is generally cheaper for elevated stations (but requires more escalators, lifts, etc.) they could simply extend the platforms and e.g. have every third train continue south to Butovo.

The Monorail (which I could even see from my hotel room at VDNKh) is simply ridiculous, and has ultimately convinced me (after the experience in Las Vegas...) that monorails should be limited to leisure parks but do not belong into the urban rail scene! It is soooooo slow, and has such a low capacity, and this one isn't even driverless. It looks nice, though, and you can see the area around....:)

So, all in all, it was a great experience, and I will certainly go back one day to explore the rest, although in four days, I have seen more than half of the system, I guess. Next time I take our Berlin U-Bahn, I will probably be surprised having to wait for 5 minutes for a half-empty train, but I will also be surprised how quiet and smooth the ride is, and how quick it is to get out of the station or change to another line :)

But before that, I will be on another trip from tomorrow, seeing the mini-metros of Paris (where stations are sometimes too close to each other....) and Rennes (VAL), plus the "subway-surface" tram of Rouen....