The Soviet Bloc Way of Building Rapid Transit

Based on positive feedback from Patreon backers, I am expanding my post about the American way of building rapid transit into a series covering various national traditions. The Soviet bloc’s tradition is the most globally widespread, as Soviet advisors trained engineers in the USSR’s entire sphere of influence, ranging from just east of the Iron Curtain to North Korea. It is especially fascinating as it evolved independently of Western and Japanese metro-building traditions, from its origins in Moscow in the 1930s.

Like the American tradition, the Soviet tradition has aspects that are worth emulating and ones that are not. But it’s useful to understand where the design aspects come from. It’s especially interesting as Moscow has influences from London, so comparing where the Russians did better and where they did worse is a good case study of adapting a foreign idea to a different national context. Similarly, China imported Russian ideas of how to build metro networks while making considerable adaptations of its own, and I hope to cover China more fully in a future post, discussing there too how the tradition changed in the transmission.

Technical characteristics

The Soviet way is characterized by four major features:

Wide station spacing: the average interstations on the systems in question are all long. Moscow’s is 1.7 km, and for the most part cities in the former USSR with metros have similar interstations; in this table, length is in the row labeled 1 and number of stations in the row labeled 3. This is also true of the metro systems in China and North Korea, but in the Eastern European satellite states it’s less true, with Prague and the newer lines in Budapest averaging not much more than 1 km between stations.

Very little branching: Soviet lines do not branch, with a small handful of exceptions. Moscow’s only branching line, Line 4, is unique in multiple ways, as it was redesigned with American influence after Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the United States. Eastern European satellite state metros do not branch, either, in contrast with contemporary postwar Western European networks like those of Stockholm and Milan. China has more branching, albeit less than Western and Japanese systems of comparable scope.

Radial network design: what I call the Soviet triangle, while not really a Soviet invention (it has antecedents in Boston and London), became a rigid system of network design in the communist bloc. Subway lines all run as rough diameters through the disk of the built-up area, and meet in the center in a triangle rather than in a three-way intersection in order to spread the load. Moscow adds a single circular line to the mix for circumferential travel, subsequently refined by a second and soon a third ring. Here, China diverges significantly, in that Beijing has grid elements like parallel lines.

Deep boring: Soviet and Soviet-influenced metro networks run deep underground. Traditionally, there was limited above-ground construction, for reasons of civil defense; in Moscow, only Line 4 is shallow, again due to American influence.

London’s long shadow

The decision to deep-bore the Moscow Metro was undertaken in the 1920s and 30s, long before the Cold War and the militarization of Soviet society. It even predates the turn to autarky under Stalin; as Branko Milanovic notes, the USSR spent most of the 1920s trying to obtain foreign loans to rebuild after the Revolution, and only when foreign capital was not forthcoming did it turn to autarky. The NKVD arrested the British advisors, conducted show trials, and deported them for espionage in 1933; the basic technical characteristics were already set then.

In London, the reason for deep boring is that the city has one street wide and straight enough for a cut-and-cover subway, Euston Road hosting the Metropolitan line. In Moscow, such streets are abundant. British planners were exporting both the idea of constructing wide throughfares based on modernist planning principles and that of deep-boring metro lines, an invention based on the context of a city that lacks such throughfares.

The network design bears similarity to what London would have liked to be. London is not as cleanly radial as Moscow, but it clearly tries to be radial, unlike New York or Paris. In general, it’s best to think of the early Moscow Metro as like early-20th century London Underground lines but cleaner – stations spaced farther apart, more regular radial structure, none of the little quirks that London’s had to build around like the Piccadilly line’s since-closed Aldwych branch.

Transit and socialism

The Soviet method of building metros may have originated in British planning, but its implementation throughout the 20th century was under socialist states, in which there was extensive central planning of the entire economy. Decisions regarding who got to live in the cities, where factories were to be sited, what goods were to be produced, and which sectors each city would specialize in were undertaken by the state.

There are several consequences of this political situation. First, by definition all urban development was social housing and all of it was TOD. Housing projects were placed regularly in ever-expanding rings around city center, where all the jobs were. There was no redevelopment, and thus density actually increased going out, while industrial jobs stayed within central cities even though in the capitalist bloc they suburbanized early, as factories are land-intensive.

Of note, some of this central planning also existed under social democracy: Sweden built the Million Program housing in Stockholm County on top of metro stations, creating a structure of density enabling high transit ridership.

But a second aspect is unique to proper communism: there were virtually no cars. Socialist central planning prioritized capital goods over consumer goods, and the dearth of the latter was well-known in the Cold War. At the same time, modernist city planning built very large roads. With no cars to induce people to fight for livable streets nor anything like the Western and Japanese New Left, urban design remained what today we can recognize as extremely car-oriented, before there were any cars. Major Eastern European cities are thus strongly bifurcated, between ones where a centrally planned metro has ensured very high per capita ridership, like Prague, Budapest, and Moscow (and also Bratislava, with trams), and ones where as soon as communism fell and people could buy cars the tramway network’s ridership cratered, like Tallinn, Riga, and I believe Vilnius.

The third and last aspect is that with extensive central planning, the seams that are visible in cities with a history of competition between different transit operators are generally absent. The incompatible gauges of Tokyo and the missed connections of New York (mostly built by the public-sector IND in competition with the private-sector IRT and BMT) do not exist in Moscow; Moscow does have missed connections between metro lines, but not many, and those are an awkward legacy of long interstations.

Of note, the autocratic aspects of socialism do not come into play in Soviet metro design. One would think that the Stalinist state would be able to engage in projects that in democracies are often unpopular due to NIMBYism, such as cut-and-cover subways, but the USSR did not pursue them. China does build elevated metro lines outside city centers, but evidently its plans to extend the Shanghai Maglev Train ran into local NIMBYism. People complained that the separation between the tracks and adjacent buildings was much less than in the German Transrapid standards; the Chinese state’s credibility on environmental matters is so low that people also trafficked in specious concerns about radiation poisoning.

The role of regional rail

The European socialist states all inherited the infrastructure of middle-income countries with extensive proto-industry – in particular, mainline rail. Russia had even completed the Trans-Siberian Railway before WW1. The bigger cities inherited large legacy commuter rail networks, where they operate commuter EMUs.

But while there are many regional trains in the European part of the former Soviet bloc, they are not S-Bahns. There was and still is no through-service, or frequent off-peak service. Connections between the metro and mainline rail were weak: only in 2016 did Moscow start using a circular legacy railway as its second urban rail ring.

The situation is changing, and just as Moscow inaugurated the Central Circle, so is it planning to begin through-service on radial commuter rail, called the Moscow Central Diameters. However, this is early 21st century planning, based on Western European rapid transit traditions.

Does this work?

In the larger cities, the answer is unambiguously yes: they have high transit ridership even when the population is wealthy enough to afford cars. The smaller cities are more auto-oriented, but that’s hardly the fault of Soviet metro planning when these cities don’t have metro networks to begin with; the fault there concerns urban planning more than anything.

Three aspects of Soviet metro planning deserve especial positive mention. The clean radial structure best approximates how single-core cities work, and Moscow and the cities it inspired deserve credit for not wasting money on low-ridership tangential lines, unlike Mexico City or (at smaller scale) Paris. It’s not too surprising that the Soviet triangle in particular exists outside the Soviet bloc, if not as regularly as in Eastern Europe.

The second positive aspect is the use of headway management in Moscow. With no branching and high frequency, Moscow Metro lines do not need to run on a timetable. Instead, they run on pure headway management: clocks at every station count the time elapsed since the last train arrived, and drivers speed up or slow down depending on what these clocks show relative to the scheduled headway between trains. At the peak, some lines run 39 trains per hour, the highest frequency I am aware of on lines that are not driverless (driverless metro technology is capable of 48 trains per hour, at least in theory, and runs 42 in practice on M14 in Paris).

The third and last is the importance of central planning. All public transportation in a metro region should be planned by a single organ, which should also interface with housing planners to ensure there is ample TOD. If anything, one of the bigger failures of Soviet metro planning is that it did not take this concept all the way, neither integrating metros with regional rail nor building a finger plan.

In contrast with these three positive aspects, station design is lacking. As frequent commenter and Patreon supporter Alexander Rapp noted in comments, there are some cross-platform transfers in Moscow; however, the initial three lines do not have such transfers, and instead the transfers became congested early, creating the impetus for the Circle Line. The deep-bored stations are expensive: Line 4 was built cut-and-cover to save money, not out of some cultural cringe toward New York, and today Russia is looking at cut-and-cover stations as a way to reduce construction costs.

Moreover, the wide interstations are too clean. The Underground has long interstations outside Central London and short ones within Central London, facilitating interchanges; while London has eight missed connections, these result from seams on lines running alongside each other or on branches, and only one pair of trunks has no transfer at all, the Metropolitan line and the Charing Cross half of the Northern line. In contrast, the relentlessly long interstations in Moscow lead to more misses.


  1. anonymouse

    This isn’t entirely accurate at least when it comes to the Moscow Metro: the initial line was built about half cut and cover and half deep bore, and in fact the branch to Kievskaya had a bridge. After that, deep bore became used a bit more, but primarily because the lines were being built in the congested city center where, while there are some wide streets, there are not many and following the streets would result in lots of sharp curves. In the late 50s through 80s the metro started expanding outward a lot more, and most of the extensions in the outer part of the city were built as cut and cover, with a very standard station design (sorokonozhka, named for its 40 columns in pairs), while the central portions of the lines were still bored, with bored stations. The changeover point varies depending on the line but the outermost bits of lines built at that time were all cut and cover. Starting in the 2000s or so, with the advent of fully automated TBMs, they started building even the “shallow” line sections with TBMs but with cut and cover stations. I think now they’re coming back around to cut and cover, and also trying some new ideas like a single big tunnel for both tracks, stations with side platforms, etc.

  2. Ikram

    I think I introduced the phrase Soviet triangle to your blog, in an old comment. And I got it from a Usenet discussion of my youth.

    I would be interested in your views in the Soviet policy of only allocating a first metro line in a city when it hit a million people (with Yerevan as the famous exception) and also the concept of a ‘metro tunnelling brigade”, an itinerant state owned construction crew that would build metros around the country.

    Are the good practices? Would construction costs be lower with a federally run metro building crew, like the US army Corps of engineers does flood control.

    • Jhonny

      I think actually doing the constriction is not that hard and you can always ask the Swiss about tunneling.

      But having in house expertise on how to build and design metros is a boon

  3. Untangled

    Why would Moscow need a finger plan when the metro area is blanketed with a metro rail system? Smaller cities might benefit from it a better structure of density along rail I guess, but some still have extremely high transit usage in the market era.

    • Jhonny

      Berlin is the largest city in Germany and has fingers.

      The farther out you get, the harder it is to cover *everything* and not just fingers

    • Alex Mazuretsky (@mazuretsky)

      Look: there are lines without branches, all converging on the central area. This means that there is poor coverage on the outskirts. Increasing it by building new lines through the congested centre is hard and expensive (since the central portion of the new line does not give you any additional coverage). If you can’t obtain good uniform coverage on the city edge you may build houses only where there is some coverage

      • Untangled

        But Prague for example has lots of areas that are built up that are in the outskirts and away from rail and still has high transit usage. Thanks to excellent surface transit from buses and trams that either run into the centre or feeds stations. Now obviously, building a finger is the most ideal plan but good surface transit can get you very high ridership in the outskirts as well.

        Another city I would look at for this is Toronto. It has no branches, and except for Yonge side of Line 1, all of their subway lines have high ridership but low density in the suburbs within city limits.

        • Jhonny

          You can also build a finger plan with surface transit.

          In general uniform density is less conducive to largely linear transportation

          • Untangled

            Right but Prague and Toronto aren’t developed on corridors like Copenhagen. Get that this is less ideal than linear corridors though but not having fingers isn’t exactly going to doom transit.

          • Comradefrana

            “Right but Prague and Toronto aren’t developed on corridors like Copenhagen.”

            Prague maybe does not have corridor development as neat as Copenhagen (except for the area between Nové Butovice and Stodůlky stations on line B), but still, there are a lot of clusters of density and metro connects most of them. Because the housing is often big commieblocks that makes for a lot of ridership. Good connecting transit then adds on to that to make the high ridership even higher.

          • Untangled

            Yes I’m aware of the Panelak suburbs of Prague and there are nodes of density around stations.

  4. Stephen Bauman

    The Third Ave El operated 42 tph on the reverse peak direction single track between Chatham Sq. and 125th St, according to the NYC Board of Transportation’s 1949 3 1/2 year report.

  5. Jhonny

    Can you make a post about cities where the decision (whether) to build a metro came at a time when streetcars existed and how the three alternatives (build new metro, shut down streetcars ; convert streetcars to metro ; build metro keep streetcars) compare?

    • Michael James

      Obviously it was the great expansion of cities at the end of the 19th and into the 20th centuries, along with the affordability of cars, that fueled these changes in transit. Paris, similar to LA at a later time, had streetcars from 1855 to 1938, at one time being the biggest network in the world: (Wiki):

      In 1925 the network had a 1111 km length, with 122 lines. In the 1930s, the oil and automobile industry lobbies put pressure on the Paris Police Prefecture to remove tram tracks to make room for cars.[5] The last of these first generation tram lines in Paris, Porte de Saint-Cloud to Porte de Vincennes, was closed in 1937,[6] and the last line in the entire Paris agglomeration, running between Le Raincy and Montfermeil, ended its service on 14 August 1938.

      Electrification is what enabled the building of true Metro, and this came after electrification of pre-existing tramways in the 1880s. The first true underground Metro was London’s Northern Line as it was deep-bored and the first to be electric (which it had to be). The 1863 Metropolitan Line was not true metro as it was really mostly cut-and-cover and open-trenched and of course of necessity as it used coal-powered steam-trains (and wasn’t converted to electricity until 1910 when it was remodelled and vastly expanded to resemble todays line). BTW, if historians want to consider the Met Line then really they should consider that Paris’ Petite Ceinture (PC) to be the first as it was successively converted from exclusively freight (for which it was built in 1844) to passenger service, the first being the 9.5 km Gare-St-Lazare (8th arr.) to Auteuil (16th arr.) line which opened in 1854. By 1880 it carried 5 million passengers a year, 13 million by 1883 and peaked at 18-19 million in 1889, the year of the Universal Exposition for which the Eiffel Tower was built (a branch was built to Champ-de-Mars). It finally closed, unable to compete with the Metro, in 1934. Today parts of the Auteuil PC line became part of the RER-C (rive droite & the bit of rive gauche from Champ-de-Mars to Pont-de-Garigliani); you still stumble across the PC (which parallels what was the Thiers Wall for which it was built, today built on top of it, the Peripherique expressway or rather just inside the Boulevards Maréchaux; runs nakedly thru or above Parcs Buttes-Chaumont (19th arr.) and Montsouris (14th)). The PC and the Met Line, meet one definition of Metro in that they had their own ROW by being trenched below all crossroads etc.

      The Paris Metro began construction in 1900, by the state, and about 60% of today’s network was built before WW1 stopped it. While the history shows trams and Metro co-existed for a long time, like in LA and most cities around the world, it was cars, road congestion and the road lobby that killed trams. In some cities they replaced the trams solely with buses and you can see the result (LA=worst congestion in US; or Sydney etc etc).
      It wasn’t until 1992 that Paris began (re)building modern tramways, and as Alon has discussed here, to mostly serve as circumferential connectors (to radial Metro & RER). As useful as tramways can be (and much cheaper to build) obviously they can’t carry the big loads as Metro can, and that is why Paris is also currently building new circumferential Metro lines and RER.

      • Jhonny

        Cities that planned to shut down their trams when they started building metro bit never did: Munich, Nuremberg.

        Cities that planned to keep their trams when metro construction started but later shut it down: Hamburg, Wuppertal (if you count the Schwebebahn as a metro)

        Cities that converted a tram system to “semi-metro”: Bielefeld, Cologne, Stuttgart, Hannover, Frankfurt…

        Cities that kept their trams largely as-is: Dresden, Leipzig, Erfurt, Prague, Lille, Marseilles, St. Etienne, Blackpool, (East) Berlin, Halle, Rostock, Bremen, Braunschweig, Nordhausen, Cottbus, Frankfurt Oder, Görlitz, Basel, Zürich, Wien, Melbourne…

        • Michael James

          Paris is in the second category, ie. kept their trams for about 40 years after building Metro before shutting them down. (Then another 50 years before starting to rebuild them.)

          The thing in common between Paris and London (and NYC, and indeed LA & Moscow) is that they are mega-cities while not a single one of all those listed in your post is.

          • Jhonny

            Berlin is a megacity if Paris is one.

            And “Ruhr” if you count it as a single city (Germans tend not to) is one, too.

          • Jhonny

            Most cities aren’t megacities. And it’s sometimes more instructive to learn of cities around half a million to one and a half million people

          • Michael James

            Jhonny, you’re missing the point(s).
            But first, no, Berlin is not a mega-city. Berlin has 3.7m and the greater Berlin-Brandenberg metro area has 6.0 million which is precisely half of greater Paris’ 12 million, while London is similar. Ten million is generally the threshold (check out the current series in The Guardian on World’s Next 15 Megacities). The jurisdiction of London City is less but we’re talking about the impact of population and population growth on transit systems … and that is the whole point of what I was driving at. Indeed a demographic feature of Germany is that, despite being the biggest country in the EU, it has managed to avoid the dominance of a single city. This could well be considered to be a good feature and has kept their cities much more manageable/livable, which means tramways remain effective transit.
            In megacities transit could not possibly be reliant solely on trams. Melbourne is a case, in that at only 5 million, it is “mega” in the sense of sprawl and its legacy tram system couldn’t possibly cope and already is one of the slowest average speed tram networks in the world. Typically its tramway does reach out to its exurban sprawl and never will. Yet, the city has terrible congestion and its transit system (its rail is a unhappy hybrid suburban rail – Metro) is undergoing a very expensive upgrade, part of which is to build overpasses to stop rail blocking roads–should have been done a century ago but typically Australian has been promised and delayed all that time. Cities that grow beyond just “big” are faced with this choice: tramway unable to service most of the city but perhaps retained to service the old inner bits, while most effort will have to go into alternatives (Metro or RER-style suburban rail).
            Clearly (or at least an hypothesis worth considering) as cities pass this threshold they invest in proper Metro (or expand their existing, eg. Paris develops RER) and tries to alleviate road congestion by removing trams. Sydney became much bigger than Melbourne earlier and it dumped its trams. Melbourne retained its trams because only in the last decade has outpaced Sydney (and at this rate will be bigger) and public attitudes to trams had changed. However, I think this choice has inadvertently retarded development of its “Metro” rail system, and now everything costs stupendous amounts of money and political capital to make progress, so arguably Melbourne made the wrong choice in the 60s. Sydney moves much more people by rail than any other Australian city, so even though its Metro is pathetic by world standards, arguably by abandoning its trams in the 60s (or was it the 50s?) it focussed on its Metro.
            In addition to not being a mega-city, Berlin is special in several other ways. It was reduced to rubble at the end of WW2, and of course it was physically divided into two non-interacting cities for 40+ years. So, it is so singular I am not sure generalised conclusions can be drawn.

          • Michael James

            Typo in last post: “Typically its tramway does reach out to its exurban sprawl and never will.”
            Should be “does not reach out…”

            BTW, speaking of sprawl and tramways, LA’s tramway network was of legendary extent but, as discussed here, it could take half a day to traverse from its inland regions to the beach. Also, in the context of fast-growing cities, most of that network was surface and so was not welcome in terms of car congestion or in terms of conversion to a Metro with ROW. It still suffers this problem because creating those ROWs is just soooo expensive.

          • Jhonny

            Even if you don’t consider Berlin a mega city, it certainly is a city of multiple centers, which means transport decisions there make sense that might seem like they don’t.

            Nobody in their right mind will ride U7 end to end. But nobody needs to, because nobody in Rudow needs to go to Spandau and vice versa.

            Similarly – especially if the tram is backed up by some other faster mode – it doesn’t really matter that trams take ages to cross their entire line.

            The Karlsruhe area tram train used to have a line that took three hours (the infrastructure of that line still exists, but the line has been broken) nobody rides that one end to end but it still consists of several overlapping lines that are useful by themselves.

            The problem only begins when the slow mode with frequent stops is the only mode.

            Or conversely when the distance between stations becomes absurdly long. That’s one of the main downsides of tram abandonment: short trips get unbearably long (you don’t have to get underground for a tram and there are more lines) or the metro has ridiculously short distances between stations.

            The Paris metro for example has distances between stations that aren’t uncommon for a tram.

            The Nuremberg metro has only one stretch where the distance between two stations is longer than the average in Moscow (and that’s on the way to the airport)

          • Jhonny

            By the way, west Berlin had “200 km plans” for the subway that simply pretended the division didn’t exist. And after 1961 they also pretended the S-Bahn didn’t exist, because the east ran that.

            There are some oddities in the network today that can be explained by that.

            The east only ever built extensions on one metro line; today’s U5, which they extended across what was then the city boundary (by a few meters) like an S-Bahn

        • ckrueger99

          Philadelphia: Constructed a subway line in 1907 that shared its tunnel with 5 tram lines, which radiated on surface streets outside the center. Because these had to be electric due to being partially in a tunnel, they remain today. Other than this, only one entirely surface tram line remains in the city, out of many dozens pre-war.

  6. Alex Mazuretsky (@mazuretsky)

    A few small notes about Moscow:
    The Azure line (4) does indeed branch, but the branching was only introduced in the 2000s – long after Khrushchev. Moscow metro, however, did branch in the first three years of its existence (one line, two branches, 12 tph on the main segment, 6 tph on the branches).
    Also, Azure line’s cut-and-cover segments were built in the 1930s as part of the first two phases of Metro’s construction. In the 1950s, as part of the economy drive, the continuation of the line was built at grade.
    Moscow’s metro is mostly cut-and-cover outside the city centre. Moscow metro does not like the idea of building any more at- or above-grade lines. Apparently, they find it too hard to combat snow and ice there.
    Moscow also did a failed experiment at some point: building radial lines, connecting them to the Circle line but not building the expensive central section. Turned out that the crowding on the Circle is too severe, so Moscow had to build the central sections.
    By the way: quite a few of the Circle Line’s stations have severe crowding issues. The thing is, marble cannot cover the lack of the well-thought design. Minsk Metro also has significant crowding problems on its only interchange station.
    One thing has to be noted about the deep bored stations – it takes a lot of time to ride down the escalators to get to one. I think this benefit of shallow cut-and-cover stations is too often overlooked.

    • Jhonny

      Are there any trams in or near central Moscow?

      How do people usually get to destinations inside the large area between two stations of the same line?

      • Alex Mazur (@mazuretsky)

        People use buses, trolleybuses, or trams. I am aware of at least two parts of the city reliant on the regional rail for transportation – its low off-peak frequency and (more crucially) awkward service windows in the middle of the day make these neighbourhoods rather undesirable.
        Moscow, apparently, still has the largest trolleybus network in the world, though a large part of it was replaced with diesel buses a couple of years ago (Politics of this decision is too complex to be quickly explained).
        Trams do exist in certain parts of the city, they make two networks: one spanning south, east, and north-east of the city; the other is in the north-west. West Moscow is completely deprived of trams. Trams were almost completely removed from the city centre in between the mid-1930s and late 1960s because they were perceived as an outdated mode of transport that is not as fashionable as a bus or a trolleybus. The network did expand on the outskirts though, Today there is one 2.8 mile line operated by 3, 39, and А trams within the Garden Ring (an approximate modern definition of the central area). Tram lines are built in a somewhat antiquated manner: street running is the norm, most trams are single-car, stops are frequent and do not have platforms. Generally, they resemble buses on rails. Recently, the city government moved to ban turning cars from using tram tracks on many lines, built some platforms, and bought some new articulated units. They have even built a short new section of track (first one since the 1980s). A (Russian-only and unofficial) map of the network is here:

  7. Zack Rules

    One area where station design excels is the use of triple vaults (in some Moscow and St. Petersburg stations at least) and how they manage crowds well, especially compared to newer systems such as Washington, DC. People transfer to other lines in the central vault but wait for trains in the side vaults. Separating standing passengers and moving ones is a genius crowd control design!

    I would also point out that escalators are better than the US ones I have ridden on because they are faster, many use plastic steps instead of metal ones to save weight/wear/tear, and appear to actively manage them to improve reliability. Faster escalators help make up for the time it takes to get to deep station platforms.

    • Matthew

      What you are describing in terms of platform arrangement sounds like what is known as the ‘Spanish solution’.

      • Michael James

        sounds like what is known as the ‘Spanish solution’.

        No, I don’t think so. Spanish is when there are platforms on both sides of the train. There is a pic on the link that shows the Moscow arrangement, ie. central corridor that runs the full length of the platforms. I recall there are some cases like this in London but not quite the enormous scale.

    • Michael James

      Yes, Moscow benefitted from 1. being a late adopter, and 2. good engineers though probably the important part is that the authorities let them build the system according to good engineering principles.

      The first Moscow line opened in 1935 so they could learn from the 40+ years operation of London Underground (first deep-bore line, Northern Line, opened 1890) and 35 years of Paris etc. They could see from London’s crowding, to plan for it, and of course escalators weren’t available until the 30s. According to Rob Bell they were first installed on the Northern Line in the 30s and he says it was a world first; one can only imagine how they operated before then!

      Also, they benefit from a regime that forces passengers to adapt to design features, one of which is the speedy escalators. In the west the speed of these things, and moving travelators, has actually reduced entirely due to liability issues (and I suppose disability issues) whereby they now barely move faster than a normal walking pace. Which I think is crazy. These systems carry billions but are forced to move at the pace of their slowest users which are possibly 0.1% or less.

      A further point about escalators: a solution lies in the new ThyssenKrupps maglev technology which frees elevators (and they have the technology applied to travelators too) from cables. These things can now move in any direction you want, including sideways, such that with two shafts and connecting cross-connections, the elevator cabs go up in one shaft and down in a different shaft. This means they can run multiple cabs and indeed it resembles a vertical metro line, with vaster throughput. Last year they opened a hi-rise tower to serve as demonstrator-testbed. Of course it costs more than an ordinary elevator though it does away with cabling and ultimately reduces the need for so many elevator shafts in very high hi-rise. Also, much less prone to trouble so much less maintenance cost (like the Shanghai Maglev train which has had almost zero in its 12 years of operation). Deep Metro seems like a perfect application though possibly only in new-build.
      I liked your blog but not this common misstatement:

      Not incidentally, Moscow Metro is the busiest system outside of Asia.

      No, currently Paris is still ahead. It’s just that too many people ignore the RER which is quite illogical:

      System…………….Length…….No. ……..No………Pax p.d…….Pax p.a.

      Moscow-Metro……437…………16………262……….6.99……….2,442 (2017)

      Paris RER………….587…………5………..257………[na]…………1,000 (est. 2014)
      …………………………………………………….(33 in Paris)
      Metro + RER……….801………..21………560……………………….2,541m
      …………………………………………………….(??? unique stns)

      While Paris is also greater expanding (both Metro & RER) doubtless Moscow will overtake Paris in the near-ish future given the size of the city. (Incidentally the usage of the RER is way out of date but I always fail when trying to extract such data from the French websites.)

      • Alon Levy

        Moscow has a couple hundred million people riding the Elektrichka. I think total ridership in Paris is still ahead counting the trams, but it’s very close (and the two city regions are almost the same size, Moscow being slightly bigger).

        And Moscow indeed learned a lot from early London, but I don’t think it learned much from Paris. None of the common features of the Metro here – short interstations, cut-and-cover construction, grid layout – features in Moscow.

        • Michael James

          Right, but I think that the Russians have often followed the French (maybe more evident in St Peterburg), and were obviously interested in making an aesthetic statement in the way the Paris Metro did, for example with its Guimard entrances and signage. Remember it was the height of Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau, and that certainly would have influenced the Russian planners leading into the 30s. By comparison the London underground was a mess of competing private companies little interested in such fripperies and only profit driven. I think it took a century and the Jubilee Line extension until they tried to make an architectural aesthetic statement with the stations.

          Remember too that the decision to deep bore was a personal one by Stalin so as to build war bunkers.
          As you know the short inter-station spacings were a result of a political decision to build the Metro for intramuros Paris only which had obvious implications as the city grew into a mega-city. Incidentally the official popn of Moscow is 12m but the unofficial is 14+m, and somewhere I read that it is expected to reach 18m very soon. This is kind of what was happening in France in the post-war period. All the action and opportunities are in Moscow so naturally people are flocking there.

          Re Moscow’s Elektrichka traffic, I don’t think Transilien (commuter train) data is included in the RER estimate, neither is the tramway traffic. In any case I’d bet the 2.5m combined M+RER ridership is a considerable underestimate.

          • Alon Levy

            Yeah, 19c Russia definitely had enormous cultural cringe toward France – it’s an even better example than Australia’s toward Britain, since you had an elite that literally learned another language and tried not speaking its actual native language.

            That said, the engineering was not influenced by Paris. In the 19th century, France had enormous cultural cachet; in the 1920s, it was a broken country, supplanted by a rising Anglosphere, its language losing its diplomatic preeminence to English and its economy visibly poorer than those of both the UK and the US. Parisian influence is visible in Montreal and Mexico City, but London has been more influential globally.

            And no, the deep-boring decision was not made by Stalin personally. The British engineers recommended it, because that’s what London had been doing for 40 years.

          • Michael James

            Yes, the great cycles of history, economies and cultures. We are in the midst of a change right now–if only we could see where it is all really headed.

            But Alon, you sound like a Brexiteer! Or perhaps even me, half a lifetime ago when I arrived from the antipodian colonies to begin my PhD in the mother country. The reality of the past 40 years (and really the eight post-war decades) is a bit different. The Anglosphere increasingly focussed on financialisation of an especially toxic kind (funny enough “continental”, Austrian!) and look where it has led. London is a truly awful city, except of course to those either rich (off those financial “industries”, or of course let’s not forget those who inherit–by far the preferred option in the UK) or shallow enough to think the gaudy bling equates to prosperity. (Even there, leading wealthy Brexiteers (Rees-Mogg, often called the MP for the 17th century) have parked their wealth outside the UK, Nigel Farage has ensured his two daughters have German passports and (Lord!) Nigel Lawson spends most of his time at his house in France while he loudly advocates bailing out of the EU, happy to remove the same choice for fellow Brits, at least on the same very comfortable terms. I wish I had those same rights! If you ever get them or qualify for them, my advice is to not let them go.)
            In transport there is really no comparison. Privatisation has comprehensively failed. And they are building CrossRail (modelled on RER-A) and HS2 modelled on what France did half a century ago.

            As it happens last night I caught Rob Bell’s History of the London Underground, the episode on the Piccadilly Line. He got a tour of a closed part of it right at Oxford Circus (I think) where platforms and a giant vertical lift shaft were abandoned in the early 30s–the line was losing money and the inadequacy of elevators was killing it as well as the general grubbiness and gloom of its stations. New stations brightly decorated (art nouveau, wonder where they got that inspiration?) and escalators (he can’t seem to decide if it was here or the Northern Line were the first, but much the same time) turned it around. Today the Piccadilly is the most neglected line, still running 50 year old stock and with a master control room straight out of the 50s; he & LU staff say it is because it was so well designed and built back then (maybe so; he claimed pneumatic doors plus–wait for it–a third door in the centre–were major innovations; my confidence in Rob Bell was dropping fast and he is a trained engineer), and thus the last to need the desperately overdue upgrade the entire system suffering from half a century of neglect. This reinvestment in LU was provoked by the horrific 1987 fire at Kings Cross-St Pancras/Piccadilly Line–caused by half a century (their words not mine) of detritus under the wooden (yes, 1987) escalators. OK, all big systems (cultures, civilisations, cities, structures) will go thru their cycles too, but this was such a stark manifestation of Thatcherism and its impoverished view of how to run things (into the ground) …

            As to engineers, I don’t think France has much to be backward about. In steel, Eiffel’s tower incredibly was the tallest man-made structure for 42 years from 1889 to when the Chrysler building was completed in 1931! It is still taller than London’s Shard! Also, steel-reinforced concrete (Joseph Monier & François Coignet) and Auguste Perret as pioneering architect in building with it. But there are quality engineers everywhere, and more important is how their culture deploys them. Currently China is having its day in the limelight, though many of the architects and engineers are not Chinese. One also wonders where the Brits would be without the Danish Ove Arup (or Australia without perhaps the world’s most fabulous example of concrete building.)

            As to Moscow’s Metro, well of course LU’s engineers recommended deep-bore, for obvious reasons, though it is not clear on what engineering principles (especially given the difficulties experienced at exactly that time by LU, see above, but also today: crowded escalators and that queasy feeling almost everyone gets when you realise you are deep underground and this is your only choice for egress; last night Rob Bell showed an emergency evacuation from the same station that burned in 1987, due to a power failure when all the elevators failed). No, the main reason, if not the sole reason, for deep-bore was indeed Stalin’s desire for it to do double duty as a bunker. After all when HK built its metro, it was built by British engineers but by cut-and-cover even though it had to go under the harbour. Today Moscow is building some as cut-and-cover too (though as you have often pointed out, the cost of using TBMs has dropped a lot recently). I also note that Paris M1 was built in 20 months, from Porte Maillot and Porte de Vincennes.

            Oh, and that Russian emulation of the French. Kinda worked didn’t it. From a medieval nation of peasants to a world super-power …

          • Alex Mazur (@mazuretsky)

            The decision to bore Moscow’s Metro in the 1930s was not taken by Stalin, it happened by accident (one engineer on the project happened to know English instead of German typical of Russian engineers of the time). When finally advisers were invited most of them were British precisely because Kaganovich, the project’s manager, wanted someone with experience on boring. British influence shows, for instance, in all stations on the network being called ‘станция’ (station), unlike the mainline network where station without any points would be called Haltspunkt. In the 1950s, however, the turn towards exclusively deep boring was caused by Stalin’s paranoia and civil defence concerns. The Azure line is a particularly interesting story – it was closed and a new line was bored in parallel. The line was only reopened in the 1960s.

          • Michael James

            Alon Levy, 2019/01/29 – 19:43
            Yeah, 19c Russia definitely had enormous cultural cringe toward France – it’s an even better example than Australia’s toward Britain

            Still not sure you have quite got the sense of “cultural cringe”. Russia may well have had it, as Australia definitely did, but this doesn’t have to include choosing a model to follow for things like transit or urban development, where that much-misused term “world’s best practice” should be deployed (of course depends on whose subjective judgement is used …). I’m not sure it’s appropriate to label Singapore with cultural cringe though LKY certainly copied most things from the Brits.

            Cultural Cringe is more related to the self-elected elites, or indeed unwashed masses, judging that you haven’t succeeded unless in terms or eyes of the mother country. Everyone copies from someone (including the Americans even if they deny it) so that is not enough.

        • Jhonny

          Someone somewhere claimed once that Sao Paolo’s RER equivalent is busier than the French one

          • Michael James

            Jhonny, 2019/01/30 – 20:41
            Someone somewhere claimed once that Sao Paolo’s RER equivalent is busier than the French one

            Jhonny, you have to put this stuff in proper context (and make a little effort at extracting facts). With Sao Paulo, you’re talking a mega-mega-city. The greater SP sprawl encompasses up to 30 million people. Almost half the population of France or UK!
            I guess you are talking of the CPTM, but no it’s not (yet) RER-like as all 6-7 lines terminate rather than run thru the city. But ok it is designed more like Metro than suburban rail. It has 260km with 94 stations, compared to Paris-RER’s 587km & 257 stations. In fact two of the lines are not even continuous, ie. you have to transfer to another train to continue your outward travels. And though one would think that the combination of mega-city, few lines (normalising to population and length, the difference with Paris is approx. sixfold) and appalling road congestion would result in exceedingly crowded mass transit (say like Mexico City or Mumbai or Delhi), in fact it hasn’t reached that point yet. The busiest line has about half a million pax per day which is busy but which extrapolates to less than Paris-M1 (or M4) let alone RER-A. However, with longer headways the trains may well be quite crowded.

            But it remains early days and the CPTM, like Paris’ RER, is assembled from existing suburban rail lines. In fact, when I see the maps it looks positively terrific because when I taught a course at USP back in prehistory there was nothing except rudimentary Metro, and it took forever to get to the airport by road. In fact I see that the first line of CPTM was constructed the year I was there, 1992. Also, though unlike Rio which was a copy of the Paris Metro system, SP went with the San Francisco BART trains, it seems today most of their system was built by Alstom.

          • Eric

            CPTM headways are ” as low as four minutes in some lines”. Yes that should certainly be improved to 2 minutes, and lines should through-run, etc. But still, it currently carries about 1000M passengers per year over 94 stations. This is a similar ratio to the Beijing Subway which carries 3777M per year over 324 stations, or Moscow which carries 2442M per year over 224 stations. That’s despite the headways being over twice those systems. So I would certainly call it crowded.

            Similarly, last year Cairo and Sao Paolo were about tied for the busiest metro systems in the world, in riders per km (I didn’t think to measure riders per station). Since then Sao Paolo has opened another ~20km of metro, I’m sure the ridership has risen but don’t know by how much.

            All in all, Sao Paolo has an extremely pressing need for new rapid transit. And luckily they are succeeding in building it (lines 4, 5, 13, 15 recently opened; lines 15, 17 under construction) despite Brazil’s general dysfunction.

          • Michael James

            Eric, 2019/01/31 – 02:08
            … last year Cairo and Sao Paolo were about tied for the busiest metro systems in the world, in riders per km…

            But isn’t that a proxy measure for a wooden spoon award: it means that the city hasn’t built enough Metro to cope with its population. I mean Paris is approx. one third the physical size of SP while having almost 3 times the km of track (M+RER; even more if counting tramway and Transilien) so of course it is going to have a lower “riders per km”. Most Parisians, esp. on RER-A or M1, would hope that metric doesn’t climb any higher!

            Otherwise I agree with your post. When I was there a half a lifetime ago, getting around was terrible and was largely restricted to bus or private car, air pollution was shocking (and paradoxically made worse by the use of 10-20% ethanol mixes, because it caused motors to age quicker which of course was not regulated) and took absolutely forever to get anywhere. They need to build a lot more Metro & CPTM, and more circumferential links too. But they appear to have made more progress than LA, which SP actually resembles in many ways.

          • Eric

            Yes, it means that both SP and Cairo are very underbuilt.

            The LA region has a much lower population density than SP – SP consists of a giant forest of skyscrapers in the center, and crowded slums on the outskirts, while LA is mostly single family houses, with only a few skyscrapers outside two small CBDs. In that sense they are not really comparable. SP has one of the most crowded metro systems in the world, while LA’s Red Line runs once every 10 minutes in the peak, and that won’t change much until land usage changes. I guess CPTM is a model for what LA could do with Metrolink…

          • Michael James

            I don’t disagree. But moving around the city (or a smallish part of it, I suppose) I was reminded of LA more than any other city–in a way which wouldn’t be true for other big cities like Rio or Buenos Aires where there are no doubts you are in a South American city. SP is a giant amorphous sprawling mess without much in the way of centres (it has some of course) all connected by freeways. It’s a bit reminiscent of Santa Monica thru to downtown (or at least of both 27 years ago!). Although the common image is of that “forest of hi-rise”–which is the Central Zone–much of it is fairly low-rise. A lot of middle-class people live in walled security estates of a type of SFH of 2-3 floors, very compact. But even LA’s sprawl in the Valley and Inland Empire–viewed from a car on a freeway–come to resemble SP’s giant favelas on its periphery (often with edges defined by those freeways).
            Oh, and I reckon they are converging, or LA is the one doing the convergence.

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